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Roads Less Travelled: Mindy Chen Wishart Podcast Transcript

Roads Less Travelled is a series of conversations with remarkable individuals who have, in one way or another, taken a road less travelled to discover their vocation. The aim behind the podcast is to share stories in the hope that we can shine a light on some practical wisdom for those of us still forging our own paths.

This is the transcript for the Roads Less Travelled podcast with Mindy Chen-Wishart. You can listen to the episode on Apple and Spotify

Roads Less Travelled is hosted by Sophie Ryan (Australia at-Large and Magdalen 2020), who is studying a DPhil in Law at Magdalen College, Oxford. 

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

If I challenge you, and if I get you to think in a different way, if I make you feel a little bit insecure and you rethink things, I'll have added something to you and you will know better why you believe what you believe or you will think again about what you believe. I think it's a really important skill in life to realize that you don't know everything because if you think you know, you will not learn.

Sophie Ryan:

Today, I am talking to Mindy Chen-Wishart. Mindy is a professor of the Law of Contract at the University of Oxford, a tutorial fellow in law at Merton College, and currently the dean of the Faculty of Law here at Oxford. She also holds a fractional professorship at NUS in Singapore, a visiting professorship at Hong Kong University, and has visited and taught at law schools across Asia, Europe, and Australasia. For the lawyers listening, Mindy is also author of one of the leading textbooks on contract law and editor of Chitty on Contracts and of the series of Studies in the Contract Laws of Asia. Mindy, thank you so much for joining us for this conversation.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

It's great to be here. It's great to talk to you.

Sophie Ryan:

Mindy, you are quite the remarkable woman, I have to say from the get-go. You've reached the highest highs of a truly international career in academia, yet you also don't shy away from a fight and you've, for instance, taken head on the problems of systemic racism in academia, and you do it all with a smile and a sense of humor along the way. So today, I am just really hoping that we can unpack how you've come to be the person that you are today. I think the perfect starting point, really, the only starting point to do that is the beginning. I'm hoping you can tell us where you've come from, your story, and how you've come to be where you are today.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, it's a bumpy road and not a conventional one as you might imagine, but I was born in a very tiny village in Taiwan called Luodong, and then my parents moved to Taipei, which is the capital city where my father was teaching. They had four little girls, and this was regarded as really, truly bad luck for a Chinese family to be saddled with four girls and no boys. So I think to my parents' credit or not, I'm not sure, but they wanted to show that girls could be as good as boys. So we were part of that mission, I think, for my parents, and I think I should be very grateful for that.

I was never aware of having to be good at school, but what I do remember is the swimming. So those of us who were old enough, we started competitive swimming, and that was a really, really good discipline. It meant that I started competing with myself early on, and I remembered trying to do tricks in the pool and trying to do more and more and holding my breath and all of these things. I suppose in Taiwan, I remember my grandma, who despite there being four girls and people remembered the name of the eldest and the cutesy youngest, they couldn't remember the name of the two of us in the middle, but she saw me and I think that stood me in good stead for a long time. She gave me piggybacks and let me nap with her and so on. So I think everybody needs someone who sees them and really thinks highly of them.

Then of course, we immigrated to New Zealand, which I was not at all happy about when I was 10 years old and I told my parents that I would stay with my grandma and I would come and see them, but I wasn't going to go with them. Not surprisingly, I had no real vote in this. So I was piled onto the plane and off we went.

In New Zealand, I think, was the first time that I felt like I stood out because Christchurch, where we first went, is a very White, very English place. In fact, I remember when the four of us girls went out for a walk and we were like step ladders. We were two years apart, and so our height and everything, we were stepped down and we caused a pile up because a driver was staring at us and he lost control of his car and there was a huge pile up and we were told that we were the cause of this accident.

Sophie Ryan:

Oh, my goodness.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Because it was so unusual to see people of a different race there, but Christchurch was a benign place, and then we moved to Dunedin. My father got another job at the teachers training college. So we moved to Dunedin, and I think that was the first time I felt racism. So that maybe I can talk about that later, but just very briefly, in Dunedin, I suppose, along with the racism, but also I felt I really flourished at school. When I got to university, my parents wanted me to do medicine. If you're from a good Asian family, the more medics the better, and I was the second in the family.

