Housekeeping

Why do men seemingly feel no sense of urgency when it comes to changing boxers or socks?

We fought.

When one of us made dinner, didn’t it make sense for the other to do the dishes? He agreed to this, reluctantly, but never agreed to a timeline on the task. Sometimes two or three days went by before he actually did those dishes. I found this revolting.

We fought.

Remember how he had been impressing me through the courting stage during the fall with a spotless apartment? Well, I found the contradiction insulting now, wondering where his desire to please me had evaporated to and why it simply wasn’t important anymore. I began to feel tricked into living with him and, once again, was grateful that it was a short term decision. Of course, about this…

we fought.

I offered to do the laundry and hang it up if he brought it in, folded it, and put it away. Again, without a timeline, he would leave the laundry for days outdoors, hanging from the line on the balcony. In a dry, dusty, polluted city, you may as well forget you ever washed the clothes after two days outdoors. I tried to get around this by draping everything over furniture indoors to dry it (we didn’t have a drying rack and electric dryers are rare here) but the clothes would still haunt the furniture for days afterwards, only disappearing when they found their way onto our backs.

We fought.

I painstakingly drew up a contract in Chinese and we sat down over the details wherein we agreed that certain rooms were each of our responsibility and we would clean them on a specific day once a week. This was maintained for about two weeks and then excuses and schedule and moods got in the way. His rooms stopped getting any attention. I responded by ignoring mine in protest. This didn’t help matters.

We fought.

We then agreed to a new contract wherein certain tasks were his responsibility and certain tasks were mine. We claimed the tasks the way members of a pick-up baseball game are chosen, leaving the most undesirable tasks for last and having to reluctantly accept ones that neither of us liked. This also lasted for about two weeks and then fizzled. Neither of us was very good at this system. We each resented doing things the other didn’t have to do.

We fought.

And these arguments escalated. In a fit of anger, dirty dishes got broken in the kitchen sink or were sent sailing to the kitchen floor when one nagged the other to “wash them already!” (we both were guilty of this).  Items belonging to the opposite, offending party left in the other’s territory were kicked or forcefully removed, sometimes to the detriment of the item’s safety, especially when it was a piece of musical equipment or electronics. Certain zones became cold wars over which no one was going to win. We were equally stubborn and immature.

My war zone was about making the bed. How much time does it take to pull up a bedspread after he got out of it, I wondered? Did he have to leave the bed unmade? I invoked a rule that the last one up had to pull up the comforter. Easy, right? He agreed to the rule, but henceforth, if we woke up at the same time in the morning, Guo Jian would suddenly leap out of bed laughing maniacally (rather than cuddle, I might add) so that he could avoid doing this simple task. Eventually, too, even if he was the last person out of bed and I had left the house for the day, he just stopped doing it altogether. By the time I returned home to the bedroom, I would discover an unmade bed yet again and feel the lava start to form between my ears.

I stubbornly stopped washing his clothing items and only laundered my own. He didn’t seem bothered by this. He could get an enormous amount of wear out of his clothes, not to mention the fact that his wardrobe triples mine in sheer girth. That boy has so many clothes, it borders on the ridiculous.

One particular fight that went on for over a month was regarding mopping. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t use water! I kept asking him, “Have you mopped the floors?” by saying “你扫地了吗?”and he would respond innocently and affirmatively, but I’d still see no evidence of water. The floors would be swept but not clean. He never seemed perturbed by this blatant lie and it infuriated me.

It took me over a month to realize that I had mixed up the Chinese verbs for “mop” and “sweep” and that I had been constantly asking him if he’d swept rather than mopped. I must have seemed like a crazy woman. I remember him looking at me strangely one day when I added the challenge-invoking sentence, “But where’s the water?” before storming out of the room in aggravation. It took me ages to realize that this was a vocabulary rather than a behavioural issue!

We had a good laugh over that one.

You see, the fighting was peppered with humour, at least.

Then his parents came to visit us and his Mother, the Housekeeping Superhero, swooped up to our apartment and washed all his clothes, cleaned our sheets, started scrubbing his shoddily cleaned rooms, and basically proved to me exactly why he has an aversion to housecleaning: because his Mother has always done it for him.

