Glitzy office buildings, immaculate black-suit people, vitamin supplements, and Starbucks coffee.
Drywalls, spackling paste, dusty faces, cheese pizzas and soda.
My first week back to the United States from my China home was straddled in two worlds.
The first day I got off the plane after the 30-hour journey, I went for job shadowing with alumni at UBS and Merrill Lynch in New York. Dressed in blazer and dress, hopping onto the crowded train, and traversing through the busy streets in Manhattan in the snow, I felt like a metropolitan New Yorker and the world was my oyster.
The day was exciting.
Standing on the trading floor, I could hear Jordan Belfort from the Wolf of Wall Street saying: “Give yourself no choice but to succeed!” The level of energy was palpable everywhere — the constantly blinking of monitors, the incessant striking of keyboards by traders, and the buzzing conversations going on over the long desks.
When I talked to a recent graduate, her mascara-ed eyes were glued to the screen while talking to me, typing to her clients, and sipping Grande latte at times. The level of multi-tasking and mental energy looked formidable, with emails, chats, news and trading platform all open and switched on every monitor.
Doe-eyed and flabbergasted about the swirling world I had witnessed, I then departed New York for a volunteer trip with the school to help build home for the homeless under Habitat for Humanity. The place I went was Salem County, which is the least populated and the second poorest state in New Jersey.
Before I got over my jet lag and the ambitious dream in New York, I was woken up by the stark contrast. With houses sparsely located, the whole county looked forlorn. Here I didn’t meet high-flyers who play golf, carry designer bags and eat organic salads. The owner-to-be was a low-wage black woman with three young kids on her own, who was so kind to bring us soda and chips for lunch at the working site. Though sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night because of the cold, hard ground at church, my worry over my jetlag was redundant. Every night I fell asleep from exhaustion after a day’s demanding physical work. The construction site was freezing, I had to wear all the layers I brought, though they were covered in dust, paint and fiberglass. The best thing of the day was always a hot shower at the Youth Community Center miles away to recover from the numbness of my body.
The learning was huge.
To be frank, I was worried during the first few days because I have never done such physical work and I was clumsy with tools. When I used the driller for the first time, I had no inkling of what I was going to do with it. I was too embarrassed to ask the carpenter, a cowboy-style middle-aged man with weatherworn hands who has been working on this project. I was telling myself “Oh my god I will never do this” as I saw how the nail penetrated into the hard plasterboard under the background of noise and the profuse amount of dust that frosted the insides of my nose, caked my eyebrows and eyelashes, masked my face and sifted into my boots. However, by the end of the week, I could screw drywalls, do spackling and put insulation all by myself. It was really learning in action, through observations and failed attempts.
It was a bit painful, but nice, to see the juxtaposition of the two worlds. It made me more aware and more capable for both love and pains.
Like Romain Rolland said, “There is only one heroism in the world: to see the world as it is, and to love it.” I know that the better I understand the world and different perspectives, the better I can face challenges in the future.
It was also rewarding, to see something coming out from nothing through sheer hard work. When we left after a week, the house was almost done. Her three angels never stopped waving, and their smiles never subsided, until they disappeared in the sight of dusty streets and grassed lots as we drove off. I felt nothing but calmness, because at the end of this tale, even though my head is in the cloud, my feet are on the ground.
Quanzhi Quo is a sophomore at Colgate University. You can contact Quanzhi Guo at firstname.lastname@example.org.