Initial culture shocks

On arrival in Sydney, my first personal contact with a resident Australian was with a fourth-generation Chinese Australian. He had come to meet one of the Malayan students and, very kindly, took a number of us to dinner in a Chinese restaurant. The food was not of quite the same standard as comparable dishes served in Malaya. … …

Dining with our Chinese host, we received our first lesson in race relations in Australia. We learnt that, even after four generations in the country, there were then no Chinese in politics or government, i.e. federal, state, and local government, in senior administrative posts, or even in academia. … … We were also told that the Chinese, not expecting full equal opportunities in Australia, had stayed not only in the private sector but also outside any bureaucratic structures.

… … I took the train to Melbourne and arrived with all my trepidations renewed. This was a strange country. The countryside lacked that intense green coloration of the Malayan countryside. It was not dense. In places, it looked barren. And the colour of the sky was different. It looked more blue and yet colder. Later, as winter covered the city, I was horrified at the bleak atmosphere, the barrenness of the streets and countryside, and the cold. Would not the attitudes of people living in such terrain reflect their environment? I did not have to wait long to find out.

When I took a taxi, I found that the driver did not help with the luggage. I was to learn that this was common practice; it seemed to be beneath their dignity to move luggage. Over the next forty-five years, I was to learn that some schoolteachers would not wipe their blackboards or dispense medication to children in their classes because their job was only to teach (this was from the Sixties to the Nineties). There were nurses in a major women’s hospital who refused to help my wife obtain a cup of tea when she could not walk after surgery; they too were professionals. They could bring her a pill and a glass of water but not the tea available right next door to the nurses’ station; if she wanted tea, she could get out of bed and get it herself or await the mealtime catering service. This was in the late Eighties.

Through the whole period of my observation of this nation, arrogant job demarcation, especially that enforced by the trade unions, resulted not only in a waste of human resources and unnecessary costs, but also denied necessary care or service to some of the old, the weak or the lost. It also encouraged sloth and arrogance. I have always felt that if you are paid to do a job (and your conscience can tell you what the job is), you should do it properly.

…. … I found Melbourne well laid out, clean, and with no smells. My initial accommodation was at the YMCA hostel. I struggled with my luggage (including that ridiculously large and heavy tin trunk) into the place and booked in. There I experienced my first personal culture shock.

… … I also found myself a little lost in the process of buying food in the canteen. With guidance from others, however, some of whom spoke in such a gruff manner that I felt chastised, I was able to obtain food. Eating it was another matter. Vegetables, boiled without salt, or without any other flavouring, accompanying some kind of cooked meat (equally tasteless) was something I could not cope with for years to come. However, I managed to obtain sufficient sustenance each day.

Walking around Melbourne, I had my first experiences with Australians en masse. The streets were pulsating with life, not unlike Singapore (but you would not want to try to cross a city street as you could in Singapore). I noted that there was not a brown, black, or “yellow” face anywhere. Everyone was white, a colour that was not particularly pleasing at that stage. All the men seemed to be wearing hats, which further helped to make one indistinguishable from another. This problem was to bother me for a number of years.

Strangely, this difficulty did not apply to women. I thought that the younger women, especially, were pointedly different one from another.

(These are extracts from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out: the experiences of a multicultural Malayan in White Australia.’ They enable a sociological vista of how far Australia has grown since the immigration door was opened – effectively at the end of the last century, when dark skins were finally accepted fully)