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.

This entry is part one of a series on ayis. See also: The Ayi System, Farewell to Ayi, My Ayi Crush

Blog entries elsewhere on ayis:

Chinawhite: An Interesting few days, new Maid and new Chinese Teacher
KW in Shanghai: Hiring an Ayi – ethically sound?
Aussie In The Orient: When the Ayi Strikes Back


John Pasden

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


  1. John treated our ayi like slave! Poor ayi. I would often come to her defense but John would beat me, and then beat poor ayi. With a belt! She only slightly burned the rice! She finally escaped, just like me. Thank God. (Watch John delete this comment (The truth hurts doesn’t it)).

  2. Followed by Ayi IV: The Revenge, My Sassy Ayi, and Ayi, Ayi, oxen free, no doubt.

    I’m kind of disappointed that there are no Google ads for Ayi placement services yet.

  3. Your ayi is quite good! I like her. John B and I often miss the Gong Bao Ji Ding she cooked last time. We also think about hiring an ayi.

    Wait a minute, maybe we can take your ayi away from you since you “abuse” her so much. Carl is so brave to tell the “truth”. Hehe~~~~~~~

  4. I have definitely felt uncomfortable on pretty much all four issues in the past, but about a year and a half ago we finally fell in with our current Ayi, and she’s great. She totally kicks arse in fact (we try not to leave any belts lying around for her to beat us with…).

    She is a great friend and a great person to chat to, even if she is pretty right wing and comes out with the occassional comment like “all these foreigners really are fucking up Shanghai, taking all the good jobs.” Which slightly confused me, as she said it to me in a “don’t you just hate that shit?” way, as I stood there, six foot plus of ugly white man, going, “does she mean me?”

    She also climbs out to the outside of our semi-rotten windows to clean them, which totally freaks me out. We’re only on the third floor, and our cat has survived the fall three times already, but I don’t fancy her chances.

    In retrospect, I increasingly feel like the only viable issue really, is part 3 of the “uncomfortable hiring an ayi” point. I can definitely respect the idea that keeping your own space tidy yourself is a personal discipline. But if I’m going to be harsh, I think all the other reasons are flawed.

  5. When I say the title I thought of the generic term for “aunt” but clearly my chinese is not sufficiently advanced to know of this usage 😉

  6. Wow, dude, your cat is rad. Was he like hurt, or did he just shrug it off? Poor cat. Still, kinda got to wonder. Your cat sounds like it’s got a serious adrenaline addiction.

    Our maid is really cool.

    In terms of hygiene, well, my maid and my wife have schooled me. I am now dutifully separating towels by which parts of my body they touch and I have four different wash basins, one for my body, one for my feet, one for my butt and one for my face. Just kidding.

    There are some things, like drying all the water out of the bottom of a pan before you put it away. But generally speaking I think my maid is much cleaner than I am.

    bu gan bu jing, chi le bu hui sheng bing, that’s my motto. 🙂

  7. zhwj–hilarious!

    phil–your right wing ayi is very interesting. where are you located? is your ayi a “waidi ren” or a local lady? i’m very curious about her attitude, since maids tend to be migrant workers, and it’s usually the local people complaining about the migrant workers taking the jobs. also I’ve never heard chinese people complain about foreigners taking the good jobs… interesting.

  8. Eventually (before X’mas and Year 2006) we saw the Ayitopic, hehe.
    yup, who looks after babies can also be called Ayi.
    I would say Ayi recommended by buddy (In that case, she works for quite a long time in your friend’s so why dont you trust her?) is much better than a one you get yourself the first time reach in China.

  9. Almost every family I know in China (granted, I only know about a dozen so far) has an Ayi. One of the oddest I know is a couple who’s live-in Ayi is only 14 years old. The girl would probably be living on the streets without them, but still it struck me as odd that the girl was their maid.

    The Ayi that I use (or will use when I move to China in a few months) is a cousin of my mother-in-law’s. Last time I was in China I found myself getting quite comfortable with a live in servant. The home was always spotless, the food was always good and laundry was done on a daily basis.

    I thought it funny that even though we had a washing machine it was rarely used because the Ayi believed that it couldn’t clean clothes as well as she could.

    As a price comparison, the live-in variety of Ayi runs about 500 yeun ($60-$65) per month. At least that is in Guangzhou where I will be living. Though, I have heard of live-in’s being paid as little as 300 yeun ($35-$40) per month.

  10. My ayi laughed at the washing machine when I showed her how to use it. And you know what, when she washed my clothes by hand and hung them up to dry, I never had wrinkles. I think, when possible, it’s best to overpay your ayi, this was especially the case in Hainan where the women are the main bread winners.

  11. people reluctant to have an ayi

    -maybe consider doing the chores is a sub-respect level activity, related to an infamous thing called dirt that should be done in secrecy or in shame
    which is wrong
    cleaning stuff, yours or others, is never a shame
    it is a more evidently useful and meaningful task than many white-collar activities,

    and maybe it includes some stained wc-seat washing, but with a good pair of gloves and bleach water, there’s nothing dirty or unhealthy in it
    (if u feel disgusted by this last sentence, probably you have a shame issue with dirt and should review with an open mind your biology factbox about germs)

    -can be afraid of losing sight of their own daily self-discipline
    which is a point that cannot be underestimated

    -feel bad about their new chinese upper-middle class or above social position that allows them to hire an ayi without any financial concern
    which they can do nothing about it

    personnally, i’ve been an ayi to fund my studies in europe
    so the shame issue seems to me very stupid and rather hypocritical

    i am proud to be able to clean a house spic and span, but i prefer when my ayi does it, i have time for something else, by example cooking

    about the fact that you depend on someone else to take care of you AND that you can afford it, not because of your needs but only because of your money,
    this is a very interesting moral issue that has been at the core of more than 3 centuries of political ideology (unfortunately)
    so i do not think we can solve it today

    but people with this kind of thinking must be respected even if they do not fuel the chinese GDP

  12. Hmm… it sure sounds more imperialist if you translate “Ayi” into English. By using a foreign word it kind of buffers you from the way the English speaking world looks at the situation. If you just translated “Ayi” as servant, maid, or even “house staff”, it immediately sounds more imperialist.

