I stood waiting for the tram at the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets, smack in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD. The electronic tramTracker guide propped up on a nearby pole signaled that the next one was two minutes away.
I was just done with a routine, annoying appointment and had stepped out into the cold to head home. Melbourne was putting on its typical winter weekday afternoon show – slivers of light blue peeking through the white clouded sky and glimmers of sunshine squeezing between high-rise buildings, gently caressing the smooth concrete, tiled city pavements. Working professionals hurrying left to right and right to left dressed in somber black and grey office attire.
Looking around, I saw a fair few people – Asians, Caucasians, Indians, Middle-Easterners – waiting for the tram as well. Many of them wore sullen faces. Maybe they’re cold. The weekend’s three days away, maybe that’s why. How I longed for Saturday to be here.
Out of the corner of my left eye, I sensed someone sidling up to me. Shifting slightly, I noticed a Caucasian woman standing less than a metre away from me.
“Excuse me,” she asked politely in an Australian accent. “Do the trams on this line go to the State Library?”
She seemed to be in her forties, no where near my age. A few inches taller than me. “Yes, all trams go to the State Library,” I said with a genuine small smile. “It’s about a block away. On your right.”
“Thanks so much. I usually take the tram on the other side of the city. Just wanted to make sure I was going the right way.”
The small smile stayed on my face as I looked away. It always feels nice to help.
“It’s a bit chilly, isn’t it?” the woman said all of a sudden ten seconds later, sounding very friendly.
The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened and my smile waned. If this happened in Malaysia, one would immediately think she was a robber’s accomplice attempting to distract you as you were being robbed. Who are you?
But I couldn’t help but agree with her. “Oh, yes. But it’s not as cold as the past few days.”
“I had a cold last week, but it’s gone now. I’ve gone back to uni, studying a diploma.”
She goes on. “I hear employers don’t look at job applications from those who don’t have a Masters or a diploma. My son’s about to finish an accounting degree. I don’t know what is he going to do after that.”
So she’s married with kids. About two generations older than me. “Many people have a Bachelor’s these days,” I mused.
“That’s right. To get a job these days, you need to network. Networking with people wherever you go.”
“Talking to people and making connections,” I added after a pause.
A tram grinded to a halt in front of us and we both got on. It was packed, but the woman managed to score a seat. I grabbed the pole beside her as it jerked off.
“What can you do?” she said as the tram rumbled past Chinatown. “The economy’s bad. And I think it’s going to be this way for the next five years.”
I seriously thought the conversation had finished. “I…I, I think…it’s easier to find a job if you’re local,” I stammered. I’m so bad at making small talk with strangers.
“Yes. Are you….?” the woman looked at me from behind her wrap around sunglasses.
“Australian. Local. I’m Australian.”
At that point, the tram stopped and the doors flew open. “The State Library’s just there,” I gestured to the right.
We got off the tram and headed off on our separate ways.
We’re all different in many ways.
That’s the essence of a multicultural world. We all have our own customs, cultural values and accents.
But we’re all very much the same trying to get to some place.
I got along just fine with the Caucasian woman even though we’re from different cultural groups and speak differently. We had a short conversation even though I’m terrible at talking to strangers and she, well, seems to have no problem with it.
We both reckon winter in Melbourne is cold. We both take public transport.
I’m sure others around us in Australia think about and do these things too. And I’m sure some of them are Caucasians. Asians. Indians. Middle-Easterners.
Everyone has problems. Everyone has hopes and dreams. Everyone has feelings.
It’s fascinating how we can be so different and so distant and yet so similar at the same time, isn’t it? And amidst the hustle and bustle of going about our lives, unnecessarily discriminating against others of different background and thinking about ourselves, we tend to forget this.
How right you are. And not forgetting the reason we prejudge and segregate ourselves is of ultimate importance. I live in Los Angeles, and despite that people survive all together in general, they still are only really comfortable with those they perceive as similar. It’s a human thing, and one I’d love to help break.
Very well said, Joe. It’s so easy to make judgements about people – it only takes a split second. Being open-minded can be hard sometimes – it’s about opening up our minds to unfamiliar and possibly bizarre ideas that may make us uncomfortable. Good on you for aspiring to make us all get together despite our differences. The world needs more people like you 🙂
Beautiful story. So simple and nice. Initially I was reminded of this painting by John Brack http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/learn/schools-resources/art-start/image-bank/john-brack but your story had a bit more colour in the cold Melbourne winter
Thank you RedEarthBlueSky. I had a look at the Brack painting. It’s very interesting. Haven’t seen such a bold painting in a while. It connotes the ideas of “mundane” and “similarity” quite a bit. Made me go back to thinking about the photo I used in this post (took me a while to find one for this post) that is rather colourful and has a spontaneous feeling about it (this is in my opinion, I don’t know how others perceive my photos to be honest).