My first job was a part-time gig at an acai bowl chain called Vitality Bowls. I was a junior in high school and incommensurately excited about making $10 an hour, the California minimum wage at the time. It was honest, hard work, and I came home after every shift covered in flecks of blended fruit and smelling of mopping solution. It was here that I developed the worldview that every person should work in the service industry at least once to learn what it means to be a good customer, and by extension, a good person.
At my peak, I could make an acai bowl from scratch in two minutes flat -- a mostly useless skill, but one I’m very proud of nonetheless.
One time, a co-worker who was allergic to kiwis thought it’d be a good idea to cut a kiwi anyway, then broke out in hives in the staff room while the rest of us dealt with the lunch rush. Another time, the freezer door shattered, sprinkling shards of glass into the tubs of frozen fruit below. To avoid feeding people broken glass, the store closed and we were sent home early. Memorably, a man yelled at me for pouring his kombucha wrong, then tried to flirt with me. I was unimpressed (and underage), but I was about to go into overtime and wanted extra pay, so I entertained it for longer than I needed to. The best day of work was when Jeremy Lin came in to eat. I made him a Pineapple Bowl and asked him for a picture, which he agreed to, albeit unenthusiastically.
Many of my co-workers were cool. One of them is the reason I went to the particular college that I did, and one was an extremely underemployed Harvard graduate who knew how to do latte art. Another texted me in 2021 asking to cover a shift, five years since I last worked there.
As is often the case with low-wage shift work, after a wave of dissatisfaction surged through the establishment, a bunch of us quit at once to “stick it to the Man." Of course, the Man hardly noticed, and moreover, had already factored employee turnover into his business model.
In my resignation email, I advised that wages needed to be upped before all the employees were poached to higher-paying stores, or equal-paying stores that didn’t have cockroaches living in the walls. Two weeks later, I heard that everyone still working there received a 50-cent/hour raise. Although unproven, my suspicion that our collective quitting did actually make a difference is a large part of why I believe in unions.
For the majority of my developmental years, I had a fervent belief that the noblest function of art is enacting social change, which is why it is both disappointing and humorous that the most concrete example of my work accomplishing that is a slapdash email to a man who encouraged me, a 16-year-old girl, to upsell guarana powder by telling customers about its aphrodisiacal qualities.
I left Vitality Bowls because I got a job at Lemonade, a fast-casual “plates” restaurant with a cafeteria-style ordering system. They paid $12 an hour and all the food was 50% off for workers, which ruled. At the time, we weren’t allowed to use the word “cafeteria” because of its plebeian vibe, but I don’t work there anymore, so I can use whatever word I want.
My title was “Marketplace Server,” which meant I was the person who scooped food onto your plate and politely said no when you asked if you could have the poke, but like, without the mandarin oranges and only the fish. Compared to Vitality Bowls, I didn’t really make any friends here, but there were moments of distinct kindness that stand out.
A new manager secretly allowed everyone to take home the food that would be tossed at the end of the day. Then an evil person ratted her out and she was fired. One of the chefs called me Spanish terms of endearment and saved me a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie every time we worked together, which gave me unrealistic expectations for how adulatory men should be toward me. (I jest!) I also had a silent understanding with two girls, both of whom I forget the names of, that whenever it wasn’t too busy, the other was allowed to take samples from the food bar and hide in the back for a brief respite from being friendly to strangers.
Every once in a while, you’ll come across class disparity being showcased in a highly visible way, such as homeless encampments pitched in front of ornate Beaux Arts government buildings. In my opinion, the Front-of-House vs. Back-of-House in lower-end restaurants, particularly chains, is another striking example. I was always aware that the people in the back were there because of age, or English level, or another intangible that Management™ had deemed unpresentable.
My favorite task was scooping the “house-made kettle chips” into their cellophane packaging and securing them shut with a twist tie. It was relaxing in a mechanical way, as well as relaxing in a “Thank God I don’t have to talk to any entitled suburban moms wearing puffer vests and uggs for the next two hours” way. The chips were just regular unsalted Kettle brand chips sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning, but we sold them for $6 per serving. I once saw someone shoplift a bag, and said nothing.
