The Otherness of Being

Our family moved around a lot when I was a child. Every new place we went to, I had to adjust to a new school and make new friends. My parents did the rest. I learnt quickly to adjust, to settle in and to feel like I belonged. It’s not so easy when you’re older.

Some years ago, I worked for a non-government organisation in Cape Town. I worked there from 1993 to 2000, straddling the regime change in the South African government to a welcome democracy. Apart from the work that the organisation did, it focused keenly on organisation development; ensuring that the work it did, as well as they way it did the work, transformed appropriately in line with bigger changes in the country. Change was something we could always depend on.

We did loads of workshops and bosberade (literally “bush councils” – meetings in isolated venues to focus on a particular topic), learnt massively about ourselves as an organisation and as individuals, and laughed and cried as we grew in so many different ways. It was an incredible time in my life, and I learnt much that I loved and hated about myself.

Accordingly I changed in ways I hadn’t recognised even needed changing. It was about shining the mirror clean to get a clearer reflection of myself. I will always be a work in progress, but having the opportunity to develop a consciousness of that is something for which I am eternally grateful.

One workshop we did was presented by a daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. An amazing speaker and awesome personality, she gripped our attention for the entire day. I don’t remember what the workshop was called but she delved into loads of different awarenesses of self.

The strongest learning point for me was in identifying my own primary identity. I am totally oversimplifying this, but she told us that once we understood our own primary identity, we could understand how we view the rest of the world. And we tend to view the rest of the world in relation to that identity. So if I see myself primarily as a woman, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”. Equally, if I see myself primarily as white, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”.

It’s something that I have regularly been challenged to look at afresh in my own life. As a Christian, I am secure in my identity as a child of God. It’s finding my identity in my humanness that is my biggest struggle right now.

It’s no secret how much I miss my sons who are both back in Cape Town. Being a mother is a huge part of my identity, as is being part of a loving and close-knit nuclear family. We speak often, our love for each other is unquestioned, but we’re far apart. A month or two ago, a young couple in our church had their baby son dedicated. Both of their extended families filled our church for the service. I looked at them all together and I wept like a child with longing for my own family.

It is a conscious battle for me to choose not to find my identity in my work. Having worked constantly since I graduated from university (apart from a few years when my sons were born), I find it difficult to reconcile my identity as an unemployed person in London. Because of my job hunting nightmare here, I tend to view others from that perspective, and I find I see everyone around me as employed or with an income or livelihood of some description.

Finding my identity as a friend extends me too. I have wonderful, close friends back home – ones I hang out with regularly, talk with deeply, laugh with incessantly. They know who I am; I share a history with them. I have lovely friends here too, but I’m only just beginning a journey with them. That’s not a bad thing; I’m just trying to find where it all fits.

Starting a blog has been an amazing and positive experience for me. I love to write, to tell stories and share experiences and adventures with a growing community of wonderful writers, many of whom have also become friends. I haven’t quite found my identity through this yet; sometimes I see myself as a writer until I read the work of real writers, and I realise I am just a blogger. That’s okay too, and it keeps me reading and learning and growing and honing.

As you well know, life is not all bad in London! It continues to be an amazing adventure for my husband and me; we explore the city; we walk and we talk and we laugh; we grow memories and share a life here that we could never have imagined for ourselves. I know there is a deeper purpose in all of this for me and only with hindsight will I recognise what it is.

I don’t really know where I belong right now; I’m an absent Saffa and a visitor in London. Mostly I’m okay with that, but this topic has toiled through my mind for the whole weekend, circling and circling like a dog in a basket. I think it has now found its comfortable space and is ready to surrender to welcome sleep. As for me, I couldn’t have found rest until I wrote this.

Sunshine signing off for today.

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How to win friends and interview people

I don’t know if it started with my sons’ response to me showing them my 70s disco dance moves. Or if I said it to my husband when he was trying to speak like a Jamaican. But somewhere along the line, in our family, we started to say, “Let’s not do that.”

Yesterday, I took great delight in unsubscribing from all the job alerts I had signed up for. My email inflow has dropped drastically but what a pleasure not to have to wade through all of those. It also got me thinking about something else I won’t have to do again (for a while, I hope!) now that I have a job: I won’t have to go for interviews.

