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There is a French-fry at the base of my living room wall. It has gradually accumulated a dusty exterior. It has gone from a perpendicular to parallel position. It has become dehydrated and sad. Yet, after three weeks it remains there, against the wall. Now it isn’t laziness that prevents me from picking up this fry and putting it out of our mutual misery. Rather it is a statement of defiance within my new relationship with a woman 20 years my senior. Her name is Ayi.

Our relationship began after a glowing recommendation from a friend. I was impressed when she entered my home and transformed a squalid bachelor-esque apartment into a shining work of art. Recommendations from friends or websites are great ways to find an Ayi and you can also go through agencies all over the city (more info below), but what did I know; I could never have afforded a housekeeper at home. Twice a week for the first month we exchanged our respective languages until the inevitable ting bu dong’s which were always followed by hearty, head-tossing laughter.  

Then something changed.

First it was a bottle cap in the bathroom behind the wastebasket. Like the fry that torments me now, following Ayi’s bi-weekly visits the cap remained! Next came the watermarked and barely dry dishes tucked into the watery graveyard of my cupboard. Then the dust collection under my television stand literally tumble weeded its way across otherwise well-polished floors. Add wet laundry piled upon itself, ensuring perpetual dampness, and it became obvious that Ayi was shirking her responsibilities. I could feel my mercury rising and she was going to hear about…sort of.  

My New England and middle-class ways have always left me uncomfortable with the idea of someone cleaning my house for me. Yet, during one of Ayi’s Monday visits, in a feat of bravery or classlessness, I emerged from my usual self-entombment (in my bedroom) to try and communicate my expectations. After all, I reasoned, it isn’t fair to expect something from her without at least vocalizing or somehow creatively miming it to her.

Yes, I decided today’s lesson about my expectations for her would revolve around the bathroom. I had already buckled and tossed the bottle cap myself, but the toilet definitely needed work. I casually drew her to the bathroom, which she had already cleaned, and I pointed out a few areas she had missed. 

With a feisty finger wave here and an arm gesture there, Ayi marched into the living room, flailing her arms at my wall-calendar and pointed to Friday, her next scheduled day, then pointed to the bathroom. As far as I could understand, I’d just have to deal with what I had created.

In the weeks that followed she continued to skate by on all homecare fronts so I thought to try a different strategy. I bought a beautiful iron and ironing board to help her better care for my delicates.  On her first lesson I ironed three quarters of the clothes myself and then I watched her lethargically attempt to iron my best work clothes.  In the end I felt satisfied that Ayi knew the ropes. Three months later and not a stitch of ironing has been completed.

So here I am on the couch, looking at the hairy French-fry, recounting all of her misgivings when I am hit by a moment of clarity, a divine voice, sweet inspiration. I can’t fire Ayi! She tells me what to do with the garbage and with my bottles. She looks disapprovingly when the dishes or laundry are piled too high. She is my Chinese mother!

She does everything I need and improves my life profoundly by putting up with my slovenly ways, judging and yet still coming back time and time again. I raise my body off the couch. Go to what I’ve dubbed “Ayi’s Room” which is where she keeps all of her tools. Pick up the broom and dustpan and sweep away a lot more than a French-fry.

Use an Agency

Finding an Ayi becomes slightly more complicated if you have more specific requirements. For example, if you have a dog that needs care, or would like an Ayi from Sichuan Province (since they’re rumored to be the best cooks), or perhaps you need someone who can live with you and help care for your children. Agencies can match you with someone according to your specific criterion.

Typically 10-15 percent of an Ayi’s first month’s salary is paid to an agent unless the monthly salary is below 500RMB, at which point agencies charge a flat rate of 50-100RMB. Both the Ayi and the new client pay 10-15 percent or the flat rate for this service which also offers a two-week trial period. If you are dissatisfied within those two weeks, the agency will match you with another Ayi at no extra charge. Agents can also serve as a translator if the need arises (i.e. your favorite translation site is out of commission). Service varies with each agency, so be upfront with your expectations to avoid any confusion.

And so the tale of the Ayi, the Laowai and the French-fry draws to a close. As with any relationship, negotiations and compromise will continue. There will be moments when tempers flare and choices are questioned. No matter what, you’ll step into an apartment that is cleaner than when you left it and you’ll be happier for it. Good luck, happy hiring, and try to remain mellow. It’s just better for everyone!

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