Sunday, May 20, 2012

Three Ayis


I met her on my first day at work while she was cleaning the bathroom. She was flushing the toilets with a violence normally reserved for confronting minute maids. I asked her if she was ok. She looked at me, then glanced left and right, all the while pursing her lips. With a conspirator's whisper, she told me that we should retreat to the stairways, where it would be safe to talk because there were no security cameras.

There I listened, fidgeting with my work badge, while she railed against management and her hourly rates. I asked her where the recycling bin was. She refused to tell me, instead offering to give me a 40% cut from her scrap paper + bottles sales if I would be her supplier.

Since then, I've often had to excuse myself and walk through five or six ayis unionizing in the stairway. She was always the one sitting on the highest stair, a queen bee who reigned their 15 minute breaks.

It's Wednesday, but the lady who usually tidied my papers and wiped down my office desk wasn't there. When she got back the next week, she seemed less excited about piecing the mustard yellow vacuum cleaner together. When she came around to my desk with the wet, purple rag, I told her I was sorry about her sister. She looked away, then shook her head slightly, pretended to be concerned about the ink spill on my desk. After soaking and wringing her rag a few times too many, she finally asked me what she should do with her 14 year old niece. She didn't have the resources to take her in and provide for her own son.


I stopped her in the hall and asked her about the ayi she replaced. Her eyes narrowed, calculating whether I was the one who told on the ayi and her unions. After deciding that a whistleblower wouldn't ask her to say hi to the other, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it.

She liked to keep me in on the loop regarding bathroom gossip. I now know which girl on the floor often didn't flush and which company, on the whole, was the dirtiest.

One day, as I was walking out of the bathroom, she called me over to the dark closet room with a loud whisper. She handed me her phone and asked me to help her get past her current level on her game. The rules were simple. Happy snails pushing crates onto apples get points in a garden maze. I fumbled pathetically. We didn't play games growing up.

I felt genuinely bad when she had to start all over because of my three failed attempts. She was on level 10. As I walked away, back to the office, I heard her mutter while picking up her mop, "Ayah. Made me start all over again. And I thought she was smart."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Commie Girl

Freshman year. First semester. PL SC 170 - Intro to International Politics.

It was our Communism unit. Somebody asked what it was. Somebody else talked about Russia. Cold War. And, inevitably, China. The general feeling was that the big bad "C" word was the short answer to China's problems.The professor smiled and let the discourse flow its increasingly hostile course.

I wore a forest green top, with a thin ribbon that tied at the back. I felt feminine. Felt like a college student. Felt the appropriately awkward freshman mix of confidence and insecurity. So I raised my hand, in hesitant increments, and got called upon.

"I am probably a little biased because my grandparents and relatives were involved with the People's Liberation Army, but as bad as Communism was, I believe that it was the best thing for China at the time." I rattled off how this ideology, although ultimately misguided and manipulated for factional power struggles, united a country that had been torn apart by wars for a whole century. I listed off a series of other justifications.

The room went quiet. The professor moved on. At the end of the class, as I picked up my lavender purple binder, I heard a psst and a whisper, "Look. There's that Commie girl."

And that was how I started getting random high fives by closet Communist sympathizers in the school food court.


My friend Jonathan, a fellow BYU student interning at our company, doesn't quite call me Commie girl. Instead, he vigilantly catches all my absentminded references to "we" - meaning Chinese people - and schools me on being an appropriate American. If he had my US passport in hand, he would be waving it as a flag to warn me against being too cozy with my Chinese identity and too comfortable with the way of life in Communist China.

The truth is, I have loyalties everywhere, and therefore, by default, loyalties nowhere. I am, what us Hong Kongers affectionately dub, a "third culture kid" - having been born Chinese, raised American, but educated British.

In an American classroom, with classmates determined to re-win the Cold War with their textbook rhetoric on Communism, I merely tossed out another view. I was not volunteering to be a standard bearer/ martyr representing "the other side" in an ideological debate.

Communism is so much more than Marx, censorships, or good vs. evil. It has a human side, the encouraging and the horrifying.

Communism is three generations of China, juxtaposed, with the old comrades oddly accepting of the modern bourgeois which they fought against, the middle aged vocally angry about rights and corruption, and the young apathetic and distracted by marriage and financial pressures. It is honest people who bled and suffered for a cause, dispensing forgiveness with casual shrugs to the violent students who smashed up social order in their Red fervor. It is pig-faced officials who pulled strings to obtain a position where others pay them to pull strings. It is an increasingly capitalist China, allowing the dollar sign to replace the hammer and the sickle, where the farmers are shut out of the cities and its benefits because they lack the proper urban residence passports.

As for me, Communism is the backdrop of my grandparents' epic life stories ("Female comrades used cotton pieces from military coats as sanitary pads. Many men's coats were picked clean by the time they reached North Korea!"). It is the dream for which they sacrificed for, because they believed in the good of their country and their people.

So it's more out of a respect for my grandparents and their sacrifice, and a need for people to understand the rationale of the flip side, that I raised my hand that day and every day since then.

Psst. Commie girl coming through.