Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fallback Female Labor: Childcare and Sex Work (Part 2)

Note: Parts of this may look familiar. That's because parts of it have been lifted from this earlier post.

I had only been in Japan a few days and I was looking for work. I found myself for the first time at Suisho, a local bar that would become a regular haunt, sharing my apprehension over drinks with my boyfriend, Colin, and Mark, the longtime resident foreigner. The bar shared a kitchen with the next-door establishment called Pub Tiffany, a discreet, windowless building. Pub Tiffany was a hostess bar, a male-only club that charges an exorbitant cover charge for entry. In general, hostess bars are like this: upon entry, the men pick a girl from a lineup of hostesses to be their paid companionship for the evening. Hostesses sit with their patrons, pour them drinks, light their cigarettes, listen to their stories about their stupid wives and pretend like they’re the most interesting, charming men in the world. The girls push the drinks, the men pay for the girls’ drinks too and the bar makes money. After closing time, the girls often go out with their patrons, which may or may not involve sex. That’s their choice. One hopes.

Anyway, since Suisho and Pub Tiffany shared a kitchen, the proprietor of the hostess bar would periodically dart through to pick up orders. He was a middle-aged man who nearly always wore suitpants and vests, and looked exactly like the type of person to be running a hostess bar. I wish I had learned his name, but since I didn’t, I’ll refer to him as Suitpants-san. So Suitpants-san knew Mark, and stopped over to chat with all of us, speaking through Mark who at the time was far more fluent than Colin or myself. Through Mark, he casually offered me a job. At the time I laughed, but I briefly considered it, in my job-panicked mind. Within a couple weeks, I’d snatched up the first teaching job I could find, and didn’t think about anything else until it all started falling apart.

My boss always reminded me how lucky I was that she was sponsoring my visa, that there would have been no other place for me to teach English in such a rural area, that she was doing me a huge favor. I was paid cash under the table, far less than the going-rate for a native speaker, and I should have just been happy to be able to stay in the country, according to her. It’s true the company was struggling, but it was a sinking ship I probably never should have climbed aboard. I loved my students, but it only took a few weeks for me to begin feeling frustrated with my lack of knowledge and control over my schedule, the surprise classes, the office hierarchy. There was the manipulation, the guilt-trips, and the occasional devastating acts of kindness that made it all the more complicated to consider leaving. There was nowhere else that would sponsor my visa, Yoshiko would tell me, not in the inaka. Meanwhile, on cold nights out I walked down streets with friends and we would pass one hostess club after another—the larger places had girls standing just outside in shifts as a display of merchandise to lure men inside. They stood there with their usually dyed and inflated hair, shivering and dressed like they were attending a ghetto prom.

While there’s nothing illegal about working as a hostess, it still falls under the category of mizushobai, literally “water trade”, or sex work. Of course there’s a stigma attached to it. These joints are known for some shifty business, and it’s not uncommon for the hostesses to be Filipino girls or Eastern Europeans working illegally. In bigger cities, there are international hostess clubs that feature predominantly white or Filipino women. I remember passing by one in Fukuoka that had a group photo out front of a mixture of Southeast Asian women in traditional clothing and what appeared to be average to vaguely attractive Eastern European women dressed in the usual tacky prom dress fare, many with dirty-blond hair, large noses and wide-set eyes. Must have been exotic to the Japanese guys.

When we started experiencing white girl sightings in our own middle-of-nowhere, wasteland of rice paddies and onions town, I became extraordinarily curious about Pub Tiffany. Mark had only been in once, and said that it wasn’t worth it. There was a 4,000 yen cover charge (about forty bucks), plus you have to pay for all the drinks after that. At one point we heard from Suitpants-san that there were four Romanian girls working there. Colin and Mark had met one of them at Suisho after hours, when I wasn’t with them. That girl didn’t last long. Apparently, she called Mark not long after that because she needed help finding somewhere to buy a cheap alarm clock. Mark drove her to Trial, a Wal-mart type store in a nearby town, then returned her home. After a few hours, he received a call from Suitpants-san, delicately explaining that the girls cannot be seen out in public with him, because it’s intimidating to the customers and affects the girl’s reputation. Spending time outside of work with customers is a major part of being a hostess, so I wonder if it was more objectionable that Mark wasn’t a customer, or that he was a large, foreign guy.

