Making your way in the white collar world

Cover of "Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White...

Cover via Amazon

When I first decided to pick up Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, I did so mostly with T in mind (and a bit of personal curiosity). While I grew up in a (lower) middle class family, he is undoubtedly of blue-collar stock, and if he’s going to make it to management, he’s going to have to round off some rough edges, figure out the rules of diplomacy, tact and professional communication, and in short, learn to play the game.

I got so much more than that. I gained more understanding into his extremely close ties to his family, and I was also forced to wonder if the true reason they opted a) not to send him to One Day School (a programme for supposedly gifted kids; he had the opportunity to attend free. I didn’t end up going myself, partly because I felt I couldn’t justify the cost to my parents, and partly because, well, I was intimidated and lacked confidence in myself), and b) not to attend his graduation when he completed his university foundation course.

According to Lubrano, one of the major hurdles faced by Straddlers – those who climb above their blue collar roots and enter the white collar working world – is often dealing with parents who do not understand or value the importance of education, and are often afraid that their children will become smarter than them…see them as inferior, or grow distant.

While at times Limbo grew repetitive, and structurally speaking, was at times all over the place, it’s an intriguing read for anyone interested in class and social issues. Like I said, while I’m of a white-collar upbringing, for me class and culture intersect to affect who I am professionally.

Many of the blue-collar values Lubrano articulated rang true for me, with immigrant Asian parents. Argument was not encouraged – elders always knew best. Don’t talk back. (My father always encouraged me to frequent the adult section of the library and read anything I wanted, saying not to listen to others’ rules; I remember once daring to turn that back on him in regards to “Adults Only” movies on TV – in NZ, television only has G, PG and AO ratings. A movie rated R13, M, etc will be listed under AO – and the look I got in return…) Put your head down, get the work done, don’t trumpet your own horn. We didn’t have lively discussions about anything round the dinner table, let alone politics or history. I never attended dinner parties (I only learned how to properly use a knife and fork in the last couple of years), learned how to mingle or make small talk, and lacked cultural capital – we certainly didn’t have connections which would help me get ahead, let alone in my industry of choice.

Let me pause here to wander slightly off topic. A recent NY Mag feature discusses how while these Asian values may be great for getting ahead in school, they only hinder you in the workplace. Being no particular beauty, I also appreciated the following quote:

“If you are a woman who isn’t beautiful, it is a social reality that you will have to work twice as hard to hold anyone’s attention. You can either linger on the unfairness of this or you can get with the program. If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging façade hides someone worth getting to know. They will simply write you off as someone not worth the trouble of talking to.”

Anyhow, back to Limbo. Most of the male Straddlers interviewed in the book knew firsthand the value of physical labour (and being able to see the fruits of your work; T once said he missed working in fabrication and steel – and he still points out structures he’s helped to build around Auckland whenever we pass one). It also provides a fallback – you have another way to make a living. But seeing their fathers and friends wreck their bodies, as we can already see in our 20-something tradesmen friends, convinced them it was not the path they should follow (and in fact, even though I think learning a trade is just as valuable as getting a degree, does make me hope my children are more academically inclined than anything else).

In essence, Straddlers are trapped between two worlds. Some do manage to feel perfectly at home in one of the other, but almost everyone quoted felt like they belonged in neither sphere. The trappings of corporatia (schmoozing, networking, that strange inhuman language of corp-speak, oh and doublespeak) don’t always come naturally. But Straddlers can’t entirely be their whole selves when hanging out with their old blue-collar buddies, because there’s so much in their lives which they can’t share. Hence, the “limbo” of the title.

Quite honestly, if T progresses further along on this path and winds up lightening his collar, while it will bring us a little closer in the sense that we’ll be able to relate to each other’s work and related stories better, it will set him even further apart from his family (and I don’t even want to think about what that might mean financially; we’re already the damn go-to people for his clan as none of them have their shit together). This book might just become even more important as a reference point in the future.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

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