Working Blues

My nightmare is here.

The food blog I work for is in the process of launching a proper food-related website, and for that purpose, we have to call up various restaurants around the city so we can get their information and add them to our database. Since we’re a very small company, that means I’m also on phone duty, in addition to the occasional writing; the phones are really the priority right now.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate talking on the phone. I really do. And I especially hate calling up strangers to ask things of them. Granted, it’s not as bad as it could be, since I’m not trying to sell them anything over the phone; I’m just asking for some general info. But still, it involves calling people up and running through the same spiel of who I am and what my company is over and over again. And it’s always adds needless stress when you get hold of someone that’s uncooperative or boorish in some way, as if I’ve dealt them a great personal offense by daring to dial their number.

We’re aiming to be done with this by early next month, and I will be glad when it’s over and I can go back to what I wanted to do in the first place: write.

Want My Advice?

You’ve got a problem of some sort? Oh, I know what to do. Just fix it! See? Problem solved!

There are advisors lurking everywhere, just waiting for you to present them an issue they can deliver their opinion on. Are you trying to lose weight? They have the perfect diet plan or fitness regimen to suggest. Looking to buy a house? Their thoughts on real estate are boundless. Unlucky in love? They’ll not only give you relationship advice, but also happily remind you that you’re getting on in years and should settle down soon!

Usually, they skulk around among the distant relatives, the aunts and uncles you only see on special occasions. But they can also take the guise of co-workers or friends of friends. Everyone of them has the keys to a happy life and they’ll gladly hand them to you if you’ll just listen. Like one of my colleagues, or even some colleagues from my previous job. They’ve got very strong opinions on marriage and when people should get married. I’m apparently getting over the hill and should settle down fast. The countdown’s begun, people! One of my former colleagues looked at me like I had antlers sprouting from my nostrils when I suggested that I might not get married till I’m 40. The idea was incomprehensible to him.

I should point out that both of those colleagues are Indian, and marriage is a pretty big deal in Indian culture. It’s basically the ultimate achievement of any young person’s life. If you’re not working hard and raising a family, then what the hell are you doing? Well, I’m writing, reading, drawing and playing video games. Oops.

Also, women should get married before 30. Yep. So says my advisor. It doesn’t apply to men, though. Only women.

I have also been advised, by many people, to take a cab whenever I need to get around, even a short distance. Why would I want to walk anywhere? That’d just be crazy. Never mind that I like walking, and generally prefer it to vehicular travel. But in the Dubai heat? No, no. Take a cab. Even though I’ve grown up here and learned to work around the heat. Apparently everyone else knows better.

Financial planning, career management, even breathing (probably). Any random person around you will have most informed perspective on the matter. Should you even mention the subject in passing, they’ll be all too eager to shower you with advice.

So there you go. If you’re looking to fix your life, just ask the guy next to you. He knows best. And will also probably tell you something dismissive about women because man, some people are just awful.

Rat Race

A change of scenery can really change a man.

I remember growing up in Dubai, amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, in step with the crowds that rushed to and fro. It all felt so normal, so expected. That’s what life in a burgeoning metropolis was like. For my young mind, that’s what life was like, in general.

When I moved to the U.S. after high school, my whole worldview was turned around. There was a lot I was already used to. Years of TV and movies had given me a solid enough cultural background that the country didn’t feel foreign to me. I knew a few other international students who were experiencing some degree of culture shock, but I felt quite at home. The one thing that left me reeling was the pace of life. I was at the main campus of Penn State, in a small college town surrounded by trees and greenery, the tallest buildings probably about 10 stories high. This was no concrete jungle; the trees were real.

It’s become such a cliche to describe some place as a ‘sleepy little town’, yet that’s exactly what State College felt like, compared to Dubai. There were college kids rushing to class of course, and yet it never felt quite so fast-paced. It was all so relaxing. I could walk out of class, take a longer route back to my dorm and really explore the campus. It helped that there were actually places to explore, sights to see. Not just row after row of concrete and glass slabs.

