Sour Apples – Part IV
As I mentioned before, around the end of November heading into December I ended up doing a lot of overtime at work. The reason being that I had asked the company to stop using most of the outsource translators we had at the time. I’d like to think it wasn’t me being picky – their translations were of the mangled English that we foreigners like to laugh at everyday. Clumsy, inadequate, and oftentimes, incomprehensible. If I was willing to settle for the bottom line – “hey, at least it’s not in Japanese anymore!”, then perhaps things would have been easier. But I took a lot of pride in my work and the company, and didn’t want to put that kind of English on the website. As a result, with no other translators to turn to I took on the majority of the translation work. It was a workload that, ideally, a team of several should have taken on, but we didn’t have ideal conditions. I figured I’d just work hard now, and later we’d get better translators.
However, because I was so overworked there were a number of missteps. A few deadlines were not met. And as time was an ever-present concern, I couldn’t go back and do meticulous error checking, so format, accuracy, and even spelling errors occurred. I suppose you could also factor in that this was my first experience working at a company doing translation, so some errors may have been caused by inexperience as well.
While I was in the midst of the storm, the president and my supervisor were nothing but supportive, appreciative, and perhaps even a little apologetic. In January the workload settled down, and I renewed my contract, going from part-time to contract with a pay raise and more official responsibilities. In February, Curly and Ms. Shocker joined the company, so I felt like I’d weathered the storm and things were only going to get better from here.
Little did I know, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Not very long after the storm died down, perhaps even in February, I began to feel that those feelings of appreciation and support had become that of blame and even ridicule. Mostly, I felt this from my supervisor, and Small Wonder, who had somehow become sort of the head of personnel. It came from a snide remark here and an inappropriate joke there about the errors I’d made during the intense workload. At this point, although I was aware myself of the errors I’d made, no one had talked to me about them in any capacity whatsoever. I really didn’t like getting ridiculed over my failures, especially having just worked so hard for the company.
This treatment became especially evident when it came to Ms. Shocker’s training. Her training had been entrusted to Doris – at the time, I thought nothing of it. Although Doris was a member of the Chinese team, she’d been working customer service for years, and as that was the capacity in which Ms. Shocker joined the company, I felt that to be an appropriate choice. However, sometimes Ms. Shocker did ask me questions if Doris wasn’t available or if it was something English-related. I’d answer, but almost immediately after doing so, my supervisor would literally run to Ms. Shocker’s desk (not an exaggeration…she’d actually break into a little sprint) to tell her to just ignore whatever I said and only listen to Doris. This wasn’t anything that happened in private, this was right in the middle of the office. For the record, I always spoke with Ms. Shocker in English, and my supervisor knows no English whatsoever. Ms. Shocker couldn’t help but to wonder what exactly was wrong – after all, I wasn’t telling her anything outrageously wrong or even slightly off-the-mark, and even my other co-workers would occasionally ask me in private what the deal with that was. Aside from having my advice be immediately and publicly vetoed, I didn’t like the attitude of “he doesn’t know what he’s doing/he makes a lot of mistakes”, especially when no one had talked to me directly about those mistakes.
I’ve been told that I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I’m sure that my annoyance and anger at my supervisor and Small Wonder must have shown. Nothing extreme of course, but it was probably readily apparent that I didn’t think too highly of them. At least the message seemed to reach the both of them loud and clear, as a few weeks later a small meeting was held between me, my supervisor, Small Wonder, and the president, to talk about my “work attitude.” My supervisor came into it almost as if her feelings had been hurt personally. I tried to explain that I wasn’t happy about having been ridiculed over the mistakes I’d made a few months prior – talk to me directly about it, but don’t make jokes about it and don’t go running to publicly negate whatever I said to my co-workers. Unfortunately, the meeting ultimately wasn’t very productive, and only ended with me promising to no longer shoot visible beams of pure hatred towards my supervisor and Small Wonder.
