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Chapter 8: My Uncles, and Steve Jobs
By Doug Posted in Term 2 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 21 min read
Chapter 7:  The Ballad of Aadan and Kadeer Previous Chapter 9: Sir, White People are Weird Next

Early June, 2 degrees Celsius. I half-freeze on the way to school. The wind has blown Melbourne’s omnipresent gloom away, and left that rare thing – a clear-blue sky. Pale sun, the city, hazy in the distance, new towers rising. Only the hardcore lycra-clad on their bikes today, leaving clouds of steam with every breath. Everyone sensible is in tram, train or car.

I’m here at 7.30am to sit in on a politics class. It’s mostly Anglo and Asian. One of the Anglo kids – rats tail, punchy in his intelligence – tells me he speaks Esperanto because he liked the idea of an international tongue. A mild Thai girl loves the pun culture of English. “May the fourth be with you,” she says to the politics teacher, referring to the date, and laughs heartily at her own joke.

In class, the teacher takes us through the rising tide of populism – from Syzira, Poland’s hard right government to Trump’s America to Italy’s Five Star movement. The world shifting, the new rift – nativist versus globalist, losers versus winners – spreading across country after country. What, the teacher asks, does that mean for Australia?

The sharp Anglo boy claims racism is now an overused term, talks about how populism represents blue-collar workers abandoned by old parties. Another white kid says France’s new president is anti-terrorism, so he must of course be against Muslim migration. The teacher – a young, energetic bloke – hems and haws, ducks and weaves.  Anglo #1 jumps in, talking about the influx of migrants changing society. “The issue isn’t Muslims – it’s devout Muslims,” he says, with total confidence. He talks about Hansonism versus open immigration while his discussion partner, a Chinese girl, sits quietly. It feels distinctly odd – white kids talking about Other People when they’re right here, in the same room, the same school.

In the common room after class, I find barrel-chested Zahi poring over his business textbook. He wants to make real money, wants to start his own successful business. Not one of those boring jobs he says – imagine spending your days looking at a computer. It is a bit boring, I allow, and he looks at me with real pity in his eyes. Imagine that! Tending a computer, day in day out. Not for him, no sir. At first it sounds like Zahi is dreaming out loud, these grand plans picturing himself running a business empire. But it has roots in reality. He tells me stories of the three older men he calls his uncles (two are relatives, one a family friend). “They all went to uni here, but two couldn’t find jobs so they drive taxis. The other is an accountant in Footscray,” he says. Over the years, the three of them carefully saved their Australian dollars. When they had enough, they flew to Eastleigh, the Somali hub in Nairobi. And the three of them scouted the city, built connections, and finally opened a hotel and restaurants in a middle-class area, targeting safari-goers heading to the Maasai Mara. Business is booming.

Now, Zahi says, his taxi driver uncles keep a WhatsApp line open as they ferry passengers around Melbourne, and between jobs they give directions to their Nairobi family who work as managers and staff, solving problems 11,000 kilometres away. The accountant uncle does their hawala – the famous Islamic money transfer system based on trust, where you give your money to a trusted man here and your family take it from a trusted man there, but the money itself does not move. All that changes is debt – lines on a ledger. The magic of capital – turning fares from CBD–Melbourne Airport into hotel supplies and staff wages in Kenya. Very soon, they will retire from taxi driving and accounting. The hotel is doing well. Their risk has paid off. Now they have a prized asset, one that will, if tended, look after family members in two continents. They wanted to give back to their homeland, boost the economy, and look after their children. That’s Zahi’s take on it. “I admire them. Them and Steve Jobs – may he rest in peace,” he says.

When his uncles retire, Zahi will be ready. He wants to be one of the relatives chosen to tend this mini empire. It’s not a sure thing – there are dozens of brothers and aunts, sisters and sons. But Zahi has the purity of purpose. He knows that this is the life he wants, a businessman living here, travelling there. Then he snaps back to the here and now to enlist me as a referee for a job stacking shelves at Safeway. A white name, he’s thinking, may help nudge the decision in his favour. He has to make bank first, has to show he’s careful with money, show he can be trusted. And he has to get a good degree, too.

Uni isn’t the only path to success, I say. You want to be a businessman – you don’t have to have a degree for that. He gives me a slight nod. Then he talks expansively about boomtown Kenya, where many Somalis go to make their mark. Nairobi is growing fast, global businesses are opening daily, and there’s the new rail line to the port city of Mombasa. Why not jump in there while you’re waiting to get into the family business, I ask? He shakes his head. “You know how people say do work you love? That’s wrong. Do work that pays the best, save your money, and open a business. Maybe it will be fitness, my own gym. Maybe a restaurant. If I’ve got to work two jobs, I’ll do it.” Here? Or in Kenya? He shrugs. “Either one. Doesn’t matter.”