Still, I was determined to get in somehow. Whenever we were at Suisho and saw Suitpants-san pass through, Mark would drop hints in Japanese, gesturing to me, “[She’s very interested in seeing the club.]” But the answer was always the same, delivered with a raised eyebrow: “[Hmm, she should work there.]”

Things continued to deteriorate at work, and it was only the students that kept me from losing it completely. Yoshiko had put me in a position where I felt constantly indebted to her, thus I could never refuse anything she asked of me. I had no personal space, no contract, no boundaries—I was on call at all times, and in a constant state of anxiety. I usually worked at night, but my sleep could be cut four hours short if she decided to call me in for any reason. She insisted that there was nowhere else I could find visa sponsorship, but what about those girls at Pub Tiffany? It was harder to get away with working illegally in the countryside due to increased visibility. My own visa listed me not as an instructor, but as an “international specialist in humanities”. Maybe they had strange visas as well, like entertainer’s visas or working holiday visas.

I was frustrated with my company, but the hostess club was always there. It was mysterious though, open to us only if we wanted to pay or work. Talking to Mark, Suitpants-san once said tantalizingly, “[You should come in. We’ve got Filipinas,]” The Japanese view of Filipino people is comparable to the American view of Mexicans, so I asked Mark why this would be a selling point. He told me that while Japanese hostesses are more likely to have a strict view of their working hours, Filipinas tend to foster relationships outside of work, exchanging texts and keeping up a rapport.

I straddled a strange position, wondering who I was in relation to the foreign hostesses in my town. We all worked nights, and we worked under perhaps less than legal circumstances. We didn’t have the benefit of a contract or a larger built-in network to assist in our transition to life in Japan or mediate any grievances. As sex workers, hostesses are more vulnerable to assault. When she is also a foreigner working illegally, she has no legal recourse. I began reading stories on the internet about hostesses being turned away by the police, about non-Japanese Asian women disappearing as if they had never existed. At the same time I was contemplating the dangers of being a hostess, a young British teacher in Tokyo was murdered while giving a private lesson at a student’s home. Most of my job involved giving private lessons at students’ homes.

I wasn’t actually too worried about getting raped or murdered, as a hostess or a teacher. It was rather the implications of these crimes that worried me—that as foreign women, regardless of our profession, we were being fetishized the same way, we were feeding the same unseemly pathology. It’s undeniable that the function of some foreign teachers is just a step above eye candy. Maybe we weren’t so different after all.

In times of increasing frustration, I began weighing the pros and cons of taking Suitpants-san up on his offer.

Pro: I’d be paid to drink and flirt. I like drinking and hanging out with old guys, I think. I’d just had a very nice conversation with an old man about Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I’d probably make more money than as a teacher, anyway.

Pro: I’d get to practice my Japanese. As an English teacher living with my American boyfriend, I didn’t get much chance to learn Japanese beyond the basic communication I used in my daily life.

Pro: Great source of material for later writing.

Con: Expectations to meet with clients outside of work. One major way that these places make money is that they arrange “dates” between the clients and girls before work. The clients pay a fee and are allowed to take the girls out to dinner, then drop them off at the club before their shift. Girls are pressured to pick up as many of these “dates” as possible, and could be let go for failing to do so.

Con: I’d already had negative experiences with Japanese work-hierarchy and arbitrary rules, and I certainly didn’t want to experience what that might look like in mizushobai. Also, I had a hard enough time making friends with Japanese girls, and I didn’t want to see what ugliness could potentially emerge if I were actually competing with them.

