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. Are you a uni student?”
I hesitated. “Ummm. I’m working here and there while job hunting. You know, it’s, uh, hard to find a stable job these days. Even with my postgraduate degree.”
“It is, isn’t it?” the woman said, sympathy and dismay brimming in her voice. “The job market’s so competitive. I’ve gone back to uni, studying a diploma.”
So nerdy Asians aren’t the only ones desperate enough to snare a postgraduate qualification.
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. I began to head off to the left while the woman to the right of the sidewalk.
“Good luck!” she called out.
I turned around, opening my mouth to say something back. But she was a good ten paces away from me, out of earshot. And a throng of people stood between us. It hit me then that all these people, all these people from who knows where had the intention of boarding the same tram at that very moment.
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.
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 think it’s useful to develop professional skills through learning. We both want to land stable jobs. We both think the economy ain’t that rosy at the moment. We both reckon winter in Melbourne is cold. We both take public transport. We’re both worried.
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.