My oldest sister is a doctor, and so I was expected to follow in her footsteps, and I could see others of my friends having so much more fun than rote learning bits of the body and how they worked, and I just wasn't intuitive about it. So I went off to do history, which was a huge disappointment to my father anyway because it's not a career subject, but secretly, I did law because he wanted me if I wasn't going to do medicine to do law, and I thought, "I don't want to do what he wants me to do." So I did law secretly, but I found it so much fun, and-

Sophie Ryan:

When you say secretly, Mindy, sorry to jump in, when you say secretly, were you studying it on the side of history or were you also enrolled?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yeah, I was enrolled, but I didn't really say much to my parents. I was doing a four-year history degree and I did picked up law alongside it. I just found my first year so much fun, so interesting that I was hooked, really, but I was married really young at 22. So I suppose that's the next stepping stone and a big, big ... and I became a pretty fundamentalist Christian. So that probably goes with being married very young, and had two sons before I was supposed to go on sabbatical leave.

One thing, again, it's another twist and turn, but I ended up at Oxford despite really not liking anybody from Oxford that I had met before. I came as the Rhodes Visiting Research Fellow, and I had a dreadful two years because I had postnatal depression. So I went through the, "I am hopeless. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm going to be a disappointment to everyone. Everyone's going to find me out that I'm not as clever as they think I am. I have nothing to show for it. I will go back to New Zealand. I will work my year out and then I will quit law altogether, teaching law together because I'm not good at this."

So in that frame of mind, it was time to go back to New Zealand, and my husband then said that he wanted to stab along because we'd been so poor whilst we were in Oxford that we hadn't really visited anything. We hadn't seen anywhere, and he'd just got a job. So I thought, "I'll fix him." So I thought I'll apply for a job that I can't possibly get. It would be an impossible job, then I can say, "See, dear, I tried. Let's go back to New Zealand."

My plan went horribly wrong. So I ended up as a fellow at Merton, an associate professor at the law faculty, which was terrible because I promised to teach all kinds of things and had no intention of teaching and now I had to teach them. So I ended up teaching eight years of restitution with Peter Birks, the great Peter Birks. So that'll teach me a lesson.

So 15 years, I suppose, after I started at Oxford, I started visiting Asia during the summer vacations. I think it was a bit of a midlife crisis, and if you've been a double immigrant, you want to find your way home. So I did it through teaching in Asia, but also my series on Studies in the Contract Laws of Asia, another thing that gave me an excuse to go there.

So I felt I was doing my job, but I was also doing my own thing. So I was a bit surprised when I was on sabbatical in 2019 when I got a phone call from the then registrar asking whether I was willing to put my name forward or to have my name put forward for the deanship because, I mean, it really surprised me because they said, "We would like someone who knows something about the outside world and who has some experience of the outside world and can bring that to the faculty." Yeah. So that's how I got to be dean, but I am looking forward to being not dean, and I think that would be a promotion.

Sophie Ryan:

Oh, well, Mindy, there is so much to unpack in this short tour, I suppose, of the journey so far. I suppose the first question that comes to mind actually though is just looking at that big picture. It seems like there are so many moments of serendipity along the way and that really big sliding door moments have occurred almost without you expecting them to happen. So I wonder, just looking back at the moment, to what extent do you think that a younger version of yourself that you would be surprised by where you are now and then also when you started studying law, for instance, whether you ever had this picture of yourself as being one day an academic in a position that many would say is the top of the hierarchy of academia as well?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, I think you misunderstand what dean means. I mean, that's a servant. In my view, being dean is being a servant. So it's a matter for commiseration, it's not really a matter for celebration.

Sophie Ryan:

Even putting that aside, Mindy, is this-

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yes, yes, no, I don't think the younger me ... I mean, when I first got my job at Oxford, as I said unexpectedly, I remember very vividly thinking, "I don't know how I got here." I really can't figure it out, but I made a resolution not to want anything and not to need anything. I found that that gave me, actually, tremendous freedom and tremendous power to say things and to speak things because I'm not looking for favor from somebody, not of that kind, anyway. I think you need favor from people in order to work along with them, in order to be a good colleague, in order to be part of the team, but not so they will give you things. No. So yes, no, I think there is no way.