Now that I am able to start reflecting on my interviews with a sense of amusement rather than failure, I thought it might be helpful – a public service, perhaps – to provide some feedback to interviewers, from an interviewee’s point of view. And I thought what better way to approach it, than to say, “Let’s not do that.”

1. Let’s not freak out the interviewee

I had an interview last year with an HR manager and a head of communications. The HR manager asked me a few random questions, then sat back, rested her chin between her thumb and forefinger, and gave me the hairy eyeball. She just stared at me. The head of comms grabbed the mic and asked me a few questions, but it was hugely off-putting to have another pair of eyes drilling into the side of my head. She was also the one who said, “Lovely to meet you.” Perhaps she wanted me for dinner.

2. Let’s not play games

A few months ago, I applied for a job and got short-listed. The recruiter called me to tell me I had been short-listed and invited for interview. I was thrilled (as I always was!) and, during the course of the conversation, I asked her how many people had been short-listed. She immediately said, “Ooh, I can’t tell you that!” O-o-k-a-a-a-y…

My interview was preceded by a test. I arrived at my designated time, was met by a frazzled HR person who failed to introduce herself but just dragged me upstairs to the test venue. She – seriously – kept the test paper face down as she looked at her watch and synchronised her time with the clock on the wall. She was almost hyperventilating and then told me she didn’t know whether she was Arthur or Martha. I said to her, “Have you had a busy day?” Her instant retort was, “I’m not going to answer that because you just want to know how many people have been interviewed.” How about, no? How about, that’s the question I would have asked anyone in a similar state of frazzled-ness?

She then waited for the exact second at which to turn the test paper over, and my 30 minutes began. Good afternoon, Miss.

3. Let’s not interview in a warehouse-sized boardroom

When my above 30 minutes were up, I was met by one of my prospective interviewers. He escorted me to the interview room, which was the biggest boardroom I have ever seen. The three interviewers were scattered around the table and I could have done with a megaphone to answer their questions audibly. Shouting through cupped hands seemed to do the trick, but I didn’t get the job.

4. Let’s not interview at the gym

A few months ago I was invited to interview for a job in an organisation similar to the one I worked for in Cape Town. The interview was to be held at a Club in Chelsea, near the Thames. It sounded like a maritime-themed Club, and I envisaged it to be a business club, where you can hire a meeting room for such occasions. I arrived at the venue, walked through the door and realised this was a gym. I panicked a bit as I thought I’d got the wrong venue. I approached the uniformed woman at the reception desk and said to her, with a question in my voice, that I was there for an interview and I told her with whom. She smiled and nodded and took me through to the coffee shop where two women were waiting to interview me. With the overwhelming aroma of chlorine floating through the room, people coming and going and meeting up after or before their daily workout, shouts and screeches and splashes all around, I had an interview at a gym coffee shop. Funnily enough, this was the job I didn’t get because I was “too nice”. Perhaps I should have walked in and said to them, “WTF, guys?” (Why The Funny-venue?)

5. Let’s not panic

About six weeks ago, I got a frantic call at 8am on a Monday morning. It was a recruiter who could barely speak through her worried breath. She told me of two jobs she was recruiting for, and asked if I was interested. I said they sounded interesting and would be happy for her to email the job specs through to me (as is usually the case). She said she needed to know that moment as she had to get back to the employers.  (They’d called her at 7 that morning to brief her on two jobs that needed responses by 8.30? I don’t think so.)

I then outlined my concerns about the jobs, given that they were looking for someone with local media contacts. I reminded her that, while I had media experience, I didn’t have local contacts. In increasing panic, she said she would get back to me. I never heard from her again. Ever.

6. Let’s not wander off the subject too much

I have registered with about a million quite a few recruitment agencies. Some of them ignore you completely. Some of them invite you for an interview to put you on their books. At one such interview, the agent spent more time talking about her upcoming holiday in Cape Town, than my job requirements. Hmmm, thanks for that.