2x University Research Assistant / Religious Studies TA
All my “assistant to a professor” jobs are grouped into one category because although they dealt with different subject matters, they all shared the similar uncomfortable quality of not really knowing what the dynamic should be, kinda like when your mom gets up to use the bathroom and leaves you alone with her work friend. The projects I assisted with spanned the following topics: California’s Section 8 workforce development programs, Tunisian NGOs aligned with the Jasmine Revolution, and trying to convince undergraduates that world religions are cool.
Interacting with smart people as a not-smart person is complicated because you’re trying to present as capable and promising while simultaneously signaling self-awareness of your relative unaccomplished position and battling the deep, irrepressible desire to be accepted and praised. I think I managed decently.
On the whole, all of these jobs were pleasant because my professors were exceedingly kind and patient. Also, Bernie Sanders’s ideas were circulating on campuses nationwide so I got paid $15/hour for simple data entry.
Guayaki Yerba Mate Ambassador
This was less of a job and more of a sweet hook-up. Whenever I wanted, I could drive out to a storage container locker full of yerba mate and take as many crates as I wanted. This made me a mildly cool person to invite to gatherings.
For two semesters, I was caffeinated and in love with the Southern California lifestyle. I attended lectures high, I lightened my hair, I skateboarded to class. I often found myself crying in my car, too embarrassed to do it in front of my roommates, or sobbing on the phone to my ex-boyfriend over something thoroughly inconsequential, like the parking lot exit being backed up, while he tried his best to talk me down. Life was chaotic and strained and hormone-charged, but with a backdrop of excellent weather.
All of it was accompanied by the low-level buzz of 150 milligrams of caffeine in every can of Enlighten Mint.
Diversity Peer Educator
This was perhaps the most meaningful job I’ve ever had, so it’s too bad that I was ailed by unrelated mental turbulence for more or less the entire duration of it. It’s wild to think that I was more informed and more opinionated as a teenager than I am now. I have let my mind regress into a pile of sludge, and I often fear it’s irreversible.
It’s easy to romanticize social impact work, so I’ll avoid making big claims about the revolutionary student organizing I definitely did not do. For the most part, I just checked people into my university’s cultural center, met cool folks doing cool things on campus, and occasionally planned an event. Of the workshops I hosted, my favorite was on “design justice,” which is using the built environment as a social justice tool by re-centering those who stand to be most adversely affected. It’s probably the best thing I produced in university -- even better than the 10-page paper about the evolution of nudes that I wrote for European History.
The loveliest part of this job was getting to interact with my co-workers, all nine of whom were women or non-binary people of color, which, let me tell you, does wonders for the workplace. We started morning meetings by reciting affirmations together. We gossiped at the front desk. We stood up for each other. We supported the totality of one another: our h*e phases, our identity struggles, our right to be unapologetically ourselves. It was nice. It was honest. I reminisce fondly.
One of the best feelings in the world is feeling like you belong, like you’re fully entitled to the space that you occupy. Working at the Center gave me that feeling. It allowed me to develop a new variety of confidence: one that isn’t prideful, but peaceful and assured, like a light dusting of poise. I stood a little straighter and I believed in the value of my experience a little more. I think this is at the heart of justice work: asserting that every person is equally entitled to well-being, then doing what you can to make sure they get it.
Since corporate America underwent its woke era, everything I once got paid to know has become common knowledge and an observant, culturally competent office worker can probably craft a DEI statement just as well as I can. This is bad news for my comparative advantage, but good news for the world.
Peace Fellow at a Cambodian NGO / Social Researcher in Brazil
In the summer of 2019, a rich family paid for me to complete a fellowship in Cambodia and the US government paid for me to join a research project in Brazil. This was incredibly affirming, and the summer I spent working abroad altered the trajectory of my life more than any other season I’ve lived through thus far. Upon reflection, I think that paying a 20-year-old girl thousands of dollars to putz around unfamiliar countries was a sub-optimal way for both parties to spend money, but as said 20-year-old girl, I am extremely grateful that it happened.
