Take what you can get: my graduate jobsearch

When I graduated – with a first class degree I might add – I hadn’t really pictured myself working in a big corporate office. But neither had I intended to work full-time at an empty pub, spend several weeks on jobseeker’s allowance and attend a series of godawful interviews. But that’s life – you take the best you can get. So, this is what I got, and this is what I took.

Straight after my final term had ended, I decided I wasn’t ready to go home to Norwich. I would stay in Egham instead. (This had nothing to do with having a minor life crisis and initiating a bad break-up…) During the whole of July I worked at a pub near uni. I’m not going to criticise it too much, but it was one of those jobs in which you can learn everything there is to learn within a week (maybe two) and from there on in, you perfect your pint-pouring technique, watch a lot of tennis/golf/rugby and get the regulars’ drinks ready before they open their mouths. I had fun, at first, speaking to the few people that came to the pub – many of them arrived at the same time day in day out – but I soon felt crowded by their prejudices, ignorance and quite plainly boring conversation.

I distinctly remember one evening when a regular and his wife were talking to the guy’s brother at the bar; the couple had been on a cruise to Southeast Asia.  Their description of the one-and-only Raffles Long Bar (Singapore), famously credited for the invention of the Singapore Sling, focused almost entirely on how disgusted they were at the peanut shells on the floor. This is a classic element of the Long Bar experience, emanating the 1920s. People go for a Singapore Sling expecting there to be peanut shells on the floor, in the attempt to live a little bit of the Raffles Hotel heyday. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I actually had to leave the room – and thus the bar, which is not-on for a bartender – to prevent myself either shouting to expose their ignorance, or crying at the futility of it all. The accumulation of moments like this is one of the reasons I left a lot sooner than I had originally told the Landlord. I realised why I had got the job in the first place – to avoid Norwich, not to stay in Egham – and I knew I had had my fill of this level of having a ‘real’ job. I hadn’t got another job, but telling the Landlord I had was the easiest way out of it, if not the wisest or most honest. I hadn’t got a contract and I wasn’t being paid properly – I should say legally – so I didn’t feel too guilty about it.

I then spent an utterly exhilarating, frantic, exhausting – the adjectives go on – month or so in Edinburgh. I had a few days with my coolest friend, Nadia and her Mom, who had come over from Canada for a whistle-stop tour of the UK.

Myself and Nadia, with ears
Myself and Nadia, with ears, taken by Lucy

I felt pretty privileged to get to see them to be honest, they were so rushed! The Fringe itself was a hotch-potch of wildness and tiredness and watching a huge amount of good – and a little bit of bad – theatre, dance, music and comedy. Though I haven’t really set those experiences down here, the Fringe was a highlight of my year… and they deserve to be written about when I’ve got the time to do them justice. Which, given the circumstances of the two-and-a-half months since, still isn’t quite yet. Oops.

Vicky, Bella and I on the Edinburgh-London train, heading South

We all left our Edinburgh house on the morning of Wednesday 21st August. I had a horrible journey home, waiting over an hour after a missed connection. But at least Vicky, Bella and I had got the train together – the vast majority of the others had got the Megabus together. The three of us had it pretty cushty in comparison! We even met a nice older lady, who took this photo and wished us the best in all our future endeavours. It was very sweet really.

After two days at home, the misery had hit. I remember bursting into tears at various mealtimes for absolutely no reason. The Edinburgh blues had hit. I was suddenly miles away from the fourteen people I had lived and laughed with for almost a month. It was made so much worse by being exhausted, poor and without purpose. But I picked myself back up, swallowed my pride, and applied for jobseeker’s.

My job-seeking days were pretty good – it took longer for me to get my CV in order than to find things I felt I wanted to do, for a little while at least. After a rather harrowing job interview experience (that was so bad I have written it it’s own dedicated post), I ended up signing a contract with a recruitment agency. That was on a Friday. The following Tuesday I had an interview, was offered the job on the Wednesday, and began my new job on the Monday. It was a pretty swift process, but clearly they had liked me a lot in the interview.