7. Let’s not interview like David Brent

I can’t say I had an interview exactly like this, but I did often feel like poor old Stuart in this clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtfUn6b4NBY

8. Let’s not become a recruiter

Last year, I had an hour-long interview with a recruitment consultant. She had my CV in front of her, she asked me loads of questions, wrote copious notes all around the perimeter of my CV, gave me some useful advice about job hunting (I was new to London at that time), and said she would chat to her colleagues and get back to me about any job possibilities. I never heard from her again. Ever.

I know recruiters are inundated with applicants. But she never responded to any email I ever sent her, even when I asked about jobs her agency was advertising. To me, that was most bizarre. I would imagine that relationships are your stock-in-trade when you are a recruiter, and communication – and communication skills – should be a given for the role. If you don’t like dealing with people, find another career. Surely?

I met a woman at my gym in Cape Town a few years ago. She ran her own horticulture business. She told me she loved her work, she loved working with plants and the joy of watching gardens grow.

“I’m a plant person, you see. I’m not a people person. I like people, but I don’t think I could eat a whole one.”

Perhaps some recruiters should take note. And, interviewers, I hope you have found this feedback useful. You were all strong candidates but unfortunately you didn’t have the exact match of skills and experience that I was looking for and someone else gave me the job. Thank you for the time and effort you took in interviewing me.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Why banking was never my bag

My father worked in the bank. As far as I know, he started out as a messenger and worked his way through the ranks to management. He retired after over 46 years of service. That’s some kind of commitment.

He never worked with technology. He poo-poo’d the idea of using an adding machine, preferring to trust his accuracy in casting the numbers manually. A bank lived and died on the quality of relationships it developed with its customers, and personal service was unquestionably its biggest asset. Customers would go into the bank to withdraw or deposit funds, would get to know the tellers and would meet with the bank manager to discuss their accounts and requests for loans or overdrafts or new accounts.

A bank manager wielded much power and my father, jokingly, would talk about meeting customers at the doorway to his office. He would welcome them, shake their hands and invite them into his office. As he took his seat, he would invite his customer to take a seat opposite him. The response would be, “Thank you, sir, but I’m quite comfortable here on my knees.”

Apart from visits to my dad’s hallowed office, I, too, enjoyed two brief forays into banking. Although I am clearly my father’s daughter, banking was never going to feature big on my horizon.

My first taste of banking was a short, holiday job I took when I was home from university. Along with a bunch of students of similar ages and persuasions, I worked for a few weeks in the musty, upstairs offices of the Bulawayo branch. I have no clue what our task was, but I do remember loads of boxes of forms and paperwork, and we had to do something with them. Watching paint dry would have been riveting in comparison.

We’d shoot the breeze as we ticked boxes – or whatever it was that we did – and we took far too many coffee breaks and watched the clock till we could take lunch, or knock off. Three weeks passed by in slow motion and, happy with the money we’d earned, we bid each other a relieved farewell.

Another holiday job presented itself during my Christmas holidays that year. The bank was hugely busy and under-staffed during the frenetic Christmas period, so they called in some extra pairs of hands. My job, strange as it was that I chose to accept it, was deposits-only teller.  With no training and some brief instruction, I took to the wooden counter like a duck to, um, treacle.

I didn’t suck at maths at school, but it was not a subject that brought me much thrill. I can do things with numbers, but I’ve never really wanted to. So taking on a job that required me to count money and balance the books with monotonous, daily regularity, seemed a bizarre way of spending half of my summer holidays. The money must have been good.

The large, gracious banking hall in Bulawayo was an architectural masterpiece from a bygone era. High ceilings, wood-panelled walls and a sweeping, wooden horseshoe of telling booths welcomed customers into the hushed heart of the bank. A security guard would guide customers to a single line where they waited for one of the tellers to become free. The telling booths were open, allowing face-to-face contact between tellers and customers. This was before the need for tellers to have reinforced, bullet-proof glass protecting them from their customers.

A second line was formed for deposits-only customers. My heart sank as the line grew daily and, as Christmas Day approached, my line dwarfed the other. It might also have been because I was slow. Heaven help me.

I had regular customers who would bring their cloth bags of loot and pour it out on to the counter: “Knock yourself out,” they would say to me. Or words to that effect.

