This week is my last week as an employee at Coles. Since I was 18, I’ve been part-timing there, stacking the same aisles, on the same days, week in week out.
The better part of five years has been spent in those aisles: Cornflour is found in aisle four, Italian soup mix is found in aisle two. Surprisingly, Hokkien noodles are found in aisle three with the pasta.
Life at Coles was relatively uneventful, like any well-oiled machine, every gear moved in unison to get the work done. But now that my time at Coles is coming to an end, one moment sticks out in my mind.
I was working a shift one day, and this elderly Asian lady came up to me. She clearly needed assistance with something, as she approached me she asked for help, but in Mandarin.
Now before I go on, it’s important to clarify: I learnt Mandarin (as a second language) for my whole life in Singapore, my grandparents would speak to me in Mandarin and sometimes I’d order food in Mandarin.
But here ‘Down Under’, there is no need for it. Everyone speaks English in Australia (for the most part), and therefore the process of communication became streamlined. The only time my Mandarin language muscles would get exercised would be over the phone to my grandparents back in the motherland.
Therefore, I can understand basic Mandarin, while my spoken Mandarin is broken at best.
But now, back to Coles.
So, this Asian lady needed help with something. But, I couldn’t understand her for the life of me (I found out later she wanted seafood sauce).
This hasn’t been the first time I’ve had interactions like this, where I’ve been lost in translation. Old Asian people always come up to me, speaking in Mandarin (or other dialects), with the expectation that I’ll turn around and greet them with fluency and Chinese charm.
Oh how I disappoint them, my lack of linguistic fluency greeted with a mix of shock and frustration on their faces.
What was different about this interaction was what she said after I said I didn’t understand her. Because I understood what she said next with perfect clarity.
“You’ve been here too long,” she said.
‘Here’, being Australia.
Been here too long? What does that mean?
Maybe a few years ago, if I heard that, I would’ve brushed it off. But in the moment, I was dumbfounded. This lady assumed I couldn’t help her because I was too different from her — that the failure to grasp her language meant that we couldn’t connect in any other way.
To this lady, culture expired. That the more time spent in a different culture, your existing culture melts, to give way to the new. A thought that is crazy!
We exist in a cultural melting pot, and gravitate towards things that engage us, that challenge us, and give us a voice. The older I get, the prouder I am about being Asian and Australian. Having been able to reconcile that part of my identity, and become comfortable in my own skin, I’ve only grown better for it.
That’s what we have to understand. Culture isn’t static. It exists on a continuum, with a multitude of defining factors. That’s what living in a diaspora does. We have a responsibility to learn from each other, to support each other, to give selflessly through empathy and love.
And there’s no better place that embodies a diaspora than a supermarket chain like Coles.
I’ve been there for the past five years and as I’m stocking the shelves I see all this food from all around the world. And not only that, I see a whole host of people, from all walks of life that come in and buy a diverse selection of food that exists outside of themselves.
Asians buy steaks (just like my Dad).
Italian ladies ask me how to make char hor fun (a type of Chinese noodle).
An Indian lady comes in every Wednesday to pick up her weekly dose of pasta…
We choose how we connect with culture.
We choose how we engage with culture.
And through these processes — we all become better for one another.
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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