‘The Uber Ride’ by Marise Phillips was published in 'Spiral Anthology' in 2020.
Not so long ago, I was travelling to work in a red Corolla Ascent with my Uber driver, Mohammed. He was overly chatty. I just wanted to focus on my thoughts. I was happy to just listen to him talk from my vantage point in the backseat and offer him a nod or an ‘Oh, really’ when called for. But it wasn’t long before he focused his attention on me.
‘So, Mar-sie, where is that name from?’
I shifted in the seat. ‘Oh, actually it’s Mar-ise. Well,’ I paused, thinking of all the myriad ways to explain my given name, ‘I’m not actually sure.’ This was the truth, but I felt a need to appear polite and not come across as blunt. Also, I wanted to return his attempt at conversation.
Mohammed interjected before I could think of anything. ‘Oh, cool. So where are you from?’
‘I’m Indian. But I’ve been in Australia for twenty years.’ I was now in well-worn territory: autopilot on.
‘Oh, really? My family is from Hyderabad. Where in India are you from?’
We chatted for a few minutes, exchanging various anecdotes of our lives before Australia.
Until Mohammed’s next question caught me off guard: ‘Did you have a hard time at school?’
‘Well, yeah. I guess it was hard.’ I tried to keep it light. ‘It’s funny, because although I grew up speaking English, I still had a hard time understanding what the kids at school were saying to me. Their accent was so heavy. And all the Aussie slang, like lollies and knickers. I was like—what is that?’
Mohammed’s laugh was loud and easy. It was enough to see he related to my experience.
‘I know what you mean,’ he replied. ‘I also could speak English, because I went to Catholic boarding school in Ooty since year four. But it still took me time to really understand what people were saying around me.
‘I was lucky, though,’ he continued. ‘My cousin who moved here really struggled. He could speak English well, too, but he was also very shy. I’m not. He was, like, too worried about what people think. He thought: my accent is too strong—that kind of thing.’
I nodded. ‘Yeah.’
‘He was staying with my family. He would not speak a word at school. He didn’t make any friends because he wouldn’t speak.’
I wanted to say to Mohammed that I knew how his cousin felt. I don’t know why I didn’t. My mind tracked back twenty years to those first weeks at my new primary school in Perth.
* * *
The ten-year-olds around me were noisy, messy and quickly losing interest in whatever activity the teacher had assigned them. The girls were gossiping, twirling around in their blue pleated skirts; the boys were yelling and tossing scrunched-up balls of paper at each other. It was a scene that was alien to me: Indian classrooms were places of quiet study. Students only spoke when the teacher asked a question. Everything was upside down and the noise was a physical shock.
I was worried what I would say if one of my classmates spoke to me. Most of all, I was afraid of the teacher asking me a question in front of the whole class: how everyone would not understand my accent or maybe find my choice of words weird. It was my own fear getting the better of me—the pounding anxiety I felt in my heart any time I thought I might have to speak.
So, I didn’t speak. For the first few weeks of school, I did my best to not speak at all. I lived in my head. I spent recess and lunchtime in the girls’ bathroom and ate my sandwiches in the classroom, away from everyone. When school ended each day, I would count on my fingers the number of words I had spoken. It became a game—the less words, the better. But who was the winner and who was the loser?
I still remember it clearly: the loneliness of it all. I had never shared the experience because I was too embarrassed. I had been called ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ my whole life: a trait I always assumed was a character flaw. I thought no one would understand my story or share my experience.
Conversations I’ve had with Uber drivers have ranged from meaningless small talk—the weather, traffic, what time they’re clocking off—to thought-provoking and engaging stories.
Long after my drive with Mohammed, I still find our conversation weaving its way into my thoughts. I was, until now, afraid to share it; afraid of breaking the unspoken yet assumed confidentiality between strangers who connect over shared experiences.
Marise Phillips is an Indian–Australian writer and freelance editor based in Naarm. She is drawn to non-fiction writing that captures unique and untold perspectives. In a post-COVID-19 world she hopes to continue her love of travel and explore different cultures through food and language.