I also found out during this meeting that they thought I’d brought much of the difficulty of the past few months upon myself. Small Wonder said, “For Chinese, if the translation isn’t adequate we just send it back to the translator and tell them to do it over, and then we get back a better result. I don’t know why English couldn’t do the same…” I tried to explain that it wasn’t simply a matter of a translator being lazy and doing a shoddy job – these translators just didn’t know enough English, period. Even if I sent a translation back, it wouldn’t come back any better. My supervisor asked why I couldn’t give them some tips or pointers, and I tried to explain that I couldn’t effectively teach these people comprehensible English grammar through e-mail – especially in the context of a job with an approaching deadline. My arguments fell on deaf ears though, as the bottom line became “This is how we do it for Chinese, why can’t English do it the same way?”, leaving my supervisor and Small Wonder to think that I’d just been extraordinarily picky about the translators and had cut them for no good reason.
Needless to say, the meeting left me feeling unsatisfied and frustrated. If I’d worked so hard only for the end result to be ridicule and blame…why’d I work so hard? A few weeks prior, the president had noticed my somewhat foul mood, and had told me that if I ever needed to talk with him about anything – anything at all – to just let him know. I decided to take him up on that, and after the meeting I sent him an email privately asking if we could meet one on one. He granted my request the following day. Talking with him, I acknowledged that perhaps my attitude towards the supervisor and Small Wonder had been cold, and that that wasn’t good for the working environment. However, I just didn’t like being made fun of for my mistakes, especially considering that no one had talked to me about it. Regarding the mistakes, I knew I’d made them, and it bothered me more than anyone else. That was then, but this is now, and now with a proper team I’d hoped to move forward and not miss deadlines and not make mistakes. And I didn’t want to be blamed for mistakes of the past. I spoke my mind, but the president’s only answer was “But, you made mistakes.” Literally. It was at this point that I realized there was no point in talking to the president. He would listen – or at least appear to – but probably before one started to speak he’d already made up his mind and that wasn’t going to change for any reason.
It was here that a rift formed between me and my supervisor. We’d gotten along just fine before (perhaps a little too well…), but now the blood had been spilled and everything had gone south. Things would get much worse before they got any better. Even though I was the “English Division Director”, I had to run everything through her first. Again, considering that her English abilities actually spill into the negative column (yes, that’s possible!), oftentimes it felt like a comical situation. However, I realize that most workplaces are like that, so oh well. But if she felt I was going off and making decisions on my own or not consulting with her enough, she seemed to take it extremely personally and would come down on me hard, often involving the president as well. Even though he seemed to ignore all the times she’d CC him on an abrasive email rebuffing me, or even during talks his face seemed to convey to her “enough already!”, I really didn’t appreciate the gesture.
Sometime around February, I was given a project to do. I don’t want to get into too much detail about it, but it involves the online auction giant, eBay. The president told me it would be my top priority. As such, I re-distributed some of my duties to Curly and Ms. Shocker to allow me to focus on this project. I did carefully weigh the workload so that no one was too overburdened. Curly had a history of carpal tunnel syndrome, so I didn’t want to give him a lot of pure typing work – give his wrists and chance to rest during the job. Curly was also under the impression that he wasn’t allowed to do overtime, or at least that the feel he’d gotten from my supervisor. I suppose this is a good place to note that part-time workers were discouraged from doing overtime. However, contract employees were almost expected to do overtime. Part-time workers get overtime pro-rated pay – contract workers don’t get overtime, at all. Ms. Shocker had two young boys to care for at home, and her working hours were supposed to end at 5PM. A lot of things fell on Ms. Shocker’s desk, and sometimes she ended up having to stay until 6PM. I tried to do what I could do help, but I had my own workload as well. When I was training Curly, I had started to give him an overview of customer service – Ms. Shocker’s job. It wasn’t his job, but as we were the English team, I figured it would be best if everyone was well-rounded so we could all help each other out. However my supervisor, upon seeing this, sharply rebuffed me, saying that it wasn’t his job and training him for it was a huge waste of time. Nonetheless, Curly also did what he could, and between the three of us, we got the work done on time with no one being too terribly overburdened.
