Sat 22 Jul 2006 ~ 21:27
Previously I was working on a web application on a secret government project for Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. When meeting people for the first time, it’s natural to enquire about respective hobbies, musical tastes and careers. When the inevitable subject of careers comes up and the question of what one does for a living is thrown up in the air, it’s nice for a change to be able to say “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” and really mean it. Okay, not really mean it, unless your eyebrows join in the middle and you have a history of being reminded of things you don’t remember saying, things you don’t remember doing, and waking up some mornings with a headache, unable to remember where you were last night or in fact where you are right now and oh my God, are those bloodstains??!!!! Okay, not really mean it, but it’s nice to be working on something labelled so confidential that it cannot be discussed. This is ideal during job interviews where they ask you to elaborate on the details and you tell them that you could, but only in exchange for their life.
As a consultant, I’m essentially a nomad of the vocational world and the first day of work at a new company is always thrilling. I have to admit that the first few times it was quite nervewracking, like anywhere you visit with the onus of expectation on your back. The first few days are probably the easiest because you’re meeting everyone for the first time and the only big task you have is trying to remember the names of all the new faces you’ll be seeing around for some time. Maybe the first few days they too will notice a new face and come talk to you. A good many of them will ask you your name just to be polite at first before progressing up the relationship rungs from acquaintance to friend. I always thought my name was a curse when it came to meeting new people. On average it takes a stranger three attempts to get the pronunciation correct. In fact, when I used to temp I used to introduce myself as “Tom,” just to smooth things over, in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be around long enough for them to (bother to) learn how to say my name properly. But no hard feelings really, because that is the ephemeral life of a temp. I would continue to see my name as a curse till a few years ago when I realised it was actually a powerful tool at measuring whether someone really wanted to be my friend or was just being polite to keep the dynamic of the workplace silken. I found a pattern in those who bothered to ask me how to pronounce my name. These were the people I would remain in contact with long after my time on the project ended.
In the Hayao Miyazaki anime, Spirited Away, long after her parents had been turned into pigs, the young protagonist Chihiro signs a contract, giving possession of her name away to Yubaba, a large lady with an oversized head and a monstrous baby. She is living a recruitment agency’s dream of being somewhat of an exclusive employer in the spirit world and in exhange for a job, she takes a one-off payment of a person’s name (She does this by literally picking off the characters of a signee’s name from the paper with her fingers). Eventually, that person forgets their own name and unbeknownst to Yubaba’s subterfuge of being an equal opportunities phantom employer, subsequently comes under her control. There are many other revelations in the film, but I really like the statement that it made; that our names though mutable are a part of us and if you lose your name you too will become lost and over time will forget who you are. That’s why names are to be respected. If they are mispronounced, they will lose their meaning and in the persistence of time will become a mere label for fruit that has long become bitter. I’ve often been asked what it’s like to have my surroundings change frequently and have been asked for tips on the best way to deal with meeting new work colleagues. My advice is simple. You won’t be expected to remember each and everyone’s names, but you will be expected to pronounce each and every one of them correctly. So the next time a friendly face calls upon you, take the time to learn the name of the person it’s attached to and respect that one thing they’ve been carrying their whole life.
Of all the industries I’ve worked in, the best work-related stories come from Customs and Excise. They are a force that exists purely due to the natural phenomenon that if you tell someone they cannot have something, they will want it even more. And with Her Majesty putting a ban on many items, there will always be that incursion of people trying not to draw attention to their smuggling compartments. From working with some of Her Majesty’s best I’ve learned of the perils of searching through goods. I’m not just talking about the obvious dangers like explosives. I’m talking more about the kind you wouldn’t want to get caught by your parents with: Pornography. And not the regular variety, but the illegal stuff you wouldn’t ever want to see; the kind of titles the dark prince himself keeps in his locked cabinet. Unfortunately, if a search yields DVDs or any other media suspected of forbidden content, it is the customs officer’s job to sit through a full viewing to ensure it is all legitimate under Her Majesty’s sky. This often means a customs officer may have to sit through full pornographic features to ensure they’re not hardcore. Of course, they must be professional during this. I mean, it’s against protocol to fast forward through it and they absolutely must not enjoy the material they’re reviewing. I’m sure it must have been a struggle trying to pretend you weren’t enjoying something when you secretly find it so awesome that your eyes were desperately trying to dart around the room surveying for someone to high-five. I heard some of them required therapy.
I heard of this one time a man protested against yet another viewing of suspected hardcore gay pornography, giving the reason, “I can’t watch this. I have a wife… and kids.” Dude, why protest now? Are you afraid that The Da Vinci Load* and it’s witty homosexual puzzles will finally throw you over the edge, resulting in your spouse and children feeling dejected after you claim that the penis is mightier than the sword, whilst replacing your regular evening-wear with assless attire made of leather? That’s all okay, we’ll have you reassigned to something else then, because you’re not even meant to enjoy it. Enjoyment is against the rules. That’s why if there’s any suspected cache of regular guy-on-girl hardcore porn, you can rest assured the job would go to someone asexual who hates men and women.
*This is actually a real title. No, check. Real titles. There are actually two by the same name; one being the usual heterosexual comedy take on things and the other an all-out gay remake. And though I’m as excited about seeing them as I am about seeing their original Hollywood counterpart (read: could definitely go through life never seeing it and still be an unchanged man with no regrets), I have to admit I’m curious about how its protagonist Robert Langdon would have looked with both a dodgy mullet and a dodgy moustache. I’m told one of the movies also has some award-winning dialogue to match up to Dan Brown’s original repartee. My favourite so far is, “Ladies, every time you let a guy nut in your snatch just because he’s a professional skater or drives a Mitsubishi Lancer with Chinese writing on the side, you are polluting the social soup.”