As is often the case with Westerners traveling to foreign countries to “help,” I received far more than I gave.
For one, being exposed to ex-pat communities impressed upon me that it was really, truly possible to live and work abroad, and moreover, possible for someone like me. It was kind of like visiting a major landmark such as the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu; cognitively, you know it exists, but it becomes a lot more real when you see it in person. If not for my time in Cambodia and Brazil, I’m not sure I would have pursued living in Japan, and if not for living in Japan, I would still be in SF, likely having developed stress-related ulcers and/or an intolerable grindset personality from certain jobs I will describe later in this blog.
My interest in minimalism also sprung forth from these trips. After living out of a single suitcase for three months across two different countries on two different continents with two different fashion cultures and modestly dissimilar climates, I realized that I don’t need a lot of things to be happy. I was having an excellent time, and the fact that I was doing so in the same outfits I wore last week didn’t much matter. After I got home, I donated a bunch of stuff and got really into lifestyle optimization YouTubers. I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been using the same melamine bowl from Daiso for the past year and a half. It’s the only one I own, and I like it that way.
Lastly and very simply, interacting with locals living in low-income areas of low-income countries impressed upon me just how advantageous the circumstances of my birth were. In a blog for my university’s study abroad office in 2019 I wrote, “So far, my time at a Cambodian NGO has shown me that in many contexts, my biggest accolade is simply that I was born in America.” This continues to be the case. On the whole, I think the style of reasoning that subtextually communicates that “your problems aren’t valid because there are starving children!” is trite, unhelpful, and incomplete, but I have found it valuable to occasionally remind myself that the worst of my experiences are really not so bad in the grand scheme of possibilities. I am inordinately, wildly blessed, and it does me good to express gratitude for it.
Looking back on my work abroad experiences, I did very little to revitalize the struggling cultural arts sector in Cambodia or uncover new insights into how self-built infrastructure can be used as a political tool in the fight for land ownership in Brazil. As was probably expected, I completed some peripheral work, then left before precipitating any long-lasting change. I will concede that there were a couple of minor wins (like collaborating on a presentation that was later delivered to the US Embassy) and I’m relieved that the projects were run competently enough to not accidentally inflict damage, but I wouldn’t say my slightly impressive Canva skills or friendly chats with favela community leaders amounted in anything beyond momentary goodwill. The tangible benefits of these trips were received almost exclusively by myself. In full realization of my indebtedness, I promise that I am working hard to ensure that the contents of my life amount to a good return on investment in the end.
Post-Grad Odd Jobs
Originally, I was planning on moving to Japan a few months after I graduated, but this did not happen because of the global pandemic. However, I didn’t know that there would be a global pandemic, so I completed odd jobs here and there in the interim before my departure, and then in the interim before I landed a big girl job. I talk about them in this section!
Working for the 2020 census was the most paperwork-heavy environment I’ve ever encountered, which is really saying something because I currently work for the Japanese public school system.
Two standout moments:
Ballot Adjudicator, San Francisco City Hall
I helped to process ballots for the 2020 Presidential election. A lot of it was just opening envelopes, but some of it was determining what someone intended to vote if the machine couldn’t read the scantron (“adjudicating”).
Because of the impetus of getting the count done ASAP, ballot counting shifts are wonky -- 12 hours on, 8 hours off, a few hours here and there, people working through the night to keep things rolling. Arriving to work in the dead middle of the night amused me greatly, like a little kid who gets to stay up late on Halloween.
It turns out I have exactly the right personality to enjoy doing the same rote mechanical task for several hour stretches when the rest of the world is asleep, which made this job perfect for me. I also liked that City Hall was within walking distance of Saigon Sandwich, where I would buy a banh mi for lunch every time I could.
