Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Madam & Li: of maids and teaspoons

Okay, it’s a myth. Maids do not pinch teaspoons or other items of cutlery. The folk tale in my childhood circle of family and friends in Boksburg and Joburg was that “they” did.

“Oh for god’s sake,” my mother would mutter as she rummaged through the cutlery drawer, “we’re down to nine teaspoons again. I used to have a lovely collection of twelve. These ruddy maids.”

“Mom,” I’d protest, in my first stirrings of intense dislike for Apartheid and boeremag authority (about age fifteen), “how do you know it was Sophie? What’s she supposed to do with all these teaspoons she’s been apparently stealing over the years?”

“Sell them, of course, my boy. Sell them.”

Sell them to whom? I thought. To more people who for no rhyme or reason are collecting humble teaspoons?

Sounds a bit like that birthday present you have no need for: you politely thank the giver, and at some appropriate time re-wrap it and give the gift to another innocent on his birthday, which suits my Scottish mentality.

That’s the rhythm and tradition in China right now: its mid-Autumn festival, Zhongqiujie, and we receive moon cakes as gifts from students and fellow teachers. They are lotus seed paste pies, a bit chocolaty in taste, lekker with coffee, but too many is too rich for us and so …. they become gifts for managers and other people whom we wish to butter up.

Back to my point on teaspoons: when we first arrived in China at the beginning of 2005, we lived in Shaoxing and did not have – horror of horrors – a maid for a year. Marion (chookie), had a beautiful cutlery set which she bought in England, a collection she is fiercely proud of.

Yet the teaspoons kept disappearing in Shaoxing.

After about six months in Shaoxing we had lost three or four teaspoons. We rarely had people around except students and they would surely not … so is it ghost maids in China or ghosts who followed us from South Africa to torture us whiteys? What’s happening, as Chookie said, is that teaspoons slide unnoticed into the wastebasket among the leftovers or between serviettes with nary a clatter.

So what other myths do we have? Stolen socks and other items of clothing? The wine in the bottle going down too quickly in the liquor cabinet? All debunked now, I’d say. Amazing how “we” always blamed the maids for every little thing that disappeared or was misplaced in the bad old South Africa. Even my black clients, when I was in Joburg, who, oh so politically correct, referred to their maids as “assistants”, still moaned about petty losses and pointed at their “secretaries”.

We started employing maids, ayi, when we moved to Shanghai. Salina, our second one, must have scratched her head many times about the way we Westerners do things. She was lean, like most Chinese, smiles sparkling up and down her face like fountains and she scampered around the home from one chore to the next. She didn’t seem to know how to walk. Like many Han Chinese she looked twenty years old but was thirty five. She was divorced (relatively unusual in China), and squealed with delight when she joined us for unwrapping Christmas presents under the tree, just the three of us.

Used to different customs, she had never had a Christmas before and was thrilled with her box of chocolates strangely put under a tree. We knew Salina loved chocolate.

I often work from home so Salina and I had lots of time together. The kitchen sink was blocked once and she could not figure out how to unblock it. This strongly suggested she did not have a sink in the tiny room that was her home we had never visited, which we knew she shared with a friend. They had no kitchen and mostly ate in the extremely cheap fandian, family-run restaurants, to be found on nearly every street in Shanghai. These little fandian are so cheap that the meals we eat in our home are exorbitant by comparison. Salina was horrified when I took the plunger from the toilet (“no no, Mr. Rod, that’s for W.C!” They still use that old term here). I ignored her and rammed the plunger up and down on the sink drain hole a few times. Her eyes nearly popped when she saw the water level rapidly subside. “You … very clever,” she said.

Or our sleeping arrangements: Salina could not understand the two duvets rolled up like sausages on our bed. In winter, chookie has a habit of rolling herself up in the whole duvet at night, so we have different duvets. Salina could not understand this and with the cheerful love for minding others’ business many Chinese have, she rolled her eyes at me and said, ‘But why … isn’t she your wife?’ and then looked away, a flower-pink blush spreading across her cheeks. She probably thinks it’s a Western custom, another folk tale to tell her friends.

One day she asked me something in English, which I could not understand. She seemed to be asking for a drop in salary. I asked her to explain it again in Chinese and, though my Chinese at the time was dismal, I eventually gathered she was asking for a drop in salary to get English lessons from me. I refused. She got half-hour lessons for free and from time to time I let her help me with the arduous pronunciation of Mandarin.

The problem with this is you cannot out-give the Chinese. The little gifts from her began to flow, including moon cakes over the Autumn festival.

Salina once made me breakfast of baozi, dumplings, with her own flour and filling … and perhaps all the deities and lamas in Buddhism and Chairman Mao himself knew where her ingredients came from, but it was a unique experience for my stomach. Marion heard me cursing Salina from behind the toilet door for the next two days.

The lessons continued and the informative, office memorandums began to appear around the home. We had a jar of Nutella chocolate spread: “I think you must throw the choclit away. It’s gone past the dating”. Now we knew she craved chocolate, so perhaps this was a ruse to get it out of us, our South African conditioned minds mused. I wrote a letter back saying, “you can have it ,” knowing the Nutella was still okay, and drew a crowd of stick men at the bottom of the letter saying in a word bubble, “Salina loves chocolate!”

To which I received a secretarial reply, “The chocolate is going on the date, I must look on my health. So must you. But thank you for pickture, I like.”

The day came when Salina left us. She had got a job as an estate agent because of her improved English. She came in bouncing and glistening with skin-whitening oil – popular among young women here – on her last day to introduce us to a friend of hers. Eny, our new maid, was a Chinese teacher who had to retire in her early fifties and take up domestic work (an issue to be covered in another post). I like to think – well, I actually know – that the lessons Salina got from me gave her a better chance in life.

And during her one year with us, no more teaspoons disappeared, not one, probably because she did nearly all the washing up.

Or perhaps some old ghosts had been laid to rest.