And so when he began to travel for his studies, the boy found his mobility offered him a vantage point from which to relate to people and place. The boy would commute every weekday of his teenage years to and from his suburban home in the southwest and his selective school in inner city Sydney. After his final class of the day, he would catch the school bus to Central, the train from Central to Bankstown Station, and another bus from Bankstown to home. These trips, without which his formative years could not be related, took him farther and farther afield, on various detours, and into contact with different people each time such that these journeys offered him their own education. In this way, as he began asking for more from the world, the boy came to learn about proximity and distance.
At Central, he talked, laughed, and bickered with friends who came from suburbs all over Sydney, suburbs he would come to know vicariously like Carlton, Holsworthy, Kingsgrove, and North Sydney. He would wait with them on their platforms until he could no longer ignore the imminent arrival of his 15:49:00. Sometimes, he would even catch the train to Redfern or Sydenham with them and then change trains, just to squeeze in a few more minutes together. Other times, when he had an early mark or a free period, he would take a detour along different lines and coordinate where to meet up on the inevitable ride home. Through all this planning, he learnt how Sydney was connected at Central — the stairs, exits, and tunnels for the quickest changeovers and the escalators which mark the threshold between Intercity and suburban — and how Sydney expanded radially: the train lines, coloured ribbons that looped around the city before reaching into the suburbs and back.
Once he figured out these connections, the city, an alpha city, seemed to contract because of its accumulated familiarity. Then, he would yearn to be somewhere bigger than his city, a place where global histories would flourish, not realising what was all around him, history the groundwater linking out here and over there.
On his platform, the boy would reconvene with the other boys he had seen on the way to school. In their junior years, they took the carriage that stopped at the mouth of the stairs closest to the school bus drop-off spot. In their senior years, they took a carriage further down the platform, near the front; Front and Back flipped like the reversible seats each morning and afternoon. Whether this was primarily a strategic move to find a less crowded carriage or proof they were moving up in the world, no one could be sure.
Because of their large numbers (four to twelve), the boys would often be dispersed in the carriage as the train filled up. It stayed full until they reached Sydenham and would begin to empty after Campsie. When the train doors opened, one or two of the boys would dart forward like scouting parties, searching for three-, four-, or six-seaters for the group. Those slower and less bothered were left stranded in the vestibule, clinging to the metallic pole or flattening themselves along the stairwell. Whenever a seat opened up, one of the seated boys would go and tell the others so that they could all sit together: space becoming sound.
On those train trips, the boys earned nicknames which like battle scars and war trophies would either dignify or haunt them as they moved through puberty. They would quarrel, make fun of each other, and play a slapping game until either their hands or egos gave out. It’s just banter, bro. That’s what they said to assuage the bruising. And, of course, they would catch each other up on what happened each day: who got in trouble, funny things that happened at sport, hints or tips about upcoming exams. In fact, they talked about marks and speculated about who the Mysterious Maths Examiner might be in the same way that some of them also talked about tits. When they studied together, there was a solemn silence, broken only by the inevitable question about galvanic cells, circle geometry, or Harder 3 Unit maths. After they couldn’t take it any longer, they moved on to the ‘Overheard’ and ‘Here’s Looking at You’ columns of the mX.
BABY GOT BACK: To the Asian guy with the red backpack at North Sydney today. I wish I was that backpack. Coffee? – Y
If the boys weren’t reading the mX, studying, or making ten with the digits of the carriage number, they would be watching one of their own play the newest smartphone game. As they graduated from Doodle Jump to Flappy Bird, some of them became more sensitive while others became more prideful. When Clash of Clans came around, the same boy, who winced at the hegemonic masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality around him, would ask in jest, ‘Why are you always playing COC? Why are you always playing COC?’ These were his earliest attempts to push back against peers who tied their masculinity to their rugby tries, their supposedly infinite libido, and the number of fucks they pretended not to give.
