What Happened When I Moved My Family to Shanghai and Hired an “Ayi”

Image source: Tatum Hawkins

While preparing for our move to Shanghai, China, I knew from the start that I wanted an “ayi.” An ayi is like a nanny and housekeeper all in one — a cultural staple of Chinese family dynamics. In other words, pretty much everyone has one. I didn’t know anything about Shanghai, but I did know about these magical-sounding ayis … and I knew for sure I wanted to hire one.

Thanks to social media, I started learning more about what it would be like to live and mother in Shanghai. I began following a cute young mom on Instagram who lived in the center of Shanghai, and I literally devoured every post. She’d share things like her ayi’s cooking, pics with her immaculate house in the background, and fun nights out with her husband. Her life seemed so carefree and adventurous despite having three young children. I figured it all looked so easy because she had an ayi who worked in her home for four hours a day.

Everything about having help seemed like an attainable dream come true. Now, three and a half years and four ayis later, I know better. It’s a blessing, but it isn’t always what it’s cut out to be.

In many ways, having an ayi is magical. Of course it feels nice to come home from date night with my husband to find the kids fast asleep, a sparkling clean kitchen, and a living room floor where the rug doesn’t look like a landmine of exploded toys. (Not to mention how our ayi greets us with a homemade loaf of bread at the end of the day.) I know what you’re thinking: How could I possibly complain?

But, that’s only part of the story. The Instagram-worthy part. We all know that beyond the highlight reel there’s reality, and it’s not as glamorous or picture-perfect as it seems from the outside.

When I first moved to Shanghai, I was under the naive impression that, thanks to my new ayi, all my mom problems would instantly melt away. I didn’t take into account that moving to a foreign country would truly turn my world upside down. I didn’t have a car, couldn’t speak the language, and didn’t know anyone. The lap of luxury I originally envisioned was nowhere to be found. My house may have been a little cleaner, but my day-to-day was still stressful — and sometimes my ayi, as helpful as she was, was the biggest adjustment of all.

I have Shanghai mommy friends who tell me that having an ayi is hands-down the best thing about living in China. I also have friends who choose to go without one at all. If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a nanny (or ayi) of your own, here are some definite pros and cons I ran into:

1. There’s always someone up in your space.

Adjusting to life in China is one thing, but adjusting to a stranger in your home is a whole other experience. It can be a little awkward and sometimes feel like you’re being watched. It can be embarrassing knowing this lady is folding all of your underwear. Often, if I was making something in the kitchen, she would hover right over me. Yikes. But she was also cleaning up the trail of mess I was leaving behind and who wouldn’t like that? Like I said, pros and cons.

I eventually learned to schedule my errands around her schedule, so if I knew she’d be coming over, I’d plan to be out of the house. Over time, however, the more she and I got to know each other, the more comfortable I became — soon I was enjoying her company as we maintained the household together.

2. There’s another mother figure in the house.

Probably the weirdest thing for me was having a second mother figure around. For example, tidying up, scrubbing bathrooms, and chopping veggies in preparation for dinner were tasks I was accustomed to.

Then it hit me, I could play with my kids without feeling rushed. I could run an errand by myself. I could get a pedicure!

But as great as it was to have a little free time, I needed to be number one in our household. I needed my kids to cry for me, not our ayi, when they got hurt. For my husband, his worst nightmare was to be number three. He was like, “I’m okay with being number two, but I’m not okay if I end up at the bottom of the totem pole!”

Making sure we all still had a significant role with a healthy balance in our new household dynamic was very, very important.

3. They often act like your mother — in the very best and worst ways.

The Chinese word “ayi” translates to “auntie.” It’s a really lovely concept that ayis truly care about the families they work for. And it’s reciprocated as well — I seriously considered including our first ayi in our family Christmas card! However, because they love you like family, they feel obligated to speak their mind and offer a lot of advice. With such big cultural differences, the advice can sound quite silly to a foreigner sometimes!

Our ayi would say things like:

“The children are not dressed warm enough.” (But it’s April and 70°F outside …)

“Their dinner just looks like snacks; not like a real dinner.” Cut-up cheese, grapes, crackers, and lunch meat totally count as a real dinner. (OK, you’re right …)

“You used to be fatter.” (Thank you?)

I love the way my friend describes her ayi as similar to a “nagging mother.” You love her to death, but sometimes … you just kinda wanna strangle her like you would any other family member. Of course, not all ayis are this vocal, but when it happens, I think it’s natural to bristle at what appears to sound like judgment against your every parenting move. Ayis have a tendency to be blunt, but it really does come from a place of love.

4. The thrill of a clean home is fleeting.

Let’s be honest, how long does a home stay pristinely clean when there are small children around? As soon as my ayi leaves, it’s sometimes as if she never came at all thanks to my two wonderful children. You can’t help but throw your hands up in defeat and wonder what the point of paying for help is when you’re still the one cleaning everything up at the end of the day!

5. You’ll discover good and bad surprises.

Two years ago, I dyed my hair from black to blonde. One day after a shower, I reached for my brush only to find several long, very thick, very coarse black hairs in it. My daughters had very fine toddler hair, my husband has short brown hair, and it definitely wasn’t mine!

More than once, I’ve pulled laundry out of the drier and discovered ladies underwear that also wasn’t mine. A neighbor was telling me how one time, she arrived home earlier than planned and her kids were acting crazy, so she wondered, “Where is our ayi?” She found her taking a shower. Another friend of mine came home to find her ayi lounging on the couch, eating popcorn, and wearing my friend’s shoes!

However, there are good surprises, too. How can your heart not burst from things like fresh flowers on the table, fried rice and dumplings in the fridge, and little red packets of money called “hongbao” on our kids’ birthdays? And then there’s the unique bond and familial love that grows into something quite strong. It’s often a very sad and emotional day when expatriate families and their ayis finally have to say goodbye.

6. The joy of help comes with a dose of mom guilt.

Once I got into a groove of having help, mom guilt started to creep in. I would see-saw between feeling so grateful that I had some free time to feeling incredibly guilty about it. I’d argue with myself about how a few hours alone were good for me, only to have mom guilt fire back with, “Do your friends back home have ayis?” And speaking of friends back home, I’d feel like such a diva if I ever complained about having a hard day — as if I didn’t have the right to complain when someone else was cleaning my house.

Mothers who previously worked outside the home before relocating to China especially feel the mom guilt. “I should be working, that’s what I’m used to — not having all of this time!” one of my mom friends told me. I try to remind friends who feel this way that building a new life in a new country is not only for themselves, but also for their entire family, and it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a huge change and can even be debilitating for some. So if having extra time allows you to step back, relax, and focus on yourself a bit, try and realize how that helps everybody in the long run.

For many families who relocate to Shanghai, it’s a short-term assignment, usually one to three years. Having help as a mother during that time can be both rewarding and challenging. As one of the moms with help from an ayi, I am trying my best to enjoy her, appreciate her, learn from the experience, push back on the mom guilt, and simply make the most of it during our time in glorious China.

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