Wednesday, November 09, 2005
No Ask, No Tell
When we moved into our new three-bedroom apartment, our friend Clayton reminded us every chance he got, “oh oh, you’ve got to hire Xiao Luo as your Ayi (maid). He’s so good at cleaning, doing laundry, and everything else in the household. He even pays the phone bills for you. And he needs the money right now cause his wife is pregnant with their second baby.”
Clayton is the kind of friend who’d drag you to his newly-discovered restaurant of the month and keep organizing dinner gatherings there until you agree it’s one of the best in Beijing. He’d talked most of our expat friends into hiring Xiao Luo. So bowing to peer pressure, we hired him as well.
We liked Xiao Luo immediately after we all met. He’s short with a dark complexion, and always ready to put up a smile when addressed to. His politeness was so extreme that it made me uncomfortable. For it seemed to remind me how big a gap exists between us.
Our dry cleaner wasn’t impressed though. “Why do you hire a man maid?” She asked when I made one of my last trips to drop off dry cleaning now we have Xiao Luo. She had just met him earlier that day when Xiao Luo picked up some clothes. “Cleaning is a woman’s job,” she said.
I smiled and didn’t bother to protest her OMG sexist comment. Unlike the hourly maids who are mostly inexperienced country girls, Xiao Luo cleaned the rooms like how my mother would, leaving no trace of dust behind. He agreed to come twice a week and we pay him US$75/month. Twice as much as the hourly maids, it’s well worth it.
The second time he came was a Sunday. He did laundry for us for the first time. As he was folding all the underwear neatly on our bed in the master bedroom, I asked him about his background (he came to Beijing 6 years ago from Anhui province), how he followed his wife into the ayi service (the restaurant business he was first involved in was too competitive), and how they are managing a second baby with the family planning policy (“we are allowed to have two babies in the countryside”).
Then he turned to me, “Mr., how should I separate out the underwear for your two?”
The question stunned me for a beat. I thought Xiao Luo should have a decent gaydar running since he’d worked for over two years for Clayton and his partner. Clayton only has a sofa bed in his guest bedroom which is only pulled out when guests come. Surely Xiao Luo couldn’t have thought that Clayton and his partner slept in the same bed to save on the heating bills during summer.
“Mr., what should I do with the underwear?” Xiao Luo asked for the second time.
“Oh,” I snapped out of my wondering, “just leave them there. We will sort it out ourselves.”
After Xiao Luo left the bedroom, my boyfriend, who had been watching nearby, turned to me, “What happened to you? Are you not the outest person I know?” I had often lectured him on the merits of coming out to his straight friends, and ultimately, to his family.
“I…I just don’t want to confuse him.” I picked up the underwear and stuff it into a dresser drawer as my boyfriend laughed.
The issue kept on coming back. On several subsequent occasions Xiao Luo asked similar questions on whether he should separate dry cleanings, socks and shirts. Every time I gave him the same answer, “Don’t worry. We will sort it out.” And my boyfriend kept on making fun of my closetedness.
I still don’t understand why I feel embarrassed to come out to him, especially after coming out to my family and now anybody who bothers to ask me any trivial question about my relationship status. Is he really that clueless? He never had to make the bed in the guest bedroom!
But for Chinese who often grow up in cramped living space where several would share the same bed, this may not appear that strange. Same-gender bonding can be really close without raising eyebrows. Many in the educated class in Beijing have heard of homosexuality which they regard with curiosity and/or disgust. Nevertheless in the Sanlitun embassy district, one can often spot off-duty security guards, mostly from the countryside, holding hands while strolling in their uniforms.
Xiao Luo looks just like that, innocent and simple. I didn’t want to disturb that innocence.
A couple of weeks later, Xiao Luo helped us organize summer clothes and put them away in storage. My boyfriend pulled out several long Ts, “these I’d like to keep for the winter.” Xiao Luo grabbed them and stood up, “I’ll go put them in the guest bedroom’s wardrobe for you then.”
As soon as Xiao Luo went into the guest bedroom, my boyfriend gave me an evil stare and stamped his foot, “This is my apartment!” Xiao Luo had apparently assumed I was the owner and my boyfriend, who bought the apartment, was the one subletting. I laughed as my boyfriend continued to seethe with anger. “You’ll have to do something,” he said.
A week after that one of my friend was coming to visit for a week. I took this opportunity to instruct Xiao Luo that we needed to empty out the wardrobe in the guest bedroom and put all the clothes of us two in the master bedroom.
“Everything?” He asked.
“Everything.” I affirmed.
For the next hour, I felt he avoided looking at me when he passed by me in the apartment. Or was it me?
Regardless, he never asked again whether he should separate out anything for us from then on. Now we can admire the neatness of our underwear, carefully folded and organized in the drawers in the master bedroom, without feeling the slightest embarrassment to explain anything.