Tag: Ayi


Jul 2014

The 4th Ayi: Chinese Girls’ Nightmare

We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)

Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.

Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:

1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.

2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.

3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)

But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.

So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.

So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):

4 Ayi

1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
3. Housekeeper Ayi
4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi

If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.


Oct 2008

DVD Waste

Cheap DVDs are one of the well-known perks of living in China. For roughly $1 per disc, you can buy almost any movie or recent TV series. There’s a huge market for this form of entertainment, and it creates two significant forms of waste material.


Bag o' Crappy DVDs

Pirated DVDs

Some of the Chinese DVD vendors are using enough packaging these days to make even the Japanese blush. A recent DVD purchase of mine revealed the following layers of packaging:

1. Cellophane wrap
2. Cardboard display sleeve
3. Plastic box
4. Paper envelope
5. DVD sleeve case
6. Flimsy plastic sleeve

…and inside that was the actual DVD. The Chinese vendors are getting more elaborate with their packaging than the real (unpirated) DVD sellers. Why? Almost all of it goes straight into the garbage, and while some of the packaging may look good on the shelf, I can’t see the need for 6 layers of it.


Bag o' Crappy DVDs

Bag o’ crappy DVDs

These pirated DVDs are essentially as disposable as a magazine. After one view, you might be ready to get rid of it, but if you want to keep it, you can.

I remember when I first came to China I thought that every DVD I was buying was going into “my collection.” Well, you don’t have to be here long to realize that your collection will very quickly grow beyond manageable size if you keep everything you buy. And clearly not every DVD you buy is worth keeping, even if the picture quality is excellent.

So now after I watch a DVD, if it’s not deemed worthy of keeping (and most aren’t), it goes directly into the “bag of crappy DVDs.” I usually just end up giving that bag to my ayi. Not sure what she does with them.

How about you? What do you do with your unwanted DVDs? It’s a strange problem to have, but when I look at the amount of DVDs that are bought and sold on the streets of China, I’m reminded that it must add up to an awful lot of DVD waste.


Jul 2006

Dongbei Bluntness

I have mentioned before that my ayi Xiao Wang is from Dongbei (东北, China’s northeast). I like her a lot, and perhaps one of the reasons is her impressive capacity for bluntness.

A while ago I was setting up an electric fan for her so she wouldn’t be so hot when she’s cooking in the kitchen. At first I thought it was broken, because when I pressed any of the buttons from speed 1 to 3, nothing happened. It was definitely plugged in securely in a good socket. What I forgot about was that some of these fans have a “oscillation” dial that controls degree of oscillation, but it can also be set to “off.” This means that there are two places the fan can be set to off, and if either are set to off, the fan stays off.

A little while after I incorrectly concluded the fan was broken, Xiao Wang realized the problem and got the fan working. I asked her what the problem had been. She responded, “You were so stupid! It was turned off on the direction dial.” Ah, thanks Xiao Wang. Always the charmer.

Then when Mark visited recently, she gave him a little taste of her bluntness as well:

> Your Chinese isn’t that good…. I don’t completely understand what you’re trying to say. Can people understand you in Taiwan? [source]

I can attest to the fact that Mark’s Chinese is not bad at all. Likely the main problem was Xiao Wang is not used to a variety of accents (especially foreign ones).

There was one other incident that made me feel really bad. Xiao Wang bought a bag of fresh peaches for us. She bought them on a Thursday and left them on the kitchen counter. She doesn’t come for most of the weekend, and I happened to be super busy that weekend, so I totally forgot about them. When she showed up the next Sunday she discovered most of them had spoiled. She made a big fuss about how I had needlessly let good peaches go to waste, and she had bought them as a gift for us with her own money (this I didn’t realize) for 10 RMB. She made it very clear that she was upset. I apologized profusely and ate some peaches right away from the parts that hadn’t spoiled.

Xiao Wang is a good lady, but she’s blunt to the core. Gotta love her.