I had one regular customer who worked in a furniture store on the next street. He would mince excitedly over to my counter every day. He would take the money out of the bag, hand it over to me, with his banking book, and then begin his daily gossip. I’m pretty good at multi-tasking but to listen and respond to gossip while I’m having to count money, record it accurately, add up all the totals and try and work out what I’m really supposed to be doing, was beyond me.

He was a delightful character, however. Always nattily dressed with hair over-styled and under-stylish, he would shift his weight from foot to foot as he trilled his long, frilly fingers together and told me what was happening behind the scenes in his store and with his customers, or where he’d partied the night before. He’d always give me an opportunity to “give the goss” from my side, but I usually looked up at him with an exasperated blank stare and wished he’d just be quiet. Fortunately he never got that I felt that way, and, once his book had been tallied and rubber-stamped, he’d twirl round and mince out of the bank like he was walking on air.

I also had regular visits from the newspaper sellers and hawkers who plied their trade on the streets outside the bank. These customers would usually have their loot tied into an old handkerchief and stored in their sock, or at least that’s the impression I got. I called those interactions the “smelly deposits”. Say no more.

One of my most embarrassing moments happened while I worked at that counter. Occasionally – like about a hundred times a day – I would need to leave my telling booth to go and ask someone what I was supposed to do in a particular situation. Or to take money to the safe. Or to fetch something. Each time I left, I’d have to make sure the bank’s rubber stamps were out of reach of the customers, retrieve my keys for the booth door and excuse myself as I went to look for some direction.

On one occasion, I did two of the three requisite things and left my booth. As I closed the door, with its Yale lock, I realised I had not taken my keys. I had just locked myself out of my booth. And I had a stranger-customer at my counter, waiting to complete his transaction. I broke into a cold sweat. I completed my enquiry mission, and then wondered how on earth I could discreetly walk into the banking hall and climb over the counter back into my booth to continue working with my customer.

For one who was not exactly a natural at telling, and who struggled most days to balance her books or do her job even vaguely well, this was a whole new challenge.

I am not the world’s greatest lateral thinker, but occasionally flashes of brilliance do cross my mind. I thought of a less embarrassing way to get back into my booth that didn’t involve pole-vaulting from the banking hall. I grabbed a chair, put it outside the back of my telling booth door, climbed up on to it and leaned up and over the top of the door – on tippy toes and probably groaning as I stretched to reach the lock – to unlock my door. I walked nonchalantly back into my booth to let my customer know what I had just found out for him.

It was difficult to maintain my dignity when I knew that the entire, busy banking hall was watching me. I tried to ignore the muffled giggles and guffaws from customers, security guards and fellow tellers. I glanced fleetingly at my watch and calculated – without the use of an adding machine – that it was only half an hour till closing time and in my mind I defied anyone to breathe one single word to me about what had just happened.

I finished with my customer and prepared to hold my breath; another customer was taking something out of his sock as he walked towards my counter.

Sunshine signing off for today!

The college type

Yesterday I applied for another job. Yes, I am still on the hunt. I still have the boring task of seeking salaried employment, with slightly less desperation but equal amounts of post-application stress disorder.

For yesterday’s application, one of the items on the person specification was “keyboard skills”. I wanted to adopt a Will Ferrell pose, hand on hip and one eyebrow raised, and say, “Yeah, I tinkle a few ivories, in my own classical, yet syncopated, infantile way.” And then I thought that would be super-lame. (And that’s different from everything else I say, how?)

I then realised that I do have some mean keyboard skills. I have worked on PCs, Macs, laptops, word processors, electronic typewriters, electric typewriters and, way back, I learnt to type on an ancient, massively heavy manual typewriter.

Working on those machines, I developed muscles in my fingers in places where I didn’t know I had places. When we made mistakes, we had to use typewriter erasers and backspace the heavy machinery before retyping the letter. When we typed to the end of a line, we would grab the return lever and push the carriage way to the left to start a new line. We had to take out indemnity insurance in case the machine fell and crushed us to powder. It would.

