5 minutes with Victoria's #DiversityHeroes: Julian Leyre

15 November 2016

Julian Leyre has been recognised as a recipient of the Victorian Multicultural Honour Roll as part of Victoria’s Multicultural Awards for Excellence 2016.

As a French Australian writer, educator and social entrepreneur, Julien has drawn on the power of language to deepen cross-cultural empathy and improve language and social outcomes for diverse communities, including international students.

We caught up with Julien to find out more about his work as founder of the Marco Polo Project and his perspective on the way diverse communities identify and how innovation could be the basis of multiculturalism in the future.

Where are you originally from – what year and what age were you when you arrived in Australia/Melbourne?
I was born in Strasbourg, just across the border from Germany, and I’m part of a Mediterranean family. My mother is of Italian background and my father is from France. I was multicultural from the start! I arrived in Australia, in 2008, after a three-month overland trip from Paris to Singapore. I came here after falling in love with an Australian. We bought an apartment together on Swanston Street, and I don’t think I’ll ever want to live anywhere else. Melbourne is home for me now.

What was your inspiration for your innovative linguistic work with Chinese and English language speakers?
Learning Chinese was part of my personal migration journey. When I first came to Melbourne, what struck me was the combination of a diverse European heritage – Greek, Italian, British, German, Eastern European- and a very dynamic Asian presence. I really think something unique is happening in this country – this is what the rest of the world will look like in twenty years’ time, but Australia’s ahead of the curve. And so I decided that when I moved here, that’s where I wanted to make a difference, I would work on finding ways to bring together the Asian and European traditions. Learning Chinese was the first step on that journey and it opened a huge number of opportunities. Every time somebody asks me why I learnt Chinese, I think, it seems crazy not to! There is so much to do in that space!

What services does your organisation provide that you think is the most important to the community?
The Marco Polo Project started as a web platform that offered access to new voices from China, translated collaboratively by intermediate and advanced students. The main service that we gave at the time was access to insights about a changing China from Chinese people. The most important thing here was that we offered direct access to a Chinese consciousness. There are remarkable journalists and analysts living in China who are writing about the country. Most of them are very reliable, very smart, and share wonderful insights. But it’s not the same as reading a text written by a Chinese person and having a direct experience of empathy with a Chinese psyche. Suddenly, it’s not ‘us’ trying to understand ‘them’ - it’s a direct, personal relationship with another human.

Now, the Marco Polo Project is going one step further in that direction. We’re developing workshops and events that will help people living across languages and cultures to develop emotional resilience, empathy and self-awareness. Living across cultures can be the most rewarding experience imaginable, but it’s also really hard, both cognitively and emotionally – and if things get too hard, it’s tempting to give up, either retreat to our original community, or severe links and just jump into the new culture. What we’re hoping to do is work with people who live in that zone in-between, and empower them, so that they can become effective agents of change in the various groups that they belong to. We’re building a new website for this – so I will keep you posted!

What achievements in your career are you most proud of and why?
When I look back, I’m very proud of what we achieved with the Marco Polo Project. It started as just an idea, then it was just a group of friends working on a small internet project. Six years on, it’s a living community of writers, readers, translators, partner organisations, and event participants all across the globe! It makes me very proud when I think about the meaningful moments in my career, such as when I’m in a workshop. A good example are the ice-breaking activities I run where people from different languages and backgrounds mingle and talk, and I see the smiles on their faces, the sense of mutual recognition. In the end, that’s what truly matters.

From a linguist’s perspective, what do you think are the biggest issues for Victoria’s diverse communities and how can we tackle them?
I don’t know whether it’s the linguist in me, or whether it’s the logician, but what stands out most for me is the tension between two ways that we, as people of diverse communities, may think of ourselves – as minorities, as diasporas, or as shape-shifters. If I think of myself or describe myself as ‘French-Australian’, what category do I fall into? Am I a particular type of Australian (who happens to be ethnically/culturally French), a particular type of French person (who happens to be a resident of Australia), or a particular type of person (who happens to have a double cultural affiliation, to both France and Australia)?
I think the most desirable situation would be one where all of us, members of diverse communities, could fully embrace our status as shape-shifters, able to inhabit different cultural spaces, and move from one group to another, meanwhile enriching each of them. To achieve that, I think we need to put more of a focus on translation and interpretation as part of the training that we give to migrants – as part of our language training, generally – and as part of our discourse on multiculturalism.

I think the biggest challenge is to make sure that we don’t just think of migrants as needing to learn English so we can fit in, or the second generation as needing to learn the language of the community so they can stay connected with the tradition. I believe that all of us, members of diverse cultural communities, need to become better translators of ourselves to the various groups that we belong to.

Do you think learning another language is a useful skill and what are the most useful languages to learn?
In continental Europe, learning another language is part of basic literacy. Every single one of my university educated friends in Paris can speak and read two foreign languages fluently. It still strikes me that a monolingual person could ever be taken seriously as a leader or an intellectual figure, though I do see that happen here in Australia.

I think we’re mistaken when we think about learning another language as something that will help us communicate, read and manage basic interaction so that we can get what we want. I think the benefits of language learning are not transactional – they’re mostly reflective. It’s about wisdom and personal growth. By learning a foreign language, you’re confronted to the shape of your own mind; you’re exposing your own blind spots, your own cultural prejudices, and you start questioning your own implicit categories. It’s a fantastic school of tolerance and cognitive flexibility. On another level, learning a language is hard, and for a very, very long time you keep failing, no matter how hard you try to reach that comfortable point of expression. So it’s also a great school of humility, patience and resilience, which are all great virtues to develop.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about receiving the award?
What I noted through my own journey is that, as migrants, we are very well positioned to be entrepreneurs. We’re natural innovators, just by the fact that we hold different traditions and we do things differently by default. We’ve taken a risk by coming here in the first place, so we’re ready to take other risks. I’ve got a little side-project going at the moment – a personal hobby really. It’s creative cooking. Today, I cooked mushroom salad with matcha powder – blending a French recipe with a Japanese ingredient. I’m not sure what I’ll do with the project, but I’d like to use this as a way to reframe how we think of multiculturalism in terms of food. As a migrant from France, you could expect me to focus on my tradition, and keep on making French food – but instead, what I’m looking to do is invent new recipes that respond to this new multicultural environment.

I think when we think about multiculturalism, we need to go beyond preserving or celebrating the culture and tradition that we come from, and start to think in terms of invention. As multicultural Australians living together, we’re inventing a new culture. That would be my vision for tomorrow – that multicultural events are not just a chance for each community to preserve its distinct past and tradition, but they become the cutting edge of social innovation, the spaces where, from our diverse traditions, we get together, and invent a new future together.

Find out more about the Marco Polo Project. http://marcopoloproject.org/

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