Sen Zhan is a dynamic spirit. Born in China, raised in Canada, and now living as a fully-fledged Berliner, Sen has experienced and witnessed a myriad of cultures, conversations, and people. This vast well of journeys has provided her with a far-reaching, experimental, and empathetic creative palette from which she draws on to research, design UXs, and of course, create podcasts. We caught up with Sen to discuss her experience of community, her love of storytelling, and her podcast Beyond Asian: Stories of Third Culture.
Hi Sen! First things first, please introduce yourself and your podcast to our readers!
My name is Sen Zhan and I’m the host and producer of Beyond Asian: Stories of the Third Culture.
And where are we getting coffee today?
We’re getting coffee around the corner from where I live at a place called Two Trick Pony. They have this incredible salted hot chocolate. It’s so rich and delicious. You only really need a little bit of it and they serve it in this little cup with a little tiny spoon. It’s pretty amazing.
I hear you live in an intentional community here in Berlin. Tell me about what inspired your decision to live in such a community.
Over the course of my life in Berlin, I’ve lived in quite a few different living structures. I moved to this particular community almost a year and a half ago now and I really enjoy it here.
Anyone who has ever lived in a shared space before knows that doing so harmoniously is one of the most difficult things ever. It doesn’t matter whether you live with a partner, friends, or a stranger you found through WGgesucht, it’s difficult to share a living space, particularly during a pandemic.
In my community, we regularly confront these difficulties instead of letting them go or allowing them to fester. Having this mindset means that we live with intention. We confront a lot of questions that people living in more traditional settings probably wouldn’t.
We’re aware that this way of living seems to go against the grain but the reality is that it doesn’t, not at all. Human beings have always lived in a community, doing so is our natural state, the more traditional model. It was only after the industrial revolution when our time became commodofied that we were forced into these nuclear family models and propelled to focus on productivity and capitalism. In communities such as mine, we’re really returning to a more organic state of living, just in a more urban context.
And experiencing new communities is nothing new to you! You were born in China and raised in Canada and now of course you live in Berlin. How did these experiences growing up influence the sense of community that you have today?
When I lived in China it was heavily communist. There was a very collective mindset and our values were entirely communal. This was reflected in our schools, our families, everywhere. We valued harmony above all else.
Then when I immigrated to Canada aged six, the value system I encountered was completely different. All of a sudden I was in this elementary school where teachers were asking me questions about my favorite color, encouraging me to share my favorite hobbies, detail my favorite food. These were questions I had never been asked before. There was so much attention given to preference.
In this way, I witnessed a totally different kind of community from that which I grew up. While this move from collectivism to individualism was enlightening, it was also tense. It meant that I lived by one set of rules at home and then in the outside world, I was subject to this totally different system. When I was at school I had to remind myself to be creative, to give original answers, to ignore what the other kids were doing. Then after school, I would return home and this individual mindset would be interpreted as arrogance, as an insult to other people and their collective efforts.
While this experience was incredibly difficult and confusing, it wasn’t and isn’t unusual. There is a field of people who have grown up in differing cultural settings like this and can identify with this pressure to switch code and behavior depending on your setting. It was this experience that inspired me to create my podcast. I want to explore the third culture, the culture that emerges between your culture of origin and the other cultures by which you have been shaped.
When preparing for this interview I saw that your background is in human physiology and occupational therapy. What inspired your career change from medicine to your current creative field?
When I was younger I was a real science nerd. I thought that science provided all the answers or at least more definitive ones than any other field and so as an inquisitive teenager, I wanted to explore the questions I had.
I liked occupational therapy because it helped people on many different fronts, from health and wellness to relationships and social coaching. It puts the patient and their experience at the center of intervention. This holistic way of thinking really appeals to me. I love fields and conversations that acknowledge that a person is more than just the body you see them in. A person is a collection of emotions, experiences, feelings, a fluid constellation of everything that makes them an individual.
However, while this mindset is honored in the teaching of occupational therapy, it was not as present in its practice. Once I entered the public health system I realized that what I had learned in school was the ideal way of doing things. The cooperation and communication required for the holistic way of caring that I was passionate about weren’t kept.
Instead, there was a system of nervous patients who were looked after by professionals who didn’t have time to take a step back and assess each patient’s situation mindfully. I found this jolt of reality truly breathtaking. It was a real wake-up moment that inspired me to pursue something else, something that would answer my questions in a different way.
