Inside job: Ayi

Paul Johnson cleans a flat with Wang Xuzhen

Time Out tries every job in Shanghai. This month: Paul Johnson cleans a flat with Wang Xuzhen

After six years with our family, when our ayi told us she was leaving for a better-paying job, I didn’t try and convince her to stay, mostly because I always had the distinct impression she thought I was a bit of an idiot. She never came right out and said it, and I’m not saying she was wrong, but I did worry she would share her opinion with our kids.


I can’t help but think of our former ayi as I spend the day with ayi Wang Xuzhen, cleaning a stylish three-story lane house in the former French Concession. Like our ayi, Xuzhen hails from Anhui and has a quick and infectious smile. She is easy company as we perform a standard list of household tasks: washing dishes, laundry, vacuuming, mopping, walking the dog, and searching between the couch cushions for change. (To be clear, only I did this, and if I had found anything I would have offered to split it 60/40.)


Xuzhen and her husband, an interior carpenter, moved to Shanghai three years ago to follow their son as he began a career as a wedding photographer. Before securing her first ayi position through a placement agency, she worked as a maid in a Shanghai business centre. Her least favourite part of the job was washing dishes – a detail I wish she had mentioned before I let her do the dishes while I only dried.


Although she only attended from the ages of 8 to 13, Xuzhen enjoyed her time in school before finding work as a seamstress. I ask whether she ever imagines trying another kind of job or career. She smiles and shakes her head as though this is something she has never considered, but it’s possible she’s shaking her head because I’m using a small handheld vacuum to suck moths out of the air. Apparently she has never seen this method of pest control, and I’m happy to be able to share something from my culture.


I wonder what ayis truly think of their foreigner clientele, and whether they laugh about our strange customs and bizarre quirks when they chat with neighbour ayis. Why do we sometimes treat our pets better than we treat people? Why do we eat past the point of being full? Why do our women wear such uncomfortable looking underwear? I tell her I’m certain ayis must get together and share stories of the strange things foreigners do. She laughs and answers, ‘Right. Right.’ When I ask her for an example of our strange behaviour she stops laughing and thinks for a moment, before answering diplomatically, ‘Foreigners are really great.’


Inside job paul being an ayiAfter taking the dog for a walk, we wipe his paws with a wet wipe. Chinese people are often confused by foreigners’ devotion to pets. Our ayi could never understand why we allowed a cat to ruin the furniture, wake us up early in the morning, and stink up the house, while giving almost no affection in return. Actually, I don’t understand it either, although you could make the same arguments against keeping children.


Xuzhen currently has three clients: an American couple, an Englishman, and a Shanghai couple with a child. She insists every client has treated her well, but prefers working for foreigners. She works weekends, averages 50-60 hours a week, and at the age of 45, and with the perspective of a long work history heavy on manual labour, Wang insists being an ayi has been her favourite position.


Even if you have philosophical issues paying someone to clean up after you or your children, I always appreciated having an ayi most as a personal assistant to translate Chinese mail, manage repairs and utilities, take packages to the post office, buy groceries, and force our family to constantly practice Chinese, although we learned not to blindly trust her Mandarin. Another advantage: if you misplace anything, you’ll never again have to blame your own aging memory or carelessness, and can blame the ayi instead.


I ask again if there is any other career that she would like to try. She thinks for a moment before mentioning she didn’t want her son to be a photographer, but wished he had stayed in school for longer. I ask again and she smiles before replying: ‘Working in a clothing shop with customers. Selling clothes to customers.’


I was never comfortable with our ayi knowing so much more about our lives than we knew about hers. Like a detective piecing together clues, your ayi has plenty of opportunity to form a picture of your life as she dusts photos of a family back home, throws out an embarrassing quantity of empty wine bottles, or finds a crumpled blanket on the couch – evidence someone was kicked out of the bedroom. There is plenty of time to assemble a character sketch when someone spends more waking hours in your home than you do. Could a new TV show about detectives consulting an ayi profiler be on the horizon?