Thursday, February 09, 2006

Little Asia of the West

I got to go on a work trip last week. To a place I have never been. A place that has a reputation. A place which I discovered (once I looked it up in the street directory), is actually a long way away. It is a place called Cabramatta and it was a good trip once I got over my initial reservations.

First up though I think I should get a few things straightened out. I grew up in the country of NSW - nice town, small population, dairy farming country, on a river .. you get the picture - and I only moved down to the big smoke when I was 23. The move was to the centre of Sydney and is the same place I have stayed on and off (when I am not out of the country) since then.

Sydney is a big place. Geographically it is huge. Suburbs stretching for .. well a hell of a long way. Now with Sydney being so big and me not growing up in it, it is understandable that I wouldn't have got to all the places in it during the course of my life (actually to do so would be a pretty great achievement and while I am thinking about it I have just remembered that there is a retired bloke who is walking every street in every suburb .. if you've seen the street directory, well .. good on him). So I haven't been to all the places and certainly western Sydney is one of the areas I have mainly missed out on.

Back to Cabramatta. The place has a reputation - Asian drug gangs, heroin addicts, random crime and violence - all of course mediarised (yes not a word .. just made it up .. hey I can do so if I want). So I was thinking, "was Cabramatta going to be like a new Papua New Guinea for me?". All hype, not much substance. And would it in fact be like everything which you build up expectations for and be a bit of a let down.

To be honest, I was feeling slightly nervous. I haven't seen Little Fish yet, but I have seen all the reviews and this only adds to the image doesn't it? There was only one way to find out about the place and that was to get on the early morning train and head out there, and fit some work around my gawking.

A car was considered, but heading out there in the morning it is quicker and cheaper to get the train. It also meant I could pop into work on the way, pick up stuff, then go to Town Hall and get a direct connection. And so I did.

The summer morning was a stinker. 95% humidity apparently. And so of course the train I got on was the old non-air conditioned variety. On the downstairs level I sat, with the morning paper and a small window opening to let in a pathetic breeze, and let the Tangara rattle off on the route to Campbelltown with its collection of various commuters.

Occasionally I would glance out the window to see where I was; Ashfield, Burwood and Strathfield past by. The faces on the platform changed, Asians, Africans, Indians, I was heading into one of the most multicultural places in the world. The further I went the more so it became; Clyde, Parramatta, Auburn and Fairfield, chugged past and my carriage filled and emptied with people of all backgrounds; Africans in traditional dress or old Chinese couples speaking in either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Closer to my destination the carriage emptied and a young Asian guy seemed to be the only one riding with me. I hadn't noticed him previously as I was wrapped up in the newspaper and my music. Now that I noticed him it seemed like he was staring at me. It was hard to tell with his mirror sunglasses. Thoughts of gang members and random violence drifted through my head. He certainly looked surly, definitely trying to have an attitude.

Cabramatta station approached and the young bloke jumped up and looked at me as he made his way to the door. He was a short arse with baggy pants, the brief thoughts had disappeared. I followed him and we briefly stood together as the train drew to a halt and the doors opened. He strutted past and I headed out into the steamy air.

The weather had a subtropical feel to it and suddenly the scents and scenes did too. Into the main street I wandered, past a Chinese bakery, a computer stores and beauticians with more Chinese or Vietnamese than English writing on their signs and notices.

The place had a surreal quality. I was having throwbacks to my brief stints in Asia. This place was like an outer suburb of Hong Kong, but more open and cleaner. I was now keen to have a look around. Instead of the envisaged crime gangs and means streets of the reputation, this place was like all other destinations I like to head off to, somewhere different.

My work was not taxing. I fixed the problem of our sole representative in this neighbourhood and headed out the door. I made the mistake though of ringing my work colleague to let him know I was finished. This meant that I had now limited my time to be able to spend observing this new found land. A few laps around the blocks, noting the differences and then a stop off at the Chinese bakery would have to suffice for me.

Back on the platform I went, waiting in the shade, the previous reputation in my mind in shatters. I jumped on board the new Millennium train when it quietly rolled up. Things would be different now; Little Fish won't seem so grim when I get around to watching it.

I headed back to the city, filling in the crossword, feeling changed slightly now, like the cooled conditioned air of the new train. I should have known this would be the case; reputations never live up to expectations.

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