So when people always say, "What's your five-year plan? What's your 10-year plan?" I find that a completely foreign notion for me. I've never been a planner. I've always looked at the situation and thought, "I think maybe it's partly that I've never been in anyone's tribe because no one would have me very early on." So from a very early age, I've had to figure out what the parameters for what I wanted to do or what I should do, and that will change depending on the circumstances.

You can't know how you're going to feel as a mother. You can't know how you're going to feel in certain circumstances. So I've never been a planner. I've always been an opportunist, I suppose. In our field, we go on about being autonomous human beings and being masters of our own ship and authors of our own stories, yes, and a huge amount of no. We are products of the things that happened to us, over which we have no control like the immigration and my father moving again when I was quite happy in Christchurch, and then we moved to Dunedin, which was far more racist because there was a Chinese community there. So in Christchurch, there were no Chinese people there, and so we were a complete novelty, but in Dunedin, there were enough for people to react against it.

Then I suppose during my sabbatical, I wanted to just stay in Dunedin. I'm a very homebody. So I was a bit shocked when a mentor of mine came and said, "Look, you should apply for this. No, you can't stay in Dunedin. You need to go overseas. You've done all your degrees in Otago. You need to go overseas," and I said, "How about Sydney? Sydney's far away." They said, "No, no, no, no. You have to go far away." He plunked this Rhodes Visiting Research Fellowship application in front of me.

I looked at it and laughed. I said, "No way. I mean, there's no way I would get such a thing. First of all, it's a postdoc and I don't have a doctorate." So I suppose it's interventions, it's serendipity, it's things that happen to you. I think there's never an end, there's always a beginning. Everything that happens to you is a new beginning, and things don't happen because you're looking for them necessarily at all.

So I got my job. I mean, I was shocked when I got my Rhodes VRF. I was a little bit, well, more than a little bit surprised when I got my fellowship. I suppose I did make an effort to go into Asia because that was my returning home, but certainly, the deanship was a surprise to me as well. So I think it's about trying to live your best life and trying to make your own decisions, and I never had the pleasure of being part of a tribe which could indicate to me the way to go.

Sophie Ryan:

I'm very interested in what you've said as well, Mindy, about not being part of a tribe that has indicated the way to go and having to, by necessity, figure out that pathway out for yourself. I wondered if we can backtrack then to some of those pivotal moments in your early academic career at the beginning where you chose to secretly study law as well, and the closet study of law in that regard. I was hoping that you could just talk us through in that period as well, whether you have any reflections on finding your pathway then and then within your family even choosing to study law when telling your family that you were only studying history to start with.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, I think law sounds dull, right? It does sound dull, but I just found it to be fascinating. I think a really important factor was the person who taught me, Mark Henaghan, who was the dean at Ox. Well, he was in his first year teaching at the time. He became ultimately the dean at Otago for many years, but he made law so much fun. He was so charismatic that in a way I'm a contrarian. I did not want to like him because he was so popular and he was so charismatic. I was determined not to like him, but he just won me over, and he made law so much fun that it was impossible not to be dragged along with it.

So in many ways, he's a model for me now of what a teacher can do and what a dean can do because he was a cheerleader for everybody, everybody. He never held any grudges. He thought well of people. He saw the value in everyone. I think every one of us who came across him thought we were special. Then you realize, "He thought everyone was special," but it didn't matter because, I mean, so I suppose, and I decided that I was not going to do honors, which is the fourth year for law because I'd already done honors in history, and I thought that meant that I would be a practitioner.

So I went for ... There was one single job going during recession period in Dunedin, one single job. Everybody went north, and I decided that I was bucking the trend being a fundamentalist Christian. Korea didn't come first. Home was first and my spouse and so on. So I was going to stay in Dunedin, take on a solicitor's job, and that would be me.

Then I went to the interview, and I was asked what my husband's five-year plan was. I was told that women had been quite problematic for them in the past, and what did I say to that? I mean, it was really a bit shocking. I realized that I guess that I was quite competitive and that I would win in that environment, but in that environment, I may not like myself. I could only think of myself as old as 40. I remember thinking, "I will get to 40 and what will I have done? I will have saved rich people a lot of money because I knew rich people can afford me."

