‘So, with recent ISIS terrorisms in this country, what is your opinion on Western military attacks on the Assad regime?’
Before I opened the drive-thru window, I noticed his eyes look at my face before trailing down to my name tag, which read ‘Reza’. From the look on his face, I guess he figured my name – often identified as Iranian – meant I was either from some Middle Eastern country, like Syria, where the Assad regime is.
I was born in Bangladesh. I had moved to Australia before I was one. My family became citizens soon after immigrating. Bangladeshi-Australian is what I suppose you would refer to me as.
I could have said a lot of things to him.
‘Excuse me, but I have another car at the speaker. If I could just get you to tap your card on the EFTPOS machine, your meal will be ready at the next window.’
That’s how I usually replied. That’s how most of us replied while working overnight shifts at your favourite fast food destination after a Thursday night out in Civic. You probably go there for your midnight cheeseburger, or perhaps some nuggets.
Our management was largely from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. They had taken on the endearing practice of referring to their crew – who came from all over the world – as ‘Bhai’, meaning brother. Our overnight crew, however, was majorly staffed by South Asians. Foreign accents could be heard at the cash register and in the kitchen, which a lot of people took as an invitation to whip out their beloved slurs; ‘S*nd n*gger,’ ‘Terrorist c*nt.’
The first time I witnessed people – who I wish I didn’t recognise – speaking to a manager in a purposely slow pace, unnecessarily enunciating their syllables, and at one point mimicking his accent: I made sure I was the one to give them their food. When I did, I looked at them straight with dead-shot clear eyes, giving them a tight-lipped smile with my head tilted so far to one side it felt like would almost snap off my body.
‘Have a wonderful night.’
My managers were better at it than me. They smiled with gentle eyes and engaged customers in friendly conversation, often making their patrons laugh and giggle. They maintained tones of warmth in response to people’s barks of racism.
When a delirious and dangerous man would waltz into the restaurant and act as a nuisance to other customers, I’d watch my manager take him by the collar and drag him outside before locking the door behind him. The man, at least two times my manager’s size, would all the while be yelling at him with: ‘Where are you fucking from? You don’t belong here.’
Strength is more than size.
When a group of old white men in drive-thru sped off in the safety of their car after saying, ‘Look here young Lady, this a Christian world we live in, not your Muslim faith you’re indoctrinated with’, to one of my co-workers, I asked her why she even bothered to take their money. She laughed and said: ‘It’s fine. They’re just silly. They have no effect on me.’
Strength is more than gender.
When I was asked by customers in the drive-thru, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’, and told, ‘You must be a fag,’ because of my androgynous face, my managers would refuse to serve them. ‘There’s nothing wrong with who you are. Anyone who takes an issue to you, you tell me and I’ll deal with it,’ said one manager. To this day, it’s mostly brown Muslim men who willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect me from queer*phobia. A lot of people say they’ll ‘be there for me’ but it’s usually my Bhaiyas that’ll run to my side when I’m in need of help. A peculiar reality considering the way Muslim men’s attitudes towards queer* people and women are stereotyped.
Strength is more than religion.
A lot of my older immigrant colleagues had Engineering, Computer Science and Finance degrees but couldn’t land a degree-specific job. They never once complained to me about it. They just worked and patted me on the back when I did a bad job of sweeping the kitchen floors.
I had many nice conversations with taxi drivers who arrived with passengers screaming profanities and vomiting in the car. Some frequenters would recognise me and say, ‘Good evening Bhai.’ Sometimes they sighed, and I smiled back with a similar feeling.
I often thought back to the times my father would come home after his weeks away at work and lament to my mother about how he needed to refer a case of workplace racial abuse to his boss. At the time, he said to me: ‘Don’t give a care about them. They are a joke for their behaviour, you just work.’
This is what I’d done the first time I’d witnessed people make fun of my managers’ accents. I’d given them the service requested as a way to challenge their hate.
The same night I was asked about the Assad regime, I had a customer who had a rough night; he had no shoes on and smelled like Goon. He’d screamed at me: ‘I ordered two boxes of nuggets, you should be able to count, aren’t you Asian?’ He’d forgotten that his card kept declining if he ordered two, so he’d paid for one. I’d felt someone place another 6-pack box of nuggets in my hand. From offside, and under breath, I heard: ‘Don’t stress Bhai, just give him the nuggets.’
And I knew Bhai was right there, standing beside me.