Preparing for the Cook

Recently I decided to hire a housecleaning ayi in Shanghai. I used to hire one every two weeks or so in Hangzhou to do a thorough cleaning job of my apartment to supplement my own occasional half-hearted attempts at sanitation. It cost 8 RMB ($1) per hour, and they would usually stay for two or three hours each visit.

I’ve talked to some foreign friends in China before who feel bad about hiring someone to clean up after them in their own home, and for such a low wage. I, on the other hand, feel great about it. I don’t feel like I have a lot of spare time these days, so it’s a great way to give myself some more free time without even spending much money. Plus I’m giving someone some honest work. I don’t set the labor prices in China, and it’s not a slave wage. (For comparison, McDonalds in China only pays 3 RMB an hour to start.) Those that engage in housecleaning are usually people from other poorer parts of China who really need work. I’m nice to them and I chat with them, and I usually tidy up along with them as they clean. I see no problem with it. Win-win.

Anyway, I recently had an epiphany. I decided to hire an ayi not only to clean, but to cook for me regularly. She will come every weekday evening for 2 hours and cook a meal and clean up a bit. I will pay her 250 RMB per month, plus the cost of the meals’ ingredients.

My new ayi came tonight for the first time and cooked an awesome simple meal. Stir-fried pork strips and jiaobai (茭白: Wenlin translates this white Chinese vegetable as “water-oat shoots,” whatever that means), garlic mixi (a vegetable which is like pink-pigmented spinach; ayi said it’s written 米西), egg and tomato soup, and rice. It was really good! Not too salty, not too oily. This woman is a genius. She’s from Hubei Province. That meal was 6.2 RMB in ingredients. This new plan of mine is not only going to keep my place a lot cleaner, but I’m going to eat better and save a lot of money!

OK, so I admit I was completely lazy up until now. I never cooked at home. That means yesterday I had to buy all the ingredients for my ayi so that she could cook most dishes. In the USA, you would need to have milk, butter, salt, flour, oil, etc. So what do you need in China? This is what I bought:

  • vegetable oil (very important!!!)
  • soy sauce
  • MSG
  • salt
  • sugar
  • rice (a nice 10kg bag for 41 RMB)
  • rice vinegar

Those things are all pretty much indispensable in Chinese cooking (note: no milk or butter in that list). In addition, I also picked up:

  • black pepper
  • hot sauce
  • ketchup (the Chinese actually use it a fair amount for certain dishes)
  • jiang (some kind of soy paste)
  • starch

I also gave my ayi a list of things I hate eating so she could easily avoid them. My list was:

  • xiangcai (the vile weed cilantro)
  • animal organs
  • chicken feet
  • fish with a million harpoon-like tiny bones in them
  • thousand-year-old eggs
  • stinky tofu

Note that in each case, I determined that I didn’t like the above items after I tried them. Some of them, such as stinky tofu and cilantro, have been given many, many chances but fail miserably to meet my high standards of delectability each and every time.

Anyway, this ayi deal is looking mighty sweet.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. that is the part I don’t like about America. Labor here is soo expensive, I even have to do plumbering work. Life here in a way is more difficult, you can not easily afford to hire someone cleaning your house too often, having someone cook for you is impossible.

  2. I think this is one of the reasons a lot of expats feel unsatisfied when they come back to the states. Some things like hiring an aiyi can be done so cheaply in China that your standard of living drops significantly when you come back to the US.

    Not that I think that I think you shouldn’t hire an aiyi, as John mentioned it does provide migrants with jobs (as long as they aren’t abused which often is the case). However the social and economic imbalance that allows for labor to be hired at such low wage is hopefully a temporary one.

  3. If you learn to cook Chinese food, you’ll find it much more interesting living in China. Why not study with 阿姨 and try to cook yourself?

  4. Chappie (HuaYi) Says: May 20, 2004 at 10:13 am

    At start i had the same feelin so cheap… 8 kuai..
    On the other if you think in RMB is quite reasonble price. Esspecially you have mentioned 3 kuai @ the mac.

    The lady has cooked probely a normal meal 4 you. What every moderate income chinese would eat. That is why its so cheap. How the hell would a chinese survive with an income of 1000 RMB each month? (In shanghai must be surely much higher)

    Btw just a small note. Few months ago there was a minor incident @ Putong area. A few of these kind ladies were stealing stuff.

    Many rich people are hiring these people also. So dont worry about your feelings. And besides you probely treat her better then any chinese.