I went back to my university in a bit of crisis. I went to one of my professors and I said, "Look, I've just done this interview and I feel really uncomfortable about it. If they offered me the job, I don't think I want to take it."

He said, "Come and do a master's degree. Come and do a master's." I saw that as a way out. So off I went. They did offer me the job and I turned it down and went off and did a master's, which was a three-year deal, actually. I think that's what happens if you are not a self-confident university, you make your people do a three-year master's degree, but I think, yeah, so I started doing my master's degree and I started doing tutorials and realized how much I loved it.

I think probably one of the turning points for me, which I haven't mentioned is, well, I have mentioned it, becoming a Christian, but what it meant was that I became a youth group leader really, really young. I was 16. I wanted to be in a youth group. I wanted to be cool and in a youth group, and we didn't have a youth group. I moaned about this and my boyfriend said, "Well, you can start a youth group," and I thought, "But I don't want to start a youth group. I want to be in a youth group. No." So I started a youth group.

So from about 17 to 21, I did four years of youth group leadership, and that really trained my skills because no one was watching over me. No one was telling me what to do and I could do whatever I liked. I think that really set my leadership and management style. So I think of my students at Merton College in the same way, and I think of the faculty in the same way. You want to make sure everyone's included. You want as much as possible to be positive about things and to be clear of your common purpose and to be working together. Yeah. So I think becoming a Christian was a really big deal for me because of the youth group leadership until, of course, I got engaged, and then we had a new minister who told me that my priority should be my husband and he would take over the youth group.

Sophie Ryan:

Right. Well, actually, on that note as well, I read somewhere that you noted that your in-laws weren't particularly pleased early in your career that you were working and that you were a working wife and that you should be at home. Do you have any reflections on that as well and how that impacted your career?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yeah. I mean, I wanted to be the above Ruby's wife. I wanted to make my own bread and sew my own cloth. I wanted to belong, I suppose, to that group, but yes. So when I had my first baby and I was still working, I think I was, yes, my father-in-law said, "Well, you trade your family's happiness for your career," and I was really shocked because this was said publicly, and I just quietly said, "Well, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree," and he said, "Well, if you can't prove me wrong, then I must be right." I was just mortified because being a good mother was so important to me.

I remember in Oxford when I was early on in Oxford and I had two small ones, I said to an older woman, "I'm going to quit law. I'm going to just be a full-time mother because then I will know that I'm a good mother." She said to me, "You know they're not with you that long. What are you going to do for all the years after they leave?" and she said, "Just hang in there. Just hang in there," and I'm so glad I did.

When I mentioned to my sons that there had been some disagreement about me being a working mother, and I said to them, "Do you think you would've liked me to have been at home all the time?" and they looked each at each other and horror and said, "Imagine having all of mum's attention." They were horrified.

Sophie Ryan:

Oh, that's beautiful in its own way, isn't it?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, I mean, I think they're proud of me. I think they're pleased that I'm doing what I'm doing. They certainly benefit from it.

Sophie Ryan:

Yes. Well, it sounds like though that you were very much the mother though that was the full-time mother, but also the full-time academic and many full-time hats, which it's not a uncommon story.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yeah, I think I used to ... Yes, it's probably true. I used to finish work early so that I could go and sit in their nurseries and just watch them and just watch how they got on with each other. I would have to say that in my generation, women didn't expect promotion the same time as men, right? So I would say that my own publications were fairly sparse. I kept it turning over, but I never felt it was a priority and I got the teaching done. I would get a couple of articles out a year maybe, but I have to say that since they've left home, I have flown, and that's why I think something like the retirement age has a disparate impact on women because I think women have fewer years at the height of their powers because of these years where they're treading water as it were at work because they're full on being mothers as well.

