In the same spirit of being in New Zealand which has led me to try Milo and Marmite, I recently picked up Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’d given it a try maybe ten yearse ago, but never made it through. So far round two has gone well and even turned up a rather fitting quote:
“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to, while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”
Whether what I’m about to say is gruesome or not, I think Tolkien’s point is much the same as what every writer knows – that every good story needs a conflict. The conflict of my story is the never-ending quest for employment. I was told my assignment with Statistics New Zealand would be at least two weeks, if not three. The three other temps and I show up on Tuesday prepared for this time-frame, one of them having even turned down another post for the following week. After an hour or so of orientations, tours, and health and safety pep talks, we get to work. There were roughly twenty boxes of paper censuses we were to be entering. Around 3pm the first afternoon, the online system crashed, as it apparently hadn’t been tested for mass entry yet. While we not-so-begrudgingly took our mandatory recess from work, playing Solitaire and sending texts, I looked around and gauged how many boxes we’d finished compared to how many remained. It didn’t look good.
At the rate we were going, the boxes would all be entered by the next Monday at the latest. I mentioned this to Arron that night and he said that’s often the case with temp jobs. The client hires too many workers for the job, usually at the prodding of the agency looking to make a bigger cut. “Tell everyone to slow down,” was his advice, “or you’ll finish too quickly.” I laughed and jokingly shared it with the other girls at lunch the next day. But we carried on and the stack of boxes grew shorter and shorter. By Thursday we weren’t laughing anymore about our over-productivity or uber-efficiency – it was clear we would be done by Friday. We could overhear our supervisor on the phone with the temp agency, trying to sort out the situation of what to do with us. And sure enough that evening, all of us got calls from the agency saying we’d done ourselves out of a job. So much for hard works pays off, ay?
But like any fling, it was good while it lasted. In Kiwi jargon, I couldn’t have asked for a more cruisey job. The office was literally a four-minute walk from my flat, making for one heck of a different commute from going to work in London. From battling the crowds on buses and the Tube – spending up to two hours a day on public transport – to a quiet walk through the suburbs. Around 10.30 the first morning, the woman training us says, “Right, it’s about time for morning tea,” and leads us to the company cafeteria where we sit for twenty minutes, consuming free hot drinks provided by SNZ. There was a kitchen area near our cubicles with trays of clean mugs and a machine sent from heaven to serve every hot drink from coffee and tea to hot chocolate espresso. Apparently it’s actually New Zealand law for employers to provide tea and coffee – amazing! As I struggled to conceal my shock and joy at the ritual of morning tea in the workplace – one in which the entire office takes part – I realized the daily schedule was one I could definitely get used to: work, morning tea, work, lunch, work, afternoon tea, work, home.
The work itself was so boring, repetitive, and monotonous (insert any other relevant synonyms) it was actually funny. Form after form of identical questions to be entered in the same online form. The company seems to acknowledge the ridiculous repetition of it all, though, and really stressed the importance of preventing the “hazards” of the job from taking a serious effect – pausing for ten-second breaks every three to five minutes of typing to give our wrists a break and getting up every hour to stretch and walk around – not a hard thing to do with free drinks twenty feet away all day.
But however similar the forms were, at least the actual answers were fascinating and different enough to keep me from going brain-dead on the job. Addressing such topics as ethnic origin, age, marital status, religion, education, occupation, and salary, it was quite the look into a cross-section of New Zealand’s population. To stay focused and interested, I found myself having conversations with the respondents in my head. As weird as it may sound, it made the day go by that much faster, loving the chance for an inside view of the Kiwis.
To the 86-year old man who lives alone and never married, I wanted to know why not. To the woman who listed NZ Sign Language as a second language, I said the classic Kiwi phrase, “Good on you!” Each situation was perfect fodder for future novels, like the 78-year old woman living with her 48-year old son who responded that he has a severe illness or disability. My favorites, of course, were ones that defied typical living arrangements. One “dwelling” (the total group of individuals in a house or building) listed a woman, her daughter, and two grandsons. I initially assumed the daughter was the boys’ mother, but as I worked through each individual form, it turned out she was mother of neither, and that the boys were cousins, not brothers like I’d first imagined. It definitely caught my interest.
And then there were the rebels, who went further than just checking the “I object to answering this question” box. One wrote MYOB every chance he got – Mind Your Own Business. It’s a census, buddy, this is our business. Some were cheeky, entering Jedi in an attempt to have it recognized as an official religion. Other responses for religion: spirituality, house church, and – the best, in my opinion – truth and justice. But one respondent sticks out in my mind above the rest:
Languages spoken: English, subliminal messaging, oompaloompan
Degree: Life and everything about it
Other people you live with: My imaginary friend, the Boogie Man
Address: Your Mom’s
Your mom’s, really? I’m pretty sure that joke is only ten years old. I guess as long as they feel they’re bucking the system, that’s what matters. Speaking of the system, I may or may not have signed my life away in agreements of secrecy and confidentiality…good thing I don’t have to go in on Monday morning.