Friday, 13 December 2013 Filed in: China | Shanghai | Ayi
Our ayi, Ayi, has been with us for about two months now and, despite my initial reservations, it’s going swimmingly. She’s as mad as a box of frogs, though, and stomps around the house with Little A - the two of them singing loud, tuneless la-la-la songs together in unison. Sometimes, I swear, they do harmonies. They also have loud and ear piercing squabbles (I think the squabbling is mostly on her side as Little A’s only word is ‘dog’). As I sit in my study learning how to write ‘terracotta warriors’ in Chinese (honestly, the vocabulary in my textbook is so random sometimes) I can hear Ayi wail at Little A. This is followed by a thud as, I can only presume, his sippy cup hits either a) the wall or b) her head. They’re both screaming at this stage. I can’t go out and check on what’s happening because she has banned me from coming out of my study after he wakes up from his nap. I had this idea that I could pop in and out of my study throughout the afternoon bestowing kisses on Little A and sweeping into his room for a guerrilla play session before retreating back to my books. Sadly, toddlers don’t work like that and Little A is happiest if he doesn’t catch sight of me until I’m ready to give him my full focus for the rest of the day.
For the last month, I’ve been studying Chinese full-time. Four hours of classes in the morning and another 3-4 hours of study in the afternoons. It’s intense but I really love it and I can feel my Chinese improving by the day. In the beginning, Ayi and I spoke a mix of Chinese and English. Now, we speak 95% in Chinese. Ayi has become like my China-living-guru. Every day I proudly show her something that I’ve managed to buy in China - dried apricots from the Uighur vendors that come into town occasionally, a kilo of tangerines, a knock-off Gap jumper, a Christmas tree - normally when I tell her how much I paid for the item in question she starts shaking her head slowly. “No good” she says and tells me how much I should have paid for it (which is usually about half of what I did). Every once in a while she gives a satisfactory nod and tells me that my product is ‘hao tejia’ (a good deal). Once I bought a bag of raisins that were so ‘hao tejia’ that she asked me to buy one for her too. I was extremely proud of my bargain hunting prowess which is to the Chinese what barefoot wildebeest stalking is to the Masai. These special moments are infrequent but deeply satisfying.
While we have been getting on well, that is not to say that the new arrangement has not required a bit of adjustment and a recalibration of cultural expectations. Ayi, like most Chinese, likes a good nap. The first time I saw her lying prone on our sofa wrapped up in my pure wool Foxford blanket with a cushion over her face, I was quite taken aback. If I am totally honest, I was a little bit indignant. Why is she sleeping in my living room in the middle of the day? How is this ok? In China, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to sleep anywhere. Little A was napping, she had already ironed all Mr Oh’s shirts and made enough dumplings to feed all twelve of the people she clearly thinks live in our house - so why shouldn’t she catch forty winks? I could actually find no valid reason for my objection to her siesta other than the fact that it’s just not the kind of thing we do. Fortunately, I don’t know how to say that in Chinese. Now I’ve become accustomed to her gently snoring presence in my living room and no longer find it quite as bizarre as I once did.
I thought that when I got used to the midday napping that I could no longer be thrown by Ayi’s bizarre cultural habits. Not so. I remember the day she came in to me as I was reading a very boring text describing what happens in a teahouse in Guangdong (not much, in case you were wondering) and told me that, from that day forth, she would be showering in the afternoon…in our shower. I was truly baffled and I think the first thing I said was ‘Why?’. She seemed slightly put out by my questioning of her motives and said “because I need to change clothes”. This hardly clarified matters for me and I stared aghast at her as she picked a towel out of my linen cupboard, asked me to buy more shampoo and toddled off for a refreshing 2pm hose-down. I was actually, at that moment, prepared to tell her that I didn’t feel she was a ‘good fit for our family’ (this is the vocabulary of cross-cultural domestic employment). Again, I wasn’t quite sure what it was about her showering that really annoyed me. It wasn’t that she was slacking in her work otherwise. It wasn’t that I felt she was taking advantage of us. It just felt so very inappropriate - like a violation of our boundaries, our privacy. For me, it was like she had told me that she was going to start wearing my socks. Actually, she was using my flip flops for her showers so it really was like she was wearing my socks.
After raising this issue with various foreign friends and finding their response to be unanimously a kind of blasé “Oh yeah, that’s normal” I slowly became less freaked out by the showering. Apparently Chinese homes often don’t have very comfortable showers in the winter. They may not have hot water or at least not very hot water. Our bathroom is so badly insulated and baltic that I reckon Ayi’s own shower must be really awful for her to resort to seeking comfort in, what I think, is a little mini igloo with its own polar wind tunnel. Once I established the existence of a vaguely genuine reason that she may prefer to shower in our place and further discovered that it’s quite common and she’s not just taking the piss, I’ve become okay with it. I’m not great with it - I still think it’s weird and I’m not 100% comfortable but I’m willing to live with it. She makes really good dumplings, Little A likes her and she shouts at repairmen on my behalf (she instructs me to stand menacingly at her side looking displeased while she berates them). I’ve hidden my flip flops under the bed though - that really is like wearing my socks and I haven’t been in China long enough to be okay with that.
[By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the air quality is no longer immediately and enormously hazardous and has gone back to being just plain old bad. We’re very relieved!]