What Life On A Working Holiday Visa In Australia Actually Looks Like
From row J of the nosebleed section of AAMI Park, I set my bucket of water down and looked around. Even though it was pitch black outside, the intense artificial lights and relentlessly cheerful neon green turf seemed to fool me from time to time in my dazed state. But when I looked up, out of the stadium, I saw the sparkling Melbourne skyline. The buildings felt so far out of my reach at that moment. Before I could waste too much time, a Korean hair dresser with round glasses, leggings and black running shorts came over and shook his head. “Bhali bhali!” he half flirted, half commanded. “Hurry up!”
With my mop in both hands, I squeezed out the excess water and slapped the mop on the concrete. The water in my bucket already looked the way that melted snow looks when it mixes with mud and debris. Used to be beautiful, but now needs to be removed. I smeared the brownish water under the seats and wondered if it was doing any good. Some parts of the floor looked like they hadn’t been swept. I wasn’t really scrubbing longer on the sticky sections and in my weakest moments, I just glided the mop. It was already 2:30am. For the last hour, my stomach was insisting it needed sustenance and for the last four, my abs weren’t able to contract enough to stop the pain in my lower back.
Our job is to clean up after the spectators and their disgusting habits. Each time, I curse them for dumping their half-eaten sandwiches, sunflower seeds and beer. I am even more upset when they leave untouched beer, full to the brim. Wouldn’t it have been nice to drink that? I roll my eyes when I have to pick up minuscule pieces of ripped up tickets, one by one. I scuff when their stupid fan banners that say things like “Try!” rip holes in my plastic garbage bag.
But there are also the good moments, the times when I pick up a $2 coin or find Starbursts still in their wrappers. There was the meat pie, still intact, that my friend Erin playfully threw at me. “Eat this!” she laughed.
Each time, I curse them for dumping their half-eaten sandwiches, sunflower seeds and beer. I am even more upset when they leave untouched beer, full to the brim.
We, the cleaners, are a band of mostly Koreans, wearing neon green vests and earning low wages under the table. Erin and I are the ones everyone pities. Girls tend to give us sympathetic looks. If I run to the bathroom with one of them, she’ll look at me as we wash our hands next to each other. “Are you okay?” she’ll softly ask, as if she’s afraid her question might damage me even more.
Not speaking Korean and given no training or instruction, we followed the others’ lead, mimicking their movements. My first night there, I was ill-prepared, wearing street clothes and flats I bought for $20 at a store whose slogan was “Shoes make me happy, I’m superficial, whatever.” A friend of a friend had told us about the casual work opportunity. We looked at our nonexistent balances on our bank statement and went for it.
After that first night, I looked at my flesh wounds from on my feet from the flats. I swore I would never succumb to the shadiness, confusion and long, underpaid working hours. But then, financial stresses have kept me going back for more. Finding a job on a working holiday visa in Melbourne was much more of complicated process than I’d been able to foresee. I was lucky to have any job.
What frightened me my first time cleaning doesn’t seem to faze me anymore. I am no longer impressed by the tons of wasted plastic or the outrageous consumer choices of locals. I’m not even bothered anymore that the two official managers (as far as I can tell) sit and text while we squat, bend and struggle for $15/hour. I don’t seem to care how many times random people decide they are in charge and order me around. Or how during every shift the break time is a different length and the working hours recorded in the manager’s notebook seem like an arbitrary number she draws from a hat. Or about when I have to run to the bathroom and one of the managers waits outside, saying, “We waiting for you!” Or the fact that I’m still not really sure what company I work for.
We go from section to section, from floor to floor. We pack in the service elevator and can pick up on the changing scent of our body odor as the night goes on. We normally ride in silence, usually with the faint buzz of someone’s iPod in the background. The instructions change constantly. In one moment, the supervisors want us to scrub every inch of the floor with the mop. In another moment, they will run dramatically and furiously down the isles with red faces and quick, bouncy movements and say “ONLY SPOTS.” They scream in Korean to the group and sometimes run up to me and explain in English. I’ve given sass for their unpredictability. When one of the sometimes bosses walks by, I usually ask with a big attitude, “Is this okay for you?” Last Sunday he raised his eyebrows and replied under his breath, “You’re always right.”
While I was mopping the floors of row J and breaking my back, I was waiting to hear the cries of the most beautiful, grammatically incorrect phrase “finish.” And when I finally heard it, I didn’t even care that half of my row wasn’t mopped or that I had seen a stray plastic cup stuck in between the seats. “WE FINISH!” they scream. We walk solemnly down the stairs, through the main corridor and to the elevator, relieved and exhausted.
My bucket and mop accidentally collided with a raised section of the floor, causing a wave of brown, murky water to spill out over the floor. I kept walking. Looking back, I notice that my supervisors were behind me. They pretended not to see.