Part I: The Transition
Ayi translates to ‘aunt’ or ‘auntie’ in English. Ayi also loosely describes a household helper in Chinese – a cleaning person, live-in maid, or child care giver. In Shanghai, we had a great ayi – an early referral from Dave and Kristi. The husband / wife combination of Jiao (Mr. Jiao / Mrs. Jiao). We assume they are married but don’t really know – makes for a better story.
One of the most disruptive parts of the move from Shanghai to Beijing was losing Team Jiao. Mrs. Jiao usually came to our house, though on a few occasions Mr. Jiao showed up. Three times a week every week for 56 weeks. Never a missed day. Everything clean. I am a bit of a neat freak so this was important to household bliss. The keys to a successful marriage: separate bathrooms, a cleaning person, and a sex chair from a Shanghai brothel.
In Chicago, Maria got US$80 for one visit every two weeks. Maria is from Poland. We love Maria and hope she will rejoin us when we return to Chicago. In Shanghai, We paid Mrs. Jiao $6 for the same service so had her come three times a week. Mrs. Jiao is from Shanghai. We love Mrs. Jiao. Mr. Jiao was also very good and always particularly eager to communicate – always smiling and talking – completely unconcerned that we did not understand most of what he was saying. We love Mr. Jiao, too.
On arrival in Beijing, I initially had no connections to an ayi in my neighborhood. Many of the large residential complexes in Beijing seem to have their own cleaning staff – basically an army of ayi.
I am using ayi in the plural – similar to elk (I see an elk – I see elk). I have no idea if this is correct but I don’t think I have every heard anyone use the plural or possessive form of ayi. I don’t remember learning about ‘plural’ chinese grammar rules but that doesn’t mean the discussion didn’t take place and I was simply too overwhelmed to comprehend.
Generally in Chinese Mandarin, you qualify an object with a quantity, such as one ayi (yi ge ayi) or three ayi (san ge ayi). You can also say many or a few. Since Chinese is a character-based language, there isn’t an equivalent to the English apostrophe s (‘s) – generally, to indicate possessive you add ‘de’ in the spoken form of the language – your ayi would be ni de ayi (you possessive ayi). I will ask my tutor this week – very intriguing.
For the first two months in Beijing, I used the resident ‘ayi service.’ This business model lacks the personal touch we were familiar with in Shanghai but seemed fairly standard in my new city. I called the specified phone number and ordered an ayi. It is a wonder that my Chinese is good enough to call a company on the phone and arrange to have someone come to clean my apartment at 4 PM on a Sunday. My call worked, a bit to my amazement – I do ok face to face but 50% of phone conversations end in complete and utter failure.
I believe the average age of the resident ayi service is between 17 and 20, based on a sample size of two. The first girl who came was completely terrified of the non-Chinese-speaking wei guo ren (foreigner) she met at the door. Service was adequate but perfunctory – you could see the fear in the poor girl’s eyes.
The next week, I called again to arrange for a second cleaning. The second teenager was uncomfortable but was visibly less petrified of me. I don’t know if Teenage Ayi #1 was not available or just refused to come back. Teenage Ayi #2 and I had a loud, animated discussion in Chinese that I did not understand. I either successfully arranged for her to return the following weekend or she felt sorry for me and returned of her own accord. Either way, she came back without me having to call the service.
During her second visit, we built a bit of a rapport. My second cleaning coincided with a Chinese language lesson. Letting Teenage Ayi #2 see me struggling through a Chinese language lesson demonstrated that I was not a threat or a beast – just your average human too dumb to learn a foreign language despite consistent effort. I intentionally did not use my Chinese tutor to translate. I introduced my tutor to Teenage Ayi #2 in broken Chinese. We had a short conversation. Lots of smiles. The result was 6 weeks of comfortable accommodation.
Teenage Ayi #2 also introduced me to a pattern of communication common in Beijing that is different than what I experienced in Shanghai. In Shanghai, when it became obvious that I did not understand or could not communicate what I wanted, communication would break down to simple words, pointing and grunting until progress was made. Occasionally they might just laugh and walk away, but generally a satisfactory result could be achieved.
