I stumbled on this old diskette of mine, on which I kept a journal. YOu know – we blogged then too, except it wasnt on line and it was strictly personal. Recorded strictly for posterity only.
Read on if you want to find out how a penniless student survived as an overseas student in Australia back in the 80’s…
I arrived in Australia on 25 February 1985. I had been offered a place to study Mechanical Engineering in a University in Sydney. Some four months later it was obvious to me that unless more money came from home soon I would have to find a job. What was not immediately obvious to me was my lack of any marketable skills. I had waited on tables whilst in school for a grand total period of two weeks. I had mowed a lawn or two during a local church youth fellowship “job-week”. The grass in those lawns had to be subsequently killed off and replaced with a different breed which was genetically designed to survive on badly defaced landscapes. Apart from these stints I had not even began to think about being a contributing member of society. Before long however, I was prepared to take on any job. Someone I knew from home had been working in the Sydney fish markets in Pyrmont. I talked him into letting me go to the markets with him one Saturday morning. It was sometime in July, in the middle of winter. It was about six-thirty in the morning. My tropical upbringing meant I was simply not ready to be out in a bus under such conditions, the mildness of the Australian winter notwithstanding. There I was on bus number 395 going from Kensington to Central Station, to catch a connecting bus number 501 to Pyrmont, fitted out in my thickest pair of jeans, woolen jumpers bought off a garage sale and thick, made-in-China parka. Both hands deep in the pockets of my parka. Shoulders huddled up, almost crouching. And I was going to work in the fish markets. Wet. Lots of ice.
The market had several shops. One of them was known as De Costi’s. It was a partnership business, owned by two Cypriot Greeks. George Costi we understood, went to University. He was warm and friendly, but extremely hardworking. Even today I can close my eyes and hear his voice while leading in unloading a truck full of frozen and chilled fish, at five in the morning. At a frantic pace. He would call out from various places. The back of the truck, the freezer, the stores, the cleaning area. He needed many things, all pronto. He would want the hose, clean crates, hooks, knives. Even years later, there would be times when everything was at such a furious pace they would be nothing more than a blur for me. Most of us liked George. George’s partner was Harry Demetriou. He was equally hard working but less well liked. There were many Asians who like me worked only for a couple of days a week. We all disliked him. He works like George except he sees our inability or reluctance to work like him as a form of weakness or inferiority and he lets us know it. I know now that the only real problem was the inability to communicate. Harry was older than George, more Cypriot and less Australian. I suspect he left Cyprus to seek his fortune through hard work and never understood people who came to Australia for other reasons. Harry had at least two daughters, both of whom worked in the same shop. Valerie was only fourteen by the time I completed my studies and left the markets and Sydney, but she had made her mark. Although she had become much more pleasant by the time I left, she was a little terror on those weekends she chose to be in the shop. She bullied and belittled most of us with her sharp and incessantly lashing tongue. The only people she did not hiss at were those who could talk back to her more fluently than she could abuse us. Perhaps she was made to be in the shop, which caused her to be so unpleasant. Perhaps it was due to her unfamiliarity with Asians. Harry’s older daughter was Elisabeth. We all called her Lisa. She married a guy called Jim, who was a hunk of a Greek. He was a Greek Greek as opposed to Lisa, who was a Cypriot Greek. Tall, blond, blue-eyed and muscled in a place where muscled meant much, Jim thought of himself as Jim, King of the Fish Markets. Of course, he worked there. He had been an auto mechanic but he came to work for Harry. That must have said something about him. Harry was unpleasant enough as a boss. He must have been something to be a boss who was also a father in law, and a doting one to boot. Jim must have been more than a muscle man. He must have been a patient man, as apart from Harry, he had Lisa to contend with. She was Valerie multiplied about ten times. Even to those who could speak well enough to spar with her did so at their own peril and often to their regret. I believe she may have had more respect for this group but any positive feelings garnered on their side arose simply because they at least caught her attention. She treated the others like faceless slaves.
Apart from George and Harry and their families, there was Josifa, a towering Fijian who once represented Fiji to the Olympics in boxing and basketball. We all called him Sifa and he was by far the most popular guy. He was a raw, earthy person. At tea time, he would spread butter on his rolls using a six-by-two gutting knife. He could eat a whole loaf of bread and he usually does. He wanted four sugars in his tea. Yet he was very athletic. He could do anything in the markets. Almost everyone was afraid of him. Once he got into a fight with a nasty Italian named Vince. Vince was all arsehole. He did not care for anything execpt money, alochol and women, and what he did not care for he openly abused and derided. He was so abusive he makes Joan Rivers sound like Mother Teressa. When Sifa bloodied his ear and he trotted up to George crying like a two-year old, we almost applauded. But even as he wept he continued to be abusive, reminding us of his italian lineage. So reminded, we instinctively paused. Although George disapproved of what happened, I believe even he felt Vince deserved Sifa’s fists. Indeed, no one was sorry.
