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Eavesdropping Inside a Sydney Train

By Lina Cabaero   –  TAKING THE TRAIN yesterday to Blacktown was part of my usual week. Blacktown is where you can find the majority of Filipinos in Sydney. The train was full and hot when I boarded it.

Having not slept much the previous night, I was ready to risk missing my stop by having a much needed nap. But it was not meant to be. Two kababayans were talking loudly nearby. I realised I was seriously eavesdropping but I listened anyway, while pretending to sleep.

One said that  after eight months in Australia,  he still can’t figure out Aussie English.  Strange he said, because he reckons he can speak and understand the English language perfectly. And besides, he said, all Filipinos can speak English!

 Last Friday, he said his colleague asked if he can pass to her the “poncho”, or   what he thought he heard  as “poncho”. What does she need a “poncho” for? So he asked her, “Is it raining? Is that why you need a poncho?”  She said “No, no, no!  I need that and pointed at the “puncher.” To make holes on the paper!

 And the two  laughed loudly – as I did, furtively. The other man said “something like that happened to me too when I first came to Australia. I queued up to buy a train ticket and the ticket seller asked “single?” (in the Philippines, we say “one way”) and I said “married”!

And I laughed with them albeit in silence. Amazing how English language is such a central issue for us migrants. We pride ourselves about our English proficiency but at the end of the day, we need to adjust our ears and our tongues to be understood in this, our second country, Australia.

And the two continued to talk … “by the way, pare, what are you doing here in Sydney?”  Skilled migrant ang visa ko, pare. (I am on a skilled migrant visa). I was an engineer in the Philippines and I wanted a better future for myself and my family.  I was granted one.  Eight months ago, I came to Sydney. I thought looking for work will be straightforward! I still haven’t found a job remotely near to my engineering skills.”

“ In the meantime, I’ve been a cleaner, a kitchen hand, a factory worker and today, I am going with a friend to see if there is work at the mushroom farm somewhere near Richmond. My wife and daughter will join me in  four months time but I am very worried. Indeed it’s very worrying. Securing a skilled migrant’s visa is not an assurance.”

I remember another kababayan who walked into my office in Blacktown. He looked very pale, agitated and desolate. He said he is a skilled migrant but hasn’t been able to find work for three months already. He was living with relatives who were about to kick him out. His savings from the Philippines was being quickly depleted and his family was about to join him in three months time.

And the two continued to rambled on … “how about you, pare? Do you have your family here?”

“ Oo pare, I’ve been here since 2003, with my wife and  two children.   I also found it very hard.  I had so many disastrous English language encounters I can even write a book about it! Biruin mo, when I went to apply for a job, the receptionist told me to “come back this arvo.”   I was  puzzled., What is she talking about – arvo? Doesn’t sound like any day of the week or like any month of the year! Arvo is the Aussie slang for afternoon.

“But I persisted”, said our kababayan. “I joined a conversational English class, listened to radio programs, never backed out of any conversation, even if it was very difficult to understand and be understood. We went to places where there were Filipinos – especially the church. And it was actually someone from our local parish who referred me to my current job. I work in the IT department of a big pharmaceutical company in Norwest. Okay naman ang trabaho ko (my work is okay), he said.”

I  realised I am no different from any other migrant. I came to Australia with two pronounced feelings – deliriously happy to be with my husband and ridiculously worried about finding work in the sector that I am familiar with and has passion for – the community sector. I guess I am one of the lucky ones who got what I wanted.

I must have drifted to sleep for the next thing I heard them talking about was the recent fight between Pacquiao and Marquez. One of them said, “I thought Pacman was a bit slow” to which the other said “but didn’t you see how Marquez stepped on his foot many times”.

They argued back and forth about the controversial decision, with one saying he thought Marquez should have won and the other saying, it was Pacquiao who threw in lots of punches and connected. Then one said, “talo o panalo, winner pa rin si Pacman, mayaman na yon” (win or lose, Pacquiao is still a winner, he’salready very rich).

“He is a politician now, di ba,” said the other. Then he said, “alam mo, ayoko sanang mag-abroad pero kailangan, kasi gusto kong mabigyan ng magandang edukasyon at kinabukasan ang aking mga anak” (I would have preferred to stay in the Philippines but I had to go abroad because I want to give my children good education and better future). Yes, me too, said the other.

The other day, I met with a Filipina, a victim of domestic violence. She told me how desperate she was to leave the Philippines.  When this Filipino living in Australia asked her to marry him, she quickly agreed. And it was only when they started living together that she realised she didn’t really know her husband, who by then, had started abusing her – controlling what kind of food she eats, where she should go, what dress she should wear. It’s very ironic that sometimes you think that you’ve left a potentially disastrous life in the Philippines and find yourself in a more dangerous situation in Australia.

One stop away from Blacktown, “Pare, punta ka sa amin sa Pasko kung wala ka pang pupuntahan. At huwag kang mag-alala, hindi uso sa amin yung “bring a plate”. (Mate, come on Christmas day if you don’t have anywhere to go to. Don’t worry, we don’t oblige guests to “bring a plate”. ) The other said, “Bakit bring a plate? wala ba kayong mga plato?” (Why bring a plate? Don’t you have plates at home?).

As I stepped off the train, one of them was getting ready to get off at the next stop, and the other was lost in his own thoughts, staring way-way beyond the window. (2011)