Colour sensitivity

I soon found a break from the tedious Anglo-Saxon colour when I went into milk bars, fruiterers, and vegetable shops. There I met the more dusky white, of Mediterranean origin. In fact, in a few instances, I met Greeks whose facial structure and hair were strikingly similar to some of my former classmates of Ceylonese and Indian descent back home (common Central Asian Indo-Aryan stock?).

The Mediterraneans had strong accents, reflecting their language, but their command of English was not strong. Chinatown, of course, looked the way one expects it to look. Many of the Chinese there were not too strong in English either. Years later, I was to deal officially with the problems of ageing Chinese Australians with no kin or care in Australia.

The Greeks and other Mediterranean people were different from the Anglo-Celt or “old” Aussie. Their older women invariably wore black, somewhat like some of the Chinese in Malaya (had the Greeks learnt from them too?). When their daughters went out, there was the ubiquitous chaperone. … And many of the Greek men were young, single, and lacked female compatriots to go out with (if Mama consented) or marry. No wonder the chaperone was always evident.

As in Singapore, people in Melbourne seemed to be in a hurry. Yet they were generally courteous and helpful when asked for directions, or for assistance with tram destinations and train timetables. In spite of some difficulty with our respective accents, we concluded our brief transactions amicably, in the main. But there was a look in many eyes, which said: what sort of fellow is this?

With services available to the general public, e.g. in banks, post offices, railway booking offices, shops, cafés, buses and trams, fellow Asians and I were never denied a service. Did we expect denial? Not at all; we had no prior experience for such an expectation.

However, we did notice that some shop assistants, clerks, and waitresses had difficulty in seeing us, even when there was no one else in the place. If there was no queue, and people were trying to catch the eye of the server, at times, even later arrivals were served first.

In the late Seventies, I watched a similar occurrence. My little 5-year old son was at the front of a counter selling fireworks in a major department store. I stood back and watched the children (all white, except mine – and he is as light as a light-skinned Greek) placing their orders. The young salesgirl served those to the left and to the right of my son and those behind him, while he politely kept his hand up. I finally walked up to the counter and said to the girl, “Excuse me, can you not see the little fellow in front of you?” She had the decency to blush before she served him. Who said that colour prejudice was dying? Most recently (in the Nineties) a well-known Aboriginal leader reported that, in his own home town, certain shopkeepers still experienced difficulty in seeing him.

Why does the old Aussie behave like this? Sometimes, especially in those early days, there was a roughness in manner and language that seemed to be directed to us Asians specifically. Sometimes we perceived a wordless dislike. We felt confident in our perceptions; we were not wet behind the ears, or naïve in dealing with others.
On the other hand, we were not expecting to be treated differently because of our foreign origins, accents, or skin colour. I do not see myself as coloured unless I am told so. Why is it relevant?

… … It was therefore interesting for me to note that the ‘foreigner’ serving in the various shops or businesses did not ever react adversely to our skin colour or accent. In fact, I have often exchanged recipes with some of these continental Europeans, and talked with them about life back home compared with Australia. The conclusion I reached then (and have had it confirmed ever since) is that the foreigner is very comfortable with other foreigners. Travelling in taxis driven by migrants confirms not only this but also the interest that one foreigner has for another.

(These extracts are from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out.’ Today, Australia is quite multi-coloured – worrying some chauvinists – but control of the nation rests safely in white Anglo-Australian hands. And, contrary to recent claims by certain Aussies of immigrant origin, in my experience and observations, Asians and Europeans were (indeed are) indifferent to (that is, not affected by) utterances of prejudice; for, the ignorant yobbo is ubiquitous. We immigrants are not wimps. Discrimination (an act, not statements) is a different kettle of fish.)