Marketing Ambassador, E-Commerce App
This “job” was basically recruiting participants for UX research, except not nearly as professional or well-paid. For every person I convinced to download an app and answer a few questions, I think I got $10. I tried really hard to perform well because I had an irrational fantasy that someone at the app would notice and enthusiastically invite me to submit my ad copy portfolio, thus launching my professional copywriting career. Unsurprisingly, this did not happen. I actually did get a meeting with the CEO to “discuss opportunities,” but it was immediately clear that meant nothing. Moreover, he spent the first few minutes asking me to introduce myself, which was embarrassing because we had already met just a few months prior. When I repeated the same things I had said in the past, he caught on that we had spoken before and apologized, but it was too late. By that point, I was already thoroughly aware of my insignificance.
Every once in a while, an acquaintance messages me for the first time in a while and I see my desperate, mewling “check out this new app!” spiel. It provides me a small glimpse into the level of self-abasement needed to join a multi-level marketing scheme, and I experience several competing feelings at once: gratitude that it’s over, shame that it happened at all, and the desire to pull my eyelashes out one by one just so I have something else to focus on.
Operations, Telecommunications Company
I’m not sure how to begin explaining the workplace culture here, but I think “if a mobile consultancy was run by youth pastors” is an okay start.
The first thing to know about this company was that it was extremely Christian, but also extremely aware of the potential troubles that could arise from explicitly being so. To give you an idea, the executive board really wanted to send every new hire a free hardcover copy of some Christian book. But at the same time, HR really wanted to avoid being accused of proselytizing, so the in-house legal counsel was tasked with rewriting the entire book sans Christianity references. I read neither the original book nor its atheist counterpart, so I can’t comment on what was omitted, but seeing as it was literally a Christian book, I’m wondering what was even left in the revamped edition.
Besides harmless references to Biblical ideals, the other major hallmark of the leadership culture was an obsession with making the company a “great place to work.” Promoting a “family dynamic” at work is kind of icky no matter what, but it was especially weird at this particular workplace because it was probably as anti-social as a place could get without being outright hostile. Despite being a remote-first company, there was no requirement to turn on your camera during meetings. This meant that I worked with people for months without ever seeing their faces. To this day, there are people who I completed entire projects with whom I still have never seen.
Once a week on Fridays, we’d have a company-wide meeting where, depending on how well you performed the week prior, you could roll dice to win cash bonuses. The whole affair was presented game-show style over Zoom; a charismatic middle manager would act as “host” and employees who had swallowed an exceptionally large serving of Kool-aid would type “No whammies, no whammies, no whammies” into chat as the virtual dice rolled into their final configurations. At the online company Christmas holiday party, the executive team gave away literally tens of thousands of dollars worth of prizes: gift cards, iPads, TVs, a Peloton, $5000. It was absurd. In my opinion, it would have been better to just give everyone a percentage bonus based on their salary, but I guess doing that doesn’t inspire quite as much thankfulness as a gift-giving extravaganza.
As hard as I’m ribbing the place, there were also some objectively great things about working there:
Working here taught me that consciously choosing to take it easy is an option, and often a valid one.
Would I go back? No, because I desire to be interesting and worldly. But if I had children that needed my attention? If I felt particularly burdened by the trials of life and needed something stable, certain, and low-effort? Maybe. Not everything is about status and maximizing. A job can be a means to an end, and sometimes that end is a completely free weekend and uninterrupted evenings with your family.
Still, if a portion of your compensation is dictated by a literal roll of the dice, that’s a red flag.
Operations, Housing Start-Up
In this role, I helped to acquire permits for hundreds of accessory dwelling units across California, which sounds deceptively simple but was a logistical feat each and every time. I spent most workdays feeling like a chicken with its head cut off, furiously reading building code and responding to plans corrections and pestering public-sector employees and studying septic tank construction and combing historical archives and forwarding parcel maps and messaging printing shops and hiring notaries and delegating tasks and filling out form after form after form. Some part of me felt very accomplished, like look at me and my big girl job addressing the affordable housing crisis! Some part of me was miserable, like look at me, in the prime of my youth, staring glassy-eyed into dual monitors to build more homes, sure, but through the avenue of helping wealthy people get wealthier.
