In Which I Apply For Jobs
I screwed up quite a few interviews in the beginning. I had received half a dozen interview requests and had duly filled up my empty calendar with appointments. The first was near to where I lived. It was a quick taxi ride to a nondescript street of small businesses and residential towers. The young Chinese woman interviewing me ushered me into a small cubicle and asked the cost of my travel expenses and what my expectations were for salary. I had no idea. I was nervous and had no experience with the interview process, something which must have been glaringly apparent. During my college years I was always self employed and thus woefully unprepared for this moment. I stuttered out a vague response. If I thought I wasn’t making a good first impression, I was quite mistaken, because it had been going great compared to what happened next. She wrote down my answers in a little book, snapped it shut and then asked for a sample of my teaching skills.
I agreed mechanically and trailed her into the next room where there was a small group of children sitting expectantly at their desks. She ushered me onto a podium in front of the group and told me to show her what I could do. I stood up there like the proverbial deer in front of the headlights and in a wavering little voice asked them how they were. They answered in a chorus of “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” I then asked them about themselves. They all introduced themselves and listed off their siblings. Siblings? How could they have siblings? As far as I knew, no one had siblings in China anymore. My creativity shriveled in terror at the unexpected situation and I was at a loss at what to say next. The woman eyed me critically and cheerfully announced that the interview was over. Needless to say, I didn’t get that job.
The next interview I had was out in Hongqiao district near the airport. I had to take the subway and then an expensive cab ride to this dismal area clouded in smoke and dominated by the ear splitting sounds of construction. The interview was for a position teaching hospital workers how to better cope with their foreign patients. It wasn’t so much about grammar and vocabulary as much as an education on Western etiquette. The interviewer was thrilled with my creative ideas, but he lost my resume three times and he never returned my calls. He also had no intention of helping me out with transportation, visa or taxes, the latter of which I had no idea how to file, so I guess it was probably a good thing that it didn’t work out even if the position did sound interesting.
The best interview I had was with Lorne, who read into my background of kid’s dance lessons and years of clay sculpting that I was both creative and enjoyed children. He invited me to his office, met me at the station and paid for the taxi to his office. Lorne had an authoritative attitude, the sort who acted like knew everything there was to know about everything and you wanted to believe him. He even spoke Chinese. He was impressed that I took the bus, assuming correctly that I must be able to read Chinese characters. However while I can in fact read Chinese, this had nothing to do with my bus taking tendencies. I had no idea there even were bus signs that listed their routes! I was in the habit of just trotting up to the bus and asking them if they were going where I wanted to go.
Lorne proudly told me that he only knew a handful of foreigners who could both read and write Chinese; all of them were teachers. He told me when I was considering jobs to think about what sort of visa they offered, make sure the company takes care of the Chinese taxation issues for me and watch out for perks with strings attached.
There was many a nightmare story of horrid foreigner housing. Expats squeezed into communist era buildings never meant to support so many people, foreigners saddled with numerous and strange roommates of the opposite sex, sudden evictions, imposed relocations, etc. The worst that I knew about was a girl who came down with appendicitis, was fired for failure to fulfill her contract and lost her apartment at the same time. I thought about it and called him back a couple days later.
“Hi Lorne, I’ve thought about your job offer. I want to take it, because your company seems the most appealing.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that. We have several part time positions, which one did you want?”
“I want the one at that new school in Pudong.”
“Really? It’s very far away from where you live and the other one was close by.”
“I know, but the farther away one is more hours. I want the extra money and besides, I think the travel time will give me an opportunity to meet more people.”
“Ok, you’ve got it.”
Picking work was fairly easy, but the final decision about my total work schedule was hard. The job was in the afternoons every single day. It meant I wouldn’t be able to take the internship. I called Mom. It was noon, so midnight where she was. This wasn’t something I wanted to make a habit of, but I needed to bounce my thoughts off someone else before I made such a monumental decision. She answered the phone groggily.
“Hi Mommy, it’s me.”
“I have a problem. There’s that offer for an internship, but they won’t pay me or take care of my visa, so I have to find a part time job. I’ve found one I like, but it’s in the afternoons, so I really wouldn’t be able to do the internship. But they’ll pay me 6,000 RMB a month, which I think is a good amount of money to live on. Maybe it would be better since I just got here to work short hours and see the city rather than throw myself into a serious job”
“It sounds like you’ve already made your decision.”
“Yeah, but I feel better having your approval first.”
I never even could get a hold of the internship guy again long enough to tell him I wasn’t going to do it. At the time, I didn’t think that company was very professional. What sort of company doesn’t even return a potential employee’s phone call? However experience has taught me that there this isn’t so unusual in China or the U.S.
So my professional life had fallen into place and my life in the park was also maturing nicely. There was always a crowd of Chinese people staring at me as I practiced. However their worn faces were no longer grave and disapproving, but turned up in crooked toothed smiles. People started to give me thumbs up signs and clap when they watched me practice my stick form. I call this a great improvement over the pointing and laughing. No one had come up to tell me I sucked in a long time. I know a lot of people who do martial arts who hate to be watched and certainly loathed being criticized by strangers. I can’t say that I found the experience pleasant, but it certainly does toughen up your skin and perhaps even teach you to observe yourself critically. I learned to accept the audience as part of the experience.
I still wasn’t communicating as well as I would have liked, but people didn’t seem overly upset about that. When I was resting in between bouts of tossing rocks I had little to contribute to the conversations going on around me, so I took to smiling. If I looked happy then everyone was content with my presence there. They would fondly look at my glowing face and say “Aw, the kid is smiling. Isn’t that nice?” Enjoying my surroundings was my ticket to acceptance.