By Zary Fekete

You get off the train at the northern end of Subway Line 5 in Beijing. You make your way through the crowd. You work in this city, but your hometown is Guilin, 16 hours away by train in the south of China. You get to visit your hometown once a year during New Year.

You live in a basement apartment in the western suburbs, but twice a week you travel to this fancy neighborhood in northern Beijing to clean the apartment of an American family. The family has just spent the summer in America, and this is the first time you are seeing them since they got back to China. 

You are nervous. Before the family traveled to America three months ago, you asked the husband and wife for permission to come once a week to wipe down the apartment during the summer, even though they would be gone. You said that empty apartments still need cleaning in Beijing because of the air pollution which seeps in through the cracks in the windows. You knew the wife would probably allow you to continue to clean. She cares about the lungs of her two children who are 3 and 5. 

The husband finally agreed. When the family left for America three months ago they left you an envelope of money for your summer work. But when you opened the envelope you saw they had only left you half of what they usually pay.

You know that the American couple do not speak good pu tong hua. You know it won’t be possible to tell them the cultural expectations for domestic help in China. You know they won’t understand why you expected to receive the normal amount, even though you would be cleaning an empty apartment and even though you were only coming once a week.

You know that you can’t simply tell them that without this extra money you won’t be able to afford the train ticket home during New Year. You know that even if they spoke Common Talk there are certain unspoken ways that uncomfortable truths are shared between people in China.

All these thoughts are moving through your head as you weave your way through the street food vendors and enter the fancy neighborhood. When you reach the Americans’ building, you press the elevator button for the 12th floor, the highest floor. You take out the apartment key. You know that the family trusts you which is why they gave you your own key. You know that they aren’t surprised when they hear the door open twice a week and hear your voice, with practiced cheerfulness, saying “Ni hao” (“You good”) loudly, but not too loudly, so that they will know you have arrived for the cleaning. 

You know that this day will be different, because you are going to attempt the impossible and explain to them about the money. You get off the elevator on the top floor. You open the door.

“Ni hao!”

Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. She currently lives and works as a writer in Minnesota. Some places she has been published are Goats Milk Mag, JMWW Journal, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and Zoetic Press. She enjoys reading, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete

One thought on “You Are the Domestic Help

  1. Pingback: Aesthetic Dreams

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