New Ayi

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.

Easier Way to Cardiovascular Health?

breastThe New England Journal of Medicine is a respected publication, so I have taken this study’s recommendations very seriously. Heart disease runs in my family – I am the only living Cowan that has not had a heart attack, open heart surgery, or a significant heart procedure. I (usually) exercise regularly and have reduced my sodium consumption. For health reasons, I now look at women’s breasts.

The summary of the study suggests that photographs were used – I doubt Demi and Dolly donated 5 years in support of this important research. It also is not clear if the breasts being oogled were covered or bare. I would hope that follow-up studies would be conducted to help isolate the benefits. For example, is five minutes of live bare breast staring equivalent to 10 minutes a day perusing a Victoria’s Secret catalog? Also, what about online breasts, which are readily available? These are serious questions that should be answered.

Regardless of your support structure and delivery method, I have found that getting your daily 10 minutes of breast oogling is more difficult than you might think – similar to getting to the gym for 45 minutes every day. Such things are generally frowned upon in a work environment.

It is important to note that Linda does her part in helping me lead a long, healthy life. My wife is exceptional in many ways.

Of related interest, Playboy Magazine has an entertaining annual feature – the Breast Test. Best not to click that link if you are unsure of your company’s computer usage policy.

In my experience , I believe that women in particular are overconfident in their perceived ability to identify artificially enhanced breasts, despite most statistical evidence to the contrary. Assuming that the same health benefits can be derived from both fake and real breasts, you can test your skills and improve your health at the same time.

Thank you, Playboy.

The Sex Chair

For Christmas 2004, Linda bought me a sex chair. When your wife buys you a bamboo chair originally used in a 1930s Shanghai brothel, that is a signal that life is good.

The chair is much more comfortable than you might think, given that it is made of wood. The headrest puts the neck in a very comfortable position and the curvature of the chair is pretty much perfect. It is really made for short people – your average Asian. At 6 feet tall I am pushing the limits of the design.

Most of our friends have given it a go from a comfort perspective. It was popular with my parents and aunt – during a spring visit it was typically occupied at the conclusion of days spent walking extensively. Ironically, I think more people whack the big red drum than test the bamboo sex chair. Natural selection in the modern age?

chairTo be honest, I am not sure we have figured out exactly how do use it. There were no directions so it is basically trial and error, which is not all bad. There are two things it is quite useful for and a couple of others that are simply not possible. We are constantly searching for additional options but at a slower pace than earlier in the year, especially given that Linda is now living in Chicago. Please add any suggestions to the comments section – Linda will report back.

Linda told me I was not allowed to ask a Chinese woman to show me how it works. If given a demonstration, I think even my rudimentary Chinese would be capable of comprehension.

Alas, best not to rock the boat.

Dean and Linda’s Friend Project

Linda and I appreciate our friends so I think we are going to add a blog section about you. Essentially we would write about and share pictures of our friends. Maybe nice stories and pictures to share with family. Maybe embarrassing stories and pictures to generate traffic to our blog.

Let’s see how it plays out.

There is certainly risk involved in such an endeavor.

Visitors to our blog that are not identified as friends may elect not to return to our site and terminate any remaining friendship.

Visitors to our blog that are identified as friends may ask us to remove this reference and terminate any remaining friendship.

Let’s see how it plays out.

Disclaimers: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Note that there is no priority order for friend postings (neither top down nor bottom up). Timing of information disclosure is purely by whim. Memories of the authors are always deemed more accurate than memories of the subjects. Duplicates are allowed. If distressed by the musings, friends may comment but should remember that we have full administrative rights to the blog and can zap anything contrary to the common good.

Please be patient as we begin The Friend Project.

Click here to read about Dave and Kristi.

Technical Comment

I have been playing around unsuccessfully with some advanced picture posting approaches. No one wants to read what I write, you just want more pictures.

Linda is sending me a book on HTML, XML (Extensible Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). These are the basic web technologies WordPress (this blog) is based on. To play with pictures, I need to understand more about CSS and refresh my html skills.

I am playing with Picasa – a Google product recommended by a friend. Our page with the additional photos was created using this free tool. That ‘picture page’ is not ‘integrated’ with my blog but there are some products available that may help me better achieve what I would like to do. The simple links in the Scotland post are probably adequate but I’d like to be able to allow visitors to sort through pictures just like they sort through posts and pages.


dean_kiltLinda and I travel a lot. It is one of the things we enjoying doing together. I have been in Asia for about 18 months, so it is kind of funny my first travel post is about our September 2005 trip to Scotland.

