The “ayi” might iron all the pleats out of your silk skirt, or walk in while you’re naked, but these are all minor irritations. The “ayi” might also, and more often, save the day, nurse you while you’re sick, cook marvelous food, and teach your children Chinese.
Ayis are indispensable to many Shanghai expats as inexpensive housekeepers, cooks and child minders. Often, they are much more than that and some have become part of their families.
Almost everyone is familair with the word “ayi,” literally meaning “aunt,” but also housemaid.
Every expat has stories to tell about their ayis — good, bad and often funny and heartwarming.
And every ayi has stories to tell about their employers — some are friendly and understanding, some are from hell.
Around 2000, when an increasing number of expats moved to Shanghai, some Shanghai women, mostly unemployed mid-aged women, started looking for opportunities to work. Working as an ayi became a new option.
Back then there were few household service companies, and ayis didn’t have agencies to find work for them. They found work through friends’ introductions.
“I had just come back to Shanghai from Ningxia (Hui Autonomous Region) after working there for 30 years,” said Zheng Guifang, 68, who was sent there in 1960s. “I needed a job to support myself and my two children.”
She has been working for two expat friends for more than 10 years.
“They are both very easy-going and I felt very comfortable working for them,” she said.
Now there are household service companies recruiting and training ayis especially for expats.
They want to find people who speak at least a little English, and have an adequate education. They train them in housekeeping, hygiene, childcare, how to cook Western food and other skills. They also learn a bit about Western habits.
The fact is, however, that language is not a key element for most employers when they choose an ayi, but qualities of diligence and honesty.
Some families still prefer ayis who have been working for them for years, even though they still don’t speak much English, cook Western food or know how to properly iron suits. That’s not only because they have become accustomed to the ayis’ working style, but also because they have formed a strong personal connection.
Zheng doesn’t speak English at all, but her employer, Jean Wylie, regards her as her “Shanghai Mama” and is very willing to be taken care of by her ayi.
“My ayi’s practically my family,” Christina Decu said of her 58-year-old ayi Jin Weiwen who has worked for her family for 17 years. “And she’s like a grandmother for my children. We love her, and my children love her.”
Both employers and ayis agree that there are cultural differences and different habits, some quite substantial. Both have awkward stories to share.
Decu said before she met Jin, she had several ayis and although they had good qualities, the fit wasn’t right. One ayi from Anhui Province suddenly told her that she would go back to her hometown and get married. The ayi left on the second day and Decu never heard from her again.
Jin said when she worked for a South Korean family, the employers insisted that she be on her hands and knees when cleaning the floor. She thought that was ridiculous and demeaning, so she left the job very soon.
Zhou Youlan, an ayi for expats for eight years, said she felt a bit hurt because her former employer from the UK never talked to her, which made her feel inferior.
In most cases, there are no differences and difficulties that cannot be ocvercome with mutual respect and communication.
“As long as you let people know what you want, they will understand and the differences are not that remarkable,” said Wylie.
“Even if I work for a Chinese family, there are still different habits,” Jin said. “It’s the same with foreign families. We just need to respect each other.”
Now that Chinese ayis are so common, their responsibilities have expanded: Some help plan parties, prepare special traditional Chinese medicinal foods, and teach employers Mandarin.
Many trained professional ayis say they have good jobs and are much more than servants.
Zhou, who is from Taizhou, Jiangsu Province, said her mother was disappointed that she became an ayi because her English is good and she once was a tutor.
“But I earn my money through hard work, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Zhou. “The pay is good, and the workload is acceptable, so there’s no reason not to continue.”
Ayis’ working for expat families has become more self-confident, according to household service companies.
“They are usually more skillful than ordinary ayis,” said Li Rong, general manager of Laibang Household Service Co Ltd. “Many of them are more like a housekeepers rather than maids. They stand up for themselves so they can maintain an equal relationship with their employers.”
Case One: Family loves ayi’s cooking
58, from Shanghai, former textile worker and shop assistant; 17 years with current family.