This, of course, perplexed me. Certainly, it was nice to have a MOM show up and clean our house. I hate cleaning. How lovely to come home from a day of tasks to a clean house that didn’t require fighting with my new partner to achieve!! But, in my Western upbringing, it was terrible to have your Mother (or, worse, my partner’s Mother whom I barely knew!) on her hands and knees in our home, cleaning our filth. His Mother, however, was thrilled to do it and felt fulfilled by these tasks, as though she had travelled the five hours from Shan Dong province with the express purpose of doing her son’s (and now her son’s girlfriend’s?) laundry and housecleaning!

A total mystery.

In fact, his Mother re-organized our cupboards, barking orders at me (in her regional dialect that I could only occasionally understand) about the increased efficiency of putting things here rather than there, etc. I noticed that she didn’t bother to tell her son these things, as though the state of the house wasn’t his concern. I began to politely ask her to hold on mid-bark and then bodily drag him into the room and into the conversation. This act confused both of them and had little impact. Not even my simple Chinese for “must be equal, must be fair, his job too!” did little to restructure the hierarchical order of things. It only made her laugh, like I was making a funny joke or something.

After a few days of her presence with home-cooked meals and additionally prepared foods perched ready in the freezer, the house was spotless and re-organized and she was suddenly on her way back home to her full-time job and full-time responsibility of caring for his grandfather. She spun into my life like a cyclone and left in the same fashion, leaving me rocking back on my heels in her wake. I was as stunned as I was more fully informed.

Now I knew why he was such a slob. Now I understood what I was not going to be:

HIS MOTHER.

And then, a ray of hope descended upon our lives:

an ayi.

In China, “ayi” is the word for “auntie,” but it is also used as a term for a house cleaner or for childcare provider. They are women who come into your home who are paid to do domestic tasks. Effectively, they are cleaning ladies.

I struggled with this. I didn’t want to perpetuate a class divide. I didn’t want to be a “rich foreigner” who hired “help” and I felt politically opposed, conceptually. On the flip side, I also couldn’t bring myself to do everything in the house, on a feminist level, letting him get away with being a lazy sloth about it. I certainly didn’t want to keep fighting. I was as tired of the struggle as I was of the mess and so… I weighed my options.

My foreign friends (who all earn five times what I earn) were adamant that it was just part of the social framework of China; they swore up and down that they wouldn’t know what to do without their ayis. One friend reminded me that housecleaning was a thriving industry and that I’d be contributing to another family’s well-being. This felt wrong somehow. I couldn’t place it. I felt suspended between my ideals and my relationship’s hope for peace.

Still, I decided to give it a try. Anything had to be better than had been.

Finally, some of my Chinese friends also acknowledged that they never cleaned their own spaces. They called in services or had a steady “ayi” too. This, at least, made me realize that it wasn’t just the ex-pats who engaged assistance, domestically. Somehow, that made it easier to accept.

After some looking around, we started working with “Zhu Yu Rong” a formidable woman who came in, not unlike his Mother, and got to work with spitfire, doing dishes, cleaning floors, hanging and putting away laundry, etc. She would even take it upon herself to remove and rinse the window screens or reorganize a messy bookshelf.

Guo Jian and I agreed to split the costs, of course; it was only fair.

At first, I worked alongside of her. I couldn’t handle watching her clean my house while I worked on the computer or read a book. It felt too bourgeois. We tackled disorganization as a team, but I was in charge (unlike his Mother) and eventually, the house was organized and made sense to me. I was at peace.

She saved our relationship. When I openly credit her with that and she always laughs.

Best. Money. I’ve. Ever. Spent.

Guo Jian kept having her to the house even when I went back to Canada that spring.

To this day, she still comes twice a week.

The fighting over housework has stopped.

Clean, white flags waving.

The Second Coming (Out)
Dyke Cousin: Parts 1 & 2

©2017 Ember Swift. All Rights Reserved.
Design by Janine Stoll Media.