One gets used to store employees following one around. Tagging along a few discreet steps behind. In the beginning, my naive self used to think these were helpful overtures. A desire to be close at hand, to help if needed. However, I have rarely been approached by these employees. I’ve hardly ever been asked what it was I was shopping for. Just the quiet shadowing. I have often, on account of this ‘discreet stalking’, left the store before I was quite finished and headed elsewhere. It was only later that a light bulb went off in my head. This revelation led me, pretty quick, to the dressing room mirror. I stood before it and inspected my image. Closely. It had to be there, plain for all to see. But try as I might I couldn’t spot it: the sign on my forehead, blinking ‘shoplifter’.
What was it about my visage, I wondered? Or was it my attire? What was it that, the moment I stepped inside a store, set store employees’ hearts a-pounding? I don’t know, and to tell the truth I’ve never got to the bottom of it. But my arrival in Sydney seventeen years ago offered at least one explanation. And this came from a fellow south-Asian, working the checkout counter at the local supermarket. For some reason, maybe because he was friendly and said ‘hi’ or ‘good day’ I frequently pushed my trolley load of items past his checkout and in the process said hi in return. Every time, before I paid and left, he’d ask, politely, ‘Can I just quickly look into your backpack, please?’ Not a problem, I’d say, and willingly open up the bag to show my crossword and library book languishing within. This became routine — an accepted one, albeit mildly annoying. He’d scan my goods, I’d pay, he’d ask to check my bag, I’d oblige, we’d smile at each other embarrassedly, I’d leave. It must be the supermarket’s policy, I told myself.
All this changed one day, however, when I noticed two customers ahead of me in the same checkout line, one with a backpack the other with a large handbag, go past the same checkout employee without being asked to show their bags. When my turn came, I was the recipient of the same polite request: ‘May I, sir? Check your bag?’ That’s when I think I learned that patience and tolerance can be finite qualities. One can be pushed just a little too far. So, I enquired where he was from. Taken aback, he told me nevertheless. Another migrant like myself. I pointed out that he’d just allowed two Caucasian customers to saunter through unchallenged. He seemed to redden with discomfort.
‘Are you singling me out because of the colour of my skin?’ I asked. ‘Oh, no, no, no, sir,’ he hastened to assure me. Fortunately for me there in the line behind also waiting to be checked out were a few more customers with bags or backpacks. All non-Asian in appearance. ‘I’ll willingly show you my bag if you ask the others behind me to do the same first,’ I told him.
In the end I didn’t because he confessed it was just easier to ask a fellow countryman to do something he found embarrassing to do in the first place. Besides, he’d been shouted at a few times for daring to ask a native Aussie to show their bag. ‘How dare you come to my country and have the cheek to treat me like a thief?’ ‘You’re just a kind friendly man who never protests. It’s store policy and at least my supervisors get to see me doing my job. I hate it, really,” he said. And I began to understand, for the first time.
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.