Comforts, and Discomforts,
Of Domestic Assistance
June 23, 2006
A business trip recently took my wife to Taiwan for a few days. Plotting strategy for solo parenting, I found myself thinking back a few months to the last time she left. I struggled getting all three kids out the door to school each morning, even with things going fairly smoothly and the kids behaving well. I had to let eight-year-old Jacob ride off by himself and accept that Eli and Anna would be late.
Still, I got them up, dressed, fed, cleaned and on their way, with lunches and completed homework in their backpacks and I did it myself, without the help of an ayi (nanny). If you don’t think this is a big deal, you are right. You have also never lived as an expat in China. Around here, it could be grounds for someone to question my sanity.
It’s not like we forgo domestic assistance. We have two and a half helpers: Ding ayi takes care of two-and-a-half-year old Anna every day from 11:30 a.m. when preschool lets out until she leaves at 6:00 p.m.; Yu Ying ayi cleans the house Monday through Friday; and Mr. Li, a cook, makes dinner two or three times a week. (Ayi translates roughly to auntie and is the word used to describe household help. It is quite disrespectful for a child to address an adult by their first name without a title.)
We inherited Yu Ying and Mr. Li from our predecessors and while we like them very much, having three employees feels like overkill. Downsizing is a very reasonable option, but it’s a difficult decision because all three people depend on their income from us. Despite all this help, many would consider us understaffed because we don’t have help before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. or on weekends. We are lucky that both of us are around a lot; I almost always work at home, while Rebecca is able to do so when necessary and rarely has to travel extensively.
Many of our friends and neighbors are not so lucky. Many people posted here cover all of China, or even Asia. We know many men and a few women, working for everything from the International Monetary Fund to Deloitte, who are gone for weeks at a time, sometimes popping back in for weekends before heading back to the nearby airport.
In such cases, it is understandable that an ayi ends up playing such an important role to a mother with several young children. We have a bit of the opposite problem — our boys don’t really accept the ayis’ dominion over them. Many a night, we’ve had an evening out on the town interrupted by repeated phone calls — “When are you coming home? Where are you?” The ayi tells them to go to bed and they say, “No, call my dad.” They never behaved like that with babysitters at home, but it took them about two minutes to size up the situation and realize what they could get away with. Ayis often treat the children as the boss, despite our repeated and firm admonitions not to do so.
Many of the kids who came here at a younger age (like Anna) don’t have this problem and have wonderful relationships with their ayi, from whom they also learn to speak fluent Chinese. Ding speaks English quite well, which makes things much easier for us but also hampers all of our Chinese language development.
A few months after arriving here, we were speaking with an expat who has lived here for years. She asked how our transitions were going and how the kids were doing. We said everything is great and the kids have thrived, but the mornings remain a scrum, even with both of us helping shepherd the kids through their routines.
“Why don’t you have an ayi helping you?” she asked.
“They don’t start that early.”
“Well, change that or hire another ayi just for the morning.”
“No, we’re not used to that. We don’t need another person buzzing around our house at 7 a.m.”
“Get over it.”
But we don’t want to get over it in part because those sometimes-difficult morning hours are also solid family time.
We had some help back in New Jersey, with a nanny watching our youngest for most of the last five years. But this is much more omnipresent and it also creates an entire caste system that I have to oversee. Yu Ying is from a rural province and is illiterate, never having attended a single day of school, while both Ding and Mr. Li are Beijingers with high school educations. There is a certain amount of hierarchical jostling about which I am only dimly aware, and I prefer it that way.
One way we deal with what is for us an uncomfortable position is grossly overpaying, making us either very kind employers or total patsies. We basically paid everyone what they asked for, which turns out to be 50% more than most expats pay and probably 100% more than most Chinese. At around $300 a month they make more than most professors here. We still pay all three workers combined just over half what we paid a single nanny at home.
For some perspective on how cushy the Monday-Friday, less than 9-5 jobs working for us are, consider the nice young girl who works at a nearby grocery store. Noticing that she always seemed to be there, I asked her if she ever got a day off. “Yes,” she replied with a smile. “Two days a month.”
But it remains hard for us to get used to this employer situation. It often feels like we are living like British tea plantation overseers in India, circa 1900. Many expats seem to really enjoy living this fake rich lifestyle, but it’s uncomfortable for me. We try to be respectful and make sure the kids are the same, pushing them to say please and thank you, and pick up after themselves rather than waiting for an ayi to swoop down. When one of us ends up on our own, we batten down the hatches and try to enjoy some special time with our kids. And we always try to remember, and remind our kids, just how lucky we are and how unusual this arrangement actually is.
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Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. I received a lot of mail regarding my column about our kids’ school, including many from people who attended international schools themselves. Here is a sampling:
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Do your kids get any Chinese education in the culture or the language? Also, does the Chinese government regulate the curriculum in any way?
— Raey W. S. Webster
My kids take an hour of Mandarin most days but their learning of the language has been pretty slow. They are learning the written language, which is particularly difficult for 5-year-old Eli, who is just learning to read English. We need to put them in more situations where they are forced to use the language and next year we will probably use a tutor at least once a week. I have noticed that while the kids’ vocabulary is limited, their pronunciation tends to be spot-on, no simple feat in this tonal language. They have learned quite a bit about Chinese culture as well, particularly Jacob.
The Chinese government does not regulate the curriculum, though schools have to turn in an overview of their intended curriculum and a list of textbooks to be used in their initial licensing application. The government also monitors the schools’ incoming shipments of imported books and other materials.
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Your article reminded me a lot about my childhood experiences in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and especially Grades 4-9 at the International School of Bangkok. It’s good that your kids are adjusting this well to the expat life; I’m absolutely sure that your family’s time there — regardless of how long or short your stay in Beijing will be — will have nothing but positive affects on their personalities, careers, and goals in their years to come.
— A. Radin Ahmed
Thank you. Most writers who attended international schools had similarly positive outlooks, which I find encouraging.
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This is not “diversity”; it is “elite Westerner privilege”. Though I would probably never send my girls to private schools here in the States, I might do the same thing if I move back to China or Hong Kong. I laughed at your thoughts of “fancy pants social climbers and status seekers who attended country clubs” and totally agree with you.
— Litao Mai
I understand your point about elite Western privilege, but that doesn’t mean the school is not diverse. There are over 40 nationalities represented. My biggest concern with private schools at home is they are taking the kids out of their community and teaching them that they are different and better, the very definition to me of elite. Here, the private school is the community, and that to me is a crucial difference. [Litao Mai is a friend of mine from Maplewood, NJ.]
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I too have moved my young family to China (Shanghai) recently and share many of the experiences you have described. We have been thrilled with the schools in Shanghai and have already decided to keep our kids in international schools when we eventually return home to the US.
— Doug Wright
That’s an interesting idea. We are planning on sending our kids back to public school.* * *
I loved your article about your boys’ very British school and the uniforms. My 3-1/2 year old grandchild just started kindergarten at a Tokyo international school. The “culture shock” may be when you return to the states and your children go to public school with no uniforms, a lack of discipline, and the contemporary American attitude that children own the world and what they wear is part of their “right to express themselves”.
My American friends see the photo of my granddaughter in her uniform and see some sort of straitjacket. I look at it and think — lucky Mom — no quarrels on school mornings over what to wear.
— Mary Harada
I agree almost completely with your thoughts on school uniforms, which is shocking to me, as it is almost 180 degrees from what I would have said a year ago.
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You hit the nail on the head. I have lived overseas most of the time since 1990 and have experienced the joys and difficulties of raising my children as expats attending international schools. Overall, it has been a great experience for them.
You were absolutely right when you mentioned that your children were learning in a more diverse cultural environment. My youngest son, Dean, has grown up mostly overseas… attending a British school in Norway, a Chinese Montessori school in Malaysia, a public school in Texas, an American school in Colombia, and now an IB school in Denmark. In all of these he has developed friendships with others from a variety of cultures. Right now, he has solid friends from Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Latvia, and the U.S., along with others from the Far East, Africa, and Europe. He regularly chats with friends that now live in Colombia, India, Sweden, and California. I can’t imagine a better way for a child to grow up and appreciate other cultures.
Several years ago, I [heard] a speaker call family’s like mine “global nomads.” Her idea was that people like me, and perhaps you, are nomads in a modern society and that we tend to lose track of our home. Although I am a wanderer in today’s world I have never lost track of my home. I am proud to be an American, and a Texan. As you work in other cultures I trust that you too will remember your roots and teach your children to honor their home, as well as appreciate the cultures that you experience.
— Ross Ensley
Thanks for your thoughtful letter. I do know a lot of global nomads who have lived all over the world and some of the kids may well lack a national identity. That certainly is not the case for me or my family, or most of the people we know.
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I spent two years as a high school student at an international school in Kobe, Japan. Reading about the cultural diversity at your children’s school put a big smile on my face as I remembered all of the wonderful people I met from all over the world. I am firmly convinced that exposing your children to other cultures is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give, regardless of the child’s age. The experience creates better global citizens and positively shapes the children’s paths for the rest of their lives. How else would a kid like myself that grew up in Detroit now make his home in southern California, working for a Canadian firm consulting to a Dutch company at a Scottish installation — and feel right at home . . .
— Jay Gillam
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I would like to hear more about what your kids are learning. Are there any electives, or is it a set curriculum?
— Tom Farrelly
Our kids’ school follows a Montessori curriculum through first grade and the British national curriculum thereafter. From second grade on, there are two elective clubs a week, as well as a wide range of after school options.
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