Monday, October 8, 2012


As you can see on the Popular Posts hit parade to the right, this website’s Newbies Guide to Beijing has soared up the charts to become the most popular thing on the internet since email.

Clearly there’s a clamour for my guidance on how to live your life. With that in mind I thought I would humbly add to this bank of knowledge with a more concentrated Part II. So here today is your guide to that staple of expat life ...


When you live in Beijing, you’re going to need an ayi. The word means “aunty”, which fits if you can imagine your mum’s sister working as your maid, with extras.

In fact you don’t really need an ayi, but we all hire one anyway. Or two. And I’ve heard of three. That’s called “ayi creep”, and it works like this: For a sometimes minimal wage, you too can be the proud employer of domestic staff. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without one. Then, after about 6.00pm, you’ll wonder how you ever lived with only one, and you’ll hire another one. If you become very used to this, your ayi will end up living with you.

On balance, they’re great to have – provided all goes smoothly. And rest assured, all goes smoothly for at least one in 10 ayi situations.

First you should interview. Find ayi numbers on websites like the Beijinger, City Weekend, and email groups like Beijing Mammas and Beijing Cafe. They also advertise in expat-friendly stores. Try to have a Chinese speaker help you interview. Otherwise, beware of “Interview Mandarin”. This is where your ayi speaks clearly and simply through the familiar ground of interview-speak, but after getting the job lapses into a home dialect which sounds like it could be Welsh. Or Wookie.

Prepare as many questions as you can. Don’t so much gauge the words – they want the job so they’ll tell you what you want to hear – but look for sharpness of response, how quickly they think of answers to things like “What would you do if my child was injured”.

We once asked that question and the prospective ayi laughed and said: “Oh no - if your child is with me, they won’t get injured!” We weren’t sure if the phrase “accidents will happen” had been banned by the government, but it was a ludicrous response.

Of course we employed her. And I can say, hand on heart, that our relationship was a spectacular disaster.

Hopefully your ayi should look something like this ...

... and not so much like this.

However, a google search for "ayi" also turned up this
picture. Real ayis seldom look like this, however. This
is in fact a Chinese pop star named Ayi Jihu. It's a fair
bet she's never had to wash the dishes in her life.

Here is the result of my erroneous google search again.
As many an expat wife would say, these are not the ayis
you're looking for. OK that's enough.

When you find an ayi you like, work out their salary and hours with pedantic detail. Wages can vary. At the lower end, especially with a hard-nosed Chinese boss used to the ayi scene, the salary will be that of a farm girl eager to help her family. At the higher end, depending on the expat’s naïveté or fear of China, and the ayi’s gall, it will be more like that of a mid-range Wall Street CEO. Without lifting the lid on this can of worms I have in my Pandora’s Box, something around 20 RMB an hour is in the ballpark.

With everything settled, everyone’s happy. Then your ayi will meet other ayis and it will all fall to bits.
This is because a typical first conversation between ayis starts like this:

“How much do you get paid? Hello, how are you?”

Unlike westerners, the Chinese have no qualms discussing, and usually complaining about, their salaries. And if your ayi compares badly you’ll soon pick up on this. Most often she will suggestively hint something like “HEY I MET ANOTHER AYI TODAY WHO’S GETTING LOTS MORE MONEY THAN ME!”

She’ll ask for more. You should probably stand your ground for what you’ve agreed, but be warned, this will lead to consequences. One common consequence is that one of your ayi’s relatives will be injured in a terrible accident. Or fall gravely ill. Your ayi will need to leave your employ, or leave town.

Then you’ll see her around the corner in a couple of weeks getting paid slightly more than at your place, their relative having recovered like Jesus.

This isn’t just me, the Ayi Whisperer, speaking from a wealth of bitter experience. Chinese people are famous for inventing things. One of them was “the subject dodge”. To save face and a general hassle, they will mostly deal with issues obliquely rather than head on, as many a westerner has learned to their cost. A restaurateur friend here couldn’t believe the rotten luck her staff had with infirm relatives. But then she paid them a little more.

(Such cultural matters are well addressed in an excellent book: 101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People, written by a Shanghai woman and her American husband).

Another friend’s ayi one day said she’d have to quit because her husband had been injured in an explosion at work. The woman sighed wearily and said that was a good one. She demanded to see photographic evidence thank you very much. She was a little embarrassed when her ayi returned the next day with a picture of her husband in his hospital bed with his face bandaged. But he was an exceptional man.

Another web pic of an ayi. Under a good
ayi's care, your children should look
something like this ...

... and not so much like this ...

... or this.

Ayis can also come in handy if, say, you write a blog on
life in China and find yourself needing a photo of a
Chinese ear, as I did one day.

Or if you need a pic of a nonsensical Chinese shirt.

To generalise, ayis can fall into a couple of categories. Beijingers generally are savvy, will get you better bargains at the markets, but want more money. Those from provinces like economically depressed Anhui will generally work very hard for less. But you often can’t understand a word they’re saying, and you wouldn’t want your children learning Mandarin from them. It would be like moving your family to America and having your child speak like Jed Clampett.

It sounds harsh, but often because of impoverished backgrounds, ayis from the provinces will often lack the sophistication of Beijingers. Ayi stories abound. A western diplomat friend and her husband once came home to find their ayi ironing their treasured Egyptian cotton bedsheets. Nothing too unusual about that, except she was holding them up and ironing them against a wall. Still nothing too horrid about that, except that between sweeps of the iron she was taking a big mouthful of water and spit-spraying it across the sheet. “It’s the best way to get these creases out,” she said happily, as our friends pondered how long they’d been sleeping on so-ironed sheets.

I once took our new Anhui ayi through her bed linen routine, saying she should wash the sheets and put them in the dryer for about 40 minutes before re-making the bed. Putting our girls to bed that night, we were surprised to find their bedsheets wet. Sure enough, ayi had dutifully taken them out of the dryer after 40 minutes and re-made the bed, without stopping to notice they weren’t yet dry.

In fairness, she seriously might have thought this is how westerners like their beds. So much is lost in the mire of cultural difference, as often in language barriers. This doesn’t quite explain our friends’ ayi spitting on their sheets, but still.

Provided agreements have been explicitly reached, your ayi will generally be a great help. She’ll clean, cook, shop, do school runs, and perhaps act as a Mandarin teacher and surrogate grandmother to your kids.

Then you’ll repatriate and she’s the grandmother your kids will never see again, which is weird. So this expat life can be strange. Ayis can be problematic. But then again, if you can’t remember a time when you didn’t have domestic staff to complain about, things can’t be too bad.

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