Although he did not think about it in such terms then, the boy came to understand how the city was divided. He learnt to anticipate who would board or alight at different stops, who had Places To Be, whose baggage could be held, and whose burdens were buried in the arch of their spine. His own crew embodied a migration history of Sydney: a Korean in Campsie, a Punjabi Muslim in Lakemba, mainland Han Chinese, Hoa, and Kinh Vietnamese in Bankstown. Through his friends, he learnt that living closer to the city, which his parents could not afford, bought not only the newest iPhone or Samsung but extra sleep.
On some afternoons, he would see men, usually in pairs, sit in four- or six-seaters. They were alone, in the murky sea blue seats, even as there were people standing and wanting to sit. These men had dark skin and wispy black facial hair. They wore hi-vis tops and had their white helmets on the seats beside them. They would sit diagonally opposite each other, one next to the window and the other closer to the aisle. The former propped his head on his palm and stared out the window, seeming to wish he were somewhere else. The latter leaned back into his seat with both feet resting on the opposite seat, watching the video playing on his small phone. Whether it was out of expediency or solidarity, the boy would make eye contact with these men, summon a smile, and then take a seat with them when he was alone. Admittedly, he was a little scared at first, afraid that they might lash out at any moment. However, he came to realise that he was projecting the evening news onto them. When he sat down, they were unmoved. They, like the boy and his crew, just wanted to be home.
And years later when he caught the train by himself, he would miss seeing his Bankstown Line Crew. He would look up and down the platform, always checking in case there were familiar faces — even the ones who were prone to homophobic or misogynistic turns of phrase back then. Of course, they would never now show that side of themselves to their clients or patients. He wanted to believe that they had left all that behind, but he knew deep down that their dispositions had only hardened. He would tell himself that they were still good guys though. He had grown up with them, and it was hard to forget that even when he knew he had to protect himself. These were friends he lost, gave up on, or let go of (it was hard to tell the difference) when he went off to study the humanities.
When his train pulled up in Bankstown at 16:30:00, he had to sprint to make the bus. Downtrodden and tired, passengers, all around him, streamed out of the trains and up the stairs like schools of fish. Excuseexcuseexcuse. The crowd at the bottom of the stairs hardly budged, but still the boy twisted into the gaps he could see, insisting that he could carve out the space he needed. Hijabs, round brim hats, metallic shopping carts. Left and right, everyone marched up the stairs, looked down at the steps, as their bags pulled their shoulders to the ground. Step. Step. Step. He wanted to break away from the bodies, like blood from a wound. When he reached the top of the stairs, however, he found himself amongst the people he thought he had left behind.
In the crowd, the boy would be one of many Arab and Asian bodies who arrived. Together but by no means commensurate, they, the mass are the memento mori of Lebanese and Vietnamese collective life. They are what Jodi A. Byrd, citing Kamau Brathwaite, terms ‘arrivants’. They are fragments of a social wholeness, which has been subjugated by French colonialism, upended by American interventionism in civil war, and reforged as migrant labour on unceded land in a former outpost of British Empire. At the ticket barriers, the people would come face to face with the police: imperial debris against the glare of settler-colonial authority.
The two police officers, like the boy, were regulars at this train station. The man had blue eyes, the woman dark brown hair tied into a low bun, and pink flushed both their pale cheeks. The man would hold onto his belt with one hand and talk with the other. Listening, the woman would rest her hand on the walkie-talkie that protruded from her right pocket and chuckle in her polite, controlled way. Although they were chatting away next to the ticket machine, everyone in the station knew that the patrols could turn towards the ticket barriers at any moment. The boy had a lot of questions he wanted to ask, but he knew better than that. Everyone who grew up here knew that the last thing you wanted to do was get involved with the police. Still, the boy wanted to ask whether it was satisfying to look for something where there was nothing.
