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Ayi makes Tuesdays my favorite day of week
By Emily Ford

I ARRIVE home after work to find a note from Mrs Chen, my ayi (domestic helper). She is a relatively new presence in my home, but her visits have quickly turned Tuesdays into my favorite day of the week.

Amid the chaos of adjusting to life in China, Tuesdays are a shining beacon of cleanliness and a cleverly organized fridge.

"Oh good, it's Tuesday," I think on my way home each week. "I wonder what she'll have come up with today."

In theory, an ayi, or "auntie," is China's answer to a cleaning lady.

Yet this is a dreadfully poor description for the secret army of middle-aged women who run expats' lives in the city. Ayis clean, of course, but they also buy food, prepare meals, pay bills, care for children. One friend even secured hers a passport to help her move back to London.

It's not just spoiled Westerners who like ayis; many of my Chinese friends do too. But the Shanghai foreigner community seems particularly dependent on them. "Thank goodness for our ayi," I hear parents sigh on a regular basis. "We can never go back to Europe now. We'd fall apart without her."

Special bond

Mrs Chen and I have never actually communicated directly, thanks to being introduced by a Chinese-speaking friend.

I'm pretty sure she doesn't know my name. But she has an intimate understanding of my wash cycle and takeaway habits, and I increasingly feel like we share a special bond.

Recently, we have developed a kind of correspondence after she took it upon herself to try and correct some of my more serious domestic failings.

The little notes are written in Mandarin and take me about half an hour to decipher. I painstakingly draw the Chinese characters into the electronic dictionary on my phone.

"Xiaojie (Miss)," the note states sternly. "You keep leaving your fruit out in the sun. Please be sure to put it in the kitchen, otherwise it will go bad. Ayi."

I decide to write an apologetic letter back. The three-line note takes me almost an hour, but when I have finished, I feel a kind of satisfaction that I realize is lacking in my fickle universe of e-mail and instant messaging. "I'm sorry, ayi," I write in the note. "You're quite right. I won't leave it out in the sun. Thanks for everything. PS, I hope the cat is not too much work."

A week passes. Each day I find more thoughtful evidence of Mrs Chen's visits in the ingenious folding of my clothes and the layout of my cereal cupboard.

The following Tuesday I return home to find a note on the table. A little tingle of delight goes through me. "Another note!" I think.

"Xiaojie," it says. "You can't keep milk in the fridge for more than a week. Otherwise it will go bad. I've bought you some more. Ayi."

I write back to apologize. "I'm sorry, ayi," I write. "I've just been really busy. I'll make sure I throw it away next time."

As the week progresses, I keep thinking back to Mrs Chen and her notes. "No one ever writes to me any more," I think. "Mrs Chen does. She really cares."

The next Tuesday I decide to leave her a small present that I have brought from London, a box of English biscuits.

"These are for you," I write shyly in my terrible Chinese handwriting. "I hope you like them."

I arrive home that evening to find the present still on the table. Next to it is another note. Puzzled, I begin to translate it.

"Xiaojie. You owe me 50 yuan (US$7.89) for cleaning supplies. And Xiaojie, please make sure you hang up the bath mat after you take a shower. It is starting to smell. Ayi."

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