Well, the first thing I noticed about Auburn was the news agency in the train station. There was nothing remarkable about it; in fact, it could very well pass for your average Aussie newsstand. What particularly caught my gaze, in fact, what made all the difference, was that there was a veiled woman tending it. A Muslim. That very much captured the essence of the place.
When we walked along the thoroughfares of the western suburb, it became even clearer that this was a little Islamic stronghold. The shops proclaimed their language and interests; the people’s appearances betrayed their background. One posting along the way was looking for a roommate, but it had to be a religious Muslim. Similarly, there was a billboard for the movie Zac and Miri make a porno, except that some black ink covered the ‘porno’ word so much so that you can’t read it. This just shows the conservative nature of the Muslims, although it could also be a simple act of graffiti (which I seriously disbelieve).
Auburn also has lots of shops, even the big retailers, which was surprising for such a mundane suburb. With this typical urban landscape however comes the Other. Muslims tend the Optus store, etc. Try as I might, I could not escape this utterly glaring reality. The trip to the mosque was an eye opener. I already knew a fair bit about the things the guy said, being the voracious reader and dedicated student that I am. However, it was curious to enter a real mosque with minarets for the first time. It just comes to show that they, like Christians and Jews, are fast turning up all over the world. Getting to know more of their culture is something that I could do.
If it wasn’t people of Middle Eastern looks, it was Vietnamese, African, or the occasional Filipino. In other words, this is very much a multicultural area. It was also obvious, from overhearing their little conversations that a lot of its residents were born overseas. This is especially true with regards to its older denizens. The fact that I saw many people strolling about the streets mean that Auburn isn’t a ghost town, that its people are willing to interact with each other, although I noticed that they chose those of similar nationality.
One outlet intrigued me more than any other. It was named Australian Real Estate, albeit with Chinese characters written directly above it. It could be that it was some sort of translation, or it could be something else entirely. It could be that there used to be a Chinese store in there, although I doubt that. I think it’s a translation. It could be perceived from this that there is a conscious effort amongst Auburn’s populace to adapt into the Australian environment. They may want to be as Aussie as the long weekend or fish and chips, which is in fact a good thing. From someone who feels the same way, since I grew up overseas despite being born here, believe me when I write that I know the feeling.
I also had a troubling experience during the field trip. I went to use the toilet when we went to this shopping mall. To my great surprise (and horror), I found the stalls having some serious excrement. Never before inside a mall in Sydney had I been confronted by such conditions. Does this reflect the attitudes that Muslims have on cleanliness? Well, from my past experiences with their domains here in Sydney, this could not be a stretch to imagine. After all, I have seen the mess at Target Bankstown and Hungry Jacks in Auburn. However, this is something that calls for further investigation and the results could be telling.
Wandering the streets as a researcher made me feel inquisitive, alert and meaningful. I felt like as though I had an obligation to dissect this place and share my findings with the world. It was gratifying to be in that position and to discover things that otherwise would remain mysterious. Nothing beats seeing the real thing. Doing so made me feel like seeing Sydney in miniature, although it could very well be Mecca as well.
There are some difficulties that could arise from this kind of research. One is to generalise about certain people, labelling everybody as so and so when in fact not all of them are such. This could be said about Arabs in particular, since they are the cause of so much stereotypes and discussion. Secondly, this is not very sound research since it is done through mere observation. A better approach would be to interview some of the dwellers, since it gives more information and less speculation on my part. Thirdly, there is the matter of time. It would be difficult to get hold of lots of real stuff with the amount of time we spent doing research. Real research takes years, even decades, to carry out. Likewise, a lot of things happening on that day must first be examined over time before jumping to conclusions.
It was not at all difficult to simply be an observer. I know that having the gaze as a one-way process through me was more preferable, but I wasn’t self conscious. To be a decent researcher in any field, you need to have some real thick skin. You can’t just type away on your laptop and say people of Middle Eastern appearances are war freaks simply because you counted seventeen elephants at Taronga zoo. You have got to possess that inner hunger, that desire to know more about your subject and cover all holes. For someone who’s read the intensive research carried out by accomplished academics, the challenge for me is to have respectable standards myself.
 Taken from my past Auburn trip with colleagues