Tag Archives: real world

A Piece of the Pie

A few years ago, looking to furnish my new shoebox apartment in Tokyo, I made my rounds of the secondhand shops in the area. At one place, a little far from home, I spotted two super-cute vintage chairs – around $50 for the pair. I loved them. I wanted them. And I bought them. It would have been a hassle to bring them back on public transport, so I ended up paying another $20 or $30 for shipping. It felt much relative to the cost of the chairs. But I liked them enough to overlook it.

I had never properly shopped or invested in furniture before, even $25 chairs, primarily because I had never quite settled in a place of my own. In Irvine, where I lived for six years in a university-owned apartment – the longest I had lived anywhere in my entire life – my biggest purchase was an arcade basketball machine. My residences had generally been furnished by roommates. And where items were lacking, I would fill in the gaps with unimaginative, cost-effective options: a bedside table from Ikea, a desk from Office Depot.

My reticence to invest in nothing but the most basic, low-end items was certainly linked to the transient nature of my existence. I could not help but think about the inevitability of having to get rid of that furniture in due course: nine months, a year – it would go by in the blink of an eye. Indeed, my approach to furniture reflected broader sensibilities linked to the moving around, as I heralded utility above all else. This was reinforced by the fact that I was both a cheap and relatively poor bastard.

As I have mentioned on these pages before, luxury was unknown to my family growing up. We were never quite uncomfortable, but nor were we ever comfortable either. We rented, never owned. We bought Corollas and paid them off over the span of years. I only had two or three years during my childhood and adolescence in which I did not share a room with my sister, until she went off to college. Given how hard my parents worked, given how hard money came by, spending extravagantly simply could not enter the realm of possibility.*

*Naturally, I wasted money anyway, being human and a child. But it was within reason.

Opportunity, however, began to present itself as I grew older. I made a little money working as an undergraduate, then more as a teaching assistant in graduate school. With some semblance of financial independence, I began to do things with regularity that would have been unfathomable when I was younger: engaging in fun travel (if almost exclusively within the States), attending sporting events, and simply going out on weekends for food and drinks and the like.

Thus it was that luxury too came to manifest, even if in spurts and with limits. I had nosebleed seats for my favorite baseball team, but they were season tickets – thousands of dollars’ worth. I bought a laptop or two on sale, even when my existing one was only aging rather than nonfunctional. I picked up small items like DVDs, books, comics, etc. without even thinking twice. I no longer had to dwell on such transactions, but for entirely unexpected reasons: because it WAS possible and not because it was not, as in the past.

Still, I struggled – and continue to struggle – to reconcile the reality of my present with that of my past. Of course, that my mother remains a blue collar worker, that many of my relatives and their social circles remain decidedly lower-middle class (or perhaps upper-lower class), provides a constant reminder of a life that is not quite in the rearview mirror. Additionally, that my own career instability continues to loom provides a constant reminder too of a lifestyle that can be all too fleeting.

Whatever the reason, I certainly have developed mixed feelings about the kind of life I am able to live sometimes. About the kind of world I live in that values a particular skillset over others to the tune that it does, with the kind of inequality that the difference entails. The effect is exacerbated by how it is represented in my own life: in comparison to my parents and how hard they work, in comparison to my sister and the societal value she brings, even in comparison to my own life (and duties) just two or three years ago.

I am able to live my life without dwelling on it most of the time, of course. I am not as good a person as I would like to think. But there are times when it becomes too obvious, too naked – with things that are small and tangible and all too easy to compare. In those moments, I feel somewhere between apprehension and full-fledged guilt. And thus I cannot spend over certain unwritten amounts for clothes, for electronics, especially for extravagant meals, even if I am all too aware that the limits I have set are quite arbitrary.

Indulgences take many forms. I have written of my ability to travel to more places than I could have ever imagined. And while I can rationalize such trips as genuine experiences that will be lodged in my mind in a way that a tangible thing cannot be, in reality one is not too far from the other. Ultimately, I am spending sometimes obscene amounts of money in one go – for a day of fucking around in a new city, for a weekend at a friend’s wedding on the other side of the world, for a week in the woods.

It seems of course misguided to deny myself the opportunities that I have been able to attain – no matter how unfair the world that offered them to me might be. To do so appears as self-righteousness to the extreme, an act meant primarily to assuage my own guilt. The solution then, broadly speaking, is to channel what luxury I have access to now to improve the world around me, to help others when I can. It is something I think about as I continue to pursue that elusive stability. And it is that awareness that allows me to live with myself.

