The Ayi and I


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Phew…8 weeks down…only another 17.85 years to go (I am not open to criticism on the mathematical logic of that - there is no calculator handy). I have it nailed. Mr Oh is out at a work thing. It’s 8pm. Little A is asleep. I have my foot on Snugglepunk’s bouncer and am gently tapping him up and down which seems to be doing the trick. I’ve just finished a delicious four-cheese lasagne. Ok, so I ordered it on Sherpa’s (food delivery service) but you try ordering food online, breastfeeding and singing the Fireman Sam theme-tune simultaneously. I’m feeling very smug.

I have learned a lot from Baby A that I bring to the table with Baby B. The main rule is: never venture so far from home that you cannot walk back within ten minutes. This restricts my movement to a small area of Shanghai - from Xiangyang to Wukang on the horizontal axis and from Yan’an to Fuxing on the vertical. If you happen to be a fellow Shanghai resident who hangs round these parts in the afternoon, look out for me around 3.30 on Wuyuan. I’ve got blue and white striped Skechers, a screaming baby and can frequently be found shouting ‘W-T-F(in-full)’ at passing motorcyclists who mount the pavement and zoom around me.

Ayi and I are firm friends these days. Mostly because I’ve reduced her hours so no longer have to panic daily about how to create enough work for her to prevent that awkward feeling when your ayi sits silently in the corner with her hands in her lap looking into the middle distance. It doesn’t help that I’m married to the only man in the universe who cannot be prevented from cleaning the kitchen. I keep trying to tell him that all his tidying is leaving me with even less work to give Ayi but he gives me that slightly incredulous are-you-actually-giving-out-to-me-for-cleaning look. Despite her slightly odd habits, I’m very fond of her and she’s actually a great help. She also cleans like a demon and is crazy about babies. Most mothers don’t have home help like we do in Shanghai. I won’t when we go home. That frightens me slightly. How do people do it? I ask myself this a lot. I must be asking it out loud too because as another mother pointed out to me this week:
1. Mothers in Europe do not have to test their children for lead poisoning (not sure how this relates to having an ayi);
2. Mothers in Europe can have double strollers (I can barely wedge one pram through the ubiquitous bamboo scaffolding, shimmy over drains, bump up/down steps etc). I had to walk into the traffic with the pram no less than six times this afternoon because the pavement was blocked by random debris.
3. Mothers in Europe do not have to leave their babies at home when they run errands due to the fact that the air is toxic. I tried to put a particle filter mask on Snugglepunk today when we went outside but he wasn’t too keen so we had to go back indoors. The fact that I had to try to put a particle filter mask on an 8 week old makes me deeply unhappy. If there’s one thing I hate about Shanghai, it’s the air pollution. I hate it more than the spitting, and I really hate the spitting.
4. Mothers in Europe have parks and other places that they can bring their kids to run around and burn off energy. We have the driveway of our apartment building with cars driving in and out and a mosquito infested pond full of carnivorous turtles and floating fish carcasses.

Do I think Mothers in Europe have it easier than European Mothers in Shanghai? No. We definitely have it easier in many ways - being able to afford to pay someone to do your ironing is wonderful, access to affordable childcare is great (bearing in mind that it’s not necessarily the same standard of childcare that you would expect in Europe). We might have it easier, but we also have it scarier. Shanghai is, at times, a frightening place to raise children. Taxis don’t have seat belts (technically, they all have them but they’re often hidden under the seat), a green man does not mean you can cross the road without a car hurtling towards you, a pedestrian crossing means nothing, toys can be toxic, clothes can be flammable, food is - at best - an unknown quantity, the air is unhealthy bordering on dangerous…how does that all stack up against an ironing-free life? This isn’t a complaint, it’s just an observation. As my father would say, “The price…is the price.” (He said this in a conversation specifically relating to house-hunting but I think it has wider metaphysical appeal).

Back to Ayi. These days, we’re doing well. I’m no longer scared of asking her to do things. Yesterday, I asked her to peel and cut the vegetables for dinner. It was amazing - like I got all the fun (and kudos) of cooking without any of the real work. She also cleaned up after me. My new found comfort with Ayi has nothing to do with my own increased assertiveness and everything to do with breastfeeding. I mostly only give Ayi instructions when I’m breastfeeding - I feel like it gives me some kind of moral high ground - like my primal obligations supersede the need to peel a pumpkin. “Look at me, I’m nourishing the newly born…can you please iron these shirts?”

Ayi is also delighted with the new vibe. In the afternoon, when we all go outside to play in the driveway beside the fish pond/graveyard, I run around after Little A like a frazzled lunatic. Meanwhile, Ayi sits serenely on a bench holding court with the other ayis while Snugglepunk dozes lazily in her arms. She parades him around the apartment complex, batting away people who get too close to him and proudly detailing his many positive attributes i.e. his chubbiness, fulsome head of hair and pale complexion.

In her free time, she likes to berate me for being too soft on people (I presume she means people other than her). For example, the building maintenance man told me that he couldn’t fix a metal door stop that had snapped off. Ayi called him back up, barked at him for twenty seconds and within the space of a few hours, the impossible-to-fix doorstop was magically replaced. Thus followed a lecture from Ayi that went a little like this:
Ayi: You must learn. You will never survive if you do not learn.
Me: I think I’m surviving ok *looking unsure*
Ayi: You must be firm.
Me: Ok.
Ayi: When someone says ‘I cannot’…you say ‘You will do as I demand’.
Me: Ok.
Ayi: You must be assertive. You must take control. Maybe you need to shout a little bit.
Me: Isn’t that what I have you for?
Ayi: Otherwise they will walk all over you.
Me: Ok.
Ayi: Now, I will take the baby and you will cook dinner.
Me: Ok.

It works much better like this.


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