Comfort and Boundaries: Local Customs, Assumptions and Personal Mores

Summer is creeping in at full-blast, hot still afternoons where I’m suddenly struck with a desire for ice cream, and the cats lay languid, paws drooping down the couch.

Summer also means cat hair all over our flat, along with dust from the construction site next door.  And since both of us like having a clean house, but E isn’t overly fond of cleaning, and I’m not overly fond of cleaning up after other people (not to mention neither of us can iron), we have a once-a-week cleaner.

In the past few years we’ve gone through several rounds of cleaners.  While it is nice to live in a city where hiring a cleaner costs less than dinner (again, price and wage discrepancies in a city with dual economies), it’s also a never-ending drama. Some cleaners show up for weeks without notice.  Some make small things around the house mysteriously disappear. Some just stop doing part of their previously agreed-upon duties without a word, and three weeks later ask for a repeated raise.  Some steal fruit from our fridge. Some this, some that.  In February we kind of gave up and acceded to E’d secretary, who said that her two nieces (who happen to be students at the university) would clean flats for 750 som (the going rate is 500-1000 for professional cleaners; all the Turkish families at the university seem to pay 500).  We figured that, as they are related to someone E works with, there wouldn’t be any problems.  Eh…not quite.

First of all, because they’re from the country, they didn’t know how to use the washing machine and, though they were meticulous about ironing every last piece of clothing, it took three weeks for us to convince them that, yes, the bathroom actually needs to be cleaned as well, and isn’t just some dirty closet we clutter with cleaning supplies.  We actually ended up writing a list (not unlike the chore list I had…when I was ten) because every week we were saying the same things, and every week they would concede, and then not do those exact same things. And eat our bananas, despite us leaving our crackers and tea (why is it always the bananas?!). They try hard but, honestly – it’s not an ideal situation, for either them or us. They are far from professional cleaners, and they themselves would probably be better served doing a (lesser-paying) part job that utilizes their developing academic skills.

But last Sunday one girl was out of town and so the other one, instead of doing the job herself (it’s not that big a flat…) brought her ten, eleven year old cousin.  When they arrived I just assumed the girl came because her parents were out and her older cousin was supposed to watch her for a few hours – that wouldn’t be uncommon, as our former cleaner had brought her young niece along one or two times.  But when we came back from brunch and our weekly bazaar stock-up we discovered the little girl was actually cleaning our house.  And that made both of us uncomfortable. E talked to the secretary the next day – how did she let a kid come to clean our house? The woman’s response was merely that the other girl was out of town, there was no one else who could go, sorry they had to send a little kid.  I don’t think she saw it as inappropriate in any way.  But for us: we can’t ask someone else’s pre-teen kid to come and scrub our floors or iron our shirts.  Whatever the labor laws or countryside practices are (in any country), we don’t feel morally comfortable with that.  Cleaning your own house as part of a weekly chore list, or watching a neighbor’s kids – fine, suitable. But semi-hard labour for someone else, and for a child who is too young to have a true say – no.

And, furthermore – is it fair to us?  For the wages we pay, we should have a professional.  No, and a very queasy situation.  Thankfully the other girl came back this week.  Two girls of nineteen, twenty, choosing out of their own free will to earn a bit of extra money – I can feel fine with that.  What still bothers me though is that the situation should have arisen in the first place – what were the assumptions that made this seem so ok?

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