Letter to my fellow housekeepers
Sisters, whom I’ll soon see again,
As of right now, some of you may already be at work; others are already under temporary isolation and in the throes of arranging re-entry into service with their boss; and others are still home experiencing that “special life”, all made up of eating and sleeping, bed and food that you would have never remotely dreamed of.
Yup, this 2020 Spring Festival [Translator’s note: Chinese New Years] was really unprecedented. Finally, after spending what seems like years inside the house where I work, I’ve reached the end as well. I struggled a lot to purchase my ticket back home; I wanted to leave a little earlier to go to the hospital and deal with an overdue gynecological problem, and also to set up my daughter’s wedding and keep my old mother company. Once I got home, everything had just started, and even before I could realize what was going on, the cities, as well as districts, villages and public transport were all closed off. Little by little we were being cut off from the outside world.
The 22nd of January was first time I came across this unknown term, “new coronavirus”. Just before turning in for bed, after a long day of running various errands, I was watching the news and reading about this mysterious disease that had reached concerning proportions in Wuhan. Since I hadn’t really read anything in regards to it and hadn’t really given the situation a lot of thought, I concluded that we were just too far from Wuhan, and we were doing a good job at curing the sick and containing the virus. In my mind, there shouldn’t be any issues. I let it all be until the morning of January 23rd, when I switched my phone on and read that Wuhan had been put in lockdown. That’s when I realized the severity of the situation.
Since then, every day right after waking up, I check the news. The number of new infections and deaths increased day after day, and my normally care-free mood became heavier: anxiety, fear, anguish, all kinds of feelings were going through my mind.
I felt like visiting my mother and keep her company, but access the village had already been shut off, and no one was allowed to leave. There was nothing I could do. I gave her a call anyways to tell her to stay inside.
“I’m 85 years old, what should I be afraid of? If anything, I’m better off dead!”
“Oh, mom, it may be better if you’re dead, but I didn’t get a chance to see you. Besides, if you die, we can’t come and bury you!”
“Really? It’s that bad?”
“Yes, mom, the virus spreads really quick and makes you feel really ill. Stay home, don’t leave the house for any reason. I’ll come by once the epidemic is over, okay?”
I tried my best to convince her, then I asked my brother and sister to call her too. At last we were able to reassure our elderly mother. Of course, I understood where she was coming from: after a whole year of separation she couldn’t wait to see her daughter, but now that I was within arm’s reach, we couldn’t be together. Of course, she was hurting, and I’m sure you can picture how I, her daughter, was feeling!
Yes, this year I had decided to come earlier for my daughter’s wedding. Ach! What I wanted to do was finalize the engagement and postpone the wedding until next year’s Spring Festival. In the end, my daughter is still young, and I hadn’t even met my future son-in-law yet. However, his side of the family said that they couldn’t do it next year, because it would have been the year of his zodiac sign, and they had been together over a year anyways, so it seemed they were made for one another. Admittedly my son-in-law appeared to have his heart in the right place and I knew my daughter was very happy, so in the end, though a little hesitantly, and exhausted from the ongoing pressure from his family, I agreed for them to marry on January 20th. And so, in this short time frame, we were done with the wedding.
By then, I hadn’t received news of the epidemic, but in hindsight I’m happy to have settled the matter at that time: it’s really a great opportunity for two young lovers, who have been together for a while, to go through this special time together!
Being done now with all the wedding errands and organizing, I set myself, as all of you too I assume, to taking care of New Year’s shopping. Country folk have many fixed ceremonies to observe. Our family includes senior members too and, of course, every year many friends and relatives come over to wish them a happy new year, leaving us with the task of taking care of the many gifts they receive. With that done, we were getting ready to come together with loved ones to greet the new year, when we came to learn that the epidemic had spread to the point that we could infect each other.
At this point, I am urging you to do this: if you are already at work, stay safe and take care of your health; if you leave the house wear a face mask and avoid crowded places as much as possible, if you can, wear disposable gloves, disinfect and wash your hands well, once you’re back home change your clothes. Big cities are packed and the air is poor; as housekeepers without insurance, we absolutely have to take care of ourselves! If you are home waiting to pick up your employment again, don’t be hasty to get back to work. Make sure you have a clear agreement with your employer, be especially sure that you have a safe place to spend the quarantine, you’ll have three meals a day and if you’ll be paid your wages during the quarantine period. When you’re all good to go, you may ask for a certificate that allows you to leave your current place to reach your work destination, once you’ve complied with all safety measures (facemasks, hand sanitizer, soap, disposable gloves).
If, on the other hand, you haven’t taken care of that, don’t be in a hurry to do so, stay home, relax, eat, drink, listen to some music, dance, read a good book, learn to write about what you see and hear. You can even binge watch Tv series with your relatives. In short, consider it an opportunity to get some rest and relaxation.