Con: I didn’t even like being a cocktail waitress! What made me think I’d be that much more comfortable pretending to like and stroking the egos of old men who could potentially be gross, disrespectful, or racist?

Con: Probably not a good idea for my burgeoning alcohol problem. The excessive consumption of alcohol is actually a common job hazard for hostesses. Since it’s their job to push drinks, they don’t exactly have the agency to say no when drinks are offered to them.

Con: I’m living with my American boyfriend and he won’t let me.

I had to respect Colin’s wishes. That was the right thing to do, and that should have been the end of it. Still, I found myself resenting the fact that I was unable to go objectify myself if I felt like it. What if I wanted to debase myself, have a horrible, traumatic experience, make some money and fuck myself up? Maybe I wanted to disengage further from my body, and put a price tag on my smiles and conversation along with it.

I didn’t become a hostess, and had no choice but to avert disaster. Though I’d already made my decision, in actuality, the idea didn’t die in my mind until I realized that I didn’t own any nice dresses, and there was nowhere I could buy any that would fit. My resolution didn’t, however, kill my curiosity, and one night I finally did see the inside of Pub Tiffany.

My friend Grace was visiting from Chicago, and we’d spent the week doing the standard Kyushu tour. We were finally finishing things off with a local bar crawl of sorts, and we found ourselves highly intoxicated at Suisho. I had already gotten Grace interested in hostesses, and she was eager for a way into Pub Tiffany as well. As soon as we saw Suitpants-san pop in from his club to use the kitchen, we flagged him down: “[She’s interested in being a hostess! Can she look around your club?]” Suitpants-san agreed, but told us we had to wait until the customers left. We continued to drink, and in time Suitpants-san led myself, Mark, and Grace through the back entrance of Pub Tiffany. We expected the customers to be gone, but the place was devoid of any indication that people had just been drinking and carousing there. It was spotless, with low lights and plush seating, carpeting, far more luxurious than the gritty bar next door. It was completely vacant besides Suitpants-san and the middle-aged woman at the bar, who was the resident Mama-san. No hostess bar is complete without a Mama-san, an older woman who wrangles the girls and keeps up a platonic rapport with the clientele. Suitpants introduced the Mama-san, who seemed less than thrilled to see us. What came next was essentially a job interview. They would ask questions, and we would either answer for Grace or translate them for her. I remember Mark asking if they had any foreigners working at the bar. “Ima, imasen,” Mama-san replied. There aren’t any now. Mark chatted with them about the Romanian girls, sympathizing with them about how the situation had been taihen (difficult). Suitpants was friendly and talkative, but Mama-san seemed reticent, cautious. At one point she emphasized that the girls must do things like sing karaoke with the customers. She said it as if it were something she expected to be a problem for foreigners, as if she’d experienced issues with it before. I translated this to Grace, and she slurred, “I love to sing karaoke. Tell them that.” I did. Grace added, “Tell them I have a bar in Chicago, too.” When they asked what kind of visa she had, we told them it was a tourist visa. They exchanged a look of ambiguous meaning. Before we left, they told Grace to come back tomorrow, during business hours. It wasn’t until we were walking home that I realized Grace had no idea what had just happened. Through all of the arrangements Mark and I had made in Japanese, we neglected to tell her that we had offered her up for employment.

When I returned from Japan, I applied for a number of jobs, but the one that panned out was as a children’s literacy instructor at a social services agency. I enjoyed my work there for a year, but felt the need to move on, to move away from elementary education and childcare before it was too late to try anything else. Professionally, all I’ve been able to experience is elementary education, and it’s never been what I’ve intended to do. In some ways, I feel like it’s been forced on me, but after three years, it’s becoming me too. I would say that I’m versatile, but maybe I’m malleable; professionally, morally, in my personality, my selfhood. I came back from Japan a teacher. I can rattle off lesson plans, I can manage a classroom, I use a particular voice and have specific systems for dealing with behavior issues. After a year at the social services agency, I discovered that I’m actually a literacy instructor too, able to effortlessly follow a set curriculum and make adjustments when necessary, chart progress, speak cogently about LDs and IEPs. It’s shocking that after three years, I essentially became something that I thought I wasn’t. I’ve discovered that I’m actually very good with children, and not everybody who works with them is. Although I feel like I’ve fallen into this line of work somewhat against my will, it’s quite lucky that I’m really, really good at it. But just because I’m good at it doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with it, and I desperately feel like I need a change, since teaching is practically all I’ve known. Maybe I’m better suited for something else and I don’t even know it, but the universe never gives me the chance to find out. I’ve been trying to find work in non-elementary education jobs in social services and nonprofits, only to get shut down every single time. And every new opportunity to appear is further down the path of educating children.

