To Ayi or Not to Ayi
Ayi (阿姨), among other things, means housekeeper/maid in Chinese. The word’s pronunciation is similar to saying the letters “I-E” in English, which results in occasional confusion with a certain outdated web browser by Microsoft (or very niche jokes).
“Ayi” is a word that many foreigners learn soon after coming to China even if they pick up very little Chinese, simply because ayis are very affordable in China. The going rate for a non-pro ayi in Shanghai is 6-8 RMB per hour. [Ayis that work in this pay range are typically from out of town and don’t have any kind of special training.] If your salary in China affords you a rather comfortable lifestyle, why not hire an ayi, considering how cheap they are?
Well, it isn’t actually that simple. Here are some issues that complicate the matter:
You may not be able to get a good rate. The 6-8 RMB per hour that I specified is the going rate for Chinese people. If you’re not Chinese, don’t have Chinese people looking out for you, or don’t speak Chinese, you’re probably going to have a hard time just finding an ayi, let alone getting the going Chinese rate. The ads you see in free expat mags aren’t offering 6-8 RMB/hour ayis, I can assure you.
You may be uncomfortable hiring an ayi. I know some foreigners feel that hiring an ayi puts them into a position of power with vaguely imperialistic undertones. Or maybe they’re just uncomfortable having someone see their mess and/or clean it up. Or maybe they were raised to believe that cleanliness is a personal virtue that should not be delegated. Whatever the reason, I was a little surprised to find how many foreigners in China are opposed to hiring a housekeeper on purely non-economic grounds such as these.
You may have communication issues. If you want a cheap housekeeper but can’t communicate with her well, you’re asking for trouble. Ayis in the 6-8 RMB/hour range typically know “hello,” “bye-bye,” “OK” and that’s about it. This is great for Chinese practice which has the potential to expose you to other varieties of spoken Mandarin, but it may come with some misunderstandings. Can you explain to your ayi in Chinese when to come and when not to come, what to clean and what not to clean, not to use the rag she uses to wipe the floor to wash the dishes, which foods not to cook, how to adjust her cooking to your tastes, etc.? This can be worked out at the beginning with the help of a Chinese friend, but if you can’t personally communicate with your ayi, you really may start to feel like that imperialist overlord.
You may have trust issues. Will you always be home when your ayi comes? You may or may not need to give her a key. But then, you may not want to. Do you mind the ayi going through your stuff when she dusts? Personally, I think that most ayis are honest, hard-working people that just need to find work, but any large group of people is going to contain some of the less-honest variety. I think it’s important to know how you feel about this. I also feel that if any dishonesty is going to occur, it’s less likely to happen when there is free communication going on. In addition, inability to communicate could breed feelings of mistrust even when there is no real basis for it.
Now I’d just like to quickly go over where I personally stand on these issues.
In the past my ayi was arranged through an agency by my Chinese girlfriend. The last time, I arranged it myself. In both cases, I agreed to 8 RMB per hour, and then increased it a bit later to keep my ayi satisfied. I think a foreigner would really be pushing his luck to try to get a rate that’s low for the Chinese (6 RMB/hour in Shanghai, for example). It would breed resentment, as foreigners are often seen as rich, regardless of their real financial circumstances.
I’m not uncomfortable hiring an ayi. I do it to save money because I don’t cook much, and hiring an ayi to cook five days a week is cheaper then eating out a lot. I also see hiring an ayi as a positive contribution to the local economy. These people just really need work. I chat with my ayi and I’m never a jerk to her, so the relationship is good. So far, communication has not been a problem.
I have a roommate, and the way it works out for us, there’s always someone home when the ayi comes. So we don’t need to give her a key. We don’t watch her or anything; we have no reason to distrust her. Nothing has ever turned up “missing.”
Ayis may not be for every foreigner that lives in China, but hiring a housekeeper and the human relationship that comes with it can definitely enrich your understanding of Chinese culture, so it’s an option every foreigner in China should consider.
Blog entries elsewhere on ayis: