There is something about power tools that gets dykes all tingly. They’re the ultimate “butch” display, especially when they’re paired with a well-stocked toolbox and <gasp!> a bulging tool belt.
At least, this is what I’ve witnessed.
Having performed at several women’s festivals over the years, it was always the women with the tools who got the most respect, like being able to use a drill or fire a nail gun into plywood stage platforms somehow elevated one’s status.
They who had the power tools were powerful.
I admit that I have participated in this delusion.
Why are tools—this quintessential symbol of the “handyman”—considered a representation of strength and capability in the women’s community? Like muscular might, they feel too stereotypically male to have any relevance to my personal, feminine definition of strength and capability. (That’s not to say I’m not proud of my muscles, though!)
Nevertheless, in my past, I have helped renovate two homes. I have sanded floors, installed drywall, painted more walls and ceilings than I can count, learned how to wire light fixtures, stripped paint off of door jams, etc. And, I’ve done my share of hammering nails and drilling screws, too, but… here’s the truth:
I don’t enjoy it.
I enjoy the final product, yes, and the fact that I can proudly say that I did it myself, but the finagling with tools comes head-to-head with a natural awkwardness that exists in my limbs and always has. I’m really slow at changing a drill bit, for instance. Let’s just say that I’ve hammered my thumb more than once.
Before I came to China, I tried very hard to hide these truths. I quietly resented the fact that I had to do something I didn’t enjoy in order to be considered self-sufficient and strong, but I was the one holding the judgments. I was modeling the paradigm. I found myself repeatedly pushing through the discomfort and awkwardness to achieve a suspect type of self-respect seemingly derived from knowing how to use a floor sander efficiently.
I mean, c’mon.
I didn’t talk about it. Like, ever. I certainly didn’t want my queers friends to know that I wasn’t especially coordinated with power tools because, after all, they’re a source of power in the women’s community. And I’m not weak. I know that. It was about autonomy, self-reliance, pride.
Then I came to China and partnered with a man and you’d think that this would take this quiet, unspoken issue and instantly solve it for me. You’d think that I could simply allow him to do it because, after all, aren’t men predisposed to want to put stuff together? Assemble, construct, hit stuff?
(Yes, I’m generalizing. Er, being sexist.)
Guo Jian has a tool box all right, but his is filled with guitar parts and tweezers for small instrument repairs that he uses for what I gather into one verb: tinkering.
Otherwise, when I met him, he was officially the first partner I’d ever had who didn’t own a power tool of some sort. In fact, he didn’t even own a hammer.
The day that I went to a Beijing market for renovations materials and bought a box of nails, a hammer, some L-brackets and a saw to build my planter boxes on the balcony, I felt really butch. I admit it. I gave it value. I gave it power.
I’m unplugging that power now.
To be fair, back in Canada, part of the need to DIY one’s home renovations is financial. Class is a key concept in this discussion. Women in the women’s community are traditionally less financially stable than straight couples or gay male couples. There’s a distinct strata. What’s more, we have something to prove: we don’t need men.
So here I am, with a man who I still don’t need… that is, to hang up a picture for me! I can do it myself. I’ve learned.
But here I (also) am, finally, in a time in my life when I can admit that I don’t really WANT to hang up the pictures myself. On a practical level, these plaster walls in Chinese apartments are a bitch. They need to be drilled and plugged properly and it’s just nasty and messy.
Besides, we don’t have any power tools.
At least, not to the ones with cords.
What I do have is the power tool of living in this economy as a foreigner. I can pay someone about $20 Canadian to come to our apartment with (his) power tools and help us hang a few pictures, install ceiling lights, replace cracked window glass and fix the dripping pipe in the bathroom, all within the hour. That doesn’t cover the materials, but they’re also cheap. (And I know that cheap labour and cheap materials comes with its own issues—I could write a whole other blog series about them. Still, it’s the reality of my environment now.)
And, you know what? Guo Jian has never even considered getting what he calls “an expert” to come over to do these things to be a commentary about his manhood. To him, it’s not a question of gender in the least.
“I’m an expert at other things,” he says. And then he just shrugs his shoulders and walks away.
Hurray that it’s not a competition to see who can be more butch anymore!
Letting it go.
Unplugging the power from power tools for good.