Christina Decu (above) and husband Peter; children Alexandra, 16, Philip, 15, now at boarding school. Decu is an official with the German school. They family has had four ayis, including Jin.
When Decu was breast feeding her children, Jin made delicious steamed fish for her every other day because eating fish is a popular Chinese way of helping mothers produce milk.
“Philip loves braised duck with soy sauce; Alexandra loves her rice noodle, while I love the stir-fried snow peas best,” said Decu.
“Ayi likes to give us advice to stay healthy,” Alexandra said. “It’s usually the Chinese way and the advice is interesting. For example, she advised me not to eat anything cold or spicy during my period. All this is very helpful and we are used to it. Actually, we use traditional Chinese medicine 80 percent of the time.”
• Funniest moment
Decu: We have many funny memories but I like the memory of our first Christmas cookie baking session. The children, the ayi and I were chasing my husband, who was trying to steal the dough and decoration, out of the kitchen. It was a huge mess and ending up with all of us covered in flour.
• Worst moment
Decu: I normally do not fight with people, but one time I was very upset that a former ayi ironed my beautiful silk pleated skirt until there were no more pleats left. After calming down, I realized that maybe she had never seen a pleated skirt before and I hadn’t told her the skirt was supposed to look that way — so how could she have known? Still, the skirt was ruined.
• Little differences
Decu: When we put the baby to bed and the baby cries, Chinese people immediately pick up the baby and pat them on the back but we don’t do that. We leave them in the crib and soothe them on the belly with a hand. She respected our way.
I always told Jin not to clean up the children’s room, they should do it themselves. But when it gets too messy, Jin can’t help doing it for them.
We always respect each other and we respect that we are different. We embrace the difference.
When we have visitors from Germany, I always tell them ayi is like a Chinese grandma to my children. In fact, she’s closer to them than their real grandparents.
• Learning from ayi
Decu: Our ayi is very knowledgeable about various foods and Chinese medicine. I learned from her to eat certain foods in special times of the year and I do enjoy drinking hot water, although everybody back home thought this was very strange.
Jin: I don’t speak much English and they didn’t speak much Chinese but we managed to understand each other, using gestures and other signs. If Christina wanted me to buy fruit, she used to show me wooden model of a pear or apple. Now I know the words.
• Employers from hell
Jin: In an earlier position, the wife was very mean to me, not even letting me use toilet paper. One Asian family demanded I be on hands and knees when cleaning the floor, which I could not accept. I know that (cleaning on all fours) was part of their culture, but I could never get used to it.
Jin: When Christina was pregnant and after she gave birth, I would cook for her. She loved my dishes, such as braised pork chop in soy sauce. I cook modified Shanghainese style, which is not so greasy. Western cooking is easier than Chinese. I watched Christina and picked it up right away.
Jin: The children loved to talk to me and cook with me. When they were small, I taught them Chinese and simple mathematics.
They’re both very lovely and thoughtful. They are like my grandchildren.
Jin: Western people believe belching is extremely impolite, but blowing one’s nose is all right, which I find quite funny. In China, it’s quite rude to blow your nose in front of other people.
Jin: Seven years ago, after I had worked with them for 10 years, they took me to Germany, and it was all happy memories.
Everyone says I should retire and focus on my own family, But I want to be with them, especially the children back for summer holiday. I’m so happy to see them. It’s not about money anymore, but emotions and bonding.
?Case Two: Teacher now an ayi, mom dismayed
• On stereotypes
Zhou: My eight years has changed my view of Chinese people’s stereotypes of foreigners, such as British people are arrogant, German’s are strict and most white people look down on Chinese.
When you meet more families from different countries, you’ll find that people are all different and there are no so-called types. The German lady I worked for was quite open and accepting.
• Happiest moment
Zhou: In the past few years, I’ve had good relations with families, especially the children I babysat.
An Irish family gave me flowers on Mother’s Day because the children considered me a second mother.
Their mother wrote a thank-you card, saying I looked after the children very well.
• Awkward moment
Zhou: Once a British family invited me to the United Kingdom for a holiday but I declined because I’m really shy and timid.
