Saturday, March 31, 2007

Respice finem (5)

We perceive the things we covet in life as ‘wealth’ and for the better part of my life away from home, my wealth was ‘time’ and ’sleep’. Living away from home and having to manage my own affairs demands more than just the strength of will and good fortune. Having meals to cook, exams to pass and laundry to do and friends and family to keep in touch across the oceans, left room for only one variable in life – sleep.

Working as a waiter in inner-city Melbourne is now only a memory that I look back with nostalgia as one of the more wonderful experiences in my life. As anyone in the business of ‘customer service’ would find out on his or her first day on the job, the customer is always right and by implication, you are always wrong. Being a waiter was being at the bottom of the food chain. But even while I was wiping tables, filling buffets and carrying a dozen plates in one hand and their left-over food in the other, I could still appreciate the opportunities it presented me with to get to see and meet real people. Very few people, if any, would bother to put on a smile or consciously try to be polite to a waiter. So if someone treated me well, I knew that it was because they are actually nice people, and if they treat me rudely, I was always interested to know why.

I cannot over-emphasize the fact that it is often unfair to generalize observations about a nation or even an individual. However, I have to admit that at first, Australia struck me as a country that had a severe drought - not only in terms of the lack of rain which is still a matter of great concern in the eastern states, but also the lack of smiles on the faces of its people. Having grown up in a country where it was never hard to find a sincere smile on the face of a stranger - even among the poorest and down-trodden, I was disappointed at how many people here would be too cold and hesitant to return a smile. A significant proportion of smiles I saw on a regular day were found on the faces of tired shop assistants and I guessed that they were often cosmetic – it was either part of their elaborate sales and customer service strategy or they smiled because they thought I was paying them to do so. Working as a waiter though, I had the chance to meet the real people behind those cosmetic smiles, when they came for dinner at the end of their day. I would often talk to them about their work and about their lives and I could share with them experiences and thoughts from mine.

I soon came to appreciate the fact that “earning a living” was quite different from “making a living”. I had to do my own shopping and cooking. I had to manage my time, my own budget and savings, do my own laundry and maintain the state of the house at least in a way that made it a habitable environment for its occupants and a hospitable one for guests. It didn’t mater how long I had been working, what time I came home or what time I had to go back out. There were chores that had to be done, bills that had to be paid and meals that had to be cooked to avoid death by starvation. I was badly missing the feasts of good food and the people I was missing back home. This always made it particularly difficult whenever I had to spend Christmas alone on a hot summer day in the southern hemisphere watching TV.

Yet I had ridden on many hopes and dreams on my journey. I knew I did not have to fight the reasons that had laid many expectations on my shoulders, but chose instead to let them inspire and lift me to the heights I wanted to reach. My perception of learning and knowledge had indeed changed, but I was not naïve enough to dismiss the importance of doing well in exams and if nothing else, the commercial value of having a testimonial of my knowledge printed out on a piece of paper at the end.

Working part-time while coping with the pressure of studies and managing life on my own, I still had to be dependant on my parents all through my student life. However, I had always wanted to be independent much earlier in my life than I actually could and it bothered me. As soon as I found work, I decided to be independent at least in managing my personal expenses, but it did not take me long to find out how difficult it was going to be. I may never forget the day when I walked into the supermarket with my friend and found out that our combined ‘net worth’ was not enough to buy a loaf of bread, but I did not throw away my independence to use my father’s credit card. Looking back, I am proud of that day because I did not trade in my resolve for a loaf of bread. It also made me take my first step towards mastering the art of cooking a decent ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, which we had for dinner that night instead of bread – with a touch of empathy for Marie Antoinette.

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