My mother is a Cambodian. My father a New Zealander. I am Australian. My mother’s background shaped much of my early life compared with my childhood peers. Little things, like setting the table with a fork and spoon, taking off my shoes before entering the house, speaking in Khmer to one half of my family and English to the remainder. I lived in the same room with my mother’s mother after my sister was born, and spent most of my time with her while my parents worked and cared for the new baby. Instead of play dates and after school sports, I would be practising maths and English, poring over textbooks far exceeding the year of school I was in. Every night, I ate dinner at the table I always either set or cleared as a chore, then shared out rice, soups made of chicken necks and oxtail, daikon, stir fries of vegetables with thinly cut steak dripping with oyster sauce and garlic, out of communal sharing plates, now a trendy concept in casual dining in Australia. As a young adult, my life in suburban Melbourne consisted mostly of eating out with friends, peeking into the world of other cultures through its food, and the customs surrounding them. One dish in particular that I would enjoy, usually late at night and out of a styrofoam box was the Halal Snack Pack – a uniquely Australian dish from the same stable as our famed Chiko Roll; another fusion bite attempting to consolidate mainstream Australian culture with ‘foreign’ influences.
Going to school in the mid 2000s, even though there were many other children with East Asian backgrounds, I lived in the firm belief that my home life was not the norm. I would gaze upon the white bread, crustless, Vegemite and tasty cheese sandwiches or individual chip packet lunches of my schoolmates with the same curiosity that they must have looked upon mine – novel desire; one that has now manifested in my pursuit of a career in the kitchen, learning the ins and outs and history of European Cuisine in the UK. In retrospect, I understand now that my upbringing would have probably been familiar to many more people than I ever dared to imagine as a child. Mainstream media, Australian supermarket advertisements and the British-centric culinary traditions I was introduced to throughout my education (Shrove Tuesday pancakes, scones, ANZAC cookies and eating cut oranges at school sports day) all left me with the impression that I was somewhat of an alien in Australia, as I knew nothing of these ‘classic’ traditions before being introduced to them at school. Perhaps not singled out as much as my darker skinned South Asian peers were, but certainly enough that I was acutely aware of my Asian-ness, aware of the notion that when I got home what I experienced was not what I watched on Home and Away and Neighbours, and certainly not in line with what people spoke about in ‘Show And Tell’ at school on Monday. I had never been yabbying or camping at the weekend, my Dad didn’t drink beer, my Mum didn’t referee netball games. What my mum actually did was cook (the now ultra-cool) Mi Goreng brand fried noodles for all my teachers as a gift at Christmas break and parent-teacher meetings, earning me a kind of status that the food I ate at home was exotic and enviable. Had I grown up in the decade before – closer to the peak of national fears that Australia was in danger of ‘being swamped by Asians’, a quote from an Australian Senator in her 1996 maiden speech to the House of Representatives that called upon a ‘radical’ review of immigration policy, my school life would have undeniably been impacted by bullying and more overt racism as a result of the fried noodle offerings and stir fry and rice filled lunchboxes.