The Ayi System
Assuming that you’ve given it some thought and decided to hire an ayi (housekeeper), you might still be unsure how this whole thing works. I’ll try to answer a few questions based on my own experiences.
How do you find an ayi?
The first way is the referral system. People that have found a good ayi usually love to recommend her. Most ayis need multiple jobs to make a decent living, so they welcome the introductions. People also enjoy the satisfaction of “discovering” a great ayi and connecting her with new clients. You could ask foreign friends, Chinese friends, co-workers… even the administrative office of your apartment complex might be able to help you out with this (although it won’t necessarily be free).
The second way is through agencies. They might not be immediately obvious to you. They won’t have big “Ayis Are Us” neon signs. Most of these agencies are very small businesses tucked away in a tiny office. Your apartment complex might offer this kind of service, so it’s a good place to start looking. The independent offices will usually have a sign out containing the word 家政, which means “house management” (housekeeping). Most often the sign will read 家政服务 (housekeeping services). Their services cover typical housecleaning and cooking.
Basically, you just walk in and tell the administrator in the office that you need an ayi. You will need to explain what tasks (typically cleaning and/or cooking) you need an ayi to do for you, at what time(s), and how often. You may be asked how much you’re willing to pay, so you should find out the going rate for your city in advance. (As I mentioned perviously, in Shanghai the going rate is 6-8 RMB/hour.) You will need to give your name and a phone number for them to contact you. You will have to pay a service fee. I have gone through this procedure twice in Shanghai. The first time the service fee was 50 RMB (in Jing’an District). The second time it was 30 RMB (in Changning District). Hold on to your service fee receipt, because you need it to exercise your right to get another ayi if the first one doesn’t work out for whatever reason.
After the initial matchmaking, the relationship is out of the agency’s hands and between you and your ayi. There’s no need to ever go back to the agency if there are no problems.
How do I pay my ayi?
Officially, ayis are seen as a kind of 钟点工 — a wage worker. That’s where the 6-8 RMB/hour comes in. In practice, though, it’s usually much more convenient to pay your ayi a fixed amount monthly. This monthly payment method is called 包月. Both systems can have problems.
The hourly system encourages slow work. I think this is pretty obvious. Why should the ayi wear herself out doing work quickly when that just means she gets paid less? Most ayis will not overdo this trick, but don’t expect snappy cleaning when you’re paying by the hour.
The monthly system encourages fast work. I paid my first ayi in Shanghai on a monthly basis. At first everything went well. She was a pretty good cook. But there were no absolute hours specified from the get-go. It was more of a “come and cook, and then do a bit of cleaning” arrangement. As time passed however, she started leaving earlier and earlier. The “cook and clean” routine went from two hours each time to barely over an hour. Her cleaning efficiency suffered quite a bit.
I think the best balance is to pay monthly, but insist on fixed hours. It was my mistake for not doing this. I’m sure my ayi was trying to finish quickly so she could rush off to another job. I don’t really blame her, but I think I made a rookie mistake. If your ayi knows she has to stay for a certain amount of time, there’s no temptation to do a sloppy job in order to leave earlier. I think it’s also a good idea to make the monthly payment a bit more than just the hourly rate multiplied by the total number of working hours per month in order to keep your ayi happy.
The other option I haven’t mentioned is the live-in ayi. I have never tried this, so I don’t have any experience with it.
How does the cooking thing work?
The first problem is ingredients. If you go grocery shopping regularly, you might buy everything your ayi needs and maybe even have (Chinese) menus in mind. That’s fine. If you’re like me, though, you hire an ayi to save money as well as time. I prefer that my ayi buy the groceries she needs to cook. I give her “food money” (菜钱) pretty regularly, and she keeps track of how much she’s using for my groceries. If you want, she can leave that record with you. (It’s good to have not only to keep everything open, but also so you can have a clear picture of your food bill.)
Where your ayi buys groceries brings up another trust issue. If she buys groceries at the local vegetable market (菜场), she’s not going to have any receipts. You’re going to have to take her word for what she pays at the vegetable market. If you don’t want to do that, then you have to insist that she buy everything at the supermarket (超市), which provides a receipt. Assuming your ayi is honest, this will cost a little bit more.
Your ayi will be buying fresh ingredients every day, so I think it’s only fair to compensate her for the time she spends buying your food. I add about half an hour for shopping per day into the calculations.
As for what she cooks, expect only Chinese food. I know there are lots of ayis out there that know how to cook spaghetti and other Western dishes, but they’re typically well out of that 6-8 RMB range. I have always just made a list of the foods I don’t eat, and let my ayi determine the menu. I usually don’t have to tell her very often that I don’t like a dish (or to stop making a certain dish so often), and any time I think of something I’d like to eat, I can just ask her to add it to the menu. I imagine your ayi may be receptive to learning how to cook new dishes, but I’ve never tried that.
I probably make all this seem more complicated than it is. If you’re considering hiring an ayi, I recommend just trying it out and see what develops. The worst that’s likely to happen is a few bad meals.
Related blog entry elsewhere: Hiring an Ayi