In 2009 I was teaching in Suzhou, China, at the international school in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). My Grade 9 students began talking about how most students took no notice of the cleaning ladies (“ayis”) and other local staff who worked in the school. They decided to interview and photograph some of them, and post the results on the school’s intranet. Thus was born the “Names and Faces” project. Here is one of my favourites, written by Jessie, Shimmona, and Jacelyn. The woman they interviewed, Wu XiBang, cleaned the corridor outside my classroom, so I saw her often. She was always smiling, just as she is in her photo.
We were three girls with a mission. We were determined. Confident. Unwavering. And so we crept forth, laptop on hand, to unearth our first target: The Cleaning Ayi. With our night vision goggles and black ninja suits we rolled across the floor all the way to the auditorium entrance. There, clothed in ayi clothes, stood our victim.
“Are you busy?”
“No, I’m free right now.”
And so our creation was born.
So we strapped her to a toilet and started to gag her, but then realized that this was AAALLL A DREEEAAAAAAAM. And so THEN our creation was born.
Ayis. Our school is filled with them. Silent workers behind the scenes, they prevent us from stepping into inch high layers of dust bunnies after the holidays. Armed with mops, they clean up after our messes. Shrouded by a cloak of invisibility, they appear before us in a ray of heavenly light, a splotch of paint, or a dropped tray of food lying before our sheepish smiles.
But what do we know about these silent creatures? Their name, perhaps? Their age, family, dreams, pets, preference of dessert? And cue the sheepish grins once more.
Wu Xi Bang, a dedicated wife and mother, born and bred in SIP during its baby years. Already, her children are older than us, with a daughter of 24 and a son of 16. Everyday after work, she goes home. She buys vegetables, and cooks dinner. Every following weekday morning, around 7:45, she rides an e-bike to work, staying until five. And so the process is repeated, day after day, five days a week.
“So when you finish working, what do you do?”
“I go back. Then when I’m at home, I buy vegetables and cook dinner.”
“How about when you have spare time?”
“I relax on the sofa…watch TV.”
“Don’t you go out?”
“Ah, I rarely go out.”
“So you don’t go window shopping…or just take a walk outside?”
“Most of the time I’m just at home.”
When we were little, we dreamed of growing up and being famous rock stars, billionaires, Harry Potter, dinosaurs, The Joker and Batman. We wanted to go to Neverland, Hogwarts, the moon whilst riding in the back of the Batmobile. But when asked the same question, Wu Xi Bang merely shrugged.
“Nowhere. Where would I go?”
“Nowhere? Then are you happy with your life? With what you’re doing now?”
“Yeah, I’m satisfied. I’m happy.”
This concept was fascinating. Curious, we poked a little harder.
“When you were younger then, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“…Just be an adult.”
“Didn’t you dream of going to other places, of being famous, of becoming a rock star?”
“Nah. I just wanted to grow up, be an adult, have daughters, children, and have work; that’s all. After all, we’re just people who live then die; it’s just like that.”
And with those words, the woman standing before us, someone who many of you may have passed by with barely a glance, had just transformed into a completely different person before our eyes. Her words were true. Her opinion was justified. It was just like that.
“So a simple life is enough, for you?”
“Yeah. A simple life is enough.”