Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hiring an Ayi...a cultural experience

Now that the dust has settled from the weeks leading up to and the week of Christmas, I have some time to get back to blogging!  Wait, who am I kidding?  This will probably be the only post for the next 10 days.  That's just kind of how it goes.  But either way, being January 1st, 2013 I'm optimistic.  

Today, I interviewed an ayi for the first time ever.  If you are wondering what an ayi is, it is the Chinese word for "auntie" and is someone who will come clean, cook, take care of kids, etc for you.  Many Chinese have an ayi and almost all foreigners are "expected" to.  At least that's what I read on forums and blogs from other expats.  However, I have not felt the social pressure of hiring an ayi to help out.  My motivation for finally taking the step to hire was out of desperation.  I just can't seem to keep my house clean!  Between staff meetings at our place and having other friends over, plus language learning, attempting to make life functional in another country and working...well, not much energy left to spend mopping my entire house.  It feels overwhelming.  I have also been spending some time reflecting on my expectations of myself for living overseas.  Cleaning my own home and keeping it looking spotless was one of them.  This is not realistic.  Hiring an ayi is an acknowledgement of my need for help and a healthy move towards bringing my own expectations of myself in line with reality.

At the beginning of December I made a goal to hire an ayi by the 31st.  I have this amazing app called Wunderlist that keeps me on track for managing tasks.  Hiring house help has been creeping up the list the last few weeks.  Finally, I made the leap and enlisted my friend Joy to help me call a few agencies.  After numerous words of wisdom from friends and a lot of praying, I interviewed my first ayi today.  It was...interesting.  I learned a lot.  I don't think this particular ayi is going to work out, however it was a good experience.

She showed up at 9:00am.  I am guessing she could meet today because it is New Years Day and she probably has it off from her other job.  Before calling the agency, I decided I only needed someone two days a week for 3 hours a day.  Not a lot, but enough to keep my kitchen, bathroom and all the floors clean.  We were told this gal could work two afternoons a week.  I was wanting someone on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are the best days for us.  Anyways, she came just after 9:00, arriving before my friend Joy.  My first impression of her was great.  She came in smiling and very courteous.  Took off her shoes and coat, picked up Samson and carried him around as she asked me questions about what I would like her do and I attempted to answer.  That first impression didn't last very long.  

Photo courtesy of
I was glad she liked our dog, however her first comment about him was that he didn't have any clothes on.  Um...he's a dog.  Yes, it might be 30 degrees out but he doesn't live outside.  And when we go outside, he has a fur coat!  I think this is a cultural thing.  Samson has never shivered when outside.  I know some small dogs do get cold, however, I think Samson has a thicker coat than most other small breeds.  

After that comment, she wandered into my kitchen and then into the bedroom.  I was following her, trying to answer her questions.  To be honest, I was kind of overwhelmed.  Here was this 35-40 year old woman giving herself a tour of my home, holding my dog and battering me with questions.  It was a strange "loss of control" feeling.  Joy showed up within five minutes to help translate and I am so thankful she could come.  I couldn't have done it without her.

So we sat down at the table to go over some questions I had prepared.  Well, apparently she had questions too.  It was an interesting "interview" and I'm not really sure who was really interviewing who.  I would be giving Joy a question to ask her and, at the same time, she would start talking to Joy over me.  It was weird.  All of my questions had to do with her willingness to learn new ways of cleaning, what she has done before, expectations, etc.  Hers were much more specific, such as, "If you want me to wash your sheets, you will need to take them off the bed and put them out."  Um, ok.  Well, before we get there, let's start at can you work two days a week for me?  Turns out she could only work one weekday afternoon and the other day on Saturday.  Maybe it's just me, but I don't really want someone coming over on Saturday to clean my house.  That's not my ideal Saturday.  She responded by saying that other Chinese families she has helped continue to sleep in the bedroom and she will just be in the rest of the house cleaning.  Um...again, I think this is a cultural difference. 

We talked for over an hour.  I think it could have been much shorter.  I felt like the conversation ended after 20 minutes.  With her schedule and not being able to work two weekday afternoons (she has another job cleaning and can't switch her schedule), I felt like it wasn't a good fit.  Why make something work when I won't be happy and neither will she?  However, she really wanted the job.  The other red flag to me was that the agency we found her through told us that we do not have to pay her for holidays or times she does not come and work.  That was not what she told us.  I don't mind paying holidays (I don't want to, but if that's the way it is then I don't have a choice), however, I wasn't comfortable that the agency told me one thing and she claimed another.  

She left a little disappointed I think.  Joy is going to call the agency after the holiday to clarify the holiday pay issue and the ayi is going to find out if she can adjust her hours to do two weekday afternoons.  All that to say, I don't think I'm going to hire her anyway.  Her personality was a little too pushy for me.  Not having a good grasp on the language yet, I don't think I could hold my own with her and it would cause conflict.  

So, a few things I learned...
  • Know what you want and stick to it.  I knew I wanted two days a week for three hours.  I had to stick to my guns.  She kept trying to get around it..."can I work on Saturday?"  "What if I work one day for more hours?"
  • Pay attention to her comments.  I have heard from other expat friends who have hired house help that some ayis can be very opinionated and tell you how to do things.  It's very Chinese.  Well, about ten minutes into the interview, she told me that if we want to have babies we will have to get rid of our dog.  It wasn't a suggestion...more like an expectation.  I appreciate cultural insight and realize that Chinese have a different "normal", however someone who feels they can share that after ten minutes of meeting you...well, I'm not sure I can handle that over the long term.  
  • You need to feel comfortable.  A few days ago, I was asking a friend in the city for her wisdom on hiring an ayi.  She told me that personality matters a lot, especially if you will be home when she is there.  This particular ayi had been helping families for over 10 years and worked several years for an Italian family.  She obviously knew what she was doing based on her questions and knowledge of more Western cleaning practices.  However, her personality turned me off.  I want to like my ayi.  We don't have to be friends, but I also don't want to feel awkward or uncomfortable.  
  • Have a translator.  There is no way I would've been able to handle that interview without Joy.  Even if my Chinese was better, she was able to gain cultural insight I couldn't see.  I appreciated her thoughts about how it went and needed her insights. 
Overall, it was a good learning experience.  I feel better prepared for the next interview and understand a little more about "ayi culture" and what to expect.  I'm hopeful!  We are leaving at the end of this month for some needed time away.  I'm hoping to find someone before we leave.  That might be a lofty goal, but hey, I'm optimistic. 

1 comment:

  1. So crazy, Jess! I'm with you... just from what you said, she did seem a tad pushy. Is the "no dogs with babies" thing a cultural thing? What would your ayi do if you kept your dog and had a baby? Very interesting! Good luck! I hope you find one that you really like! If you did have a baby and kept your ayi, I think it would be really important to really like her. She would be watching your kid, after all! ;)
    Glad to here you are doing well! I love getting to read your blog! Take care, Jess!!