“She can’t even speak f****g English,” says a woman venomously to the small group gathered around the sushi takeaway at Melbourne’s busy Flinders Street station.
Emma Yu*, the young Chinese woman serving from behind the counter, appears shocked.
She holds the woman’s order – two veggie pancakes – hesitantly in the air between a pair of tongs.
Warmed up? Cold? Apparently one warm, one cold is the particular way the woman wants her late evening snacks prepared.
The “bloody Asians”, says the woman loudly, were of course “too thick” to understand this.
“I’m not racist,” she tells me, when I step forward to interject. “They” should be able to speak “our” language, she reasons.
I am shocked at this blatant racism. I warn her that I will call over the nearby train station officer (PSO), who stands out of earshot. It is the only thing I can think of to make stop.
“Do it,” she says defiantly, as something as simple as waiting for takeaway spirals into a stand-off.
Shamefully, I don’t call over the PSO. Perhaps her rudeness isn’t even a crime. At least I stand up for Emma and the other staff the woman attacks, which is more than her male friend does. He stands mute, waiting for his pancake to be reheated.
The behaviour of this woman, fiftyish, dressed in a black winter trench coat on a cold Wednesday evening, does improve considerably when I remind her of another woman, just about her age, who made headlines for a similar outburst.
The Bain-marie should have been hotter, she says in her defence.
But there simply is no defence for racism.
Some might call this encounter “casual racism”, but I disagree. There is nothing casual about prejudice. It can be overt or insidious, spoken loudly at train stations or couched in intellectual terms over dinner tables, but should never be excused for being insignificant or unpremeditated.
Asians can’t drive. Indigenous Australians are lazy. Struggling with English means you’re stupid. Fleeing persecution from a foreign land makes you a criminal.
Each of these stereotypes is a brick in the enormous wall we have erected around Australia to keep out boat people, and forms part of the tiny barriers used in our daily lives to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’.
“She was just crazy,” Emma tells me later from behind the counter. To her credit, her patience never broke.
“We didn’t do anything. We didn’t get angry. We just served them normally.”
Perhaps this is what frustrated her customer the most.
Thankfully, this is the first time in the little over three years Emma Yu, 26, has lived in Australia that she ever been subjected to such shameful abuse. She is the manager of the busy takeaway store and studying a bachelor degree in hospitality at a TAFE in the city.
I leave the store after talking to Emma, with no appetite for my own veggie pancake.
As my train winds it way home to Glen Waverley, a group of Asian girls can be heard joking and laughing in a mixture of Mandarin and heavily accented English further up the carriage.
An Indian woman chatters poetically in Hindi to her boyfriend in the seat in front, her fingers playfully twirling strands of the curly black hair growing at the nape of his neck.
Behind me, two young Asian men discuss their university studies.
These are all much sweeter sounds than the words I heard spoken to Emma, even if I don’t understand them.
“Change here for Belgrave, Lilydale and Alamein services,” cuts in the officious sounding computer woman over the PA.
Thankfully, change is indeed on its way.
*Emma Yu does not want her real name published.