Up until six months ago, I had never experienced what one would call a normal work environment. On the contrary.
As a kid, I would help my mom and aunts in their various endeavors – child labor laws succumbing decisively to familial bonds and Asian cultural norms. On weekends and holidays, I’d occasionally wake up at the crack of dawn to help my mom set up at the swapmeet, or snip threads at my aunt’s garment factory, or clean at my other aunt’s restaurant. Work wasn’t the norm: my sisters, cousins, and I were there primarily to be there, be watched. As the youngest, I had the run of the place, tossing footballs around, wandering nearby shops, probably costing more than my labor was worth.
In college, I spent a summer with a one-man engineering company. Chuck worked from a large storage unit – clearly slept there some evenings too. The job was data entry and Jamba Juice runs, nothing I could fuck up. We took a trip to Vegas once, me driving an oversized rented van to construction sites as he worked out of the back. It was all a bit strange. Once out of the blue, he shared that this was not how he envisioned his career, his life: struggling to keep afloat. I was too young to say much back. At least he wanted it that much, enough to create a makeshift office in a fucking storage facility. I admired that.
I worked at my university’s outdoor cafeteria for about a year. We rotated stations with regularity; our versatility theoretically meant to offset our inconsistent schedules. Problem is, I never felt comfortable with anything. The daily chaos of the lunch rush kept me in a near-constant state of anxiety. I could feel the pressure every time I needed to change the gloves on my wet hands, every time my glasses fogged up from the trays, every time I was at the register looking for the right button (it didn’t have numbers). I don’t think anyone ever got fired from the cafeteria – certainly not the students. But I would have been a prime candidate.
Immunity was characteristic of my graduate teaching assistant career as well, but at least I didn’t suck there. I showed up, I worked hard, I cared. I did enough to get the concepts across, prepared my students so that they could survive the quarter. Admittedly, I neither engaged nor challenged my kids intellectually the way elite T.A.s do, but I never was that bright or that passionate. The whole environment was a bit strange. Administration did nothing beyond cursory training and course assignments, professors left you alone except when grades were due, and kids blamed you for policies out of your control. Mostly, I was on my own.
Being a postdoctoral fellow with external funding, I still retain much of that academic independence. I choose my own research topics, pick my own projects, do my own work – within reason. Sure, I ask permission to leave the office, to attend conferences and take research trips, but more as a nod to procedure than anything else. Moreover, I’m never expected to do or attend specific things; rather, I’m requested or encouraged, and even then, rarely so. My supervisor even allowed me to take language class twice a week in the middle of the workday, underlining the unique place I occupy within the department.
Still, I work in a department under a supervisor now. I’m tethered both to an office and to regular office hours. I share a space with people who I see every day; we all stay until about when the cleaning ladies come. We have team projects – even if I’m not always involved – and team emails and team meetings. We even have team Christmas parties and team office-birthday celebrations. As a department, we produce and publicize and fund-raise in order to justify and/or perpetuate our existence. For the first time in my life, I operate in something that approximates a normal office environment. And it’s a trip.
I’ve found the grind to be just that. The routine is boring, sometimes wretched, even soul-sucking, indirectly imposing structure well beyond working hours, dictating extracurricular activity by virtue of the simple fact that attendance will be required in the morning. Yet, that my office time is strictly set aside for the first time in my life has also provided a blessing. I no longer let work hang over me in the evenings or on the weekends, never check email or feel compelled to be productive outside that time. As an academic, I had a healthy work-life balance*, but I still struggled to maintain the boundary between the two. That’s no longer a problem.
*The aforementioned lack of passion
I’ve found the work oftentimes nondescript, especially my own. On several occasions, I have contributed to the team’s projects, if only for the experience and potential path moving forward. It’s been somewhat disconcerting: I feel less a scholar than a machine, always scanning, never lingering. Deadlines loom, pressure mounts, and subjects bleed into one another. There’s not a lot of character to the work. Still, I have to admit that the finality of the product – one not perpetually a work in progress, or with an end-form yet to be determined, or requiring months of edits and peer-reviews leading to rejection – provides a nice feeling, even a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Perhaps most important, I have come to recognize something obvious to all but us sheltered few: the critical nature of work chemistry. Sure, I have had great officemates and shitty ones in the past, but I never spent 40 hours a week with them in a confined space, never attended mandated meetings and talks and social events with them. This resembles a housemate situation, only I can’t pretend they don’t exist if I don’t like them – clearly demonstrated in the awkward interactions between my two officemates. I am fortunate to be out of that fray, to find none of my colleagues unbearable or vice versa, to get along well enough with some to have become friends.
I’m yet to be in a job where my performance is legitimately evaluated, where I stand a chance of getting fired, where I think about things like a 401K or a future in the company. Maybe that will happen next. Or maybe I’ll return to academia. But for now, I snip about officemates, hide from the boss, dread Mondays. At the end of my time here in Japan, I’ll have experienced legitimate office life for two years. I’ll have witnessed the launching of our website, a long-promised move to another floor, turnover on the margins. And I’ll have been part of a team that basically started from scratch. Putting everything else aside, it’s a nice feeling.