Me, myself and ayi

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

7 thoughts on “Me, myself and ayi

  1. Hello,

    First time posting here, but I felt like I had to controbute 🙂
    Nice blog BTW, I’ll follow the adaptations to Beijing life.

    I was in the exact same state of mind when I landed in Beijing with my girlfriend 12 months ago now. As a young couple without kids, we didn’t feel like it was a necessity to have someone come to our apartment and clean it all. However, after a few months (roughly, 6 :-D), two things had become quite obvious:
    1) I’m working full time here, and she was (now she’s working as well) studying Chinese every morning, and doing her homework for many hours on a row every single afternoon). Weekend are supposedly “me time”, ie. not something we WANT to be spending cleaning, cooking, buying groceries, and so on. We did it nonetheless, out of courage, or shame maybe
    2) Boy, is Beijing dusty, I remember a few sundays, when not even one hour after doing the big clean-up, I’d walk barefoot on our living room faux-tiled floor to end up with black soles… And that was a day when the window was closed, mind 🙂
    3) (I know I said only two) we have a cat, and he’s losing hair everywhere (even more that my SO haha).

    So after I’ve pushed her for a few weeks (she’s got more guilt than I do over that particular topic), we finally decided to contact an Ayi Agency.

    And I have to tell you, as a couple who’s not at home during the day, and want to enjoy not living in a slum, this is great. I do admit to a little bit of guilt about having her work for 27 kuai per hour, but we feel MUCH better at home now that it’s clean. The only time it’s inconveniencing (is that even a word? damn my French!) us, is that she doesn’t allow us to clean anything (no laundry, no dishes, no cat litter -__-…) because she’s supposed to do it, and not us. That and she’s giving us things that her other, richer fanilies are gifting her, because “it’s too nice and I can’t decently keep this”… Straight down guilt road again.

    On the “Child Ayi”, the question is already decided… As soon as my girlfriend is pregnant, we’ll start looking for the best one possible (using friends recommendations and such). This is very important for us that the child picks Chinese as early as possible… Then, do we want our kids to grow up in “unhealthy for most populations” Beijing? That’s another question 😀

    Oh and: “coming home to a magically lick-the-floor clean house.” you have no idea how different you feel the first time it happens… This was the day we realized we’d have to get a cleaner WHEREVER we’re going to live after that…

  2. Hi! Thanks very much for your comment, it’s really interesting to hear your thoughts! We’re similar, I’m very reluctant while my other half is more keen… But yes I agree, Beijing is ridiculously dusty, and yes, having a local person around for a child if/when they come, seems to be a big bonus. Will have to see what happens! Thanks again for reading, and hope you’re surviving this horrible smog…

  3. This is a really interesting topic. Over here in India we have a similar issue with dust, so cleaning really needs to be done every day. Whilst I everyday feel a bit awkward about the whole domestic help thing, I am happy that we have a part-time cleaner/cook. I am particularly grateful for the help with mopping the acres of tiled flooring in our flat. The housing which my husband’s work provided (lovely as it is) is about 5 times the space which we’ve been used to living in and keeping clean. We (me mainly as I’m not working yet) still do about 50% of the cleaning and cooking, so I don’t feel quite so “Downtown Abbey” about it all. Having said all that I’m not totally sold on the idea for years to come, but for now it’s quite a nice luxury.

    1. That sounds like a smart arrangement. Funny you should mention Downton Abbey – what my other half says about it is that he hasn’t been able to think of a logical reason why not to get domestic help but it FEELS wrong, like you’re harking back to the extremely class-divided days. Classic English class-related neurosis, but that’s partly where the discomfort might come from I think. Thanks for your comment!

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