In the midst of this global pandemic has come the most unexpected ray of sunshine: Masterchef 2020. It's diverse cast of contestants has always traversed over age, gender and racial ethnicity; an indiscriminate cross section of our rich Australian community, brought together by the universal love of cooking. But this year, there’s something more poignant about the stories that Masterchef is telling. Wednesday night’s episode on childhood has tapped into something deep within many migrant Asian kids across Australia and made us feel less alone in the face of increasing hostility.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been terrifying from a health and economic perspective. However, it is the first time in my life where I have felt terrified of the implications of my Asian appearance, and of what’s to come as the dust settles, and the focus shifts on who is to blame.
Racism in Australia is unique. It is pervasive in our society and it sits as an undercurrent that spikes when the environment is right. For many young Australians like myself who were only young children during the Pauline Hanson era, I always dismissed older generations when they talk about racism in Australia. At the time, I was too young to consider that these were the lived experiences of people who had come here with enormous language barriers and in the immediate aftermath of the removal of the White Australia policy. In my privileged, naïve mindset of racism, it was something that happened to other people but not to me. I have worked hard, attained a respectable job in society and surely have ‘earned’ my place in Australia.
The tides of this pandemic have completely altered my sheltered assumptions about racism. It is clear that for some people, the fear of the unknown, the anger and desperation for blame has stirred up all the racist sediment straight to the top and has come up in the most violent and disgusting ways. One only has to look at reported incidents in Sydney and Melbourne to see that this pandemic has brought out some of the worst in people.
Cue Masterchef 2020. Much has been made about the revamped judging panel, but the addition of the effervescent Melissa Leong has been a touchstone for Asian representation on Australian television. In addition to the amazing cast of contestants, the challenges have also reflected ingredients that were staples to any Asian-Australian kid growing up.
Leong’s chicken feet challenged blasted the delicacy across Australian televisions and prompted heated discussion about whether chicken feet has any place in dessert. Similarly, the instant noodle challenge brought back memories of childhood meals when you have cash and time strapped parents busily working their second jobs to put meals on the table.
Whilst the chicken feet challenge may have horrified many, its depiction on national television, and the curious chatter has done wonders for normalising the ingredients we grew up with (and often, made fun of) into the national psyche.
Which brings me to Wednesday’s episode. I never thought a cooking show like Masterchef could wring any tears out of me, but the childhood stories of Khanh Hong and Reynold Poernomo so deeply resonated with me and spoke to the experience of growing up as a child of migrants.
Khanh emotionally told of his story of being born in a refugee camp and the gratitude his family felt on the day they were granted migration to Australia. Reynold’s story was that of a young child who didn’t know any better than to spend his long days hanging out at his parents’ restaurant while they worked, often sleeping there until the end of night service.
As a child of Vietnamese migrants, I spent most of my childhood at my parents’ milk bar, eating lollies and making mischief amongst the aisles of foods. When I was older, school holidays entailed working for my parents and capturing a glimpse of the hard work ethic and sacrifice it takes to put food on the table.
It is this story telling that will hopefully banish some of the shame and embarrassment of growing up as a child of migrants.
Growing up, these were common experiences shared amongst other Vietnamese kids. It was not uncommon to be helping your mother with her sweatshop sewing job or running tables and washing dishes at your parents’ restaurant. As a kid, I resented these experiences and felt shame and embarrassment to reveal how I spent my days, wondering why we couldn’t be like a ‘normal’ middle class family you see on television.
But seeing this lived experience splashed across a mainstream television show such as Masterchef, and this process of normalising the Asian migrant experience, this has made this season particularly special. For the next generation growing up, it is this story telling that will hopefully banish some of the shame and embarrassment of growing up as a child of migrants. It’s finally a chance to see a face like theirs on prime time television.
Whilst Masterchef isn’t going to cure the post-pandemic racism that we’re bracing ourselves for, it is a monumental leap in representation, a tacit exercise of soft power in shaping the hearts and minds of Australians. To say that we’re here, we’re not faceless virus spreading monsters; that we too are an essential part of the fabric of modern Australia.