Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Lost Weekend

The concept of the weekend is ingrained in us from the time we set foot in our first kindergarten class. Five days a week, you might be working for The Man (or Woman), but come closing time on Friday, yabba-dabba-doo. It’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows. No one owns a piece of my time. Everybody’s workin' for the weekend. Everybody wants a new romance. Saturday mornings with Scooby Doo and a full bowl of Cap’n Crunch give way to Saturday mornings erased by Friday nights at the pub turning into Saturday mornings ruled by soccer hockey ballet practice for the kids. Golf games and barbeques. Brunch dates and the Sunday Star Sun Times Herald. The Wonderful World of Disney with an encore by the Beachcombers. And then it’s Monday again.

For many people, this kind of ideal weekend went out with bowler hats and being able to smoke at your desk. Computer connectivity means user reachability. Proposal deadlines don’t have children and emails never sleep. Switch off that cellphone at your peril. Weekends or weekthatneverends – take your pick, but get that report to me by Monday morning.

But still…….

There’s something sacrosanct about the idea of the weekend. Even if it gets sacrificed on a regular basis to appease the God of Industry, the weekend usually represents a break from the norm. Office work without the office. A commuted commute. We continue to value the notion of the weekend even while reducing it to tatters in practice. If anyone were to tell us that our weekends were due to be cancelled, we’d protest their elimination – a Day of Unrest for the Day of Rest! – and when they were finally ended, we’d mourn our loss.

But maybe I’m just grumpy about being in the office on a Saturday. In Bangladesh, the workweek is quite different from the norm in the West. In observance of the Muslim holy day, Friday is the only day that all offices in the country close. For the most part, stores and other businesses follow suit, although it seems that most of the larger supermarkets buck the trend and remain open, looking to capitalize on the narrow shopping window of those who must buy their groceries on their one free day.

If the nation stands united in choosing Friday as the one day of rest, it becomes a bit more fractured when the discussion turns to Saturday. For some organizations, particularly those with a connection to international parents, Saturday is also an observed day off, but many others refuse to recognize a second day of rest. For many people, then, the weekend begins and ends on Friday and a six-day workweek is the norm. This demanding schedule produces a considerable amount of strain, especially on women who work outside the home. More than one colleague has complained that the single day off amounts to another day of work, albeit of a different kind. When one is faced with doing the household chores and shopping for the week in addition to entertaining visitors who only have the one day to pay a call, there really isn’t much rest to be had. The alternative is to spread the chores throughout the week and preserve some time off on the Friday, but after a demanding day at the office, this is also an unattractive option.

The schedule can also be somewhat disorienting, especially for an organization with a donor in the West whose weekend remains defined as Saturday and Sunday. The effect is to cause the two to be out of synch for three days out of each week due to their respective office closures, resulting in delays and inefficiency in getting the work done. Unfortunately, as is often the case, if there is a sacrifice to be made, it’s the recipient organization that is called upon to make it, so it’s not unusual to see my colleagues working on their only day off in order to meet a deadline set by their donors.

For a Westerner working in Bangladesh, the effect is also somewhat confusing. Almost six months into our stay here, our minds have yet to adjust to the notion that Saturday and Sunday are regular days at the office, so we tend to lose track of where we are in the week. And just as the office is out of touch with its donors for three days, we also lose contact with friends and family back home for those days. The result is what I call the dreaded “Dead Zone” for emails from people in Canada and elsewhere outside of Bangladesh. With the time difference of ten to fourteen hours between here and Canada, there is little news to be had for three solid days, from Saturday morning through to Monday night. The reason is that just as we “borrow” from company time for personal emails here, so too do most people back home, so out of office means out of touch. This wasn’t as much of an issue for Kristel and me when we lived in Nigeria, because that country kept the same weekend as the West and we were also away from our offices for the same period of time, but here, an empty inbox for three days in the office can be rather dispiriting, especially when one needs a friendly message to lighten an uninspired day.

