“Does it pay? How much does the job pay?”
That’s the first thing my mum asks when I land a volunteer stint or get a job that pays. Coming from the average traditional-minded Chinese-Malaysian family, I’m expected to be a filial Asian kid, working for the money and supporting the folks in their old age.
Why we shouldn’t work for free, shouldn’t take up that internship or volunteer? When we say yes to working for free, we might be naïve. We might get taken advantage of, made to do “slave labour”.
I interned as a radio journalist at one of Australia’s big radio stations as part of a university subject, which I had to pay a few thousand dollars to study. Made to put together two radio segments from scratch every day within seven hours and no excuses not to, I felt like I was made to work at the station like there was no tomorrow.
Working for free takes up time. When we work for free, chances are we’re wasting time. We could use the time “working” to do something that pretty much promises an end result. At uni, I volunteered to present Asian-pop radio programs at community station SYN 90.7FM, spending hours writing radio skits. Hours which my mum said could’ve been put to memorising one maths formula or earning a few dollars working at McDonalds. True.
Working for free might lead to false promises, lead us into thinking we know what we’re doing and what we want. Volunteering in radio was so much fun and while at uni I honestly thought I was going to have a career in radio. Me presenting Aussie commercial radio in my Singapore-Malaysian accent? I must be kidding myself back then.
But then there are good reasons to work for free and volunteer. There’s always so much we can learn and so many faces to meet. After a few years at SYN, I got the chance to be their (voluntary) Radio Programming Manager and it was so fun working with other volunteers who loved broadcasting, running the station. And so we never know what doors might open when we work for free.
Sometimes we work sans a paycheck because we want to. Maybe we want to make a difference. I volunteered with SYN for five years only because I get excited speaking into the microphone, and we need more Asian Australian presenters on radio. Sometimes working for free makes us happy.
Work comes in all forms. Work means giving up our time for someone else.Helping someone else. Waking up and making breakfast for everyone in the house. Driving our friend around. Washing our car. We don’t expect much, if anything at all, in return.
So we “work” for “free” more than we realise it, every day. Work, whether paid or unpaid, is what we do and how we do our work defines who we are.
I’m a writer, writing articles I rarely get paid for. When 5pm rolls around at my day-job and I’m about to go home and write, my colleagues love to say, “Now your real work starts!” One thing I like about my mundane office job is that it’s a slap in the face, reminding me every single day what I really love doing.
Working for free, or sitting at home writing my first book, is something I’ll be doing a lot of next year. When I stopped volunteering at SYN, my mum said, “Good. More time for study.” I do feel caught in between being the role-model Asian kid and going after my dreams. But listening to others all the time doesn’t necessarily make us happy. With savings in the bank to get by for a while, why not take a chance? So I’m going to work away at the book without regret, but the book isn’t for me: I write to share my thoughts on culture with you.
Working, for money or no money, is rewarding. It just depends on how we feel about it. And how we look at it.
The more we work selflessly, the better we’ll get to know ourselves and the better people we’ll be.
Have you worked for free, done an internship or volunteered?