I had never thought I would take a job answering customers’ queries about the London Gazette and selling printed copies of government legislation and Driving Standards Agency literature. But, alas, I spent several weeks doing just that. I had a fun four weeks at The Stationery Office – I learned a lot, I met some interesting people and it was a great stop gap. I was living at home, not paying rent and getting paid a nice chunk every week, so I felt great about refunding my rather stretched overdraft. However, as my Mum said to my boss-to-be over the phone, this was ‘a job, not THE job’.

THE job was yet to come.

Hippie Food

One thing I readily appreciated about living at home, is the food. I mean home cooked food, which is full of fresh vegetables and healthy grains. Most of all the expensive things that I couldn’t afford as a student. I have been feeling a lot healthier for eating so well over the past six or seven weeks, and I just love all the tastes of home.

I have been having a bit of a debate, though, with my darling Mother. She does much (but not by any means all) of the cooking, and she’s also the reason the household is vegetarian. That’s not a recent development mind, Mum has been vegetarian for thirty years or more, and we three kids have always been vegetarians (at least, whilst living at home). Although I can’t say I don’t miss meat, I do feel like I have returned to much more of a balanced diet recently. I digress.

Homegrown garlic, freshly peeled

What I really want to share is our debate about ‘hippie food’ – this is my label for the kind of food we eat at home. A lot of it is homegrown, particularly during the late summer months and early autumn. My parents grow garlic, onions, beans, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, figs, quinces, greengages, apples, grapes, rocket, spinach, lettuce… the list goes on. So there’s always something that’s almost overripe, waiting to be made into something delicious.

Homemade Chickpea bread: chickpea flour + water

Other foods we eat include a lot of brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and other interesting grains. My parents bake their own bread, and my Dad’s latest obsession is Sourdough bread, which doesn’t contain any added yeast. Recently we made chickpea bread for the first time, garnished with our own rosemary. We make our own humous from scratch, all our own italian-style spaghetti sauces, our own curries. We drink gallons of tea, most of which is herbal tea, brewed from dried leaves. You get the picture (this one’s of our Chickpea bread).

What my parents don’t seem to understand, is that this is not ‘normal’ everyday food. The majority of families in the UK almost certainly do not eat like this. The discussion arose when a friend of my brother’s came for supper, and Mum was worried about serving the right thing. I tried to explain that it is not my brother’s friend that has picky eating habits, that it’s actually our household that eat peculiar things, often quite unlike the standard dishes of the UK.

Frying homegrown courgettes

The main counter argument she came back with was that eating organic, home-grown, home-cooked food is actually very normal for Guardian readers. The lunch at which these pictures were taken was resident Guardian food writer Yotam Ottolenghi eat your heart out (pun only slightly intended), who adores Chickpeas among other things. Needless to say, my Mother is possibly a bit deluded about the proportion of people outside London and/or middle class families that actually read the Guardian. I am sure the majority of Norwich residents read little other than the Daily Mail, The Times and the local newspapers; the Guardian NEVER sells out in Norwich shops on a Saturday. I was surprised when realising, at university, that my eating habits (other than vegetarianism) were considered unusual. And even more so, when I discovered the predominant newspaper-reading habits (and therefore the political views) of my peers were quite unlike mine.

Green bean, freshly picked and steaming

I must admit I do know various people who eat a small proportion of similar foods to our family. But they are mainly middle class, arty, and family friends. Two things I think are important to realise here; the food itself doesn’t mean all that much, but a person or family must have a certain background to eat like this. Firstly, financial security: even if it’s not necessarily more expensive in the long-run, it takes a lot of investment to set up this kind of lifestyle. Secondly, social status (and, to an extent, political background): a particular attitude towards health and natural produce that probably stems from left-ist politics and being comfortably middle-class.

To conclude: if we are what we eat, then the Sutherland family are middle-class hippies.

