MY LABOR IS NOT FREE by Cindy Nguyen

Eric: This essay is by my partner and life, Cindy Nguyen. I reposted this from HAPTICPRESS because I feel that this advice can help all of us — as artists, photographers, and human beings. Enter Cindy:

Cindy Nguyen: As a female immigrant and refugee, I was taught that my labor was cheap.

To Work is to Eat

My family ran a small restaurant for over twenty years. We spent many of our Thanksgiving family dinners there because we could not afford to close for the holidays, for a family vacation, or when somebody fell ill.

As kids we partook in the evening ritual: Vietnamese royal dramas and wrapping plastic silverware. My family believed that it was obviously cheaper to wrap silverware ourselves than to purchase it prepackaged. A thin napkin laid vertically in my palm, a spoon, then a fork, a flick of a translucent rubber band—then tossed into a reused cardboard box marked “Oriental Times Fortune Cookies.” After Sunday mass my family of six canvassed car parking lots of fancy shopping malls, each with a stack of hand-folded takeout menus that we made from our school printers. The trick was to place the menu on the driver’s side. And to ignore the judgmental stares, disgruntled screams, or to pretend we did not understand English.

In Vietnamese, the word “to work” means “to make enough to eat (làm ăn).” We worked, all the time. We never paused to think about how much we needed to work, because we did not have the privilege to think. We just did what we had to do to eat, to survive.

Silent Labor

On a functional level, our family labor cost the restaurant nothing. Our work, our time and energy only meant as much as it could help us to “cut costs.” Anything leftover equalled our family income to have “enough to eat.”

In this state of existence our labor was a means to an end. We silently poured our sweat and tears into work. We never counted our hours, acknowledged the blisters on our hands and feet, or realized that some families never worked at home.

Instead, we made work our home. Work kept us fiercely dedicated to helping each other. Work familiarized us with the state of constant fear and unpredictability. And finally every so often we took a breath between the stormy stress of self-employment, looked around at our lives, and laughed together out of exhaustion and pride.

From Always Working to Intrinsic Value

In one generation, my family jumped social and educational classes: from my refugee parents who never graduated high school and lived paycheck to paycheck, to my siblings and I who are pursuing graduate degrees and building up savings and investments.

Now, we have the privilege to think about the meaning of “work.” Work is not just a means of survival, but it is an expression of our “intrinsic” value. How much tangible and intangible value do I believe I provide? How much is my labor worth? My time? How much am I worth?

Always Working in the Academy

As a female academic, I am surrounded by a bizarre truism:

I must always work, but my labor is worth nothing.

I am expected to spend every hour of my waking day and night:

  • to answer e-mails
  • to present at conferences
  • to stay relevant and connected with current literature
  • to think about and “work on” my research
  • to publish: articles, books, blog posts
  • to participate on committees, associations, working groups
  • to win grants
  • to reassure advisors and grant agencies that I am making progress on work
  • to only do all of the above and nothing else.

I must always work, but the payoff for that work is delayed, ambiguous, and uncertain. My labor could help me:

  • to build up my resume/CV
  • to meet other researchers and find new ‘opportunities’
  • to build ‘prestige’, ‘respect’, and a ‘name’ for myself

To even talk about the ultimate payoff for my labor is met with frustrated scowls and patronizing sneers:

  • Condescension: You should not have entered the Academy if you wanted to make money.
  • Apathy: The job market is not what it used to be.
  • Disillusionment: Once you get a tenured track job it should be fine.
  • And the ever hilarious: If I ever wanted to make money I could have found a company job. Easily! But I chose this sacrificial path to pursue knowledge.

Tactics: How to Value Your Labor

For all of my life, I had to work in order to survive. I never acknowledged my labor and I never knew how to stop working. My labor was invisible to others because I normalized it. And the side-effects of my work—the chronic pain, the all-nighters, the emotional toll on relationships—must be hidden or else be taken as signs of weakness.

Now, I work because I believe in the value of my work. My work is important. I am important.

There is a quiet social shroud that conceals the labor and value of so many in this world. That shadowy weight is so deeply hegemonic that it convinces us to believe that history has been achieved by a few great men, that our voices do not matter, that our labor and our life is replaceable.

As a woman of color, refugee, academic and artist, I want to share a few tactics on how to throw off this shroud and to value your labor:

1. Quantify your labor.

Do you know how much time and energy your work cost you? If you do not know, you should start. Try to quantify it either through recording how long it took you to do something or how much energy it cost you.

