Farewell to Ayi
31 Dec 2005
Shortly after I moved to Shanghai in early 2004 I decided to hire an ayi (housekeeper/maid) to do some cooking and cleaning. (Her last name was Zhou, so I’ll call her “Zhou Ayi.”) I really enjoyed having a cook, and I wasn’t shy about expressing my great satisfaction with Zhou Ayi. Things were great for a while.
Over time, our relationship worsened. I find it difficult to explain exactly how or why, but I’ll try.
Zhou Ayi was never much of a talker, so I can’t say that we got to know each other very well over time. She got to know what foods I liked and disliked, but beyond that, familiarity didn’t exactly beget a whole lot of fondness.
My girlfriend was especially nice to Zhou Ayi. She would frequently chat with her, give her little presents, and asked me to get something for Zhou Ayi’s son when I went home to the USA for a summer visit. Unsurprisingly, Zhou Ayi really liked my girlfriend too. It actually annoyed me at times, because Zhou Ayi would communicate with only my girlfriend when she was there.
Over time, an almost tangible barrier between us grew larger. My roommates never spoke to her, and I would speak to her when necessary, but made very little other small talk. My girlfriend didn’t talk to her a whole lot more than I did. We would leave the door open for the ayi, and she would come in without a word. She would leave the same way. It may sound like we treated her badly, but we really had no such intentions. We were caught in a self-perpetuating cycle.
From the beginning, Zhou Ayi was not very good at cleaning. Dishes she “washed” would frequently be greasy, and glasses would have spots. She would miss large spots when mopping or dusting. I would make half-hearted attempts at pointing these out to her, and she would correct them, but I knew in a day or two I’d be seeing the same thing. We put up with the shoddy cleaning because we all really liked her cooking.
At about the year mark, Zhou Ayi seemed to have stopped caring. She made the same dishes so often that I had to tell her to mix it up. (Brad came over for dinner three times, and by coincidence she cooked the same meal all three times.) Her cleaning didn’t get any more efficient, but she started doing it faster. We paid her by the month, so it was in her best interest to get out fast. I think she had another job to run off to. Effectively, though, we were paying her more per hour than ever, for work that was at an all-time low, quality-wise. Still, there was a sort of relationship there, and I was reluctant to break it off or to confront her directly.
It was extremely suspicious when she made a few errors in calculating the food money. When I tallied the books, there were already several months of records. Zhou Ayi might have thought I would never tally them. I found one error that resulted in 20 RMB extra in her pocket. Another error, later in the records, gave her 100 RMB. I pointed these out to her, and she was, naturally, confused, and wanted to check the math again. She insisted her manual calculations were correct, but she couldn’t argue with Excel. I couldn’t be sure she had intentionally tried to cheat us–first testing with a small amount, then moving to a larger amount–and I really wanted to believe she was honest, but a seed of mistrust was planted.
For a while I tried hard to improve relations. I talked to her more, gave her more feedback, and gave her specific tasks so that she couldn’t run off so early. I reasoned that by getting more for my money, I would be happier with her, which might return a better attitude from her. This worked to some extent. The food improved for a while.
What finally made up my mind was the escalation in food money costs. I found that even after Carl moved out and there were only two mouths to feed instead of three, the food costs were the same. Furthermore, with time, they were actually increasing. Zhou Ayi’s explanation was “rising food costs.” I pretty much made up my mind that she was padding her figures when a meal of eggplant, some pork, and eggs and tomato came out to 20 RMB. (Multiple locals confirmed my sense that the meal shouldn’t have cost more than 10 RMB in ingredients.)
So what was I going to do? My girlfriend was adamant that I could not accuse Zhou Ayi of dishonesty. I had two choices: (1) tell her she had to start buying all groceries at the grocery store and give me the receipt (does that not amount to an accusation?), or (2) let her go for some made-up reason.
Before I decided exactly how I would handle it, I found a job which required me to work evenings. Since my roommate regularly works late, no one would be home to let an ayi in or eat her cooking. So we let her go. There were no tears or sentimental goodbyes on either side.
It may seem obvious to the reader that Zhou Ayi was not a good hire, but at the time it never seemed that way. For one thing, we had built up a relationship (even if it wasn’t the friendliest one), so when things started to go bad, it wasn’t so easy to just end it. For another thing, I really had no way to know for sure that the ayi‘s explanations weren’t the truth, and I was loathe to fire her unjustly. Even if her cleaning wasn’t top-notch, I knew she was a hard-working woman struggling to help put her son through college back in Wuhan, and I wanted to help her. She was not a faceless worker from the countryside.
Despite the lack of proof, I knew I had to let her go because my doubts about her poisoned the relationship. I couldn’t look at her the same way after suspecting that she was cheating me. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the principle. When I found myself wondering if she even really had a son in college, I knew it was time to say farewell.