Home life: returning home

When I began writing this blog I described myself as something akin to nomadic. I hadn’t had stayed in a permanent “home” – rented or otherwise – for a matter of months. I was living on the bare minimum of belongings without many luxuries between early June and late August, reducing what I carried every time I had the chance to palm things of on unsuspecting parents during a visit.

Wisteria at the kitchen windowI have now been living at home for about 6 weeks. The first few days at home I was too exhausted to do anything, but for a week after that I spent every day tidying and sorting my possessions, and giving things away to Oxfam. Since then, I have been really been enjoying the luxurious living here at home with my family, in our wonderful house and garden. Not only do I have all of my possessions within arms reach, but I have the autonomy of my own transport (albeit a bike) and the comfortable companionship of my wonderful family.

It’s a strange thing, coming home (semi-) permanently having lived independently (and overseas) for the last five years. It’s not something most graduates want to do – many people feel they have little or no freedom at home, they argue with their parents and siblings, and don’t like the inevitable familial invasions into their privacy. I can’t say I am entirely impervious to these feelings – we all get stressed out by living at home, because our families know us better than anyone, so know how to vex us better than anyone. But there are so many benefits of living at home:

1. Food

Home cooked food, full of fresh vegetables, grains, healthy expensive things that I couldn’t afford as a student, and wouldn’t be able to afford as a graduate on minimum wage.

2. Family life

Families have their own little niches, in-jokes and general sillinesses. I am thoroughly enjoying the Sutherland Family antics going on around me 24/7.

3. Security

The support you get from your family, both emotionally and monetarily is unparalleled. Having someone to talk to, cry at, laugh with, at the end of a long day/week/month is a really healthy part of communal living. Knowing that you don’t have to pay rent or think about bills and how much things cost is an added bonus.

I am sure there are more, but those are the ones most prominent to me at this point in my home life experience of returning to the nest after so long away. I want to explore each one in a bit more detail over the coming days/weeks, so keep an eye out!

Don’t date a girl who reads

Don’t date a girl who reads

“The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life, and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. She has dreamed, properly, of someone who is better than you are. She will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied.”
This article is both dismaying and beautiful. I wonder how many people go down that easy road of life, content but not excited, never fulfilling their full capacity to love, live, laugh. I refuse to live like that.
“Of all things, the girl who reads knows most the ineluctable significance of an end. She is comfortable with them. She has bid farewell to a thousand heroes with only a twinge of sadness.”

Unspecific Language

“A new-found sense of balance and movement formulated out of inappropriate ideas and concepts is explored in the piece.” Choreographed/concept by: Ro Kyung Ae

Four dancers, in casual clothing and trainers, did pretty much anything but what the average audience member might call dancing. They were lit by a square of light on a white floor, and they walked onto stage consciously unconscious of their posture, stance and weight distribution. The dancers did a lot of unspecific movement to some unspecific white noise. Their sound technician (Jin Sang Tae) was visible stage right. noise was very difficult to deal with. It was at an almost ear-splitting sound level, or perhaps it felt too high for human ears, like ultrasound. I was impressed at the dancers’ skill in balancing on their toes, moving their weight around on just a small area; I admired the stamina it took one dancer to do arabesque after arabesque in jeans and trainers; I was dizzied by their repetitive fit-like movement. There was a false ending. They then brought out orange rubber gloves. They put them on carefully, then played around with the different sounds they could make using the gloves. One dancer started clapping – the audience was meant to join in and take over the applause, and there was a pause before the audience understood that this was the real ending of the piece.

Viewed and written on 12th October 2011, in Seoul, South Korea. Originally published on Tumblr.

Interview: Chinese Times UK

IMG_2139This is an interview I did in July about the Beijing Student Forum 2013, which was published in the Chinese Times, in Chinese of course.

1. Why were you interested in the UK-China forum and Generation UK Campaign?

I was interested in the UK-China Student Forum in May this year because I have a deep-seated curiosity about other cultures and a desire to meet people from different ways of life to my own. I have lived, worked and studied overseas for two of the past five years, during which I relished familiarizing myself with the culture of my host countries. My experiences in the past have inspired and enthused me to broaden my horizons and learn more about the globalised world around me and my place in it.

