At long last, I had cracked. For months, friends and acquaintances had assured me that life on the other side was something incomprehensibly better. That once you crossed the threshold, going back was no longer an option. That even glancing back at your old life would make you shudder and recoil, terrified that you ever could have lived such an unfulfilled, empty existence. I resisted, mostly out of a strange attachment to the status quo. Change is scary. Change is change.
But finally, I relented. On Sunday, I opened my door and let a pleasant middle-aged Chinese woman in to clean my house. And I don’t think I can ever go back.
12:32 I have been tidying slightly, although I know it is a ridiculous impulse. I am somewhat terrified at what this stranger will think of me, what the state of my apartment will say about my character, my personhood, my lack of culture. I imagine her peeking inside the door, cringing visibly, shaking her head and muttering in Mandarin before trudging back to the elevator in disgust.
12:41 The real estate agent informs me that the ayi speaks no English, and my Mandarin is still in no shape to be giving detailed, friendly and polite advice. How will she know what I want her to clean, I asked? What of the temperamental washing machine, the particular way to get my faulty shower to turn to hot water, the places where I store my extra garbage bags? “She’s an ayi,” the agent replies, her eyeroll audible even through the text message. “Just give her the cleaning products and she’ll know what to do.”
I have arranged all of my cleaning products into a neat basket, and I lay them out on the dining room table. I consider drawing diagrams, perhaps a map of my apartment. My Chinese dictionary is at the ready. I feel vaguely like this is a blind date.
12:54 The ayi arrives early. She is tiny and smiling, and I usher her in, already massively uncomfortable. I feel like I should be wearing my professional clothes, that I should offer her coffee before setting her to work. Instead, I awkwardly gesture to the basket of bleaches and rags and scurry away, letting her work.
1:00 There is a load of laundry in the wash, and already half of the windows have been polished. I am a little frightened.
1:07 I feel like maybe this woman is a human tornado of efficiency, or maybe I have always just been really bad at cleaning. She has scrubbed more grime in 10 minutes than I usually manage in a month. I start wondering if I should pour chocolate and red wine on the floors just to give her a challenge.
1:28 Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than someone picking up after me while I sit around doing nothing, so I pull out my school work and hover over it pensively. I feel like maybe she will judge me less if I look productive.
1:43 I have planned out two weeks of lessons and my extra-curriculars, and have sent a dozen work emails. I have added details to most of the class websites the children use. I have made an Animal Rescue Journal for the three stuffed animals we have in class, which we got from the WWF, and I have filled it with tales of my adventure with Whitey, the polar bear (this name was the kids’ choice. I voted for “Snowman”).
2:01 She is on her third load of laundry. I feel like we are in a competition now. Maybe I can start my plans for next year? Perhaps I’ll start early job hunting for when I finish up with China in a couple of years.
2:19 Vacuuming has commenced. I start moving from room to room. My discomfort has lessened slightly since the beginning of this endeavour, but it spikes whenever I see the ayi personally labouring away at my filth. It makes me feel like I should work harder at not shedding so much skin, or maybe quit it with all the consumption of food and water.
2:30 She is wiping down and polishing the floor, with a vigour I have never even considered, let alone attempted. The ocean of white tile is cleaner now than the day I moved in. I stare into the shimmering, glorious whiteness and I am awed and moved. It is like the first time I heard classical music, or when I travelled to the Ganges. I touch my face and realize I am weeping.
2:45 Chinese cleaning products are fairly intense. I feel like we should maybe be opening the windows. I am getting a contact buzz from being in the same enclosed space as some of these wood polishes and bathroom cleaners. I imagine that the ayi is maybe high as a kite at this point, and I think I might have to fix her a cold compress before she leaves for the day. Are we developing a co-dependent huffing addiction?
2:56 She is now scanning her handiwork, which I do casually and carefully, as I feel like being critical of her work would be insultingly shameful. The bed is made. My clothes and dishes are washed. She has even cleaned the rooms in my apartment in which I never venture.
3:15 The ayi claps her hands together, declaring the job finished. When I attempt to pay her for 2 and a half hours instead of the original two, she pales and grimaces, worried that she has overstepped. I feel horrified that I have produced so much grime that such a paragon of cleanliness needed more than the agreed time to scour it all. She calls the real estate agent and talks to her in Chinese, explaining that I keep trying to give her extra money. At length, she accepts it, thanking me again.
3:22 I look across my glorious, clean apartment, a paradise of beauty and orderliness which I had nothing to do with. My deep, writhing mortification was completely worth it for such staggering wondrousness. I think I can swallow my own self-loathing embarrassment if it means not scrubbing my rusty old toilet anymore.
I feel something awaken within me. Something dark. An expensive impulse: I could get very, very used to this. I call the agent, and see if the ayi wants a permanent position.