Disclaimer, this post may contain views that may or may not piss some people off. But they are my views, based on my personal experiences, and this is my blog so I’ll write what I feel like. Also, post is long.
I have a friend, a close friend, called Aysha. She is an awesome human being, and we have pretty similar personalities and viewpoints (which is probably why we get along so well). She’s also a fellow Malaysian, who happens to be a front-end developer as well as a speaker at web conferences, checking the same boxes as myself.
We recently got together after our respective speaking stints, mine being the road-trip around Southeast Asia, and hers being at Mobile Era in Oslo, Norway. And one of the things we talked about over dinner was how we felt about speaking at conferences, as women from Southeast Asia.
A brief Geography lesson
Although I’d like to believe that most people know where Southeast Asia is, as my coach always tells our team, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. So that’s us marked on the map above, relative to wherever else you may be on this planet.
Southeast Asia is made up of 11 sovereign nations, namely Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. And whether we like it or not, English seems to be the de facto global language and it is taught in schools across Southeast Asia, either with the entire curriculum being in English, or as a standalone language module.
So yes, many of us can speak English, some of us even speak it rather well. And no, none of us are part of China or Japan. Case in point, this interview question for Michelle Yeoh (who means the world to me, might I add) that starts at 3.10:
The aftermath of colonialism from the 16th century to the mid-20th century is that we now live in a world that plays by Western rules. You could even say that it is a white man’s world. Southeast Asia was one of the regions that was heavily colonised by European powers. And this has long-reaching social consequences, even today, after we have gained sovereignty. Because you cannot just declare independence and expect the culture and mindset of people who were occupied for generations to change overnight.
Like I mentioned before in a previous post, we all perceive the world and our place in it differently. And these are my views of the world and my place in it, formed as a result of my personal experiences. You will have your own views and opinions, which may or may not disagree with mine.
A logistical issue
Most web development conferences take place in North America or Europe. This is not surprising given that both the Internet and the World Wide Web originated from that part of the world. If you remember the world map earlier in this post, you’ll notice that we are pretty far away from North America and Europe. Keep this in mind when I say I haven’t seen that many speakers from Southeast Asia at big name web conferences.
I have been involved in helping out with conference organisation before, so I’m perfectly aware of how much time, effort and money it takes to hold a large conference. So one of the probable reasons you don’t see many Southeast Asian speakers is because flying us out costs a lot of money.
Now tie that in with the notion that people from Southeast Asia don’t speak English well (refer to video above), and you’ll see that we seem to be in quite a hole here. As a conference organiser, you want to have excellent speakers with high quality content to make the conference a success. Would you take a chance on an unproven speaker from halfway around the world?
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem we have here. Definitely not something that can be solved with a simple solution. But I hope this sets some context for some of my subsequent (potentially controversial) viewpoints.
At this point, I want to express my immense gratitude to the organisers who chose to take a chance on me. 2017 was my inaugural year of speaking internationally at web conferences. But I started out at a local meetup in 2015, when a friend of mine asked me to talk about an article I wrote that was published on A List Apart.
One thing led to another and before I knew it, I got my first hosting gig as the MC for CSSConf.Asia 2015 from Thomas Gorissen. That was how I got to know Aysha in the first place (I still remember exactly where and when we met 🙆). The following year, I did a short talk at CSSConf.Asia 2016 which was in turn MC-ed by Aysha and another good friend of mine, Zell.
Because I am lucky enough to be in Singapore, where almost every tech meetup is recorded, I ended up with a number of videos of my talks I could refer to when submitting CFPs. But I still needed people to take a chance on me.
This is ten percent luck
Charis Rooda, organiser of Webconf.Asia gave me my first shot at a full-length conference talk, and put me in a stellar line-up which included Heydon Pickering and Andrew Betts. The conference paid for my flight and accommodation, which honestly was good enough for me. I know some experienced speakers can wing it and still give a great talk, but I’m not one of them. Maybe some day, but not today.
I finished writing my talk a month before the conference and I rehearsed the shit out of it. Because I felt an added responsibility of representing Southeast Asia to the best of my ability, due to the fact that there simply aren’t that many of us on the international stage. In my mind, I cannot just be average or good, I have to aim for perfect, because I don’t want to mess it up for the rest of us.
