The day before my flight out of Shanghai, I spent 4.5 hours cleaning every corner of a four-story guesthouse until my hands blistered, and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life thus far.
I awoke to a haphazardly translated WeChat message: “Good morning! Cleaning the house is waiting for you!” I opened the door of my blissfully air-conditioned bedroom and immediately began to melt. The unforgiving Shanghai summer clung to my skin like plastic wrap as I stumbled diagonally down the stairs, hamstrings still sore from a 12-hour hike up Huang Shan the previous weekend. The tallest, baldest, and funniest of my seven Russian-Ukranian roommates glanced up from his (outrageously massive) bowl of oatmeal with a shit-eating grin.
In my initial message to Ruslan, the owner of Дом Китайского Компота (DKK) — a (mostly) Buddhist and vegetarian co-working and co-living space that was my home for the past three weeks — I enthusiastically proclaimed, “I am an excellent cook, and not afraid of hard work.”
Well, the mediocrity of my cooking was quickly established, and I was damn determined to follow through on what’s left of my word.
I recently realized that I am spoiled. I didn’t grow up with money — in fact, far from it. I grew up in a single-parent, low-income household in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but my mother did a magnificent job of ensuring I never realized it until I was on my knees, wiping mysterious orange stains from a toilet seat, in 100 degree weather, in a Russian-speaking guesthouse on the outskirts of Shanghai.
On the morning of my first cleaning shift, I stood in the empty living room with a sponge-mop in my right hand and my iPhone in my right, begging the internet for enlightenment on, “how to mop a floor.”
Yet there I was, mentally chanting “put your back into it!” as I mopped, wiped, and squeegeed every corner and surface of the guesthouse with my bare hands because I just couldn’t bother with the sticky, stinky, half-melted, & mildewed cleaning gloves anymore.
After a long, well-anticipated shower, I sent my mother a string of text messages all along the lines of:
She grew up comfortably in an upper-middle class household in China, and discarded everything to move to New York City in pursuit of a dream. She had gone from wearing tailored, designer outfits and pampering herself with manicures and facials every weekend to chasing after city buses daily in the same all-black uniform, and painting other people’s nails for a living. I have only seen her cry twice in my entire life: when her father died, and when I told her she was a bad mother. For the past twelve years, she slaved away in a thankless job that many would consider beneath her without a single complaint.
Nobody thanked me, after my hands were raw from and my clothes soaked with a mixture of sweat and dirty mop water. Because it was my job. It didn’t matter to them that I had a Masters degree from one of the highest ranking graduate schools in my field in the world. I am a young beggar girl who requested to stay in their house, rent-free, in exchange for cleaning and cooking. I could be anybody. I was nobody. It was a lesson my mother had learned the hard way years ago, and one that, thanks to her, I didn’t have to until now.
A lesson I will never forget.