Day 32: On Professionalism

Since I have moved into my new place, where there’s a cable TV, I have been sitting in front of my flat screen television everyday, watching shows after shows on my new favorite TV channel, NHK World TV (stands for Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai or Japan Broadcasting Corporation) from Japan (but in English). Growing up reading Japanese graphic novels or manga, I always have a soft spot for Japan and Japanese culture. In fact, I’d to spend some time there — perhaps the rest of my life. I like everything about Japan: the art, architecture, food, culture, manga, etc. You name it, and I’ll just tell you how much I like it, and why I like it. My friends who know me well would know that I could spend the entire day talking about Japan and Japanese culture. In fact, I have written a few articles and Japan. My first publication was a two-page essay on the Japanese love hotels (ラブホテル rabu hoteru). It was this research that I received the honorable title from my Japanese colleagues “hentai sensei” (変態先生) — please find out by yourself what it means. The most recent book chapter that I just wrote, and just got published is on Japanese capsule hotels, which in the book chapter I argue that it may be one of the representative form of Japanese socio-spatial structure. We shouldn’t be looking at it from the perspective of an outsider, otherwise we will miss so many interesting things, but to understand it ethnographically from within.

My favorite NHK World TV show is The Professionals, a one-hour documentary series that focuses on Japan’s best professionals from various fields. When it comes to professionalism, no one can really beat the Japanese. In the US, Thailand, or elsewhere (where I have lived), it seems as though to be a professional is to be “occupationally engaged” in a specified activity that gets one paid, and most of the time what it means is to be an employee of a company. For instance, in the US, we go to the so-called a “professional school” to become a lawyer, medical doctor, nurse, and architect. It seems as though to be a professional is to have a stable “paid job.” In Japan, if one is passionate about what one does, one can be a professional — and it doesn’t really matter what work it is. You can be a professional grocer, farmer, bartender, coffee barista, dancer, noodle stall owner, street performer, and so on.

There is the spirit of kodawari  (こだわり), which, since I don’t speak Japanese I will largely rely on the translation I found online, “obsession, fixation, hangup, determination, fastidiousness, pickiness about something.” The anthropologist Merry White, in her book Coffee Life in Japan, translates it as “the kind of passion that is almost bordering on obsession.” Japan has always been a nation where many professions easily find their places in the society no matter how niche-oriented what they do are. That may have to do with the fact that Japanese people do respect the art, labor, and craftsmanship involved in the process of making consumable products, food, and materials. In White’s book, the coffee barista (Italian for “bartender,” which, in this case, is the person who makes coffee for you at the coffee bar in Japan) who she studied in Tokyo were the embodiment of the very core spirit of kodawari — they’re so damn attentive, critical, and ritualistic, about what they do, so much so that most people wonder whether these barista are crazy or not. Believe it or not, all of us are like that sometimes. When we find something that we really like to do and want to excel in doing it, we will put everything aside, and put all out of our conscious effort it. After watching the barista making a cup of coffee for you with the utmost performance of kodawari including the very meticulous and multi-layered process of grinding coffee beans by hand, all the way to siphoning it through the finest and most beautiful vacuum coffee maker, whether or not the coffee they make actually taste better doesn’t really matter anymore (maybe it does, but how much can we, non-experts, can really tell?). Anyone who could feel the very core spirit of kodawari could also feel the sensationality embedded in the taste of the coffee. I do feel that actually tastes better when someone is putting the heart and soul into brewing it for you.

In fact, I think what makes Japan an interesting country is precisely this kind of respect for professionalism. Professionals from all walks of life, in whatever they do, are respected not only for the expertise they possess, but also the products or services that they deliver. In turn, the Japanese appreciation for professionalism not only makes these professionals wanting to continue to develop themselves, and pass on their expertise to the next generation, but also make young people want to become professionals — precisely because they know that there is always a room for growth. This mentality helps to proliferate both professionalism and small businesses. You don’t have to have a large sum of capital to pursue what you love. It’s the love and passion (and perhaps some sense of economic feasibility) that make one stand out in the battle between professionals who want to deliver products and services which belong to the best of their class.

Philosophers like Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and John Locke would agree that the work ethics of these professionals align well with the essence of human species — the professionals put their life into the pursuit of perfecting the object, and therefore “own” the fruits of their labor. By owing the fruit of their labor, they are driven from the inside to deliver high quality products. In a typical capitalist society, capitalism will appropriate these products and services, and place them in the market system that would determine the value of the fruit of their labor on their behalf. If the market demand is lower than the supply of similar products in the market, for whatever reason, the price will go down despite the fact that these professionals may have put no less effort in producing them. Sooner or later these, as Marx has pointed out, professionals will find no pleasure in producing anything because they would find out that they do not get to own, let alone enjoy the fruits of their labor, and eventually they would feel alienated from the product of their work, and that would be the end of the professionals. So, professionalism reunites the division of the society that is often thought of as being separated into the entities and belong to two classes: the property owners (the capitalists) and the property-less (proletariat) workers. Marx, especially, thinks that capitalism has divided our society into two entities. I think that we can still live meaningfully in a capitalist society By being professionals in what we all do no matter what it is, we are playing a part in making our society less segregated. By being dignified professionals, we don’t just serve the insatiable demand of the capitalists who just want to make use of and exploit our labor, but we can use our labor in doing things we love to turn the capitalists around and make them see the larger picture of the benefits of meaningful labor force. It’s the professionalism in all of us that will save us from the negative consequences brought about by capitalism.

