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The Black Australian :

Chapter 6

Colour people at work

"Knock, knock!" Siri looked at the short dark person with a grey beard standing in the doorway.

"Hello, I'm Frank."

"Oh. Come in, please."

"You must be Siri that Daryl has been talking about for days and days? I'm sorry. I couldn't join you for morning tea yesterday. I understand that you lived in Perth as a teenager before you migrated to Australia."

"Yes, for a little while I lived in Perth. That was long time ago!"

"How did you come? Where were you? What did you do in Perth?"

"I was here as an Australian Field Service Scholar. That was some years ago. I studied at Wesley College for ten months."

"Oh, I see!" Frank laughed. "Then why the heck did Daryl tell us that you were familiar with Australia and Australian culture? You studied here for ten months, right? That was donkey's years ago!"

Siri immediately felt the sarcasm painted in that enquiring brown voice. He controlled his emotions and said:

"I've been studying in Perth before I got this job, I did my MBA [1] at UWA [2].

I spent almost three years at the university this time."

"Oh, I see! So what did you learn about Australia for three years?"

Siri felt as if he was in a boxing ring with a strong opponent.

"Well, I know that Captain Cook invaded this country. The First Fleet came to Botany Bay in 1770. Captain Cook helped to overpower the native people of Australia, the Aborigines!"

"Oh, you know our history then! Did you do well in History for your MBA course? It sounds like they haven't taught you properly! It was Captain Arthur Phillip who came in with the First Fleet in seventeen seventy-seven with convicts, to Sydney. Captain Cook came on The Endeavour in April 1770 and landed in Botany Bay. Captain Cook didn't start any settlements here." Frank corrected Siri's understanding of the history of their country.

"They didn't teach Australian history for my MBA!" Siri responded without realising the sarcasm in Frank's words.

"So they didn't teach history you history! I'm glad I postponed doing my MBA!"

Siri was lost for words and Frank knew that he had won the argument with his new colleague.

"So, where did you do your Civil Engineering degree?"

"Peradeniya."

"Where the hell is Pera...?" Frank responded with a sarcastic laugh and continued," Is it a college at UWA, or some strange place in the Third World?"

Siri felt the sarcastic tone in that brown Australian accent.

"No, it's a university in Kandy, the hill country of Sri Lanka. In fact, my university was designed following the Oxford and Cambridge traditions. Our first Vice Chancellor was an Englishman!"

"Oh, then where did you study your Computer Science Degree?"

"AIT - the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok!"

"Oh, so you picked up your computer skills from Pat pong night clubs!"

"You'd better mind your language Mister Bala Subramaniam. AIT is like MIT in Asia! It's one of the best engineering universities in the world." Siri boasted about his alma mater with an angry voice.

Frank saw the rage emerging like a tsunami on Siri's face.

"So, why do you get upset? I know about AIT. After all, I come from Malaysia, another Third World Country! You are a very serious fellow, Siri.

I'm your colleague and just trying to know you better." Frank extended his hand. Siri did not shake hands and responded like a fuming cobra: "So you also know well about the Red-Light Districts in Bangkok?"

"Yes, of course! I've visited Thailand a few times. My wife, Ann, and I plan to go back there for a holiday in a few months' time." Frank responded.

"Look, Mister Bala Subramaniam! There's more than one Red-Light District in Bangkok! If you need any assistance, I can help you with the language. I'm very fluent in Thai Language!" Siri did not want to control the tone of his words.

"You are a very serious person, Siri. I may call you Mr. Serious. Siri, by the way, I'm not Bala Subramaniam. I'm Frank Peter Rowlands. It's my adopted name in Australia! It's also on my Aussie passport and the citizenship certificate.

"I'm proud of my name! I've brought my name with me and I'm not going to change it. Why did you change your name Frank?"

"I know Asia. My grandfather is from India. I know all these Asian problems, family linkage, caste system, race relations and marriage system.

That's why I don't go back and live in Asia again. Too many petty things! That's why I'm Frank Rowlands. This is Australia and land of many people. Our's is a multicultural society!"

"But why, Frank? Why so Australian? Is your family name Anglo-Indian? Where did your grandfather come from?" Siri asked aggressively.

