Saturday, February 5, 2011

the cleaning lady and her daughter

This morning I awoke to the sound of the big fight scene in Braveheart wafting up the stairs from the TV salon below. I'm currently sharing a guesthouse with 5 other people, but none of them are likely to be up and about at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. If they are awake, they tend to be doing something more wholesome than watching Braveheart.

I wandered down the stairs, bleary-eyed and inappropriately dressed considering the mixed company of our house. I discovered what I'd expected: the cleaning lady and her daughter had arrived, and junior had turned on the TV. She was helping her mom in another room, though, so I turned the television off even though I knew I was done sleeping for today.

This wasn't the first time, nor the last, that our lovely Eritrean cleaning lady brings her daughter to work with her. The day I moved in to this house, the bi-generational team was here, television on, and they welcomed me with an almost fierce hospitality, insisting on carrying my light carry-on suitcase up the stairs for me. The girl is about 16 years old and out of school. She speaks good English and is eager to practice it with us. Her mother speaks only a little bit of English and even less Arabic.

I'm convinced they were of an elite class back in Eritrea, and they fled here for some gender-related reason. Ababa, the mother, is a dear woman, who keeps the house impeccably clean and spends much of her day wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out what she's supposed to do to make our lives more comfortable.

The daughter, who comes two or three times a week, seems to spend the entire day cleaning the salon with the TV in it, while she watches the TV. One day, I came home from work to grab my lunch. She was cleaning the TV area and watching Eritrean news. By the time I'd finished heating my food, she'd taken a seat and switched to the English-language film channel, so I sat down on the sofa and joined her. She asked me if I wanted to choose a channel and I waved so as to say "this is fine." I guess my hand gesture language is different from hers, because she took that as leave to switch back to Eritrean TV. Which she proudly explained to me was the channel of her country. Of which I understood not a word and invited a feeling of boredom as I stared blankly and ate my food as quickly as I could.

I don't have a lot of experience with house help, and even less experience with women who bring their daughters to work. In principle, I don't mind the girl enjoying herself while she's in our house. She probably doesn't have a television here in her new city and she must really miss watching TV like she did back home.

But this afternoon, as the four female of the residents of the house sat at the dining table and worked, something just seemed odd about the girl, and for a while her mother as well, watching the rerun of Braveheart in the next room over. As the sounds of the film wafted into our workspace some of us relished the soundtrack, some got distracted from our work and wandered in to watch a bit, and some didn't even notice.

I really don't know what to think.


alittlebitograce said...

wow..that sounds...odd. cultural differences make for some very interesting conversations and relations. we have friends that are refugees from eritrea. the more i learn about why people are refugees, the more my heart breaks for them. :(

Lindsay said...

it sounds like she is annoying you even though you are not trying to feel that way. or am i misreading this entry? i'm not sure what you are getting at.... just tell her plainly that you prefer to watch television in a language you understand. you can't expect her to be a mind reader, even people from the same culture misread each others slight hand movements. i don't think it's rude, but normal, if you ask her not to wake you up to braveheart!

Kati patrianoceu said...

Hi Lindsay... thanks for your thoughts! Yes, you're right, I do find the situation somewhat annoying, but there are several reasons where I don't feel it's my place to do anything about it: first, this is a guesthouse and not my house, meaning that I wasn't the one who hired her. So if I talk to someone it should be the Admin manager at the office and that would make it into a big deal. Second, the girl isn't my daughter, and I feel odd disciplining someone else's daughter. Third, I think she is probably in a really difficult place in life, having just left her family and her city and been uprooted and probably having previously been wealthy and now is poor, so it seems a bit prissy of me to let my personal preferences dictate how she should act. All of this set aside, if there were an appropriate moment, I probably would say something, and what is truly amazing to me about the situation is that, even though her mother is the household help, she acts as if she owns the house, meaning that there really would be no way to avoid awkward feelings. Sorry... this ended up being a much much longer explanation that you probably needed.

Lindsay said...

that is frustrating that she acts like she owns the house when she doesn't pay rent & you're not really in a place to say anything.... good luck! xoxo

Post a Comment