Thirty years ago, when I was a youth worker with The Salvation Army, I worked at a youth refuge in inner-city Melbourne. Part of my job included helping youth to liaise with the CES and Social Security (as they were known before the arrival of Centrelink in 1997).
One of the young guys I worked with was Danny. Danny’s family was Chinese and
his grandparents had come to Australia decades earlier. Danny’s parents were
born in Australia as, too, was Danny. So Danny looked very Chinese but sounded
very Australian; in fact he had a broad Aussie accent.
One day I drove him to Social Security where he had to fill in yet another form that they’d seemingly created just so some public servants had a job. We walked in together and approached the counter. The desk clerk looked at Danny, then showed him the form.
As he did so, the clerk said — very slowly and louder than he needed to — “You. Must. Write. Your name. Here. Not my name. Your name.” As he spoke he pointed at himself and Danny just so that Danny fully understood the difference between ‘your name’ and ‘my name’.
“Write. Your [points at Danny]. Address. Where you [points at Danny] live. Here.” [points at paper].
At this stage, I glanced at Danny and recognised that look in his eye. However, rather than explode, he took a different tack.
In a thick Chinese accent he replied: “My dress? I don’t wear dress. Me a man. I no wear dress. What you mean my dress?”
The desk clerk looked nervous and apologetically said: “No, not dress. Address. Write down where you live” [points at Danny and then makes the shape of a house roof with his hands].
Danny pulled an angry face and replied, “I don’t live down. I live up. First floor. Upstairs. What you mean I live down?”
Desk dude started to look more apologetic and confused and began to stammer out a further explanation when Danny decided he’d had enough. He snatched the form from the man and said, “Just give me the flamin’ form and pull your head in.”
Danny headed to a side counter to fill in the form, leaving the clerk looking at him with his eyes and mouth wide open. It was very funny.
Except, it wasn’t. I was part-embarrassed, part-angry that the clerk had taken one look at Danny and had decided that he couldn’t speak English. He saw someone, made a wrong assumption, acted in a patronising and belittling way, and publicly embarrassed a fine young man.
At one point in the Bible, a prophet called Samuel is given the task of blessing the next king of Israel. God says he will help Samuel to identify the young man God has chosen. Samuel looks at a number of strapping young men, thinking that they will be adequate, but God says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance,but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel, chapter 16, verse 7).
Samuel is directed to pick a young shepherd boy called David, and David goes on to become Israel’s most famous king.
It’s a nice reminder to each of us; let’s not make assumptions on what we see, let’s get to know someone and then base our judgement of them on their heart and character.
Danny could have lashed out but he thought it better to use a different method to teach the counter clerk a lesson. Maybe it’s a lesson many of us still have to learn.
Mal Davies is a Salvation Army officer serving in Geelong.