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To Do or Not to Do (Much) in America

To Do or Not to Do (Much) in America 

Editor's Note: Work is still a profound organizing principle in America, but there are signs that the old work ethic is eroding. More Americans would rather not do, notes NAM editor Andrew Lam, whose book, "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005) recently won a PEN/Beyond Margins Award.

SAN FRANCISCO--When my glamorous cousin Josette visited me a while ago I took her to a chic San Francisco cocktail party, and a man came up to us. He asked the usual question, "So, Josette, what do you do?"

My cousin, who grew up in Vietnam but now lives in Paris, looked a little perplexed. "Oh no, hah," she answered in a heavy French accent, her well manicured hand gesturing denial in the air, "I don't 'do.'"

"Oh, I see," said the man. And the conversation wilted.

Josette, who spoke very little English, did not mean to be rude, but unemployment held no stigma for her. She'd married very well. She and her husband own several apartment buildings in posh neighborhoods in Paris, and what she really does, when forced to elaborate, is shop for antiques around the world. 

Yet even at the cocktail party where many were well-to-do, Josette's confession still rubbed a few the wrong way. 

After all, if there's anything gauche in America it's to talk about one's wealth and idleness with honesty. In America, where mobility weakened blood ties, work is still a highly honorable thing, a point around which strangers can connect. To not work is to be outside of the conversational fold, forfeiting potential camaraderie and shared ethos. 

But the idea of work as an identity and vocation is still new in many parts of the world. In Vietnam, for instance, a country where, despite enormous transition toward modernity, 80 percent of the population still lives in rural areas. Work for them is arduous and repetitive, really nothing to talk about. The Vietnamese colloquial for work is "di keo cay," which literally means, "to go pull the yoke."

"What do you do?" is therefore a meaningless question when everyone has his feet in the mud, his back bent, his skin scorched by an unforgiving sun. The questions people are more prone to ask are, "Where do you come from?" and "Are you married?"

Josette, who grew up among the rice field of the Mekong Delta, is admired by many of those she left behind, and she, too, is proud of finding luxury by marrying into fabulous wealth. She worked hard, struggled for a long time before she could say, "Oh no hah, I don't do."

But if Americans are still among the hardest working people in the Western world, there are increasingly many here who'd rather be like Josette; that is, they'd rather not do much if they can get away with it. I know a few men and women in their 30s in 40s, educated Americans, who avoid 9 to 5 like the plague.

There's Laurent, who made some money from a high-tech company, and now takes care of his ailing mother. "I need to work three or four more years at some company, and I'll be set for the rest of my life," he said with longing in his eyes. 

And there's Thuy, who said she once worked like a dog in her 20s. "I had no time even to go to the toilet," she said. Now in her 30s, Thuy, who owns rental properties, develops a passion for fine wines.

The New York Times recently reported that millions of educated men in the prime of their lives -- about 13 percent of men between 30 and 55 -- have dropped out of regular work. They turn down jobs that they find beneath their level. They read novels, work on their house, all the while tapping in their equity and working part time to supplement their income.

Not all who drop out strike it rich like Josette. For those who aspire to do little but can't afford to not to, there's the informal economy. "Lateral movement is not working anymore for a lot of young people," notes Raj Jayadev, who works with young blue-collar workers in Silicon Valley. "Young people are finding alternate ways to get that pot of gold. Some young people would rather deal dope than work for so little at Wal-mart." 

A potential gold mine for the outsiders of the 9 to 5 world is the Internet. The would-be porn star with his webcam hopes to make money from home, not bothering to get out of bed. The amateur singer auditions her songs online to an invisible audience, hoping to land a contract.

Work in the real world, especially among the working class, however, remains woefully denigrated. The immigrant who baby-sits and bathes the yuppie couple's children for a pittance is demonized for taking jobs away from real Americans. The migrant worker who picks cabbage, grapes and zucchini under the unforgiving Californian sun is invisible unless he's a subject for public debate on what to do with the undocumented. 

Yet immigrants' strong work ethic built the American dream, which in turn merges with the old Protestant work ethic, which built America. To have vision is to move forward: He sees in the boarded up store a sparkling new restaurant; she looks at the pile of shirts to be sewn in the sweatshop and sees her children going to Harvard. For those who want to do, and do well, America is still the place to be.

Back at the cocktail party, someone asked me what I do. "I'm a writer," I answered, and immediately came a flurry of more questions. It's a romantic notion, to be sure, a blessed thing to do work that directly expresses the self. But romance aside, it is constant toil, and what I do I can't stop -- I take it with me, into every room, on vacation and even into dreams.

If I'm somewhat envious of Josette, I realize, despite our similar background as immigrants from Vietnam to the West, how different we have become. I love what I do, and would do it even when I didn't have to. Besides, I can't imagine what conversation I would have in America -- a country of nomads whose loneliness is offset by the force of our ambition -- if our central concern was no longer what we do. It might very well be like living back in the Old World.