My Ayi

A while back I told you about my ayi (阿姨). Now I’m going to tell you some more.

My ayi comes from Hubei province. She has a son there attending Wuhan University. I don’t know more about her particular family circumstances than this, but knowing just this much it sounds like a difficult situation.

My ayi is probably in her early 40’s.

My ayi always calls me xiansheng (先生), something like “sir.” I’ve asked her many times to just call me by my Chinese name, but she forgets five minutes later, once again calling me xiansheng.

My ayi never joins me for dinner. In the beginning I would try hard to get her to enjoy with me the meal she prepared, but she steadfastly refused every time. Chinese people typically eat dinner between 5 and 6pm. I imagine she’s eating at close to 8pm on a daily basis.

My ayi comes 6 days a week. At about 5:30pm she goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients. She then bikes to my apartment, arriving at 6pm. Dinner is ready around 6:30. She leaves around 7pm. She used to stay longer, but she still seems to be getting the job done. I don’t begrudge her a little haste.

My ayi acts as housekeeper/cook for a number of households. She has worked for foreigners before, so she has a bit of knowledge about “what foreigners like” (or don’t like). You might argue that it’s impossible to make such generalities, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us foreigners don’t like chicken feet and things like that. Her experience rings pretty true for me, anyway.

My ayi knows which foods and ingredients I don’t like, and she’s never once slipped up and made something I don’t like after I had already told her.

My ayi always carries a notebook in which she makes careful note of all her employers’ expenses. She periodically gives me these figures so that I know exactly how much I’m spending on the actual food. It comes out to about 100 rmb (US$12.50) per month.

My ayi carries her cell phone around and usually gets at least one call while she’s here. Her cell phone is nicer than mine.

My ayi understood fine when I requested that she not use the kitchen dish towel to clean dirty things. I explained that the dish towel is for wiping water off clean things, and I didn’t want it to get dirty. (When she first came, I lost one dish towel that way.) I guess she decided she didn’t have enough rags to clean with, though, because one day I found that she had ripped my dish towel in half, leaving only one half hanging clean and faithful at its post while the other half was dispatched to explore less pristine regions.

My ayi hates wasting food. I feel the same way, so it’s no problem. Still, every now and then she suspects that I don’t like something, or a dish has been reheated several times, and is afraid I’ll throw it out. She’s not too timid to ask me not to waste it, or to scold me mildly if she catches me throwing something out (which is rare). One time she made something that I didn’t like. She could tell, and rather than let me waste it, she took it home for herself to eat. I didn’t mind at all. She never made that dish again.


John Pasden

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


  1. Wow! It sounds like a nice treat having an Ayi. I wish I had one here in the States.

  2. Your responses said that you had 1. When I clicked to read it, it was blank. Guess your post left someone speachless.

    Maybe your ayi eats earlier rather than later.

    She sounds like a very conscientious woman. You were lucky to find her. Or do you think that she is typical?

  3. Ah . . . my post caused the 1st to show. It was that handsome pilot guy.

  4. Terri Pasden Says: September 26, 2004 at 10:59 am

    What is the menu like? I mean what kind of food (menu/ingredients) can you prepare a big, young American male on $13/month? Are you sneaking out to get something else to eat after she leaves?

  5. Terri,

    It’s all Chinese food. Soy-braised prok chops, Pepper chicken, spicy chicken chunks, soup, garlic spinach, stir-friend squid and celery, shrimp, broccoli… and, of course, RICE. That kind of thing. I eat my fill.

    Come to think of it, though, that 100rmb estimate was for months when I was on the road for part of the time. So, at 6 days a week, 4 weeks a moth, that’s 24 days of meals. 100rmb wouldn’t cover that.

  6. Question: Where’d you get your ayi? After seeing your last entry and watching the pit my apartment has degenerated into upon starting full-time work and school, I’ve been thinking more and more about getting one. It sounds like you found a good one, so I’m wondering if there’s anything I should look out for in particular?

    As always, cool website, and keep on keepin’ on.


  7. We have an ayi now too. She is really nice, but I don’t think she likes Alf. He never smiles at her. 🙁

  8. Interesting. The word “ayi” tranditionally meant “aunt”, but in this context, it means “maid”.

  9. flipyrface Says: October 6, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    how should i go about hiring an ayi?

  10. Some people also refer to their Chinese helper as Bao Mu (±£Ä·).

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