Thursday, May 6, 2010

Confessions of An Ex-Pat. Part 3 - "Is This A Dream? Somebody Pinch Me!"

These guys get so lonely waiting in the corner for me to ask them to dance!

Ah.... the "cleaning supply bucket"!  Good Memories!

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I "confessed" having a Driver and Gardeners. Undeniably these are a couple sweet "perks" of being an ex-pat in China! Today's admission, however, trumps them both times ten! Another drum roll please (or is deep organ music more appropriate for the Confessional?)......

I have a housekeeper!!!

Could you but see me now, the non-verbals that would go with this announcement  include a blush, hands over my face to hide my sheepish grin, and, (if I'm completely honest) a little jig!!!

As with the Gardener thing, my oldest friends know that having someone clean house for me is NOT my historic 'MO' (that's Modis Operandi, I think, in case you are not into crime lingo)!  Never, in all my years of marriage, of having babies with no family close by, of having appendectomies and mastectomies (and other -ectomies I can't recall), of working full time, NEVER, have I hired someone to do my housework.  It's just not how I was made - although I have some relatives who can picture me "sitting  a spell" while the dishes got done! 

Oh wait- I stand corrected - we did once hire a maid! When we moved into one of our past homes (that appeared especially lived-in by the previous families which included a big dog , a couple cats, several children and NOT many housekeepers), Bill and I agreed that we should hire one of those maid services that have a set rate for a  one-time "Top to Bottom" cleaning.  They came (3 ladies from The Merry Maids company as I recall) while Bill and I were either working (we both worked full time then - even me!) or distracted with packing up the house we were selling.  The house we hired them to clean was completely empty anyway, so how much supervision could a crew of experienced women need to clean a blank slate?  Well, despite my failing memory, I distinctly recall we were SO disappointed with the job they did, or didn't do is more like it.  I believe we wrote a letter of complaint and then, in typical Bill and Mary 'MO', we went back in and did it ourselves!  Maybe that's one of the reasons we never hired another house-helper after that?  (Nah.... it's 'cuz we're tight with a dollar! Bill never could justify paying someone for what we could do ourselves.  He is somewhat a changed man in this regard, but THAT's a whole other BLOG and HE can write his own confessions and improve his own soul!)

Anyway, with a LONG and consistent history of doing all house work myself, I moved to China and have a housekeeper.  Here's how it all started.....
Our Shenzhen home being "re-decorated" (aka "gutted") last summer. 

Here's what "redecorating" looks like from the outside.  (Shenzhen home summer of '09) 

The house we are renting was not quite ready when we arrived.  It was under "re-decoration" all summer and despite a promise to have it ready when we needed it, there were delays in getting the nod to move in.  At the time we were living in an apartment about a 15 minute walk away from the house, so we checked on it nearly daily.   When our long-travelled shipment of furniture and "stuff" from Knoxville was about to arrive and our occupancy day grew closer, one thing was clear - the house needed a good cleaning!  Construction dust coated the many tiled walls and floors, there were globs of glue and epoxy everywhere.  And this is a pretty big house (something like 3500 sq. feet)!  So Bill and I complained to the rental managers.  We even had a bilingual co-worker of Bill's come and tell them we were very dissatisfied with the cleanliness of the house.  But not much happened......

A second and third round of pointing out globs of (I dunno what!) had no greater affect.  They would send a little lady (Chinese, of course and not a word of english spoken or understood) with a single, VERY GREY rag and she would rub away at ONLY the spots I pointed to.  A glob less than a foot away did not catch her eye unless I pointed .  When it was clear that a rag couldn't get epoxy or dried grout from tile (duh?), I offered her a putty knife from Bill's tool box.  She used it briefly, left, and returned some hours later with a single edge razor.  She held it in her bare hands and, again, used her laser-like tunnel vision to tackle only the places I pointed out as I hovered nearby.  By the looks of things on each of my new visits, when I left the house, so did she. 

Progress was slow....  And  (confession within a confession) this was NOT one of my brighter times in life.  I had jet lag and culture-shocked nerves.  I ate little, slept almost never, and I think I was constipated too!  In short, a basket case!  I bemoaned to an experienced ex-pat (one from Knoxille herself, no less) my frustration about getting our soon-to-be-new-home cleaned.  "Hire someone!", she said as she tilted her head to the side and concluded that I was clearly NOT with the ex-pat 'program' yet.  "It's so inexpensive!", she explained.  Not only that, she knew of someone who might be available and who came highly recommended as she was a cousin of her own housekeeper!  She spoke great English and she was available for some part-time, temporary work.  I mentioned this possibility to Bill and he was ALL FOR IT.   (I'm tellin' ya, he's not the man I married!  Of course, he didn't marry the basket case I had morphed into either!)

And so began our introduction to "Sinamar".   (Isn't that a beautiful name?  Like a combination of cinnamon and some perfume named something like Shalomar). Initially we hired her to help out 4 hours at a time, kind of on an "day by day" basis, until we had the house cleaned to our standards so we would be comfortable putting our furniture in it.  She was glad for these work hours as she had a only part-time job for another family at the time.  And did she work!! Plus she was even "merry" about it!   I cleaned some walls too but in my exhausted delerium I was happy to keep her on retainer.