Apr 2006

My Ayi on Politics

The other day as Xiao Wang (my ayi, a 32-year-old woman from the Harbin area) arrived, I was watching the news. Wen Jiabao (温家宝) was making some statement or other. Xiao Wang didn’t pay any attention. She started fixing dinner.

It suddenly occurred to me to get Xiao Wang’s take on Chinese politics, so I asked her what she thought of Hu Jintao (胡锦涛). I think it confused her a little, because Wen Jiabao was on TV, and I was talking about Hu Jintao. But her response was, “I don’t watch the news much.”

Not satisfied with that, I pressed her: “but don’t you have some opinion about the government?”

Looking up at the TV, which now showed a People’s Congress session in Beijing, she replied, “look at them… they’re all a bunch of Southerners.”

Thus ended the conversation on politics.


Feb 2006

Remember that calendar we always use?

With Chinese New Year comes many annoyances. Nonstop fireworks for a week ranks up there pretty high. But another thing that annoys me is that during the Chinese New Year season, Chinese people lose the ability to refer to dates using the normal calendar. I use the word “normal” not in an ethnocentric way, but in the sense that it is the calendar that all of China uses for the other 50 weeks out of the year. When Chinese New Year comes around, however, attempts to use non-lunar date nomenclature result in East-West communication breakdown.


> Me: Let’s do it on February 2nd.

> Person: I’m not free on the 4th day of the lunar new year.

> Me: OK, so is February 2nd OK then?

> Person: Is that the 4th or the 5th day of the lunar new year?

> Me: I don’t know. It’s February 2nd. February. Second.

Even bizarrer:

> Me: So can you come next Wednesday?

> Person: Wednesday? What is that, the second day of the lunar new year?

> Me: Wednesday. You know, Wednesday.

> Person: Oh wait, I think that’s the fourth day of the lunar new year…

Call me culturally intolerant, but this is super annoying. The latest casualty of this phenomenon was me missing out on a meal cooked by my awesome ayi, Xiao Wang. Oh well. She deserves another day off for the holidays anyway.

One of these years I’ll get around to realigning my temporal frame of reference to the moon just two weeks out of every year. But until then I will be annoyed for those two weeks a year.


Jan 2006

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


Dec 2005

Farewell to Ayi

Shortly after I moved to Shanghai in early 2004 I decided to hire an ayi (housekeeper/maid) to do some cooking and cleaning. (Her last name was Zhou, so I’ll call her “Zhou Ayi.”) I really enjoyed having a cook, and I wasn’t shy about expressing my great satisfaction with Zhou Ayi. Things were great for a while.

Over time, our relationship worsened. I find it difficult to explain exactly how or why, but I’ll try.



Dec 2005

More Christmas Than You

Recently I set up the little artificial Christmas tree my girlfriend bought for my last year. When I went to put the Christmas lights on it, I found that one of the wires had come disconnected from the switchbox. I probably wouldn’t be able to fix it without a soldering iron. Since I didn’t have time to get new Christmas lights, I just left the tree plain.

The next day my ayi came over and I pointed out the Christmas tree to her. I thought maybe she hadn’t seen a Christmas tree in someone’s home before. She proceeded to good-naturedly advise me that it was too bare, and I should get more ornaments and lights to decorate it properly. I just smiled and agreed with her.

ECNU Chinese Dep. Teachers

ECNU teachers

On Wednesday I went to a party for the Chinese department teachers of ECNU. (I’ve been teaching them English at their request, and it seemed like a good excuse for a party). The party was held in the nice home of one of the teachers. She had a real Christmas tree! It was the planted kind, and it was decorated in a simple but nice European style.

I had wanted to buy eggnog to share at the party, and I was pretty sure it could be bought at City Supermarket, but it turned out that City Supermarket had no holiday foods at all. Same goes for 久光, the supermarket near Jing’an Temple that carries mostly Japanese imports. Both supermarkets were fully decked out in Christmas decorations, but neither contained a single Christmas-themed food or drink item. Even Starbucks, with its overpriced (158 RMB, I think?) gingerbread house had more to offer. So instead of eggnog I took a bottle of Bailey’s I had been saving for a special occasion.