    On the other hand my mom worked her way through college and then med school as a “house cleaner” while she was in her 30’s, and I don’t remember thinking anything weird about that. Hmm… I guess the really stark difference is just how little money “Ayi”s make in China. On 8RMB an hour, there’s no way to put one’s self through college. I don’t know what wages are like on the mainland, but I’m guessing all of the posters here make at least TEN times that much per hour. With that kind of wage disparity, isn’t it hard not to feel like there are some imperialist overtones?

  13. We have lived here in Shanghai for about a year and a half, and we have a live in ayi. I work about 60 hours a week and my wife goes to university (she is Chinese). We need a live in as we also have a two year old son. Life with an ayi makes life much more convenient and comfortable. After a 12 hour day, I get to play with my son and don’t have to deal with the domestic chores. And, believe me, having a child is a full time job. Our first two ayis were from Xi’an (where my wife is from). One was her cousin, and one was a childhood friend. We were able to give them employment and the opportunity to make an income that they (nor their husbands) were not able to get in Xian. My wife went to the States for 4 months, and during that time I didn’t have an ayi and was able to get along fine. But with three people, an ayi is definately a good asset. A live in ayi is actually cheaper than a part time ayi. We pay 1000 RMB per month, which is about the going rate. Our most recent ayi is a friend of a friend from Jiangsu. She is probably the best, proactive and willing to do things without being asked. Without the ayi, my wife couldn’t study and life would be much more difficult.

  14. Elliott Back-> I’m Danish, and since I have only studied Chinese for 18 months, I don’t pretend to know very much of the language yet. But my impression is that the connotation “aunt” is still present when the Chinese talk about 阿姨. Just as very close friends can be refered to as brothers or sisters, using a family term somehow softens the distance between the housekeeper and her host.

    I recently spend a year in the northern part of China, and here I haven’t heard 阿姨 being used. Instead the northern Chinese refer to their housekeeper as 大姐, literally “big sister”. Again a family term.

    Interesting note: The latin word “familia” actually meant “household servants”.

  15. Hmm… interesting. Taiwanese people find the term 阿姨 really strange, too. It’s definitely regional.

  16. My Chinese colleagues address all old, unfamiliar Chinese ladies who are, to put it bluntly, of lower social status ayi. It’s not a patronizing term in anyway but that’s how we Asians address strangers. The word ‘you’ can sound rather distant and under certain circumstances outright patronizing. Also, my colleagues said they’d not call an old lady ‘ayi’ but would instead go for ‘xiao jia.’

  17. oooppss… for the last sentence I meant “…a young maid ‘ayi’…..”

  18. […] of the perks of living in Shanghai is having an Ayi.   More on Ayis later (the link is a bit outdated), but ours is coming today and I have to go take […]

  19. Alternative to ayi - the Filipino housekeeper Says: June 12, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    After 1 year in China and fully aware of all issues that come with ayis, I know there are plenty of other sites addressing those issues and would like to address the Filipino alternative when fed up with the Chinese ayi.
    Filipino’s pride themselves on not being Chinese, not being an “ayi” , and superior in all aspects. They simply are not and don’t be sucked into paying ridiculous amounts like 15 or 16 RMB/hour compared to 10 or 11 for Chinese ayi. They have better English, but not skills. But, the worst part is, the Filipinos are not loyal, are not punctual, and will lie to you at the drop of a hat. They never think twice about not showing up for work or even being 1 hour late, and never-ever would call you to tell you in advance. With all of the frustrations of the Chinese ayi, know that the Chinese are punctual, never late, and do not act arrogant. No task is ever to “little” to ask them to help with or do for you. They also have a sense of pride about being an “ayi”, which you will notice any time you may have to go out with her shopping etc. This is not so with the Filipino, who actually will give off the air that they are not only superior, but maybe even a little superior to you!
    So, you must decide which will be easier for you on a day to day basis-the Chinese ayi or the Filipino.

  20. […] assistants at work a bag of lexie’s cookies each as an alternative hongbao. we gave our ayi a month’s salary as a bonus. she gave us an orange tree which sits wrapped in shiny gold […]

  21. […] what to do with their complimentary graphic-print scarf – plus someone who looks like your ayi. In fact, she probably is your ayi. Guanxi goes a long way in Shanghai, and in addition to washing […]

  22. […] I rushed back to the apartment (my roommate wasn’t there, but the ayi was), packed as much of the stuff as I wanted to keep into the two bags I decided to take with me, […]

  23. […] want to… TweetThe first time I went to Hefei,  the glorious provincial capital of ayi-central Anhui, about 3 or 4 years ago, I stepped off the D-train after four squishy hours onto the […]

  24. […] my last sick day I went home from work early only to find the ayi (cleaner, very common in China) to knock on the door ten minutes later. So my sick afternoon was […]

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