it’s amazing… for a girl?

Up to now, this blog has been quite generative: a ‘how to’ about all things van purchase/campervan conversion. I mean, there are some femme touches here and there – the quilt for instance, and talk of idiot men performing their ball-swinging masculinity in Bunnings. But until now I’ve been writing in quite a de-personalised way in the hope that this content will be useful to those undertaking something similar.

But this post is a bit less instructional. It comes more from the heart.

Avid readers will have noted that I fit into the following demographic categories: I’m a middle aged woman who has a sitting-at-an-office-desk type of job in ‘real’ life. I’m also a long-term travel tragic, a hiker/wild camper when my bloody feet aren’t hurting, and Australian by choice; Scottish by birth.

I’m also a sociology-type academic –see pics of my professional identity below– which means I think about stuff in certain ways and, I hope, see patterns and stories in everyday life. And, so, this post is a reflection on what it means to inhabit my particular bag of demographic markers while undertaking this kind of project. If you’re a blokey bloke, sporty and straight and white and mainstream, this post will likely mean little to you. But if you, in any way, tick the box marked ‘other’, read on.

When I first started looking into van ownership, I immediately felt intimidated by used vehicle salesmen (always men), and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to buy a lemon. I thought that, being a woman –and therefore assumed to be clueless about such things– I’d be a sitting duck, an idiot begging to be ripped off. And, indeed, when I first started thinking about this project, my plan was for my dad to come from Scotland and help me buy a van. Because men buy vans. (Man make fire! Man use tools! Man strong!)

But you know what? There is this wonderful thing called the INTERNET. And on it, you can learn just about anything. And so after a few days of researching what to look for when buying a car (as well as NSW consumer protection legislation and the existence of NRMA vehicle checks) I realised: it’s not actually that scary. Indeed, when I finally did go and buy the van, the salesman later on said, after realising his sales spin was being ignored, ‘you clearly know what you’re doing’. And by then I (kind of) did.

Was it this that gave me the courage to pursue the rest of the project? Certainly, it has been an ENORMOUS learning curve and (if there’s such a thing) confidence curve. Along the way I’ve watched endless YouTube instructional videos and I’ve had patient, tolerant help from Andrew and Dave and also Bill (from the next door workshop, which is a demolition company). They’ve all helped me along the way, lending me tools, showing me clever little hacks for things, and providing wrist strength where I just couldn’t muster the force to deal with a rounded screw head or to tighten plumbing connections. Along the way, of course, there have also been plenty of laughs and nonsense. But they don’t punch down in their humour: nothing is sacred, but also no category of person is the butt of the joke. They’re nice guys.

All of this has given me confidence: the learning curve, the supportive friends, the odd compliment here and there about how cool the van is. And the fact that I was actually doing stuff and it was working. My confidence is in the stratosphere.

So much so that, even though I feel resentment for having to re-do some of the layout at all, last weekend I spent two more days in the workshop. It was FAR TOO HOT for this (47 degrees Centigrade, which is 117 Fahrenheit) but hey ho, I had time, and there was space as Andrew and Dave weren’t working much on the weekend. And so I did it.

But there’s a whole new crew in the workshop now – and they didn’t know me from before. They didn’t see me take the van from zero to hero, and so to them I was an interloper: a stranger, and a woman no less, rocking up alone on a day hotter than the sun to do unknowable things to what, from afar, looked like a perfectly fine campervan. Among them is Alvin, who runs his own motorbike workshop, and, in another bay, a bunch of Mongolian guys fixing cars.

On the first morning, there was a lot of staring. At one point, not really knowing how to respond, I resorted to simply starting back at the slack-jawed Mongolian guy who couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off me and what I was doing. (Charitably, I’m going to put this down to a language issue and him not knowing what to say. But also: I’ve been to Mongolia –see pics below– and while Mongolian women are certainly very feisty and strong, they’re also VERY unlikely to be found faffing about in a diesel workshop. Mongolia may enjoy ex-Communist notional gender equality along Soviet lines, but it’s also no coincidence that Genghis Khan was one of the most macho men there has ever been. (Indeed, he did so much roistering and all round good-blokery that, even now, one in every two hundred men ON PLANET EARTH can trace a direct line back to ole’ Genghis. That’s one macho culture, and one guy that did a helluva lot of shagging.) So I’m also reading into the interaction the fact that, for this guy, my very presence — working alone– in the workshop and what I was doing just didn’t compute.