I definitely don’t want audiences walking away thinking that female speaker from who-knows-where was probably just a diversity invite. I wanted it to be that if you didn’t know where Malaysia was before, I would guarantee that after my session, you will remember me as that woman from Malaysia who gave a surprisingly excellent and informative talk.
This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain
And a hundred percent reason to remember the name
—Fort Minor, Remember the name
Vadim Makeev, organiser of pitercss conference, flew me out to Saint Petersburg, which was the first time I travelled out of Asia to give a talk. Again, the talk was prepared way ahead of the conference and rehearsed until the cows came home. Also, a large reason why I got the chance to speak at Form, Function Class 8 was because the organisers were in attendance at Webconf.asia.
Speaking at my first conference introduced me to people who brought me subsequent opportunities. I desperately want people outside our region to realise that there is a lot of talent over here, and we too can do well on the international stage. All we need is a foot in the door, and an opportunity to show what we can do.
Our path is different from yours
Opportunities for us are few and far between, so if you are a minority thinking of being a speaker at an international conference, you do have to deliver, perhaps even more so than if you were not a minority.
I admit that conference speaking is not for everybody, and that’s perfectly fine. But if you want to do it, and you’re not a straight white man, there is one reality of life you have to come to terms with. And that is, the straight white man is judged as an individual, but the rest of us are judged as a collective.
People of color often carry the baggage of their ethnic group’s most poorly behaved while whites are not judged by the Ted Bundys, Timothy McVeighs and Jeffery Dahmers.
This short film by Neel Kolhatkar, though not directly related to the tech industry or speaking at conferences in general, is still relevant in the broader sense of how today’s society functions.
Doom describes the different playing fields exceptionally well. Depending on which characteristics you possess, your difficulty level just creeps up higher and higher. If you’re a woman in tech, you probably start off at “Ultra-violence” already. Sorry, sad fact of life.
Michelle Obama makes some excellent points here when asked if she thought women in general have less chances to fail:
Over the years, I’ve come to realise that you can’t live another’s experience, even if there is vivid imagery capturing the moment. So I do understand that the further away you are from my circumstance, the harder it will be for you to comprehend the points I’m trying to get across. It is akin to explaining the colours of the rainbow to a colour-blind person. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating sometimes.
I’m not averse to being the token Asian, or token female speaker at a conference, because I’m still naive enough to believe that if I do an excellent job, people won’t even notice my gender or ethnicity. Aysha and I both agree that we will take what we can get, because right now, there isn’t that much to go around. But hopefully that will change for the better.
Some people might think what I’m saying is rubbish, but I do believe that life is not fair. None of us chose where we were born or to be born at all for that matter. Nobody would choose to be born in a war-torn area shelled by artillery day after day. The circumstances in which we were born into dictate how far behind the finish line of success we start off on, and that can’t be helped.
Perhaps it’s because I’m new to this speaking thing, but at the back of my mind, I always wonder if audiences will just switch off during my session and wait to get to the good stuff by the big name speakers. Like being the opening act for the main event. But because I tend to live in my own head, once I start speaking, I really get into it (I can’t help it, I love my subject matter 🤷).
Thus far, I’ve been treated with nothing but kindness during my various speaking stints. And I truly appreciate how sweet the audiences have been, the people who come up to me after my session to tell me they enjoyed it, the often-amusing tweets I see on my timeline after the fact.
The most memorable moments came from when I was speaking at the Malaysia stops on the Mozilla Developer Roadshow. It never occurred to me that local audiences would be interested in a local speaker when there were Westerners around. In hindsight, I probably do have some subconscious bias against locals from years of being inundated with media portraying Westerners as superior when I was a kid. I’m not proud of it.
So when I opened my Kuala Lumpur talk with “Saya bangga jadi anak Malaysia”, and received a warm applause from the audience, it was the most amazing feeling. That phrase translates to “I am proud to be Malaysian”, and I believe it with every fibre of my being. At the Penang stop, one of the people who came up to chat with me afterward even mentioned that some people probably came just to see my session, because I was a local name. And that just blew my mind.
Now when I think about how I feel when I see our national athletes do well at the Olympics, or when I see Michelle Yeoh kick ass on the silver screen, or when I discovered that Captain Philippa Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou is canonically Malaysian 🖖, I realised that representation does matter.
The local community does care when one of our own does good. And that only fuels my motivation to be excellent, especially when I get the chance to stand on an international stage. And hopefully, somebody will see us and think, if she can do it, I can do it too.