The weather was a refreshing change too. A walk through the campus on July was a completely different experience to the same thing in mid-December. Unlike Dubai, where the landscape remained unchanged throughout the year and the weather varied from sear-your-eyeballs hot to not-sweating-all-the-time hot.

But the most fascinating part to me was that people were actually living. I mean, just existing and basking in the world around them. There wasn’t a rush for the next meeting, a hurry to go places (other than class, but even then, not always) or a constant push to be ahead of the line. I could sit for hours with friends and acquaintances, talking about everything and nothing, just content to pass the time with good company.

The return to Dubai was when culture shock really hit me. The city’s pace had only picked up over the years, and now nobody had time to stop and breathe. Everyone was running everywhere, and I fell into step with them. Commuters fought for space on crowded buses and trains, seeking the Holy Grail of an empty seat. I joined the hunt all too eagerly; the serenity of State College was long forgotten. Now I had to fight for survival just like everyone else in this town, pushing and shoving until I got where I needed to go.

People here don’t make much small talk. They’re concerned with their jobs, where the company is going, whether sales targets will be met, how the economy will impact them. All important and valid concerns, I’m sure, but how about just taking a train ride? Enjoying the sights passing by (even if those sights are primarily skyscrapers)? Talking about yourself or your companion? Is it just all business?

As a result, my conversations here grow few, often just limited to work and work-related matters. I can’t just sit down and talk about life, as I once did. Nobody around me seems to have any hobbies; they work, eat and sleep. It’s a way of life that’s alien to me. Work pays the bills, and I definitely want to do well at my job, but I’m not looking to be the next big CEO or have a literal pool of money like Scrooge McDuck. My hobbies and interests are who I am. Without them, I’d just be a human shell, programmed to display certain emotions on certain occasions.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken some time to re-evaluate my life and my priorities. I’m not the type of person who has animated discussions about the real estate market or the rise and fall of currencies. I don’t want to spend my free time talking about work. And I really don’t want to be the guy who cuts other people off to grab that rare empty seat on the train, as if parking my ass on a chair trumps everything else in life.

I’ve learned to slow down again, or at least as much as I can in a place like this. It’s not an easy thing to do. Sometimes, when the world is racing past, it’s tempting to race along with it, to be the fastest rat in the pack. So every once in a while, I have to step aside and remind myself that the only thing I’ll gain from all that running is a shortness of breath. May as well relax and take the scenic route. I’m in no rush.

Moving On

I had to go to my old office a couple of days go to take care of a few final formalities; they’d been kind enough to give me the option of working with them again if, within a month, I changed my mind about the new job.

My old office is a little bit closer to home, so I actually got to sleep in an extra hour and only had a short train ride to get there. But, as I got off the train, I felt ill at ease. This was the exact same routine I’d been following for a year, but doing it again after a month felt kinda depressing. The familiar little office looked the same, but there was something different about it. Its wood paneled floor and glass-walled cabins like an alien landscape and me the explorer who’d landed here by mistake.

I spoke with our HR person and we discussed the few logistical matters that needed to be taken care of to completely end my association with the company. There was, again, a sense of unease and apprehension creeping over me. The same doubt I had before about leaving a boring but safe job for something new resurfaced in my mind. This was it. Once we were done here, I’d be walking out of that door forever, completely absorbed into a new life.

Looking around the office reminded me of lazy afternoons spent with no real work to do, and insane deadlines that more than compensated for those afternoons by pushing everyone to their limits. It wasn’t an atmosphere that suited me well, but it was the only atmosphere I’d known for the past year.

I left the office feeling bummed and depressed and lost in my own head. Time to go to work.

It was about a 40 minute ride to the new office, and over the course of that time, my day got brighter. I was looking forward to getting there in spite of the longer journey, something I never really felt at my old job. It was a place I went because I had to, but now I was actually excited. It made me realize that’s how I’ve felt this whole month. I’ve been excited about work, about new assignments coming my way, about getting my work published on the site.

I got off the train with a spring in my step. It was the start of a new week and a new month, and I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for me.