"Kerala! But I was born in Johor Bahru. It's very close to Singapore. My grandfather worked on a rubber plantation there."

"Oh, that came to my mind earlier! So he has been brought up as a plantation labourer from India!"

"Of course, yes! What's wrong with that?" Frank responded.

"Well, in Sri Lanka we still believe in purity, the status and the caste!"

"Oh, you believe in the purity, the pure race? The Sinhalese! So do you also believe that lion story where the Sinhalese race; the descendants of a lion, an animal? Look Siri, if anyone looked at us, they wouldn't be able to differentiate whether we were from Sri Lanka or India. Look at our skin complexion!"

"I'm fairer than you, Mr. Frank, and I'm tall." Siri laughed at Frank this time.

"All right! Don't be on the defensive all the time!" I'll see you later," said Frank angrily as he left Siri's office.

Siri thought of Frank as a snake under the grass and living in an unknown territory.

That same day, Daryl invited Siri over for a beer after work and advised him that Frank had made a few negative remarks about him, especially concerning the conversation they had had in Siri's office. Frank was annoyed by Siri's racist remarks.

"Siri, I told you yesterday, Frank is a good networker! We need to work with him and his Branch very closely. Without their support, we're in trouble. With regards to Frank, he's a senior staff member and we need to be tactful with him. He has been with the company since his graduation. A very long time!"

"He insulted me. I think he's a Tamil!" Siri complained.

"Look Siri, here in Australia, race or ethnicity don't make a difference. We are all Aussies and we need to work as a team. We have these great concepts called 'fair go' and 'mateship'. After all, we are workmates. Mateship is an important concept in Australia which goes back to our convict past. We couldn't live and work without each other's help then and we can't do it today!"

Siri looked blankly over Daryl's shoulder, through the glass windows and the river flowing behind the walls. A big ferry was floating. He watched the ferry moving slowly to the west, towards the Indian Ocean. Daryl noticed Siri's blank look and said:

"Don't worry mate! You'll get used to get things done here. This is your first professional work environment in Australia and you'll do well! Don't be too serious. You must be able to take a joke or two at least. We say things to each other, but we don't mean anything nasty at all!" Daryl downed the last drop of beer and ordered two more middies.

Two weeks later, Daryl visited Siri's office again.

"Siri, do you have time for a chat?"

"Yes of course, I've all the time in the world for my boss," Siri replied.

"Siri, you need to be a bit more careful when you write reports in the future," said Daryl with a serious look on his face.

"I don't want to be a gatekeeper, but you must be careful when you write and circulate reports to other Branches of the company." Daryl continued, "See this report you sent to the Planning Branch about options for new Project Management software? It's a bloody good report! However, Frank brought this report to the Manager's meeting today.

He said that whoever wrote it shouldn't be writing reports in a commercial firm like ours! He picked on a few grammatical errors. They are not major ones. I know, and perhaps everyone else knew that English is not your first language. Frank is not a great report writer either. I think that's why he always writes in point form. That's one clever way of overcoming the problems of grammar. I think your problem is not the sentence structure, but the particles. Your use of 'the' and 'a' is not consistent. Maybe it's something to do with your language, Sinhala. I'm not going to fire you or disregard what you write because you've a problem selecting the correct particles. You've identified the issues and your analysis is great." Daryl concluded.

Siri carefully listened to his boss and smiled.

"What?" Daryl asked with a puzzled expression.

"You hit the nail on the head, Daryl! Yes, we don't have definite particles in Sinhala. For example, in English we write: 'this is a school'; 'that is the school I went to' etcetera. In Sinhala we write: 'this is a school'; 'this is my school' or 'this school is my school'."

"Okay, a good point, but please make sure that when you write reports in the future you'll get someone to proof-read them.

I'd be more than happy to read any report that goes to the managers or to the Board, and be careful of what you say to Frank." Daryl offered Siri his support and went away.

It was past midday and most of the staff had gone to the pub for drinks, as it was a Friday. Siri opened his brief case and took out the weekly newspaper published by Lake House to find out what was happening in Sri Lanka.

Footnotes:

[1] MBA - The acronym for Master of Business Administration

[2] UWA - The acronym for the University of Western Australia

 

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