On jobseekers’ noticeboards, in the shops near our apartment and in conversations with other expats, there is the regular presence of the ‘ayi’, the Mandarin term for domestic help. Invariably a woman, the ayi will cook, clean, wash, iron, shop and look after your children, and you can agree to employ them for however many hours and days per week as you like, for around £2 an hour or £200 a month for full time. Families find them particularly useful for school pick-ups and evening babysitting, while people with no kids seem to relish coming home to a magically lick-the-floor clean house.
My instinctive response to “Why don’t you get one?” is “No fucking way, it’s beyond ridiculous that I can’t wipe my own arse” – or something less crass if I’m actually replying out loud. I also feel unbearably awkward at the thought of someone probably older and much less well-off sticking their hand down my toilet or picking up my crumbs, while I sit on the sofa or hide out at work. The other voice in my head tells me, “they’re getting paid to do this,” or, “you’re contributing to the local economy,” but it still doesn’t make me feel completely comfortable.
I might turn out to be a hypocrite, of course. Seeing my friends with kids battle through daily life, in Beijing and back in London, makes me grateful that the possibility is there, and if or when DD and I are in that position I may well emerge from two sleepless months and a rubbish dump of a house and cry out “Ayi need you!” In fact, I know some people in London with busy lives and good salaries who have cleaners, and that makes sense to me. In Beijing too, I see the added key perk of getting your children to interact daily with a local person, picking up genuine Mandarin and touching on a different culture.
I’ve heard that there can be downsides to this though – someone we know felt he had to dock the ayi’s pay because she repeatedly indulged the children. It’s an understandable trait with Chinese people, many of whom only have one child of their own and so treat them like kings.
Even without this, it’s a universal difficulty that a nanny can never take care of your child exactly the way you want them to and you’ll never know exactly how they’re doing it. Once in the supermarket, we saw an ayi with a blonde toddler sat at the back of the trolley, and because the trolley was empty, when the ayi walked away for a few seconds it gave in to the weight of the toddler and collapsed backwards, smacking the child’s face on the floor. The child cried, the ayi quickly picked him up, he didn’t seem to have any injuries and eventually calmed down. Afterwards, DD and I speculated whether or not the ayi will tell the parents what happened, since the child himself was too young to talk. Even if the child could explain what happened, we thought, kids can misremember or tell lies, sometimes not even consciously. The difficulty is, of course, that these things can happen, and can happen to parents too, but when someone else is responsible I imagine you feel extremely angry, distrusting and powerless.
Whether or not to leave your child with a stranger is a dilemma my friends struggle with and it’s painful to watch, especially if it’s not a choice but a necessity, an expensive one too since childcare in London or Tokyo, the two places I know well, is astronomically costly to the point of making it almost pointless for the mother to leave the child and go to work. For most expats in Beijing, then, it’s tremendously fortunate that at least cost isn’t a hindrance.
For me, for now, getting an ayi seems unnecessary and unforgivably indulgent. Besides, it does me good to emerge from my pile of clutter, storm around the house in rubber gloves and swear at the loose hoover pipe. But more importantly, cleaning up my own mess serves to remind me that, despite all my pontificating, cocktail-drinking, jet-setting antics, all I really leave behind me is a sorry trail of skin flakes and toilet stains.
Copyright © 2014 followingdrdippy