It’s 10:30pm on a Tuesday night. My legs are sore, hands dry, eyes weary: typical bodily weariness after a night working at the restaurant. The servers gather together — most of who are students — to count the cash gratuities hoping to add on to the $3.25 we make an hour; $64 to be split among 3 people. Another slow night. On my walk home after the 15-hour work day, I can’t help to think that just a couple of years ago I graduated from Columbia University. What brings me to such a laborious life? Is it the weakened job market? Is it because I have a criminal record that prevents me from joining my peers on Wall Street or Main Street? Neither. I chose it.
At 11pm, I am home and before I retire for the night, I run through a mental checklist: shirt and pants ironed; lunch packed in the fridge; phone plugged into the charger; wallet and keys visibly stowed. This routine prevents me from having morning frenzy and being late for my day job. I work on contracts for the federal government and after 10 hours in front of a computer screen, I wait tables at a Chinese restaurant here in Philadelphia. Despite the lengthy day, I take a deep breath of relief looking forward to the 6 hours of rest and waking up to do it all over again the next day.
People are puzzled. On several occasions, my office colleagues have asked me why I have a second job and such a backbreaking one, if that. My peers from college — most that have chosen careers in tech, consulting or banking — are just as curious. Concerned, my relatives and close friends have asked me if I am in need of money. I reply that personal finance plays no role in having the second job at the restaurant. In fact, I’m in decent shape as a bachelor with no dependents and who has paid off student loans.
Why a second job then?
It helps me value my free time. Before the second job, I spent countless hours playing Starcraft and watching television. Now with the 60 hour work schedule, my free time has never been more precious forcing me to be selective in what I do and who to do it with. It taught me to be thrifty with time. Just like any resources, the fewer one has, the more strategic he or she would be when spending them. Today I spend my time on activities that contribute to my personal growth like reading, writing, learning to play the ukulele or building a website via WordPress. In addition to the personal benefits, a busy schedule has enriched my relationships with family and close friends. Knowing that our time shared together is infrequent, I am more expressive with my affection cherishing every moment with my loved ones.
It connects me with my parents through similar experiences. My parents made New York City their home after migrating from Hong Kong in the 1970s. My mother found a job as a garment worker and worked her way up becoming the manager of her factory during the heydays of New York’s clothing manufacturing industry. My father was an electrician and contractor and leased an office on Hester Street where he stored all his tools. They earned low wages and worked long hours, often in unfavorable conditions. The 15-hour workdays were typical to them but they never complained. This was their American Dream: to have jobs that would support them and their two children. We would only see our parents at dinnertime where they would reinforce the value of education, “You don’t know how great you have it to be American-born. You must do well in school and go to college so you can make a better life for yourselves.”
Working at the restaurant allows me to connect with my working-class roots. Through my experiences of endless hours at work, the intense manual labor — to a degree of physical exhaustion — I am able to empathize the challenging life of my parents, and as immigrants in the United States. I realize how much my parents have sacrificed, how hard they have worked, to provide the lives my sister and I are blessed with today.
It helps me value each dollar. At an early age I understood the value of each dollar. Working alongside our mother on the assembly lines at her factory, my sister and I made $.05 cents for each garment we inspected for hanging threads. Twenty dollars earned on a Saturday was a big deal to me. I would immerse in thoughts of spending my hard-earned money on bags of cherry-flavored sour belts and packs of trading cards, unwrapping one with Grant Hill’s rookie card.
Despite my humble beginnings, I am part of a generation that craves costly gadgets and superfluous lifestyles. We have $500 smartphones ringing in our pockets, $400 pairs of John Varvatos adorning our feet, and $299 headphones hugging our ears. If material indulgences are not enough, we spend $100 on cover charge to see the latest DJ press play on an Apple Macbook, another $50 for a few cocktails to blur our vision. We listen to pompous songs that celebrate opulence like “making it rain” glorifying the tossing of money in the air and “Waking up in a New Bugatti”, a million-dollar car.
Working at the restaurant keeps me grounded. It reminds me the amount of sweat perspired, the chili oil stained on my work pants, the frustration endured from serving difficult patrons, and the restless nights from the soreness in my back—behind every single dollar. This teaches me how to spend my money. Before I run my credit card, I calculate the opportunity cost. How much of the world can I see with this money? Should I take my mother out to a nice dinner and Broadway show with this money instead? Or should invest this money into a large-cap mutual fund?
The greatest life lessons I have learned are not during the times of comfort, rather during the ones of difficulty. It was the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, a quote commonly used to recruit young men and women into our military. After graduating from Columbia University, I was blessed with a job that allowed me to work and live comfortably. However, I yearned for a challenge. I wanted a job in which the long hours and laborious demands would develop character, build strength, and enrich all other aspects of my life—lessons I cannot buy anywhere else at any dollar amount, let alone $3.25 an hour.