The Existential Crisis of a Working Girl
by Misha | August 16, 2015 11:15 PM
I needed money and I was fed up with my previous job, working a barely sustainable amount of minimum hours, and I still had to pay rent and buy new toothpaste. I became upset at under performing below my expectations of grandeur and excellence after college. If somebody were to ask me, So, what do you for a living? I would have sincerely felt giddy with chagrin, and answered in my most haughty voice, Don’t you know? I get paid to accomplish nothing worthwhile! After all, that is what people of leisure, wealth, and success do.
Not a complete loss, I would write down a few poetry pieces at the front desk throughout the day, until my head would hurt or my body felt restless. I really did believe this was the productive and effective start of my writing career. A starving artist in the making — I had no savings at all! It was a strange feeling; a mix of shame and comfort for staying at a low entry level job, but continuing to write for six months. Maybe I could call myself a writer (on the side). Maybe, I could start submitting to online magazines!
Yet, my misery overcame my complacent nature. What was I doing at a corporate job, writing on the side? This was not me. I could not smile foolishly at will! I could not talk pleasantly for no good reason other than to sell. I felt like a cheat just trying to amp up unnecessary services or products. I certainly would not buy it, why should they?
It was inevitable that with all these notions I became a bad employee in the eyes of management. Not a terrible employee, just one lacking potential. I was very aware of my inadequacies, and I voiced them. My supervisor’s face flooded with relief each time. I efficiently listed all the ways I fell short of being an extraordinary employee. It was disconcerting at first, being able to criticize myself, because unlike my employers, I did not see this as potential to grow, but as another reason I would never fit in. Never did I once think I had the intention to change for the “better.” Steadfast, I resolved to find another job instead.
So it was that I arrived at my current job.
I find myself sitting inside a cramped temporary office. My supervisor, smiling and ready to offer help. Is it that I am lost or that I don’t want to be helped, but her eagerness disorients me. Again, the same words drop like bird shit. You need to be more confident, more loud, more excited, more energetic, more smiling, -oh, don’t forget- and more higher pitched! This the third time I am sitting in this chair, and all I can think about now is how big my teeth are and why won’t they stay inside my mouth? The more she craftily phrases my inadequacies, the wider my smile grows. I am surprised she is not staring at my mouth, considering how gigantic they have grown. It is beyond the scarcely proportional! My two front teeth, rising without my consent, into two fluorescent bulbs, flashing for attention.
Of course, I begin to perspire as I try my best to swallow every suggestion. Why can’t I just tell her that this is not helping? I cannot stop nodding, and I think my whole head is twitching instead. Although I won’t take into account any of these tips, I emphatically agree with her. Furthermore, I add my two cents here and there, giving her suggestions on how I could possibly be a more extroverted and engaging agent. At this point, I can see all my efforts of the past weeks flounder in some half-hearted acknowledgement of improvement. She says fake it, but I think, Oh, God! she wants me to be phony. How does this get me anywhere worthwhile! She says just force it and maybe it’ll be real, but I gag inside. How ridiculous! Yet, her ideas about what makes an excellent employee seep into my consciousness. Obviously, I come up short.
So does that mean I am lacking? Truly, will I not survive in the world with my “lack of energy” or my soft voice? Am I bound to some mediocre job because I cannot engage with others? She says this constructive criticism will help me in the next job. Has my inability to connect with strangers pigeonholed me as an introvert? Has my preference for solitude handicapped me to a life of unfulfilled connections with my fellow peers? Speaking of which, a quiet reserved girl like me won’t ever attract a successful guy. If my introvert nature has impeded any success in my career, doesn’t it also put an obstacle in my love life? How can I open myself to an ambitious and well-rounded guy when my lack of energy and confidence turns him off? Will faking a preppy demeanor bring me success in the long run?
Meanwhile, my boss, blond hair and preppy voice, stands up to show me what her vision looks and sounds like. The voice reaches new heights of valley girl pitch and intonation. All her sentences sound like a giant question, which I am careful not to answer, lest I offend by mocking her. Sitting as straight as I can, I wonder if I am not white enough. For instance, my co-workers either are or act like it. Does my problem lie in my Hispanic inflection and low tone? As a test, I start saying everything as a question in the highest sing-song voice I can muster. No surprise, she likes it. Is my problem then that I forgot to assimilate to Americanness? She says one my problems is enunciation. I need to do it. Well, do I have an accent? Perhaps, I do after all. Maybe it is more pronounceable when I am not around other Hispanics?
I guess I had it all wrong. Culturally, I am not American enough. I don’t say “yasss” as my other peers do. I don’t say “Oh my god!” or “cute” all the time. I don’t have a high voice for all occasions. I am not formed as the rest, indeed. She wants to change me, but halfway through our conversation, my boss insists that is not her intention at all. I simply nod. I know I have to move on from here. I will not compromise over what I find ridiculous and phony. What about principles, right? What about respecting uniqueness and differences? I realize I do not have the time to spend reconstructing my whole self in order to satisfy some vague corporate standard of good customer service. Those notions don’t reflect on me as a human being. I can be productive and effective, friendly and reserved in my own manner. Hell, I can teach others to accept and embrace it. I walk on a tightrope, trying to please her while tossing her remarks in the cold wind; my ear turns the other way and I feel good.
Discussion Questions: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Julia Alvarez)
Although the work is fiction, it is almost inevitable to read the novel as memoir, delineating the experience Julia Alvarez experience while moving from her home country in the Dominican Republic to the United States. Even with the time period set in the sixties, many of the events and conflicts Alvarez writes are contemporary and inherent in the bicultural experience. From the Syrian immigrants to the Central American ones, the issues on identity, feminism, and independence looms in their daily lives.
After reading the book, I can’t help but compare the four daughter’s experience with my friend’s experience. She was escaping poverty and abuse, while the Garcia girls are escaping political persecution. She didn’t have a stable home; they come from an upper class family and have relatives studying English in the U. S. It strikes me as a complicated, even problematic, depiction of post-colonialism – which isn’t bad. What effects do post-colonialism and acculturation have on class in the home country and in the foreign land?
Language plays an important and elusive role in the novel. Although the girls have grown up with Spanish, at the beginning of the novel, we hear family conversations in English with particular words emphasized in Spanish. We know they are talking in Spanish. On other hand, we hear the accented/ broken English of the maids and the father throughout the book. How does (lack of) communication in Spanish reveal the sense of loss to the Garcia family?
The fragmented storytelling tends to make all the stories sound the same, as if there were no distinct personality. The are some obvious characteristics that differentiate Carla from Sophia; however, the third person and first person fluidity gives the illusion of one speaker. How does changing point of views help the reader understand the difficulty of finding one’s identity when faced with a wildly different culture and land?
NOTE: In an academic paper by Alexis Cullerston, she writes, Alvarez “marries history with her own truth by building upon the past to explore the present.”
As young girls and later women, the Garcia girls are only oppressed by the general hegemony of American culture, but also their own, sometimes sexist, Dominican culture. What are those limitations they can’t seem to escape in American and Dominican soil? What are some ways they desire to exert their independence?