Sophie Ryan:

Yes, absolutely. Well, before we talk about the period of flight, I would like to dig in a little bit further on those early days in Oxford as well and coming over on the Rhodes Visiting Research Fellowship. It sounds like it was really hard that period of time, first coming to Oxford, and you've spoken about why you stayed the decision, the moment of taking on the position at Merton, but I suppose my broader question for you is after such a difficult period in Oxford, what was it that had you wanting to stay or what was it that still drew you to academia after that period in time?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

I suppose I loved teaching. I mean, youth group was part of that. Youth group was part of seeing young people develop, seeing the penny drop, seeing them become a lot stronger. I actually love being a teacher. It's a vocation for me. It's not an occupational hazard like it is for some academics. I think for me, teaching has always been really core to what I do. So I made that decision to invest as a tutor in students and to walk them around the meadow and to talk about their careers and so on even though I didn't have to, even though I didn't have to.

So I suppose, and Oxford gives you the kind of teaching you just wouldn't get anywhere else. There's something so destroying about lecturing to 200 people and not one of them you know by name and not one of them respond. I always say to students, "Look, if I lecture to you a hundred at a time, you'll just scribble down any old rubbish I say, but if I'm teaching you in a group of two, three, four, you're going to say to me, 'I don't understand that. That doesn't make any sense,' and I'm going to say, 'Yeah, it doesn't, does it? Let's think about that.'" This is conventional wisdom.

Actually, it's much harder teaching a small group of clever people than a huge group of clever people, in fact, because the herd mentality takes over. It's again, also, people talk about autonomy, but Jonathan Herring talks about relational autonomy, and I've written about relational autonomy. So I would say that one of the reasons that I stayed is because my children then said, "I don't want to go home. We don't want to go to New Zealand. We've now been brought up in England. This is where our friends are."

I mean, for a number of years I kept saying, "Are we ready to go back to New Zealand? Are we ready to go back to New Zealand?" because I want to belong somewhere and I miss my sisters very, very much. My parents, my sisters, they're my best friends. So I would keep thinking, "Well, is this the year we go back to New Zealand?" After a few years, they're happy here.

So I've continued here, and I also realized that Merton, the collegiate system, and certainly Merton is incredibly respectful of my space. They assume you can do it and they let you get to it and you fill the boots. Even if you think you can't, you step up. So what's not to love about Merton, about being in Oxford? Every day, I walk along and I still pinch myself. I hope I never get used to the architecture, the meals, the students, the colleagues, the events that are on. It's very hard to know where you go from here.

Sophie Ryan:

Yes, yes, absolutely. Do you remember ... I loved hearing you talk about teaching and the vocation that it is for you teaching. Did you find that from day one, the first tutorial that you took, you felt that way or is it something that you grew into?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

I really don't know. I mean, being a teacher is actually quite good for your ego in many ways. So I mean, I don't want to say that there's anything sacrificial that I'm doing. I just think it's amazing. I think it's amazing that you have this captive audience and you get to speak to them at a very formative time of their life. You've got to treasure that opportunity that you've got to make them question the right things because a lot of very privileged people come through Oxford.

I think one of the things I can show them is to at least question their assumptions and to think about people who are not in their circle of friends, who are probably not the people they would meet from a day-to-day, and yet who they're going to end up making policy about, making laws about, and to just consider things from a different point of view. I love the storytelling, I love the responding to them, and I think teaching, you can only really teach someone with whom you have something of a relationship.

I remember myself, teachers who I didn't take to and I didn't care what they said. I remember my final year of history finishing my last exam, going up to a professor, a big wig professor, and I said to him, "I just want to tell you that I felt stupid in your class, and I don't think I'm stupid."

Sophie Ryan:

Wow.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

He just looked bemused, but I thought to myself, "Do you realize you only spoke to four people that you liked? The rest of us you completely ignored and your manner towards us made us feel stupid and became stupid." People expect great things of you. You step up and you fill those shoes, but if people treat you like you're not worthwhile, then they shrink.

So all of those things, my own experience as a student, my own experience certainly as a youth group leader meant that I love turning people around. I love getting them to see a different point of view. I love it when the penny drops or the thing they came in through the door, they went out a completely different door. I have to say I warned my students that. I said, "Look, it's my job to disagree with you and to challenge you. So it's not that I don't like you. Please don't cry. Whatever you say and however good you are, I will challenge you. I won't just tell you, 'This is ...' If you come in and I just say, 'That's really interesting. Well done, you,' I'll have added nothing to you, but if I challenge you and if I get you to think in a different way, if I make you feel a little bit insecure and you rethink things, I'll have added something to you and you will know better why you believe what you believe or you will think again about what you believe.'" I think it's a really important skill in life to realize that you don't know everything because if you think you know, you will not learn.

