As soon as I turned 15, I got a summer job as a lifeguard at California’s Great America. It was the most grueling two months of my life. And the most rewarding. I learned more about the real world from that experience than anything I could learn as a student. But when my extended Indian family heard about it, they were horrified. I hadn’t realized the complex cultural differences of after school jobs and how it would impact the perception of it
I’ll be honest, I hated being a lifeguard at Great America. Getting up every single day was a battle. I didn’t have a car or a license at that point so I would get dropped off at the light rail station, take it to the front of the park and then walk a mile to the back where the employee entrance was.
I was one of the few people trained in deep water rescue so I was always stationed at the wave pool. Which was awful. Being a lifeguard isn’t as easy as it seems, especially if you work at an amusement park. We were walking back and forth in the hot sun for eight hours a day with people constantly coming up to us asking questions I didn’t know the answer to.
We had to keep watching the water no matter what, the glare off of it making it nearly impossible to keep our eyes open. More people struggle in the wave pool than you might think. I’ve had to jump in and save people on several occasions. On top of that, our supervisors regularly tested us by pretending to drown or throwing a doll into the water.
But this entire experience, as awful as it was, made me a much better person. Looking at my measly paycheck in dismay was a horrible and absolutely necessary experience. Thinking “I worked so hard for this?” was something I needed to go through. Working at Great America taught me responsibility and following through on my promises.
More importantly and thankfully for my parents, I learned the value of money.
Before I got a job, money was an abstract construct – something intangible. And although I knew that money didn’t grow on trees and I valued what I had, I didn’t understand the pain of watching your hard earned money disappearing from your wallet.
I wore my work experience like a badge of honor. But my extended family did not feel the same way. To them, me working as a teenager only took away from my studies and didn’t allow me to focus on my education.
I see where they’re coming from. Growing up in India, after you reach a certain age, your entire life revolves around your grades. The competitiveness in India doesn’t allow for anything else. There is a drive to be the best, to do whatever it takes to get to the top. There is a saying that colleges in India are like a pressure cooker.
Unlike many American colleges, schools in India only care about your grades. They don’t look at the applicant as a whole. While having an after school job is an asset on an American college application, Indian schools don’t see it that way.
In India, the only people who work after school as teens are people who absolutely have to. Who cannot survive otherwise. So for them to hear that I had an after-school job was unbelievable.
Even my extended Indian family in America couldn’t understand why I would want to do that to myself. It wasn’t like I needed the money – I was fortunate enough to have all my needs taken care of. It took some time for them to understand the real value of having an after school job. And they realized that even having a supervisor from Great America as a reference on your resume helps you get into college or even better jobs.
For Americans, having an after-school job is normal but for some other cultures, it’s a sign of poverty and almost something shameful.
After my job as a lifeguard, I worked as a consultant at a bridal store, a sales associate at Victoria’s Secret, and a swim teacher. Every single job brought something new to the table and I learned something new each time.
My extended family in India still doesn’t understand the benefits of having a job at such a young age. Especially because there is absolutely no need for me to have one. But having a job taught me more about the real world than anything else.
It made me appreciate how hard people’s jobs are. After working in retail, I have become 300 times more considerate when shopping. I know the value of money and how hard my parents work to provide me with the life I have. I learned that sometimes the world is just not going to be fair and that sometimes, you have to create your own opportunities.
Having an after school job isn’t just about making money – it’s about gaining real-life experiences.
But culturally, the idea that having a job as a teen is only for those living in poverty is difficult to overcome regardless of the benefits. Although times are already changing, it will take time and economic prosperity for India’s competition craze to simmer down enough for students to afford the real-world experience.1
Also published on Medium.