2. Who were the business leaders and Chinese policy advisors you met on the forum? What was the conversation with them that impressed you most?

When we met Chinese politician Zhang Xiaojing, his discussion of the Chinese economy helped me get greater insight into the economic climate of Beijing. I was deeply interested and hoped to learn more through my own future research.

We also met two British entrepreneurs based in Beijing. Dominic Johnson-Hill established successful t-shirt business Plastered 8, and Joe Oliver runs the company We Impact, which works to make new businesses environmentally sustainable. Through conversations with Joe and Dominic, I got a sense of what it would be like to start a business there and I gained a greater confidence in my future. As a graduate the future is uncertain for me, but, through these inspirational discussions, I gained the confidence to believe that through hard work and a creative approach, many opportunities will arise in future. This was one of the most important lessons I learnt during my week in Beijing.

3. How did you find your Chinese counterparts at the forum? What were the differences would you say between the British young people and them?

One of the most important things I took away from UK-China Student Forum is my relationship with a large and diverse group of students. Not only did we build academic and diplomatic relationships, we all became very good friends before the week was out. The Student Forum itself encouraged discussion and exchange of ideas across two vastly different cultures. Every member of the group, whether Chinese or British (sixteen students in total), had a different experience of education. However it was surprising how similar our thoughts were on the difficulties facing students wanting to pursue international education. Many of the students involved commented on how similar we all were, despite our expectations that we would be so different.

4. Do you have any previous experience about China or Chinese people that you would like to share

The primary misconception that many of the British students held is that Chinese students are wealthy. This notion arises from the view of international students in UK Universities: many overseas students are believed to be very wealthy because they are paying higher tuition fees than home students in the UK. However, I discovered that this notion is wrong in most cases. Chinese students studying abroad are often funded at great expense to their families at home, which places great responsibility on the student not to disappoint the hopes of the family. I think all sixteen of the students present would call for greater funding opportunities for students who want to undertake study abroad, wherever their home institution.

5. Do you plan to apply for or have you applied for scholarship or internship in China under the UK Generation Campaign scheme? If yes, what would you expect your journey in China to be like?

As yet I have not applied for an internship under the Generation UK scheme, but have recently begun enquiring about details of the opportunities available. I certainly plan to apply for such an internship, with the help of British Council China. My experience of British Council China during and since the 2013 Student Forum, reassures me that, whatever opportunity I undertake, I will be supported and well cared for by the British Council throughout any time I spend in China.

6. What would you hope to gain from the study or internship in China, and how it would benefit your future career?

As with any prolonged international experience, I would hope to gain an insight into Chinese culture and lifestyle, meet a diverse range of people and learn some of the local language. I believe that any long-term work I could do in China would help me understand the workings of an increasingly globalised world and make me a strong competitor for any international career.

7. How do UK young people view the emerging markets such as China?

From my experience, the majority of young people in the UK are uninformed about China and other emerging markets. Young Britons are primarily aware of China’s economic strengths, but few are aware of the opportunities that abound in China. In my view, work and study placements in China could be the ideal chance for young people to enter the international job market.

8. What would you suggest China to improve in order to attract more talented young people to come for study or work?

I would suggest that more partnerships are organised between UK universities and Chinese institutions offering study or work placements. Study and work placements would benefit from the greater promotion and advertisement such a partnership scheme would bring.

The opportunities available could be more successful in attracting young people by offering financial support of some kind. This may come in the form of supplying accommodation or waiving tuition fees, or providing support with medical insurance, visa fees and other living costs during studentships and internships.

9. UK and China both see increasing unemployment in recent years. Does it worry you and what would you expect the government to do to solve the problem, especially for college graduates and young people?

As a graduand my future is uncertain. I am one of many UK students looking overseas for work, internships or study opportunities as an alternative to finding work in a difficult job market in my home country. I believe that searching for work and study opportunities overseas could solve the problem of unemployment, both on a small and larger scale. As individual citizens, we should not restrict ourselves to working and studying in only our home nation, as we are highly likely to gain a broader range of skills and experiences by working or studying overseas. I believe that governments should encourage work and study partnership opportunities, to enable the international exchange of skills and knowledge.

