My Ayi Crush

About a month after saying goodbye to Zhou Ayi (the housekeeper that went bad), I found a better job that once again enabled me to be home evenings for a cooking ayi. I was not at all discouraged by my previous bad experience; I was ready for a new ayi (and so was the apartment).

I used the “agency method.” When I walked into the little office, there was a woman at a desk, several middle-aged woman sprawled across chairs around the room, and a youngish woman knitting in the corner. The woman at the desk ventured a cautious ni hao at me, and 5 minutes later, after paying a one-time 30 RMB administrative fee, I was talking to my new ayi. She was the one in the corner knitting.

My new ayi was in her thirties, a little too young to be an “ayi” really, since someone you address as “ayi” is usually roughly in your mother’s generation. She wanted me to call her Xiao Wang.

Xiao Wang was from China’s northeast, from a town outside Harbin. She spoke with a fairly strong Dongbei accent, but I didn’t find her hard to understand. I’ve always found the Dongbei cadence to be rather amusing, so while I can’t consider it “normal,” I still like hearing it from time to time. Maybe it was partly because of my last experience, but I was soon crazy about my new ayi.

Don’t get the wrong idea, now… at no time were there any inappropriate thoughts. It was just that to me, Xiao Wang was everything I thought an ayi should be. And I was so relieved to have a great ayi in charge of the housework once again that even her faults somehow seemed endearing. It was a kind of crush, all right.

Some of Xiao Wang’s qualities:

– She actually gets dishes clean.
– Her cooking is not oily.
– She never makes just qingcai. She adds hot peppers to them. Tasty!
– She talks with that great accent, with the wrong tone on the occasional word.
– If you ask her not to clean/tidy an area, she stays well away. (She never goes in Lenny’s room… hehe)
– She forgets things a lot. (The first week, she forgot to bring the new mop three days in a row.)
– She gets food for cheap. She knows, for example, that vegetables are cheaper at noon than in the evening, and cheaper on weekdays than on weekends (and takes advantage of that fact). Our food bill is now less than half what it was under Zhou Ayi.
– She voluntarily writes down all her expenses for me — every single item she buys.
– She makes authentic Dongbei dumplings for us and calls it a meal. (She even made enough to freeze a bunch to eat later.)
– She throws carrots into a lot of dishes that I’ve never known to have carrots.
– She has no watch and forgets to check the time, so she frequently stays past the two hour mark. I often find myself urging her to get on home to her family.
– She makes good kung pao chicken — without those annoying tofu pieces that get in the way of the meat.
– She almost always arrives 10 minutes late, and apologizes every time.
– She refuses to taste her own food, relying on my description of the taste to make any changes to a recipe.
– She keeps the house really clean.
– She doesn’t know how to use her cell phone except to make and receive calls. (I thought I’d do her a favor and teach her how to use her phone to receive and send text messages, but then I discovered that “Bird” phones really are impossible to use.)
– For the first month, she complained repeatedly about how dirty the kitchen was, and that she didn’t understand how the previous ayi could have let it get that bad.

Needless to say, Xiao Wang is great. My girlfriend loves her. John B and his wife love her. Lenny likes her. We moved from the hourly wage to the monthly payment system pretty quickly and gave her a decent raise. We hope she sticks around a while.

This entry is the final part of a series on ayis. See also: To Ayi or Not to Ayi, The Ayi System, Farewell to Ayi


John Pasden

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


  1. Don’t get the wrong idea, now… at no time were there any appropriate thoughts.

    Freudian slips are great!!!!!!!!!

  2. Dongbeiren! No wonder you have a crush! Do you get the traditional dish with green peppers, eggplant and potatoes? I miss that one.

  3. Nice one, Mike. You stole the words right out of my mouth.

  4. Mike,


    Double negatives befuddle me. I fixed it.

  5. i liked her as soon as you mentioned that she was young and knitting — ha ha! see? i’m not the only one who does “grandma” crafts.
    she sounds awesome, and like you already have better rapport. congrats! (i wonder if she’ll still be around next time i visit? i’d love to try her cooking — the thought of dumplings makes my mouth water.)

    btw, how do you feel about the carrots? welcome addition, or weird?

  6. Amy,

    I like the carrots.

  7. I am new to this country and am anxious to learn the local dialect. But I don’t understand this post. Tell me, does the term “inappropriate thoughts” have a hidden meaning? And why did some people think “appropriate thoughts” was the same thing? Is this a cultural difference? And why do double negatives befuddle you? Is it because you don’t want to say something inappropriate? Or because you do?

    Finally, if “at no time were there any inappropriate thoughts”, how did you know?

  8. Tony,

    Now you‘re befuddling me.

    It has been a bad day for befuddlement. (Or should that be a good day for befuddlement? There’s another point to ponder for ya.)

  9. oh how i miss the dongbei accent! dongbei people rock.

    that dish with the peppers/eggplant/potatoes (all deep fried in a gooey brown sauce) is 地三鲜. a very nice dish but a bit oily. dongbei food can get pretty oily, interesting how she doesn’t cook oily food. does she make 炖菜? they stew everything in donbei in the winter, what about lamb/carrot dumplings? mmmmm

  10. Have you introduced her to the wonders of corn as an additive to recipes?

  11. Eight months out of the Middle Kingdom and I’m already out of the loop (Lennet: you have failed miserably on your assignment to keep me connected)…are John B/wife living in Carl’s old room? Or just coming over for fabulous ayi prepared dinner parties?