All those doctors and nurses on the front lines, day and night, caring for the sick, most of them haven’t had a day off and they’ve been transferred to the places with higher rate of infection, and work closely in highly contagious environments. Some have in fact become infected and lost their life without ever seeing their loved ones again. I am sure, my sisters, that just like me, you are very saddened from this news.
On the subject of life, I’ve had a few extreme thoughts in this period, if I’m to speak frankly. I won’t deny that sometimes I even feel like yelling: I’m not afraid of getting infected, but what concerns me is abuse and mistreatment from my husband.
I am very serious: my family is conservative and incredibly stifling. The limitations imposed by the epidemic have shed light on the trauma caused by my family – I’ve had enough of it!
My husband spends his days lounging around (and I dare not ask him to do anything), and every time I attend to some matter, he’s quick to remark how everything I do is wrong. Then, not only he doesn’t let me explain myself, but he also insults me in every way possible. Nothing is to his liking, not even the food I cook. I don’t acknowledge him, and what does he do? He accuses me of scorning him, he who is “the head of the family”. He tells me that I’m a woman who just wants to rebel, to “turn the sky upside down”. If he runs out of excuses, he starts to insult me, saying “You’ve been away in the city for quite a while, huh? Does this mean you’ve got a guy friend?” When we argue he spits out obscenities, even about my family. He won’t stop yelling about that “.. (this is the worst offense, in the sense of an illegitimate child)” of my “city clients”. So tell me, how are you to keep your cool in these situations?
But what hurts me the most is my loved ones’ mentality. I had just come back home, the jolts from the train still ringing in my head, the tiredness of the journey still clinging to my body, and they set a whole bunch of stuff to do right in front of me. They are waiting for me and say “Finally you’re back, quick, do this, do that..”, “It’s a woman’s duty..”.
It’s hard after over a year to get re-adjusted to your old environment, so they’re quick to say “You’re spoiled, you don’t even recognize your own house”. If you get upset and try to talk back, whoever is around answers “You have been away for a year, just suck it up!”. “You’re always out, at least behave nicely while you’re here”, “Men get angry easily, women just have to take it! Hasn’t it always been like that? Is something keeping you from coming back more often to keep your husband company?”.
I don’t like hearing these things. I’ll be honest: I am over 50 years of age, I’m feeling the toll on my body and mind, when I come back home I’d like to be met with affection and attention, instead it’s always the opposite.
Here in the village, you only hear sounds form Kuaishou and TikTok, or people playing cards, drinking and chatting, but you never see anyone wearing a face mask. At home, I’d like to read and write something, but the women who come and visit me for a chat tell me I’ve become a bougie city girl. They tease me and say I want to become a writer. In their eyes I’m clearly a black sheep. My mother-in-law even said: “What should a woman concern herself with, if not sewing? What are you reading for anyways?”, “What are you doing, still reading and writing these things? At your age? Go out and do something useful!”
I’m livid! Yes, it’s true, I’m a housekeeper, I work far from home taking care of others, take orders from them, sometimes things happen to me that others deem unimaginable. From morning til night, I sacrifice my energies and time at my workplace, I am focused and committed, to be able to give my family a better life. However, when I get home, not only do I have to put up with insinuations from my family, but I even have to take care of them.
Even more importantly: there is nothing else you can do, there is nothing else to think about. According to their logic, if you’re taking care of others, that’s your station in life. Wishing to engage in something different, turns me into someone who doesn’t know their place, different from other normal people. Not even my financial independence has been useful to change this situation. Every year I steadily send money home, I don’t keep a single penny for myself, and even so I have to hear that I’m not doing “what is proper”!
The daily reproaches and dirty looks I get make me feel like all joy has fled from my life. The only difference between now and previous years, is that normally I would leave early to go back and earn myself a living. I would be crazy to stay here and take all his gratuitous nastiness, the frustrations of a convict. It’s not the first time I think of this: we, city dwellers, while still having to face vexation and follow orders, do, however, have an income! After all these years, we’re like fish in the water, we got used to this fast-paced life in the metropolis, and now find it hard to come back and re-integrate into the family life that we so dearly miss.
And yet, thinking about life in the city, I’ve started getting clashing feelings that are anxiety producing: that oppressive life spent in the country, made of days worrying away –let alone the not so bright job prospective awaiting after the epidemic – have made me feel like there is no shelter to be found. How are we going to get through whatever is upon us?
Being locked at home, with an ongoing epidemic, creates turmoil for my mood. I poured out my heart to you, I can only imagine all the burdens you too may want to relieve yourselves from. I haven’t seen you in so long, and I miss the hours we spend together. They really make me happy! I hope to see you soon again!
To finish, stay away from the virus! I bid you health and happiness, and many good things.
A big hug!
Yours truly, Meng Yu, who loves you dearly.