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I’ll Never Look At China The Same After Working For An Insanely Wealthy Family In Hangzhou|
It was around the time when I sat, still dazed from the jet lag, in the booth of a steakhouse with my family had taken me to, or perhaps when I took the elevator up to my new Chinese home, lined with posters advertising skin and hair lightening treatments, that I realized this was not going to be the Red China I had heard about. In fact, standing in the street lined with designer shoe stores, burger joints, and pizza spots, the very idea that I was in a Communist state seemed laughable.
My decision to move to China had been somewhat incidental. I'd had a terrible last year at university and I didn’t have the money saved to travel freely as I would have liked. When I saw the job listing for a live-in teacher and nanny in China, I knew this could be my chance to get away from my life in London and rural Hampshire, and I'd read a number of books about Chinese history and Mao's China. What I didn't realize was that I would be getting a front row seat at the new lives of the Chinese elite.
Honestly, my family were extremely kind and welcoming and, more generally, the Chinese people seemed to be incredibly hospitable. The family had decorated my room with adorably kitsch furnishings and I was surprised to see how luxurious their apartment was. A love of luxury and Westernism permeated their lives, sometimes in an amusing parody of actual Western customs or products. Pizzas and salads are made with a curious mix of mismatched Western ingredients and almost always slathered with mayonnaise.
My host mother is an incredibly stylish and good-looking woman, and I would watch in amazement as she had stacks of designer shoes delivered every week, seemingly with higher heels each time to boost her tiny 5-foot frame. She and the other kept women of the apartment complex where we lived seemed to pile on these designer ensembles, and she often lamented that she couldn’t find shoes in my size so that I couldn’t look as polished as her. Awkwardly, she would remark enviously about my larger chest when I changed in front of her or when we were looking for clothes.
Despite having hundreds of millions of citizens living in poverty, China's surging population of new rich are all too willing to flash their cash. My family was one of them, and we spent our weekends having lavish 50-dish banquets plus tea and drinks and being driven around in one of the family’s many Porsches.
During the week my days began early, taking the son to school, and then helping him with his homework and helping him learn English when he returned. The kid was very cute, decked out in designer gear like the rest of his family, but sometimes incredibly hard not to discipline — for example, he once spat in my face and I found I could do nothing to tell him off.
The kid's life was ridiculously lavish and he was more than a little spoiled. For example, the family organized an event including famous singers from Hong Kong and a catwalk show that featured their son performing a song at the end. As the performance ended, several girls asked him to sign autographs and pictures and from that his already understandably slightly spoiled personality had another ego boost. A little while later, his Chinese teacher was helping me look after him one day and translated a remark he had made out of nowhere: He said we should be nicer to him because he is a star now. It was understandable he was a little big-headed — his mother kept trying to get him into TV and four evenings a week he had keyboard, singing, and piano lessons. She was sure he would be a star.
Although he was often incredibly cheeky (he would pick his nose and wipe it on me, and also tried to sneak me pork, something which I don’t eat), this wasn’t all that bad compared to some of my friend’s experiences. One girl who lived about an hour from me witnessed the younger child who was about five being allowed to pee on the floor or into a bucket in the living room so he didn’t have to move the 10 steps into the bathroom. Other kids are extremely violent: A girl in the next building was often cracked on the head with wood or kicked in the face and chest by the three-year-old she looked after. Worse still was the experience of my friend who was constantly called fat by the agency and her hosts, screamed at by her family members, and forced to cook using peanut oil, to which she is allergic. My own issues were usually not due to the family being jerks, but more to a massive culture clash and due to problems with the agency that had helped me find a job.
It certainly wasn't all bad. Everywhere I saw kids playing happily or sat by the lake or pond with their grandparents, just enjoying being there. My host-mother would give her son a big kiss and I heard excited squeals before he went to bed coming from the bathroom as she washed him and they played games. Often he would come into my room and talk to my friends on skype or just sit on the bed playing next to me. Once when it was time for bed he looked up at me and said "wo xihuan ni," which means "I like you." I’ll remember that much better than the mango, mayo, and tomato salad.