Saturday, July 9, 2011

Housekeeping a la Chinese

I offer no argument to the statement that I am not the world’s best housekeeper. While I do not like living in a pigsty, I will admit that I am rather negligent. The floor, for example: one only walks on the floor, so there is bound to be dust and a smidge or two of dirt. I can live with that as long as it is not overwhelming. Dishes is another great example: being as I generally eat alone, I don’t mind stacking the day’s dishes by the sink as long as they are rinsed and do not attract bugs.

I feel these are reasonable concessions for a person who lives alone. Sure, I’m down with clean linens and well made beds; I make my bed every day. I kind of have to because of all the people who like to drop by and surreptitiously ‘inspect’ my apartment. They’re just looking around and that is deemed acceptable by Chinese culture standards. It wouldn’t do for my bed to be unmade. They don’t inspect the bathroom, so those standards are all mine. I like a clean bathroom and go to great lengths to keep it clean. I can’t get clean in a dirty bathroom, can I?

In short, I’m no Donna Reed but then, I’m not Maxine either.

Dust is a different proposition. There will be dust, unless you have a central vacuum system that automatically sucks dust out of the air. Western scientists postulate that 80% of household dust is actually skin cells and hair. The more people who live in your home, the more dust you are bound to have. I do not have the wherewithall to scientifically refute that argument. I only have China, and my experiences here.

I live in what I’ve come to refer as my concrete bunker. I do have windows – four of them. I also have whitewash on my living room and bedroom walls and tile on my kitchen and bathroom walls, and I have laminate on my living room and bedroom floors while the kitchen and bathroom floors are tiled. Under these adornments is concrete. There is nothing in this apartment to absorb or conceal anything. No carpeting to conceal dead skin cells or fallen hair. No drywall, wood or tapistries to help balance out the moisture that a ground level apartment made of concrete is bound to accumulate.

The amount of dust that accumulates in my apartment indicates that I would have to shed an enormous amount of dead skin cells for Western science to be correct. Furthermore, my skin cells would have to be dirt brown and consistently damp. I refer you to the ‘Welcome Home’ entry of this blog, written in the distant past of … nine months ago for an original assessment of this apartment’s dust condition.

One morning last week I woke up to find my bathroom floor and vanity not just damp but downright wet, as though someone had hosed the room down. On top of the wet was a layer of dust, courtesy of those ever-present sweeping women who had, earlier in the morning, done their dance with their twig brooms and sent dust flying into my house. Around the sink’s spigot grew a dense crop of furry mold, which had sprung up literally overnight.

Fortunately I am by now used to never walking so much as a step barefooted. I was shod before entering the bathroom and seeing the sheen of moisture glistening on the vanity. As usual I didn’t regard the floor with any kind of importance – floors will be floors after all. They can’t help that they are at the bottom of things and only get walked on. It was only when seeing my muddy footprints leading to the commode and then back around to the vanity and out of the room that I gaped, dumbfounded: What the???

In winter I had a moisture problem because the apartment’s inner temperature was about twenty degrees higher than the outside temperature. With the advent of spring I relished being shut of that issue. Now that it is spring and my windows are flung open I’m having a moisture problem because the outside air is so humid it settles on every surface: floors, tiles, vanities. In both cases I have weeping, seeping concrete with no vapor barrier on the floor and nothing on the walls to absorb anything. It seems moisture will be my nemesis, no matter what season.

It would be an understatement to say my housekeeping standards have been challenged in China.

In America I could afford to be a bit lax in my housekeeping standards. No need to vacuum the wall-to-wall carpeting every day; once a week (or a month) would do. No need in dusting; as long as I don’ t move anything, you can’t tell there is any dust. For dishes I had the dishwasher and for the bathroom I had Clorox wipes. Once a week in-depth cleaning was sufficient. Again, bear in mind that I lived alone and as long as the dirt was not pervasive, I found it tolerable.

On top of that, America makes housekeeping convenient. There are swiffers for the kitchen and bathroom floors that include scrubby pads for high traffic areas. There are vacuum cleaners that will position their heads to whatever level of carpeting you have and do their best to fluff your floor coverings. Most come with attachments to vacuum your furniture, drapes, and anything else that would be convenient to vacuum. There are Clorox wipes for your surfaces, Magic Erasers for those tough stains and Pinesol for your vinyl, laminate or tile floors. There is Lysol to spray if, perchance, you do have a lingering mold odor. Spraying Lysol kills mold on contact, so the ad says.

I could use some Lysol right now; a whole case of it.

Instead what I have is a broom with a 4’handle, a dustpan with a 3’ handle, a long haired mop and hot water. And elbow grease. LOTS of elbow grease. I have useless dusting rags and meagerly parsed out paper towels. I have steel wool and dish soap and bleach. And that’s all I have. I do have a dust mop with a swivel head but what’s the point of that if the floors are wet?

It is obvious that I cannot keep house here a la American, but I do not know how to keep house a la Chinese. How do the Chinese keep their house clean with just those few tools? Do they clean every day, sometimes twice or three times a day? How do they keep their floors clean if, when they sweep the ever-present dust it just creates mud? Do they mop with no regard to sweeping the dust first and just thin the mud out? What about the moisture on the surfaces? Do they wipe that off? Do they have a family duty roster set up to maintain constant vigilance and wipe moisture away at the first manifestation?

Or could my housekeeping woes be the reason why most apartment buildings are constructed so that the first floor apartments are actually several meters from ground level?

Every apartment building I’ve been to since living in China requires climbing at least 5 steps to get to the first level. A lot of apartments are constructed over shops and are not ground level at all. The newer complexes have lush landscaping so that dust is not so prevalent immediately around the building. I have some friends who live in older apartment buildings and their apartments are far above ground level and they do not seem to have much of a dust problem.

In September, when I move into my brand spanking new apartment, I will have the chance to test out my theory.

In the meantime I have dust, moisture and mold. When I came back from Chengdu I found that, in my four-day absence my apartment decided to cultivate mold colonies in the kitchen, living room and bathroom. Even though I had left all of my windows open, it seems that, because the human occupant was gone, the mold was going to rule unchecked. I was horrified, both at the sight of mold growing everywhere and at the idea of how much moisture I am absorbing while I’m here, to prevent these colonies of mold that took over so easily in just four days. No wonder I always feel so good when I’m out of town!

I now do not have a broom, dustpan, mop or trashcans. They were useless in combating my mold and in fact were overcome with mold themselves. Instead of wasting my precious bleach supply on cleaning them, I decided I will buy new ones. I used all of my bleach on treating mold, anyway.

I’m ready for September.

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