He tells me a modern parable about work. A month earlier, Zahi was walking home when he saw an Indian KFC worker clock out for the night. He saw him walk up the road, punch the keypad at the nearby Maccas, and step inside. Amazed, Zahi stepped closer. There was the worker, now in a McDonalds uniform. “Two jobs is smart,” he says. Make bank, then make your own business.

A School on its Knees

It’s cross country day and I’ve been roped in to be a human signboard for the 3km run. The competitive kids come past first, running at top speed. A tall Congolese boy pelts past in a red Teletubbies costume. I spy Jalene with her steady gait, eyes on the horizon. Later, the walkers amble past. Marjani walks in her full hijab. The school’s not big on pressure. Try as hard as you want to.

After the lackadaisical walkers finish, there’s an enormous school tug of war – teachers vs. students, with me as honorary teacher. We’re winning, starting to crow about age and experience, and then – a great screaming mass of new recruits yanks us from our feet, to cheers and whoops and delight.

Amid the cheers, the school principal comes up to ask how I’m getting on. Soon he’s talking about his happiness here, at making change. When he took the job, a friend asked him why – why would you take a school on its knees? Very few kids were coming from the feeder primary school when he arrived. But that’s changing, he says, proudly. He’d come from a top school but wanted more of a challenge. It was too easy to give prizes to the naturally gifted or parentally driven. But now – more interest, more enrolments – up significantly from when he came. He confides that he rejigged the house system on purpose, made it a core part of the school. Why? To give kids another affiliation in the school beyond cultural groups. The facepaint, the full-body onesies, the carnival feel – this is deliberate. And he’s moving away from top-down authority, the old Anglo response to newcomers. All that did was drive a wedge between teachers and students. The old guard didn’t believe it was possible to trust kids to do more themselves, to step back. There were whispers that the school would be out of control. But it’s improved. Fights are down, behaviour is better. Treat students as young adults, and expect the same in return.

After the running and tug of war and shoe-tossing competitions are done, there’s Kevin near the Rotary sausage sizzle taking snaps of Steve and the other Viet kids. “You get in it,” he calls, to an Anglo friend. One of the Viet girls – in a bleach-meets-black-hair combo – protests. “This is Viet club,” she says, tongue in cheek. The Anglo kid, mock pique: “That’s racist.” Only kidding, she says. On the athletics track, a white girl with braces is rubbing the legs of her Papuan friend, working out the cramps after a hard run. Nearby, an Asian boy in austere samurai-style topknot, black hoodie, a nerdy Anglo gamer in a sequinned top hat.

Hani appears suddenly in a blue superwoman outfit. “You,” she says, pointing a finger firmly at me. “Show me how you dab.” And suddenly all eyes are on me and I protest weakly until she tires of it and shows me. “This is dabbing,” she says. I do it, poorly. She sniffs. “Stop. This is how to move.” And she makes me imitate a series of clockwise twists while everyone watches with deepest cringe in their eyes. Fatima and Michelle saunter by, laughing at my predicament.

I spot Aadan and flee, bleating an excuse over my shoulder. Aadan is the picture of dejection, swaddled in puffy jacket and gloves. His leg hurts so bad he couldn’t run. “Four matches back to back,” he says ruefully. “That’s what did it.” Giving up soccer is like giving up on life itself. Can’t run. Can’t do anything. But maybe this is the time he’ll take it seriously, the time he’ll let it heal.

The carnival atmosphere has vanished when I come next. It’s assessment season, and stress fills the corridors. Aadan is rapping nervously to himself: “Fuck this English test / or will it fuck me?” Jalene sees me and calls me over. She has to write a piece arguing against a Herald Sun columnist’s tough take on beggars. She knows precisely what she wants to say, but English is slippery. It keeps moving under her gaze. Always an exception to a rule. The relative hardness and softness of words. The connotations, the hidden weight of things, the backstory to everything. 

The big Horn table is thrumming. Nerves bring laughter, and for the girls, a reliable joy: needling their male friends. They’re holding court, interrogating Aadan about a new girl on his radar. He’s full of protestations of innocence. “I never even talked to her,” he says, and his smile gives away the lie. Fatima’s grin turns predatory, and Aadan squirms on the hook. These girls – how much they’ve changed compared to the traditionalists. Would their parents – traditional, careful, concerned – even recognise their modes of talk? And the fluidity between the young men and women, the constant banter, roasting. What about the Somali patriarchy that Samia mentioned? Where did the power to enforce behaviour go?

