In middle school I took part in a comedy Christmas play written by my classmates that I made my father attend. I played Santa’s gay secretary elf.
I can’t remember why Santa had a secretary, who he took calls from or why we felt he needed to be gay. But I do remember my father’s face when I met him after the show, scrunched up in confusion with an eyebrow half raised, as if to say, “Is this what you’re learning in school?”
I thought I’d never see that face again, but when I told him last week I planned on giving up a shift at work in order to make room for an unpaid internship, I saw it again. This time it asked what I was doing.
I’ve worked full time now that school is out for the summer. Although I work 40 hours a week, I feel like I’ve done nothing at all. There’s just no satisfaction or accomplishment that comes with working outside my career, even on payday.
I’ll admit that I told my dad in part because I wanted a certain kind of response from him. I wanted him to say, “Wow, son. You’re a real go-getter, hard-working kind of man. I’m proud of you.” I wanted a pat on the back, a reaffirming nod and one of those “not bad” smiles from him.
But after growing up in a small Mexican town and being forced by poverty to quit school after sixth grade, he couldn’t understand why I’d give up time at a paying job in favor of working for free. “Why should he submit himself to some abusive explotadores?,” he must have thought. “My son is no slave to be exploited.”
I think in the end he realized it’s how I get my foot in the door to a “real” job. After all, journalism majors don’t exactly find steady jobs as easily as other majors might. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You know what you’re doing, I guess.”
I do know what I’m doing, dad.
I was surprised by his initial skepticism, because although he’d never gone to college or high school, he still sees value in getting an education. Like any good parent, he has told me to go to college since middle school.
In his mind, people earn an education inside a classroom—not in an office or at an internship. Education and work are two separate concepts. My parents define work as the soul-sucking exchange of labor for money that it is for, perhaps, the majority of people in the world. You work because you have to—because you need money for sustenance, shelter and your 401k.
To my frustration, they don’t immediately see that a job to me means experience in my field, people to network with and even something to fill up space on a sparse resume. As they see it, I need to work because it’s the law of God/capitalism. And above all, nobody works for pleasure.
I’m tempted to ignore my parent’s incomprehension, the raised eyebrows and the shrugged shoulders and to just soldier-on on my own. But of course this incomprehension doesn’t stop at unpaid internships.
It started years ago when I gave up on studying engineering and decided to become a journalist. They understood that a job in journalism is a lot less lucrative or stable than a job at Boeing or Microsoft. But I don’t think they understood my reason for changing major; I simply didn’t like the work.
Up until now, they’ve given me that puzzled look but refrain from interfering because these decisions haven’t made big or immediate impacts on my life. But as the stakes get higher, I’m afraid that shrug will be replaced by arguments or worse.
How will I justify doing something that seems insanely risky in their eyes like quitting my job entirely when a much bigger opportunity comes along in the future? What will happen if I ever move across the country to seek my fortune in New York City like every college graduate with a dream?
How will I explain my wish to study abroad in Spain next spring?
I can hear them now. “What’s the point in studying in Spain? What’s wrong with the classes here? Do you get a certificate or something?”
I recently received a scholarship from my department, the first and only (so far) I’ve been awarded. It’s a modest sum, but when I read that congratulatory email I felt like Sally Field winning an Oscar. (“I can’t deny the fact that you like me! Right now! You like me!”)
When I told my father the good news he looked at me and asked how much.
“2,500 dollars,” I said.
“That’s it?,” he asked, maybe on reflex. “Congratulations.”