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Eureka: My struggles with unemployment Eureka: My struggles with unemployment
by Jay Gutman
2017-12-17 09:32:54
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One thing I like about Americans is how brutally honest they can be about their past life and how every phase of their life is carefully categorized and has a name attached to it. With that in mind, I'll be brutally honest with what has so far been a mismanaged life.

I decided to go to university and major in English and Spanish. The decision was a snap decision, I wanted to major in something easy, get good grades and party a lot. I thought university was like high school, that the English and Spanish you would study in university was of the same caliber as that studied in high school, and since I was an A+ student in English and Spanish in high school without putting in much of an effort I thought university would be the same.

unepl01_400_01There in 2002 I flew to France from Algeria to major in English and Spanish at the University of Nanterre. Nanterre was not a political choice, it was the only French university whose name I knew, mainly because a college counselor had mentioned it in high school, and partly because I knew that was where the 1968 riots started. But university was a shock experience for many reasons.

First, I was surprised at the superficiality of relations between students. I had my repertoire of jokes that I kept working on and had to worry that I would not interact with people long enough to see my repertoire of jokes dry out. In France, when you meet people, you tell a few jokes and part ways. You don't share personal stuff, don't complain about the dullness of the lectures, don't gossip about the classmates or the professors, much less have intellectual conversation. You tell a few jokes and part ways.

English and Spanish was not of the same level in high school. In high school; it was mainly an article with comprehension questions and an essay at the end. In college it was linguistics, translation, history, civilization, law, economics, business, marketing, statistics, communication, journalism, anthropology and all kinds of mind-boggling exercises. The hardest part were the translation examinations. Imagine having to translate a random text from French to English or Spanish with no dictionary allowed. My grades were OK, but I didn't count the sleepless nights practicing translation and memorizing vocabulary. There was never enough time for studying, and I also had to update my repertoire of jokes.

Another struggle was how to explain professors and classmates that I was an Israeli adopted by an Algerian family. I dropped hints, but few students or professors got the hints. Many were perplexed, some thought I was faking being Jewish, few understood I was not allowed to fail because had nothing and no one to back me up.

In January 2005, I did my first internship at the United Nations. I was shocked at the violence at which my skills were put under the carpet. Back then I spoke French, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic and of course English, but was not allowed to talk about that or to try to show that. Despite not being paid, I was asked to summarize about 500 reports, was not told why I had to provide the summary nor was I given a deadline. I used to complain that I would not summarize 500 reports even if I were paid a million dollars a year, much less if I'm not paid anything. I procrastinated, was confused, thought about quitting, but again was not allowed to quit because it was a university requirement. So in the end I gave the summaries my money's worth, copy and paste, copy and paste.

If my skills are to be put under the carpet I don't think I'll get an office job. Do all office jobs put your skills under the rag and reduce you to something worthless? Is such hypocrisy prevalent? Maybe I should try teaching. At least I can decide what to tell my students, at least that's what I used to think. I gradually realized that university was also putting my skills under the rag. I did another internship over the summer of 2005, again skills put under the rag, this time my repertoire of jokes was not useful, and I had the further realization that some people could shamelessly tell lies and shrug when confronted about them. I was at a small company where lying was so prevalent I wasn't sure if the walls were black or white anymore.

At the end of the summer of 2005, I tried my luck with a television newsroom. Again I was shocked at the violence at which my skills were cast under the rag. Not only was lying prevalent, but people were communicating with codes and charades. That's it, I had my mental breakdown.

I decided to try another part of the world, Korea. South Korea to be exact. My adoptive parents happened to be there. I just stayed home in the Korean bitter cold of 2005 and spent 6 months watching every single episode of the sit-com “Friends.” Then I applied to a Masters degree program, got accepted. The graduate school was kind of a military camp. You had to wake up every morning at 5:45 AM, meditate, listen to speeches, clean the dormitories the go to class.

I was surprised I was allowed to choose any class I wanted to take (in France you don't choose the classes you take) and was surprised at the fact that, despite it being an international relations program with a political science focus, the readings did not mention the names of a single leader, let alone any name. The readings were political in nature, by were a long enumeration of rules and laws in international relations, never citing examples. Countries were hardly ever mentioned, and I remember reading an entire book about the Cold War in which the only name every mentioned was Winston Churchill. Come on guys, Roosevelt? Truman? Staline?

So I went through two years of grad school and again, skills cast under the carpet, again no talk about the labor market, but this time, my repertoire of jokes was useless. South Koreans often do not get my jokes. In 2006 and 2007 I started to ask myself serious questions about the structure of a job market. Is there even such a thing as a job market? Where do you apply for jobs? What kind of job does not reduce you to a useless guy and put your skills under the carpet? I did an internship at a television station for a year, again no pay, but I was free to roam around. But then again, my skills were put under the carpet.

