Two different worlds

13 Sep

My August and September are shaping up to be two of the busiest periods I have lived through in a while.  An office move, a personal move, several high profile people visiting at work from overseas, a trip to Korea (more to come on that) and trying to plan for October holidays have put me behind the eight ball.  Sleep has definitely been a luxury and I anticipate the next couple of weeks to continue in the same mold.

As I am trying to fit everything in I am getting to the office earlier than I have for a while – arriving between 8 and 8:30 which gives me an hour of “peace” before the masses arrive.  The cleaning staff has not yet accustomed themselves to seeing me since the office move and with the move I no longer have an office so I am in the main working area.  It’s that funny awkward feeling – you know that they’re doing their job but I would prefer to move in a bubble – no loud noises – floating through my morning without interruptions.

One day last week I walked into the women’s restroom and found our cleaning lady washing her hair in the sink.  She had carefully tucked paper towels around her collar and was rinsing (I think) when I arrived.

I almost backed right out of the bathroom – it felt as though I was intruding on a very private moment.  Instead, I scurried into a stall and took a little longer than I otherwise would as I listened for signs that she had finished.

I came out and we nodded at each other as I washed my hands.  Nothing was said but my mind had a list of questions that I wanted to ask – the first being “Why are you washing your hair in the sink?”

Can you think of a world where you would do that?  I’m having a pretty tough time.  I wrote about Urban Shanghai last week and the contrast between old and new and this struck me in the same way – but at a much more personal level.  I felt uncomfortable – partially because of my position of privilege in this culture and partially because I believe that there are certain parts of my life that I don’t want to share with others (washing my hair being one of them).

Any stories where you have seen two different worlds come together?


11 Responses to “Two different worlds”

  1. Kristin September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    What an awkward situation indeed! Could it be that she had no running water at home? That could be the case here in Mexico. Or who knows, maybe she was getting ready for a hot date with a colleague after her shift…? 😉 in any case, bizarre!
    While we were travelling through Chiapas last week, we saw several Indian women breastfeeding: they were just walking around, shopping, chatting, and selling their goods while letting their boobs hang out. I may be too uptight, but I felt very uncomfortable with that! I agree, some things should remain private.

    • gkm2011 September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

      If I had to merit a guess I would say that perhaps she didn’t have hot water at home – but to tell you the truth I didn’t have the guts to ask. Breastfeeding is a different category I suppose – but in China you don’t bring your child to work, so I think I won’t see that one.

  2. jotsfromasmallapt September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    It is difficult to know, in certain environs, what is acceptable and what is not. So much depends on the culture….
    What I have found in my travells: no matter what country, no matter if you have the language or not…we are more alike than different.

    • gkm2011 September 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      Yes – that is true – but every once in a while something happens where you remember the range of possibilities of the normal.

  3. roomaomao September 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Yup breastfeeding and taking cash for a beer in a shop in Laos , Chinese haircuts in the street , Chinese 2 year olds taking a crap in the metro garbage can , Filippinos pissing all over the place . Sometimes life is more in yo face.

  4. sarahinguangzhou September 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    Yes one of my earliest memories of China (Ningbo) was walking home and seeing people out in the street with a bowl of water washing their hair, along with naked children in the tub. It had never occurred to me before that they wouldn’t have a bathroom inside their houses, but of course they wouldn’t. That’s why there were so many public toilets along the street; most people didn’t have one in the house.
    I suspect your cleaner also lives in a house without bathroom.

    • gkm2011 September 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

      It is very possible – I walk by places like that every day but this one really hit it home. This is someone that I talk to and work with. Eye opening.

  5. expatlingo September 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    I think this belongs in a slightly different category, but I was in awe of the woman curling her eyelashes and applying a full face of make-up during her MTR commute yesterday. I’m sure she had a bathroom at home… she just liked to pretty herself up in front of a full audience.

    • gkm2011 September 14, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

      I suppose doing it on the MTR is safer than doing it while driving (which I saw when living in Chicago), but it does speak to a distinct difference in personal space.


  1. The fifth quarter update « 中国 Jumble - October 16, 2012

    […] include – when I ran into my office cleaning lady washing her hair in the sink – in Two Different Worlds and when I snapped photos of the abandonment of buildings near a very popular street I live on in […]

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