Slowly but surely, the arrivants shuffled into the ticket barriers. They were all tired. Tired from working to live, to pay off an historical debt they had inherited through their bodies. Displaced and unfree, they plodded on beyond the enclosures, in the long shadow of the Human. To pass through checkpoints overseen by police, then, was to have their bodies opened up, hailed, and incorporated for profit and for governance. A flood of arrivant bodies indiscriminately funnelled into the ticket barriers, yet individuated by red teeth snapping. Pay up, pay up, they say. ‘Economies of dispossession’, the boy would later learn from Jodi A. Byrd, Alyosha Goldstein, Jodi Melamed, and Chandan Reddy, ‘are at once epistemologies of commensurability and differential devaluation’.
When he walked up to offer his student pass to the tongue of the gates, he knew his uniform — a wool blazer, a sky blue or white dress shirt, a chocolate or maroon silk tie, grey shorts, knee-high socks, and black leather shoes — coupled with his straight black hair made him less deviant, if not socially respectable even, and, thus, unremarkable to the cops. And so, every time he passed through the ticket barriers, he felt his mobility wetting the rocks upon which others slipped.
The station concourse opens to North Terrace and South Terrace. In this way, the station, following the train tracks which serve as arteries through the area, splits Bankstown along an axis of global asymmetry. Nevertheless, the boy on his travels always felt that Bankstown had at least three sides: the Side of History, His Side, and the Other Side.
The Side of History, the white side, anxiously repeats its mythologised past in sign and sculpture. When he was a child, however, the boy hardly heeded these contrived revisions. Instead, he made his own memories by borrowing books for Summer Reading Club, soaring on swings at Paul Keating Park, and sprinting up the stairs at Hoyts.
On the opposite side of the station, on His Side and the Other Side, the people made the space their own. On His Side, there was a South Vietnamese flag and a monument commemorating the journeys made by boat people. The boy thought about this side as His Side because it was the part of Bankstown he knew most. That meandering strip was where he ordered bún bò Huế and sinh tố bơ together, where he had his hair cut and teeth cleaned, and where he heard his mum speak a language she rarely used at home. Then, there was the Other Side. He thought of it as the Other Side simply because he seldom passed through it. All he knew was that dad used to go there to buy charcoal chicken. And so, for the boy and his brother who often did not get to see their father before they went to bed, Chicken Tonight, a Friday event, was a love language of garlic sauce, bread without crust, and charred skin that momentarily dissolved the remove of time which had been exacerbated by the boys’ budding English.
His Side and the Other Side met where women sell pork rolls, manicures, and hijabs alongside each other. The stand for the 911 Bankstown to Auburn in the middle.
The boy would wait for the bus in the foyer of the Commonwealth Bank, behind the bus stand. Behind the glass panes, he soaked in the free air-conditioning while he watched as people flocked to the stand. It was mostly women and children — those who didn’t have the luxury of a car or those whose loved ones were using the family car to bring food to the table. From the station or the shops on His Side, elderly women would drag their shopping trolleys to the stand. They staggered towards the metallic seats and crumpled into them. Behind the seats, away from the stand, there were students from a local comprehensive high school that had once offered him a scholarship for which he had never applied.
When he returned home one afternoon in Year 6, the boy found an A4-sized white satchel waiting for him — a paper pelican break protruding from the letterbox. The package was thick so his mum told him to wait. She found the silver letter opener, slipped it under the seal, and scraped it against the fold. Ce. The boy leant in and an O formed on his lips as his mum pulled the stack of coloured paper out from its bone white sheath. His mum scanned the first page from top to bottom, and then, she paused when she saw the name of the school. Yes, the package was special, but it was from the local public high school that she had always described as 粗魯. Although this phrase refers specifically to culture, it was the connotations of race and class that made the words heavy in the air. The mother had gotten her son baptised to avoid this problem in kindy, to enrol at the Catholic primary school because it was Safer there. 教會學校安全點。
Although they would never take seriously the offer, they were still curious about the package, or rather what it revealed about a social world they had been accustomed to avoid. The packet consisted of a hand-signed letter from the principal, a report outlining recent achievements at the school, the canteen stocklist, and more. As for the scholarship itself, the high school offered to waive its annual voluntary contribution — around $500 each year — for all six years, which mother and son found incredulous. They were absolutely flabbergasted. They didn’t want to be ungrateful, but this ‘scholarship’ made a mockery of the $30,000 annual full rides that they had heard were awarded at elite schools. And to think the offer was unsolicited too! It would have made for a funnier story if they hadn’t ended up pitying the school. How, then, were they able to relish this turn of events with such mischievous grins? Perhaps it was relief rather than joy that their laughter betrayed. To see desperation on the page and believe that it was external to them, as if they had been marked safe from a natural disaster on the other side of the world. The satisfaction of the moment came from the realisation that they could be picky, that the boy was wanted, that her son had Prospects, had 本事. The mother knew not to get ahead of herself lest she invite bad luck. Nevertheless, mother and son indulged that fantasy that afternoon — a fantasy founded upon the knowledge that Opportunity Class students usually ended up at Top Selective Schools. In the worst case scenario, they could pose as Catholics once more.