Sophie Ryan:

Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. Well, even just my experience has been that the areas of law that I've taken up and really dedicated myself to and chosen to pursue further study in have just been those that I've had excellent teachers that really inspired me. So it's a position of tremendous power also to help focus their future, really, in the area. So actually, something I have been wondering, your area of specialty, Mindy, is contract law. You must take pleasure in a course that for many undergraduates, for at least in my undergraduate studies, there were, of course, those who loved contract law, but there were also many who found it that it was just an experience they had to get through doing contract law. So you must take this pride and pleasure in helping people discover contract law, I'm sure.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yeah. I mean, contract law, I always say to students because I believe it, I always say to students, "Contract law will change your life." My view is that human beings are incredibly weak in the animal kingdom. We are furless, fangless, clawless. If you look at our babies, the baby giraffe will get up in half an hour and follow its mother, but my babies-

Sophie Ryan:

We're pathetic.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yeah, they're pathetic and they're still, "Mom, mom, have you got a toothbrush?" Whatever. So I think, how did we come to dominate this planet and to the point of destroying it? It's because of cooperation and coordination, and a big part of that is contract, contracting, and contracting is impossible unless you've contract law. The big themes of life and in social and in political theory comes to a fore, and that is how do you balance autonomy versus fairness? That is the perennial question.

So when I talk to them like that, I just think contract law is endlessly fascinating because it's about regulating the way we deal with one another. I say to students, "If you are a hermit and you live on the top of the mountain, you can be as autonomous as you like. You can run around start naked, do whatever you like, but you will also have almost no freedom. You will have very little freedom. It's other people who give you freedom, but the minute you live with other people, there needs to be rules that regulate the way you deal with other people. If you can't make everything that you need yourself, you either take it or you trade for it," right? We don't like it if people just take it. So that's why contract law is important.

Sophie Ryan:

It's foundational, absolutely foundational. Mindy, let's talk about the Race Me Too Twitter campaign and the work that you have been doing while you have been deemed to shine a light on structural racism in particular. I thought we could address this topic in the context of also you've spoken throughout the conversation about the desire to find your tribe. I wondered whether as a starting point for this conversation of whether you feel like Oxford has been a place that has given you a tribe, and then also the difficulties for those who are seeking to find their tribe in Oxford in relation to race, gender, everything in between.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Gosh. I think that's quite a hard question to answer about Oxford because I can't give a categorical yes. I think if people know who I am, it's important that they know my position and I find that a bit sad. They need to know what my position is, rank, serial number before I'm admitted as it were, right? Once I'm admitted, fine, but if people don't know who I am like the lodge and the facilities management, I will almost always get charged.

I recently tweeted about something, which just really shocked me because the law faculty gave refuge, as it were, to a female Afghan judge. I said I'd meet her for a walk and she said she'd be at the Radcliffe Camera, and I said, "You're in the Radcliffe Camera. I've never been in the Radcliffe Camera. I've been here for 30 years. I've never been in there."

She said, "Oh, you can just get in with your ID card," and I thought to myself, "Why have I never been in there?" I walk past it almost every day, and I very often think to myself, "Gosh, it must be really nice in there. It must be really special to be in there," but it never occurred to me that I could try, and I thought to myself, "Gosh, when you feel that you will be challenged," I didn't even consciously think I would be challenged. I just self-censored. I just didn't allow myself the thought that I might even try to go in, and I thought, "Wow, that teaches you quite a lot, doesn't it about belonging?"

So I think I'm always going to be required to give my name, rank, and serial number before I'm admitted, and I accept that. I think when I stop being dean, the rank will be different and so on. So I suppose in many ways, Oxford, Merton certainly and the law faculty have allowed me to get on with my job in the same way it's allowed anyone to get on with their job and given them freedom to do that. It's incredible, but in some ways, I still know people let me know what they think they see.

