Upon bidding your nuclear family goodbye and arriving in China, you will quickly adopt a much larger and more confusing “family” with terms like didi (弟弟, little brother) and gege (哥哥, big brother) given to your friends and colleagues. In the midst of all the names, however, try to remember one more than any other: “ayi”, or auntie. Ayi is commonly translated as housekeeper, but a good ayi is more than that; a Renaissance woman who can cook, clean, raise your children and maybe even teach them a little-known village dialect in the process (choose your ayi wisely). With a bit of due diligence, you can find the right ayi to fit your needs in China.
Choose your ayi according to your needs, and know that the cheapest available will probably be ill equipped to handle a sick child or any other emergency. The cheapest ayis are migrants from the countryside with no English ability and few skills beyond cooking and cleaning. They might be a real bargain at as low as 10RMB an hour, but if your ayi is caring for your child, peace of mind will cost plenty more. If you employ an ayi to care for your child full-time, your offspring will likely pick up a fair amount of Chinese. But if you have visions of them speaking a scholarly Beijing Huar, don’t choose an ayi from Sichaun. That said, your child would probably become an amazing cook.
For many, the value of an ayi lies in her cooking ability, and selections are made based on her hometown. China’s major cities have migrants from all over the country, so you can choose the ayi who specializes in your regional cuisine of preference: some like Sichuan’s spices; others, Guangdong’s sweet flavors. Dongbei dumplings warm the soul, and Hunan’s food is some of China’s best.
All ayis should be able to clean an apartment well, though an hourly fee encourages some to dust the drapes a few extra times before clocking out. Some of the more professional ayis found through agencies will have the credentials to care for children. Filipina ayis can also be found in major cities, though their rates will be more since they will probably speak English.
Finding an Ayi is a straightforward process. Asking friends for recommendations will yield quick results and an ayi with a solid reputation. Inquiring at the housing office in your apartment complex is another way to find one, and, if necessary, you can go to an agency, which will have the characters 家政服务 on the front of its building. They will charge you a one-time finder’s fee, but after that it is between you and your ayi. Fliers are one way that ayi agencies reach out to potential customers, but those of you with a stuffed mailbox already know this.
10 RMB per hour is the absolute cheapest rate, 15 RMB an hour a more realistic base, but fees can reach upwards of 30 RMB for those with more complex needs. A live-in ayi will cost between 1000 and 2000 RMB a month, and you should overpay her a little bit to keep her happy and ensure she has at least two days a week off. Most foreigners find that this practice of overpaying and under-working their ayis is the best way to remedy any post-colonialist guilt.
If you have concerns about things going missing, schedule your ayi’s visits to correspond with when you are home. If your ayi is cooking for you nightly, then give her a food allowance to buy ingredients with. However, note that she will likely be going to the market and will be unable to provide you with receipts. If you want her to document all her purchases, then you will have to provide extra money for her to shop at the supermarket with.
Child kidnappings have happened, but the risk is almost negligible. There are plenty of ayis eager to work in China, and no need to keep one if there is a lack of trust in the relationship - if it doesn’t work out, simply move on to another. You should quickly find an ayi with the skills and disposition to become an important part of your life, someone who stands out from all the other people in your family.
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