I don’t know how to start a conversation. I don’t want my picture taken and I don’t want to go out and meet people. That makes me uncomfortable. They had good intentions, but I couldn’t convince myself to go. It was awkward.
• Child rearing
Zhou: I used to believe foreign families were more lenient with their children than Chinese and would not spoil them, but I found all kinds of approaches among expats, good and bad.
They don’t beat their children, of course, but some parents never tell their children to say sorry, if they do something wrong. Some parents spoil their children more than we Chinese.
45, from Taizhou, Jiangsu Province. A former English teacher and English tutor, she has been an ayi for eight years. She likes the hours, the pay and the employers. She currently works for several families and does a lot of babysitting.
For a long time, her mother was very upset that she worked as a “low status” ayi. Before working as an ayi, Zhou never did much housework.
“I could do simple cleaning, but I didn’t know how to iron or use household appliances,” she said.
That was back in 2004 but her employer then didn’t mind because it was hard to find an ayi who spoke any English. “She was nice and patient and trained me,” she recalled. But her family situation made it impossible for her to work long-term for a single family.
Though Zhou said she has been content in her work, her mother still disapproves.
“She always told me that she didn’t pay for my education so I could be a servant,” Zhou said.
Zhou sees it differently.
“Being an ayi doesn’t mean I’m inferior,” she said. “We have relationships of mutual respect. Besides, the pay is fairly good and since I work by the hour, I have more freedom.
“I’m satisfied with what I have and what’s more important is that my husband and daughter are open-minded and supportive.”
?Case Three: Ayi ‘just like my mother,’ expat says
68, from Shanghai. Worked as an ayi for 13 years; previously worked in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region; more than 10 years with current employer.
Jean Wylie, 40, from Scotland, in Shanghai for 12 years. Managing director of a PR firm. Speaks good Mandarin. Lives alone. Had four ayis, two in Shanghai, including current one, two earlier in Beijing. Another employer Jeremy Chapman is from UK.
Wylie’s father, who is elderly, once stayed in Shanghai, along with Wylie’s sister. Zheng insisted on coming every day. She went to the fabric market shopping with them and helped them get good prices. When they left, Zheng gave her father a treasured porcelain plate.
Zheng doesn’t cook regularly but occasionally takes dishes over, such as stir-fried shrimp and preserved chicken.
“She always says it’s delicious,” Zheng said. “Since I spent many years in Ningxia, I like it a bit spicy and fortunately she does too.”
• Biggest difference
Wylie: The biggest difference is that I don’t have to worry about daily-life things anymore. She loves to take care of me, and I love to be taken care of. She looks after everything, such as dry-cleaning and making me little dishes for lunch. She likes to go arm in arm with me when we cross the street and she always makes sure I get the best price when we go shopping. She is just like my mother and with her, life is easy.
• Most touching moment:
Wylie: Once when I was very, very sick, Zheng made congee and a medicinal dish. She got up at 5am so it would be ready for me for breakfast. She bought plasters with some kind of hot pepper to take the pain out of my aching back. She helped put them on as if she was my mother and watched as I ate every spoon of congee.
• Cultural differences
Wylie: The ayi just walks into my bedroom in the morning when I am changing — she has chores, but I am completely naked.
It’s very important for each to tell the other what they want. As long as you let people know what you want, they will understand and the difference is not that remarkable.
Wylie: Mutual trust is very important. I can absolutely trust the ayi, and I never worry about leaving money or jewelry where it can be seen ... We treat each other like family. She frequently visits Ningxia and brings back lamb, wolf berries, wool and cashmere.
Zheng: I love Jean and Jeremy and I am happy for what I have here, with my foreign children. If they returned home, I would consider retiring, but not before.
• Learning from ayi
Wylie: The ayi always tells me when I spend too much or flowers, water bill is too high or the air-conditioning is on too much ... When she cooks, even a little dish, she tells me exactly how to do it, even dumplings.
• Advice to ayi
Wylie: I had to explain about separate washes for whites, colors and black, what needs to be hand-washed, what needs to be dry-cleaned, and what should not be ironed.