This brings me to my final point: that a young woman with little more to show than a BA in English is essentially worthless, except in the areas of childcare and sex work. Working with children is incredibly important, but it isn’t for everyone, and it certainly shouldn’t be the default job for people who can’t do anything else. And sex work—well, I once read something about sex work, and I wish I could cite the source, but for the life of me I can’t remember where it’s from. Anyway, I read that the increasing problem of sex work is not that it’s victimizing poor and disenfranchised women, but that it’s increasingly attracting educated, middle class women. The reason that’s a problem is that it’s not sustainable work—a woman can spend her youth as a sex worker, but there’s a shelf life, and once it’s up, she’s in her mid-thirties with no career experience, and it’s incredibly difficult to start on a new path. Thus, the world misses out on many potential non-sex-work-related contributions of educated women. Women, as a population, are proportionately far more educated than men, but that isn’t reflected in their income or career advancement. I don’t hold it against a woman with an advanced degree who chooses a career in sex work. I do, however, hold it against society when sex work is the most viable option for a woman with an advanced degree.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fallback Female Labor: Childcare and Sex Work (Part 1)

It’s never been easy for me to find a job. Not even as a teenager, not even when I’ve sought work far below my qualifications. This has always been a combination of circumstance—a particular economic climate, for example—and the fact that while I’m polite and force myself to smile and make eye contact, I’m actually extremely shy and inept at schmoozing and making potential employers like me. I’d love a job that involved me using my brain and talent toward something I’m passionate about, but at every turn, the universe has told me no. I remember there was a time that I was resistant to anything that involved working with children, and yet here I am, having spent the past three years working in some form of elementary education. How did I get here? Desperate circumstances.

It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I needed work badly. I had tried the regular route of countless restaurants, bookstores, and retail chains to no avail, and a break suddenly came when a family friend told me about an opening at the daycare facility for which she worked. Spending a summer changing diapers was far from the glamorous summer I had imagined wearing an OfficeMax polo, but it was a last resort. And contrary to all those waitressing and cashier jobs, this job in which I was responsible for the wellbeing of young children was easy to get. I remember filling out the emergency contact info and W2s alongside the middle-aged woman who had been hired at the same time as me. I saw the woman struggling to fill out her forms, then suddenly her pencil stopped and her hand went to her pained forehead. Our employer asked her what was wrong, and she explained she was having trouble answering the question about her preferred hospital of care: “I wrote ‘I prefer St. Luke’s but’ and I just don’t know how to finish it. Mostly I don’t talk in nothing bigger than three letter words.”

“Three letters?” I remember thinking. With the exception of a few college girls who went to the U of I, the entire place was a ghetto of uneducated, low-skilled female workers. I avoided mentioning the selective liberal arts college I was attending in the fall, and simply said that I was going to school in Minnesota. That was enough for my privilege to stand out. One of my co-workers was a girl my age who hated my guts. She was regularly chatty and deferential to the two older women in our room of one to two year olds, but spoke to me almost exclusively in cold stares and curt admonishments since she was slightly senior. Early in my employment, I was trying to be nice and get to know her, and I asked her the default question I had learned to ask people my age: “Are you going to school somewhere?” She quickly snapped, “I’m taking a break.” I later learned that she worked fulltime at the daycare five days a week, and spent the weekend working at a grocery store. I was temporary, coasting along on 3/4 time before going on to college where I’d receive much more financial support than she ever did, and this must have been infuriating to her. I’ve since learned that it’s a luxury of a privileged existence to assume that being polite and always fulfilling your responsibilities in the workplace will prevent people from hating you just for being who you are.