And all of that took me back to my year at commercial college after I finished my first undergraduate degree. I went, kicking and screaming, into that college year at the insistence of my parents. I honestly felt it was beneath me to do a course that taught me typing and bookkeeping when I had a university degree. How embarrassingly arrogant was I? My parents thought it would be a good and practical idea. I hate to say it, but they were right.

Not only did I have fun there, but I learnt skills that I have used in every job I’ve had. I learnt shorthand, which I still use today when I interview people. I learnt touch-typing, which has been useful regardless what machine I have been typing on. And I met two characters who will stay with me forever. Let’s call them Mr M and Mrs P.

Mr M was our book-keeping lecturer. He arrived at college every day in his smart three-piece suit and hair neatly parted. He had a gap between his front teeth that caused him to whistle every ‘s’ through the lecture room. He would close his eyes, nod his head slightly and say, “Ladiessssss, ladiesssssss, ladiessssss!” (We were only females in the class – it was the 80s and it was Zimbabwe).

He would explain everything to us in precise detail, and we would practise and practise until we got it right. In bookkeeping there is no room for error, so being kind of right was never an option.

We had no Excel spreadsheets or any other programme that would work things out for us. We had no calculators or adding machines. We had to work with ledgers and journals, make credit and debit entries, and make the columns balance. All by ourselves. In our heads. I know the accountants and bean-counters out there will be tapping and trilling the tips of their fingers together in delight, but really – it wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.

Mr M would get exasperated with us “ladiesssss”. And he would be delighted when we got things right. Then he would say, “That is execkle what I am tokking about!”

One of my classmates would get equally exasperated with Mr M. She would battle with the concepts and try and make her columns balance. And then she would yell out, “Yussussss, Mr M! I can’t do this!”

Our office practice lecturer was Mrs P. She wore faded cotton frocks that were tightly belted with full round skirts. She wore her hair in a bun and wore pointy spectacles. Seriously. She had stumbled across a fashion style in the 1950s and heck, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? She stuck with that fashion forever.

Her hair was so tightly squeezed into a bun, I was sure sometimes she had grabbed some scalp along with her hair and tied it right in with the bun. That usually explained the raised eyebrows and ears that moved round the back of her head. And a constant, scary grin.

She would totter around in her sling-back heels, occasionally tottering over, and tell us about what good office practice entailed. She would also regale us with tales of her and her husband’s other life in Spain, but that’s material for another day.

She would always start the day with, “A-kay, ladies! Today we’re going to talk about how to watch paint dry. A-kay? Any questions? Good,” and she would then ramble on and on. None of us really listened. We just watched. I think the tight bun prevented her from forming the letter ‘o’.

I left college that year with a diploma in hand, a bunch of valuable skills and a plate full of humble pie. I hated it when my parents were right.

Sunshine signing off for today.

The glare of the no

This was a big weekend in the life of one of our favourite reality TV shows – the X Factor. Last night’s show ended with the top 12 acts being picked for the live shows. I cried.  I could so relate.

Not with the acts going forward. But with those who didn’t make the cut … rejection is an ugly thing to deal with. The contestants had pinned their hopes on “making it” in the music industry by getting through to the top 12. Many of them didn’t want to go back to their normal lives, they felt this opportunity was a make-or-break one for them. I do feel sad that so much rode on the show for them, and I do hope there was emotional support for those of them who didn’t get through. It’s tough to get a no with 13 million people watching.

For those of you who don’t know the show, it is a singing show, a lot like Idols, but with a slight spin. The acts are divided into four categories – boys (under 28), girls (under 28), groups and the “overs” (male and female, over the age of 28 but with no top age limit). There are four judges and each judge is assigned a category to mentor, so the competition ends up being not only between the contestants, but between the judges too. I know it is starting in the USA in the fall of 2011, so watch out for it if it’s the kind of show you enjoy.

Last week was “bootcamp”. Acts that made it through from the initial auditions held all around the UK had to perform to the judges again, and, after a series of whittling downs, eight acts per category were chosen to go to the judges’ houses. Each of the judges was assigned a category, and their eight protégés flew to their homes to sing for their place in the top 12: boys went to Australia (to Danii Minogue’s home), groups went to Marbella in Spain (Simon Cowell’s villa), the “overs” went to Dublin (Louis Walsh’s ‘castle’) and the girls to Ascot (Cheryl Cole’s estate).

