Not quite family, but close enough
After trying to explain the word ayi on the phone to my mum, I’ve concluded that it just doesn’t translate. “Child-minder” is too officious, though Zhao Ayi does look after our baby. “Maid” just brings to mind characters from old comedies on TV that poked fun at class distinctions. “Au pair” perhaps? Or “nanny”? For middle-class Englishmen such as myself, such luxuries simply do not exist. An ayi is, well, an ayi, and somehow seems a warmer word than anything we have in English – it is, after all, often translated as “auntie.” So I’ve given up trying to translate it, and now Mum has learned a new Chinese word to add to her wei and ni hao.
As I was telling Mum, our ayi search was a painful one, and we hit the depths of despondency during an interview with the nightmare ayi from Dongbei. True to the stereotype of Dongbei ren being – to put it nicely – talkative, the ayi in question hardly gave us an opportunity to ask our questions before volunteering her opinions on all aspects of household management, after which she put up a price before we had even offered her the job.
Then, two months ago, just when I thought I was going to have to re-train as an ayi myself, we finally found the one of our dreams: Zhao Ayi is good-hearted but not without tact, a great cook, reliable, and very loving towards my son, Daniel. (In case you’re in the market, we found Zhao Ayi through FESCO, which may not be the cheapest but does have ayis who come with professional training.)
At first, I just couldn’t get used to the idea of having an ayi working for us. Perhaps I’m a victim of my class-ridden homeland (or maybe it’s the last vestige of youthful leftist instincts). Somehow, it just didn’t seem natural to have someone waiting on me in my own home. From a rational standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with it (is there?) It’s a job like any other: You pay a reasonable wage (albeit in a Chinese context) for someone to provide the same kind of services we wouldn’t bat an eyelid about in a hotel, or got for free when mum ironed our shirts (not that my mum ironed my shirts much – her philosophy has always been that shirts de-crease themselves with wearing, and in adult life I have adhered scrupulously to her philosophy).
Not being a Brit of the officer-class variety, the idea of someone serving me stuck in my throat at first. But two months have now passed since Zhao Ayi came into our home, and it seems I’m well past my scruples – the fact that my shirts are now nicely ironed every day (they do feel different, Mum), my food is cooked to a professional standard and I’m living in a spotless apartment may have something to do with it.
Ayi, too, seems aware of certain snobs who look down on ayi-ing as a “low grade” job. Some have no doubt treated her in a haughty manner. But, with time, she says she’s come to the realization that her job offers a chance for her to bring a little kuaile to other people’s families. And what is more important is that Daniel has an “Auntie” Zhao who has fallen in love with him and who tears up at the thought that we might one day leave Beijing.
Now, how do I explain that to my mum?