Hearing your journey through your academic career into a creative one, it seems what was at the forefront of your passions has always been a person’s individual story. This passion for storytelling shines through your podcast too. Have you always been enamored with storytelling?
Yes! I’ve always been fascinated by books. When I lived in China, I stayed at home by myself as a small child and I would spend my days listening to books on tape. I think that extended period of being alone with only stories for company set me on a path where I would just devour books. Later when we moved to Canada, I would max out my little kid’s library card every chance I could.
Looking back, I think this obsession with books really shaped me. It taught me to value storytelling at the most formative of stages and, in turn, allowed me to explore storytelling in every project and adventure I’ve embarked on since.
What inspired you to take your storytelling into the podcasting sphere?
I was definitely always one of those people who would say things like “This is such an interesting conversation, why don’t we use it to make a podcast?” but I never seriously considered starting one until I discovered the workshops offered by Bear Radio.
My father has always loved radio and when he was a kid he would collect old models, disassemble them and reconstruct them so he could understand how they worked. Because of this, I like to think that my love for radio broadcasting is somewhat epigenetic, you know? That it’s a passion that has been passed from him to me.
And what inspired you to create Beyond Asian specifically?
Well, I had been struggling with my cultural background for a very long time. I was having issues with my family and I found it hard to separate the things that I don’t like about my culture from what are the things I don’t like about them. This would lead me to sometimes conflate and interchange the two and made it difficult to understand my own personal identity.
Then one day, in an acting class, I met a Chinese sex podcaster. That was a real turning point for me. I remember thinking “Whoa… You’re just like me! You’re asking questions you shouldn’t ask, you’re taking risks you shouldn’t take”. Meeting another person from my culture who went against the grain just completely blew my mind.
After meeting her I thought, it doesn’t make sense for us two to be the only non-conventional Asians in the world, but despite that, I have lived in this world thinking I was alone in my unconventionality. I decided I wanted to create a podcast that would both help me explore my own curiosities and also provide a space for other people from my culture to do the same.
Tell me about the kind of things you discuss on your podcast.
We’ve had such an incredible palette of guests on the podcast who have shared such intimate and important personal stories, things that would generally be considered too private to discuss in traditional Chinese settings.
We’ve dissected everything from sexuality and dating to mental health, family trauma, divorce, and reconciliation. It’s been incredible.
You’ve recently changed the format of the podcast from hour-long episodes to shorter fragments lasting around 15 minutes. What inspired you to make this change and how has it influenced your production strategy?
When I made episodes that were an hour-long, I often felt like I was asking a lot of my audience. I mean personally, I’m grateful when anyone listens to the podcast at all, let alone an entire episode, so by exclusively making content that was long-form, I felt my gratitude wasn’t reflected in the podcast makeup. This realization spurred me to cut the episodes into chapters. This way my listeners can fit the podcast into their routine and not the other way around.
Adjusting to this new format actually helped my storytelling too. It encouraged me to cluster each episode thematically, use more narration, and experiment with some new perspectives. I’m still open to producing a longer episode every once in a while when the story in question requires it, but right now I’m happy to focus on micro ones.
How did joining the Bear Radio network help you and your podcast?
I mean, I simply would not have a podcast if it weren’t for Bear Radio. Sure, there are other podcasting resources in Berlin, but the skill set I was able to develop with Bear Radio was second to none.
I completed a four-week intensive course with them and by the end of the process I had completed the first episode of Beyond Asian in full. We went through everything from show design, research, recording equipment, interview styles – everything.
In addition to Jill and Julia teaching me the ropes of starting a podcast, I now am a part of the Bear Radio network which has also been incredible. It’s provided me with professional and networking opportunities that I never ever would have had, but it’s also just enabled me to meet like-minded people who share my passions. It’s been fantastic.
And to finish, what is your favorite sound?
Oh, wow. That’s such a, such a great question. Hmm… I definitely have lots of varieties of favorite sounds.
I like the sound of sizzling onions. I like the sound of a little piece of gravel being vacuumed up by the vacuum cleaner, the delicate way it rattles through the hose. Oh! I don’t know if this is exclusively a Chinese thing, but I also love the sound of a tapped watermelon. You know when you tap a watermelon to assess how ripe it is? Well when you do, it creates this gorgeous noise in its sweet spot. I like that sound too.