To Do or Not
to Do (Much) in America
By Andrew Lam
my glamorous cousin Josette visited me a while ago
I took her to a chic San Francisco cocktail party,
and a man came up to us. He asked the usual question,
"So, Josette, what do you do?"
My cousin, who grew
up in Vietnam but now lives in Paris, looked a little
perplexed. "Oh no, hah," she answered
in a heavy French accent, her well manicured hand
gesturing denial in the air, "I don't 'do.'"
"Oh, I see,"
said the man. And the conversation wilted.
Josette, who spoke
very little English, did not mean to be rude, but
unemployment held no stigma for her. She'd married
very well. She and her husband own several apartment
buildings in posh neighborhoods in Paris, and what
she really does, when forced to elaborate, is shop
for antiques around the world.
Yet even at the cocktail
party where many were well-to-do, Josette's confession
still rubbed a few the wrong way.
After all, if there's
anything gauche in America it's to talk about one's
wealth and idleness with honesty. In America, where
mobility weakened blood ties, work is still a highly
honorable thing, a point around which strangers
can connect. To not work is to be outside of the
conversational fold, forfeiting potential camaraderie
and shared ethos.
But the idea of work
as an identity and vocation is still new in many
parts of the world. In Vietnam, for instance, a
country where, despite enormous transition toward
modernity, 80 percent of the population still lives
in rural areas. Work for them is arduous and repetitive,
really nothing to talk about. The Vietnamese colloquial
for work is "di keo cay," which literally
means, "to go pull the yoke."
"What do you
do?" is therefore a meaningless question when
everyone has his feet in the mud, his back bent,
his skin scorched by an unforgiving sun. The questions
people are more prone to ask are, "Where do
you come from?" and "Are you married?"
Josette, who grew
up among the rice field of the Mekong Delta, is
admired by many of those she left behind, and she,
too, is proud of finding luxury by marrying into
fabulous wealth. She worked hard, struggled for
a long time before she could say, "Oh no hah,
I don't do."
But if Americans are
still among the hardest working people in the Western
world, there are increasingly many here who'd rather
be like Josette; that is, they'd rather not do much
if they can get away with it. I know a few men and
women in their 30s in 40s, educated Americans, who
avoid 9 to 5 like the plague.
who made some money from a high-tech company, and
now takes care of his ailing mother. "I need
to work three or four more years at some company,
and I'll be set for the rest of my life," he
said with longing in his eyes.
And there's Thuy,
who said she once worked like a dog in her 20s.
"I had no time even to go to the toilet,"
she said. Now in her 30s, Thuy, who owns rental
properties, develops a passion for fine wines.
The New York Times
recently reported that millions of educated men
in the prime of their lives -- about 13 percent
of men between 30 and 55 -- have dropped out of
regular work. They turn down jobs that they find
beneath their level. They read novels, work on their
house, all the while tapping in their equity and
working part time to supplement their income.
Not all who drop out
strike it rich like Josette. For those who aspire
to do little but can't afford to not to, there's
the informal economy. "Lateral movement is
not working anymore for a lot of young people,"
notes Raj Jayadev, who works with young blue-collar
workers in Silicon Valley. "Young people are
finding alternate ways to get that pot of gold.
Some young people would rather deal dope than work
for so little at Wal-mart."
A potential gold mine
for the outsiders of the 9 to 5 world is the Internet.
The would-be porn star with his webcam hopes to
make money from home, not bothering to get out of
bed. The amateur singer auditions her songs online
to an invisible audience, hoping to land a contract.
Work in the real world,
especially among the working class, however, remains
woefully denigrated. The immigrant who baby-sits
and bathes the yuppie couple's children for a pittance
is demonized for taking jobs away from real Americans.
The migrant worker who picks cabbage, grapes and
zucchini under the unforgiving Californian sun is
invisible unless he's a subject for public debate
on what to do with the undocumented.
Yet immigrants' strong
work ethic built the American dream, which in turn
merges with the old Protestant work ethic, which
built America. To have vision is to move forward:
He sees in the boarded up store a sparkling new
restaurant; she looks at the pile of shirts to be
sewn in the sweatshop and sees her children going
to Harvard. For those who want to do, and do well,
America is still the place to be.
Back at the cocktail
party, someone asked me what I do. "I'm a writer,"
I answered, and immediately came a flurry of more
questions. It's a romantic notion, to be sure, a
blessed thing to do work that directly expresses
the self. But romance aside, it is constant toil,
and what I do I can't stop -- I take it with me,
into every room, on vacation and even into dreams.
If I'm somewhat
envious of Josette, I realize, despite our similar
background as immigrants from Vietnam to the West,
how different we have become. I love what I do,
and would do it even when I didn't have to. Besides,
I can't imagine what conversation I would have in
America -- a country of nomads whose loneliness
is offset by the force of our ambition -- if our
central concern was no longer what we do. It might
very well be like living back in the old world.
- New America Media