Mimi Zou: “like all the Asian kids”, her parents wanted her to play the piano
Canterbury's People: Mimi's story is of a young woman who has grown from a six-year old migrant unable to speak English to dux of a selective school. Her brilliant scholastic achievement goes hand-in-hand with involvement in community activities at a leadership level. She is fun, energetic and enthusiastic.
Interviewer: Kelly Lu
Mimi was born in China and as a young child her parents came to Australia. They left Mimi in China in the care of her grandmother for three years while they established themselves. But Mimi felt she was the scapegoat for everything in her grandmother's life: she was a tough disciplinarian who combined Confucian and Communist philosophies and scolded and spanked Mimi every day.
Mimi still bears an emotional scar from those years. On a recent trip to China Mimi began to empathise with her authoritarian grandmother, who at 16 was fighting against the Japanese invasion of China, and whose parents were killed in that war.
In 1992 Mimi came to Australia as a six year old and was reunited with her parents. She recalls this as a scary journey since she hadn't seen her parents for more than three years and had never seen her new sister who was born in Australia. Mimi couldn't speak a word of English and was very nervous about 'fitting in'.
However she ended up settling in quickly and life in Australia has been very positive for her. The family have no other relatives here but there are lots of family friends whom Mimi calls 'auntie' and 'uncle'. Mimi and her family live in Campsie in a house that her parents bought with another family and later rebuilt. Both parents had to retrain from their jobs as chemical engineers in China. Her father is studying information technology and her mother works as an accountant and is now the main income earner.
Multiculturalism "doesn't exist" in China. Mimi feels that the cultural diversity of Campsie, where so many peoples rub shoulders together, has helped her make a smooth transition to become an Australian. She loves the area and its diversity, and has friends from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds. She feels this opened her eyes to the nature of the world and its conflicts, and that the diversity is really worth celebrating.
Mimi's parents expected her to maintain her Chinese culture and language, and sent her to Saturday School at the Chinese Australian Services Society (CASS). Mimi has been a volunteer at CASS for a number of years and is currently involved in setting up a youth group. She finds it frustrating that her command of her mother languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, is not at the level where she can express all her ideas.
Schooling and student involvement
Similar to many migrant parents, Mimi's parents have high expectations of her, and expected her to study hard by late primary school and engaged tutors to help her. Mimi's parents were not as strict as her grandmother, but have put a lot of pressure on her to achieve academically; the only time she was punished was when she got Bs at school instead of As.
As well, "like all the Asian kids", her parents wanted her to play the piano. The experience of growing up in a Chinese-Australian household has been interesting:
"It's good to live between two cultures, because you learn what's good and bad, and then you draw from the good and reject the bad, even though its part of you."
She likes the directness of Australian communication, as she feels we don't need to "save face". But Mimi appreciates the respect shown in Chinese culture (derived from the Confucius principles of respecting elders, for example).
Mimi attended the selective Sydney Girls High School, where students are "encouraged to excel and bring out the best in all of us". Mimi excelled in this competitive school. She loved the school for its "melting pot" nature where students from a variety of cultural origins got along with each other, and where she was offered so many opportunities for an all-round education.
Mimi was elected to the Student Representative Council (SRC) and helped organise discos and other social activities, "but in the end what the SRC taught me is that you have to stand up for yourself, its the SRC that … gave me the initiative to pursue my interest for politics". In Year 11 Mimi was elected Vice President of the NSW SRC and helped establish district conferences as networking opportunities for schools. As representative for her area (Bondi District) she met the NSW Minister for Education, and put her views to him about school closures.
She "usually gives 110% to everything" but by Year 11 Mimi was so involved in extra curricular activities that her grades suffered. The principal was so concerned that she asked Mimi to concentrate on her studies, and she had to cut out some of her hectic schedule (rowing, indoor soccer, swimming, basketball and cross-country) and had to drop her SRC activities at school, district and state level.
Community activities and leadership
In 2000 Mimi attended an international SRC conference in Sydney. She was selected as one of 20 delegates to represent Australia at the 2001 international SRC leadership conference in the United States, and describes this as a "life-changing" experience. Mimi raised the $6000 required to attend through donations from the Rotary and Lions Clubs, and by asking her local Members of Parliament for financial donations. Kevin Moss MP encouraged Mimi to pursue her interest in youth empowerment issues in the local community via the Canterbury Youth Council.
Mimi was nominated to Youth Council in 2000. This is a group of young people who meet regularly to discuss and organise projects for, and with, young people. Youth Council is linked to Canterbury City Council and advises Council about issues concerning young people. Mimi describes getting involved in this "grass-roots" organisation:
"I got to know about a different aspect of leadership, not just school-related, you also have to be involved in your local community, [I was] so committed to all of that, and I was elected chairperson because of my commitment, it was definitely a very valuable experience in terms of learning about this area. … . It was all full hands-on activities in relation to this Council thing. I actually got to know about Council, the bureaucracy, and the people who work for Council. I became fascinated that I can actually make a difference, not just to my school, but to the local community, that was very, very satisfying."
Another of Mimi's community activities was the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme for young people. This involves sport, skill enhancement, bush camping and a six month community service project, which for her has been Canterbury Youth Council. She successfully completed the gold award, the highest level.
Life after school
Mimi would love to backpack across Europe and explore the world, and would love to study in the United States. Mimi realises that she does have an ability to lead and achieve change, and she wants to travel to 'third world' countries to make a positive difference, using her ability and skills there "rather than be a hot-shot lawyer which I think I could be".
Mimi was joint dux of her school in her Higher School Certificate in 2002, and was awarded a five-year scholarship for Outstanding Achievement and an Australian Students Prize ($2000) from the Commonwealth Government for her results. She continues to receive awards for her contributions, including the Order of Australia Certificate of Commendation from the Governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir. Mimi was selected to be on the National Youth Roundtable 2003, the peak youth advisory board to the Commonwealth Government. She is currently studying a combined Economics, Social Sciences and Law degree at Sydney University.