In this arrangement, the the capitalists don’t necessarily own the professionals, but rely on the professionals to deliver what they need. Therefore, the professionals don’t suffer impoverishment by ways of capitalist exploitation. The professionals also get to enjoy the experience of being reunited with themselves, with their products, with their fellow human beings, and with the essence of the human specie. in a Marxian sense, to be a professional is to own the fruit of your labor, and to have the complete freedom what to do with it.

For instance, why would anyone want to make a coffee at home, if right around the corner there is a great cafe with a great barista who would always make a great fresh cup of coffee? Same goes with noodles, sushi, and so on. What would anyone want to go to the wholesale market and try their luck on picking some fruits from an ocean of fruits, if they know they can rely on the greengrocer next door who knows exactly which are good fruits by experience, and is happy to get them delivered it to the community? I think the functioning society that works in a long-run must be the kind of society that respect professionals.

In the latest episode of The Professionals, Japan’s most respected greengrocer Teruaki Sugimoto showed us his passion for selling vegetables. He’s known by everyone in his profession as “the greengrocer who knows more than anyone in Japan about delicious produce.” In the Kita-Senju neighborhood of Tokyo where more and more people are turning away from the local grocers and toward convenient stores to buy mass-produce vegetables and fruits, the 67-year-old Mr. Sugimoto was still all about handpicked, artisanal, and high-quality vegetables that he personally inspects, bids, and buys from the wholesales market by himself. To outsiders, he may look like a stubborn old man who has devoted his life to vegetables; but, to his customers, Mr. Sugimoto’s passion for selling vegetables lies beyond his interest in making money. He wants to be on top of his game, which, as he defines, is to serve his loyal and new customers with the highest quality vegetables, as well as in helping the farmers, without whom he wouldn’t be able to do what he does. “Always protect the farmers,” is his motto. In a way, he’s a merchant — a middleman — who doesn’t produce anything. All he does is just to profit from the farmers whose sweat and blood turn into produce for him to sell. So, he’s grateful for being fortunate enough to be doing what he is doing; hence, he believes that it’s important to protect the farmers whose hard labor is the bloodline of his family’s career for generation. The blurb on the The Professionals’ site summarizes it all:

The approach that sums up Sugimoto’s way of doing business is “always play offense.” And rather than buying everything at wholesale markets, he has developed his own channels for procuring select produce. Sugimoto says, “There are still many delicious things that people haven’t tried. I have to get out there and promote them. That’s what a greengrocer should do.”

Mr. Sugimoto concludes at the end of the documentary that, to him, to be a professional is to “not relying only on the past achievements but to strive to be better and better everyday.”

The story of Teruaki Sugimoto in the The Professionals got me thinking about what it means, personally, to be a profession. I don’t really know what I am in terms of profession. Am I a student, a teacher, an architect, an urban designer, a writer, or what? Well, I am by and large still a student (a doctoral student) but I also have some teaching experience, so in a way, I could call myself a “professional teacher.” In fact, it’s the teaching that makes me want to get up in the morning and go to work.

That said, it’s not fair to use what I like to do to justify my professionalism. It would be like judging the quality of life in a particular city, only on a good day. We must also take into account the bad days. A true professional also endures the hardship on a bad day, and turns the negative energy into a genuine passion to seize the opportunity that might not be immediately obvious.

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A panel of professional architects and creative thinker invited to brainstorm their ideas about a creative community in Shanghai. Photo: Peggy Liu

There were times when I had to grade exam papers — what I dread the most in my life as a teacher — read student papers, prepare for classes, and so on, that were not that pleasant.

This time last year, I was grading more than 40 philosophy exam papers. Each of which was 4-5 page-long. I was spending about 30 minutes to one hour per each paper, while my colleagues were spending about 2-3 minutes per paper. I both wrote comments onto the papers, and typed extra comments for each student. It was madness. I’d spent more than 40 hours grading 40 papers (including printing, stapling the comments onto the exams). Not only was I focusing all my attention on providing the most just grades to the students who deserved them, but also on writing extensive comments to those who hadn’t gotten it yet in order to make sure that they would learn from their mistakes. I felt that I could help them improve themselves in the next exam.

What I did was also to help my students in learning how to write in general for their future careers. There was no incentive of anything on my part whatsoever. I could have been drinking, watching TV, going around the city, or even going to bed (because I often had to grade all the way to the very late evening hours). I could just slack off, and call it a day at 6pm, and then went out for drinks with my friends. I didn’t do that because something inside of me was telling me that I could not do that, and that I must provide equally comprehensive and considerably constructive comments to every single exam paper, even though I knww that some students might not even care.

