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Monday, October 11, 2010

Awkward Days

Exactly a week ago, I spent Thursday in the most awkward way possible. My friend, A-, and I were painfully broke, and, in our desperate state, we resorted to the inevitable: we got a job.
Having just recovered from a near-scam, in which the woman on the phone admitted she had never intended on paying us if we worked for her, we were doubtful but nonetheless determined. We turned up at a neighbourhood McDonald’s, an approximately hour and a half long ride by bus and train- only to discover the person who had so eagerly hired us was surrounded by smokers, and was smoking herself. It was a jolt for us, and a hard one.
I’ve probably lived what most would describe a sheltered life. I have been exposed to different cultures and people; I’ve seen and been through what most 18-year olds have. At the same time, however, reality has yet to fully descend on me.
Being made to sit in the uncomfortable heat inhaling the acrid cigarette fumes is far from a pleasant experience, especially for someone who has a low tolerance level for the smell of tobacco. Despite the company’s evident lack of professionalism, A- and I had traveled a long way. We agreed not to leave just yet. First impressions are important, and while theirs was far from impressive, we had yet to give them one.
After stubbing out their cigarettes (during which I watched in disgust, my stomach recoiling while A- fought to keep her features even), we were given individual advisors and split up.
 My destination for the day? A far-off industrial park, forty minutes by train and a stone’s throw from the edge of the city. My heart sank, but I fought to remain unruffled by the undesirable turn the day was taking. When we arrived, another shock awaited me.
 It was the exact kind of place I often see in the Chinese drama serials my grandmother watches: dim lights led the way, with the occasional slit of sunlight slipping through gaps in the building’s cement walls. Workers were reversing carelessly in their tractors and pickups; others were welding and carrying gargantuan blocks of hot metal. I had never imagined, I remembered thinking later, I would ever have to enter a place like this in my life.
Learning what life is really like for so many on the other end of the spectrum was a cold dose of reality for me.
In-between rounds of conversations with construction company bosses (one was more than happy to regale his life story to us while sipping on his gin and tonic- although he did eventually purchase the gift card we had been proffering for the past twenty minutes), messaging and cooling off with a can of ice-cold passion fruit tea, my advisors found ample time to smoke on their contraband cigarettes.
The stench clung to my clothes and never left even as we made our way back hours later. The fruits of my labour were barely reaped. Eight hours of work and the sale of four gift cards had earned me a grand total of forty dollars. Four ten-dollar bills were presented to me in all their crumpled glory, and I tried to hide my immense disappointment.  A- fared worse. Her efforts had resulted in a single sale that day, and ten-dollars was passed her way.
We went for dinner in town after, poking morosely at our Japanese takeaway dinners in a beautifully set café, all bamboo and tiny, cramped tables. I vented, A- fumed, and we alternated between the two on each other’s behalf before the topic moved on to a more lighthearted one.
The skyline in this part of the country is beautiful, especially at night. Stars are rare, but if you know the right vantage points from which to admire the view, you will be well rewarded. Everything is artificially cheerful. Skyscrapers of varying heights illuminate the area, and that alone put us in a better mood altogether as we dug into our Wendy’s chocolate Frostys-I had treated; she had, after all, earned a quarter of what I had-just over an hour later.
It was the perfect end to a less than perfect day. Sometimes I set my hopes too high, and reality falls short. But then I remember my friends and family. When I return home and everything returns to normal again, I feel warm and genuinely content. Being greeted excitedly by my Dalmatian, Kelly, no matter the hour, is one of the things I love the most about my life.
Knowing I have so much to look forward to makes getting through a difficult day so much easier.