The Volunteer

For a while after finishing high school, having read voraciously during the holidays, I was inspired to do volunteer work. I’d just completed reading Chuck Colson’s book; he was one of US President Nixon’s aides who had been caught up in the Watergate scandal and subsequently spent time in prison for his role in it. After his conversion to Christianity, he started Prison Fellowship, a programme designed to help prisoners rehabilitate and ultimately rejoin society.

At the back of the book, there was a list of contacts for this programme worldwide. Excitedly, I called the number listed for the Australian branch, and managed to speak with the local programme director. It was a complete letdown; the guy did not sound remotely interested in accepting any help – he came across as highly cynical and negative about the whole deal. I came away disillusioned and convinced he wasn’t even a Christian.

I even signed up for a course to, of all things, teach English on a volunteer basis to illiterate Australians.  In our first class, we were told that ten percent of white Australians couldn’t read or write English – a statistic which shocked me.  I relished the kind of reception I would get as an immigrant looking to help the locals with their own language, especially since they presumably belonged to the same socio-economic group who harboured the most resentment towards Asians.  I never completed the course since I didn’t care for the methodology used.

Through my local church in Cabramatta, I met this social worker who worked for the Indochina-Chinese Association. I was available and his office needed volunteers, so I started turning up every day to work in Cabramatta. It was a walk-in centre for recently-settled Indochinese immigrants who came in for all kinds of assistance – mostly for help in translating documents, writing letters and querying utilities bills.

My parents, who don’t read or write English, often have a pile of correspondence for us every time we drop in, to help decipher their contents. Back in the days when the Indochinese had just started to arrive in the country, I guess they didn’t have children old enough or who had been in the country long enough, to be able to help them in these kinds of tasks. So, I spent my days on the phone with phone companies, challenging overcharged items on our clients’ bills, writing letters to dispute traffic fines, etc. – the sort of thing I would usually hate doing, but fun at the time because it was in my job description, even if I wasn’t getting paid for it.

I often struggled to understand what they were saying – back in the days when most Aussies saw us as one homogeneous group of people ie. Asians – our differences as I saw it were pretty stark – I knew no Indochinese language, and the Chinese they knew was invariably Mandarin, of which I had very little working knowledge. Yet, they were always so polite and so appreciative, it affected me deeply, and it struck me how much those of us who do know English, took for granted.

One old gentleman was so grateful he insisted on giving me the lunch he’d bought for himself earlier that day, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was very touched, but had to give it away as soon as he left – it was a pork roll – a Vietnamese favourite – and I haven’t eaten pork since I was a kid.

One day after finishing work, I decided to drop in at Cabramatta library. I noticed near the reception desk there was a sign that said ‘No bags past this point’. The place swarmed with Indochinese students who’d just finished school and they all dumped their schoolbags in a big pile near the reception before proceeding through the turnstiles. I was no longer a student, but I had a handbag on me. I really didn’t want my handbag thrown in the same pile, but I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem to take it along, so I waited at the reception desk for the assistant. She ignored me, even when she didn’t look like she was busy. I tried to get her attention to no avail. Finally, I took it on myself to go ahead and enter with my handbag in tow.

Immediately, as though she had been waiting all that time to pounce, she yelled at me to stop.

‘You can’t go in. No bags allowed!’

‘It’s just a handbag’

‘Oi, don’t you understand English? What country are you from? I said no bags allowed!’

I was so mad, I stormed out. Armed with plenty of practice in writing letters through my job, I wrote one to the head librarian and told him what happened.

I got the reply in due course – he’d spoken to the lady concerned, and decided there was no malice in her tone. It was, after all, an ethnically diverse part of Sydney, he said, and she’d simply wanted to know what my racial background was, to help her serve me better. What f-ing bullshit, I thought. I wrote another letter, threatening to take this matter up with the Anti-Discrimination Board.

Days later, still fuming over the incident, I boarded my bus as usual from my parents’ place to work. This woman got on a few stops later and sat next to me, with her little son on her knee. I turned to look, and was shocked to find it was the same woman from the library. She didn’t recognise me; she was busy with her kid, tenderly teaching him how to read a book and generally being a loving, attentive mother. This couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. I was being tested. I thought about it for awhile – seeing this other, human side to this woman – was meant to soften my heart. I didn’t go ahead with the Anti-Discrimination Board thing, but I decided I still hated her guts, so, whatever.

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Church camp at Port Dickson
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