I Was a Cleaner While Pursuing My Tertiary Education Overseas. Here’s My Story.

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“Success doesn’t come to you. You go to it.” – Marva Collins

I was among the lucky 16 that were shortlisted to pursue a tertiary education in the UK. At the time, Malaysia was hit with a financial crisis, and (almost) all arrangements to send students overseas were cancelled.

Though I felt immensely blessed, unfortunately the allowance provided wasn’t enough to cover the living expenses. Thank goodness that the college and university’s fees were already covered.

I was determined not to ask my parents for money. Also, unlike my peers, I didn’t take the easy way out by applying for a credit card or student loan.

I thought about getting a job, but at that time I had never worked a day in my life, even back home.

And now, on top of being in a foreign country for the first time, I was going to juggle being a student while working part-time – how on earth would I cope?

Still, “what would life be without the courage to try anything?” – Vincent Van Gogh.

Lady luck shone upon me that third month in Edinburgh, when I chanced upon a cleaning job from the university’s admin staff. “A cleaner, eh?” I thought, wondering what my friends and family would think about me.

Though some may think it’s degrading like being a bibik or amah (maid at home), but cleaning up after someone’s trash was my opportunity to make money.

Easy, halal money to fund my living expenses and fondness to travel.

So, I ended up attending classes in the morning and cleaning up in the evening.

The twice monthly pay was good. I didn’t have to ask money from my parents or take out a bank loan like most of my peers.

Like many newbies, I was nervous at first, but as it turns out work wasn’t that hard. All I needed to do were empty the bins, hoover the carpet, mop the floor, and clean a few toilets at the office.

Thankfully, none of them were like (some of) the toilets back home!

Perhaps the most difficult part was to get myself to work in the frosty winter. All I wanted to do was be tucked inside my warm duvet after a long day at the university.

It wasn’t long before I started working in the wee hours in the morning as well. I’d get up at 4am, go to work from 5 till 7am (just in time before the office staff came in at 7.30am), go home, and then get myself ready for classes from 9am to 5pm.

From 7 till 9pm, I was back at work, working another shift.

Some may think that I didn’t have a life back then. That I should’ve ‘embraced my youth’ by going out socialising or clubbing for that matter.

But all of that didn’t matter to me at the time. In fact, I felt I was gaining more by working as a cleaner, compared to doing those things.

For starters, the money of course. I managed to travel to Europe thanks to the money I saved from working.

For another, I improved my social skills.

You see, some of my friends preferred to live and socialise among Malaysians.

Surprisingly, it was a favourite past time among many Malaysians abroad – I mean come on, we get to be far away from home, in one of the world’s most cultured and exciting cities, and we prefer to stick with one another?

Before you say I’m not patriotic or that I’m stuck up for not mingling with Malaysians overseas, let me tell you how damn proud I was to tell the people there where I came from.

It wasn’t as if I was distancing myself from Malaysians, I’d just prefer to mingle with the locals and get to know their lifestyle and culture.

But I digress.

Anyway, like I mentioned, it was through working as a cleaner that I’d got to know the locals. Many of them come from all walks of life.

Some were retirees, looking for extra money to fund for their travels, while others were simply bored being at home.

There were some international students as well. As it turned out, many of them were like me, students who chose to work as cleaners to pay for their living expenses.

Since I was a ‘regular’ at the office, I became friends with the staff as well. They’d often invite me to join their office parties, packing me food and drinks from their homes. I even spent a few Christmas celebrations with some of them in their homes.

But not everything was a bed of roses though. There were some snobbish ones who thought I was stupid and dumb for doing the job. That I wasn’t worthy to talk to them, and that I was only good enough to clean their rubbish bins and toilets.

There was a time when I was accused of stealing a watch from one of the desks I cleaned. Luckily, my manager and friends defended me. It turned out the watch fell into the staff’s bag while she was packing up to go home!

Looking back, I felt that I had benefited a lot from working as a cleaner. In fact, in terms of understanding English, being a cleaner helped me more than the classroom!

Thanks to those I met while working, I got to understand the local Scottish dialect. It was totally incomprehensible to me when I first got to Edinburgh.

Working as a cleaner opened doors for me to work elsewhere as well. After about a year working in the morning and evening, I felt more confident to try my luck at other jobs. For the six years I was in Edinburgh, I’d worked as a cleaner, a staff at a bakery, and a salesperson at a card and novelty shop.

And boy, had I gained a lot of experience, knowledge, and most of all – friends I still keep in touch with till now.

Which is why I’d never look down on the Indonesians, Bangladeshis and all foreigners who work as domestic helpers or cleaners here in Malaysia. I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how hard it is to make ends meet.

Working as a cleaner taught me humility and to not be (too) choosy when it comes to work. I was never ashamed of admitting that I cleaned toilets when I was in the UK – it was honest money.

For more articles on working part-time jobs, read 5 Ways Malaysians Are Moonlighting to Make Ends Meet, and 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Being an E-Hailing Driver.

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Nazmie Nureen
This once-a-sceptic-of-marriage Saggitarian finally got hitched and recently became a mom. She still craves on adventures all around the world, and now she has a few kindred spirits to share them with. She runs. And dreams. A lot.
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