The party was briefly educational because I brought the mini Nativity scene that my parents gave me about two years ago. I explained who each figure was, and they all got a kick out of the cute little figurines.

X'mas at Plaza 66

via ShanghaiStreets

It seems like the department stores in Shanghai are getting more and more lavish in their Christmas decorations with each passing year. The things are really getting huge. Plaza 66 (a mall on Nanjing Road) has even set up a Christmas ferris wheel. Each “seat” is a case holding some overpriced bag or other item, and the whole things slowly turns, showing off the mall’s expensive offerings.

I guess maybe it’s because of all the over-the-top decorations everywhere that I am very content this year with an under-decorated tree and a very simple Christmas celebration.

Anyway, Merry Christmas!


Dec 2005

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.

This entry is part two of a series on ayis. See also: To Ayi or Not to Ayi, Farewell to Ayi, My Ayi Crush

Related blog entry elsewhere: Hiring an Ayi


Dec 2005

Mysteries of 鸡毛菜 Revealed

A little while ago I posted Micah’s “Wholesale Vegetable Prices” and there was some discussion as to what, exactly, 毛菜 (AKA 鸡毛菜) is. Well, just last night, as I started digging into what I thought was a tasty but otherwise ordinary dish of 香菇青菜 (Chinese greens with mushrooms), my ayi mentioned to me, “that’s 鸡毛菜, you know.” (I had asked her about it around the time of the veggie prices post, and she remembered me asking, so she mentioned it to me.) So I got a picture of it, since the internet apparently does not have enough pictures of this vegetable. 鸡毛菜 mystery… solved! Exciting!


Wow, I managed to get in another post related to my ayi in between a series of posts about ayis. What is with all this ayi-mania on Sinosplice lately?? I don’t know, but just let me get it out of my system. You can’t keep this sort of thing bottled up.


Dec 2005

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


Oct 2005

Dumplings for Lunch

I really need to to stop eating dumplings for lunch every day. Why are frozen dumplings so good? I boil them and put some hot and sour sauce on them. (The sauce is called 酸辣酱, by a company called “爱之味.”) Yum.

I’ve been told by Chinese people that dumplings are considered something of a traditional Chinese junk food. They’re not super healthy. (So I take a vitamin when I eat them.) If dumplings are China’s attempt at junk food, though, Americans sure bested them in that department. Not only does our junk food have zero nutritional value, it’s also extremely bad for you. (Go USA!)

dumplings for lunch

So the reason I keep eating dumplings for lunch is that I’ve been really busy lately, and we no longer have Ayi to cook for us. The reason we no longer have Ayi is both simple and complex. The simple reason is that now that I’ve started school I have a new part-time job that requires me to be elsewhere every weeknight, and my roommate works late pretty much every night. I might go into the complex reason in a future post, but it’s sort of a story without an ending…


Jun 2005

Out of the Rice Zone

In China, eating rice is manly. It goes with smoking and drinking. Every time I turn down a cigarette with a “I don’t smoke,” people are disappointed. When I drink with them, they are very happy, nodding in approval. When I don’t eat much rice (like only one bowl), they demand I have another bowl. They don’t want to hear any of that “we don’t eat this much rice in the West, especially not at the very end of a meal” crap.

So I was happy once I got into my “rice zone.” I was capable of eating two to three (smallish) bowls of rice with every meal. Normal whiteys fresh off the boat cannot do this. It took me years to get to that point.

Lately, I’ve lost it. I’m not sure what it is. A few months ago, when Ayi gave me a heaping bowl of rice (and that’s a big bowl, not the restaurant size), I would eat it all in the course of my meal. Now, I take one look at that bowl and I’m sure I can’t finish it. When I put back half the bowl, she scowls in disapproval, the “a big tall guy like you should be eating more rice than that” written very clearly on her face.