I have had many requests for kilt pictures.

At the time of the trip, I had just moved to Beijing from Shanghai and Linda was living in Chicago. We had not seen each other for about 6 weeks and rendezvoused in Edinburgh. The purpose of the trip was to attend the wedding of two of our friends from Shanghai – Angie and Chris. Angie has become one of Linda’s important friends, even though, being Scottish, she talks funny. Chris an Australian but has lived in many different places. He is currently working from Shanghai. He talks funny, too, but not as funny as Angie.

We spent about 10 days in Scotland. In addition to attending the wedding, we traveled around a large portion of the Scottish west coast and midsection with another pair of friends from Shanghai – Jim and Kellee. They are American and work for the US government in Shanghai.

Click here for a couple more pictures of the trip.

Itinerary: Short Version

We started in Edinburgh. Very cosmopolitan city with the energy of a college town. We would return to Edinburgh – very nice. Edinburgh hosts a number of art and music festivals the month of August – we arrived at the tail end of the celebrations. Each time I visit, one thing that strikes me about the United Kingdom (and most of Europe) is how much older the cities are than in the United States. There are buildings older than the modern United States – we just don’t have stuff that old in the US.

dean_lindaAfter attending the wedding in a small town whose name I can’t spell or pronounce, we drove west and took a ferry to Islay – an island on the southwest coast of Scotland. Islay is known for sheep and Scotch whiskey. Linda’s favorite scotch comes from this island and most of the 5-6 distilleries on Islay have the distinct smoky, earthy flavor that the island’s industry is known for. We tasted several variations. Very relaxing.

We then headed north generally along the coast and spent a day on the ‘Harry Potter’ train. Our friends were skeptical. Each day, Scot Rail sends a refurbished steam train along a section of track surrounded by glens (translated as big hills, as close as I can tell) and lochs (basically a lake, but I am sure there is more to it). The train stops for a few hours in a small seaside town at the end of the line and then returns on the same route. You pass several of the areas from the movies – including the bridge from the flying car scene.

We continued to Loch Ness but did not notice anything unusual. This area was very forested, so Nessie could be hidding in either the woods or the water. Another night was spent in an old castle that has been turned into a bed and breakfest – on the North Sea on the east coast. Linda and Kellee chowed down on ‘smokies’ – haddock that are smoked, giving off a distinctive smell. I did not try them, but smokies are very popular in that area and among my traveling companions.

Click here to see some pictures taken by Jim and Kellee. You will need to register with Kodak to view them.

Our last night was spent in Glasgow though we didn’t have much time to look around. Met some friendly blokes at a local bar and chatted for several hours.

If we return to Scotland, we would stay at least 10 days and pick a smaller area to visit. Scotland seems to be a great place to walk and hike but we did not have the opportunity to do much of this.


Driving on the Left

Not as hard as I expected. Everyone said it was not difficult and after a day or two it felt normal. When driving, I thought the most challenging part was downshifting around corners – steering with your right hand and shifing with your left – everything backwards.

Jim and I both agreed that it was more comfortable to drive than ride in the front passenger seat. Being a passenger on the far opposite side of the road from what you are used to was often disconcerting. There was the constant feeling that you would go careening off the road into a tree. My 3-5 noticeable drifts left into curb kept Jim awake and buckled up.

How to Wear a Kilt

jim_flashesJim and I rented kilts – just like you rent a tuxedo in the US. You even wear a tux shirt and bow tie with a vest and jacket. The big question was what to wear under the kilt. Jim and I wore nothing, which is what all the Scottish told us was the Scottish way. Despite wearing a skirt with no underwear, a kilt is surprisingly hot – something like 7-8 yards of wool. Linda kept flirting with me.

Jim demonstrated one risk of inexperienced kilt wearing. This picture did not turn out as well as I would have liked so I had to make some contrast and color edits to highlight what was obvious to us but oblivious to Jim. I must have been laughing so hard I made the camera shake. Sorry, Jim.


Judicial Experience Not Required

miersName: Harriet Miers

Background: woman; George Bush’s personal attorney

Judicial Experience: none, but must have talked to several judges while leading White House search for appropriate nominee

Noted Strengths:
born-again Christian so early sins wiped away; part of life is religion

Editor’s Recommendation: vote no; in a country of lawyers, surely we can find someone who actually has relevent experience

Linda Returns to Chicago

I moved for two major reasons. The first is that I love my job, and with an opportunity to return to it, I really wanted to. Family, friends and easy English speaking also add to my desire for a return.

