January 25, 2020

Fluid Class

Finding identity and navigating through the concepts of social classes.

For many years, I thought that it is about money. While they surely help, recently I am getting an impression that it is more about acting. It needs to be authentic, but one can also change theirs. There are just no academies for such a thing; one has to figure it themselves.

I went on this path by accident, coincidentally, when I didn't have a lot of cash. When I used to travel by car, I often slept in it because I couldn't afford a hotel. I figured out that it can be quite nice, so I moved to live in a car to save on rent. I parked next to a local swimming pool where I had a membership, so I had access to hygiene; and for the money I didn't pay for accommodation, I could eat out every day. Now, I think it was cool, but back then, I was ashamed of this, and I didn't like to admit it. I acted like someone who lives "as the others," and people took me like that. I just never invited them to see that apartment of mine.

Experiences like this led me to explore alternatives and to realize the communication potential. Like when I visited Denver for the first time and wanted to see the city's skylines, I found out about some skyscraper condos and went to chat with their agents like I am interested. We arranged viewings that included a few rooftop outlooks. It worked!

I kept on moving, and when I was in the Netherlands, things went awry, and I actually ended on the street. Yet, the local homeless population wouldn't talk to me. Once again, I had to think, what makes me, me?  Clearly, I wasn't one of them.

Selfie in Utrecht, before I went to sleep in a park.

It clicked many jobs and places later. I realized that the insight of living in multiple cultures I had is a value that can't be bought on the spot, and so it happened that I ended talking about the worldwide impacts of cities in context at an international conference in London.

Selfie I took in front of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, London, before I went there to speak to important people.

I knew the topic I discussed thanks to my experiences, so I didn't have to pretend to be someone else. Yet, as the audience came from a very different financial background, I worked on my wording. I didn't share that I slept in a borrowed tent in Scotland the weekend before the conference. I said that the easy access to outdoor adventures around Scottish cities boosts their attractiveness for people with an active lifestyle. I gave it my best, the people liked it, and I felt fantastic.

It was the real boom. I can be a person in a tent one day, and a person in an expensive hotel for the next one — both legitimate, honest versions of myself. I can be anyone as long as I am somehow proficient in that role. It was a similar eye-opener like when I stopped being purist in my music taste and realized that there are cool songs in pretty much any genre. So many new horizons to explore!

From here, I was on a spiral of events where I enjoyed these little different roles. Significant reinforcement of this came when I went to China in 2017. I dressed smart casual and went to talk with people in some of the most prominent places.

Reflection selfie from one of the high-class venues in Shanghai.

About four years before the Shanghai visit, I was in Oklahoma City, where I went to the restaurant on the top of their tallest building to see the views. But I felt uncomfortable overhearing discussion covering astronomical sums of money. Now I know that the discomfort wasn't the money part, but the fact I had no idea about the market forces they spoke about. Not that I've become an expert in investments since then, but I am trying to relate and appreciate as many industries as possible. And it makes all the difference.

In that place in Shanghai pictured above, I spoke with people about the oil business. Everyone had a good time, and it didn't matter that they arrived in Rolls Royce and me by subway. I was surprised by how far basic knowledge of a topic, authenticity, respect, and self-confidence can take you. Sadly, sometimes it isn't enough.

The way of saying things matters. I encountered communities that categorized others as trash only because of their accent, while the others had a harsh sentence for someone using words with six syllables. Dealing with such close-mindedness is a pain, but it shows the immense language role in class.

I see the playfulness in big words, and some slang terms are fun. I enjoy learning these and using them within appropriate situations, but it is also something I find challenging. I didn't grow up in an environment where any fancy terms would be used. In fact, I didn't grow up using English at all. Thankfully, in many cases, the matters that one has to say outweigh how they say them. Still, the more extensive vocabulary, the bigger the range of fields and social environments one can fit into. It is like with fashion: you dress differently for a mountaineering adventure than you dress for a theatre visit.

Speaking of clothing, it is another skill to learn. I had a learning experience earlier this week, as I was to attend a properly formal event.

I like to keep things minimalistic; I don't have stuff I don't use. And so, I didn't have any formal shirt. In the past, I always borrowed or rented one, but I have a problem when borrowing stuff: I am 6'6," but I've just around 200 lbs. So, when the shirt is good around my chest, the sleeves end by my elbows. And when the sleeves are right, I could fit another person to share the chest compartment.

So I felt that the time has come to get me a shirt that fits me well. I am a quick shopper; I like to go only for the stuff I need, no distractions. The last time I was buying shoes, it was a task of five minutes. Enter the store, find the shelf with the type I needed, find one that I liked, try out, pay,  leave — a piece of cake when you know your stuff.  But when you don't? That was my case with the shirt. But, it is just a shirt, how hard it can be? Classic fit, tailored fit, and slim fit, easy. But then, there's the collar. Cutaway, bottom down, point, semi-cutaway... And, did you know that there are five major types of shirt cuff styles? Add the length issue, and it is flipping rocket science! So it was clear, normal malls won't do. I had to go to a dedicated shop with suits. They did my measurements and found a shirt that would "suit perfectly." Apparently, when you know the dimensions, you don't need to try stuff before you buy. The next day was the big day. I woke up with a smile and started getting into the shirt. The smile, however, went away quickly: "That damn assistant sold me a size too small," was my first impression. A train of swears followed as I was trying to fit into the long but incredibly narrow sleeves. Then, the tie was business as usual, youtube with hours of "tight a tie for dummies" is a lifesaver. Little I knew that the biggest challenge is still ahead of me — fastening that top button. Dear me, I nearly choked myself, and it took ages. Previously, I'd have a wider size, which might not be as sleek, but putting it on was a matter of seconds. Thankfully, I set plenty of time aside for this task, so I handled it within schedule. What a laugh; at least I know better now.

As I set off to the event, I played a list of my favourite punk songs — stuff you'll never hear at a banquet. One of the songs there is "Too Much Class For The Neighbourhood" by Dogs. Nodding to the tunes, that's when I thought about making this article.

So yeah. Class is a skill. Class is acting. Class requires practice — a struggle for an introvert like me. At least, everyone is taking part in this performance. And there's no better set than the world we already have around ourselves. But class is also a concept, and I wish people would see it more fluid. Same like nations, races, languages, and beliefs.

It comes down to that the world needs nice people. As Les Sales Majestés, another French punk band, sings: "Quels que soient ton pays, ta couleur, On a partout sur terre droit au bonheur..," which translates as something like "regardless your country or your colour, everyone has the right to happiness." Please.

Thanks for reading.


If you have a thought on this, get in touch. I love to hear others' standpoints. If you'd like to stay for a little longer, I'd suggest these posts:

Where on Earth?After being on the road for years, I am a stranger everywhere

About the struggles of finding "home."

Midnight WorldNight explorations

How night helped me to escape personal darkness.

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Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays

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