Cringe to Strength
Meet Jess Paraha. She’s a musician, filmmaker, and facilitator for Stories of Strength. Reckon you’re alone in your cringey youth? Jess is here to show you that we were all awkward once, and we’ve got the rest of our lives to make cool things happen.
Hi my name’s Rebecca and I’ll be interviewing you today, would you like to introduce yourself?
Sure, my name’s Jess Paraha. I’m a facilitator for the Stories of Strength program and I’m also a musician, and yeah… filmmaker! Lots of things. So many things to choose from.
Okay. When were you born?
I was born on the 18th of August, 1994.
And where would that be?
In Camperdown Hospital in the inner west of Sydney.
Describe the place where you grew up.
I grew up in Marrickville —
Oh, aye! So I grew up in Marrickville on Neville street, and I lived in this house that shared a wall with the house next to us. We had a Greek neighbour, and an Italian neighbour on the other side, and then our family was right in the middle.
Describe one significant memory from your childhood.
Ooh, one significant memory from my childhood… probably — so my brother is 21 years older than me. So one significant memory from my childhood was when my baby niece was born when I was, like, 10 or 11-years-old. And I got to go into the hospital and meet her when she was just a fresh little baby, and it was pretty amazing.
Is there a specific smell, taste, or anything that will trigger a good memory from your childhood?
Why do you like pancakes?
[Laughs] Well I don’t really eat pancakes anymore, but when I was a little kid my dad used to make pancakes on Sunday morning and I would, like, come out of my bedroom and he would already have the pancakes cooking on the stove. I’d come out and eat a whole bunch of pancakes with maple syrup on it and it’s just, like, the best start to the day. Pancakes!
Are there any funny stories you would like to tell?
Ooh, like from when I was a little kid or — ?
Yeah, anything that would come to mind.
Oh funny stories… Um… [laughs] I don’t know! I’m trying to think. I… I can’t even remember.
Were there any funny memories at school?
Yep, probably more embarrassing than funny to be honest.
Would you like to say it?
I guess just because school is such a cringe, like, you’re so cringy when you’re at school!
[laughs] Yeah exactly.
How would you describe yourself when you were at school?
When I was a teenager I think that I was, like, pretty, um… I don’t know, just a pretty nerdy kid. Not super nerdy, but just like — you know, I liked to read, liked the library, I liked being in drama club and doing choir and stuff like that. So, like, creative but nerdy.
What were your thoughts on the popular kids?
Oh, that’s a great question! That’s a great question. Um, I think that the popular kids in my high school were, like, I don’t know, they were all kind of white, skinny girls [laughs]. So, as a brown girl I was sort of, like, ‘Ah not really my scene’.
So were you picked on?
Um, I mean I think that everybody is sort of picked on in high school, right? In a way. I don’t think that I was necessarily any more picked on by other kids than anyone else.
What dreams did you have when you were younger?
Ooh, that’s a good question. I think that when I was a young, young kid, like when I was in primary school, I wanted to be a famous actor or a famous singer [laughs]. But then I got older and I was, like, ‘Nah that’s a bit crazy, maybe I don’t wanna do that’. And then I really wanted to be a primary school teacher, and then I decided ‘Ooh, maybe not’. And so I decided, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go into filmmaking and work behind the camera’.
What inspired you to do that?
Hmm, I guess cos I really like movies and how stories are told through TV shows and movies and stuff like that, and I thought maybe I really want to get into that world. That would be really cool. And so I have done work in that area, and it’s pretty dope. Follow your dreams!
So did you achieve [your dreams]?
Um, I think so! I kind of achieved it, I guess in reality it sort of turned out to be different to what I expected it was going to be like when I was a kid.
What else do you want to achieve?
Mmm! What else do I wanna achieve? I think just, like, I feel like I’m doing pretty well at the moment. I get to hang out with you guys, I get to be creative in my work which is pretty amazing, and I couldn’t really want for much more than that. I guess just healthy family, healthy self, creative expression… Pretty vague! [Laughs].
Okay. What does the word strength mean to you?
