Leo has a Chinese Aunty!

How, might you ask, can Leo possibly have a Chinese aunty? It’s simple; we hired one for him. You can buy anything in China, even relatives! “Ayi,” the Chinese word for aunt, is also the term used for a household helper/nanny. Forms of address here tend to be very personal, and so even JM and I will address our new babysitter as “Cheng Ayi.” Although we would have been content to hire a couple of students from the University to look after Leo, we’ve found that it’s just not the way things work here. Although students in the States might like to pick up some extra money by babysitting a couple of mornings a week, in China the students see this kind of work as a little below them. They are educated, and being an “ayi” is not an educated person’s work. (We did try to post a notice for students, and this was the response we got.) The class divides seem to be a bit sharper here than in America. My tutor, Luo, told me that this would be the response, and further quipped that no student would be qualified to look after Leo anyway. Luo said, “I think the students still need ayis, but maybe if they grew up in the country…” There are also definite attitudes about those who grew up in the country versus those who grew up in the city. Being a country girl myself, I’ve tried to take these attitudes with a grain of salt.

Starting in June, Cheng Ayi and I will begin to transition his morning care to her during the week, and I will eventually have more time to study Chinese. I am looking forward to this with a mixture of happy anticipation (more time to focus on the language) and anxious trepidation (I will be separated from Leo for half the day). She and Leo bonded rather instantly though, and her sweet demeanor gives me a lot of confidence. Communicating with her will be interesting, as she speaks a dialect rather than Mandarin. It’s understandable, but still a lot harder on my ears than a clear Mandarin speaker.

Many people here, Chinese and foreigners, have ayis to buy food, cook, clean, and look after the children. Just being students ourselves, we feel a little strange hiring a nanny (which is a luxury of the privileged in the US). That being said, it is a tremendous relief that someone will be able to come into our home to care for Leo.

The interview process was rather interesting, giving us more perspective on the way things work in China. Our first interview was awful, with the ayi showing up an hour late, not smelling that great, and to top it off her manner with Leo was just a bit too gruff and cavalier. We asked her about her experience caring for children, and her response was along the lines of, “Well, of course I can look after a child.” OK, next question! It fed my fears that an ayi would not respect our authority as Leo’s parents. Thankfully though, this first interview was not the end of the story.

Parental authority is a rather weak concept in China, as child rearing is largely seen as communal, rather than just familial. This has its benefits, as there are always hands willing to hold a baby, help carry a diaper bag in a bathroom, look after a little one while Mom and Dad eat a quick bite, or give helpful advice. It also has its downside at times, as a grandparent can easily override the authority of a parent when questions arise, for example. In my mind, that doesn’t always allow the parents the freedom to develop their own confidence in their roles, but here it seems that tradition is more important and the inherent (and very beautiful) respect for elders overrides the need for parents to “find their own way.” For us, the downside translates into lots of comments about Leo’s well being – “He’s hungry/full/tired/cold/hot/needs a hat/etc, etc, etc” – well intentioned though they may be, it does get old after a while! In the middle of feeding Leo the other day, I had a twenty-something young guy (who doesn’t have children) tell me rather forcefully that Leo was full and only needed something to chew on, like a teething ring. I told him I’d take that under consideration!

We also found that during the hiring process, we weren’t offered say, 5 ayis to interview from a given agency, after which time we could deliberate and make a decision by comparing and contrasting different options. On the contrary, the ayi agency presented us with one ayi to interview at a time, and then we were asked to immediately say “yes” or “no”. This went against our American sensibilities, but we rolled with it (and are really learning to trust our intuition, which is about all we have to go on at times!). It’s also not customary to check references, because questioning someone’s background (except in the most formal of interviews at a much higher professional level) makes them “lose face” – a very important cultural concept for us to understand about China.

We also have to make sure that our ayi is healthy, as many diseases are more prevalent in China (like TB and Hepatitis B). Our ayi will either give us a certificate of health or we will pay for routine testing at our clinic to make sure it’s okay for her to be in regular contact with Leo. I had heard about this in the States and thought that it would be rather awkward to ask for this (but necessary). On the contrary, she was used to the question!

So, Leo and his aunty will have their mornings together starting in June, and I will transition my tutoring and language partners to the mornings as well. We’re thankful we can make this transition with him slowly, and are hopeful this situation works out well for all of us.

As you all know, the earthquake continues to take a huge toll on China. Please pray for the victims and for China; it is a difficult and sad time here!


1 Response to “Leo has a Chinese Aunty!”

  1. 1 mjfalk May 16, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Dear Loved Ones,
    What a great insight into cultural differences observed inthe process of hiring an ayi for Leo. Leo is certainly alot of trouble!!! We continue to pray for the Chinese people in the Sichuan area.Love, Dad.

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