Thursday, 5 May 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 11 - The Cleaner

The cleaner referenced in the title of this blog does not get rid of bodies* nor does she clean up blood spattered crime scenes for the mob like “The Wolf”, the cleaner in Pulp Fiction.  She is actually a rather petite Sri Lankan woman named Josie (not her real name) who comes to clean our house every Tuesday and Friday morning. Josie is actually filling in for her cousin who is currently in Sri Lanka awaiting a new work visa so she can return to Hong Kong to work for us and another family after we convinced her to quit working for the abusive family she had been working for. But that is another story.

Josie’s English is not so great, but it is significantly better than my Sinhala.  Because her vocabulary is somewhat limited, we frequently have communications challenges, and we both sometimes just have to remove all extraneous words from a sentence. To the uninitiated, this can sometimes sound a bit harsh and dictatorial.
Josie - “I Friday come 8:00!”
Josie - “Vacuum broke. You fix!”
Lisa - “Drink tea!”
Lisa - “Where hide bra?”

Josie is a devout Christian and scrupulously honest (not that those two things always go together).  We keep a small bowl of sweets on the sideboard in the dining room. After a couple of weeks, Josie worked up the courage to say “Please I have sweet?”  “Of course, you may have sweet. You don’t need to ask. Help yourself”, I responded. She then proceeded to empty the bowl into her handbag.  I now make sure to buy a bag of sweets for Josie whenever I top up our own.  She clearly needs them more than we do.

Josie struggles to understand many things about our household, in particular our non-conformance to gender stereotypes. As Josie usually comes to the house when I am at work, it is David she typically deals with.  There are times she finds it really difficult to talk to him about important matters like toilet cleaning products.  Instead she will repeatedly batter him with requests such as “Must speak to madam about broken vacuum” or “Is madam happy with my work?”  Regardless of how many times we ask her not to, Josie refers to me as “madam” and David as “sir”. 

Despite the fact that I don’t even know where the vacuum is let alone how to fix it, and that I am happy with anyone’s cleaning work when it means I don’t have to do it myself, Josie still insists on speaking to me rather than David about this stuff. According to her, it is not “man’s work”.   She once caught David emptying the dishwasher, and practically wrestled him to the ground to make him stop.  Last week, she insisted to David that she would come in  on Monday to cook us a curry.  He told her that he would speak to me about it.  She shook her finger at him and said: "You are husband. You decide."  Deciding what to have for dinner clearly falls into the category of "man's work". I suspect that she is worried that if I am not in charge of household cleaning then I probably don't feed my family properly either.  She considers it her duty to compensate for my womanly incompetence. 

It seems that Josie also believes that, in addition to my full time job, I should also do my own ironing. We have a stack of it for her to do every week. Every week, David's shirts are beautifully pressed and hung up.  My clothes remain in an un-ironed heap on the floor.  Sadie's clothes are always in an un-ironed heap on her bedroom floor, but that is nothing to do with Josie and everything to do with Sadie. I have asked David to speak to Josie about the ironing thing, but I think he finds to too amusing to have a serious conversation with her about it.

A few weeks ago, Sadie's dad, Grizz, came to visit her for a few days. We have a very modern family arrangement whereby Grizz stays with us when he visits Sadie.  This not only saves money, but also allows Grizz to be a proper "at home" Dad for a bit i.e. Sadie can challenge someone besides me for a few days. This usually works just fine except when ex-husband, current partner and daughter all gang up on me at once and I have to lie down in a dark room with a cool cloth on my head muttering "sweet Jesus, what have I done?". There is also the occasional time when David and I are sitting on the sofa and Grizz plops himself between us, but David and I have learned over time to find some humour (only a little) in this.   Anyway, we took the decision that Grizz would take the spare bed in Sadie's room as her room is huge, our spare room is tiny and both David and I use the spare room as an office. 

Of course, Josie came to clean whilst Grizz was here. Given the language difficulties coupled with her rather prim approach to family life, we had never explained to her that Sadie isn't David's daughter or that we aren't (gasp!) actually married.  David figured that this was as good a time as any to try to get those difficult points across.  Josie let herself in that Friday to find herself being introduced to Grizz as Sadie's father. Dead silence. Without saying a word, she took herself off  to the kitchen and busied herself by making lots of noise involving plates and pans. Knowing that Josie was upset, David followed her into the kitchen and tried to explain. 

"Grizz is Sadie's father. I am not her father. I am her step-father". It took Josie a few minutes for this to register, and eventually a big smile broke out across her face.  "Ahhhh!", she said. "Grand father!".  She nodded her head, seemed very pleased that she understood and carried on with her work. David walked away wondering if she thought he was sharing a bed with his daughter or daughter-in-law. Whichever, she seemed happy.

* You might find it interesting to know that the apartment complex in which we live was actually home to a famous murder a few years ago.  Ex-pat wife, Nancy Kissell, fed her investment banker husband a spiked strawberry milkshake and then bludgeoned him to death whilst he slept.  She rolled his body up in a carpet (a rather expensive one, so I’m told) and had the building’s maintenance staff carry what must have been the very heavy rug to a basement storage area.  The body was only found after the storage room began to stink.  In her defense, Nancy described her husband as a “work-crazed and controlling husband, who had succumbed to habitual and regular cocaine and alcohol abuse since going on an MBA course”. If the wife of every investment banker who exhibited this behaviour had done what Nancy did, we almost certainly could have avoided the whole financial crisis.


  1. Genius... sooooo funny, not even sure where to start....

  2. My Chinese aunt was so overwhelmed at the sight of Chris doing the washing up I thought she was going to whack him round the head with her Zimmer frame until he desisted!!