Last Sunday I had my last day of work at the grocery store, ending my first two months of employment.
I will be the first to admit I’ve had it easy here: calling it two months of work is generous, considering the several weeks of travel interspersed within. My shifts were short and my pay far beyond Singapore retail average. (My hourly wage was twice that offered by the bakery where I first looked for a job.) My boss was flexible with my schedule, and—to be frank—there wasn’t much work.
My only quibble is that I discovered the employee discount on the second-last day of work.
Still, for me, this was my first time actually having a job, as in one where you came in and wore a uniform and performed tasks with the expectation of compensation for your time. This is opposed to going in, wearing a uniform, and performing tasks with the expectation of compensating others for your time, which is what I did for the last twelve years. So:
1. I regret every time I counted down the minutes to the end of an 80-minute class in high school. 80 minutes is nothing compared to three hours when the only entertaining prospect in sight is turning jars so the item name faces out. Then, 80 minutes is the final countdown. There isn’t even a desk to accidentally take a nap on (which I have never, ever done in a class.)
2. After twelve years of not doing it (thanks, international education!), calling people “sir” or “ma’am” can become surprisingly natural, even when to people are five years younger than you, who don’t seem fazed by it.
3. 99% of the time, people in the service industry are anonymous except when they screw up. I did not matter to the customers beyond the service I provided. This is a fantastic ego-deflater after graduating high school. People wanted me to tell them where to find gluten-free bread, not the process of anaerobic fermentation. I am there to earn money, not change the world. No one cares that I am good at writing essays on feminist narrative in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. They care that I am good at bagging their groceries quickly.
4. I am really bad at bagging groceries quickly. They would have had better luck with the essay.
5. The customers that fall into that 1% are—by and by large—absolute angels. They help you bag the groceries and prevent the very expensive eggs from being unceremoniously crushed. If there’s no queue, and you smile nicely and ask polite questions, you can have interesting conversations, too! Highlights of the two months include discussions on feminism and vegan yogurt culture (unconnected), section 377a, third culture displacement, and kids’ literature. Additional notable customers include an actor from Crazy Rich Asians and two unexpected encounters with people I’d never though I’d see again.
6. The waste production of the capitalist system is terrifying and largely invisible. It’s no wonder fisheries are being depleted if we throw away nearly our entire stock of snapper every two weeks because no one buys it and management insists on keeping it on the shelves. I sat one afternoon and sorted blackberries for three hours: nearly three-quarters of them disappeared into the trash again, because they had been damaged and couldn’t be put on a shelf.
7. The plastic waste production is even worse, because the systems assigns no real value to it. It’s a byproduct of an item and does not matter in and of itself. Plastic and styrofoam packaging is pervasive, unavoidable, and excessive. It is a fact of the production chains we require to maintain our lives. As morally superior as I may feel in refusing a straw, I ignore the plastic waste that almost definitely went into the drink beforehand. (Still refuse the straw, though.)
8. Much of my life balances precariously on the belief that bad things disappear if I can’t see them.
9. So many people drink kombucha. I don’t entirely get it?
10. As a customer told me on my last day, “You now know what you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.”