Months later, the mother would rouse the boy from bed one morning and lead him to the boxy family computer. The red numbers on the digital clock read 5:52AM. It was his selective test results. Against the obtrusive white light, he searched the document for the all-important score and found the word ‘Offer.’ Mum had promised him a new computer if he got into this school. It was good news, but he needed to pee and went back to sleep. His mum had woken up early that morning — or perhaps, it was more accurate to say she struggled to sleep that night — as she had done so every day that week, to check if the results had been released. If the boy had been more alert, he would have seen the red shadows around her eyes. She would tell him about them and that morning, six years later. There was this English phrase that she never really understood. It seemed contradictory: happy and sad put together. But, it was on that morning that she discovered that it was indeed possible to cry tears of happiness. She just wanted the boy to have choices in life, and that’s exactly what the school enabled.
Unlike the others at the bus stand, the three boys, he observed, were boisterous. In this alone, they were not too different from his friends on the train even though they more closely resembled his peers from primary school. To kill time, the three boys passed a basketball around, chatted up girls, and, sometimes, smoked.
The boy would sit in the rear of the bus, in a seat behind the bump which curled over the wheel. Although the bump once made for an interesting footrest, he sat farther and farther back as his legs grew longer. Eventually, he moved far back enough to assert his independence without ever assuming the mantle of backseat bandit. That distinction was inevitably taken up by the three boys in the dark blue uniform.
After the 911 Bankstown to Auburn departs from the stand, it tracks, from South to North, around the station to Centro, where most of the remaining passengers board. When the bus passed Paul Keating Park, the boy would peer through the window on his left and see that the amphitheatre in the far corner was for students from the area what Town Hall was for him and his friends. He imagined that those kids would have walked down Chapel Road after school and studied at the library, played basketball using the makeshift ring, or chatted on the steps for as long as the afternoon sun gilded the grass with its golden glint. These were experiences he missed when he was discovering new haunts in the city and checking TripView to plan his way home.
After he finished his final high school exam for Latin Continuers, the boy took a detour from his usual route home. Instead of heading straight for the bus stop after getting off the train, he visited Centro for the first time in years. He thought of it as a homecoming, a reprieve from constantly commuting away from the area. He hadn’t intended for the shopping centre to serve as his stand-in for Bankstown, but he found his body oriented towards its offer of stranger intimacy, yearning for the borderland collisions that made up the community. He went there to tell himself that he made it all the way through, to say that he was back. To pay respects to a place that had always seemed present. When he walked in, he knew he was close to the old IGA, but now there was a sushi stand out front. Was the gentrified cake shop new too? No one else seemed fazed by these changes. Instead, the passersby saw the teen (almost tall enough to be taken for a man) turning around and around as he surveyed his surroundings. Accordingly, they kept their distance as they walked past such that he seemed to spin himself an empty circle in the middle of the walkway. When he started to realise he was seeing the same stores over and over again, he stopped to hold everything in place. However, the people milling about, the escalators cycling away, and the shopkeepers working refused to still — a whole world, which he had sidelined for the past six years, had moved on without him. His head dropped slowly as if it were guided by the sinking feeling that moved from his chest to his stomach: the lightness of his achievement suffocated by the shame that swelled like smoke inside him.
