The Ayi

I’ve mentioned before that we have an Ayi. I’m not sure an exact definition of “Ayi” exists but I think most commonly people think of them as “household help.” If internet translation websites are to be trusted, then I think “Ayi” literally means “maternal aunt.”

We knew before we came that we would have the opportunity to hire “help” but what that would include was less clear. We knew from our time in Bangalore that the kind of help you can get varies greatly depending on your needs, the complex you live in, your lease, etc. Some places include cleaning services while others do not. Some “help” will cook while others just clean while others just want to watch your kids. I didn’t do much research to see what a typical Ayi does because really, any help, would be great. And unlike when we lived in Bangalore with no kids, I didn’t feel quite as guilty about hiring help. Clearly, I did not feel that guilty because I did have a maid. It’s like it was expected, there wasn’t even a question. So you learn (or convince yourself?) that you are helping someone find work and earn a living. Who else’s toilet would they clean? It’s not like I’m some imperialist princess demanding “no wire hangers” while inspecting the shelves with white gloves before I fork over $1 for a hard days work. No, not me! I’m fair. I’m nice. I’m not like all those other expats. If the going rate is $5 a day, I’ll give you $6. I’m not part of the 1%. I’m like Mitt. I totally get what its like to be “them.” I’ve cleaned a toilet before. I know how it is. I want to help. I am helping. Right?

I can sum up the whole Ayi experience in one word: awkward.

It’s awkward having a virtual stranger wash your underwear. It’s awkward having a virtual stranger wipe your kids’ butts. It’s awkward grocery shopping with a stranger in a strange country. (Helpful but awkward.) And it’s awkward spending all day with someone and not be able to ask them anything about themselves. I know it’s all part of getting acclimating to our new home and I’m sure in a year I will feel differently but right now, it’s awkward and for me, somewhat uncomfortable. I know I am supposed to tell her what to do but I’m uncomfortable doing it. Goes back to that imperialistic princess concept, like I’m some boss lord ordering my people around.

Our Ayi’s name is Jiang. She looks like she is 18 years old but she has a daughter who is about 7 or 8. We found her through an agency and decided pretty quickly that we thought we would like her. She’s good with the kids, prompt, pleasant. For the first couple of weeks she would only refer to herself as Ayi. Ayi pushes the grocery cart. Ayi carries all of the bags. Ayi will throw out your trash. I kept calling her Jiang and now she finally refers to herself by her name. She knows more English than I know Chinese but most days we just fumble through with bad charades and strange translations. I have a translator on my phone but I usually have to try 3 or 4 variations of the same phrase or word before she understands what I actually mean. For example, if I type in “leave early,” she looks at me blankly and says no. But if I type “go home early,” completely different Chinese characters come up and she says, “oh, ok.” And then other times we just get tired of trying and nod like we understand each other knowing we really don’t.

It took me a couple of weeks to realize that while Jiang uses the words “tomorrow” and “Monday,” she doesn’t know what they really mean. Everything will happen either tomorrow or Monday. The guy will come fix the air conditioning, we will go to the store, she will make dumplings, etc. If I say “no, not tomorrow,” she says, “ok, Monday” or vice versa. Eventually the right tomorrow or Monday comes and whatever was supposed to happen, happens. As they say, “that’s just China!”

So aside from the awkwardness and the feeling of discomfort I have about the whole idea of it, our Ayi Jiang is working out just fine. I’ve also been told I should consider myself “lucky.”

I was at a play group recently and had a conversation that went something like this:

Other mom: So how long have you been in Shanghai?

Me: We arrived a couple of weeks ago at the beginning of September.

Other mom: Wow with 2 little ones…have you found your Ayis yet?

Me: Yes. We have an Ayi. We like her.

Other mom: Really? Already? How many did you try?

How many did I try? And did she say Ayis?

Apparently, I still have a lot to learn about being a professional expat.

I think most people are like me, but there are some who take a much more Hobbesian (and uppity) view of hired help. I don’t know if it’s because they have been doing it longer so statistically it just makes sense that they have had more negative experiences or if they’ve simply learned to shed that uncomfortable feeling. But I do know, there is something called the Ayi Handbook – like an actual published book. It can be found in places where expats shop. Expensive grocery stores. Stores that sell imported baby items. Western style shops. To be fair, I have not actually seen this book so I can’t tell you what is in it. The cynic in me wonders if it says things like, “remember to always lock up your jewelry and passports when it’s time to do the dusting and for Gods sake, don’t even think about giving her an extra key!” The optimist in me hopes that its more about different agencies in town, what is expected (like some people who have more than one child, have more than one Ayi) and helpful phrases you might use frequently if you’re Ayi doesn’t speak much English. But a whole handbook?

I also know there is something called the Ayi “blacklist” with various offenses committed by Ayis you should not hire – the worst of which seems to be theft, the least of which seems to be poor work ethic, and everything in between. Ruined my clothes! Ruined the furniture! Broke my crystal vases! The mother with whom I had the above conversation let me know that she actually decided to just go without an Ayi – not on any moral grounds but because you know, “these people (she let out a sigh of disgust), are just not like us.”

Isn’t that the exact reason you come to live abroad? (…only replace the disgust with curiosity)

So if I ever, ever, even use the slightest hint of maybe starting to say something that comes out even just a little like, “these people…”, please, please, please, tell me to reread this post. This imperialist princess thanks you in advance.

7 thoughts on “The Ayi”

  1. Love your post and was exactly as I felt about hired help in Inda – I was helping someone by employing them and yes I did just take the first one I thought would work out and no I’m not disgusted by how they live (the whole female infantaside and women hanging themselves ‘cuz they “put too much salt in the dal’ kinda got me) but otherwise I was more curious than disgusted. Thanks for the graphic reminders and your excellent prose as it is a joy to read about your adventure abroad. Living vicariously for now… Lisa


  2. I love your writing. I move to Shanghai at the start of October with my husband and 13 month old son. I have started at the beginning of your blog and shall read the lot and hope to glean many more useful tips and insider knowledge!


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