I recently received an E-mail from a Wise Sloth fan who identified with my criticisms of America’s predatory economy and needed to vent about their experiences. The letter was so poignant, I asked if I could post it, and they gave me permission. Enjoy and tremble:
“I thought I had a secret weapon to make it in this predatory economic system where others went under. How wrong I was. I’m half-Japanese (my mom is Caucasian), and my Asian father raised me with a strong work ethic. In no way do I think this makes me better than the average American. Asians are batshit crazy, and there’s a reason Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. I disagree with the people who think Americans should try to be more like the Chinese or Japanese, because it comes at a price that I don’t believe is worth it. I don’t think that level of discipline is healthy. I think it can be mental illness.
But anyway, every job I did, I took joy in finding ways to do everything twice as fast as everyone else, and I usually did the work of two people in one shift. I took (an asshole-ish) pride in it. I was still well-aware I was at a disadvantage because of not having a college degree, and I knew the jobs I was at took advantage of workers. I knew the level of output I produced was not worth the pay. But I thought it was worth it because I’d get promoted above the others, because the “lazy Americans” complained about so many things, whereas I “cheated” by working off of the clock. My father does the same thing. Not really “sneaking,” because they know we do it. In Japan, this is culturally a commonplace thing to do. How could they compete with that? It’s unheard of here. Of COURSE I would be promoted when they saw how dedicated I was!
I worked at one job as a middle manager, making $9 an hour, at a franchise store that sells glasses and contact lenses. Overtime was forbidden; they were always cutting payroll. The problem was I would be blamed if the store didn’t run properly, and it was impossible to keep the store in order only working 40 hours. So I worked 60 hours, only clocking in for 40. I can’t sue because I signed the time sheets every week. I’d lose my job if I didn’t. They wouldn’t “tell” you to work off the clock. They’d just make sure to give you an amount of work that was logistically impossible to complete in 40 hours a week, and they knew you’d be afraid of losing your job if you didn’t get it done and that you’d do whatever it took to keep your job.
To add insult to injury, even though I regularly worked 60 hours a week while only being paid for 40, when they had to cut hours, they would often send me home early, meaning some weeks I’d only be paid for 30 or 35, despite the fact the previous day I may have worked a 14-hour day and they owed me for hundreds of hours I would never be paid for. My boss constantly promised he’d look out for me and help me get a promotion, which was why I did this. Later I found out the district manager recommended me a for a general manager position at another store, and he told her no. He couldn’t afford to lose me because I did the work of two people. It would cost him too much payroll to replace me.
Soon after, I ended up in the hospital. The doctor kept increasing the antidepressants and anxiety meds that allowed me to cope with the insane pace of the job, because they’d stop working, until I developed potentially-fatal serotonin syndrome. Then I had to quit the job, so it was all for nothing. My manager was fired soon after that.
A relative of mine got a job at Walmart as a cashier. He outworked everyone else and worked his way up to general manager, making six figures. But they worked him so hard, 70 to 80 hours a week, giving him unrealistic numbers to meet, he developed high blood pressure at the age of 28. Doctors tried everything and couldn’t bring it down; medication wasn’t working. He started having panic attacks and had to go on medication. He finally quit. His blood pressure returned to normal a week later.
(Side note: I used to work for an insurance company, and the Walmart insurance plan was so bad it had its own dedicated department. You had to have special training to learn to work those claims with their special rules, and anytime anyone mentioned the name “Walmart” around the company, people would laugh. It was a running joke, like, “Those poor bastards.”)
After that, I was hired at a franchise convenience store. I didn’t know they’d recently been in the news for a class-action lawsuit for forcing employees to work off the clock. I was hired as a stocker, but after completing training and transferring to my permanent store, I was promoted to a manager my second day on the job because of how fast I worked. Same story again – the workload was impossible. The problem was, at this job, I couldn’t sneak and work off the clock to complete my work. Since the franchise had just lost a class action lawsuit and they used video cameras, if I got caught working off the clock, it would have gotten my manager in trouble; she was just as much a victim as the rest of us. I was the only worker who could complete the nightly duties because I worked at an insane pace; I had to. I had expensive medications to pay for, and I couldn’t risk losing my job.
One day they left me to run the entire store alone on the day we received our truck shipment. This meant I had to be in the front to ring all the customers, but also be in the back stockroom at the same time to receive the truck, which was absolutely insane, for 12 hours, completely alone, on a Friday, the busiest day of the week. I was proud of myself for how well I held it all together, but as soon as I clocked out and got in the car, something came over me. I’d been running off pure adrenaline, but it suddenly caught up with me, and I began to have a panic attack and cry hysterically. I knew I couldn’t go back to work, that if this level of stress continued, I’d end up in the hospital again, but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to afford my very expensive medications and would become a burden to my struggling family.
I went home and attempted suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of phenobarbital, and anxiety med. I woke up in the ICU unit of the hospital, and then they transferred me to the psych ward. When I got out, my doctor cut me off of all my anxiety medications to make sure I couldn’t hurt myself with them, which meant going back to work wasn’t even an option. I’ve been turned down twice for disability, both times due to ridiculous reasons that were simple clerical errors on their part, but they succeeded in dragging the time frame out so long that now they say I’m no longer eligible because of the length of time, even though I applied well in advance of the time frame.
As I’ve mentioned in an email, I now work for less than minimum wage doing transcriptions. Despite all this, I have high hopes for the future. My success in consistently winning Pictofact contests for Cracked.com has given me hope. The point of this message isn’t to be depressing. It’s actually because I thought it might be interesting to illustrate what happens when you combine American predatory capitalism with the insane work ethic of an Asian.
American Conservatives LOVE to preach about how hard work always pays off, and poor people are lazy. But, if anything, my insane work ethic held me back because it made me unpromotable past a certain point – they couldn’t afford to replace me. It made me a scapegoat, because they began expecting more of me than the others, so when things went wrong, I’d get blamed for not saving the day. The others were expected to screw up, so it was my fault for not going above and beyond as always. Finally, the harder I worked, the less others did because they expected me to pick up the slack, so it was bad for productivity all-around.
It also taught me to get off my high horse. I was stupid to think I was better because I was willing to kill myself harder than everybody else for next-to-no pay. I thought my coworkers were lazy because they didn’t work as hard as I did, but now they still have jobs because they didn’t work themselves into a psych ward, maybe because they realized they didn’t get paid enough to do that to themselves. I realize these Americans aren’t lazy. They just realize they’re worth more than poverty-level wages. But my story should be a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks you can beat the system by working hard enough. Sorry this was so long, and thanks for listening, and thanks for all you do.
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