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.


Blogger Defendership said...

First, I couldn't help but post this comic since I read it IMMEDIATELY after reading your post:

In the field of historical webcomics, Kate Beaton is unbeatable!...although I can't say there's a lot of competition..

Anyway, another interesting read. Being a white guy in Japan, I don't get a lot of perspective, but your BLOG always dishes ample helpings. I know you will eventually get that job where your greatest asset is neither your T nor your A, though I guess it's alright to at least have that to fall back on. The A, anyway - you'd really bruise your coccyx if you fell back without that. Hell, you could even fall forward - it's the side-falls you need to be careful about.

Getting back on track, keep on trucking and everything will work out. Privilege will get you so far, moxie has to take care of the rest.

9:15 PM  

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