After graduating from the Masters program, I thought about learning Korean to give my self time to look for the ideal job. Koreans don't hire non-Koreans, which is also true if non-Koreans speak Korean. But I still decided to learn Korean, but still no job in sight.

After graduating from the Korean program in December 2009, December 4, 2009 was my day one of unemployment. I went to meetings, conferences, tried to talk to as many people as I knew, nothing. I tried to get a job through Facebook. Nothing. Is there such a thing as a job market? From December 2009 to November 2010 I tried to network my way to journalism and teaching jobs. I applied to about 7 or 8 thousand jobs, perhaps 10,000 jobs. Nothing. I tried Facebook, lots of trolls. I tried phone calls and was told to send my resume, then got shut off and hung up on. I tried emails, those didn't work either. 

In November 2010 I found a job, my first paying job. About 1,900 dollars a month. Again skills put under the carpet. Again lies. Again no conversations. The repertoire of jokes was not useful. I tried to quit after the second week. You can keep the money I told them. They rejected my resignation. I tried to quit again after the third week. Again my resignation was rejected. Then the fourth week. Then the day I received my first pay check, I ran away. But before running away, I insisted I could return the money.

On January 2nd, 2011 I ran away from my first job. Then spent another four months unemployed. I met a guy at a conference who accepted to hire me as an intern. Another internship. It was a cool internship. It was in South Korea, I had an office, and had time to apply to a Ph.D. program. Then I got accepted to the Ph.D. program.

Ph.D. program. Again skills put under the carpet. Again am told repeatedly than I am useless. I couldn't believe the violence of some of the words I was being told by professors and students alike. I got in in September 2011, and by December 2011 had my first yelling contest with a professor. He didn't believe the truth, there are three legal political parties in North Korea. How could you say North Korea is a democracy, he asked me. Did I say that? I asked him back. If a country has three political parties does that mean they are democratic? Why are you distorting what I said?

By June 2012, I got my first real job, I was a professor at a University in South Korea teaching English. This time there was no lying, and my relations with other English teachers were great. There was an atmosphere of honesty and truths being told. Finally, the world is not full of hypocrits, I thought. But the Korean administration was doing the usual, casting skills under the carpet. Two professors won awards, the university did not even buy us or them a bottle of wine to celebrate the event. The professors were not even invited to dinner, and few people congratulated them. The mere fact that this was mentioned in the teacher's room was comforting. It was comforting to know that I was not the only one suffering, that the other professors noticed what I had noticed for a decade.

June 2013, I am told to sign my execution. I was fired and banned from teaching in South Korea and so were all those who did not have two years' experience. I had to go back to the Ph.D. Was failed twice at the exams, failed five exams in total, and was told that I was worthless. In January 2015 I got another job, as a university administrator. The violence of what I was hearing there left me speechless. I was constantly yelled at, and had to fight 8 people at the same time. We shared an office with 8 other colleagues, and they all teamed up to fight me. I was fired in June 2015.

I had to go back to Algeria, to an abandoned apartment of my adoptive family. I knew no one in Algeria, had no money, had no job. I had a few Euros I converted to dinars that helped me survive the first months, then made a few friends in my adoptive family who were giving me small allowances. They would then ask my adoptive parents to pay them back, and my adoptive parents would complain at first about the amounts, which were nothing huge. Then things settled.

I was unemployed from June 2015 to February 2017, in a city where being Jewish is no fun and where I hide most of the time. I know nobody and nobody knows me. In February 2017 I got a job as a language teacher, paid by the hour, no contract. Again skills put under the carpet, again I was a nobody at that job. I quit in October 2017 when one of the bosses treated me like a nobody. He wanted me to teach at a company that was far, far away, I tried to tell him I did not want to teach at that company, he forced me to go there. I decided not to go, and when he noticed my absence there, got hysterical. Good luck finding a teacher like me.

Again, I've been unemployed since October 2017. So all in all I worked 27 months out of the last 120 months since I got my masters degree in paid jobs and spent 23 months as an unpaid intern. In my entire professional life I made 47,000 dollars in my ten years actively looking for a job and working between jobs. That's like 4,000 dollars a year.

Something that bugs me is when my friends were partying hard I was skipping the parties so I could study. When I lived in Colombia I learned Spanish when most of my friends were too busy playing basketball and riding their bikes. I did a bit of both actually. In Turkey I learned Turkish when most of my foreign friends were too busy dating and complaining about the backwardness of the country. In Korea I learned the language when a lot of my expat friends were partying hard. My computer skills are OK; I've read a ton of books, including the Bible cover to cover, speak nine languages with mostly good degrees of fluency, which are English, French, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Berber, Korean, Portuguese and Hebrew and have mostly completed the tasks I was assigned. But the constant has been working for companies who put your skills under the carpet and who treat you like a misbehaving five year old when you're a competent, polite adult. The main problem is there seems to be no stability in sight.

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