As assessment time nears, Chelsea lies on a bench, sunning herself while boys play hackey sack with balled-up paper. Helena, Amelia and another Ethiopian girl are lounging on couches near the library. As a fit young PE teacher with designer stubble passes by, Amelia calls out to him: “Hey Mr Six Pack.” The teacher blanches and picks up his pace away from the danger zone. There is no safe response. Her friend is aghast, eyes flaring. “She’s never said that to him before,” she says. “That was our friend’s name for him. She reaaaalllllly liked him. But she’s left now.” Teacher after teacher appear at the library door, shushing the unruly trio. Amelia pokes out a pink tongue, catlike, as each teacher pivots away. At last, the time nears and banter dies. Notes shuffled, practice exam answers crammed into short-term memory, pacing, high-pitched laughter. The doors swing wide and all of Year 12 disappears into the testing room.

Everywhere and Nowhere

Next week is bitingly cold. I arrive in that low fog that takes half the day to lift, almost East Asian in its bleak gauziness. It could be Seoul in February. The school is warm and full of laughter. A dance class from a hiphop dance group is in full swing. The whoops are so loud that teachers come running. Drama? A fight? No – it’s the low down, bum-wiggling street style dance that the instructors are teaching. One of the dancers looks the way videogames render edgy female characters – shaven sides of her head, leather cut-off jacket, black gloves. “Best dance class ever,” says a girl, as she finishes. Afterwards, a Eritrean girl who wears matronly lipstick, a headscarf and a librarian’s stern glasses calls to her compact, muscular white friend: “Oi. Come sit here and warm me up.”

I’m here to see a Melbourne Theatre Company play with the school’s drama class. The teacher is a dynamo. “The play is right up your alley,” she tells me. “It’s about Indians trying to make a life here.” We take a train into the city. It’s crowded, and I can only find a spot well away from the group. I hover above a woman scrolling through Facebook pages of Filipino priests and charismatic preachers offering Jesus clickbait. “89 reasons Jesus saves.” “20 ways God loves you. You won’t believe number 14!”

I’m standing near the other school outsider, an unobtrusive Hong Kong boy named James. Standing alone doesn’t seem bother him. James is wearing an approximation of the school uniform. Same colours, but it’s all designer – Egyptian cotton shirt, elegant Korean-style pants. He apologises for his spoken English. “I’ve forgotten how to speak because my friends are Chinese, and my girlfriend is from Hong Kong,” he says.

School here is too easy, James says casually. He’s bored. He seems to be not quite here – physically present, but with a constant northward pull on his mind, to the glittering port city where his girlfriend taps out dozens of messages to him daily, where he was effectively raised by his grandfather. His Korean mother is a powerhouse, running a restaurant empire. He admits he doesn’t know what his father, a Hong Kong local, actually does.

“I like to move every year,” he says. Doesn’t he miss home? He shrugs. “I didn’t see my parents much anyway. But at least I don’t have to worry about my future.” With the safety net of serious family wealth, he’s chosen a solo path. He’s drawing out high school by living overseas. At night, he makes pop music, pulling together the parts his band members back in Hong Kong record for him. He puts much of himself into his relationships, dives headlong into coupledom. He talks about his girlfriend a great deal – the lover, the only one who tethers him. James’s a creature from everywhere and nowhere, one of the new Asian elite. He’s travelled all over the region and loves Tokyo the most. From him, I get that floating sensation, of movement without belonging, of forever passing through, a young man at home only in transit.

At this school, James floats above, an observer in a cocoon, a self contained life. He finds the African kids too noisy. “You hear their voices everywhere,” he says. “I’m very quiet.” And language is part of that. He speaks only to international students with similar backgrounds – mainland and overseas Chinese.

Does he talk to Chinese migrants in Melbourne? He physically wrinkles his nose. Many, he says, are fuerdai – the derogatory term for little emperors, children of the rich flaunting their wealth. “It’s a mainland thing. No manners, not polite,” he says. “We don’t think of ourselves as mainland. Hong Kong is separate.” He glances around the train, as if to see who’s keeping tabs. It’s been a year of revelations around Chinese government soft power in Australia. He’s making me paranoid enough to glance around the train before I catch myself. “The Hong Kong government sucks,” he says softly. “It’s controlled by China. Right now, Hong Kong is a mix of Chinese and Western. We should keep that.”

