“I think careers are a 20th century invention…And I don’t want one.”
– Chris McCandless, from the film Into the Wild
“So, you mean you’ve made a career out of moving to other countries?” The girl with the Katie Holmes haircut asked, frowning in a way that suggested she found that idea disturbing. We were at a friend’s dinner party and I’d just filled her in on some of the places I’d lived before moving to Tokyo. I imagined the words ‘flake’ and ‘ambitionless drifter’ were flashing across her mind’s eye, like neon red “Danger! Do not engage!’ signs.
“Well, um…Not a career exactly,” I replied, thinking about my resume of odd jobs; Swim instructor, English teacher, au pair, dog walker. “I guess I’ve just been on this quest to find my purpose in life, you know? And then I moved to Japan and realized that maybe my purpose in life is to accept the fact that I don’t have a purpose.”
There was this pause and then Katie Holmes Haircut said: “Wow, that’s deep.” She smirked and a few people who’d been listening laughed. Katie Holmes Haircut, I was later informed, is the proud owner of a Real Job. In return for spending six days a week analyzing the subtle differences between ‘Desert Sand’ and ‘Deep Peach’ eyeshadow colors, she gets a hefty allowance and a grown-up apartment with like, real furniture and everything. She doesn’t have to buy discount Wallmart-blue chair cushions from Ikea because she (unlike me) can afford to buy actual chairs. Girls with Katie Holmes Haircuts will never understand me.
“I’m serious!” I insisted, giving it a shot anyway. From my perch on the kitchen counter overlooking the rest of the guests, I felt a little like a misunderstood Messiah. I could feel the weight of truth behind my words and I looked at all of them in earnest. “Maybe I’ll never have a career, but that won’t matter. It’s not like when I’m dead and buried that my tombstone will read, ‘Here lies Reannon, English teacher.’ My job isn’t my identity. It’s not who I am and it’s not how I want to be remembered.”
They all looked at me quizzically. It was a look I was familiar with because it’s the same look I give the Salarymen who sleep soundly while standing up on the train; it’s a spectacular feat to behold and yet leaves me with the suspicious feeling that perhaps they aren’t all together human. I hastily shoved some chocolate-covered peanuts in my mouth so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself with any further inappropriate self-revelations.
Learning how to stop equating a ‘career’ with ‘the key to a happy existence’ has probably been the greatest lesson I’ve learned since moving to Japan. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve felt a lot of guilt and shame for approaching my late 20’s without having hit those requisite milestones: career, marriage, baby. Living in the Land of the Rising Overachievers has made it especially hard not to feel like I’ve failed at life somehow.
But then I watch the Salarymen in the morning as they attempt to squeeze in a few last minute Z’s on the train ride to work and I notice their shiny black leather shoes and can picture them waking up early to meticulously polish off the scuff marks. I think about all of the cans of coffee they must have downed in order to give them the boost of energy to walk up the stairs to the train platform. And I think of the thousands of men who die each year due to the stress of overworking and the thousands who chose death rather than living with the shame of being unemployed.
And I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not one of them.