There is a bookend to this. After I left Japan for Switzerland, my friends cared for my two chairs for the better half of a year. But when they left Japan too, I did not want them to simply get rid of the chairs. So, after contemplating my options, I asked for them to ship the pair over. They’re out on my balcony now, the exceptions in what is again an otherwise furnished sublet. It cost me about $250 to ship them over. I’m not particularly proud of that. But for now, I’m still all too conscious that I shouldn’t be proud of that.

The Glass Half Empty

On my worst days, I indulge my narcissistic tendencies.

I wallow in self-pity.

I linger on my myriad flaws.

I feel painfully insecure.

I can’t remember the last time I flew with anyone. It’s kind of a random thing to linger on, recognizably a first world problem, but it feels a microcosm of something, to me at least.* Maybe because there’s no one to ride with to the airport, to chat with until boarding, to hold onto in case of turbulence. I’ve been alone so long I’ve just about become resigned to the feeling, only it makes the fleeting moments of connection that do occur that much more visceral, haunting, eventually painful.

*Maybe I’ve just seen one too many Richard Curtis films.

It takes all of four hours for someone to figure me out – at least on a basketball court, spread out across two nights on back-to-back Tuesdays. A guy who I had never met previously – friendly and well-meaning, but clearly slightly exasperated – gives a shout as we leave the gym. “Wilfred.” There’s a pause, as though he’s weighing his words. Then a shake of the head and a knowing smile. “You gotta stop playing scared, man.” It’s a simple, brutal assessment, one that cuts right at me. He’s right.

I’m not aggressive with the ball. I’m more comfortable being guarded than I am cutting to the basket unmarked. I feel overmatched no matter who I play, all too aware that I either 1) lack the kind of coordination and body control they seem to possess naturally, or 2) contain an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt almost entirely absent from others. Somehow, in a game that has no meaning beyond the 10 minutes it takes to get to the next one, I am scared – of letting teammates down, of looking stupid, of failing. It’s painfully obvious, even to a near-stranger.

I have always been a bundle of nerves, no matter the stakes, how big or small, or however many times I have found myself in similar spots previously. I take after my dad in that way. For all my efforts to maintain a facade of perspective in the grander scheme of things, I still suffer internally, making mountains out of molehills with a degree of regularity. Worse, I compound the psychological tendency by often fulfilling the prophecy myself, getting into troublesome situations of my own making.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I wandered unwittingly from a marked hiking trail, instead following along an unending ridgeline of limestone cliffs. It was stupid. I was supposed to make a left upward, rising above the clearing, but went opposite instead. Driven by a faint recollection of the description I had read the previous night, overriding all logic and common sense, I stubbornly plowed ahead – even as the ridge narrowed, the gradient steepened, and the trail became rocky and sandy.

Later, I would discover I was mere minutes from the peak when I veered off. It should have been obvious. The trail, the surroundings, the directionality – none of it made sense. Still, it takes me a half hour before I turn around. It’s harder going back. I climb through some sections, literally claw my way up others. Ahead of a particularly narrow section, I cramp. I’m writhing in pain on the ground, surveying the edge, pondering my mortality. It’s sobering: I’m genuinely terrified.* How did I get myself in this mess?

*It’s reminiscent of a previous experience I’ve written about. In this most recent instance, I even contemplate “if I don’t make it” texts to a couple of people, but it seemed like a terrible burden to put on them. So I hold back. Ultimately, I make it back and through, unscathed but for my psyche.

It seems a metaphor. I get so far in, then I pause for a breath and realize I still don’t quite know what the fuck I’m doing. That feeling of inadequacy; it’s a killer. It’s not that I fear I’m still not a finished product at 34, but the opposite – that I am a finished product and this is all I am and all I ever will be. I can blame timing and luck and nuance, but sometimes life feels like a series of dichotomous outcomes I can’t quite turn in my favor. A steady job. A sense of direction. Love and companionship.

On my worst days, I just don’t feel good enough. And I feel like I never will be.

I don’t know.

Maybe I gotta stop living life scared too.

Revisiting the Doctorate

When I first floated the idea of going to graduate school, I was a third year in college, visiting one of my teaching assistants at his office hours. His office was literally the size of a broom closet, and he had to pull chairs out into the corridor for us to have space to chat. I felt a bit embarrassed for him. Anyhow, we got to talking, and he asked about my post-graduation plans. I hadn’t thought about it much, so I threw out some generic answers, including graduate school – almost on a lark. His reaction was swift. Grad school, he all but admonished, was not to be taken lightly. I had to be passionate about the subject, the field. It was, he impressed upon me, not a casual option.

