My Path of Fire Part 3 Mary-Minn Sirag 2013

Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE

When I arrived in San Francisco, on January 14th, 1979, I decreed to myself that my waitressing days were over. I had gone from a conceited college student, who made decent grades fairly effortlessly, to a barely competent waitress, who knocked herself out trying to please, barely making ends meet. Having graduated from college during the second recession of the ‘70s, I had never experienced any other economic climate than the ruthlessly competitive recession.

Badly as I had wanted to escape into the relatively cushy academic world for another two years, I hadn’t managed to navigate the logistics of applying for and attending graduate school. I had serious doubts that I could do much of anything.

My sleazy boyfriend Gene (from whom I’d been trying to escape for the past 2 years and who had caught up with me in Iowa) and I arrived in Oakland with $600. I was carrying a small flight bag containing 5 pairs of underwear, 5 pairs of socks, jeans and a blouse, a heavy wool sweater, a heavy winter parka, volume two of “War and Peace”, and a Delft trivet and a rolling pin, both Christmas presents. The rest I was wearing.  All our other possessions had been sealed in our apartment by the city marshall, property of the city of New York. We had been evicted.

I spent the first night in Oakland with my sister and her boyfriend. My sister dropped Gene off at a fleabag hotel in downtown Oakland. The second day, we lucked into two weeks of free rent in the studio apartment of her friend, who was moving into a one-bedroom at the end of the month. That very day, he had flown back east for two weeks due to a death in the family. The rent on his old apartment was paid until the end 

of January, so we got to live there for free until February, by which time we were hoping to be employed.

My sister, who was selling cosmetics at the Emporium in San Francisco, found me a professional looking outfit at a thrift store and showed me how to put on makeup. A college friend of mine had recommended that I hit the employment agencies rather than chasing want ads. The economy in California was booming.

The job placement people, working on commission, gave me access to an electric typewriter to bone up on my dismal typing skills, and lots of excellent advice.

I was instructed to make eye contact. Having never observed another human’s eye movements during conversation, I didn’t know what proper eye contact looked like. My unblinking stare was off-putting and the efforts it took to keep my eyes focused on the other person distracted me from following much of what they were saying. After a few minutes of concentrating hard on what to say while controlling these tendencies, my eyes started darting around the outer contour of their head. I carefully avoided their chin, for fear of appearing fixated on their cleavage.

I was told that I was too intense and animated, that I went on too much. To keep still, I positioned my hands in my lap but my face would start twitching, to compensate for the bound limbs. When I tamped down my intensity, I came off indifferent and cold. When I curbed my tendency to go on and on, revealing too much about myself, I came off as hesitant and vague, even evasive.

I was told to emulate the interviewer’s word choice and manner, a dramatic feat for someone who had been typecast as the crazy old lady throughout her entire acting career from elementary school to college.

I fibbed on my applications about jobs I’d been fired from, counting on my prospective employer not to check references.

After 2 weeks of playing the professional part, I landed a secretarial job in the chemical and general merchandise department of the San Francisco office of a huge multi-national Japanese trading company called Mitsui. The woman interviewing me, a receptionist, gave me an easy test in math, spelling, punctuation and grammar. She handed me a handwritten letter to edit and type. She told me to type as slowly as I needed to be accurate, not to worry about format. (Later on, she was fired for drinking on the job.)

I landed the job on January 29th, just in time to pay the rent and buy some actual food. We had been living on Wonder bread for the past four days. Mitsui was hiring American liberal arts graduates such as myself–young women with a “well-rounded” education, good grammar and diction. During the recession in the early ‘80s, they started hiring less uppity Asian business graduates.

I was maddeningly slow in mastering the import-export documentation and the interoffice ledger forms that the keypunch operator used to input data into the mainframe computer. My boss didn’t know now to fill out these forms either, so I assumed he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the hardware store either.

The other secretary, a strait-laced woman called Nancy, quickly became impatient with my endless questions about procedure. Terrified of getting into trouble for making a mistake, I wanted to make good and sure that everything I handed in was accurate. After all, I had been told early on that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Decades later, whenever I got the cold shoulder for all my questions, I gradually figured out that it worked better to fill things out to the best of my ability and learn from my mistakes. Calm and unobtrusive deportment is more important than output or accuracy. 

Nancy came down with salmonella once. When her mother called the office, I told her what Nancy had. Nancy later scolded me for being indiscreet. It hadn’t occurred to me that a bowel infection could be taboo even among family sometimes.

Having finally figured out the procedures, I xeroxed the forms, numbering and annotating each item. This booklet saved Nancy’s successor months of humiliating questions and trial and error. It took her 3 months to learn what it had taken me almost a year to figure out. Rather than being undyingly grateful for my beautiful training manual, the bosses were impressed by what a quick study she was.

The Japanese corporate culture made IBM look like the Rainbow Gathering. Regardless of ability or ambition, Japanese nationals were on the executive track. Locally born Japanese (Nisei) and Japanese-American men landed the contract, cultivated and maintained relationships, but never rose above Assistant General Manager. In the secretarial hierarchy, Nisei women were above American women. Asian women were below us, and Japanese women were at the bottom. During my six-year tenure, a couple of Nisei women were promoted to Assistant-to-General Manager. The rest of us never made it past Marketing Administrator II, though we managed daily operations and transactions, as well as making our bosses look good.

I read social nuances poorly, and Japanese culture is subtle even for the more astute. I had not even been raised in a polite or civilized family, and was slow to absorb the finer points of etiquette without annoyed feedback for my frequent breaches.  

On the plus side, the Japanese had low social expectations for Americans, so my primitive social skills weren’t as striking as they would have in an American company.

Back then, Japanese companies were paternalistic. People were fired for criminal behavior and that was about it. Secretaries were expected to serve their bosses coffee in the morning.  

I had never worked in an office so I didn’t appreciate how good I had it until later—how indulgent my boss was or how relatively varied and interesting the work was. My academic parents looked down on the crass business world, so I was ashamed of my job, though it paid enough for me to move into a one-bedroom in San Francisco.

Updated: March 9, 2018 — 1:27 pm