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Chinese Ayis: The Definitive Field Guide

The ayi is as quintessentially Chinese as cups of hot water with every meal, stir-fried eggs and tomato, hiking up the Great Wall (不到长城非好汉), or drinking ginger tea when you are sick (“antibiotics? how silly of you!”).

Ayis, at once, embody a lot of my frustrations with China, but they also humanize it, in their own strange (and often frustrating) way. I’ve already written about my own ayi before, but that was just one of the definition of what an ayi could be. For now, I’ll present only three, although I’m sure myself being a non-scholar of China, there must be more.

  1. An ayi (阿姨) in the simplest terms is the word for auntie.  So, if you have an actual aunt, you may call her ayi (may, because Chinese family tree terms are incredibly hard to decode). But this term also becomes a sort of a catch-all for any older women around your mother’s age.
  2. An ayi is also the term for a housekeeper, which many foreigners have in Shanghai. My ayi comes over twice a week to furiously clean our apartment. She’s sort of become a part of the family – my angry aunt who complains about the weather, or gives me clementines when I’m home sick from work. My ayi scolds me when I am not wearing slippers in the winter (I’ll be running around the apartment in a frenzy trying to get ready for work and she’ll still bring the slippers to wherever I am standing). My ayi comments on my boyfriend’s various states of dress and undress whenever she comes to the apartment (to be fair, we trust her enough to arrive in the afternoon, whenever she wants, so these things are bound to happen). And as the shortest member of our household (at a generous 5’1″), my ayi stands precariously on chairs to reach parts of the apartment that don’t even need to be cleaned.
  3. And lastly, the ayi is an embodiment of the chaos that it is to live in China: Chinese ayis are relentless. They are also terrifying. An ayi is the person cutting you off in the grocery line. An ayi is the person pushing past you to get to the elevator that 1 millisecond faster. An ayi will walk faster than you, talk over you, and generally make life as inconvenient as possible, without as much as a glance.

It gets maddening. But when you look closer, it also becomes apparent that these women are a symbol of a China that had changed too rapidly for people around it to fully understand. Ten years ago, Shanghai barely had a Subway line, and now, some rude American foreigner (read: me) is trying to speak broken Chinese at them, while their favorite vegetable market is being turned into yet another wine bar. If it were me, I’d be standoff-ish too.

Living in China just gets to a person sometimes, but then this also becomes the time to realize that we need to look around at the people around us, and see how they are integrating in our life, and how we are integrating into theirs.


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