Cho Su-hyeong, a 51-year-old poet and professional house cleaner, encountered that scolding comment from a customer while cleaning her refrigerator. The fridge was a complete mess. Food scraps were stuck on the racks like jelly and dark stains were everywhere. He was trying to remove all those old stains by cleaning the fridge shelves in the bathroom when the customer complained.
The customer actually quietly watched the poet cleaning the racks in the bathroom and made that complaint afterwards. Mr. Cho even had to clean the bathroom for free as requested by the customer. The customer said she would remit the money later for cleaning the fridge because she had no cash with her. The poet got very upset but did not argue back. He thought working for money can be hard and humiliating sometimes. The customer did not send the money. That frustrating story is an anecdote in Mr. Cho’s new book of essay collection titled "Cleaning through heartwork, writing poems through bodywork.”
During a phone interview with the Dong-A Ilbo on Sunday, Mr. Cho said that manual labor has long been disdained in Korea, so doing such cleaning work would often end up being in power dynamics with the customer being the boss. He added that professional cleaning services can be both physical and mental labor. The poet and his wife run a professional cleaning service for home appliances since 2015.
"We clean home appliances including refrigerators, air conditioners or washing machines. The cleaning service usually takes about two to four hours for a two-person team and costs around 100,000 won,” Mr. Cho said. “Sometimes you meet a customer who insists that the refrigerator is not level after cleaning or who turns off the air conditioner as soon as we set foot in the house to clean. It hits you hard when you experience those and I cannot help but think that manual labor is still not properly respected."
Fortunately, not all customers are rude. Once the poet found a piece of gold necklace from the filter while cleaning a washing machine. The customer told him a story relating to that necklace piece - memories about her late husband who gave her that necklace for a gift. He was inspired by the story and ended up writing a poem: “Golden 18k necklace that disappeared / After wandering off underwater / Found in remnants filtered / Just like memories of him left behind (excerpt from Cho’s poem titled “Still…”)”
"While cleaning people's home appliances that are intimately connected to their daily lives, I encounter many stories that inspire me to write poems,” the poet said. “I believe poems can be more relatable when they convey inspiration from the real world rather than from a narrow desk. That's why I continue to do both cleaning and writing poems."