Slipping past ayi’s radar after a night on the town
I cherish my afternoons with Elsa, my 17-month-old daughter, but let’s be honest: four hours of repeated clucking, mooing, barking and other barnyard imitations can leave one with a rather dry throat. Thankfully, especially for a single mother living on a part-time salary, one of the biggest perks of life in Beijing is the affordability of childcare. When I got thirsty for a night out in London, I’d have to pay a babysitter the equivalent of a Chinese ayi’s wages for an entire week. Here, I can actually afford to have a social life. Cheap as it is, though, my Beijing freedom comes with one definite price – the ayi’s censure.
I felt bad asking my ayi to work too many evenings, so I followed the advice of a friend of mine, a seasoned expat mother, and hired a second ayi as backup. Now I can get out whenever I want. The only downside to this handy arrangement is that I’m made acutely conscious of the fact that swanning off to the local drinking establishment is not exactly the usual, accepted maternal behavior over here. Both ayis are very warm, generally accepting people, but the backup ayi has been known to comment. I was mortified some months back when I returned from an evening out and was greeted with a pointed look and a muttered “jiu.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I instantly regressed, shamefacedly squeaking back “just two glasses!” like a naughty teenager.
These days, I devise elaborate schemes to avoid incurring future condemnation. One “before” strategy I’ve developed is a careful distribution of the heavy and lighter nights – a balancing of Centro and The Tree, as it were – so that not too many of the Centro nights go to the same ayi. I am careful to always tuck a toothbrush and some toothpaste into my purse, should I need to mask any untoward alcohol emissions later on. I have even been known to ask Backup Ayi to come in on some spurious daytime pretext, just to give her a more balanced view of my social life!
"After" strategies are trickier, and their chances of success are more heavily influenced by the evening’s events. As I go up in the lift, I mentally rehearse my faltering Chinese. To avoid any awkward face-to-face fumbling, I scrabble around for the exact pay. Once I’ve got it, I add an appeasement quotient for good measure.
The most delicate procedure, and the one that instantly renders all previous efforts worthless if botched, is the tricky “Key and Keyhole” move. Hold the key steady … steady … just outside the lock, until confident that key and keyhole are perfectly aligned. Then: plunge. It’s essential to get it just right on the very first try.
When I’ve opened the door, I slip inside, whisper my thanks to ayi through tight lips (less breath escapes that way), and clear the doorway to allow her a swift exit.
I have no idea what either of my ayis really make of it all. I am quite sure I am fooling no one. But I am eternally grateful to them both for their unfailing devotion to my daughter, their willingness to come over on next to no notice, and for the life of relative liberty they allow me to lead. And, of course, for ignoring all those scratch marks by the keyhole.