Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Cleaning toilets with a smile: The lessons you can learn from a convenience store side job

by Megha Wadhwa

Contributing Writer

I quit my job at a Japanese company in New Delhi 12 years ago to try my luck as a Japanese-language student in Tokyo. In order to bolster my linguistic abilities (and make a bit of extra cash), I got a side job at a Family Mart convenience store close to my apartment.

My Japanese wasn’t great but I was proficient in the basics and could understand most of what was being said to me. I wasn’t super-excited about the job, to be honest, but knew it wouldn’t be forever. I was trained for a day or two and then began working every other morning from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

My convenience store job ended up teaching me a lot about Japan and myself.

For example, I learned that smiling is one of my strengths. Even at the lowest points of my life, I’ve been able to put on a smile and convince people I was doing OK. I’m not a morning person, but for six months I woke up at 6:30 a.m. almost every weekday to be at work 10 minutes before the start time. I would then have to smile for the next four hours as I greeted the customers, and keep on smiling till they left. If I forgot to smile because I was sleepy, the store’s manager would come and remind me by making a funny face.

We had many regular customers, and one of them was a Japanese woman who ended up being my first Japanese friend — and we still keep in touch. She recently told me that it was my smile that gave her the confidence to invite me round to her apartment, which was in the same building as the convenience store. As basic as it sounds, the first lesson I really took to heart from that job was that a smile can help you connect with people. Or at the very least, brighten yours and someone else’s day.

During my six months at Family Mart, I found it fascinating to see how well-organized everything was. There was a lot of effort from the staff to make sure everything ran to perfection, so duties were divided pretty equally among all the full-and part-time workers, from cleaning the floors and stacking the shelves to counting the cash and throwing away the garbage. The biggest challenge, however, was cleaning the toilets.

I have to admit, I had never cleaned a toilet in my life. In India we were lucky enough to have a maid who would take care of it, so when it came to be my turn I felt a sense of dread at first. However, cleaning a public toilet became one of the most important lessons of the job for me. It knocked my ego down a peg and I came to understand that no job is beneath anyone, whatever you do in life needs your full commitment. Later, I came to learn that Japanese kids were taught to clean toilets in school, an activity that I now think should be introduced in schools all over the world.

During the course of my six months at the convenience store, I would often get told off by my manager for doing things incorrectly. I have to admit, I hardly understood what he was telling me at first, and sometimes I would choose to get deliberately lost in what he was saying and zone out for a little while. Ignorance really is bliss. Somehow, though, I was picking up on the gist of his lectures, and I think not fully understanding every element actually helped me work better — perhaps I wasn’t getting too obsessed with how he was saying things and instead focused on the main message. Gradually, his critiques were replaced with praise.

I didn’t work at Family Mart for long and I doubt I’ll be going back. However, I have to say that I’d recommend the experience to other people. I learned things about myself from both the good and bad times I had there, which you could say about any job, of course, but on top of those epiphanies I learned a lot about this country. While Japan is pretty organized on the surface, behind the scenes it’s as messy as any other place in the world — and it takes an impressive group effort to keep things running.

Megha Wadhwa, Ph.D., is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Comparative Cultures, Sophia University. Her research focuses on the Indian community in Japan.