Second, Dean is planning to return too. His return is the best thing for his career so my returning now makes sense.

One not so good thing is I just work all the time. This is probably good for my job because I can get a lot done, but not so good for my personal life. I don’t think I’ve worked so much since Dean was getting his MBA. While he was getting it, he studied all the time. I worked, and I spent lots of time doing volunteer work. This was a productive time for Alpha Phi, since I had to stay busy without Dean’s help.

I do miss Dean lots and many things that I like to do in Chicago are not as much fun without him.


Where do you live?

I am living with a friend – Ruth Gallagher so I am not technically homeless. Ruth has a new condo ?- it is gorgeous and very comfortable and Ruth graciously offered me her extra bedroom/den. Living with her helps me get around the fact that I really miss Dean. Ruth is a good friend, patient with my crazy work schedule and fun.

What are you doing?

I am working for my sorority as the Interim Director of Collegiate Membership. Our office is in Evanston, the 1st suburb north of Chicago. It is also home to Northwestern University.

Why haven’t you called?

You are right – I should have. With Dean gone, I have been working like crazy. I knew Fall would be a busy time. I am using all my free time to visit Dean in China. Call or email – I would love to get together.

When will Dean be back?

Ask him.

Can you speak Chinese?

Only a little bit. Chinese is very difficult, though fun to work at. I hope to study Chinese in Chicago as well.

Are you running away from your marriage?

No, just going back to work. I hope Dean will be back soon and I miss him a lot. We are DINKs on different continents. Advantages for us include excellent travel, lots of frequent flier miles and good appreciation of the time we have together.

Are you running away from China?

No, but not a bad idea. China is difficult but always challenging and interesting. I could live in Shanghai a few more years. Watching the growth and change is absolutely fascinating and I already miss it. I’m not committing to Beijing yet.

What have you done that is fun in the US?

I visited my parents in Ohio and saw two of my sisters – my sister Victoria has beautiful 1-year old twin boys – so much fun to play with. They are named Steven and Jacob.

I went to the musical Wicked with my work friends Denise and Susan. We had a great dinner and a terrific night out. Wicked is terrific. If you are not familiar with this musical, it is basically a story about the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz. I think a sequel to this book actually just came out but I have not seen it yet. I really enjoyed the musical and am actually planning to see it again in December with some other friends. Twice might be overkill, but I recommend seeing it once.

I went to an ’80s concert at the Lincoln Park Zoo with my friend Ruth and her friends. I think the best band was ABC. If you are my age, you may remember the song ‘Shoot that Poison Arrow’. I also ate a nice French dinner with Ruth and her cousin and some friends – all terrific and really fun. Ruth lives by Greektown in Chicago, so we enjoyed the Taste of Greektown festival. We especially recommend the terrific spinach pie. In fact, we liked this festival so much we went twice.

Economist #1

economistFor those of you that know me, the fact that my first reference to the Economist magazine comes 60+ days following my first post is surprising. My MBA is from the University of Chicago. I am from the ‘Chicago School.’ Demand curves shift left. Supply curves shift right. The answer to any question is always at the intersection. At the intersection, the world is good. If not, your analysis is flawed or the government mucked it up.

As reported in the Economist, a journal article solves one of life’s greatest mystery’s: when snapped, why does a strand of dry pasta [spaghetti] rarely break in half but fragment into three or more pieces?

The question – ‘why does it not break in half’ was first issued by a Nobel prize winner and quantum theory physicist. He apparently died with no more than a ‘kitchen full of pulverized pasta.’

The answer to the question is flexural waves – ironically suggested by Parisians and not Italians or Chicago MBA’s.

‘Each time part of a bent strand [of pasta] breaks, a series of [flexural waves] ripples down the length of the pasta. The mistake [the nobel prize winner] made was to assume that the strain released when a bent strand breaks allows the two half-strands to relax and becme straight again.’

How stupid.

According to the wine drinking French, ‘the passing waves cause parts of the daughter strands to curve even further and trigger other breakages, which in turn’ trigger further waves, breakages and fragments. They even provide the math to prove it.

To see the flexural waves in action, go to – Barilla no. 1 dry pasta (of length 24.1cm) rippling flexural waves at 1000 frames per second sans sauce.

NOTE: To view pasta destruction requires Apple’s Quicktime

French tax dollars at work for the betterment of global society. Just like the Airbus subsidies?