At the daycare, we spent most of the day sitting on the floor, but left completely exhausted. At night I worried myself sick about what would become of the kids, and was glad to see them in the morning. At the time, those kids were the most important, most stimulating thing in my life—as a result, I was lonely, sad, and under-stimulated. I felt trapped by this traditional feminine role that had consumed so much of me. In my job, I was little more than a body. The way they hired at that daycare, it was a job almost anyone could do. You only needed to fill the correct ratio of adult bodies to children. Suddenly, my body became a jungle gym for toddlers. I was eighteen years old, had never had a boyfriend, and came from a family and circle of friends that wasn’t much for physical contact. Sure, we’d hug on special occasions, but I had never experienced close and persistent physical contact until I worked at the daycare. Without hesitation, toddlers were climbing into my lap, they were asking to be carried around, they were sneezing on my face, I was wiping up vomit and blood, and several times a day up to my elbows in shit. For a period of time, it was overwhelming, this lack of boundaries for my body. Ultimately, I know it was good for me, because bodies are not sacred, and the experience certainly helped demystify them.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I found myself in another difficult situation when seeking employment. I would only be in Iowa for four months before returning to Minnesota, and no one wants to hire anyone just for the summer. By the time I interviewed to be a cocktail waitress at that cheesy dive, I had already been rejected a few times and had gotten lazy with my interview prep. I’d left my hair down, put on a shirt that I wasn’t entirely sure was work appropriate, and decided not to tone down my winged eyeliner. I was interviewed by a man in a string tie who barely glanced at my application before telling me I was “just right for the job, kiddo.” When I met the other cocktails, I found myself the sole brunette in a group of bubbly girls who spoke in countrified accents and called everyone “hun”.

Cocktailing wasn’t sex work, but it was a job that I had gotten entirely on the basis of being young, female, and in possession of T and A. I was little more than a body that brought drinks and flirted, a shell that said “y’all” and “hun” and giggled at sexual harassment by customers because the harassers were always the best tippers. When I passed by mirrors I didn’t recognize myself. In time I discovered that at this place, the supervisors and clientele were equally abusive, but I sucked it up for the paycheck and tips, keeping a grim smile fixed on my face and saving my tears for the drive home. I had lowered the boundaries of my body, what it was used for, what it had meant to me, and it became little more than an ornamental vehicle for cash-money.

A few years later, when I was looking for teaching jobs in Japan, I remember feeling a deep resistance to teaching any age group younger than high school. When I was filling out my JET application, I even considered only selecting that I was interested in a high school placement. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I was rejected from JET anyway. Once I was in Japan, I discovered that the English market was getting younger and younger, with the main needs being for children’s teachers. When I did find a job with a small, private cram school, the ages of my students ranged from babies in diapers to seventy-year-olds, with the vast majority being elementary school students. Once again, through no intention of my own, I’d become mother goose, diligently teaching English while averting tantrums and dealing with bathroom emergencies.

Here’s the thing about teaching English in Japan: if you’re a native speaker with a BA, you can do it. You’re not hired for any special talents beyond what you were born into. Never mind that teaching in itself is a talent, chances are you won’t be doing a whole lot of that anyway. The main position for foreigners is as an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher, which means that you work in a school do whatever the real Japanese English teacher tells you to. You likely have little input on the English curriculum, and won’t even necessarily make your own lesson plans. Often, the main function of the ALT is outside of the classroom, hanging out with the kids and being foreign to “promote intercultural exchange”. Within the school, your position is somewhere between a teacher and a student. Part of the reason why JET consistently hires kids fresh out of college with no experience is that they’re easier to control, and generally don’t challenge the authority of the “real” teachers.