Looking back, the encounter was a microcosm of the graduate school experience: a myth about the purity of research and pedagogy, characterized too often by an inflated sense of importance and very real flagellation, hierarchical to its own detriment. These were traits perpetuated across the whole of the enterprise. Academe’s worst qualities seemed to manifest especially in the social sciences, comprised of far too many self-righteous individuals who had something to say about every aspect of society while lacking the basic social skills to actually exist in it.*

*I was once subject to a chain of emails in which graduate students struggled to get past the pedantry of naming a union (let alone forming one), because the word “union” had connotations to be argued over, just as “collective” did, or “association,” or every other word in the world.

I lived, as you might surmise, a normal existence even as a graduate student. Of course I had stressful days and weeks, especially as deadlines loomed. But I never felt snowed under the way many of my colleagues seemed to, my life far from the manner in which they presented their existence, as Sisyphus perpetually pushing the boulder uphill. I don’t know whether I was balanced or apathetic; perhaps both. But I progressed through the program, passion be damned. I managed to watch an obscene amount of movies, hold season tickets to my baseball team, take extended summer road trips. It was just more school.

I did attend conferences, managed to publish once or twice, but unsurprisingly, I never was the model academic. I did not network at these conferences, did not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. I secured a couple of external fellowships, but never did transition neatly into a tenure-track position at a research university – despite what my adviser so clearly hoped and inelegantly (even unprofessionally) pushed for. I resisted. Even now, I continue to find myself, seemingly further and further from academia. My ability to finish the degree seemed to be a victory for normal people.

It’s difficult to overstate how little difference the doctorate makes in my life on a daily basis, even as I recognize its role in my career path. On rare occasion, I might chat with someone and learn they had begun the process and moved onto something else, or are just now considering going down that route. I might encounter people who look at it with a sense of reverence; this includes a supervisor who had a obvious chip on his shoulder about not having the degree himself. In such circumstances, I find myself asking what the degree means to me. I think about whether I would recommend the pursuit to others, and – ultimately – whether I regret that seven and a half years.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with newfound knowledge would have no second thought about their actions in almost any circumstance – a conversation, a relationship, a career choice. But regret is a strong word. I wonder whether having regret entails envisioning a completely altered existence, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or whether it represents a lone item of change that can be isolated from a life otherwise left untouched. I make that distinction because I need it. I do not regret pursuing my doctorate, but I would never do it if I had known then what I know now.

I do not regret because I grew up in graduate school. After a miserable four years in college, it was as a graduate student that I found my self-worth again. I became comfortable with who I was, even found some people who liked that person. I gleaned a genuine sense of accomplishment from the work, through shallow measures like departmental and school recognition, but also through regular interactions with students and colleagues and professors. I finished on my own terms, as I mentioned above – a balanced individual. And I have been able to shift from that pursuit to where I am now.

But I would never do it knowing then what I know now. I might have pursued a masters, and nothing more, knowing that the difference between it and a doctorate is all but negligible outside academia, easily overcome by real-world experience. I would forgo a degree that leads to a career path that promises no job security let alone a job, that ignores geographic preference, that bleeds over the notion of balance. I would turn away from a degree that means so much only to such a narrow community, driven by those who are all too eager to feed into its esoteric and self-sustaining nature.

In retrospect, my teaching assistant had it almost right. Passion about the subject, the field, might really be necessary – but not for graduate school per say. Clearly I’ve proven him wrong on that front. But I think it helps in the long run, in academia. It sustains people as they trudge on, through a game that never ends, a ladder that keeps climbing. There’s delusion in that passion, for sure, righteousness too, maybe pure survival sprinkled in. But there’s also genuine belief, the kind I never had. Whatever it is, it’s something to hold onto as the environment – anachronistic and unwilling to change – envelops their lives.

I have my degree. I have no regret. But I would not do it knowing what I know now. It makes me wonder whether I was simply not smart enough then to fail.

(Photo by GregsWikidContributions, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Enveloping Darkness

It is impossible to get away from it.

The guide for my bike tour brings it up, unprompted, in the context of the upcoming Dutch elections. “We have a Dutch Trump,” he says with a sigh of resignation. We nod sullenly.

At the museum, the turbaned security guard almost lights up when he finds out I’m from the U.S. “It’s scary over there,” he exclaims as he peruses my small backpack. “And it’s only been two weeks.” I concur.

