Ayis are an indispensable fact of life for many expat families and many have become part of the family. Lu Feiran listens to ayis and expat employers talking about themselves and each other — the good, the bad, the big and little culture clashes, and their bond.
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.”