On Saturday night we watched each of the categories, in turn, singing for their mentor and on Sunday we watched the mentors telling each of the acts, in turn, whether they had been successful or not. In true reality TV style, the emotion is squeezed till the tears drop; and the wimp that I am has tears rolling down her face from start to finish. The ones who have been successful scream and whoop and jump and stomp and hug their mentor. The ones who are unsuccessful sit and sob and hug their mentor.

I can’t imagine how the mentors feel, to have such power to bring tears of joy and tears of disappointment. I applaud anyone who has the courage to enter such a show, and my hope for each one of them – top 12 or not – is that they go on to make their dream happen, away from the glare of TV lights and sensationalism.

So what does this mean in my life? Apart from being a huge fan of the show – I can’t deny it – I also love watching young and exciting talent and hidden confidence unfurl. I always support the slightly shy guy who doesn’t look like a star but sings like an angel. My favourite favourite is exactly that, and he made it through.

But for me, I can so relate to the disappointment of being so close, yet not making it through. One of the contestants said last night that he has heard no so often, it would be easier to deal with a no than the unknown of a yes. He got a yes, and I threw my arms in the air. I look forward to the day that I hear that all-too-unfamiliar word too. And I might just scream and whoop and jump and stomp and hug. Even if no-one’s watching.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Cloudy in London today

So it’s Saturday again. Not that that means anything to me, really. To a job hunter, every day is the same. Filled with hope, opportunity and a balancing dose of absolute anxiety.

Here I am, sat at the laptop yet again, scouring cyberspace for that one job that’s going to change everything for me. For us. And keep us in London. No pressure.

If I send at least one application a day – or so – there is nothing much more I can do. Except pray.

As I stare out of the window of the flat, I have already seen two stripped-off Londoners walking along the street! And it’s not that warm today. One emerged from the shower block in the small dock we overlook, his hirsute frame clad only in a towel, wrapped around his waist. Another was walking along the street on the other side of the dock, shirt in hand. Eeeuw.

It’s so strange to think that we’re heading towards autumn in London. At this time of year, in South Africa where I come from, it’s rose-pruning time, some spring flowers are starting to show their heads, there’s an optimism and a gentle floral fragrance in the air, and the hope of warm weather and sunshine overwhelm us all, as we think about Christmas, end of year holidays, and plans for the new year. The hope of spring is quite overshadowed for me by the melancholy of the coming autumn in the north. Maybe it’s also how I’m feeling today.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Right or wrong? I’d rather not say

So here I am, procrastinating again while I should be completing yet another lengthy person specification for a job application. Do I fit the minutely-detailed criteria attached to the job? I’ll exercise my new-found British right and say: “I’d rather not say.”

Right, I know that we are spoilt for choice here in London. What to do, where to go, how to get there, what to wear, and whether or not to take a brolly. Ok the last one doesn’t really have another option. But I’ve discovered – to my frustration – that job applications are just as full of choices. I found it quite funny at first, but now I just find it annoying.

Each job application requires an “Equal Opportunities Monitoring” form, which – we are promised – is not considered in conjunction with job applications. It is purely for monitoring purposes. So, in order that no-one is discriminated against on account of his or her sex, marital or family status, age, ethnic origin, disability, race, colour, nationality, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or trade union membership, a record is kept of all of these criteria, for monitoring purposes. I haven’t yet been asked which football team I support, but I’m sure that’s coming next.

What amuses me about all of this – apart from finding it quite strange – is that you have the option in all of these to say, “I would rather not say.” If I answered that to every question – and it would be my right to do so – where would that leave the monitoring process? Imagine the level of speculation! And why do I have to complete it when I’m applying for the job – do all organisations monitor who applies for what, and then try to target different audiences as required for the next jobs they advertise? And if it’s not considered alongside my application, then what’s to stop me from being less than honest?

So it’s back to the drawing board. Am I having fun? No. Am I optimistic? Yes. Will I keep at it? Yes. Will I let it get me down? No. Is this something I’ll remember with fondness about my time in London? I’d rather not say.

Sunshine signing off!