The other common route for teaching in Japan is through conversation schools. Children through adults can pay money for a set number of classes with a native speaker, who teaches from the uniform curriculum and lesson plans set up by corporate headquarters or whatever. There’s also a fair amount of sales involved for said native speaker, who tries to get the students to pay for as many textbooks and CDs as possible, while simultaneously convincing them to sign up for more classes. My job was a little different than either of those in that I was given free rein over my small classes and devised my own lesson plans, mostly without the aid of a textbook. With only a TEFL certificate under my belt, I was hardly qualified to do this, but I ended up learning quite a bit on the job. My boss didn’t seem to understand or appreciate the amount of work that went into it, and frequently threw surprise classes at me at the last minute (bikkuri jugyo, I called them). She seemed to believe that English lessons just flew out of my butt, since I’m a native speaker.

These two and a half avenues of teaching English have one thing in common: you aren’t hired for what you can do, but for who you are. You’re hired because you’re foreign, hopefully with stereotypically foreign features, hopefully attractive and a certain kind of outgoing that allows you to set your pride aside and make a fool out of yourself on a regular basis. Some foreign teachers are amazing at their jobs, and some should probably never be allowed near children, but for the most part, to their employers, they’re equally interchangeable. I know that in my company, the fact that there was a single foreigner on staff was flaunted in newsletters and advertisements as if it granted them that much more credibility.

Once a week, I spent the mornings teaching classes at a daycare, or hoikuen. I knew that the position of teachers is perhaps the most exalted and highly regarded profession in Japan. I know we say this in America too, but in Japan children are regarded as incredibly precious, and childhood is widely celebrated. We may have these theories in America, but it’s really in practice in Japan. Until a child hits junior high school, often their entire household revolves around them. These different views of childhood and teachers was evidenced in the stark contrast between my experiences at an American daycare and a Japanese daycare. During their time at the daycare, from early in the morning until late in the evening, the kids, who were all between infants and six years of age, followed a strict regime comprised of academics, social development, and playing. The staff was certainly no ghetto of uneducated females. All of them had at least a two year postsecondary degree or trade school, and at least a third of the staff was male. It’s weird that I, as a progressive individual, found myself so shocked at the sight of men in the caregiver position, lovingly changing diapers and feeding infants who weren’t their own. In elementary schools, male teachers are just as common as females. Japan definitely has a ways to go in regards to gender equality, but the position of men in early childhood education is commendable. Unfortunately, this participation often doesn’t extend to their homes and fathers. I suspect the reasoning behind the strong male presence in elementary education may actually be quite conservative: educating children is too important for it to be left up to women.

All of the children at this daycare had two parents who worked fulltime, with a wide variety of incomes. My boss’s youngest daughter had graduated from this daycare, and I remember her complaining to me about the daycare system in Japan. She told me of the bureaucracy behind it, that families are required to fill out an application and prove their employment and income to city hall before qualifying. She made it sound complicated, but when I asked her how much it costs, she was confused. Once you qualify, daycare is virtually free, of course.

Not all Japanese daycares are the same, and I’ve heard that mine was definitely on the high end of the spectrum. I know the one my boyfriend taught at monthly was less academically focused, and more about babysitting. I don’t know why, and I don’t have the answers for everything. My daycare was in a city, while Colin’s was in the tiny farming town in which we lived, but there’s variety in cities too. Regardless, I think even the low end daycares have a male presence and a quality that likely exceeds the American one at which I had worked.

In Japan, childcare isn’t regarded as unskilled female labor at all. Just because I was a native speaker with a BA, I could work as an English teacher, but there was little else for me in that market. Immigration laws are incredibly strict, and it’s illegal to hire a foreigner to do a job that a Japanese person can do. Other than teaching, there’s one more job available to foreign women in Japan, and it doesn’t even require English skills.

To be continued in part two, in which I discuss sex work and being really good at caring for children.