An “Underdog’s” Life: A Chinese student babysitter’s story

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” —— Samuel Johnson.

London is an exciting city full of surprises and unknown adventures. If I hadn’t been a babysitter in the rich neighbourhood I’d never have known what it was like living a life worse than a dog does.

“Don’t touch it, you can’t afford it.”

It all started with a job I had as a babysitter for a girl named Ruby, her mom had just been given permanent residence to stay in the UK so her daughter Ruby came along to the country and needed someone who could help with practicing speaking English.

On my way to my job interview I hadn’t realise I was walking in the richest neighbourhoods in London. I was distracted by the neat and ordered sidewalks, broad avenues, and well-suited people relaxing in the roadside coffee shops.

On one occasion when I picked Ruby from her ballet class near the neighbourhood I noticed the expensive cars parked in a row. It was suddenly made clear by an entrance sign: “Kensington & Chelsea below the name of Ruby’s school”. Ah, this is the legendary Kensington! I realised.

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Kensington Streetscape

I took notice of my surroundings on my way home, and there were the crème de la crème supermarket chains, Whole Foods, Waitrose – these were places I had never seen around the area I lived in, let alone stepped a foot inside.

I walked past rows of luxury brand shops, including Harrods. Ah the legendary Harrods, a place that I’ve never visited, always packed with tourists and rich businessmen from the Middle East.

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Harrods

The nearby Exhibition Road was home to some of the best-known museums in London, there were a string of exquisite furniture stores I couldn’t name that sold items at impossibly high prices. It was at that moment a map emerged vividly in my mind: Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Hyde Park, Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College and Royal Academy of Arts were all within walking distance.

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Imperial College London

In the absence of grand mansions, this was a place where business, life, nature, academia and arts came together, where the classic and the modern integrate.

A friend staying in Imperial College told me that they have a saying that goes like this, “Treasure every moment you live in Kensington, because no matter how hard you work in the future, you probably won’t be able to afford buy property there.” Though nobody ever said these words, I could hear every single brick here uttering “don’t touch, you can’t afford it”. Anyone who fills the forms with the postcode of Kensington has a sense of pride like no other.

Though, thinking about this place filled me with awe, but it also made me feel poor and insignificant in the world.

You can never imagine who you’ll meet

Ruby’s mom worked as a caregiver for an old English gentleman, who let her and Ruby live in the house for very little rent, so I actually babysat in his house. On my first shift as a babysitter, the old man was reading in the ground floor living room.

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After class, I would have tea together with the old gentleman who looked like a serious scholar.

He’d ask what it was like living in the UK, how I had been getting on with my studies. I told him we had too many essays to write, too many theories to learn, that the professors spoke too fast in class, and it was all quite challenging to me. As I was rambling, he always smiled in poise and asked if I wanted more sugar in my tea. I’d never imagine this was how I met the former principal of my university.

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Afternoon tea

I was flabbergasted and tongue-tied when I learnt his name, the name that I just read somewhere, because he proposed an influential theory I used in the essay I was writing at that moment, and I also quoted one of his theories in an exam. The professor has his own entry in Wikipedia. The sociological principles and national policies proposed by him had great impact on 20th century Europe and the world. He ranked among one of the best sociologists with Jürgen Habermas and Immanuel Wallerstein.

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Jürgen Habermas and Immanuel Wallerstein

Later, I saw piles of books with his name in the living room. Every single pile was taller than me.

For a very long time, I had lunch with the professor in a guarded manner for fear of betraying my ignorance. I felt more confident and eloquent when we talked about China, and other times our conversations were like the ones between a humble student and a supervisor.

Apart from genuine admiration, I pitied myself for my own lack of knowledge. After all, what I’ve read was far less than the total of books he had written.

Living a life worse than a dog

On one occasion the professor was away on a conference in France, and Ruby’s mom went along too. Ruby was left in my care because she didn’t have a visa. Babysitting Ruby was not easy, however it wasn’t just her I was looking after – I learnt that my real “boss” was a black toy poodle called Sasha.

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This is not Sasha.

Before Sasha’s owner left (yes, the professor), he was worried that I couldn’t take good care of Sasha, so he wrote a A4 note and stuck it on the fridge.

“Sasha loves to be with people, he’ll sleep with you at night

Sasha loves yanking the blanket in his kennel, could you help him fold the blanket everyday? Otherwise he’ll feel uncomfortable sleeping

Sasha’s favourite toy is Mr. Potato Head, he’ll get antsy if he can’t find it. Could you check if the toy is placed in one of his kennels if you can’t see it? Oh right, there is a kennel in every single room, so it may not be that easy to find the toy.

Sasha needs to exercise every day, could you walk him in the garden for one hour every day? Half in the morning and half in the afternoon. Could you also clean up his poop in the garden before playing with him?

