Daily Archives: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Working like an Immigrant

I haven’t been paying as much attention to Cachando Chile as I’d like to lately because I’ve been putting in long, long hours trying to dig my way out from under a ton of work and projects, all of which seem to be top priority. I’m not really complaining; I actually love my work, and of course I’m very happy to have the work in these uncertain times, but the pace has definitely been grueling. I can’t help but remember a conversation with a gringa friend a while back. We were both complaining about how hard we work here in Chile. We came to the conclusion that we work like immigrants… But then of course, we ARE immigrants!

Most of us who grow up in the States are raised on stories of poor immigrants—often ancestors—who arrived with the proverbial shirts on their backs and worked hard to make a life for themselves and their families. Work hard; get ahead. The American Dream. Fast forward to Chile… same story… Take a stroll through the Plaza de Armas any Sunday afternoon. It’s packed with immigrants from other South American countries, particularly Perú, enjoying their one day off a week. Their stories are tales of sacrifice, hard work, and dreams of a better future. It’s something I can certainly identify with. While my friend and I (and so many other gringas I know) didn’t come here for economic reasons, we still find ourselves working day and night and weekends and holidays to make a place for ourselves in this new world.

I’ve always been a worker (WASP complex with corresponding work ethic and all that), but the simple truth is that I’ve never worked harder in my life than I do in Chile. In large part it’s because wages are lower and expenses are generally higher here than in the US, and since I am not willing to live on the basic salary I could earn with the skills I have to offer, I do a lot of freelance writing and translating on the side. And this is the case for many ex-pats I know here (how many ESL teachers are reading this?? Been there!)

Freelance and Free time: oil and water.

Freelance work, by its very nature, is unstable. Up and down. Feast or famine. Turn a client away today, run the risk of losing them forever. It breeds an unhealthy sense of urgency and a certain aphasia when it comes to the word “no.” I practice saying it over and over in front of the mirror and hear it plain as day in my head, but then “yes” tumbles out of my mouth. And if I say I will do something, I will do everything in my power to keep my word, even if that means working on Saturday, Sunday, and Christmas. Rarely a day goes by (literally and seriously) that I do not work at least 3 or 4 hours. A normal day is more like 12 to 14, probably more.

I ask myself why it is that my friends and I end up putting in such long hours, while most of the Chileans we know work a single job and seem to make do with that. Here’s what I come up with:

Part of the reason is clearly personal. There’s a limit to how many sacrifices in lifestyle I am willing to make in order to live here. It’s not at all about luxury; my living conditions are simple, I do not own a car, and I’m certainly no clothes horse, but I do have my little extravagances—my wallet seems to have a hole in it when it comes to good food and wine, books (Amazon loves me), and photography, for example. And I insist on seeing my family at least once a year… and that means doing my share to keep Delta Airlines pilots out of the unemployment lines.

But there is also a very important part that is cultural. This side tends to be more problematic, because my Chilean friends and family have a much harder time getting a grasp on it.

No one is going to bail me out

I was raised to take responsibility for myself and for my actions. The members of my social networks do not owe me anything other than respect. (See “The Dance Card’s Full” post.) I must stand on my own two feet and pick myself up when I fall. When I married, the “I” became “we”… but only to a certain degree. We plan together and lean on each other through hard times and good, but in the end, I am still bottom-line responsible for me. And if I want something, I have to work for it. Stop working; deal with the consequences.

I do not have a social network that makes high demands on my time.

The flip side of bail-out networks and family-provided get-out-of-jail free cards is that my time is pretty much my time.  I don’t have to take my mother to the hairdresser or shop for my uncle or do my sister’s homework or go to my cousin’s birthday party (again, check out the Dance Card post). I don’t even have young kids at home, so if I want to work on Sunday, I can, which definitely has its upside and its downside.

I do not plan to get hit by a truck tomorrow.

Whenever I start planning for the future, my very Chilean husband starts with the “we could die tomorrow” argument. Sorry. We could also live another 50 years. That makes me nervous and brings out my worker-ant side, the one that works hard today to put away a little something for tomorrow… even though it often seems that I’m surrounded by cheery Chilean grasshoppers who just cannot understand why I’m working on a Sunday afternoon instead of enjoying a siesta. It’s all related to a fear of waking up under a bridge someday. I truly like the idea of a roof over my head and the occasional chicken in the pot.

So, in the end, this particular gringa immigrant is writing blog posts at 2:00 AM because it’s the first free moment of the day (okay, make that week) that I’ve been able to steal away just for me, time to write just because I want to. Overly WASP-ish you say? Gringa-style work gluttony? Immigrant behavior? Call it what you will… and look around—how many expats to you see in the same boat?

PS: Just for the record. Working freelance from home really does have significant benefits–no alarm clocks, no rush hour traffic, no time cards, no dress code (working in pajamas is perfectly acceptable), and the laptop at the beach house is as legit an office as the desk at home. In fact, once you get past the financial uncertainty and long hours, the working conditions are pretty hard to beat!