Jobs For People With Few Skills

“No we can’t talk about it later. The future doesn’t know later.”

“All the future is, is later. That’s literally what the future is. It’s later!”

– The Internship


It’s ‘moon cake’ festival, or mid-autumn, here in the ‘Jing. I’m about to spend a week away from work reading some novels, watching some movies and getting some writing done. I wanted to visit the Shaolin Temple to re-enact the opening titles of 70s TV ‘classic’ Kung Fu, but I’m too tired and the temple is ridiculously expensive (that show was shot in California, anyway, on a set borrowed from the musical Camelot).

I recently moved to a new flat in Tongzhou. The old flat lacked a certain polish. Nothing is polished in Beijing. Nothing is even dusted. The new flat has running water and electricity and other conveniences devised in the 20th century to make life comfortable for everyone living outside of Chinese apartment buildings. It is bright during the day, with a smoky view of the Batong Line through the large bay windows. I think the main reason for the flat being so enjoyable and spacious is that it had sod all to do with the woman who usually deals with travel and accommodation, someone so helpful that if she were replaced by a mop with a smiley face nailed to it then the mop would answer your WeChat queries more quickly.

My flatmate returned from Yonganli the other night with an armful of black market Hollywood comedy DVDs, so we have recently been bro-manically entangled with the likes of Seth McFarlane, Jim Carey and Vince Vaughan of an evening. a couple of nights ago we watched The Internship, about Vaughan and Owen Wilson stumbling into the eponymous job opportunity at Google.

Although I do rate Vince Vaughn as an actor and as a purveyor of blue collar charm, I’m afraid I usually find his movies about as funny as Huntington’s Disease.* Having said that, I enjoyed The Internship much more than I was expecting. Far from it being just a string of stupid jokes, I thought the screenplay (co-written by Mr. Vaughn) was well-crafted and made a very good parable about the current generation gap. It made some good points about just how difficult it is for people to get a decent job these days, and how skills can be learned but tenacity can’t. I’m also a sucker for films about dreamers, slackers and what novelist Markus Zusak terms ‘failurists’. Vince Vaughn, whatever his faults as a very-occasional tickler of my ribs, plays those kind of parts very well.

In case you think I’m reading way too much into a movie that’s essentially Google’s answer to Triumph of the Will, it was also very funny. One particular scene that struck a chord with me was when Google organized a team-building game of Quidditch, and Owen Wilson asked all of the questions that I would have posed in the same situation, chief among them: “what the fuck does this have to do with computers?”

As well as watching heart-warming comedies, I’ve also been exploring the local area. I’m only two subway stops away from the old apartment, but it has meant seeking out new supermarkets, restaurants, cafés, wifi hotspots and all the other essentials of 21st century convenience. As if I’m not trying hard enough to keep busy, I also signed up for my first online short course, Digital Storytelling with the University of Birmingham. But there is a snafu in there somewhere. Did you spot it?

When the hell did ‘keeping busy’ become so important?

The Internship didn’t make working for Google look fun (any more than Triumph of the Will made working for Der Führer look like a decent gig). It made it look like an exhausting job of work, where you were chastised for simple mistakes, rewarded for staying up all night learning C++ and HTML5 and couldn’t even snooze in a nap pod without Owen Wilson trying to chat you up.

The token female character in the movie even said she liked working at Google because it makes people’s lives better. Hello, wtf? Earth to poorly-developed, Bechdel-test failing fictional character! Having knowledge at your fingertips makes your life more convenient, certainly. But the cliché about knowledge and power is a dumbass half-truth. Knowing stuff and doing stuff are two completely different things. Whatever your achievements for a company, having an epitaph that reads “she worked at Google for 48 years” does not necessarily make you a kind, decent or even successful person.

It is tempting to think that, as an English teacher in China, I am enriching people’s lives and helping children to get a better future. But you only have to look into the sky or take a trip on the subway here to know that if things don’t change pretty damned pronto then the future for these kids involves a sweaty commute under a cloud of chemicals in order to line someone else’s pockets.

Sure, a few of these children may rise to the surface. Maybe one of them will even invent something to clear the skies or stop poisoning the food. Most of them, though, are gonna be driving a three-wheel tuk tuk and struggling to put food on the table in an overpopulated, industrialized cityscape that looks like the opening of Blade Runner.

There’s another exchange from The Internship that’s worth mentioning, between the young interns and the old guys who’ve bumbled their way in:

“The whole American Dream thing that you guys grew up on? That’s all it is now, a dream.”
“You’re too young to be this cynical! You really see the world this way?”
“That’s not how we see it, it’s just the way it is now.”

I Googled it.


*(Dodgeball being an obvious exception. Everybody loves Dodgeball.)

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