My Immigrant Mother’s Difficult Job Search

Every week or so, usually during a meeting or when I’m otherwise very occupied and annoyed, my phone rings. If it’s not Capital One or the cable company, it’s my mother, calling me from the living room of her Portland townhouse, bored out of her mind. Usually she has a question for me about something that isn’t really a question that I can answer — why one of my sisters is ignoring her phone calls, or when I’m going to get a raise. Most of the time, though, she’s asking me questions about how she can find a job.

She and my stepfather moved to Oregon a few months ago after selling their house in California, throwing away an entire garage’s worth of clutter and selling all their furniture before driving up the coast to settle in Beaverton. My mother is out of work. She was firmly pushed out of a job she had held for 15 years and is now undergoing two life changes that, when handled in tandem by anybody, would cause vast amounts of stress and anxiety.

A couple of weeks ago, my sisters and I flew to Portland to see my mother. Somehow, improbably, she seemed fine.

I had intended to speak to her specifically about what it’s like to look for a job as an older Taiwanese woman with one very specific set of skills. I wanted to talk to her about what she was feeling and ask her probing questions about what it’s like to look for work when the entire system of looking for work is not in your favor.

The ins and outs of navigating a job site is frustrating, but for those unaccustomed to how to look for work in 2016, the process is insurmountable. To an immigrant like my mother, finding a job in an unfamiliar place when you’re near the retirement age must be nearly impossible.

My mother has been in this country for more than 30 years and her English is strong, but the emails I’ve proofed that she’s sent to employers give me an idea of why someone might be reluctant to hire her. Employment discrimination is obviously illegal, but something tells me that an HR person sitting at a desk scanning applications in between bites of re-heated lasagna would move a resume with a name they can’t quite pronounce to a pile that will never receive a phone call.

My mother is reluctant to show emotion; she is proud and an expert in responding to a question with another question, meant to deflect. The idea of sitting across a table at a Peet’s Coffee in a strip mall and engaging her in a conversation that would end up as us talking about my student loans and whether or not I’ve seen the dentist in a while grew less and less appealing as our trip went on. Between nagging and bustling into the room where two of my sisters were sleeping to present us with toiletries found in the hall closet by the bathroom, she seemed happy to have all four of her children in the same place for the first time in a long time. I didn’t want to ruin that for her and so I resisted. It felt unnecessarily cruel, somehow, to prod a woman whom I care for very much in her vulnerabilities.

Before our visit, my mother told me she applied for a job at Home Depot. Stymied by the online application and not quite understanding — or accepting, really — that the $10 an hour salary that was being offered was kind of a non-negotiable, she clicked on something that essentially removed her from the running. When she called me, she sounded frustrated and confused.

“Why would I work for $10 hour for 20 hours a week?” she asked me.

“Because it’s a job, Mom,” I replied. “I don’t know what else to say.”

I’ve walked her through the intricacies of online application and recruiting systems via telephone and e-mail — two of the most inefficient ways to help your parent with IT issues. Dutifully, I’ve taken her cover letters and held them up next to my own, transferring the structure from mine to hers, inserting edits and sending them back to her, just like I do at work. Applying for a job with a paper application seems like it might be easier, but this is the way it is now.

Before my mother turned down the Home Depot by accident, she applied for a job as a greeter at a local supermarket. My mother is a woman who prides herself on her “charm” — a combination of fake laughter, genuine enthusiasm and a dash of pushiness that only embarrasses her children and amuses everyone else. It was my understanding that this “charm” would make her an excellent grocery store greeter. I had visions of my mother wearing some sort of apron over her regular clothes, smiling, greeting. She went to a job fair; she had an interview. She didn’t get the job.

Watching a parent go through a job search is heartbreaking enough because your parents are supposed to work, then retire, then dodder about a house, going to Zumba, and taking brisk walks with their retired friends. Watching my mother go through her job search is worse because thinking about her sitting in an office in front of some person staring at her resumé while she uses her customer voice — an octave higher than her normal tenor — to tell them why she deserves the job in her accented English is a horrible vision. My sisters accuse me of being too soft and I suppose I always have been. But my mother needs work to keep her mind moving and to get her out of the house where, if trapped in perpetuity, she will nag my stepfather to madness.

She wants to work. I tell myself this, though there are conflicting reports from sources close to the matter, who tell me that she actually, really doesn’t. To be fair, no one wants to work. But, my mother needs it. She is not wealthy and needs the money to support herself. It’s clear to me that she’s bored and that there might be underlying doubt about the move to Oregon, despite whatever she says to the contrary. I want her to find a job because I know that my mother is valuable. I want her to find a job because I know that she will be fulfilled if she does. I want my mother to be happy.

Megan Reynolds is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in New York.