Managing an Ayi

Ai Yo … Ayi

By ellen December 6, 2011

by Ellen Swabey

December 2011

This article is posted on Shanghai Family and reposted here as we found this to be great information (

Lies, breakages, money. It seems just about everyone has a story about an ayi relationship gone wrong. So how should you manage one of your most important relationships in Shanghai?


Whatever your previous thoughts on household help, once you’re living in Shanghai, it’s hard to do without an ayi. Family and friends are far, affordable childcare options are even further (if you’re not on an all-inclusive expat package), and Shanghai dirties everything oh so quickly. Also, everyone else has one, so why shouldn’t you?

There are pluses and minuses to this most intimate of relationships, and also plenty of stories out there about when it goes wrong. After all, not all of us are used to having help in the home, and it can take some getting used to. Before you open your home to these “aunties”, make sure you really do want to have home and family help, and follow some straightforward rules to manage the relationship.


Be Clear

“I have a manual that I put together myself, detailing exactly how I want everything to be done,” shares Mehreen Ozdemir. Having tested everything that is in it, she knows how much time things should take. Also, she trains a new ayi for a full week before leaving her alone to do chores.

“Clarity from the word go is very important,” agrees Angela Lao, from ayi service Lanyi Family Care. “It’s not fair to be angry with your ayi about something you haven’t first explained, because every family is different,” she argues.

Delia Bartley has had a lot of experience managing ayis in the eight years she’s been living in Shanghai, both at home and in business. “Never assume anything,” she advises, adding, “Start off with a trial period so you both know what you are getting yourselves into. Do this before even mentioning pay.”


Be Aware

Your ayi may have a different approach to childcare than you and this can lead to confusion . An American mother was shocked to find her ayi was pre-chewing food to give to her baby, a common practice in some parts of China. “If you are not comfortable with this, be clear,” she advises.

Another thing to consider is discipline, especially if your ayi is home alone with your children all day. What rules would you like her to enforce? How should she react if they are broken? “My ayi lets my little girl do whatever she wants,” complains Alexandrine Maes.

“Ayis are afraid to let the children they care for cry”, says Lao, “because in a Chinese family this would not be acceptable. Be clear about what you want, however, and the ayi should adapt,” she advises.


Be Human

This might seem obvious, but some people talk about their ayis as if they are household appliances. “We also have feelings,” says Shirley, an ayi. “When my boss constantly changes her mind, or shouts and is rude, it is very difficult for me. If, on top of this, the pay is bad, I will not stay. If the pay is good, I might stay longer, but not too long if I am unhappy,” she says.

A complicating factor about the ayi-tai-tai relationship is that although it is a professional one, where money changes hands, emotions do too. “When my ayi of five-years lied about leaving me to work for another family, I felt betrayed,” remembers Bartley.

Rising ayi wages has also led to heated debate within local and expat communities. While some argue that ayis deserve to earn good money, because they work hard to support families they rarely see, others question if it is right for someone with barely an education to earn more than an engineering graduate. “It’s a question of supply and demand,” argues Ozdemir. “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

Ayi salaries vary widely. Top-end, English-speaking ayis earn up to 30RMB per hour, while lower-end, Chinese-only speaking ayis earn around 15RMB per hour. These lower-end rates are hard to find for newly arrived expats, and playground gossip ensures that few families get away with paying them. This can anger the more settled expat community, and those on local wages, who lose ayis to new expat families prepared to pay more. Ayi agencies are frequently blamed for the dramatic wage inflation that has taken place over the past few years. “The price of everything has gone up in Shanghai,” protests Lao, “not just ayi wages.”

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Make sure you discuss the following with your ayi before she starts to work for you:

  • Salary, including when it will next be re-negotiated
  • Chinese New Year bonus
  • Overtime
  • Meal times
  • Work hours
  • Holiday and sick leave
  • Public holidays
  • Home leave in the summer
  • Health checks and vaccinations
  • Duties

Once you have some agreement, make a list of what you’ve agreed and post it on the wall. Get someone to translate it into Chinese for you so there are no misunderstandings.


Peace of Mind

  • Call your ayi’s previous employers and ask specific questions about her work.
  • Do your homework. If you are going through an agency, ask a lot of questions and make sure you know exactly what you’re paying for.
  • Ask for a copy of your ayi’s identity card and keep it somewhere safe.
  • Ask to see health certificates and vaccination records.
  • Consider investing in first aid training for ayi.
  • Make an emergency plan with people to contact, where to go, and allergies in English and Chinese and post it on your fridge.
  • Be careful not to leave valuables lying around your house.
  • If there’s something you’re not comfortable with, tell her. If your Chinese isn’t good enough, enlist the help of a Chinese-speaking friend.


A Truly Special Relationship

We have all heard the horror stories of ayis who lie, cheat or steal. While this does sometimes happen, there are truly special ayis, and there are also some equally wonderful tai-tais who, after opening their heart and home to an ayi, are unable to ever shut that door. Sherri French is one of them.

French moved to Shanghai in July 2008 with her husband and two children. The family found their ayi, XiuYin, through an online posting, and quickly realised there was something special about her: “She was different to other ayis,” French remembers. She adds, “On day one she just took over and I felt completely comfortable leaving her in charge of my house and kids.”

As time progressed, XiuYin also began working in French’s online business, spbang!, liasing with customers and suppliers, and the family relationship blossomed as well. French continues, “After a while, she just became part of our family, and I couldn’t imagine life without her.”

French and her family moved to Munich in August 2010, but remain in touch with XiuYin on a near daily basis. XiuYin continues to manage French’s business for her here in Shanghai, and has been to Germany to visit the family several times. They are currently investigating the possibility of her joining them on their next posting in the US, where they will pay for her to get an education.French says she wants to help  XiuYin achieve her potential, just as she would assist a family member. She explains, “We are not giving her cash. What we are giving her is an opportunity to do something else with her life. Her life’s circumstances meant she didn’t have the same chances we did, and I want to rectify that, because now she’s one of us.”