British Council Student Forum 2013

At the university lake!When I set off from London on my way to the 2013 Student Forum in Beijing I didn’t know what to expect. I had a Chinese visa in my passport and a few pages of information about the itinerary of the week; it all seemed very formal and businesslike, and I wasn’t sure I even owned the right clothing for this type of event! Nonetheless, I left the UK with an open mind, hoping I’d meet some like-minded students, and by the time we left the airport in Beijing, all eight of the British students had begun to get along. Despite the jetlag, we managed to have a wonderful afternoon sightseeing in Beijing with Rob and Adon, who were determined to keep us awake! Looking out over the Forbidden City, through the smog, I felt very intrigued by Beijing and all it’s intricacies, and really wanted to learn more about the city. Our evening meal with Jazreel was the first taste of genuine Chinese food I had ever had, and gave me a wonderful first impression of delicious Chinese cuisine. Jazreel welcomed us warmly to Beijing and made me feel very comfortable; any lingering anxiety was replaced by my excitement about meeting the Chinese students and working together with the group for the rest of the week.

The Student Forum was really successful in putting British and Chinese students in dialogue with one another. The eight students from each country came together in a situation that facilitated discussion and exchange, while enabling a strong friendship to build in the group as a whole. A scavenger hunt in the Hutongs of Beijing on our first day together got us working in our teams and helped us get to know one another. I feel I learnt a lot about China and Chinese culture that morning, constantly asking questions of my peers and answering their questions in turn. That evening, after working on our presentations, the whole group went to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag being lowered. The crowds of Chinese people there astounded me. Only then did I realise the vast size of China; scores of Chinese tourists from all over the country must come to Beijing everyday to see this spectacle. Eating Jajang noodles together in a small restaurant and walking around the area, the group was very amiable and curious to get to know one another. Opportunities for sightseeing and socialising with our Chinese counterparts throughout the week, accumulating in a trip to the Great Wall, was one of the most important things about the experience. I came away from the week with a strong relationship with a large and diverse group of students. Not only did we build academic and diplomatic relationships, we all became very good friends before the week was out.

The Student Forum itself was held at Peking University on Tuesday 7th May, our seconds day in Beijing. In three groups, we presented our ideas about International education; the use of technology in education; and the future of education. This encouraged discussion and exchange of ideas across two vastly different cultures. Every group member had a different experience of education. However it was surprising how similar our thoughts were on the difficulties facing students wanting to pursue international education. We came up with various innovative ways of solving the problems we put forward, which I hope will help the British Council’s work in international education. For example, one of the major challenges to a student hoping to study overseas is a lack of financial support. In the UK, student loans often do not cover a year abroad, and in China, students must rely on their parents to pay the high international fees. We suggested that university institutions could provide information to students about alternative funding opportunities, such as corporate sponsorship or support from educational charities. This might encourage a greater number of students to undertake international study, a valuable part of education. Our education has a big influence over our future, and I believe a global outlook and international perspective is one of the greatest skills a graduate can possess.

On day three, we met a Chinese economist and two British entrepreneurs who have established businesses in Beijing. I got a greater insight into the economic climate of Beijing and a sense of what it would be like to start a business there. For me, the highlight of the fourth day was the evening reception, where I met British people living and working in Beijing, and Chinese people who have studied or worked in the UK in the past. I spoke about my experiences, impressions and highlights of the week. This event allowed us to reflect on the benefits of our experiences and to network with and gain contacts among those people present. Over these two days I gained a greater confidence in my future. Though the future is increasingly uncertain and job prospects are unsure, I gained the confidence to rely on the unexpected opportunities life presents. The British Council say that, “to keep the UK competitive our brightest and best people need to leave the country.” My week in Beijing with the British Council has confirmed my desire to live, study and work overseas in future.

A feminist anthropologist exploring the realities of culture, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Asia