  12. LOL:

    She gets food for cheap. Now there is a thought inappropriate, or shall we say worthy of befuddlement? Has China turned you into a cheapskate?

    She calls dumplings a meal. Is that a complaint? From one who had frozen dumplings for lunch every day? BTW, dezza’s lamb/carrot dumplings would indeed be mmmmm.

    She refuses to taste her own food. Haha, me either.

    “Bird” phones. Translation 鸟手机?

  13. Gin,

    Naw, I’ve always been a cheapskate. But regardless, cheap groceries is a nice change when my previous ayi was ripping me off.

    Dumplings can be a lunch, but I don’t really see them as a dinner. I’m just used to more vegetables for dinner, I guess.

    Apparently “Bird” is written 波导.

  14. Dezza,

    Thanks for that name (地三鲜). I’ll have to mention it to her.

    She’s never made 炖菜 for us (that I’m aware of).

  15. Heather,

    John B and wife have moved to Shanghai! They’ve eaten Xiao Wang’s cooking twice already.

    Lenny is living in Carl’s old room.

    Lenny’s old room is habitable only by the PS2.

  16. Tim P,

    Naw, I let her do her own thing. She knows how to cook.

  17. Dumplings can be a wonderful dinner if there’s enough variety (including veggie-filled ones). I think that sort of variety is hard to get at home, though, as it just takes too long to make that many different dumplings. I greatly miss cheap 东北 dumplings (carrot and shredded 白菜, yum!).

    Xiao Wang kicks ass, as does her food. She seems like a genuinely nice person, too, which is always a plus.

  18. Thanks for reminding me, it’s di san xian. I never thought much of it at first, but it really grew on me. Probably because it was ordered at every meal I ever ate in a restaurant. Dongbei food is oily in restaurants. The jiaozi are too oily for me in restaurants. But “ayi” cooking is probably like my friends’ cooking – much less oily than restaurants.

  19. There are ways to, you know, make dumplings a dinner and still easily remedy the lack-of-veggie guilt. One is to make a hot, colorful soup into which you put the dumplings, another to add a vegetable dish or two as sides (at which suggestion if Xiao Wang chuckles or is wide-eyed just tell her truthfully you’r from the South).

  20. Justin (Parasite) Says: January 19, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    Am I the only one in the world who cannot tolerate the use of the word ‘dumpling’ for some food that comes out of China ? It is just too huge of a stretch for me, conceptually, to accept applying such an unrelated word. I mean, it’s just like when Japanese call Okonomiyaki a kind of PIZZA. WHAT GIVES ???

  21. […] Inspired by John’s talk of his new Ayi and her home-cooked dumplings, Kexia and I decided to go to a dumpling restaurant we had spied on Yuping Lu some time before. Dumplings (饺子) are a part of the northeast I miss a lot, and it’s surprisingly hard to find authentic dumplings for a decent price in south China, whereas they are nearly as common as rice in Changchun. From the moment we walked in the owner’s thick accent told us that this place was authentic, and the food backed up our supposition with deliciousness layered upon deliciousness. […]

  22. schtickyrice Says: January 22, 2006 at 11:34 am

    I agree with you Justin, dumpling is not the most appropriate name. But how many anglos can pronounce jiaozi properly anyways? Would Chinese pierogies be more descriptive? I’ve seen Japanese restaurants sell gyoza for twice the price and half the flavour (thin dough with no elasticity, bland bean sprouts and cabbage filling). Aside from a usually more upscale restaurant decore and better service, I’m sure dropping the dumpling name helped.

  23. Hi!

    I lived in the Dongbei area for ten months (Aug 2003-June 2004)whilst I worked for a publishing company in Tonghua, a small city in the foothills of the Changbaishan mountain range. Now I am home in London trying to get a book together about my experience- working title is ‘Silkworms and Snow’. The latter was an item on the canteen menu where I worked. ‘Very good protein’, I was told, and it made certainly made a change from tofu, but I couldn’t eat silkworms boiled -only one or two if they were split lenghways and fried.

    I came across your site whilst researching for a chapter on dining out, which was also quite an experience. The most popular restaurants had names like ’99 Fat Oxen’ and specialised in huoguo – where you threw everthing into a metal pot of boiling stock. The ‘di san qian’ was my UK colleagues favourite – she had worked in Cangchun for a year a few years back, so was also a dumpling afficionado. One of our Chinese office colleagues came and cooked them for us once, using a scrambed egg and spring onion filling.I liked a Korean restaurant with a central hotplate to the table but we didn’t eat the house speciality – dog

    I liked this account of getting an ‘ayi’ very much, and look forward to reading the rest. Are you going to publish in print form?


  24. Oh, I meant the former, not the latter – we’d hardly eat the snow, would we?

  25. Xiao Wang was from China’s northeast, from a town outside Harbin. She spoke with a fairly strong Dongbei accent, but I didn’t find her hard to understand.

    Hahaha, when I was over there a week and a half ago, she told me she didn’t have an accent!

    I have to agree, though, that she’s a great cook.

  26. Heilong Says: April 2, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Funny, most Chinese say people from harbin speak the best Putonghua out of everyone in China, remember unlike Shanghai they actually speak putonghua as a first language. Just my DongBei bias sorry.

  27. Heilong,

    I have heard the same, but trust me, it is not true for this lady.

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