I would also like to add here, for the record, that we didn’t miss deadlines, and the ratio of errors in the English department improved dramatically.
Back on my end, I looked up all the information I could about the project and gave it to the president, the supervisor, and all involved parties. In order to start actual work on the project, I would need to create a seller’s account. And to do that, I needed the company’s credit card information. Naturally, I was not privy to that information. Only two people in the company were – the president, and the head accountant who worked out of an office in Kobe. Pretty much every time during the weekly meeting, the president would ask me how the project was coming along. I answered that I’d done all the research I could at this step – I needed to create a sellers account in order to get started, and to do so I needed the company’s financial information, aka the credit card. I said this in person during the meetings, and by email a few times. I double-checked with Ms. Shocker later, my Japanese wasn’t vague or unclear – I can’t proceed without the seller’s account, I need the company’s information to do so. Yet, nothing was forthcoming.
What I did get however was a harsh rebuttal from the president a month or two later. He called me over to his desk, and in a tone you might scold your children in for not doing the chores, he angrily told me to do my job and do work on the project. I repeated what I’d said before – I need a sellers account, I cannot make one without the company’s financial information. Perhaps I should have said “give me the damn credit card”? Amazingly enough, I still didn’t get it – he simply repeated “do your work”. A few minutes later after he left his desk, the computer programmer, having just witnessed what’d happened, put in a call to Kobe and got the credit card information from the head accountant. “You can’t rely on him to do the things you ask of him. All that will happen is…well, what just happened now,” he said as he passed me the slip of paper with the credit card info on it.
Finally able to create the seller’s account, I was able to proceed. Actually getting started, I started to see that this project was a lot bigger than I’d thought. eBay had a lot of policies and rules and regulations to try and wade though, and then translate into Japanese so that the president and supervisor would understand. Even more than that, I was going to need to use HTML, Photoshop, Visual Basic for data processing, and a number of things I’d had no experience with before. There were a lot of various aspects, and it felt almost a little dizzying. Furthermore, this was my project and mine alone – I had no one to help me, no one to tutor me for any of its aspects. I spent the next few weeks studying – looking up tutorials for HTML, VB, Photoshop, etc.*
*Many of you may be thinking “But, you already know HTML/Photoshop since you have a web page!” I do have a web page yes, but its amateur – nothing I would want to present professionally. Plus, my knowledge is very basic – I wanted to be able to put together a professional and polished page.
As you all know, the internet is a very vast and varied place. There’s knowledge about just about everything out there. And it comes in many types of forms as well. One particular format that was proving to be very useful was the message board. Often, when I searched on a question, I found that someone else had asked the exact same question on a message board somewhere out there in cyberspace. Reading through the thread, I could also find other great tips and tutorials on the programs and techniques I was attempting to learn. Message boards were also good ways to interact with people on other relevant topics – I could get more information about other companies we were thinking of affiliating with. I also did some marketing, hoping to spread our name and brand out there to the general public, and studied up on many marketing techniques. I also asked specific programming questions, and with good help, me and Curly were able to develop a Microsoft Excel funtion which made one aspect of the translation job 10 times easier.
I really didn’t think much of what my computer screen while I did all my research. Perhaps I should have.
Sometime in either April or May, the president called me out for a private talk. There, he accused me of not working, saying that looking at my computer screen, all one ever saw was animations and smiley faces and what not – obviously not work. To be completely fair and honest here, there were two times in which the president caught me not working – once, with everything else done and on time, I took a quick moment to take a breather from translation and just look at a news site for information about the presidential primaries. He came up behind me almost like a ninja and asked if that was work. I had to admit that no, it wasn’t. Another time, I was sending an email to my father – he was in the process of booking the hotel for when he and mom would come to Japan for my wedding – and needed more information. Ordinarily this is something that could have waited, but it was very time sensitive and I thought I could spare five minutes for this. Again, the president comes up behind me ninja-like and asks “Is this work?” Again, I am forced to admit that it wasn’t.
