It’s Friday night at 9 pm and Beijing is ready to party. But unlike the many rich kids soon to converge on Gongti in their fancy cars, Zheng Meizhen rides her scooter to the club. Outfitted with a little basket in the front, it’s cheap and reliable, just as she described herself to the club manager during her interview. She’s the club’s cleaning lady, and is getting ready to start her shift.
Zheng Meizhen is about to turn 52. Time has been treating her well enough that she looks like 42, but her joints crack whenever she sits down in her office — the toilet stall where she keeps all her tools. The cracking reminds her of how much she doesn’t fit in. Here, people pour alcohol to kill the time. But for this mother of a 29 year old son, she wants time to slow down.
Song Wei is her only friend at the club. He is 21 and works as a waiter. Like Meizhen, he is also from Henan Province. Quite new to the capital, he is still simple and kind. He doesn’t understand how a bottle of liquor could cost two thousand. He gets yelled at a lot, and whenever it happens, he sneaks into the restroom to chat with Meizhen. He calls her Zheng Ma, but she never calls him by his real name. Here, he is called William. It sounds like Wei, and he’s pretty sure it’s the name of some prince.
“Wei-lian-mu!” Meizhen shouts to Song Wei as she walks into the club. Her distinct Chinglish accent pierces through the club, overpowering even the Jessie J and Ellie Goulding blasting in the background.
“You’re here early, Zheng Ma.” says Song Wei, or William, anxiously fixing his hair. Yesterday he was docked 50 RMB for not looking “professional” enough.
“Ah you know my son’s wife. She won’t shut up if I’m at home. But it’s good to leave them some alone time, so I can have a grandson sooner! And stop messing with your hair. You look good enough!” Meizhen says with a big smile.
Song Wei likes her optimism. Despite having lost her husband five years ago and having to put up with an evil daughter-in-law, she always manages to stay positive. “Thank you, and I will bring you some leftover vodka later!” He says.
“You little bastard!” Meizhen laughs.
The 8 hours of work starts. Meizhen fills her bucket with water and quickly mops the floor. Then she carefully wipes away the water drops around the sink and on the mirror, and refills toilet paper for every stall. The manager is coming soon for a daily checkup. If she passes she will get a red star stamp, and a row of 10 stars equals 200 kuai bonus. Zheng happily examines her work. She will be getting her 9th star today, as long as nothing goes wrong in the next ten minutes.
“Well, let’s hope nobody stumbles in and vomits,” she thinks.
The club is slowly filling up. Meizhen notices Song Wei leading the way for a group of girls. She hopes he can get a commission tonight. She keeps telling him to go after guys instead of hot chicks in tiny skirts. Guys are the real spenders, after all. But Song Wei is too young to know that. He just likes to look at pretty girls.
Three tall girls walk into the restroom and start to put on their lipstick. Their eyes are so big that they almost look like aliens. Meizhen recognizes them as the club’s dancers, getting paid to be pretty. She compliments them on their appearance and hands over paper towels.
If Meizhen has learned one thing here, it is that she should never judge. She’s been here for a year, and she’s seen people doing worst things in the restroom. They curse, they scream, they vomit. They piss everywhere and then get busy in their own urine. They throw tampons on the floor and spit gum on the lid. Meizhen might be pissed if she was 30, but the last 22 have allowed her to look beyond, and see the lonely souls and broken hearts for what they are: people struggling to deal with a mundane life.
The dancing girls are on stage now, but Meizhen starts to yawn. It’s almost 11 PM. The good thing about working in a night club is you never feel the time. She always imagines it’s a beautiful day outside, and when she finally gets off work at 5 AM, she gets to ride home as the birds start to sing and the whole city is still asleep. She’s happy.
However, Ma Jinling, a friend in the neighborhood, doesn’t agree. She thinks a night club job is nasty and shameful, and urges Meizhen to get a job like hers. She is an Ayi at a foreign company, and has a desk of her own on the 28th floor of an office building. She doesn’t have a lot to do, except for vacuuming the office, watering plants, and collecting newspapers.
Frankly speaking, Meizhen agrees that it’s a better job, and certainly one that would ensure a good night of sleep. But she hates to admit it. Ma likes to send her photos about fruit in the office and the free mooncakes, and Meizhen can almost see the smug grin on Ma’s face. Ma thinks she’s better than her, as if an office job really makes her a white collar professional. In reality, though, she’s just like the pretentious bartenders working at the night club — people who think they are better than waiters like Song Wei because they mix drinks. Meizhen also hates when Ma talks about how well educated people in her office are. Sure, they have a college degree and wear suits, but aren’t they the same people getting wasted and acting like dipshits every weekend?
Meizhen shakes her head to rid herself of the judgmental thoughts. She needs to be peaceful and kind. She wants to remind the young club-goers of their own mom so she can make extra tips, although she has no idea why anyone would pay others to hand them paper towels.
She greets a white guy and makes her first tip of the night, although she pronounces “Good evening” as “Goo-duh-eve-ning”. Song Wei taught her a few phrases, and though he’s not the best teacher, she’s still happy with the outcome.
She makes a mental note to bring Song Wei some homemade pickles and learn more English from him. Maybe some sweetened garlic, or maybe dry cucumber. Pickled radish sounds good too, but then she remembers that she’s run out of soy sauce. She’ll need to buy some tomorrow after work and also make more porridge for breakfast. Her son really liked it this morning. Thinking about these trivial things makes her happy. Life may be hard, she thinks, but whose isn’t?