When we were climbing Kilimanjaro, my brother delighted in teasing me by threatening, at every sign-in sheet, to put my occupation as “unemployed”. He knew this irritated me immensely—partly because it was him doing it, partly because of the implications I was going to spend the year as nothing but a jobless ne’er-do-well.
As of last week, the label no longer applies: I am now an employed woman. After an inquiry by my mother on a chance shopping trip, a ten-minute bike ride, some aimless wandering around looking for a manager to talk to, and a five-minute interview, I found a part-time job at a new grocery store near my home.
It pays just above minimum wage (by US standards, that is; the Singaporean government is not familiar with the concept of minimum hourly pay). This is more than I was expecting: I am uniquely unqualified for this kind of work. My twelve years in school, my internships, leadership experience, photography, writing, mean nothing except as a space-filler on the resume my interviewer glanced at for about half a second.
I’m at the store in my capacity as a physically able human being who can turn jars and wave things in front of a bar code scanner and spend hours sorting moldy from fresh blueberries. And I had thought that this work: turning bottles so the label faced outwards, moving jars so they aligned at the front, arranging slabs of salmon to lean just so, would be relaxing. I would have a chance for my thoughts to linger, to plan, to anticipate, to unwind, because it wasn’t like I would actually be doing anything, right, absent of intellectual or physical stimulation?
But I’m getting paid because as a physically able human being, too, I am worth something to the store. And that knowledge is stressful. After my first day of work, I was more nervous than I had been before any exam, terrified I had messed something up, forgotten to cover a row, left a bottle’s ingredients facing outwards for the boss to see and grill my supervisor for. I came home from my second day, having learned how to cashier, sobbing from hours of being on edge for fear of slipping up and mis-scanning an asparagus and at the idea of going back and doing it all again for seven hours the next day.
As the days passed I think I’ve grown more confident, more at ease with my faux-American-accented “will that be all, ma’am?” (Another new thing to get used to: I’ve never had to call anyone “ma’am” or “sir” before in my life.) Spoiled brat that I am, with the fortune to have parents who support my brother and I in every way, this is the first time I can face direct consequences for my action—not in terms of a nebulous college admission or a not-really-counted grade, but in terms of money earned by a working adult—i.e., me. It’s strange, and not a little exhausting, to see myself like that. I am finding my way as my own cog in the vast overpriced gourmet food capitalist machine, with my own small role to play placing bar code stickers on granola, and without me some part of that machine would collapse. Or at least some cashier (potentially also me) might be inconvenienced for a few minutes. If I drop something in clumsy haste, that’s not something my parents can draw a safety net around me for—that’s on me.
But I’m getting comfortable within the rhythm of my small rotations, and even more so the bliss of getting home at the end of the day. That, I’ve found, is a happiness that only corporate employment can teach.