April 19, 2009
Guilty of being served
By Fiona Chan
For months now, I have been waging a silent war with the persistent piles of dust and the stubborn spread of cobwebs in my bedroom.
They've grown at a relentless pace, colonising undisturbed corners and diligently invading my cleaner borders. I've ignored them just as determinedly, unable to muster the time or energy to mount a concerted defence.
But, finally, even I couldn't take it any longer. Two weeks ago, I summoned reinforcements - by hiring a part-time house cleaner.
Over the last two weekends, my floors have been mopped, my bathrooms scrubbed and my shelves dusted, as I smugly stand by, directing and supervising.
Okay, who am I kidding. I'm not smug at all. I have no direction. In fact, I barely supervise.
Rather, I spend most of the time following the cleaner around and apologising repeatedly for every bit of dirt she has to wipe away.
'Sorry ah, this one very long time haven't clean already,' I will say, conscientiously eroding my grammatical structures in a pathetic attempt to code-switch.
'Uh, that one don't need to clean, don't worry, very dirty one, sorry, sorry,' I add, cringing as she bends to examine the Augean Stable underneath my bed.
And that's not all. The night before the cleaner came over for the first time, I stayed up desperately making the house a bit neater so she wouldn't take one horrified look at it and decide she would rather clean a sty of pigs afflicted with food poisoning.
When she arrived and started work, I tried to tell her to dry the floors immediately after she mopped them, so that the damp wouldn't sink into the parquet.
As I struggled to communicate this instruction in as undemanding a tone as I could manage, I found myself fighting the urge to just take a cloth and wipe the surface as she mopped.
After the cleaner left, I unburdened my shame onto a friend, who wisely told me what was wrong.
'You have middle-class guilt,' she declared. 'You don't have the immunity of the working class or the supercilious ease of the filthy rich, so you feel bad paying someone to do something you think you should be doing yourself.'
As I contemplated this theory, I realised just how accurate it is.
It explains, for instance, why I am abjectly unable to send food back at a restaurant, even if it is hard as a rock or has enough salt to kill a hundred slugs.
When the waiter clears my unfinished food and asks if anything was wrong with the meal, I automatically smile and say, 'No, it was great, thanks' - all the while kicking myself inside.
As you might have guessed, I also gush over awful haircuts (bobs make me look like a mushroom) and ugly manicure colours (I really can't do orange).
I always tip taxi drivers. I stop to take street surveys. If the stretch of walkway in front of me is being washed, I take a long detour around it. And then, more often than not, I grumble about it.
Basically, although I don't earn all that much, I am acutely, painfully aware of the thousands of people who earn even less than I do.
At the carwash, overwhelmed by the idea of six cleaners having to split a measly $7, I usually end up paying $10 and turning a blind eye to the dirt spots still on the car.
Some people say I'm a sucker. My boss, on hearing the carwash anecdote, called me a loser.
But the bottomline is that I will never quite be comfortable with the idea of people serving other people, let alone treating them as slaves.
This means I inevitably end up grovelling at the feet of the people I pay to do me a service. Having already been so lucky in life that I can even entertain the thought of hiring someone else to do my chores, I tend to go out of my way to even out the imbalance a bit.
So far, this principle of 'middle-class guilt', however unconscious, has kept me humble and out of trouble. I am about as likely to burn a cigarette hole in my part-time cleaner as I am to pour a pot of boiling water over my doctor's head - after all, in my book they are both simply service personnel.
But there is one drawback to feeling guilty all the time: I can never get a full-time maid.
It would be too exhausting always trying to clean the house one step ahead of her.