By Jodi Hwang
One of the big perks of living in China is the affordable cost of domestic help. Having an ayi to help around the house or a driver to ferry you from place to place can make parenting in a foreign land a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. Having help may seem like a unusual luxury but with time, most expats adjust to having the extra hands around and find it an indispensable part of life in the Middle Kingdom.
An ayi doesn’t have a specifically defined role as such – they may help with your cleaning and laundry a few hours a week or they can do all the cooking, shopping and child care full-time. Every family is unique and must think about their needs and how an ayi can best help. It’s also important to spend time creating clear guidelines about your ayi’s duties from the start.
Cecile Spirit, a seven-year expat in Shanghai and mother advises, “From the beginning, make a list of what you want your ayi to do.” She has had positive experiences with the two ayis she has employed here, but many of her friends were not clear about their expectations and ended up in frustrating situations that often lead to the ayi abruptly leaving.
An ayi is not a mind reader, Spirit says, “Be frank. Be blunt. If they have done something you don’t agree with, tell them.” An example Spirit gives is her friend’s ayi who would use the same cloth to clean the toilet and the kitchen. “You may have to teach them about your hygiene standards and adapting to your family’s requirement,” she adds.
For matters of childcare, cultural differences in the way children are raised can also be an issue, so it’s equally important to be clear about issues such as discipline, diet, routines and sleep.
Some families will find an ayi most helpful when children are younger, but find their needs often change. This has been the case for Monica Munn, an American mother of three children who has been in Shanghai five years. “While having an ayi around is very helpful and there are days that I wished I had more help, as our children get older and go to school, my need for the extra help has diminished,” says Munn.
Building a positive relationship with your ayi takes time, but if you properly train and communicate with your ayi, respect them and pay them well, your trust in each other will grow. For Xiao Lin, an ayi from Chongqing who has worked for four families over the past eleven years, says the best part of being an ayi, “is feeling like I’m part of the family,” and she continues to keep in touch with the families who have left China to this day.
The best way to find a good ayi is through the recommendation of expat families who are leaving and want to help their ayi find a new home. See p8 for sources for connecting with other parents, or you may even find postings in your housing complex. Hiring an ayi who has worked with other families will make the transition for all parties easier and an ayi with solid references will likely be one you can trust.
Agencies are another option and can arrange interviews at your home with four to five candidates. If you don’t speak Mandarin, the agencies can also help translate. From there you begin a trial period - usually a few days - and if you agree to hire the ayi, a contract will be signed. You have to pay a fee to the agency which can range from 10 percent of the monthly salary for local agencies to as high as 40 percent for agencies that cater to foreigners. The benefits of using an agency are having an intermediary should problems arise, and in the event the ayi doesn’t work out, they will help you find a replacement without having to pay another fee.
Here are some suggested questions when interviewing an ayi:
1. How long has she worked as an ayi and what were her previous jobs?
2. If she looked after children, what were their ages?
3. Has she had a health check?
4. Does she know first aid?
5. Does she speak any English?
6. Can she cook Chinese or Western food?
7. Does she have children of her own and do they live with her?
8. Is she available to work on the weekends?
If your employer doesn’t provide a driver and car, which is the case for many expats today, finding a driver can be done in the same way as an ayi – through a car-leasing agency or the recommendations of other expats.
Besides helping you get to and from work, some drivers drop off and pick up children from school and others might even run errands too.
Here are some important questions to ask of the driver:
1. How long has he been a driver?
2. Has he previously worked for expat families?
3. What traffic violations or accidents has he had?
4. What kind of car does he drive?
5. What hours is he driver available?
6. Does he smoke?
When employing an ayi or driver, the contract should specify the job responsibilities and conditions of employment, as well as holidays, salary, overtime and bonus in the contract.
Prices of both have been steadily on the rise. If you are paying hourly for an ayi, expect to pay RMB20-25/hour. For a full-time worker, 40 or more hours per week, monthly salaries can range from RMB3800–4500, sometimes more, depending on their experience and schedule.
Drivers with a car can range from RMB7000-20,000 per month depending on the type of car (sedan or minivan), while gas and tolls cost extra.
Both ayi and driver will likely expect to have holidays off, as well as a Chinese New Year’s bonus which is typically one month’s salary depending on their length of employment. Bear in mind, they will likely expect a salary increase each year too. All of these things can be negotiated, but it’s best to be up front at the beginning of employment to avoid future problems.
• Clean 干净 gānjìng
• Dirty 脏 zāng
• Wash 洗 xǐ
• Once a week 一个星期一次 yígè xīngqī yí cì
• Twice a week 一个星期两次 yígè xīngqī liǎng cì
8 Different Types of Ayi:
The Tie Dayi
You used to have white t-shirts. You used to have red socks. Now everything has 50 shades of pink.
She’s got style and she knows it.
Your crockery would have a longer life expectancy at a Greek wedding, yet when you enquire she is a picture of innocence.
The Gone Awryi
She’s no longer the clean machine of yesteryear. She’s cutting corners and cutting out early – it’s time to cut her loose.
Could’ve sworn you’d left 100 kuai in your trouser pocket? Change jar never seems to go up despite nightly replenishment?
Emerging from the shower steam, stripped and dripping, you are greeted by an ear-splitting scream.
Your life is her very own soap opera. Always with the questions. You love her, but sometimes you wish she’d give it a rest.
No, literally: she is a he.