Hmm okay, strength. I think that strength is the ability to be vulnerable and the ability to be brave. The ability to stick to your convictions and live honestly with yourself, and honestly with other people. That takes a lot of strength, to not hide behind things that make you seem more palatable to other people maybe? To be authentic.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome?
Hardest thing I had to overcome… I guess my family and my own sense of success maybe?
Okay. If you had to travel back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Probably… If I had to travel back in time — how old is my younger self?
Around your teens.
Teens? So say, thirteen-fourteen?
Yeah around there.
Okay. I would probably sit my younger self down and just be like, ‘Look. Babe. It’s fine. You’re gonna be fine, it’s all fine. Now that you’re nice and calm, let me give you some advice. You should love yourself for who you are, get out there and don’t worry about making a fool of yourself. Just go out and do what you wanna do, because nobody has a roadmap for you, they’re not going to give you all the answers. You sort of just have to make it up as you’re going, like everybody else is. So don’t be worried about embarrassing yourself, just go out there and live your truth’.
What are you most grateful for?
Um, probably my family. My family are amazingly supportive. And also just my chosen family, like my friends, my close friends, I’m super grateful for them.
What are your favourite hobbies?
Favourite hobbies… Well at the moment I’m learning Te Reo Maori. So, the Maori language. I love doing that.
How do you learn it?
Well we go to class every Tuesday night for, like, three hours. It’s so long, but it’s totally worth it. We do lots of singing together, we talk to each other, it’s very cool, it’s very fun. And part of it is, like, doing Kapa Haka which is Maori singing and dancing and stuff like that. And that’s pretty awesome, singing with a whole group of like 60 other people really loud. Like, huge Maori boys, boof boof. It’s awesome. It’s, like, shakey.
If you could travel one place in this world, where would it be?
Do I have, like, unlimited money?
Okay, unlimited money, do I have unlimited time? So I can stay there for however long I want?
Okay. Um… And only one place?
Yeah only one place.
Hard. Um… Oh, this is so hard! [Laughs] Um, I would probably go to Matawaia, which is where my dad’s family is from. And it’s where he grew up as a little kid and, like, where our tribal ancestors were from. So I would probably go there and just, like, talk to all the family that I haven’t gotten to meet and spend a whole bunch of time getting to know the area and stuff like that. Sounds corny, but it’s probably true.
Yeah. I see you’ve got two tattoos there.
How did you get it, and why?
Okay, so this one is pretty new. It’s still, like, kind of healing. And I got this one a couple of weeks ago, and it’s a Tamoko and a mandala put together. It kind of represents these little koro leaves, they’re little ferns that symbolise new beginnings and growth. And then this section is kind of for my family and my ancestors who have passed that are watching over us from the spirit world, and then this part is our whakapapa or geneology. So, like, our family connections and stuff like that. Yep!
And then this one I got, like, four or five years ago and it’s an arrow with three squares in the middle. It’s kind of about forging forward with the support systems that you have, so the three squares represent my three siblings, so my brother and two sisters. And then this one is a tattoo I got a couple of weeks ago with my brother and my two sisters and it symbolises our family.
How were you feeling when you were getting those tattoos?
That’s a good question. I think when I got the first one done — the one that I got four years ago — I was kind of younger. I was probably like 20 when I got it done, or 19. And so I didn’t really think about it, I just sort of went in there with this design that I liked and thought ‘Okay whatever, I’ll just get it done’. And it hurt but it wasn’t too bad.
But when I got this big one done, it was really, really painful and it took a really long time; it took like two hours. And I was sitting on the bed just trying to block out the pain but it was super, super painful. And so, yeah, I don’t know!
What was I thinking about? I guess I was just trying to stay zen but also thinking about the meaning of it, and my family, and our culture and stuff like that. I also couldn’t help but think about that stuff while it was happening.
Did you cry?
I don’t think that I cried but I was definitely really tense, and sort of bunched up. And then when I got out afterwards I went completely pale, like, all the colour drained out of my face. And I felt super, super sick and my sister had to take me to the couch, sit me down, lie me down. She’s like, ‘Okay here’s a cup of tea, you need to just chill out cos I think you’re about to faint’.
Who went with you?
Just by myself!
