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LAST WORD: Having an Ayi
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Having an Ayi

By Mike Cormack

BT 201611 240 02 Last word Make a Babysitter Flyer Step 5Having an ayi is a worrying thing. It is not just entrusting the care of your young child to a stranger (though there is that) but it means being an employer and having, to all intents and purposes, a domestic servant.

Coming from what you might call the skilled working classes (all of my male relatives are engineers and offshore oil workers - in my father's generation, they were all fishermen), having someone working for me was worrying. On the one hand, you fear being an exploitative capitalist, ill-using a local and profiting from gross inequalities. I don't want to be one of those foreign whiners, complaining about how lazy the staff is, how she only works fourteen-hour days and how she doesn't really need one day off a month.

On the other hand, being a new parent made me anxious to do the best for my daughter, wanting to ensure that anyone caring for her did things the way my wife Shelley and I felt was right. Not being accustomed to having nannies or cooks or child minders, this was all a new experience for me and striving to get the right balance was not always easy.

When Jenny was just a new baby, my job always had me working long hours where I usually got home about 8pm to 9pm. So Shelley and I decided it was best to get an ayi to help her out during her maternity leave. If the ayi was good, she could think about returning to work but she would be able to keep an eye on the ayi and get her accustomed to our ways first of all. The ayi we hired was in her early 50s, which seemed ideal, and had considerable childcare experience which was evident from the way she fed and winded our daughter Jenny at her interview.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that she had the skills to be a good nanny, the ayi did not want to do housework, wanted all her meals cooked for her and seemed puzzled that we were not rich. (This should have been immediately apparent from our rather basic apartment). She did look after Jenny in a competent manner but it was interesting to see where professionalism ends and parenting begins. There was a definite sense of the ayi treating Jenny as a job.

hl01I don't want to criticize her too much - she was certainly competent - but there seemed no affection from her. If Jenny cried, Shelley and I would leap up to see what was wrong whereas the ayi would first finish what she was doing. She never seemed affectionate towards Jenny - she didn't sing to her or call her name or babble the childish pleasantries which most people burble to babies. She was in the pricier range of ayis, which seemed fair because she worked seven days a week (she lived in with us), but after a week, she also said that she wanted her salary every 26 days, not monthly. This was the final straw so we let her go.

On reflection, we were scammed. We used an agency to find the ayi who required a month's salary as payment. By the ayi making it impossible to work with us, they ended up getting six week's salary for a week's work. Repeat that business model with enough staff and you have some serious profit.

BT 201611 240 01 Last word Make a Babysitter Flyer Step 5After that, we found another ayi through personal recommendation. She was also in her 50s, hard-working, good at cleaning and cooking, though less experienced at childcare. No-one will be perfect, of course, but it is a curious process to invite someone to live with you and be responsible for something so dear to you. It is a learning process for us, too, of course. You have to learn when to let go, when to trust the ayi, when to step in and when to insist on what you want. For example, when Jenny was older, we would all take her to the nearby park where lots of families congregated. Jenny would happily play with the other children and share her toys but the ayi discouraged this, anxious that grasping hands might steal or break things! But we were less pessimistic, so here we insisted that Jenny share and play with other kids.

You have to adjust to having someone in your household, too. Our apartment wasn't big (the one we had in Beijing was twice the price and half the size of our previous place in Tianjin's Tanggu district) so we had to work together. I taught her how to make spaghetti Bolognese, for example, and one time she labored to make me scampi and fries. Shelley and I likewise always stocked up on the green tea she liked and took Jenny places every Saturday and Sunday so she could have some respite.

To my surprise, I enjoyed having her live with us. She was particularly good with Jenny, being affectionate and highly competent, and her cooking was great (her tudou niurou was heavenly). It was yet another China learning curve but one I can heartily recommend - if you get the right person!


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