Zhou Ayi

PB025764 - Version 2As much as I’ve enjoyed staying at home with Little A (he’s no longer Baby A!) for the last fifteen months, I’m exhausted. I would like to be able to pee without someone watching. I would like to be able to send an email without someone writing cryptic messages throughout (ldksafioer9>>?). I would like to have a meal without someone screaming at me for daring to eat, when it is widely known that all food in Babydom is reserved for the consumption of the national dictator with the sole exception of bananas (but I’m still not allowed to eat them because he likes to squash them in his hands and run the resulting mush through his hair - good conditioner apparently although I can testify otherwise).

Don’t get me wrong, I really have loved being around this one little person for pretty much every single hour since his birth. I love the fact that he bites me, scratches my face and pulls my hair. No one else gets treated this badly by him and it’s wonderful. It means that he knows that I love him unconditionally - he feels so safe and secure with me that he can truly be himself (the fact that being himself seems to involve eye gouging is best ignored). I hope he always feels that way although I really hope he finds another way to show it as people are starting to think that Mr Oh is beating me (bite marks on my cheeks, bruises on my arm…it seems like the obvious explanation).

It was always the plan that I would do intensive Mandarin study once we got settled in Shanghai. From February, I will be studying full-time in Jiaotong University, this means I’ll have to get Little A’s childcare set up by then. He’s already in playschool in the mornings and we decided, rather than keep him in playschool all day, that we would get an ayi to look after him in the afternoons. In Chinese, ‘ayi’ means auntie but it is generally used to refer to a woman who helps out in your house. In China, creches don’t really exist and small Chinese children either stay at home with their grandparents or with an ayi.

The nanny option is not one that we could afford in Ireland but labour is a bit cheaper in a country with no minimum wage and huge income disparity. Is hiring an ayi therefore exploitation? I have thought about this and concluded (conveniently) that it is not. A good ayi in Shanghai gets a higher monthly salary than Chinese junior doctors. They’re not cheap. They earn substantially more than I did as a full-time English teacher here a few years ago. By Chinese general standards, it’s a good salary. How come we can afford to pay it if it’s a good salary? In a way, there are two worlds in China. My world is much more expensive than an ayi’s world. Not because I want better things but because a) I don’t look Chinese b) I don’t speak/read particularly good Chinese and c) I’m not Chinese. An ayi does not want to eat Weetabix which, at €8 a box, should really have flakes of gold running through it. An ayi wants to eat dumplings for breakfast which, at 50c for four, are cheap as dumplings (dumplings are cheaper than chips). Should I not eat dumplings for breakfast rather than Weetabix, would that not make more sense? I could - but I’d need to hire an ayi first to go and get them for me because I’m likely to get charged €8 for them on account of being a foreigner. The things that I need/want: avocados, olive oil, English books, clothes in a size bigger than ‘miniature’, wine (obviously I need wine), cheese - all cost, not only a lot more than the goods a Chinese person wants/needs, but quite a lot more than the same goods in Europe. Imported baby infant formula, for example, is €50 a box here. At home it’s about €15 a box. Why don’t I use Chinese infant formula? This is why: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_milk_scandal. What do Chinese people do when they want infant formula? They get people to buy it for them in Europe/US/Australia etc and send it to them. Big business in that. I’m considering it as a future career path.

I managed to overcome my ongoing ethical analysis of the issue rather quickly when I came to understand that, in addition to looking after Little A, the ayi would most likely also do the ironing. Not that I ironed before we had an ayi. Everything in the house was crumpled with the exception of Mr Oh’s work shirts, which he ironed himself. You’d be waiting around here a long time before you’d see me pick up an iron. I’m allergic to the fumes.

Even though I don’t start uni for another three months, we wanted to get an ayi in place as soon as possible - just in case it didn’t work out and we had to find an alternative solution. I was very nervous about the whole process. The agency sent us four candidates to interview - along with a translator because they don’t really speak any English and it would be a short interview if we were relying on my aptitude for the Chinese language. We were all over the place the morning of the interview. Little A had a fever and the interviews were conducted over the angry wailing of an unhappy toddler. It’s hard to know what questions to ask someone who you’re interviewing to look after your child. Do you like the music of Bon Jovi? Are you prone to violent outbursts? Eoghan asked the good questions and I mostly sat scanning their faces for signs of psychosis and/or evil.

My one key question was: What would you do if Little A was choking? One of them said, “Give him vinegar” and then when I didn’t look very happy with that answer followed it up with, “…and then if that didn’t work, take him to hospital in a taxi”. I wonder if she noticed me scrawling the word ’NO!’ beside her name? Two candidates insisted that they would know what to do, telling me that they had done first aid courses, but seemed vague about the particulars. The final one mimed picking up a child by the ankles and beating it soundly on the back. We hired her.

The word ayi means “Auntie”. Ayi a 50 year old grandmother from Shanghai. She smiles a lot and she speaks Chinese to Little A and me. Our first two weeks were the training period where we’d both be in the house and I could show her how things work. I was very uncomfortable with the whole thing. Like a good Irish employer, I followed her about the place offering her cups of tea and cake. I found it difficult to tell her what I wanted her to do in case I offended her. I think this pissed her off. I then became scared of her and spent a lot of time hiding out around the corner in the coffee shop. Then, one day, I was showing her the local grocery market where I wanted to buy a courgette. I took her to my usual vegetable lady. I held up a courgette and Ayi asked how much it was in Chinese. Grocery lady said ‘5.5 yuan’. Ayi said ‘Why so expensive!”. Grocery lady said brazenly ‘because she’s a foreigner’ as if that was perfectly acceptable (I suppose it is here). Ayi released a hail of torpedo rage on grocery lady resulting in procurement of the courgette for somewhere under 3 yuan. She then turned to me and slowly said in her best English, “You no more shopping. Ayi shopping now”. I think I’ll keep her.
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