In Beijing, as Teenage Ayi #2 demonstrated to me weekly, if I fail to comprehend (sheme? = what?), the standard approach is to simply repeat the same phrase, but to do it more loudly and more quickly than the first time. If the sentence can only be communicated as loudly and quickly as possible, people in Beijing seem to believe that some miracle will occur and I will understand precisely what they are trying to tell me. If bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla is unsuccessful, then BLABLABLABLABLABLABLABLABLABLA might work.
The most annoying thing about the ayi service was not the teenagers but the fact I had to be at home when they came to clean. In Shanghai, Mrs. Jiao had a key and came and left without need for intervention. Feedback in Beijing was that I should be a bit wary when giving access to my apartment. The problem was accentuated since I was living alone – Linda was back in Chicago. I generally work quite a bit, especially during the week, and often need to travel out of town to visit with clients. That basically left only the weekend for ayi services. I got into a pattern of having the ayi come during a Chinese language lesson over the weekend – that way I could both maximize the little time I spend at home, and concentrate the frustration of learning to speak Chinese.
Part II: The Sock Drawer
Within a few weeks of my arrival in Beijing, a friend recommended their ayi. I finally had a referral. It turned out that Walter and Maggie lived in my same building and Walt believes that their ayi is “personally affronted by dirt.” Walter and Maggie have each lived in Beijing for several years so I completely trusted their unequivocal recommendation.
It took a couple of weeks to work out the details and arrange for the first visit. The first time the new ayi came to the apartment I was out of town, but Linda happened to be visiting and worked out the details on my behalf. He comes 2x per week – Wednesdays and Saturdays at a cost of 600 RMB per month. We were paying the equivalent of about 450 per month in Shanghai, in comparable terms. Linda did not express any opinion or observations on the ayi visit, other than to comment “he cleaned the entire floor on his hands and knees.”
This past week represented the first full week of new ayi services. I was in Shanghai for business again and returned to Beijing late Thursday night. I was tired so grabbed a bite to eat and went to bed without unpacking. The apartment was clean, as expected. The next morning I showered and began to get dressed. That is when I began to notice the subtle changes.
All of my socks were folded exactly, arranged by color, and expertly aligned in my drawer. I had expected to be running low on underwear and t-shirts but discovered my drawers were full of crisply folded whites. The dirty clothes hamper was empty. Linda’s drawers had also been expertly reengineered even though none of her clothes had required washing.
I met Mr. Super Ayi for the first time Saturday. He is affable and talkative, similar to Mr. Jiao. He immediately expressed concern that either (a) I don’t have an iron and ironing board, or (b) there was nothing for him to iron. Failing to understand the grammatical nuance, I explained that I do not iron – all of my clothes that might require ironing go to the dry cleaner. This approach to ironing has served me well for 15 years. He immediately requested the dry cleaner’s phone number and demanded to know where my clothes destined for the dry cleaner were hidden.
It seems I no longer have responsibility for clothes of any type.
After dispensing with my dry cleaning he immediately began a ferocious attack on every surface of my apartment, just as Walt had described. Mr. Super Ayi spent two to three times longer scrubbing my apartment than Teenage Ayi #1 and #2. Windows, floors, and kitchen. Mr. Super Ayi spent 30 minutes in my bathroom even though it had only been used twice since his Wednesday visit – I did not think I was that dirty, but I must be mistaken.
The only gap I noticed between Mr. Super Ayi and Team Jiao is that Mrs. Jiao had taken to refilling the ice trays. Since I am an American bourbon drinker and American bourbon generally requires ice cubes, the immense satisfaction of reaching into a freezer full of ice is frankly hard to describe in words. So, I will use my next Chinese lesson to try to learn to say ‘please fill-up the ice trays.’ That should be straightforward but I expect added complexity if forced to explain what to do with ice that is already in the ice trays or what my expectation might be if there is clearly enough ice in the freezer. In China, innocuous requests often come with unintended consequences, so it is best to have a fully prepared cheat sheet when using new words or communicating new concepts. In Chicago, Maria will get the same instruction (in English, not Chinese – I do not plan to learn to speak Polish).
I will thank Walter and Maggie and treat them to dinner – Mr. Super Ayi is off to a very nice start. Consistency and dependability are critical to ayi success – Maria had it, Mr. and Mrs. Jiao had it, and I hope that Mr. Super Ayi has it. My sock drawer is wicked cool.