I mean, I've carved out a corner for myself here where I live and where I'm actually really happy. I can't imagine anywhere else where I would be as happy as I am here. I don't know what it is to belong. I would say that Twitter has given me another tribe online. It's taken me outside the Oxford bubble, and Oxford really is a bubble, and there are bubbles within bubbles in Oxford, of course, but it's helped me to reach and for other people to find me and for us to find each other online who are minorities in our context, and to find support that way.

The number of people who've written to me to say, "Oh, my gosh, it's such a relief, and I got tarried reading your tweets because this has happened to me and I always thought it was me. I always thought I was the one that was stupid. I thought it was me that maybe I didn't make myself clear enough and people ignored me." So I think in a way I found a tribe, a virtual tribe online. So whatever happens to Twitter, I'm not going over to the elephant.

Sophie Ryan:

Fair enough. Do you think the conversations, it sounds like they make a difference. They definitely make a difference to those who have had similar experiences. What do you think in terms of the impact that it's having on Oxford more broadly and in changing the experiences for the future?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, that's in a way not for me to answer. I think for me, I know that it's caused discomfort for people. I've been told that I shouldn't talk about things in Oxford, and I certainly shouldn't talk about things that happen to me whilst I've been dean, but I'm very careful never to identify anyone because that's not the point. So I think partly the point is to educate.

I was asked to give a talk to a European academy with two and a half thousand people in the audience, and one of the people who invited me said, "I read about racism and I understood it intellectually, but it was through reading your tweets that it made me see it and understand it in a 360 kind of way." So I like to think that it has an educational function. People are sometimes shocked by the things that have happened to me.

So I think from that point of view, it's quite educational because they can't imagine that that should happen to someone. I mean, I would say that even a few days ago someone said, "Come and sit with me. Now, tell me why you are the dean of Oxford." I mean, you can take that in different ways.

I tweeted the other day, someone said, "Where are you from?" and I said, "I'm from New Zealand. My accent is very New Zealand," and he said, "Are you Maori?" and I said, "No, I'm Chinese," and he said, "But how can you be from New Zealand?" So I've become an anthropologist in a way, because you have to stand on the balcony. You can't be inside the room because they're not reacting to the me that is Mindy. They're reacting to who they see, and that's why we are called racialized minorities because you racialize what you are talking to who you think you see. So I think it's been an uncomfortable experience and I find it interesting that I have now probably spoken at eight different international institutions and Oxford's never asked me to speak.

Sophie Ryan:

That is interesting. Mindy, I wonder, it sounds like, and just watching on from afar that the time that you've spent as dean has been tremendously intense, uncomfortable at times. You've achieved a lot have been doing so much. What do you think after you finish your position as dean will be on the agenda? Will you be trying to take the Race Me Too campaign forward after that or what do you think your focus will be after you finish as dean?

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, I've said that I'm not someone who plans. So I will finish my job to the best of my ability. I will be very pleased to hand it on to someone else, and I will not worry what they do with it. I will not worry about what they do with my initiatives. I think you do your job and you move on. So I have a lot of writing projects to finish, the Asian contract law series. I want to finish the, I mean, it's partly the same diversity and inclusion agenda, really, the idea that we've been too Eurocentric in our study of laws and we go on about ourselves being a global university, but we still teach only English law or we're still relatively Eurocentric.

I think if this is the Asian century, and it is because for all sorts of reasons, it's undoubted that they will become more and more important. It's really important we know how they do things and that we do some study and we do it respectfully. So I'm hoping that I'll get to the stage of having enough research out there, including a text cases of materials that we can, actually, any law school will be able to teach the contract laws of Asia. So that's a big agenda already.

Sophie Ryan:

Yeah. It's a huge project.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yeah. I mean, I'm hoping to be a grandma at some point, although my children, my son, one of my sons has got a dog. So I think I have a grand dog, but I'm an opportunist and I'm not a planner. I will go on and do things and I think I will continue to travel. I think it's a tremendous freedom that I have to do things that feels good to me and that I enjoy. So I don't have any big plans. People have said, "You need to write up the Race Me Too." I may do so maybe when I retire, but I think it's an extracurricular thing for me. I'm not the ED&I person in the university. So when they come and ask me what they should do, I think, "Well, that's your job. Those of us who are racialized minorities often do the work for you. Don't keep asking us what you should do."