Anyway, there I was: hot, sweaty, slightly resentful to have to be there at all, and now also the object of curiosity (Alvin) and scrutiny (Genghis and friends). But they weren’t the only folks in the workshop on the weekend: three of my friends stopped by at various times (including Jason, WHO BROUGHT ICE CREAM EVEN THOUGH HE ARRIVED BY MOTORBIKE, THE ANGEL). And also Bill from next door came by for a chat, as did Andrew and his lovely, Scottish wife Annie. So it was a fantastic, sociable weekend even though it was hot and sweaty and by the end of two ten-hour days I was the foot-hurtiest, back-achiest, oil-filthiest person in all of the greater Sydney area.

But a number of the conversations I had on the weekend have been replaying in my mind all week, and that’s what I want to write about. Because in several conversations, the issue of gender came up.

Now, this has come up before. I’ll admit it is fairly unusual to be building a campervan as a woman, especially one doing it primarily alone. And there have been instances of everyday sexism (such as the salesman in Jaycar, where I went to buy twin core electrical cable, who asked me, ‘what is it you’ve been sent to buy?’) In these moments, I’ve wondered how differently things might have played out if I were a bloke.

However, none of the conversations on the weekend were at all confronting or overtly sexist. But they all raised gender, albeit obliquely, and all touched specifically on the cognitive dissonance (and, at times, the AWESOMENESS AND BADASSERY) of a woman doing what I’ve been doing. And these conversations made me think…

Bill stopped by and talked about how he used to teach in TAFE. I asked him about it, because I also teach in adult education and I’ve never worked in the TAFE system. And he said ‘you should be there, motivating women or something, with all this stuff you’re doing’.

Annie stopped by at exactly the moment I was drilling for screw-in anchors for the insides of shelves, to attach bungee cords so that my storage boxes don’t go flying when I drive. As she asked what I was doing, I showed her and explained. And she shook her head slowly and gave a low whistle, pronouncing my van project ‘amazing’. But her husband is a diesel mechanic, who does FAR more amazing, technical things ALL THE TIME. Now, I’m always delighted to receive a compliment– but why is my project so amazing? Is it because I’m an amateur? And is it also because I’m a girl? (Or maybe Annie is just being polite…?)

Jason came by and wanted to see the progress: he’d been to visit before, and has been incredibly supportive along the way (hence the ice cream this time, and tea and cake before; I love this man). Now, Jason is a self-described strange duck, and we each tick all kinds of otherness boxes in our identities. So I know that he doesn’t have a normative set of gendered expectations framing his world. Nevertheless, he was keen to tell me that I was a curious fish. I know he admires my determination and grit. But I also know he thinks it’s somewhat …unusual … for a (sedentary, academic, middle aged; we know each other through work) woman to be doing this kind of thing. I think this is less about gender than about expectations more generally. But gender plays a role here too.

Alvin’s wife stopped by and talked about how she would be doing Alvin’s business paperwork for him, while he would be doing the ‘dirty work’. The gendered roles within their business were clearly demarcated in even the briefest of exchanges. Given that I was covered in diesel and oil and sawdust throughout this conversation, I asked myself: was the implication that I was somehow doing ‘men’s work’?

As I say, none of these is at all confronting. But they are all subtle ways of questioning the fact of a fat, middle-aged, sedentary woman doing a physical, technical, complex project like building a campervan. As I’m all of these things, it’s hard to tease out whether it’s gender or age or occupation or fatness (or something else entirely) that’s causing the curiosity. Are women not supposed to behave like this? Are middle aged women not meant to do this kind of thing? Are fat middle aged women (with cats, for god’s sake!) assumed to be mainly interested in reality TV? Am I breaking some kind of code, some rule? Or is it that these things ought really to be undertaken by youngish, ‘outdoorsy’-looking blokes? Honestly, I don’t know how to ‘read’ this. I think this is about gender – but is it just that? Is it perhaps about gender along with all the other factors — both demographic (=my ‘categories’) and phenotypical (=how I look, and the social meanings that these markers have)?

I believe women –all women who set their minds to it– can do this kind of thing. It’s learnable if you have Youtube and the desire to learn. Then again, I also think most men would be just as capable. Sure, some people have the advantage of being generally ‘handy’ (as I kind of am) and others have physical advantages or disadvantages (my foot pain, for instance, limits how much time I can spend on my feet at the moment). But with this kind of project I want to reiterate that, for all kinds of people: we can do it. Women, all kinds of women. And yeah OK, men too, I guess