I knew I could have done what most of my colleagues did, which was to simply assign random grades to random students, taking the responsible task of a teacher as lightly as possible, so that I would have more time to pursue something else that they believed they’d rather be spending time on. Why did I do that? I was just doing it because I think it was “my duty” — the responsible task –to do it for my students. Professionalism, to me at that time, was to go the extra miles on something, for which I believe I have the purpose in life.

So, could it be that feeling content was the main factor that drove me to go those extra miles?

It would be misleading to say so, I believe. I still remember how antagonizing I was having to sit down on a desk reading one paper after another. Some papers were written in such a way that nobody could understand (e,g., illegible, put together poorly grammatically, etc.) — but I had to try to understand them regardless of how much I would rather brush them off. Every second I that was spending reading those exam papers longer than my colleague, I felt as though I was not making any sense. I was antagonizing over everything as I probed. So, in that sense, it was clear, to me, that I would be much happier having a beer and watching NHK World News rather than grading exam papers.

Yet, I was still going through each paper one by one — at the slowest possible speed — in order to insure the carefulness in reading each and every one of the paper. I didn’t think that what I was doing was duty? My duty could end at the official closing time of the office which was 6pm, and I could easily come back and do it the next day. So, what was my incentive for going the extra miles, doing much more work, spending much more time on grading those exam papers? If “incentive” could be defined as something that motivates you to do something, I probably did not have any real incentive then. It was neither the economic incentive, or my expectation for results from which I could benefit. Was I simply romanticizing my intention to treat teaching and grading as an end in itself? Perhaps. But if we look closer there was actually nothing to romanticize about. To be romantic is to suggest that I could incline toward the feeling of exciting mystery, which I didn’t see any. The end was clear — that I would be so tired after 40 something hours of work reading and grading, and the consequence was also clear, which was the fact that I could hit the sack as soon as I got the grades in. Why did I work myself so hard for no concrete result?

Having said all these, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that doing things just for the sake of doing it “out of duty” is that professional, at least to me. Professionalism is, in some ways, about duty, but on the other hand what it is really about is the way in which life could be given meanings. Unlike the great philosopher Immanuel Kant who would profess to a room full of empty chairs because he believed that to be in his role as a professional professor, he would need to profess no matter what, and whether or not there’s an audience. I get his point, but I simply do not think that it is very useful. Ok, fine, perhaps by professing to a group of empty chairs he was making a statement about his professionalism — and one day when I am as wise and as astute intellectually as he was I would understand his rather unique course of action. For the time being, I’d rather save my time to profess to a group of empty chairs to do something else (just a little bit) more meaningful. So, no, if I know that those philosophy papers won’t be returned to the students, who therefore wouldn’t get to read my extensive comments, I would not spend a lot of time writing my comments (I would, nevertheless, spend as much time on reading them regardless, assuming that they’re written with the intellectual labor of love), because it would be the same as professing to a group of empty chairs. 

Back to why I want to be a professional. First, I don’t think being content, happy, and pleasurable, is the only things that life needs. So, when I do things that may sound difficult, hard, and demanding, I don’t do it because I like it, or because I expect something from it. I believe that we human beings also need to be straightened, shaped, forced to do things we don’t want to do from time to time, so that we’d make the most meaning out of something rather meaningless like getting a job, going to work, and getting out of work, going to bed, and getting up again next day.

Second, being true to what I believe is to be true to the very essence of what I do is what gives my life meaning. In my earlier post I outlines what I talk about when I talk about passion, but passion only cannot explain why I would go extra miles on things that don’t present the immediate benefit. The incentive here is, perhaps, my belief that once we have started something we should go all the way to test my limit is what makes my life not as absurd as it would be. This might be the same feeling that some runners might not compete just to win, but to see how fast he, as a human being, could run. The incentive here is something beyond the realm materiality. I would be a pity if we only do things because we are expecting something materialistic, or economically profitable in return. The most exciting thing in life, I believe, is to be able to evaluate our own limit. Grading exams might not be a good example here, as it’s far from exciting. But for sure the fact that I simply don’t stop at glancing through them and assigning random grades is because I want to see how much I could learn from these exam papers about my students — what they need to learn more about — so that I could support them where they need it. Being intense and obsessive, it might look as though I am being chained to my kodawari ethics. True. I might not be free to do whatever I want, but I feel as though am free because I know exactly what I do, and why I do it — and that I am able to pursue it. So, when I was doing my best in what I believe I should be doing, I was “free from the natural inclination” to take the easy way out.

So, being a professional is to be able to pursue what I believe to be give myself, and my life, meaning, and it is often, if not always, involves pushing the limit of my mental and physic capacity — sometimes, to perfect the imperfectable. So, it’s not about delivering what I can, but deliveingr the best performance regardless of the outcome. Perhaps, in the similar way that the anthropology Merry White sees the baristas in Tokyo café wanting pursue nothing but “the way of being the masters of their own universes,” I am doing what I do, simply, also to be the master of mine.

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