Head rested against the window, the boy stared into the hollow of the bus, watching as women and children trickled on board. When everyone was seated, the bus would leave the Side of History. As Road narrowed to Street, brown-brick houses and playgrounds glided past the windows, which were both portals and partitions to the outside world. They were the same scenes the boy saw every other day of the week. The streets seemed so stagnant as if the dry air had conspired with the unrelenting sun to bake the earth so that nothing dared to change. The only marker for the passing of weeks was the white, two-storey house at the four-way intersection between Glassop Street and Edgar Street. The brick fencing on the corner was always getting smashed by speeding cars so that the state of the rubble charted its own seasons: boom, bust, and building. Bored and without a Good Phone, the boy found his seat an easy place from which to study the other passengers during the remaining twenty-five minutes of the ride home.
In the front seat, an old woman would sit with her hands clasped over the walking cane between her thighs. Although she sat by herself, she would talk with the driver, whose skin was much darker and black hair much bushier than hers. Each time the old lady turned her head, her platinum gold hair, layered like cotton, revealed her sagging cheeks which were lightly dotted with brown specks. She would tell him about the weather, changes she noticed in the local area, and, sometimes, her children who had moved out years ago — all this came out like a deep breath she needed to exhale daily.
In his grey uniform, the driver always seemed to welcome the company. He would nod here and there and add, in his sonorous voice, cynical comments backed with the wisdom he had accumulated from parsing the suburbs. The Eastern European woman and the Pasifika bus driver offered each other something the other needed. Every few minutes, their conversation would pause slightly when the bus approached a turn or roundabout. The driver would turn the steering wheel, coaxing the metallic hunk of a bus to cooperate in a breath that rose from abdomen through to the shoulders before it was released with the full pivot of both elbows. Conversely, their chatter would pick up when the driver made a stop, and, indeed, the bus stopped often. The boy didn’t like this because it made what could have been an eight-minute car ride a thirty-minute ordeal. However, he recognised that there would be no bus without its passengers. Over the years, the 911 Bankstown to Auburn service atrophied; its half-hourly and then hourly frequency combined with its limited operating hours suggested that this public service was just not profitable.
Throughout the bus, the seats were little islands with their own ‘discrete identities, distinct territorializations and sovereignties, and discontinuities’. Each island and passenger had borders and boundaries, which were asserted either by cold shoulder, immovable bag, or fleshy sprawl, such that like often sat with like. This was not always the case for there were many negotiations — around accessible seating, the STOP button, and aisle space — that meant it was not always possible for people to uphold convention. Whether they were forged through care, solidarity, or submission then, the emergent coalitions at each seat made salient the immanent relationalities that had been truncated at the ticket barriers, foreclosed by the Sides, and effaced by the national. And so when he began thinking through The Intimacies of Four Continents, the boy came to see his bus rides as rehearsals of interrelation, where distance became proximity that gestured to futures yet to come.
Over the years, the boy would try to get to know the three boys behind him without uttering a word. I told youse we were gonna play COD tonight but. Bro, you know I can’t but. I’ve got footy tonight bruh. They said these things with a hoarseness that was punctuated by the wet click of gum rolling in the side of their cheeks. Earphones in (without any music playing), hands in pockets, the boy would lean back, eavesdrop, and shake his head or stupidly grin when they joked, swore, or shouted. Sometimes, he would make it obvious that his earphones weren’t plugged in, a show of his readiness to engage. As they spoke, he would conjure an image of them, the same boys at the bus stand: sports caps, untucked dark blue dress shirt, sports shorts, black ankle socks, and religiously clean Adidas sneakers. As they called each other jahsh, he would see, in his mind, their chins raised and Adam’s apples bobbing up and down.