I hear chatter every single day from my hallway at work, mostly the American colleagues as they recap in excruciating detail the latest items on the newswire. From a couple of doors down, it sounds like a circlejerk of righteousness, of outrage – a genuine echo chamber.

I’m fatigued, personally. I don’t really feel the need to talk about it anymore, at least not for now, not aloud. How many ways can one express anger anyhow? Or frustration or despair or concern. How many times can one be affirmed by like-minded friends or colleagues, even strangers, without actually moving forward?

I’m already too deep in as it stands*. I clutch for my phone in bed, refreshing Twitter or the New York Times or Reddit at 1 am to see if the President has done anything further to destroy the country I loved, far too blindly, before I go to sleep. I do the same in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep. That seems to happen more these days.

*I’m writing about the topic again, for starters.

I don’t think I can do this for four years. To think this way, to feel this way. To wake up with a sense of dread and despair. I tell myself it will not last four years. But who knows, really? What if it’s eight?

There are other aspects of it I’ve been thinking more recently. Maybe it’s a stages of grief thing. Maybe I’m just compelled by a need to make more sense of it all, to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

It says something us as a country – about me as an individual – that it took this to squelch our collective apathy. There, after all, exists an ironic undercurrent in our outrage: of ethnocentrism, of nationalism, of an affirmation of the kind of American exceptionalism that the rest of the world finds fanciful if not altogether repugnant.

I cannot help but see that it is only in the recognition of the fragility of our progress and our institutions that most of us finally seem to understand the fragility of all progress and all institutions. It is only in our despair that most of us are compelled to movement. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter how or when we got here but only that we are here now.

This whole environment is strange. It feels wrong to be selfish in times like this. To be concerned for instance about impending professional uncertainty, to dwell upon intense personal emotion, to muster care over any number of matters, some more frivolous than others. There are far more important things going on.

Then again, there always have been.

I don’t know. I think that’s what it comes down to. I just don’t know. The spectrum of possibility is vast. The possibility for disaster ever-present.

I ponder when people talk about the banality of evil someday if this will be an example that they cite. If there is or will be a line crossed that all of us will only recognize in hindsight. If there will be enough pieces of America left for the next administration to pick up and try to make whole again.

Like I said, it is impossible to get away from it.

It is ubiquitous, all-encompassing, penetrating. Not confined to newspaper stories or small talk or social media posts. No, it is a part of life now – of the way we think and see and feel, almost every second of every day.

So I wonder. In these trying times, I wonder if maintaining a sense of perspective will come at the cost of losing myself in the process, of invalidating everything to do with the immediacy of my own life.

It seems like a selfish thought. It is. But maybe I need to feel selfish again too. To feel just a twinge of normalcy amidst this most abnormal time. To have a center from which I have again a sense of footing, and can try to make sense of the environment that surrounds us all.

(Photo by C. E. Price [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Week of the End of the World

Every day, it’s something.

My friend started a Google Doc to chronicle it all. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s to remind us that this isn’t normal. Or it might be something we’ll look back on ruefully when things get worse. Whatever the reason, I am adding to it.

A week. Has it only been seven days?

I wake up every day feeling despondent about my country, about the world. Hope exists, of course. The Women’s March on Washington was heartening, and so too was the news that another massive rally is coming April 15th. Scientists are putting one of their own together too. Across the country, there are flames: those who gatherered to protest outside a GOP retreat in Philly, New Yorkers responding spur of the moment to executive orders on immigration. A fiery state of the state address from the California governor.

But these people and others – my kindred spirits – are in the unenviable position of reacting, and as such, of being acted upon first. The media is chastised for daring to challenge so-called “alternative facts,” for asking follow-ups that might expose the emperor’s new clothes. Democratic senators raise alarms at the frightening lack of qualifications with numerous nominees, yet they stand helpless to prevent confirmation on their own. All of us sit, forced to wait until the bombast solidifies, forced to wait until rhetoric develops into law, before we can figure out how exactly to fight back.

Talk about liberal bubbles might not be completely off-base, but to engage in introspection now seems self-defeating as the other side proceeds gleefully with the cowardice of their conviction. A homogeneous group of white men smile and congratulate each other for moving to strip healthcare from nearly 30 million people without backup. The propaganda team in place has no qualms about spreading falsehoods, shouting down dissenters, controlling scientific research. Somehow, they have decided to prioritize the re-litigation of established law like Roe v. Wade and established reality like human-induced climate change.