His phone pings with WeChat messages from his girlfriend, who will be arriving soon. Will you become more Western, living here? He shakes his head. “Even though I’ll go to uni here, I’ll stay the same. Because of my girlfriend. I usually speak to her. And people here are different. Their minds.”

James drifts into his own thoughts, turns away. I lurch back and forth, wondering. I’ve found it very hard to crack either the Vietnamese or Chinese group at the school. They’re friendly, but won’t be drawn into prolonged conversation. It’s the language, I think to myself – the bubble of language. Most are first generation, or temporary Australians, here just to study. I remember a chance conversation with a Nepalese girl, bouncy, and full of gossip. “I don’t know if I should say this or not,” she began, and then ploughs straight in. “In our school, there are lots of Chinese people, and they usually stick together. And they just speak their language all of the time. And you’re like, ‘what are they talking about?’”

We pass a hammock strung between two trees in a park, sleeping bag visible. Melbourne’s housing crisis made visible. Two girls talk loudly about what he said and what she said next. “I’m a drama queen,” one of them tells me. She’s Somali, tall, gold eyeliner, frequent eye-flicks to catch anyone looking at her.  “That’s why I chose to study drama. You know, I used to hate Aussie TV until I found Home and Away.” She flashes the emoji-popularised A-OK sign. Soap opera, drama – what she craves. An Anglo boy overhears. “These two are the social media queens of the school,” he says, grinning. “Are you Snapchatting your trip?” She nods primly. Her phone is out and she’s flicking through filters with long fake nails. “Love my Snapchat.” Later, she and her friend dawdle as we walk to the theatre, and dawdle more in the bathroom until we nearly miss the play.

As the students hover outside the bathroom, waiting for them, another group arrives from far out west. An Iraqi boy with beanie and one black glove, friends with swagger, bouncing on their toes, that trip-trap chest out adolescence, calling out to each other mid-piss. And yet – during the play, not a peep.  Afterwards, I overhear one admit, a trifle husky, that he almost cried. 

The play is Melbourne Talam, by Indian-Australian playwright Rashma Kalsie. It has power. Talam means rhythm in Tamil. Finding your rhythm in a new city, new country – the hard bit. For the three characters, it’s the end of the Western-streets-paved-with-gold narrative. The bouncy, effervescent Punjabi Sikh student who becomes lonely as never before in Melbourne’s quiet train carriages, in movie theatres where people shush you, in cold shoulders and chill winds. The elegant upper caste Delhi woman – full of herself, her non-traditional ways, dating and marrying and divorcing Indian and Australian men – until her shell is punctured and she realises she, too, is alone. The ambitious Hyderabadi worker whose parents have sold their farm to buy him a MA degree to get a good IT job, and then the money flows through his fingers, siphoned off by migration agent lies about the cost of living here and his parents must mortgage their house too. Migration as alienation, the pressures of being new. They lose hope, love, even a leg. And yet, improbably, the play ends upbeat, as if the playwright can’t end on too negative a note for Melbourne audiences, as if we need to be told again what a triumph and a success we are. 

Afterwards, the students write up notes in the grass near the Arts Centre. “How good was the Indian guy who mimicked the Aussies? The accent! The chest out! It was perfect,” a Sudanese girl laughs. Then she looks up. A Chinese tourist bends to take pictures of her and a Somali friend. Stoked, they raise hai-cheezu double fingers and pull on their finest duck-lip pouts. His desire for the exotic, their thirst for Instafame. As we walk back to Flinders Street Station, the drama teacher talks of her time teaching abroad. “Some kids here think they’re tough, but they’re pussycats. In east London, there was a panic button in every classroom. There were knife fights weekly,” she says.

I thank the teacher and take a taxi home. The driver is an older Kenyan man with a red beard and a cluttered cabin decorated like a dorm room. He’s a grinner, a born storyteller. He tells me about picking a newly-released criminal up from the prison in West Melbourne and driving him all the way out to Warrandyte at 2am. “That,” he says, “was scary. But the guy was actually surprisingly nice.” He tells me about a deaf-blind woman whose carer gave him an address and asked him to memorise it. Halfway there, he realised he’d remembered the number but forgotten the street. How could he communicate? When she realised the predicament, she reached across, felt for his hand, and placed a small card with a phone number in it. He tells this story with a giant smile. It still gives him joy. Contact, a hand on his. And as we’re pulling into my street, he talks of a regular client with a severe disability, who seeks comfort with escorts, who talks openly about what it is to be touched by another person. Three stories he carries with him, three openings, three mementoes.

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