There were times when the boys would swear and the other passengers — the old woman, the mums, and the schoolchildren — would shoot cold looks over their shoulders. The boy met all these eyes — amber, blue, brown, gray — as their corners shrunk and brows furrowed while sizing up the boys. He held tight in his seat, hoping he could make his body a shield that might insulate the boys from the scrutiny, a revolt to dispel the disciplining gaze that interpellated them as Troubled Arab Delinquents. However, those searching eyes did not register him.
He couldn’t say he knew the boys, but he suspected that they, like him, were on the bus because they had no choice, which is to say their parents were always toiling. Nevertheless, he appreciated that their brash vigour smashed through the chokehold of the drawn-out afternoon. Unlike the boy who internalised the silence and the gaze such that it domesticated his buoyant being, the three boys seemed to refuse these dictates outright, obliterating all limits as to who they could be at the back of the bus. As he grew fonder of them, the boy would name them Jad, Farouq, and Elie after classmates he knew before he moved schools. These names had the effect of transforming them from co-passengers and fellow students to boys he might one day befriend.
One afternoon, the boy heard an argument break out between Jad and Elie. Cuz, I didn’t tell her. Cuz, why would I tell her but. Say wallah you didn’t. Say wallah you didn’t tell Layla. Wallah. The boy held his breath and cocked his head slightly, catching Farouq in his periphery. Bro, you can tell he’s lying, can’t you? A silence, and then, the boy realised. The question was addressed to him. Suddenly, he had their permission to speak so he turned, coming face to face with an expectant Jad. In the other corner, he saw Elie’s shoulders slowly rising to meet the accumulating charge. The boy simply looked from Jad to Elie then Elie to Jad, unsure of what to say. You know what, Jad said. Forget it. Catch you later hamoudi. As he got off the bus, Jad made it a point to face only Farouq, as if Elie was not even there. Sure enough, the three boys moved on from the issue and were back to talking with each other in a matter of days as if nothing had ever happened. And of course, they would find the boy sitting quietly in front of them. By himself, as always.
When finally there was hardly anyone to watch, the boy would cast his gaze to the window on his left once more. Instead of staring through it, the boy focused on the window itself, which was tinted with perforated self-adhesive vinyl film. Every bus in the area had these tinted windows, onto which various graphics were printed and laminated such that they displayed different images on the interior and exterior of the bus. The exterior image varied from bus to bus, but it was always an advertisement. The inside, however, was always a map of Bankstown and the surrounding suburbs with key routes traced in thick bright orange, hot pink, and light blue lines and points of interest highlighted with magnified inset images. As he sat with the display, the map brought into relief an interdependence that made up the space. On those little streets, through which the routes converged and diverged, the boy could, for the first time, see how he and the other passengers were constituting collective life anew within and outside the circuits of capital: disparate lives pouring into one smooth river that meandered through the suburbs, orchestrating its own detours, breaking free from the teleology supposed by origin and destination.
After half an hour on this bus, the boy would reach his stop. By then, the bus was ready for a new set of passengers. The boy would check that he had all his belongings, wait until the backdoors folded open, and call out to the driver. Thank you.
When I commute home nowadays, over ten years since these journeys first began, I cannot help but find myself constantly confronted by my own social mobility — how my personal sense of identification rubs up against narratives of differential racialisation as well as the spatial and social divisions of the city. When I think about the bus, the bus stop, the train, the train station, I think about how people whose life chances differ so vastly come together at these nodes of interchange only to ultimately separate. In the Bankstown area especially, where I continue to reside, I think about the space and am guided by the late Cedric Robinson and others in thinking about how we are entangled in social relations that are already organised by imperial conquest and racial capitalism. I think not only about myself, but also the Lebanese and Vietnamese diasporas who now call this place their home — how they can be in such close proximity yet remain so bracketed off from one another despite their shared histories of colonialism. When I return home now, I think about these encounters between Arab and Asian bodies as illuminating new horizons for collective life on stolen land. However, I realise the romance of this aspiration because when I come close to these others, I feel the distance, and I am still trying to work out how our future might be different.
This essay was commissioned and published as part of a digital residency program for Western Sydney writers offered by the SRB and the Bankstown Arts Centre.
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