Maybe I’m just ready for a visit home.


Dec 2004

Untested Cooking Scheme

Back in the days before I had an ayi to cook for me, I taught spoken English classes at ZUCC in Hangzhou. I had a pretty nice apartment there with a full kitchen. I could have easily hired a cook there too, but never did. I rarely cooked myself, besides boiling frozen dumplings in instant soup and then dousing them with sweet and spicy sauce. Most of my meals were spent with my awesome co-workers at ZUCC.

Still, in my last semester at ZUCC I hatched a plan. It was cunning. It was brilliant. It was never put into effect. But maybe there’s still hope for some enterprising teachers in China if I share it in my blog.

OK, let me lay it out for you.

  • When I was there, the teachers at ZUCC liked home-cooked meals, but they were lazy. For some reason they were also unwilling to hire a cook.
  • The students ate in the cafeteria day after day. They longed for home-cooked food, but had no cooking facilities. Some of them were even great cooks, but had no way to share their gift.

Do you see where I’m going with this? You may think you do, but it gets better.

The process goes like this:

  1. Announce to each class that you’re holding a cooking competition in your own home. Students who wish to enter should enter in teams of 2 or 3. Have them sign up and include what evenings they’re free. Share with them your judging criteria and tell them what cooking facilities/supplies you have. Tell them they will be cooking enough food for 4-5 people.
  2. Create a schedule for the teams. There are several ways you can do it. If you have a lot of classes, you might want to assign a whole week (Monday through Friday) to each class. Each night of that week one team would come to your place and then cook and eat with you. Alternatively, you could assign a day of the week to each class, and a different team could come every week.
  3. Tell the students they have a 20rmb budget for the dinner (which is plenty). They know what they’re going to make, so they need to buy the ingredients and then show up at your place to prepare it. Unless you’re a jerk, you should reimburse the students the 20rmb. You might have to fight to make them take it, but you really should. If they spent less than 20rmb, they’ll give you the change. I really doubt any students would try to “make money” by making a super cheap meal.
  4. Stay out of the way while your students prepare the meal. Two or three people is plenty to get the job done. When the meal is done, take pictures of it with your digital camera.
  5. Around this time, the “guest judge” of the evening arrives. That’s your friend. (If you want, you can even charge him 10rmb for the meal or make him help with the dishes.)
  6. After the meal chat with the students for a while and then secretly write down your judgments.
  7. Your students will probably try to wash your dishes for you (but not in every case). Handle that how you see fit.
  8. Put the pictures online with a description. You might want to include the judges’ scores. That’s your call.

I think originally I had it all worked out to the point where I could even make money on the scheme, and everyone was happy. Perhaps it’s better that it never went into effect, though. It had all the makings of a scandal.

Sooo… who’s gonna try it?? (Let me know.)


Sep 2004

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.


Aug 2004

Off Again… (and ROACHES!)

Friday morning I’ll be on a plane to Qingdao (青岛). I’ll have just missed the beer festival, but that doesn’t matter. I’m sure Qingdao is not out of beer, and the city’s still there to be seen. I’ll take Monday to do just that.

Tuesday I’ll fly out to Yinchuan (银川), capital of Ningxia (宁夏) Province. I’m told the agent is going to take us sightseeing there. Yinchuan is next to the Gobi Desert and mountains, and there’s supposed to be cool stuff to see which I might know more about if I were a good Lonely Planet-reading tourist (but I’m not). It’s not like I have lots of time or freedom this time anyway, so I’ll just see where they take me.

In unrelated news, my apartment has recently come under assault by massive cockroaches. Three sightings in the past three days. The first two were terminated by good old fashion smashing the hell out of them. The third one escaped. The third one was the most disturbing because I spotted it taking a stroll across the curtain rod over my window in my bedroom while I was on the phone. I got off the phone for a sec to try to destroy it, but it escaped into the folds of a nearby blanket! How nasty is that?! I had to finish the phone call, and when I got off it was long gone.