My predominant memory is endless, frantic clicking and feeling obligated to respond to Slack messages within 30 seconds or less. Other snippets of recollection: when a director mentioned his Tesla Model X on a group call, evoking a myriad of subtle, but perceivable negative responses from everyone on the call -- annoyance, jealousy, judgment for the lack of tact; a grizzled, older guy from upper management giving me sage relationship advice about letting the other person be right sometimes and not dying on every single hill; making small talk with various co-workers about their huskies and tennis lessons and girlfriend’s prison guard job; being relieved when my request to have my workday changed to 7 AM to 5 PM was approved, and feeling disillusioned that working a “mere” 10 hours a day was something to be relieved about.
On the positive side, as frenzied as working here was, it was informative and character-building in equal measure. It was my first career job directly related to what I studied in university. If nothing else, it was important for me to get exactly what I wanted, then realize that it wouldn’t make me happy.
Of all the beneficial things this job provided me (the highest salary I’ve ever made, a supervisor who protected my time and believed in the quality of my work, and enough perspective to temporarily renounce meaningless status markers), by far the best thing I received was an email from a colleague, which, I kid you not, simply read:
“I GIVE UP.
Sometime in 2020, I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to attend a wedding. Naturally, none of my friends were having weddings due to COVID and more crucially, because we were 21 years old. Obviously, the natural solution was not to wait patiently until a friend decided to commit to a life partner, but rather to become a server at an upscale catering company and agree to work 12-hour weekend shifts in addition to my full-time job for the chance to go to one. At least that’s what I did.
Every now and then, I am complimented on my “ambition,” which I’m not entirely sure exists. For example, I’m not particularly willing to strive for certain normative measures of success, I value my free time more than additional income, and I have zero desire to be known as a “leader.” What I will admit to, though, is having a much stronger sense of follow-through than the typical person. In hindsight, it was a little insane to literally get a job just to glimpse weddings. At the same time, I don’t regret it.
The weirdest event I worked at was an extremely swanky birthday party for the man who owns the largest number of McDonald’s in the world. He was so rich that the Beach Boys were hired to play a private concert at the vineyard venue. I wasn’t allowed to watch, but I did manage to overhear “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” playing live as I trollied plateware to and from different kitchens.
In attendance at this party was a beautiful, lithe teenager in a pale green dress accompanied by her boyfriend, who I’d describe as cute in a TikTok way. As I cleared her dinner plate, she said “thank you” and gave me a small smile that seemed to say “isn’t this ridiculous?” Even now, I can’t decide if I envy or pity her. I get this same odd feeling, but in the opposite direction, when I get a manicure and the nail tech asks me if I’m Vietnamese too, and I say yes, and she doesn’t try to speak to me in Vietnamese because it’s already clear that I don’t know any.
To summarize: wedding food is awesome, wedding guests slightly less so, the celebration of love makes me happy, and there’s something special about dozens of strangers coming together to ensure an event runs smoothly, then separating and never meeting again.
Assistant Language Teacher
For anyone considering the JET Program, I would highly recommend it unless it’s important for you to feel important. Being an ALT is a real job, but in the same way that a hot dog is a real meal. Like, technically yes, but it’s not the best example. You should keep this in mind before committing to a year of (potentially) feeling small.
It feels premature to come to conclusions about teaching English abroad while still in the midst of doing it, so I’ll refrain for now. What I can say is that young people everywhere are funny and perceptive and cool. We are all just doing our best within the circumstances we are placed, and high school is an observable petri dish of that phenomenon. I’m convinced that effort and drive are available in spades, but the challenge is funneling them into productive, meaningful channels. I’m interested in figuring out how to do that for myself, but also at a larger scale.
Maybe it’s too soon to call, but from what I can tell, the kids are alright. More than ever, I am rooting for our collective future.