My Two Years As an Asian Company Man
In 1988, I was thirty-one years old. I was a writer in all the senses that count, apart from one: I hadn't sold a thing, and there seemed to be no real prospect of me selling anything, either. I was working as a teacher in a language school in Soho, London; it was, I feared, exactly the sort of job you drifted into at that age, when you had no real chance of doing the work you really wanted to do. I was afraid of the future—of telling younger colleagues in the year 1999 or 2009, age forty-two or fifty-two, that I was a writer, but a writer whose stuff never got made or published. In the kinds of jobs I had been doing, I met people like that all the time, writers, actors, the occasional ancient musician. They scared me. Meanwhile, the friends I had made at university were all on a career ladder. They were academics or diplomats or journalists or accountants, and they were starting to make money. When I arranged to meet them, I was embarrassed by my own lack of advancement—embarrassed, too, that evenings out couldn't involve food, because restaurants were too expensive.
If someone had told me that I was a couple of years away from being given a book contract that would change my life, then of course I'd have been happy enough to sit and wait it out. (And I'd have been amazed, too. I'd hardly written a paragraph of prose—all my efforts hitherto had gone into scripts, terrible things intended for the movies but which could just as easily have been performed on the radio, consisting as they did of a handful of conversations between two people.) But I didn't know that. My suspicion was that I was kidding myself, and that the smart thing to do would be to give up the writing and find myself a proper teaching job, if only so that I could pay for my own pizza sometimes.
The principal of the language school was a few years older than me, a smart, dry, interesting man who, years later, for reasons too involved to explain here, became my psychoanalyst, a job he has held down to this day. He was still training for the shrinkhood back then, although it seemed entirely indicative of our respective prospects that his make-do, pay-the-way job was as a principal of a school, and mine was as a part-time, non-contract teacher. One day he offered me a little bit of extra work at the offices of a large Asian trading company that had just set up in London. "They'll pay well," he told me, and he was right: they offered me forty pounds for two hours' teaching a week, an amount that probably amounted to about a quarter of my weekly wage.
I nearly didn't take the job. They wanted me to work on Saturday mornings, and I couldn't think of anything worse. (That is almost certainly true, I now realize. I've learned very little over the last couple of decades, but I do now know, regrettably, that there are worse things than setting an alarm clock on a weekend.) I played five-a-side football on Saturday mornings, I explained. They asked me what time the game took place, and I told them eleven o'clock, and they laughed—there was no scheduling clash, as far as they were concerned. They wanted me in at eight, before their day's work started. (This was the first thing I learned about them: they worked extraordinarily hard, these young Korean sales executives, much harder than anyone in England. Their contracted hours were 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. When the recession kicked in, a couple of years later, they were told to combat it by working Sundays, too. But those were just the contracted hours. Anyone with any ambition couldn't be seen knocking off at eight, just as my friends with proper jobs couldn't leave the office at five.)
I really, really didn't want to work at eight o'clock on a Saturday morning. Friday nights were always late—my friends and I would often go to a cheap but utterly great nightclub in Kentish Town, the Locomotion, until two or three in the morning. (The music they played at the Locomotion I borrowed wholesale for the club that my narrator Rob ran in my first novel, High Fidelity.) And then there was the five-a-side, and then, every other Saturday, my team, Arsenal, played at home, and even watching football was tiring in those days: you stood, for two and a half hours, on concrete terraces, buffeted by fellow fans. But forty quid...
So I took it, and walked into their offices in Holborn still blinded by sleep and sometimes reeking of booze.