I suppose I could have also counter-argued that aside from lunch, we didn’t actually get any work breaks.
I tried to tell him that much of what he was seeing on my computer screen was research for work. I offered to bring up my computer’s browser history, show him some of the links I’d visited and point out the relevance to work. He brought up the times he’d caught me browsing the news site and mailing my father. I apologized for those incidents but tried to stress that he just happened to catch me at bad times – but he’d already made up his mind, and he even had proof to support his claim. He also claimed that I was shoveling all my work off onto Curly and Ms. Shocker because I didn’t want to do it. He said that I was working only 20% of the time, and playing around the other 80%. That definitely wasn’t right. I tried to assert that this wasn’t the case again, but as expected/feared, he just wasn’t listening. At this rate, it was tuning into a childish “Yes you did!/No I didn’t!” verbal tennis match. I’m not sure where I heard it, but I thought of the phrase “Sometimes, you just gotta take the L.” Meaning, sometimes you’re in a losing situation and all you can do is accept that and move on. He wasn’t right about me not working 80% of the time and shoveling off work onto my co-workers. But I wasn’t going to get that through to him, and he had actually caught me not doing work twice. Sometimes you just gotta take the L. I accepted his accusations and promised to work harder from now on. He threatened that if my “poor” work habits continued, it could lead to a pay cut or even being fired, but closed on a “high” note saying that he still believed in me. …Great.
Though I still wasn’t ready, I was forced to cut back on most of my research. I stuck only to pages that looked bland, drab, and somewhat official. If a page was too animated, I closed it quickly, or copied the text into a word processor and read it there. I also took back some of my duties from Curly and Ms. Shocker, and even took on a few of theirs in return. They were very glad for the help, but also working with me, they had an appreciation for my workload and the true amount of work I was really doing, and they were a bit worried about me. “We know you’ve got a lot to do, even if they don’t,” they often said to me. Taking back some of their duties lead to me having to cut back time on the project – which, of course, lead to the president again accusing me of dragging my feet on the project a few months down the line.
These days I wasn’t really working overtime. I didn’t leave at 6 on the dot but I wasn’t burning the midnight oil anymore. I didn’t have much motivation to – aside from no longer getting overtime pay, the last time I put in overtime the end result was only getting ridiculed and blamed. Living in Kyoto, if I left the company doors at 6PM I didn’t get back to my apartment until 7:30. I had my wife waiting for me at home and I wanted to see her. I didn’t want to spend all day in that building, especially after having such a sour relationship with the supervisor and with the president also being difficult to deal with. Also, it seemed like nothing much would change even if I did put in the overtime – our web designer worked until 11PM pretty much everyday, but they still came down on him hard and frequently for no good reason at all. Additionally, with the volume and scope of the project, the extra hours per day honestly would not have changed the timeline all that much. Yes, it was that much work.
More than anything else, I was just unhappy. When I started working the job, I envisioned myself working there for the next 5 or 10 years, perhaps even longer. Now, I’d made up my mind to not renew my contract. I hated being at work, and even when I was home I dreaded going back. I began to casually check job listings, looking for some kind of way out. I wanted to quit, but at this point it just wasn’t an option. Aside from the job market not being all that great, I had a wedding coming up in a few months that I already couldn’t afford. Even if I somehow managed to come up with my half, things were still going to be very tight financially for awhile afterwards. Though I complained frequently to my wife and to my mother, both encouraged me to just put up with it and stay in the job. Also, I figured it was in my best interests as well – if I could finish 2 years on the job as the “English Division Director”, that would look great on my resume, and January – when my contract ended – would be a pretty good time for job hunting. All I had to do was hang in there for a little over half a year.
At this point, I didn’t yet know that the breaking point was just around the corner.