Their hypocrisy is surprising only in its nakedness, and perhaps not even then. The Speaker of the House from the party of fiscal responsibility willingly fronts $8-14 billion for a wall against a threat that does not exist. The Senate Majority Leader complains about obstruction when he has held a vacant Supreme Court Justice spot hostage for nearly a year. While not illegal, the senior staff of the administration uses, yes, a private email server with no trace of irony, and the president himself represents a moving security risk with the unsecured Android he uses to spew his bile.

The overall lack of subtlety is a blessing and a curse, as the contours of the path towards the ominous future is revealed. Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud will be the foundation for a voter suppression campaign more extensive than the one the GOP has already undertaken. Bans on refugees from countries deemed terrorist threats are the first move towards a comprehensive system of racial and religious profiling. The publication of a weekly list of criminal action committed by immigrants is the spark to undo everything this country stands for, to unlearn everything World War II taught us.

He has been everything we expected. He has been everything he promised. A beneficiary of foreign agents, an enabler of white supremacists, and a man likely beholden to business interests. A man-child, would-be king, and again, because somehow this wasn’t disqualifying in it of itself, a perpetrator of sexual assault – if you take his word for it. So this is where we stand. Today, tomorrow, and for as many as four years. Our institutions are being tested. Our principles, our very way of life.

Week one.

(Photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Left Unsaid

There are some things left unsaid. They have to be.

There’s a quote that high school seniors love to use in their yearbooks, that high school graduates have taken to using in their inspirational memes. “Dance like nobody’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one’s listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” The idea is nice, to be sure. Romantic, empowering, life-affirming. But it’s also not viable. It’s not viable for the same reason why “live everyday like it’s your last” is an abstract (and absurd) philosophy rather than a realistic blueprint for daily living. After all, we don’t exist in a vacuum. “We’re living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilized way.”* We have societal duties, responsibilities.

*Wise words from a wise man.

I’ve discovered this past month that social mores are never more manifestly apparent than during a period of transition (say, a move to the other side of the world). Perhaps it’s the inherent contradiction. What seems a perfect opportunity to cut to the chase given the blank slate instead becomes a stark reminder of the game we have to play in existing as part of this world. I want desperately to ask my new colleagues outright about the assholes in the department. To ask my panel what they really thought of my interview months ago. But as honest and straightforward as I fashion myself, there are consequences to consider, and thus, boundaries to mind. Maybe I get my answers in due time. Maybe I never do.

I admit that I felt a tremendous urge to impart memorable words to those I left behind in Japan. I suppose it’s the theatrical side of me, growing up in Los Angeles. Regardless, I certainly considered offering unsolicited advice to those who have been a part of my life over the past two to three years and beyond. Perhaps in my more drunken moments, I even started to do so. I itched to tell my supervisor about the work environment he had fostered, I racked through my brain for the right words with which to relate counsel to colleagues, I began a letter – in my mind – for the research fellows who were to join the institute I was leaving.

But despite the temptation, I did not end up doing any of these things, for any number of reasons. It’s undeniably arrogant for starters. For me to impose my perspective on someone else’s experience, to presume that the would-be recipient was not already aware of their own traits, to overlook the possibility that they too might have thoughts about me, my persona, my very essence that they were holding back out of common courtesy. But more than arrogance, that I did not feel comfortable enough to share my thoughts up until that point with these individuals reveals much about the nature of our relationship as it had existed.

I had a conversation before I left with a friend about my mixed feelings toward giving advice to a mutual acquaintance. And he asked, “Why not? You’re leaving anyway.” It’s not that simple. Leaving a place, leaving people behind – it’s not an excuse to forgo social obligation and responsibility, to essentially live like there is no tomorrow. My departure might have been a necessary condition for an airing of laundry (clean and dirty, positive and negative), but it is not in itself not a sufficient one. Yes, in a few rare cases, I did have heart-to-hearts. But the foundation for those conversations, for those memorable words, had been meticulously laid out – on both sides – over the course of those relationships.

Still, I would be remiss to suggest that there were no words left unsaid even in those instances. The game is prevalent even in the most intimate of relationships. Because ultimately in life, there are some things that don’t need to be said, or shouldn’t be said, or haven’t gestated enough to be said properly. Restraint in these instances is not a matter of cowardice, but the reverse, and linked to having a measure of basic decency as a human being. There are boundaries to mind, a result of timing, or circumstance, or consequence. There always will be.

So some things are left unsaid. They have to be. At least for now, and perhaps even for ever. But that’s the burden of living with a tomorrow. That’s the burden of living when someone is watching, listening, responding.

Lines on the Résumé

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.