Welcome Home!

The first thing our ayi says to me after our return to Shanghai…

Sally: “Oh, you only got a little bit fat on vacation!  Usually you get so much fatter.  But the kids, they got really fat!”  (Here she pinches Henry’s not very fat cheeks for emphasis.) “Fat, fat, fat!”

Ah, there’s no place like home.

The Euphoria Lasted About 5 Minutes

Last night I asked Mark how it could be possible that we have only been back in Shanghai one week.  One week?!  It feels like a million years.  He agreed so I felt a little less dramatic.  I managed to resist using my hands in very theatrical ways so he couldn’t accuse me of making the situation worse.  Yes, our collective excitement has already worn off and we have so many more weeks to go before we leave China again.  I have the added pressure of defending my dissertation in early March, so I can’t do what I would like to do and wallow in my unhappiness while moaning about how hard it is to live in China.  The ayi would never allow it anyway.  She would be unable to resist asking me all sorts of personal questions to get to the bottom of things.  Am I sick?  Does my head hurt?  Have I eaten anything today?  Was I trying to sleep?  That is too bad because she needs to make the bed and I should really try to get some exercise.  But I digress.

The thing that pushed us all over the edge–today is Ava’s birthday.  She is nine now and while birthdays are always a celebration, China can always find a way to make me feel less than celebratory.  In the US, I went all out for birthdays.  As a mom–let’s be honest here—I used to kill it.  We have the family tradition of the birthday boy or girl waking up to fresh cinnamon rolls and streamers festooning the dining room.  I used to plan elaborate parties and bake magnificent cakes.  Suffice it to say, all this is more difficult here.  My oven conspires against me resulting in cinnamon rolls that were today labeled “puck-like” by Ava and her siblings.  I couldn’t disagree.  The proof was almost too difficult to eat.  I am less plugged in to the school situation and so this morning when Ava asked if I would be making or buying treats to bring in for her class today, I was struck dumb by the realization that I had planned to do neither of those things.  I had actually planned to do nothing because I had forgotten all about that!  She was less than impressed.  She wants a slumber party but can’t narrow down her guest list.  My mother rightfully pointed out that this is a welcome change from last year when she was newly arrived and hadn’t had time to make friends in Shanghai.  While this is true, I can only focus on how much harder it is going to be to host a party for a bunch of screaming 3rd graders without the benefit of Party City or Michael’s.  Tough times, indeed.

And this comes on the heels of a China day where there were no taxis to be found so I walked to school (uphill both ways!  in the snow!) cursing every Chinese person I passed along the way.  It was unreasonable, I know, and it was even more unreasonable when I arrived home and was irritated that the ayi wanted to have a discussion about the vacuum cleaner.  How dare she!  And this after she showed up this morning with a huge pack of special cookies and the biggest stuffed bear you have ever seen.  She was late and I think she was concerned that I would be angry with her. I actually love to have even five minutes alone in the house so I had been hoping she would be even later!   She would never have guessed that plan.  When she came in with her arms full of all that stuff my face must have registered some sort of wild emotion.  She blurted out that it was for Ava’s birthday and then seemed to doubt that she had the correct day.  She was right, of course, which only added to my guilt.  How did she know it was Ava’s birthday?  Luckily, she didn’t head into the kitchen and bake a cake—that would have been the last straw.  I am sure hers would have been delicious and a pleasure to eat.

Happy Birthday, Ava!  Your mom is officially crazy.

The Help

Ok, here comes the post where you all get very tired of hearing about how “horrible” it can be to live in China.  This is the post where you all throw your hands in the air and tell me to shut up about how difficult things are because this is where I start to tell you all about the ayi.  What is an ayi, you ask?  Well, be prepared to be astounded, because in Shanghai almost every expat has one and I am embarrassed that this includes me. One thing that I was hoping to love was the presence of lots of household help.  I haven’t written before about how much support people can have here for relatively little money, but it is not uncommon for families to have people to drive them around, watch their children, and clean their houses.  We don’t have a driver.  We don’t have a nanny.  But I do have an ayi. It pains me to say it, but I have a maid.  Three days a week, for six hours a day.  And I hate it.

