Monday, February 4, 2013


After having had lived in Johannesburg, it took me a long time to walk down a road without constantly looking over my shoulder. I was very nervous, anxious and paranoid of attack, theft or aggression. As a result, my first week at the hotel was challenging since the Chinese maids simply entered the room without knocking first. The first time she did this I was chatting with a friend on Skype and quite suddenly, I knew that I was not alone. While a sudden heat overcame me, I shivered and froze. Slowly turning towards the door, I saw a woman standing and shouted, nearly falling off my chair. She giggled nervously, covering her mouth with both hands, I began to cry.

I quickly gathered my senses, recalling that I was no longer in South Africa under constant threat. My tears were replaced with shouts of recrimination but she did not speak a word of English. And why was I shouting at this poor woman?

Funnily enough, the same day I received an email from a friend who is stationed with the British Foreign Service in Kenya. His story made me laugh since it strongly resonated with some of my own experiences in Africa.

“On a recent visit to Nairobi, my in-laws brought their old clothes to distribute to our house staff.  Rather than feign appreciation, the gardener rummaged through the items, chose a particular shirt and asked whether we could provide him with one in blue.  In addition to the gardener, my wife and I battle with the driver who stubbornly refuses to reduce his speed from 100km on the neighborhood paths but drives at 20km on the highway.”

With time, I found that maids in China were equally blunt. I once had a new maid show me a number of items (purses, shoes, and clothes) that she liked and wanted to have. Her rationale was that I hardly wear some of the items and that other items would look better on her body type. The other constant was their inquiry about cost, whether a pound of squash or a new dress, they wanted to know how much I had paid. And, according to them, I always overpaid. I found myself hiding packages, literally kicking things under the bed when I heard her footsteps approach, so that I would not be reprimanded. Eventually I learned to bargain harder and would, on occasion, receive the laudatory assessment that I was “becoming a good Chinese housewife.”

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