Yeah but my sisters dropped me off and they were like, ‘Do you want us to stay?’, and I said ‘Absolutely not. I need you to go because I’m going to be like a blubbering mess. So if you can go and leave me alone, that would be great’.
Do you have any questions for me?
Yeah! Definitely have questions for you. Where do you live?
So I was born in Fairfield and I grew up in Marrickville for a couple of years. And then after, my family moved to Bankstown and I’ve grown up here ever since.
Nice! That’s sick. Um, how long has your family lived in western Sydney?
Oh, all my life. Like, past — my dad, he lived here longer than me. I think about 40 years now?
Whoa, 40 years!
Yeah. And my mum, she lived in my home country which is Vietnam. And I’ve lived here my whole life, and my sister she lived in Vietnam for 2 years and she moved here.
Is it just the two of you, you and your sister?
Oh, I got a baby sister. That was, like, almost two.
Ohh, cute! What’s the difference between you and your baby sister, like twelve years?
Yeah, twelve years.
Wow! Do you think that the age gap between your baby sister and you is, like, a sister relationship or maybe more like a parent relationship?
I think it’s a little bit of both, because even though we’re siblings and we’re sisters like that, I take my little sister as if I was the parent. Also, like, it’s easier on my mum cos since I’m grown up I know how to take care of my little sister and stuff like that, so it’ll be easier on my mum. Yeah, give her a bit of a break.
Yep, totally. Cos I was probably — I was your age when my niece was born. And I definitely, like, she’s not my sister but I definitely look at her like more of a parent I guess? Even though you’re 11, you’re still a kid. But you’re just that old enough —
To know how to take care of —
Exactly! And give your person a break [laughs].
[Music starts playing] Whoa, what’s that?
That’s the bell.
I guess that’s it! Wait, do I end it?
Thank you for interviewing me! How did you find it?
It was actually not bad. I’ve been dreading to do this for a couple of weeks now.
I know, you can kind of get stressed out about I think.
Growing up in a household where my parents don’t know English much and it’s hard for them to explain some stories. And then my sister, she hates me so I can’t really do anything.
Oh no! How old’s your sis?
She’s turning 17 this year.
Yeah we don’t have, like, a close relationship like most sisters. We’re like, if I come close to you, go away. Like, I don’t really — and then my little sister, I can’t really interview her. She would probably say, ‘I like baby formula’, that’s it.
[Laughs] That’s alright.
But you did great! Yeah, you were awesome, you’re a natural.
Also cos, um, I went to an SBS thing, a school thing.
What was it?
About how our school, like, turned around. Cos, like, the school used to be a bad place I guess. People knew it had a bad reputation, stuff like that, but then over the years when our principal changed it’s kind of turned around and stuff like that. They saw that and they wanted to interview us. And then we went on SBS and we just told our story and how, like, years ago Maccas wouldn’t even open because our school had a bad reputation. So they didn’t wanna serve us. And how the bus would go out of service because they didn’t wanna drive us.
That’s what I heard. And that now, even though Maccas hates us, I know some of the ladies they hate us but they still serve us. And the bus drivers they still drive kids now.
Whoa, that’s crazy.
Yeah, and then our school is the top most growing school in New South Wales.
Yeah, I heard that.
And then that’s how the school [went on SBS], they wanted to know how we changed for the better. How we turned around.
Yeah, wow. How was it getting interviewed by them?
The older kids, since they’ve been here since the bad reputation they had most of the say. Since I only came this year I didn’t really have a part in it, but I was still part of the audience. And I saw the interviewer, like, asking questions, how they switched around the questions for us to get the same —
Yeah. This [song] is so long!
Yeah it plays, like, the whole song.
Oh my god.
[Song keeps playing] [Laughs] This is such a weird choice for the bell!
No, no, it’s not. They always change it.
Oh, it changes?
Yeah it always changes, they change it every single time.
Um, I think every week.
Oh that’s cool. Okay, it’s over. Okay. Thank you for your interview, it was awesome. You did a bloody good job.
It was nice meeting you too and knowing about your life.
[Bell rings] Oh my gosh!
Okay, what do I say now?
That’s it, done!
We didn’t say it properly though. Okay, so thank you for telling me your life story and introducing who you are.