By Samantha Cole
People who graduated from my high school were never supposed to need a tool belt for work. At the small private girls’ school in a wealthy Connecticut town, there were no vocational courses offered. Freshman year, my best friend and I signed up to take wood shop at the affiliated boys’ school, but the course was cancelled once it was clear that we two girls were the only ones who had shown any interest. Parents sent their kids to this expensive and exclusive prep school so they’d have an advantage getting into the very “best” colleges. When I attended in the mid-’80s, the parking lot was full of European imports with college stickers in the back windshields. The more Ivy League institutions you could lay claim to, the more cachet your BMW had. These were not people who built things. These were people who commissioned things to be built for them.
I was always the kid who wanted to know how things worked and why they were put together the way they were. At eight-years-old I could take my bike apart and put it back together. I took the doorknob from the door to my parents’ master bathroom and installed it on my bedroom door, so I could have a lock. Then, to my parents’ dismay, I drilled a pinhole in the door so I could peek out at who was coming up the stairs. The plan would have worked brilliantly except that if the light was out in the hallway and my eyeball was not in front of the peephole you could see my light through the hole—exposing my unauthorized door-modification.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a job through a friend’s dad working “hospitality” backstage at an outdoor music festival. At the time, the venue had no running water or electricity, so in order to keep the artists happy (and well supplied with cold beer) we hospitality folks spent an inordinate amount of time schlepping ice in 50-pound bags across muddy fields to the trailer dressing rooms. This was my first experience doing physical labor and I loved it. I loved the experience of knowing that my body would perform when asked to; I loved the admiring and bemused stares of people watching me carry the ice; I even kind of liked the cold water running down my back as respite from the sweaty, grimy August heat.
Of course, this was not a “real” job. I went to one of those prestigious colleges, and spent summers cycling through a series of Dilbert-esque office jobs. I came to understand that this is what “work” was supposed to be. Work meant learning to type, answer the phone, write boring memos, read boring memos, ignore the bigger picture. Work meant wearing pantyhose in an overly air-conditioned office waiting for the evenings or weekends to roll around. I thought I was growing up. Growing up was turning out to be pretty stifling.
I graduated from college with an English/Chinese studies major, without a clear plan for what to do next. It didn’t feel to me like I had a lot of skills. But I did have two and a half years of college Mandarin on my resume, so I applied for jobs in Taiwan and mainland China. I took the first job I was offered—to teach English in southern Taiwan. I signed a two-year contract and left the day after Thanksgiving 1994. And all of a sudden, I was not spending all day behind a desk feeling like a business impostor. Being a teacher impersonator was much more fun.
In the classroom, no one has any choice but to come out of their shell. One of my classes—the one that eventually became my favorite—was comprised of four-year-olds who were just starting school. Some of them seemed so young I was afraid that they maybe weren’t completely potty trained. Asking little kids if they have to go to the bathroom when they grab their crotches and look uncertain definitely brought me to an understanding of how little decorum I could live with. And with kids who have no common language, if you want to make a “no picking your nose” classroom rule, you need to demonstrate. If you are going to demonstrate a nose pick in front of a whole class of kids, there is no room for inhibitions.
If my pupils thought I was strange, so did everyone else in Taiwan. I found out really quickly that many Chinese people have no compunction about staring at anyone or anything that sparks curiosity. In the United States, undisguised staring at someone can be construed as an act of aggression. But the Chinese have no such reticence. I was a Caucasian woman, nearly six feet tall, which made me a freak.
At first this was annoying. But I also began to find it liberating. If I was the strangest thing that anyone had ever seen and I was just going about my normal everyday business, then I had a little bit of license to make an ass of myself too. So if I wanted directions to the airport I mimicked an airplane. If I wanted to know where the public pool was, I mimed swimming. I mixed up the words for honeybee and honey. Once, instead of ordering a cup of bubble tea from a street vendor, I inadvertently ordered 100. Realizing my mistake, I then had to stop the production line. I sheepishly took ten or so teas back to the school and handed them out to my fellow teachers, feeling both stupid and then magnanimous when everyone was psyched to get an unsolicited drink.
When my contract was up I spent about six months backpacking my way home, where I resumed my string of office jobs that just weren’t quite the right fit. I tried my hand at coordinating slip reservations at a yachting center, bookkeeping at a seafood importer, and managing a theatre company—each from the supposed luxury of an office with computers and phones and all-you-can-drink coffee.
Then I hired someone to put a bathroom on the second floor of my 1929 bungalow. I had fulfilled the expectations of my expensive education: I had become the graduate who hired someone to build me something. But I didn’t want to go to the office when the roof got popped off my house and the dormer went in. I rushed home everyday to see the progress as pipes were routed surreptitiously through a closet and into the newly framed space. The plumbing, the electrical, the tile all went in and I wanted to know how. Just like I wanted to know how that doorknob came apart when I was eight.
One day when the new bathroom was nearly finished, with the knowledge that the funding for my job as an arts administrator was drying up, I asked the contractor who had built the bathroom if he needed an apprentice. “I’m strong, I’m smart, and I really want to learn this kind of work,” I told him. When he got done being surprised that a client wanted to become an employee, he set about teaching me the trade.
I embraced the inner laborer I had discovered those years before on a festival field. I shrugged off the curious and incredulous stares on the job site just as I had learned to do in Taiwan. I put on a tool belt and filled it with tools that I learned to use while quieting the disapproving voices in my head that reminded me that I was supposed to want a corner office with a commanding view of the city. Instead I learned a skill that allowed me to build not just walls and furniture, but my own business in which I set the hours, decide the projects, work more when I want and less when I can. It’s not glamorous; I get dirty and dusty and hot. Sometimes old houses have settled and nothing is level and doors will not close. Clients give me vague instructions, like “Can you build me something that’s not too casual?” or they change their minds about the color of tile after it has been installed. But at the end of a day I can see the tangible results. Sometimes my shoulders ache and I don’t like what I have built, but I now have the confidence to know that I can fix it tomorrow. At the end of a project, I know what I have accomplished and then I look forward to a new venture. No two days and no two projects are ever exactly the same. The differences were what I was looking for when I left the office behind.
Photo provided by Samantha Cole.