If you mention the word Ayi to an expat in Shanghai, you are just as likely to get a look of happy contentment as you are a scowl. An Ayi, which means “auntie” in Chinese, is kind of like a cleaning lady in America, although that’s a ridiculously poor description of what they really do. Usually a middle age woman, Ayis do everything necessary to run an expat’s home in Shanghai. They cook, clean, do laundry, watch the kids, shop, run errands, pay bills and interface with any Chinese speaking folks you need to deal with on a regular basis. In your house 5 days a week, all day, they in effect become part of your family, And, as with all family members, that can be a good thing or a not so good thing.
Our Ayi, Sunny, arrives every day at 9 a.m. and promptly begins cleaning up the mess from dinner the night before. Like most Western style homes here, the house we live in has two kitchens — ours and Ayi’s — which allows us to keep dirty pots, pans and dishes out of sight. You may think that I’m lazy for leaving the mess for the next day, but the one time I did clean up after dinner, Sunny scolded me like a bad school boy. Mostly in Chinese. She made it clear that I would be staying out of the Ayi kitchen.
I do 98% of the cooking for our family, which is great, because I like to cook. However, I’ve recently noticed that slowly, over time, Sunny has been taking over our kitchen. She has been with us for 4 weeks and during the first week, I made it pretty clear that I would be doing most of the cooking, and in a pinch she could step in and help. By the second week she was doing the majority of prep work, like chopping vegetables, making salads and cooking rice (we eat brown rice, the Chinese eat white — it was a rare victory for me). I was loving this as I now had a sous chef who was doing the heavy lifting, while I still got to do the cooking.
By week 3, I was pretty much toast. Sunny had started doing a chunk of the shopping, at her insistence, and then cooking what she bought so that the girls could try it and see if they liked it, or so she claimed. In a shocking turn of events, the girls could not get enough of Sunny’s cooking, and that’s pretty much been the story ever since. Now, I have to say, as I get increasingly busy here (more on that in another post), Sunny’s growing role in the kitchen is actually welcome. She’s a good cook (those dumplings were to die for) and after some tweaks, has evolved a little toward being a healthier cook — less salt and oil, more veggies.
The little drama that played out in our kitchen plays out in varying forms throughout the expat community here (and increasingly with our Chinese neighbors). There is an Ayi community. It is tight-knit and as gossipy as you would expect. Between the Ayis and our drivers (again, another post), there is almost nothing about our lives they don’t know. And for some of our friends who have been here for years, that sometimes creates tension and hostility, just like in any family. Most of our friends work it out like a family because they like, care about, and need their Ayis and wouldn’t know what to do without them. We’ve even heard several stories of Expats inviting their Ayis to come home to the States with them — and they went!
We all love Sunny and are very happy she’s a part of our lives. We were lucky to find her through a reputable agency called CC Shanghai (firstname.lastname@example.org). Other good resources for Ayis in Shanghai include the Shanghai Expat Association (seashanghai.org), the American Women’s Club (awcshanghai.org), and the Community Center Shanghai (community center.cn). We know of a couple of Expats who went to Western grocery stores and found their Ayis via bulletin boards, but going through an agency and their screening process seemed best to us.
And so we have another family member here in Shanghai, and her name is Sunny. Pretty sure we aren’t bringing her back home when we return to the U.S., unless of course Cassidy, Stephanie, and our dog Gabby have their way.