Lessons about my “Chineseness” from a Cleaning Lady


I never thought I would discover a part of me that is deeply authoritarian and order-obsessed from a cleaning lady who won’t come in to clean my room.

What’s wrong with my room? What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with me?

Here’s the scenario.

Last Saturday after breakfast just before 9 a.m., I walked into my room and realized that the bed wasn’t made. It was the same mess I had left it with pillows, sheets and blankets thrown and twisted. I was a bit surprised only because the day before, my room was already cleaned, dusted and smelling fresh even though I had left for breakfast much earlier and returned much sooner.
“Wow. Impressive.” I remember thinking to myself. Perhaps they’re busy today, not a big deal. I was about to go brush my teeth when I heard knocking on my door.

“Oh, hi – great to see you! Come in!”

A Hispanic woman in pristine uniform seemed stunned by my enthusiastic invitation.

“No. No. I’ll come back. What time you leave?”

“I’ll be in my room almost all day till later this afternoon. So, just come in and clean. It’s okay. I will be working on my computer at the desk, (gesturing to the corner).
We won’t be in each other’s way.”

“No. No. I can’t come in when you are there. I will come back.”

“Please come in. What’s wrong with cleaning my room when I’m here? That’s happened many times before when I was…”

She cut in. “Not here. I can’t clean when you are in the room.”

“Why Not?”

Our voices began to rise and our opposing positions hardened.

We went back and forth for almost 10 minutes. She was repeating the same answer and I kept asking – “What’s wrong? Why Not?”

Finally, I gave up arguing with her. I decided to appeal to authority.

“OK. let me talk to your supervisor.”

“OK. You do that.” She smiled and left.

I was sizzling inside, wondering what’s going on here. I called Housekeeping and complained to the supervisor that the cleaning lady had refused to clean my room.

“It’s not usual for our cleaning ladies to clean the room when the guest is there.” She told me politely and firmly.

“Ok. It’s not usual for me to have to be working in the room all day either. What’s the big deal? “

Again, she kept repeating the same line “it’s not usual for our cleaning ladies to….”
over and over, which did not resolve my query or address my need. I decided to switch tone and language.

“What’s the logic? Is it the law? Is it your policy? What is the reason? Give me a reason.”

“If the cleaning lady is not comfortable doing that, I can’t force her.”

“Not comfortable?”

I was at a complete loss as to why I would make her feel uncomfortable. I finally put my foot down with a top-down demand.

“I’m not comfortable working in this tiny stuffy room with my desk next to a messy bed and a messy bathroom for the rest of the day. I am a guest here. I pay for a clean room. You have a sign for us to hang on the door “Request Cleaning Service.” I am requesting cleaning service now. Please ask the cleaning lady to come back. I will not be in her way. “

“Do you need vacuuming too?” she quickly offered.

“I don’t know. Does she usually vacuum? She can do whatever she usually do, just act like I’m not there. “ I reassured her.

Less than five minutes after we hung up, two cleaning ladies came.

I thanked them and tried to look away so they wouldn’t feel awkward facing me and I didn’t have to feel bad for my bossy attitude that got them back in. They worked seamlessly swift and one of them even offered me an extra bottle of water at the end of their cleaning job – which took less than 5 minutes. I smiled and thanked them profusely.

My bedroom is now clean with freshly laundered linen, and the bathroom is stacked with neatly folded white towels and spotless rugs.

I was feeling good and bad. Yes, I got what I wanted, but I felt bad that I sounded so bossy, spent so much emotional energy and time to get service.

Service, in the Hong Kong Chinese culture where I grew up, has always been superb. Being raised in the colonial era, we were taught and trained to practice the motto – “always put the customers first.” Everyone in the service sector – especially the hotel and hospitality industry, is always making sure the customers or the guests are happy. And I have had no problem with any cleaning staff saying they feel uncomfortable when I asked them to come in and clean the room around me.

So, what’s wrong in this case? Aha! Suddenly, I remembered.

There had been news reports of New York hotel cleaning ladies being assaulted in the room. Remember that notoriously high profile case involving the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn accused of sexual assault against a hotel maid in 2012?

But wait, I’m a woman thin and tiny. How was I a threat?

I began typing search terms “cleaning lady hotel attacked” and came up with 65 million results in Google. As it turns out, even female guests have been reported as grabbing or propositioning hotel male employees when they were delivering bathrobes or blankets.

For the first time, I saw the potential on-the-job danger through the eyes of the hotel cleaning staff.

The outdated service concept I am accustomed to needs to evolve and expand as a 2-way street in 21st century America. It needs to take into account the increasing vulnerabilities that those who do our dirty laundry face when they enter the space of those with money and power.
Even though I am a paying guest, I am not always right.

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.