So I did it. Again, it was an opportunistic thing. I think I've mentioned already that it had happened because the university was having a race equality consultation and they interviewed me and it was the first time I'd thought about race in my 30 years here. I'd never spoken about it. I knew it would get me absolutely nowhere. There was a big racist incident that happened to me and my sons, which was incredibly frightening, and then the next day I was challenged going into my own office. These were the reasons why I started tweeting.

Then again, there was no plan for a campaign. If you go back, you'll see the hashtag appears sometime after I started tweeting because I thought, "Right. Here we go." Then of course, whether it continued or not was, again, opportunistic, depended on who wrote to me, who encouraged me, who discouraged me. Sometimes people trying to discourage me. Actually, I'm a very contrary person. So that would make me want to tweet some more when people said, "You shouldn't tweet."

Someone said, "You shouldn't tweet because if people recognize themselves, it'll make them feel uncomfortable." I therefore immediately tweeted, "So let me get this straight. You can insult me, disrespect me, make me feel really pretty bad about myself, and yet it's not my story to tell even if I don't identify you because you might recognize yourself, you might feel uncomfortable. What about my comfort?"

I think Twitter's given me a voice in a way that I haven't had before because I know lots of people are down on Twitter, but I think it can be used for good. So I don't know is the short answer. I am going to take a year sabbatical. I'm going to see my very elderly parents because as an immigrant, you have to take your turn, making sure that you're there. So yeah, so a lot of writing, which I love now, by the way. I love the time to write and, yeah, we'll see what happens.

Sophie Ryan:

Twists and turns along the way, I'm sure. Mindy, we might wrap up with some rapid fire questions for you. I love asking these questions because they take us to where we might not have gone already in the conversation. The first question I have for you is something interesting you've learned about yourself or more generally in the past year.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

So how important it is to discipline your emotions so it doesn't master you. If you can't do anything about it, don't ruminate. Don't punish yourself. Don't take it personally. If you wouldn't respect the advice of the person who has been horrible to you, don't be upset by their opinions. Try to be on good terms with people even if you don't like them. Don't make unnecessary enemies. I like Ruth Bader Ginsburg's advice, "Be a little bit deaf and a little bit blind."

Sophie Ryan:

Yes. Powerful. Those all sound like things that you might have learned just also in the course of your position as dean.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Yes, yes, no, definitely, definitely. They were certainly practiced a lot.

Sophie Ryan:

I can imagine. Okay. One person you'd want to have a meal with, alive or dead.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Gosh. I mean, that's a really hard one. I know this has been conventionally asked of other people, but I think everybody is interesting. If you're curious enough, everybody. I was an oral historian, so I interviewed First World War soldiers, and I think everybody is living history. So I can't think of anyone who will be particularly interesting because I find if I sit down with anyone, they're really fascinating.

Sophie Ryan:

Oh, I love that. I love that. I can imagine then also that you must love dinners at college and just meeting whoever might end up sitting next to you. I can see that. The best or most useful advice that you've received, Mindy, or just a piece of advice that you feel the need to share.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, I think maybe two. So one time when I was ... You talked about my early days in Oxford being very difficult and I was certainly very down on myself. I remember a colleague saying to me, "Listen, Mindy, the rest of the world gets by on C+. What makes you think you are so special that you have to be A+ all the time?" I think those people who are perfectionists need to remember that, that quite often, good enough is good enough. You don't have to make it perfect.

The second piece is, again, from my early days. I remember giving a contribution at a faculty meeting and coming out and someone senior professor said, "Oh, that was a good point you made," and I said, "Yeah, but it's not the Oxford way." He said to me, "Listen, Mindy, you are the Oxford way." I remember thinking, "Bloody right." I thought, "Even if you've made a mistake, too bad, I'm here now." I took that on and I think you have to own it. Nobody's going to make way for you. They're not going to give you a seat at the table. You just have to take it.

Sophie Ryan:

That is very powerful advice and I think very fitting. So a great point to conclude the conversation. Thank you so much, Mindy, for your time today and for the conversation. It's got me wanting to go and get to my desk and get to it and to be the Oxford way myself. So thank you very much.

Mindy Chen-Wishart:

Well, that was really fun to talk to you, Sophie. Bye-Bye.