Being the child of immigrants can pose an inner identity struggle. I’m Australian, yet I don’t quite look like what my friends and the media often say an Aussie is meant to look like: white.
What’s more, I’m trying to keep up with the Aussie lifestyle led by my friends, while feeling the pull from my South Asian parents and their traditional cultural expectations.
Tonight’s MasterChef premiere showcased Australians with various skin tones, accents and cultural backgrounds, and it was Derek Lau’s story that encapsulated that identity crisis that many like me and some of my other Asian friends experience, but don’t see represented on screen.
The 27-year-old financial analyst, whose family is from Hong Kong, admits he wound up working in the finance industry “as a function of mum and dad” to “make them proud”.
Recently he noticed “something’s changed” and he wanted “the creative outlet that food gives me”.
“Somehow of course like any other Asian guy in a family of four, I ended up in commerce and finance,” Derek tells Yahoo Lifestyle Australia.
“Dad moved to Australia when he was 17 from Hong Kong. He moved to Melbourne to study. Mum [also from Hong Kong] was born in Melbourne and my grandfather was born in Melbourne,” he explains.
Both of his now-retired parents were hardworking professionals throughout their careers, with his dad working as a scientist in the hematology department at a hospital, and his mother working at a university.
“My parents... they always pushed me,” says Derek, but insists, “they were very good to me”.
The fact that his two elder brothers and sister also worked in finance mounted the pressure to pursue a similar career path, and one that Derek acknowledges is common in some Asian households.
As the daughter of Fijian-Indian immigrants, I can vouch for that in my experience growing up.
I initially completed a business degree before changing to entertainment journalism, a ‘drastic’ career move that frightened my parents [a doctor and accountant] for a long time.
Most of my other South Asian or Asian friends have pursued careers in finance, medicine or law, and almost all of them admit that parental pressures to follow an ‘acceptable’ career path shaped their choices.
We all agree they mean well, only wanting what they believe is the best for us after migrating to Australia to give us a better future.
But it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for us, and seeing these struggles portrayed through Derek’s story is important for two reasons. It reminds us we’re not alone, and secondly, it’s a sign of progress towards greater Asian representation on Australian TV.
For Derek, working in finance “worked well for me at the time”, but he’s always known his creative potential from a young age.
“It’s really funny because when I was growing up I was always a little bit different to the rest of my siblings,” he reveals.
“I wanted to be outside, do creative things and so I always knew I was a little bit different.
“I still remember when I was back in high school, there were some creative things I really enjoyed doing. Two of them were actually home economics which was cooking in the kitchen, and woodwork.”
Last year he decided to leave his ‘comfort zone’ and audition for MasterChef. He drew on his cultural heritage when he wowed the judges with hot sticky dumplings with chili oil and red vinegar sauce.
“When I was at home, it was always very simple food. I remember on the weekends we’d sometimes make dumplings and dad would joke, ‘When I was your age, I’d eat 100 of these back in Hong Kong’,” says Derek.
“That’s what I grew up on. Really simple Chinese food. Dumplings is something I can always turn to and eat.”
As he delicately folded each dumpling to serve to the judges Gary, George and Matt, Derek’s mother and sister were in the kitchen to cheer him on.
“Even recently in the past few years there’s things I’ve done that are totally different to what my family would perceive as normal. One example is riding a motorbike,” he explains, but says this creative cooking outlet has actually been positively received by his loved ones.
“It’s actually funny what the past six months and MasterChef has done. My brother mentioned, it’s brought us closer as a family,” says Derek.
“It’s quite interesting how things have changed already.”
As Derek’s MasterChef journey continues, he couldn’t be more stoked that his parents would like “whatever makes me happy”.
Here’s hoping this is just one of many stories of culturally diverse Australians we’ll see on local screens in the near future.
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