Not all the Asians at my school were outcasts. There were a couple of Aussie-born ones who seemed well-adjusted, so it wasn’t necessarily just about skin colour. Shirley’s parents were from East Timor, of Chinese descent. She was popular, as were her sisters. She wasn’t even ‘hot’ by conventional Malaysian standards – frankly, she reminded me of a brown-skinned Bette Midler, both in appearance and in her larger-than-life personality.
They called her ‘Shirley Lay an egg’ because of her last name, which she found hysterical. I would’ve been offended – I hadn’t learned to laugh at myself back then. She was always nice to me, but we didn’t hang out because, although a year younger than me, thanks to my having to repeat Year 10, I was in the year below her.
She even had a part-time job, at a suburban department store, as a checkout-chick. She encouraged me to apply, which I did, but I never heard back from them. I also applied for every other job going everywhere – Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, the new theme Park – Australia’s Wonderland, Woolworths – nothing.
I remember attending an interview after school for a checkout position at Kmart. One of the other girls from my class was there as well; she was one of those who chose to snub me at school. I never knew why she felt superior because she wasn’t exactly a specimen of higher evolution in my estimation. She was overweight, awkward and clumsy and wore her school skirt so short I once noticed her baggy underwear hanging below her skirt hem.
Anyway, as part of the interview, we had to do an impromptu math test – a sheet filled with simple addition and subtraction problems. The interviewer sat the two of us in the same room. A decade of mental calculations working at the Odeon meant this was right up my alley, and I finished it quickly. My schoolmate, on the other hand, struggled. She was using her fingers on both hands to count. I half-expected her to take off her shoes and use her toes as well. OMG, I thought, as I rolled my eyes.
She was still there, counting, by the time I left. She got the job, I didn’t.
I finally found a job delivering advertising pamphlets – $11 for every 1000 plus 50% of that rate if there was more than one type to do at the same time. 1000 households was A LOT of area to cover, especially in my neck of the woods, where pretty much every house was free-standing and built on a quarter-acre block. I could see why no-one else wanted to do it.
In my spare time, I folded pamphlets, delivered to me weekly in bundles. And I would walk several hours every day until dark to deliver them. A lot of letterboxes had the sign ‘No Junk Mail’ on them, so I had to skip those or get abused by cranky homeowners. Some rednecks thought it was funny to set their dog on me once. Another time, I was bitten on the thigh by a large German Shepherd, though it thankfully retreated pretty quickly.
Another job I got was collecting charity money for The House With No Steps. We had to meet up at this suburb I hadn’t even heard of, in a different part of Sydney – I had to leave home before 5am to get there in time. We were given a collection tin and receipt book and had to go door-to-door to ask for donations. We got to keep a third of whatever we collected.
It was a wet and miserable Saturday – and I worked from morning until evening. Some people donated, I’m sure, out of pity at my pathetic state, dripping wet from the rain. By the end of the day I had collected $81, which I thought was incredibly paltry. I was shocked to find out I had collected the most money in the group, and wondered if the other collectors had secretly pocketed some of theirs. I decided after that one experience, not to pursue that line of work. Including travel time, I had spent over 16 hours to earn $27.
I got home very late, and missed the weekly family dinner at my parents’. My eldest sister, who was still there when I got home, was a bit mad at me and grumbled that she couldn’t understand why I was so money-hungry. Frankly, part of the reason was we didn’t get pocket money from my parents, which I didn’t begrudge them for – I was legally an adult, after all.