We have an Ayi. Ayi, the Chinese word for aunt, or step-mother, or nursemaid, or really any woman of similar age to one’s parents, is how we address the woman who comes to our apartment twice a week to clean, shop, and cook for us. Ayi is an older woman of undetermined age (she has two sons who are married, but who do not have any kids – if that is any indicator) from Henan who was recommended to us by the last tenants in our apartment. She is a pretty interesting character, and her presence is a big one in my Beijing life, so I’ll try my best to describe her and our relationship with her in this post.

Upon arriving in Beijing, one of the only things in our apartment was a note on the table scribbled in Chinese from Ayi. She left her number for us to call her and promised to clean and cook for us. In all the madness of the first week in Beijing, getting our rent straightened out, buying sheets, and registering for classes, we didn’t get around to calling her for a while. Finally, one evening late in the week I picked up the phone and dialed the number she had left.

What followed was an assault of deeply accented Mandarin Chinese at a piercing volume. My rusty Chinese didn’t help much. When I got off the phone I wasn’t exactly sure what conclusion we had reached, but within 10 minutes she has made her way from wherever she had been before to our apartment and was standing in our common room, being very upset that all of the pots and pans and utensils were missing from our apartment.

[Side note: to this day it is unclear what happened to any of the items that that the previous tenants were using. We spoke to the old tenants and they seemed pretty confused about where they could have gone, the landlady seems to think they somehow went missing, and the Ayi is furious. We are all pretty sure the landlady took them or sold them, as it seems pretty consistent with our previous impression of her.]

Her deep Henan accent was very difficult to understand, and she spoke at an incredible pace, getting frustrated when we asked her to repeat a sentence again. It took the combined Chinese abilities and severe concentration of me and my three room mates to communicate with Ayi, but pretty soon we agreed that she would come on Wednesdays and Sundays to cook and clean for us. She started pacing the apartment, looking through drawers, cupboards, and shelves, all the while shouting angrily about the different items that were missing. We stood around watching her, periodically stupidly nodding our heads and voicing words of agreement. We asked her what she would need us to buy for her to cook us dinner, expecting a list of items that we could buy in the next couple days, but instead she asked us if we were busy, and suggested that we all go together to the supermarket across the street to buy everything that moment.

The three of us, three American college students, were soon following this tiny fierce migrant worker through the aisles of the supermarket, pushing shopping carts full of food and pans and utensils around, trying to talk to her and understand her, as she was shouting at full volume at anyone in the supermarket who might be able to help her find what she was looking for. It was a ridiculous sight. One poor supermarket employee made the mistake of engaging Ayi, and spent the next 30 minutes on a ladder in the pan aisle, showing her dozens of pans of varying quality and price, all the while struggling almost as much as we were to understand Ayi. At one point, the woman asked Ayi why she didn’t just buy the more expensive pan and save the trouble, because we Americans were going to pay for it anyway, to which Ayi vehemently retorted that we could speak Chinese and that she wasn’t going to do that to us. Good to have her on our side.

Eventually we got the pan she wanted, picked up a few more items, bought them, and headed home. Ayi didn’t cook for us that night because it was already getting late, but we paid her for her time and said good night. It had been an absolutely exhausting experience, but one that left us excited for her to come again.

Since then she has been back several times. A regular day goes as follows: She arrives at 4pm, asks us what we want to eat, and then goes to the market to buy the ingredients. We accompanied her once, and it was a really amazing place – everything is incredibly cheap, and there are dozens of different farmers with their harvest from that day. The area is really poor, and it is a side of Beijing I rarely get to see so close. By 5:30 she is in the kitchen cooking, and usually the first dish is out by 6. We’ll eat for an hour or so, then she will do a quick clean of the apartment (the cleaning side of this deal is really mediocre, but it’s still worth it for the food and the stories). She usually leaves around 8 or 9, depending on how much we are able to talk to her that night.

Her cooking is unusually good. Apparently some unknown amount of years ago she used to work at a restaurant, and it really shows. She knows how to make everything we’ve asked her to make so far, and has done a really good job with all of it. She also always makes an unreasonable amount of food, which seams like a very Chinese-mother thing to do. A few nights ago we asked her to make dumplings, so bought all the materials and made them from scratch, hand-making 250 dumplings, an absurd amount for the three of us and our one friend that we invited over. We saved them and ate them over the course of the next couple days, and while they were delicious, I’m pretty sure I won’t eat another dumpling for a couple weeks. We invite her to sit with us and eat, but she insists on eating only after we finish our food. Only then will she grab a plate and eat whatever we haven’t finished (which is usually a lot). All the while she is very chatty and loves talking to us for as long as we will listen, which we are happy to do until we have to go back and do work. Her favorite topic of conversation is discussing the relative prices of vegetables at various markets, often commenting on how much more expensive the garlic at the market near our house is from the market she goes to. It’s a pretty great way to practice Chinese outside of the classroom, especially because her accent is so different from the Chinese we normally hear, and a really fascinating window into the life of a migrant worker.

Nights when Ayi comes over are always exciting but also always very tiring. Communicating with her is difficult, and she loves to talk and ask us lots of questions. By the time she leaves we are usually pretty beat, and we all retreat to our bedrooms and finish our homework as quickly as possible and then go to sleep. At first we were wondering if we should have her over more often, maybe three or even four nights a week, but I think we all decided that twice a week is plenty. Our apartment is cleaned, we eat a home cooked meal, and we get to learn a little bit more about her life. Any more than twice a week and it might be more trouble than it is worth.

One last thing to mention about Ayi is that she really puts into perspective how cushy our living situation is. She will regularly ask how much we paid for different things in our home (remember she loves talking about relative prices), and she is always blown away by how expensive everything we own is. While she has worked for foreign students before, she is always a little quiet when we accompany her to the market and and buy expensive things. For a woman who spends every day haggling over the price of a pound of garlic to try to get it for 2.5RMB instead of 3RMB, the way we spend money for convenience or to buy something silly on the street still clearly makes her uncomfortable. Just think, we pay her about 20RMB an hour (apparently a pretty general salary for an Ayi), so she will earn 80-100RMB in an evening of work, and she watches as we spend 150 RMB on tiny tea kettle that she could get second hand on the street for 5RMB. It really makes you think every time you spend your money.

So that’s Ayi. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about her as the year goes on. In the meantime, you can check out Flickr to see some photos of us shopping with her and her cooking.