Sasha loves to stay clean. Could you clean his face, eyes and teeth every morning? The toothpaste is edible, so you don’t need it wash it away. And also wipe his mouth, face and eyes after every meal.

Sasha usually only eats two kinds of dog food, and dozens of dog snacks. I’ve labelled them here. The star-shaped ones are snacks, only give him one at most a day.

Sasha loves ham. I’ve put some in the fridge. Please don’t let him eat too much, only as a reward when he behaves. And don’t forget to refill water and dog food, and wash the dishes in the morning.……”

I can’t remember all the entries, there was just too many. They all begin with “Sasha”, from which you can see how important Sasha was to the professor.

He was still concerned when he left and knocked at his neighbour’s door in my presence. Having found that the neighbour had a trained dog sitter, the professor noted down his number and felt relieved. I just wanted to slap my forehead, thinking of how unreliable he thought I was. …

In the following days, I became Sasha’s dog sitter: throwing balls with him, feeding him, cleaning his face, tidying up Sasha’s Harrods-logoed kennel and folding his velvet blanket.

Apart from tearing up my socks, Sasha was fairly friendly to me. For a high-maintenance breed like him, I really couldn’t ask for too much.

I pulled a long face when serving my dog master. After all, I’ve never used any edible toothpaste, and I had never at once owned a dozen snacks.

My interpretation of “differences”

One Saturday, another old gentleman came to hang out with Ruby. His name was Pat, a friend of the professor. He took Ruby out for a day and I went along with them. Sometimes Pat and Ruby couldn’t understand each other and I helped with translating. But in general, they got along very well. Pat took us to a hidden stamp market, and explained the fun facts of all the gadgets.

In the middle of our little expedition, Pat received a phone call and had to attend to some work. He asked if Ruby and I would like to go with him, and said he would buy us dinner after he had finished business. Hearing that she could go home late, Ruby nodded her head earnestly.

As we arrived at Pat’s workplace, I learnt that he was the principal of another university. He had to deal with something at the open day of the campus, so he asked another professor to show us around the campus. The professor said he had a friend teaching at my university. After talking for a while, we discovered that the friend he mentioned was actually my dissertation supervisor!

The academic circle in the UK is really small! You’d have to be of a certain status to know the principal.

That afternoon Pat invited us to have lunch in a small diner. He had the manner of an old English gentlemen, he respected us despite the age difference between him and Ruby and I, he kept apologising as he initially wanted to take us to some fancy place for lunch.

Ruby didn’t mind at all. She recognised the name of the diner from some food stall at her school and enjoyed the food there very much. Without asking for the order, the owner of the diner immediately served the food, from which I guess they must have known each other very well. I like this friendliness. Pat said he had been a regular in this restaurant over ten years, and enjoyed the cooking there.

Our conversation spanned from Chinese pandas to documentaries, to the Sahara Desert to Chinese wine called “daughter red”. It was the first time Pat learn about this name. He noted it down in his phone and said he’d have to try “daughter red” when he travelled to China.

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“Daughter red”, a Chinese wine

“Are all young Chinese using WeChat these days? I’m using it too! It has so many lovely stickers. Can you download some for me? I heard that people in China used to use QQ, and now they all convert to WeChat. The WeChat company must be incredible.”

I looked at him seriously, and said, “Pat, WeChat is awesome. Actually, QQ and WeChat are the products of the same company called Tencent.” Hearing this, Pat’s eyes popped with surprise, “Wow! That’s a superb company!” All of a sudden, I found the old gentleman amiable and adorable.

It dawned on me that, I may be ignorant, shallow, modest and insignificant, but so what? My age, experience, and cultural background has shaped me today and opened a window to another side of the world for these people. This is also what they did to me. When we sat and chatted together, our differences weren’t a barrier between us, on the contrary, the differences encouraged us to communicate and know more about each other.

From that day onwards the seemingly unsurmountable gap between Kensington and real life started to collapse.

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V&A Museum (my favourite museum in London)

The elite-sounding postcode and crystal-mounted race cars may look like an unrealisable dream. However, the chubby swans and squirrels in Hyde Park, free-entranced museums, the high-end concerts priced at only five pounds during August are accessible to everyone.

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Swan in the Hyde Park

The previous frustrations and feeling of loss stemmed from the differences between me and people living in Kensington seemed to shatter after all of these touching moments. We live in a world where every individual is different. Without these differences, our conversation wouldn’t be interesting.

The world is rich in differences and variations. Rather than feeling inferior, we should embrace the idea that we are modest and small, and that’s why we should enjoy every moment of being and explore the bigger, richer world.

(Translated by Lorraine Zhou)

The author Nienie was a former student, she studied a master’s degree in sociology in the UK 2015-2016.

The article is originally published on China Info 24 on September 27, 2016.

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