Study Melbourne partnered with Melbourne Writers Festival 2017 to host a storytelling competition for international students. ‘Trust us' - Trust Victorian people’ by Huy Quoc Tran from Vietnam won in the University category.

‘Trust us’ – Trust Victorian people

“Ood orning,” said the bus driver.

I pretended that I did not hear him because I was wearing earphones. As I got on the bus, my eyes darted around to pick the perfect seat in mere seconds. Everyone stared at me. I could really feel their eyes on me as I was walking all the way to the back of the bus.

I had social anxiety.

Not a day went by without me tormenting myself why some basic daily situations could be such struggles for me. Even striking up casual small talk ranged from somewhat daunting to downright terrifying, especially when I was volunteering for the Bendigo Easter Festival that day. Despite how passionate I am about helping the community, the thought of socialising with new folks was draining.

When I showed up at Rosalind Park, I flinched at a blast of noise from the crowd. The activity area was a circus tent where people were juggling balls and spinning plates. I met the entertainment provider who told me that my role was simply to manage the circus craft tables, and probably assist with the bump in and bump out of equipment. ‘They all seemed doable; at least there would not be much communication involved’ – I tried to con myself into positivity.

Two hours later, although there had been times when I had to demonstrate how to make the crafts with verbal instructions, I managed to keep the talking to a minimum. I dispensed nods, laughed at some overheard jokes and waved goodbye. It was up to par until a man came into the tent when I was sprucing up the table. In between quick glances, I noticed that he was a middle-aged man, tall and of average build, with dark smudges under his eyes. He approached and offered me his hand.

“Where are you from, young man?”

“I’m…from Vietnam.” I was so confused. People usually start a conversation with ‘Hello, how are you?’ rather than asking where I come from.

“Ahhh wonderful! I want you to know that you’re more than welcome to stay in Australia!” He beamed.

“Oh…thank you!” I shrunk from his eye contact.

He ensconced himself into the seat in front of me, and started talking about the history of the festival. My anxiousness kicked in. All I could do was nod my head. After a while, he suddenly said:

“Now, have a seat and tell me why you look so edgy when you’re doing such an amazing job here.”

I wordlessly stared at him while my left brain was working its socks off to come up with the most convincing excuse on earth. But when I was just about to utter the words, my conscience stopped me from ‘lying’ to this respectable man. My honesty won out. I grabbed a chair and sat down facing his direction.

“Can I…be honest with you?” I asked him.

“Fire away, son.”

“I have social anxiety.” I spilt my guts. “I’m always that anxious, shy and nerve-wrecked when I’m with other people. I even try to avoid talking to everyone even though I wish I could. I just can’t. There’s always something that holds me back.”

“You’re afraid everyone judges you, aren’t you?” His gaze went straight into my soul.

“Yes. I am. I’m afraid they find out about how irrelevant I am. I do things people my age don’t. I like classic music and movies and I read psychology books. You see, I’m very boring. I just…don’t fit in.” I tried to withhold my tears.

“Why fit in when you can stand out? Why so self-conscious when you can love yourself?” He straightened his back.

“What do you mean by that?”

He leaned towards and tapped me on the shoulder. “Be yourself, son.” He allowed a pause to let those words sink in before he continued.

“I once went through the same predicaments. I was so different that I became so fearful of even the smallest interactions with everyone. Then I started to redeem myself just to…fit in. Until one day, I realised that the best person I could be was me. I was born an original, why do I need to be a copy of someone else? We’re all different. Why change ourselves? So be proud of who you are! All the personality traits you have make you unique. And more importantly, trust everyone, trust us.”

“Trust you?”

He nodded. “Yes, have faith in us. We do not judge anyone. We embrace difference. It’s your anomalies that enrich this world. You’re part of our community, darl!”

I mulled over what he had said on my way to the station. When I crossed the footbridges, my eyes met those of a woman, she murmured ‘Thank you!’ At that very moment, everything just made sense to me. I realised that it is absolutely fine to be different. It is okay to tell corny jokes, enjoy weird music, and do activities purely for the purpose of enjoying them. Because they are things that wholly and authentically shape who I am. Self-hate only drives me further into a hole that I could not climb out of. There is no need to fret over those stereotypes, judgements or prejudices because I am living in such an immense and nurturing community. There are thousands of people out there who accept me for who I truly am. I can be a little kooky but they still welcome me with open arms. They are all around me. It is the lady who smiled at me on a bridge. It is the elderly man who was willing to listen to me pouring my heart out. And it is the bus driver who greets me with a friendly ‘Hello!’

The rumbling of the bus interrupted my thinking. As the door opened, what the man had said quickly ran through my mind ‘Trust us!’ I removed my earphones.

“Hello, how are ya?” said the driver.

“‘Hi, I’m very well, thank you!” I smiled.