China Musings #17: The Elevator Lady


A few weeks ago I used an abandoned freight elevator in my WeWork building.

Door opened and – to my surprise – there was a person operating the elevator, in tie and uniform, with a chair, a table, a table cloth, a plant, and her tea mug. She stood up to greet me as I walked in, hit the button, and then sat down. And once we arrived, she stood up again to "guide me out" with her hand.

I was so surprised, and I also felt really sad for her. The air was sticky, the AC wasn't really working, the elevator was small and metallic, and all she was doing was to stand up/down and hit a button. It felt so lonely. I alter learned she did so 6 times a week, 10 hours each day. 

The mere use of "bodies" for such mundane and mindless jobs is unfortunately very common in countries where there is such an oversupply of workers. I noticed it in Indonesia, and now again in China. And for some reason most of them end up working in such "security/guard"-type of roles where a simple uniform is meant to radiate authority, which yet perishes in sheer incompetence.

I told myself that there is not much I could do, but I promised myself that I would bring her flowers next time so she could upgrade her lonely plant.

And last Wednesday I finally had a chance to buy a bunch of flowers on my way to work and give them to her. I didn’t know how she would react, and I was worried about making her very uncomfortable with the gesture. Still, I felt it was a worthwhile thing to do.

Thankfully, despite initial disbelief, she accepted the flowers gratefully. And ever since, we have become friends of some sort. I’ve made it a thing to use the freight elevator instead of the employee elevator, we’ve added each other on WeChat, and every once in a while we exchange small messages: she would send me pictures of her flowers, and I would let her know that it’s raining outside and that she is not missing anything.

This experience was a great reminder that some things in life only require a small effort, but could have a big impact on others.


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