One of the supposed perks of living in China is the availability of cheap domestic help and an ayi is basically a household helper.   It is assumed that as an expat family we would have one to help with the chores and children.  When I was touring schools one of the admissions people had even casually mentioned that my plan to wait to start working until the kids were settled was a good one because it would allow me to get my ayi “all trained” in the way I like things done before I left her in charge of the house.  This made me uncomfortable.  After all, if I have someone doing the house stuff, then what would I do all day?  Mark suggested that I get together with my friends to complain about how much I hate Shanghai.  That is what the other ladies around town do, apparently.  Very funny.  Some families have the ayi cook and clean and run all of the errands.   Some ayis do the shopping and pay the bills and pick the kids up from school.  If I was working this would be a dream, provided you find someone who works well with your family.  Some people have the ayi live with them 6 days a week and the larger expat houses have a small room off the kitchen for the ayi to sleep in.  Our house doesn’t have this, but really, we don’t need to have someone here at night.  Frankly, having someone here during the day is sometimes too much for me.

Our first ayi came 5 days a week from 8:30am to 2pm.  That was more than I had planned on, but that is how things worked out.  We were lucky in that the parent liaison at Henry and Ava’s school gave us the ayi’s number on our first day in Shanghai.  Helen had worked for another family and once they left China she needed to find another job.  We interviewed her and thought it might work so she started coming to our house the next week.  Helen speaks English–a big plus for me.  This is unusual, and it made her more expensive.  Of course, when I say expensive, it is all relative.  My rent here is expensive by any standards, but the ayi’s salary is really far from expensive.  I paid Helen 25rmb an hour.  That feels like robbery to me, but some people pay their ayi 15rmb per hour.  Basically, she was paid $4 an hour.  I will give you a second to recover from that.  Take your time.

I got used to having the ayi to help me with things when my lack of Chinese kept me from understanding something.  She could call people on the phone for me and babysit the kids.  She was able to help Ava with her Mandarin homework and to read labels to me to make sure I bought the right things. She started coming on Sundays so that Mark and I could go out without the kids.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was working.   Of course, this all came to an end when she took another job.  She opted to take a full time live-in position and recommended a friend of hers to take over.  A friend who speaks absolutely no English!  I said we’d try it and cut back to three days a week.  From the first day, we have had difficulty, um, communicating.  We pantomime and try to work things out, but often I will think we have established something only to find out she had no understanding of what I wanted.  It is frustrating.

The laundry is always a bone of contention. I have some pretty specific ideas about how laundry should be done, and these are impossible to convey without a common language.  Add to this the teeny tiny washer and dryer which happen to be located in the already cramped kitchen and you have a recipe for laundry disaster.  Things stay wet too long and stains don’t come out.  The ayi also puts the laundry away, but since we have mountains and mountains of children’s clothing here at all times she scrambles to finish all of it and then has to decide where she thinks things might belong.  I know this is supposed to be helpful.  I am sure that this is supposed to lessen stress for me and free up more time for other things, but it really only adds to the confusion in the house. I really don’t need someone to be here so much.  I hate having an extra person in the house and I hate feeling like I am being lazy as someone else scurries around frantically cleaning.  It has been a long time since I have had anyone to clean my house, and as much as I hate cleaning toilets, it is because I hate to have someone in my business.  I like knowing where everything is in my house, and please don’t tell anyone, but I like doing laundry.  I like organizing things.  It turns out I don’t like having it done for me.

I know how this sounds.  I should be appreciative of the extra help.  I should be loving all this cheap labor.  But I’m not.  I have heard horror stories about how other people treat their ayis.  There are “power struggles,” issues with childcare, and the obvious thievery that comes with paying someone so little and then putting them in charge of your house, sometimes even giving them a key.  Right now this isn’t helpful—it is more stressful.  The ayi is nice.  She is reliable.  She does a pretty good job cleaning.  But I don’t really need an ayi.