In China, almost every household employs at least one Ayi.
Both cleaning ladies and babysitters fall under this umbrella term.
They are integral to a Chinese family.
The reason why I wanted to write about Ayis is that recently we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of our household's Ayi.
She has seen me grow from a small, loud, awkward kid to a tall, loud, awkward teenager.
In Chinese, "Ayi" is an affectionate term: it means "aunt".
In Chinese households, there are sometimes more than one Ayi to help around the house.
Though their salary may not be the highest, they are regarded as an invaluable part of the family,
who stay with them for a long time-as long as the family pays them well and treats them respectfully.
If not, there are always hundreds of other requests for Ayis available.
This is one of the biggest mistakes families make when employing their first Ayi:
they may take advantage of them, without knowing that they have every opportunity to leave and work at a family who can give them a higher salary, or treat them better.
As I mentioned, "Ayi" is an umbrella term for any kind of additional help around the house, but usually
nannies specifically are called "Bao Mu", which means "protecting mother".
The average age of marriage in China is about 23 years old, making people extremely young when they become parents
a short while later.
Because of this, families will ask grandparents to live with them and help take care of the children or around the house.
However, because these grandparents will be about 50 years old when their grandchild is born, many will still
be working and have little time to take care of them.
Hence, families often employ an Ayi to look after the child.
Ayis hence became a sort of mother or aunt figure:
as they're usually in their thirties and forties, they will already have had children of their own.
They're older and more experienced women employed to take care of children.
I can say from experience that spending all day and sometimes all night (for the family who ask nannies to stay
overnight) with someone, regardless whether they are blood-related, makes them become an essential part of the family.
Sometimes, Ayis may bring their children to work so that the kids can mingle together, or arrange with other
Ayis of the neighborhood to meet in the playgrounds central to every compound so that the adults can talk,
and kids can play together.
This is one of the most significant things that build up communities within the neighbourhood:
everybody knows each other, whether that is via taking part in the Fast Walk together, or children literally growing up with all of their neighbors.
This is favored even more by the structure of compounds:
usually each one is closed off by walls with guards at the exits, and there will be rows of houses with a park or several play areas within.
The second type of Ayi is a housekeeper, or cleaning lady.
As I previously mentioned all components of the family need to work, which in China usually means ten hours a day, six
to seven days each week.
Hence it is difficult to find the time to keep houses clean.
Where in Italy you may hire someone once or twice a week to do the most essential of tasks, here it's more common to have them for more time, perhaps five to six days a week so that the house is maintained.
But the most important thing housekeepers do is not clean: it is to cook. Cooking is much more complicated in China than it is in other parts of the world (read about it in:
as it takes a longer time, with the average being about two hours per meal.
This is why many will hire someone to clean and also cook, so that the main work of the day is done.
Back when our Ayi only worked part-time at our house, she was employed for the other half of the day as a cook.
This was a middle-class family, mind you.
Cooking earns you much greater respect among the circle of Ayis, as it means you have a lot more
work and hence salary.
One thing I ought to mention is that unlike in other parts of the world, money and salary isn't as taboo
A standard conversation I would have with a stranger would go somewhat like this- have you eaten yet
Where are you from?
How long have you been here?
Where do you go to school?
How much does that cost?
What do your parents do?
What's their salary?
So, when I was younger and would be walking around the compound with my Ayi, it was not unusual to have
someone stop us, take a look at my foreign-looking face and ask my Ayi- how much does her family pay you?
This is just a note to help you understand why I talk so much about money- here, it is part of small talk,
right there with the weather.
Many skills Ayis master can help them with other, more influential jobs.
For example, we once had an Ayi who lived with us and learned to cook Italian food from my mother.
Later when we moved away, she started working as a cook in a cafeteria, and then was recruited into an Italian restaurant!
Something people underestimate is how much Ayis can be taking care of the whole family too, regardless if they
are nannies or housekeepers.
For example, our current Ayi doesn't only clean the house, cook, and make sure I don't fall over every ten minutes
(I am extremely clumsy)- she has becomepart of our family:
she helps me practice my Chinese, and her daughter, and later, her husband, became my Chinese tutor.
She helps clean my dad's office and is always available with any problems that may arise.
She runs errands, calls repairmen, deals with our compound's management, and informs us of any new regulations
we have to follow.
When someone calls me talking about my bank or internet issues, I give her the phone and she explains it to me
in simpler terms.
If one of our friends is looking for an Ayi, she relays trusted friends to be eligible candidates.
She makes sure our house is fully furnished of food and water.
My mom and her share a love for gardening and flowers, and so they are constantly talking about
improvements for our terrace, which they have tuned into a very nice garden.
When she comes back from her hometown she is always bringing us fruit grown on her farm,
and in return we bring her gifts from Italy.
All this is not part of her job description, but it is something she does and we've built a warm work relationship.
She has essentially become part of the family, and we wouldn't trade her for the world.
Cortesia di L.B.
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