    (crashing allround from Jack L., Rainbow (Ni) & Dora (Wu)…. to here (roots)…)

  5. You don’t like cilantro or stinky tofu? How terrible for you.

    Oh man, I remember living in Beijing and one of my favorite dishes being Mongolian lamb, which was one part spicy lamb, one part onions, and one part cilantro. Damn that was good. That, and any decent Mexican food should be smothered with cilantro.

    And stinky tofu is one of the few foods that I enjoy in Taiwan. A plate of stinky tofu covered with chili oil and a tall can of 台啤 is the 宵夜 of champions. Sure, I might die of intestinal failure five years from now, but it’ll be worth it.

  6. Chappie,

    “better than any chinese”

    “Chinese” has a capital “C”. Maybe your name shouldn’t.

  7. I think Donald makes a good point. The reason labor is so cheap is because there are just so many people at the bottom of the social ladder eager for any kind of work. It’s not really a good situation at all.

  8. Wayne,

    You like cilantro and stinky tofu? How terrible for you.

    I studied in Mexico for a summer, and I loved the food, but didn’t find it smothered in cilantro. One dish that always has it, however, is a sour seafood salsa called ceviche. That was damn good stuff, and for some reason, in that dish I was able to stomach the cilantro. But not in Chinese food.

  9. You guys are going to love this! I too, have a cook. She’s from Sichuan and is an unbelievable cook! She has been with us for almost two years (350 RMB/month) and cooks 5 days a week. A lot of money? I don’t care – she’s worth it and she is our friend! The going rate here is 250 RMB.

    But get this…she can cook pizza, fajitas, mashed potatos, home made bread, hot dogs, etc. and some french dishes (my wife is French). But what’s even more astounding….she no longer eats rice. She has replaced rice and noodles for bread and potatoes (mashed, baked and wedges). I never thought that would happen!!!

    Oh how I love to eat!!!!!

  10. That jiang is ¶¹°ê½´ is it? That stuff is great, and indispensible for making fried noodles. How cool is the soy bean! There are just so many foodstuffs that are made from it, it’s like the supermarket of the plant world.

  11. Applaud yourself John, that’s one less jobless worker in China. I too employ an ayi, although just for cleaning. Next year I might make the step up to cooking. At first I was apprehensive, but have since found out that this is a fairly good job for my ayi. I think I pay her a decent wage and am a very casual boss (lots of “sui bian”. She has even asked if I know other foreigners who need the help. Now, I completely rely on her and can’t imagine going back to the States and doing it all myself. Aye carumba!
    My only problem is that her putonghua is very bad which makes more than simple communication pretty difficult.
    BTW, I pay 200RMB/month for 3times/week about 3-4hrs each time.

  12. if you pay her a little more she might even dress you and clip your toenails too…

  13. Anonymous Says: May 21, 2004 at 3:04 am

    “that is the part I don’t like about America. Labor here is soo expensive, I even have to do plumbering work. Life here in a way is more difficult, you can not easily afford to hire someone cleaning your house too often, having someone cook for you is impossible. “

    yeah heaven forbid people actually got paid the same as you! those stupid plumbers only apprentice themselves out for years and STILL want a decent wage… sheesh!

  14. woops, that was me ^

  15. I have had a housecleaner in the past, in Korea, but it is a little more expensive here than in China.

    My wife and I are thinking about getting a housekeeper twice a week for 2-3 hours. This will cost only us$40 per week, which I think is very cheap – obviously not as cheap as China.

  16. I don’t see anything wrong with paying somebody to cook and clean for you. That’s the kind of work my grandmother did to help clothe and feed her 6 children.

    Now that my mom moved out my dad and I have difficulty cooking and cleaning up after ourselves daily because we’re not used to doing it all the time. Having someone help us out would be nice if we could afford that.


    I’m sorry the fact all of us don’t grow our own food and weave our own clothes bothers you. Maybe you could teach us?

  17. Go May! I couldn’t agree more.

  18. Or maybe the name is not May but I still agree about the plumbers.

  19. Xiangcai and dofu are great foods. I see it Wayne’s way.

  20. newcomer Says: May 23, 2004 at 2:00 am

    “Many rich people are hiring these people also. So dont worry about your feelings. And besides you probely treat her better then any chinese.”

    Chappie, you are a troll! In this days, you still Stereotype others.

  21. newcomer Says: May 23, 2004 at 2:19 am


    Ketchup is a chinese word. You can look up the history over the web…. So John, you should not be suprise that ketchup is in chinese cooking 🙂

    Sweet and sour pork probably has lot of ketchup in it.