How things have changed for the overseas worker! Fifteen years ago, email was in its infancy and most countries in the developing world would have been unable to offer any connection at all. Letters and packages would have been the only means of communication, aside from outrageously expensive (and unreliable) telephone calls. I can’t imagine how VSO volunteers coped back then, but I guess it’s difficult to miss instant communication when it doesn’t exist yet. And that’s the interesting thing. Just as deadlines for proposals and reports have shrunk with the availability of technology, so too has the tolerance for being out of touch with people far away. Where once it may have been acceptable in an overseas posting to receive word from someone once every few months, it now has become the norm to expect a response as quickly as if the person is living in the same city. Those in charge of organizations such as VSO must worry about this retreat into technology for its workers and the impact it has on their level of immersion in the cultures they’re visiting. Given the choice between spending one’s time on Skype with friends and family and visiting one’s colleagues in a new country, most people would likely choose the familiar over the unknown. That’s human nature. So, technology has provided a new level of comfort at the expense of integration, with the result that volunteers are likely less lonely and more lonely at the same time.

Whoops! Nice digression there. Getting back to my rant about the six-day workweek, we’ve also found that the longer week has put a serious crimp in our exploration of the country. In Nigeria, it was relatively easy to travel to most parts of the country over the course of a weekend (providing “the weekend” included a generous portion of Friday afternoon as well). Volunteers regularly visited each other in their placements to celebrate birthdays, farewells and other significant events. The same can’t be said for Bangladesh, partly because of the limited time available for travel and partly because half of the volunteers in the country are located in one place, Dhaka. Though Chittagong offers a respectable amount of diversions, the need to escape the city is still felt on a regular basis. Our recent trip to Malumghat for Kristel’s birthday was a welcome break, but it necessitated a dip into our vacation days to make it a “true” weekend.

Bah, humbug. I guess I am grumpy. Compared to the strains felt by our colleagues in trying to balance family and work over the course of a six-day workweek, the complaints that we have are minor at best and are manageable for the limited time that we have here. But it has underlined for us the importance of the weekend, and I expect we won’t soon take it for granted when we finally return (or move on) to a country with a two-day break.

1 comment:

Anonymous said... easy to universalize unique experiences. What is work? when does work begin? when does it end?

I won't go into a techno-rant about non-disposable time, simply because I don't have a Blackberry or cell phone. That eliminates the never-ending-week-end.

I'm hooked on email, but that's because I love words. I find the whole "computer thing" liberating.

As PCs became universal [yes, kiddies, there was a time before the PC], I found myself developing a facility to connect thought to typing. I compose on the keyboard. This has allowed an explosion of ideas and a lot of fun for me.

But I find the more I travel the more interesting are different notions of work and time. While weekends and holidays still exist in NA,the fact of shopping anywhere, anytime seems to obliterate time off. Shopping is a place where workers work so others can indulge in "time off" -- the "new vacation".

In Canada there are still holidays -- statutories -- when merchants can be fined for violating the law by staying open to sell their wares. Christmas, New Year's Day, Good Friday seem absolute. The "almost holidays" are Boxing Day, Canada Day, Thanksgiving, Labour Day.

Then there is the annual vacation. For Canadians, people disappear the first week of July [school ends] and mid March [school break]. In Europe there are mandatories, esp the summer months in Spain, France, Italy, when everything shuts down because people simply disappear.

In China, there is a weekend -- Saturday and Sunday. There is a work day: 9 to 5, with lunch. There is no official vacation, and I am told people do not get vacations in the Workers Paradise.

There are official holidays when the entire country shuts down: Spring Festival in Jan/Feb lasts for 2 weeks -- mostly because of travel logistics. Over 50 million people travel by train back home to celebrate with family, and then travel back to their place of work after the holiday is over. Think about an entire city migrating across the country.

There is the PRC holiday that surprised me -- Golden Week. October 1 is National Day, or Liberation, when the CPC came into power. The country shuts down the first week of October. I remember arriving in Shanghai at the end of September, totally ignorant of Golden Week, to find that everyone disappeared after I arrived.

Labour Day on May 1 is part of the internationale....but that seems to be it. Christmas is not an official holiday, but people celebrate [that's why they refer to me as Father Christmas].

In the end, there is no time when you simply leave work to travel around the country with your family. Senor managers at state owned enterprises have travel money included in their annual compensation budget. That's why I end up hosting delegations from China and need to include Niagara Falls in the visit. If a boss can justify a trip to Rome for business, and has enough personal money to bring his kid along, then that becomes a family vacation [note: his wife may not be part of the trip].

In global trade, you must be aware of religious days if you want your shipment to arrive on time. For example, you do not arrive at the port of Cairo on Thursday evening expecting your shipment to be offloaded on Friday. Nor do you arrive in Haifa on Friday evening expecting to be offloaded on Saturday.

Ain't life grand when you think of what work is all about....Victor