Of course, during these initial weeks we continued to absorb more about what life was like for a foreign family living in China.  Everyone I spoke with had a housekeeper.  Many had live-in's.  They are referred to as "Ai Yi's"  (which literally means "loved 1", which is kinda confusing but then again who wouldn't love a housekeeper?)  All of the large homes and apartments in China are designed with a "maid's quarters".  They are usually tiny spaces, adjacent to the laundry and just off the kitchen.  (We converted ours into a pantry the week we moved in by adding 3 large racks of metal shelving.)  A sizeable number of families had "full time" AiYi's meaning women who come to their home 8 hours daily, plus 4 on Saturdays.  A few people had part-time helpers, but I was warned that it was hard to find a "good one" who only wanted to work part time.  And my friend who helped me find Sinamar warned "if you like her, talk to her about something longer-term or she'll get snapped up by someone else".  Since I was also hearing from new ex-pats like myself who were hiring and letting go AiYi's by the handful.

So.... the new guy I shack up with here said, "Let's hire her!"  We worked out that she would come 5 mornings each week for 4 hours a day.  She had a family that used her every afternoon so we figured if we gave her the balance of her work hours we wouldn't loose her to someone who would give her more hours!!  (I'm rationallizing here, but at least I know it!)

I laid out a schedule that included laundry and ironing - PtL! (that's "Praise the Lord" for those of you who don't get texts or e-mails from southerners), changing sheets on the beds, cleaning bathrooms, dusting and floor cleaning.  Because my newly acquired friends were all talking about having their AiYi's prepare meals, I asked her if she would cook one day per week.   I had it from a reliable source that she came from a family of good cooks and she said she  knew how to prepare "western" food - exactly what we still preferred on our home menu!  Her first dish was a minestrone that was labelled fabulous by us all.  Then she did a roasted chicken with fresh rosemary and a ratatoulie that made our mouths water.  She brought recipes she's familiar with and I (and Emily) of course passed on requests.  EVERYTHING she touched tasted amazing!! Chicken enchiladas?  YUM! Fresh (yup, she gets 'em live on her way to the house) Shrimp Stir Fry? - OH MY!  Chicken Parmesan? - We ALL get seconds!

Sinamar's Chicken Parmesan - YUM-O!

More importantly, Sinamar became our house and Paige sitter whenever we've travelled.  I cannot bring myself to put Paige in a kennel here, and the ex-pats clear out on most holidays so there is not a neighbor option like back in Knoxville.  Enter sweet Sinamar.  She has slept here when we are away overnight so Paige has not had to be all alone.  At Chinese New Year, when we were in Malaysia for a week, Sinamar stayed with Paige.  Thank goodness! During the ALL NIGHT LONG fireworks, Paige had a human-occupied bed to jump into while she shook llike a leaf.

She's still the sweetest dog on the planet, even if she has devil eyes!!

One day my friend Jenni (who is wise and wonderful  and missed her calling in sales because she can sell me on any idea that pops in her head), asked if I would like to "share" Sinamar's mornings, because she did not think she wanted her full-time Chinese AiYi anymore and, really, couldn't we both get by with less housekeeping services.  I had to admit that I was stretching the list to keep Sinamar busy 5 mornings a week, so back in October, she started working M/W/F mornings for us and T/Th for Jenni.  She's such a hard worker that she still got through the list.  I picked up slack with the laundry - it is never-ending, as all families can relate.

But last week, Sinamar said that she was no longer working for one of her "afternoon families" (they moved back to Korea, I believe).  So, I started thinking, imagine all the recipes she could cook if I didn't have to limit her to the "make-ahead" category! She is so sweet and hard-working and I want her to be happy, I thought.   Plus I figure the floors will need mopping more often in the rainy season.  And then there's the fact that I volunteered to head a committee for PTA next year.  Our church wants me to take on more responsibilities too and I NEED to be able to say yes to my church, for heaven's sake! 
And before I knew it, I added some extra hours to her schedule.  Sinamar came at 10:00 today.  She's in the kitchen now making mushroom porkchops and her famous ratatoulie.  Ellysa requested the ratatoulie as it is her favorite  (Ellysa also loves seaweed wrapped around cucumbers as a school snack - gotta love her!)  It smells devine and here I sit typing.  Every dish will be washed and every counter wiped down before she leaves at 6.I think I'm giving up laundry again.......  

Ironing.....has always given me motion-sickness.  Really!

So, with apologies to my hard-working sisters, the real and the figurative, who do it all and do it well, I confess that this is SOOOOOOOO sweet.  It's a new luxury for me and it will end when we quite this "un-reality" show of living in China, but it is S W E E T.  If you come visit,  my "Loved 1" might do your laundry and cook for you.  Shall I put you on the calendar for one week or two?

I'm really not spry enough to click my heels properly during a jig but, go ahead, picture me giving it a try.....

Oh yeah, and revise the title of this blog, for as more than one someone has said in more than one movie: "If this is a dream, I don't think I ever wanna wake up!"


  1. You lucky dog!! You deserve it, though! I often look back on the newborns/full-time job/housework years and wonder how I did it I just don't WANT to do it!! Enjoy it while it lasts!!

  2. Alright, now that I've gotten to the bottom of the entry I think I've had time to recover from your terminology here: "So...the new guy I shack up with here said..." Hahaha. Okay I must say I miss Sinamar's Ratatouille so much though! I'll be making my beer bread to go with it joyfully when I'm back in December. Eat some extra shrimp stir fry for me- I know you will!

  3. I am so jealous!!!! Enjoy every minute and now you have no excuse not to update your blog:)