I went right to the supermarket to get roach spray and hotels, but they didn’t have any roach hotels. The majority of the insecticide they had was for mosquitoes. And almost all of it was Raid brand. Raid seems to have the Chinese insecticide market cornered.

So then I did the intelligent thing and went home and sprayed the hell out of my entire bedroom. (It doesn’t say anything on the bottle about the fumes being poisonous…) Maybe I’m being squeamish, but the roach was big, and I gotta sleep in that room.

I don’t know what’s going on, because I’m very good about keeping food in the kitchen, and my ayi keeps my place pretty clean. I never spotted a single roach before these.

I’m going to bed soon. I’m trying to make myself believe that the roach either escaped my room through some unknown portal or that it was hiding under the couch when I let a fumigation storm loose under there, and it has long since twitched its loathsome little legs for the last time.


May 2004

Preparing for the Cook

Recently I decided to hire a housecleaning ayi in Shanghai. I used to hire one every two weeks or so in Hangzhou to do a thorough cleaning job of my apartment to supplement my own occasional half-hearted attempts at sanitation. It cost 8 RMB ($1) per hour, and they would usually stay for two or three hours each visit.

I’ve talked to some foreign friends in China before who feel bad about hiring someone to clean up after them in their own home, and for such a low wage. I, on the other hand, feel great about it. I don’t feel like I have a lot of spare time these days, so it’s a great way to give myself some more free time without even spending much money. Plus I’m giving someone some honest work. I don’t set the labor prices in China, and it’s not a slave wage. (For comparison, McDonalds in China only pays 3 RMB an hour to start.) Those that engage in housecleaning are usually people from other poorer parts of China who really need work. I’m nice to them and I chat with them, and I usually tidy up along with them as they clean. I see no problem with it. Win-win.

Anyway, I recently had an epiphany. I decided to hire an ayi not only to clean, but to cook for me regularly. She will come every weekday evening for 2 hours and cook a meal and clean up a bit. I will pay her 250 RMB per month, plus the cost of the meals’ ingredients.

My new ayi came tonight for the first time and cooked an awesome simple meal. Stir-fried pork strips and jiaobai (茭白: Wenlin translates this white Chinese vegetable as “water-oat shoots,” whatever that means), garlic mixi (a vegetable which is like pink-pigmented spinach; ayi said it’s written 米西), egg and tomato soup, and rice. It was really good! Not too salty, not too oily. This woman is a genius. She’s from Hubei Province. That meal was 6.2 RMB in ingredients. This new plan of mine is not only going to keep my place a lot cleaner, but I’m going to eat better and save a lot of money!

OK, so I admit I was completely lazy up until now. I never cooked at home. That means yesterday I had to buy all the ingredients for my ayi so that she could cook most dishes. In the USA, you would need to have milk, butter, salt, flour, oil, etc. So what do you need in China? This is what I bought:

  • vegetable oil (very important!!!)
  • soy sauce
  • MSG
  • salt
  • sugar
  • rice (a nice 10kg bag for 41 RMB)
  • rice vinegar

Those things are all pretty much indispensable in Chinese cooking (note: no milk or butter in that list). In addition, I also picked up:

  • black pepper
  • hot sauce
  • ketchup (the Chinese actually use it a fair amount for certain dishes)
  • jiang (some kind of soy paste)
  • starch

I also gave my ayi a list of things I hate eating so she could easily avoid them. My list was:

  • xiangcai (the vile weed cilantro)
  • animal organs
  • chicken feet
  • fish with a million harpoon-like tiny bones in them
  • thousand-year-old eggs
  • stinky tofu

Note that in each case, I determined that I didn’t like the above items after I tried them. Some of them, such as stinky tofu and cilantro, have been given many, many chances but fail miserably to meet my high standards of delectability each and every time.

Anyway, this ayi deal is looking mighty sweet.