I have two projects I wanted to work on throughout the school year and now it’s April. I have been thinking about these two projects while doing nothing. Usually I say count daydreaming as drafting. Perhaps I can. One of the projects is to write about the bathroom ladies. In Kuwait, there are bathroom ladies who keep the bathrooms cleaned and stocked, who sit on plastic stools when they aren’t wiping down sinks and faucets, who accept leftovers from The Cheesecake Factory as a tip, who stay inside a bathroom longer than my working day. I just think, what an interesting life. Maybe it’s great employment given prospects in their home country. Maybe it’s degrading. Maybe it’s weird to accept someone else’s leftover pasta as a thank you for wiping an already clean toilet seat. Or maybe the pasta is really good. Sometimes I wonder why people come to Kuwait. Some workers here are promised one kind of job and arrive to another. So I wonder, what did these women expect? What have they found? What do they enjoy? What do they wish? I wonder what workers here left behind and if they think this day is worth that loss.
These aren’t new thoughts for me. I know a few of the bathroom ladies I see regularly. And now I want to tell their stories. Even then, there are barriers. Language. Purpose. I started to wonder how one-sided this project might feel. I want to interview these women about why they chose to leave their homes and the minute I form that question with her face in my mind, I also see my face and wonder why I’m asking. Over the year I’ve wondered about my intent. I think speaking with bathroom ladies, telling their stories, gives voice to a microcosm of Kuwait. There is this idea of examining something small to tell a bigger story. The thing is, I don’t like the bigger story I see when I zoom out. There are a lot of unchecked labor practices in the region. Part of me wanted to examine recruitment, contracts and visas, the unfulfilled promises given these workers. Part of me wanted to hold these women up as martyrs of a kind, paid nearly nothing to send money home to children they see once every two or three or four years. And I do think that’s a story worth telling. This region can be difficult to document. So much about poor treatment of laborers, maids and nannies is hearsay and anecdotal but that doesn’t imply a story isn’t there to tell. Just that as I thought about my intent – writing about bathroom ladies – I had to reckon my reflex to tell a flat story of a poor bathroom lady against an oil rich backdrop. I don’t have the desire or resources to write a sweeping vilification of labor practices in a country dependent on migrant workers. More, I do not believe that honors the women I want to write about.
My first thought about the bathroom ladies was only to know more who they are. Several years ago I met a woman who likes to draw once her bathroom is tidy. I saw a few of her sketches. There is one woman I see who reads her tiny Bible in a corner. A couple of ladies watch an Indian soap opera on the tiny screen of a phone. So I am returning to that first thought, shaping an essay that tells more who these women are.
Last month I asked one woman if she’d sit with me and talk, tell me a little about her life. She agreed. I’ll speak with her soon. This week I will ask two others to speak with me, but the challenge is language. I remember the first time one woman, newly arrived from Nepal, said hello to me in English and I just thought how lazy I am that I live abroad so easily, assuming everyone everywhere knows a little English. The two women I want to include in the essay do not speak much English. We’ve communicated with facial expression and gesture. I have to figure this part out. I may check my church for translators.
My vision for the bathroom ladies piece is to write a lyric essay. There are so many beautiful and startling images to include and I believe the strength of this piece will be its pauses. What I want is for the essay to show who these three women are.
Perhaps I have been working on this piece all year. I’ve talked about it with a couple of friends. I’ve thought the best way to go about it. For a while I was unsure how much I wanted to appear in the essay. My complicated feelings about entitlement, shame and pity. My alternate apathy and anger at my fortune and others’ (perceived) misfortune. My mess of self-righteousness and prayer for humility. My wrestle with how much blessing Christ really bestows on the poor. I feel like a lot of this comes up for me when I think of my relationship to and with bathroom ladies in Kuwait because for years I’ve asked my perception to shift to see these women as women, not any way lesser for their poverty, not to be pitied, only as equal in worth and counted better than myself. One day I might find a way to say this, what is to love the poor and the rich when I might be called either in this country. But right now, with the months I have left here, my writing work is to listen first.