  • For example: I love to teach. But it is physically painful for me and emotionally exhausting. A 1 hour lecture actually costs me 17 hours:
    • 5 hours of research
    • 2 hours of lesson planing
    • 30 minutes of emotional preparation (yoga, chamomile tea)
    • 7 hours good night’s sleep
    • 2 hours of decompression time after the lecture
    • 30 minutes of correspondence and followup with students
  • See how I quantified my academic labor through the Pomodoro Method. Quantifying your labor helps you to visualize your labor, track progress, and evaluate if something is worth your time. You are not just making it visible to others but also to yourself. Making visible your work can remind you the importance of giving yourself emotional high fives and rewards for your accomplishments.
    • For example, I rewarded myself for my hard work with the following: ‘off days’ where I did not work, social time with friends, and nice three-hour dinners.

2. Be your own hypebeast.

Do people know how much time and energy you put into something? Do you remember how hard you worked? Every so often, in conversations with colleagues, friends, and yourself drop the following lines:

  • That took a lot of time and energy.
  • That was not easy.
  • I worked hard on this.
  • I made this.
  • This is really good work.
  • I am proud of this.
  • If someone says “Great job!” do not reduce your work by saying, “Oh, it was nothing.” Acknowledge the comment with the above statements.

Own your work.

I made HAPTICPRESS to show my work and the talented and inspiring work of others. Me, Cindy Nguyen made this.

3. Charge money for your labor.

cindy lights horizontal project hanoi elevator

To charge money for your intellectual work and your art is to recognize that your work has a cost. It took time and energy. It did not come naturally and easily. Furthermore, to charge money for your work recognizes that your work is important and has value for society.

If someone asks you to do something ‘pro-bono’ or with the promise of future reward, explain that your labor and time is valuable and you will not do it for free.

4. Say NO to “opportunities”

My badass mom.

Saying no is both an art form and an exercise. It takes a certain panache to reject something and then the strength to move on (and not feel guilty about it). But saying no is also a way to affirm that your time and energy is valuable and limited.

  • For example, recently I told myself: I will not entertain ‘bro-meetings.’ This means, “networking” or “social” meetings that do not have a clear sense of purpose. They are ‘bro’ in nature because in my line of work I recognized that meetings where I am the only woman or person of color inevitably led to me being talked over or spoken for. I am not saying that I surrender to injustice. I repeat, I am not backing down from an opportunity to engage in constructive discussion. But I decided that I will not waste my intellectual labor in a space that refuses to acknowledge my value.


My parents.

For most of my life, I just knew how to work hard but never questioned why or what my labor was worth. To work was to be a good daughter, sister, human. I was worth as much as I could help my family to survive.

But now, I am working to understand my intrinsically defined value. I am worth a lot. My time is not free, my energy is not limitless, my life is short. It is about time I stopped treating my labor and my life like it is cheap.

Know your worth,

This essay took 4 hours of writing and revising, and 3 days of discussion with Eric, and 10 cups of coffee. Below are some brainstorming points that I wrote while coming up with the essay. While writing, I wrote down a ‘motto’ to remind me why I wanted to write this essay. It read:

She works for her money. She slays. She fights.

  • why my intellectual labor is worth money/ why charge money for my intellectual labor
  • feminist/invisible/hidden labor to disrupt notions that one man—changed everything/movers and shakers
  • advice for artists and academics, women, people of color, young people, interns, family members (who all work for the promise of intangible reward “opportunity, reputation, job possibility, room for advancement, building up your resume/CV)
    • work for work’s sake is a myth
    • is it work or is it play? will turning your play into ‘work’ pollute/contaminate your play?
  • to charge money for your art, for your thoughts, for your intellectual work is to acknowledge two things
    • recognize that your work is work – it is not easy, it does not come naturally, it takes time and energy
    •  your work is important – it has value (intellectually, socially, and monetarily)
    • you will die. your time is limited and thus each minute you dedicate to writing the email response is a minute taken away from creating your magnum opus, time with loved ones, time reflecting on life and its hidden mysteries

All photographs in this essay are made by the talented Eric Kim.



MISS READING / misreading

Mẹ, translated

Soundscape Poems

The Complete Works of Cindy Nguyen