  22. In regards to ‘bottom of the social ladder’ workers in mass numbers, you forgot: there isn’t a social ladder in a socialist country.

    People work and though they make 3RMB, they do it and work hard for their country. There are jobs for everyone. What’s wrong with that?

    People in California go on strike (SBC and Safeway most recently), bitching about their living costs and the high medical bills. They stop work, hurting both themselves and the employers so they picket in front of the stores – most of them obese and lazy and can’t manage to perform well in the action of going on strike.

    I was installing new lighting in the store the other day with an electrician and we had a great chat about China and America. One of the great topics we talked about was the falling US Dollar vs. the ‘rising’ RMB. Why doesn’t the dollar do as much for you as it used to? Because you won’t do as much work as you used to do for a dollar.

    • Wilson (Sinosplice / Racingmix)
  23. there isn’t a social ladder in a socialist country.

    Are we both talking about China here??

  24. I wish the dollar would fall faster, my Yen aren’t worth enough – help me out here Wilson!

  25. Wilson,

    I hope you are being sarcastic but I kind of doubt it. ¡°No social ladder¡± huh? Tell that to the migrant going through your trash looking for recycling to make a few cents while brand new Audis and Mercedes whiz by on the street he sleeps on. That¡¯s totally ignoring the fact that China is a ¡°socialist country¡± in name only ¨C something you should be well aware of if you ever lived there.

    ¡°most of them obese and lazy and can’t manage to perform well in the action of going on strike¡±, bitching about their living costs and the high medical bills¡± (have you paid for health insurance lately? I haven¡¯t because it is too expensive!) and ¡°Because you won’t do as much work as you used to do for a dollar¡± These are incredibly arrogant and out of touch statements. Americans actually work more hours than any other industrialized nation including Japan. (If we could just get rid of those pesky labor laws they could work in conditions like Chinese coal mines for 3rmb an hour!) Lazy? Sounds like upper-class conservative drivel, workaholic is more like it.

    Have some sympathy and think about how much you get paid for teaching a very small number of hours in China.


  26. Donald, thanks for the comments.

    I have some questions:

    “These are incredibly arrogant and out of touch statements.” Out of touch and arrogant to what? Who and what are you suggesting I sympathize for? How does that relate to what foreign teachers get paid to teach in a foreign country?

  27. Wilson,

    First, apologies for the harsh tone of my earlier comments – however, I think calling all SBC and Safeway workers obese and lazy because they went on strike is indeed arrogant. Also failing to recognize the problem of high medical bill in the US suggests being out of touch.

    As for my suggestion to have some sympathy, I¡¯m referring back to the Chinese labor situation. You said: ¡°People work and though they make 3RMB, they do it and work hard for their country. What¡¯s wrong with that?¡±

    Those workers aren¡¯t joyfully working for their country for 3rmb an hour; they are often doing backbreaking work in a struggle to feed themselves and their family. Over 7,000 coal miners die every year in China doing this sort of work and that is just one industry ¨C this has nothing to do with national pride and everything to do with poverty.

    In comparison English speakers teaching in China earn comparatively large amounts of money in China merely for speaking their native language.

    Just one perspective.

  28. Chappie (HuaYi) Says: May 23, 2004 at 6:53 pm

    To newcomer…

    If you dont mind.. My family comes from the BOTTOM PART of china. I come also at the BOTTOM PART but not in China(in holland).

    Everthing what my parents had to bear it, im bearing it now in china! This TROLL has at least lived the one of the most rotten place in china! Where rats are your pets, where throwing garbage decently away has never heard before, where people thinks Mao is a God and more (yes its a village)

    Im just saying dont sweat about the though of cheap labour and such, it does only good to the chinese people… But i tell it on its extremest way.

    Perhaps one sentence should tell you about me. I am a PROUD DUTCH chinese. If you dont get it youre stupid.

    (Sorry for my poor english, im not a native speaker)

  29. hey your list of foods you dislike in China is the same as mine! and I’ve tried them. maybe not as many times as you, but I have tried them.

  30. I realize this thread is long dead, but I found it interesting wandering here after the to Ayi or not to Ayi article. First off, let’s talk cilantro! Chinese cilantro bad! Mexican cilantro good! Nuff said. As for the wages… 3RMB an hour at McDonalds!!!? No wonder everybody can afford “ayi”s there, and no wonder it doesn’t feel that exploitative. Heck, now I understand why so many Chinese people feel like all westerners are rich and should be charged more for everything. Geez.

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