I was walking back to my dormitory one summer night with my friend after finishing my first ten-bucks-an-hour shift serving tables in Huangjihuang, a Chinese hot pot restaurant in Chinatown. I was complaining. I remember that 7-Eleven came into sight exactly as I was describing the grease, smell and noisiness of the kitchen. It looked clean and quiet under the dark sky.
Soon I was employed by the 7-Eleven franchise facing the Queen Mary Building. My boss said I would be paid $200 upon the completion of 40 training hours. Then she pitched a deal to me.
She said she could shorten the training hours to 20 so that I could earn the ‘formal’ salary of $12 dollars per hour sooner. But there was another side to the offer: I would have to serve customers, count cash, clean the coffee machine and order goods for free for those 20 hours. After a simple mathematical calculation, I agreed.
It was another summer night. I was exhausted after an eight-hour shift and pleased with the cash in my pocket. But the feeling of contentment was broader. It was the whole experience that pleased me. I had never earned money by myself before. I felt I was psychologically stronger during the slow, back and forth process of building a relationship with my willful and short-tempered boss.
I didn’t know it was my last day at 7-Eleven.
A distant family friend starting up her e–commerce business phoned me to ask me to quit and work for her as an accountant to balance accumulated receipts, post orders in her office and produce Excel forms. She offered $15 an hour and urged me to quit 7-Eleven immediately. I spent the next two weeks marshalling her rubbish only to be fired after the work was done.
She gave me two reasons for that. First, she needed someone to keep track of the business everyday, and I was too busy with uni stuff. Second, she said she detected some mistakes in the forms I produced. I was sure from the bottom of my heart this was bullshit. Her vision of saving unnecessary labour cost guided her to consume me and kick me like a ball.
This is all of my pre-twenty working experience. Everything happened without much consideration. It left me lost, puzzled, and also with 20 brand new dresses I bought with my own underpaid salaries. Fitzgerald once wrote in This Side of Paradise of “a facile imaginative mind and a taste for fancy dresses”. Click.
What annoyed me was that I couldn’t find a well defined or justified reason to work underpaid. I decided to take another approach, to go beyond myself and observe others.
Peters is a famous store in Sydney’s fish market. A majority of its employees are recruited from China, Vietnam and Indonesia. Among them there was a Japanese girl staying in Sydney with a working holiday visa. That girl was about to leave Peters and her coworkers held a party in the Queen Mary Building to see her off. I sneaked in to have a chat.
Employee A was a rich kid living in some $500 a week fancy apartment from inland China who worked underpaid because he was eager to learn how to scrape fish skin properly. B was working underpaid because she wasn’t confident enough about her English skills to work for white people. C came from a country where the minimum wage was around $8 an hour so he thought $12 an hour in Peters was acceptable. D was a postgraduate student who didn’t want his parents to feed him anymore.
And there were E, F and G, each with different justifications for working underpaid.
But there was one thing in common. They had a great time together at Peters and were already lifelong friends.
There is a truth about all sorts of mistreatment and suffering: when you simply view something as an “experience”, or equivalently, when you integrate the idea that “experience will teach me stuff” into your conscious, nothing is unforgivable. In this circumstance, if the starting point is the innocence of never having worked underpaid before, then that working experience is just a peculiar road to knowledge.
When something you labeled as a “niche encounter”, “distinctive uni experience when studying abroad”, “beneficial exposure to hardship”, and “essential component of growth” is criticised as unethical and illegal, you don’t know how to feel.
You may admire the spirit of the law in a country with a legal minimum wage. You may feel hurt about being exploited. And you may decide to not give a fuck.
It is very likely you won’t give a fuck.
It is very unlikely you will quit the job. It is very unlikely you will fight for your violated rights by reporting the dirty business. It is very unlikely you will campaign collectively against the unfair treatment.
This attitude is prevalent among the Chinese international students that I have talked with. When your treasured experience, your heavy study workload and your social traditions are competing with a foreign legal conception for emotional recognition, which side will dominate your anxious, utilitarian, self-centered and nostalgic heart?