Big Steve was a Lebanese who once lifted one of us in his palm. He was almost squat for his size, although at about five foot eight he was not exactly short. He was ugly. He also had a mouth so foul a hyena would run out choking. He was nevertheless, my favourite guy. He had a heart of gold. He once went on holidays to the Philippines and returned with a bride. Although many sneered at the way he found his wife, it was obvious to me that he loved and respected her. He often referred to her in the most endearing terms and when she gave him a daughter, his joy and pride was obvious to all. I hope he continues to love and respect her. Andros was the loud-mouthed Greek. He was always trying to tell a joke. Most of us would lap it up and laugh not because they were funny but the fact of having jokes told to us by one of them was something. Andros like Big Steve though, had a heart to match his mouth. Once a suspicious looking guy came to the shop offering personal computers at ridiculouslyy cheap prices. As is the norm in such situations, the guy had only a limited number of computers. Andros had bought one which he had wanted to give to his son. When he found out that I was looking for a computer, he offered me his. It turned out that the stuff was hot not just in the sense that it was from the back of a truck, it also didn’t work. When he realised it he retracted his offer and kept the faulty computer for himself. Tasso was the funniest guy. I believe that was because he was the only guy who didn’t try to be. Once a shipment of live eels came in late in the evening. Big Steve playfully grabbed one with both hands and poked it in Tassos’s direction. The poor man took one giant step back and started swearing rapidly in Greek with a string of what must be expletives of the heaviest order. He was genuinely scared of the slimy thing. Big Steve couldn’t resist it and walked towards Tasso with the eel in front of him. Tasso was still swearing but when he realised Stevie was going to let the thing on him, he bolted. He continued to swear several decibels louder but it was drowned by our laughters. The sight of him running with his arms flailing and Big Steve chasing behind with a live eel is live comedy a la Tom & Jerry at its best. Old Yanni is the grunter. Another Cypriot Greek, he spoke little English. His job was to stand on one spot at the cleaning area and scale, gut and fillet fish all day long. It was from him I picked up the habit of “yiasu” greeting. I also picked up a few other Greek words (many of them expletives) from a handful of young greek kids who spend a few hours in the shop every weekend. From them, I saw a parallel version of the migrant chinese in Malaysia. Values like hard work and family loyalty are so entrenched they permeate and dominate all aspects of life.
Although the markets and their people were good to me through all my times there, I felt then as I still do now, that I did not belong there. Whatever my endowments may be, it is not physical. It is my life long regret that I am not physically stronger than I am. Perhaps God has His reasons. Perhaps had I been a leaner and meaner physical machine I would become a reckless wreck to all around me. Perhaps my temperament warranted a countervailing physique. Certainly my physical constitution rendered the fish markets a wrong place for me. My financial constitution however, rendered almost anywhere the right place, so long as it paid. Soon I became accustomed to there being no money coming from home. Home became accustomed to that too I suppose, as what was meant to be a temporary measure soon became a long term arrangement. As it turned out, my tenure with De Costi Brothers, Sydney Fish Market, Pyrmont Sydney lasted until a few months prior to my return to Malaysia almost six years later. De Costi’s embodied my concern whilst in Australia, which was a departure from the intention and hope my folks and I harboured at the point of leaving Malaysia, which was to obtain a university degree. Money became almost a primary concern. The initial gnawing worry of a dwindling deposit base in the bank grew and became a consuming preoccupation to ensure there is enough money not just for the week’s expenses but for the following year’s tuition fees (it was known as a “visa fee” then). There were life long positive effects from this, such as inculcating a need to plan and budget ahead and not taking anything for granted. I grew up. The set back was of course, education became a secondary concern. As long as I passed my courses at first try thus eliminating the need to repeat thus wasting time and money, I thought I achieved my goal. Hence my academic transcripts were filled with passes. My intelligence and/or learning abilities were mediocre at best. I was not a brilliant student. That was beside the point however and did not and does not bother me as much as the fact that I had no opportunity to be free to pursue an education. Perhaps had I been consistently “in funds” without having to do anything about it I would still end up being an also-ran on campus. That again is beside the point. I did not have the opportunity.
I had opportunity in abundance in other areas. I was lucky enough to even be in Australia, a country I often thought of returning to live permanently. I lived well even as a student. It was a country in which one could easily be contented with what he or she has. Books were expensive but were widely available, as was music. The ABC makes retirement a not unattractive period of one’s life. The SBS may not be a commercial gem but it seldom cease to offer variety. It was through the SBS that I was first introduced to Kurosawa the great Japanese film-maker. I was also introduced to the great game of cricket. For the first time I understood terms like “hit for a six”. I also simultaneously understood both meanings of being given the finger. I followed cricket on every free hour of the long summer holidays. It was the time of Allan Border, the Rock of Gibraltar during the turbulent times of Australian cricket.
“So, I commend the enjoyment of life.” (From the Bible – really. Eccl 8:15)