One of the first things that any self-respecting Tai-Tai must do, be it in Hong Kong or Shanghai is hire a domestic helper. After all, on any given day I’m usually way too busy having a manicure or attending a brunch to actually clean my own toilet. I jest of course.
It’s usually a pedicure.
Anyhow, North of the border, we call domestic helpers/cleaners Ayi (literally, ‘Auntie’) and we happen to have a rather lovely lady who works with us. She is sweet, friendly, adores Baby T-T and speaks great English. Best of all, I believe that she may have OCD traits, always a bonus in a cleaner.
We have our (often amusing) moments of culture clash, but they’re stories for future posts.
Now to my friends and family back home, it may sound incredibly spoiled, if not out and out princess-y to have a cleaner when I’m a stay at home mum. After all, what do I actually do all day?
Well, other than wrangling Baby T-T (anyone who has met my son will understand that this requires the stamina of an Ultramarathon competitor, in addition to the strength of 2 of those Eastern European dudes that pull trucks with their teeth on those Strongest Man competitions on Sunday afternoon Channel 4), living in China is kind of a full time job in itself.
When we need groceries, I can’t pop to Sainsbury’s to pick up the weekly shop, nor can I have those nice chaps at Ocado pop round with an organic chicken and some truffle oil. I have to plan ahead depending on what we’re having for dinner that night, so for example, if I need to buy milk (imported from New Zealand to avoid melamine poisoning), I must visit one supermarket. Juice requires a trip to another, further down the road. The shop that sells cheese has recently closed down and has relocated to the other side of town, and as for something as exotic as, say, an avocado, well, that can require upward of an hour’s commitment, in addition to an alarming amount of money.
Compounding the problem is the fact of simply getting around town with a child in tow. As we don’t have a car, I rely on good old shoe leather, metro or cabs to travel around Shanghai. Walking is often the quickest way, however Baby T-T is prone to bouts of protesting if restrained in his pushchair for too long, necessitating regular pit-stops for drinks to spill, toys to chuck, and fruit to smear.
Shanghai’s Metro is limited in its use due to a tiny proportion of lines having any form of lift or even escalators to the platform, resulting in a free sideshow for anyone waiting for a train as the sweating, swearing laowai (foreigner) hefts a wailing child, an overloaded pushchair and countless plastic bags down three flights of stairs. No-one ever offers to help out, however they are utterly unashamed to blatantly stare, point, and make rude comments about your parenting.
Hailing a cab sounds simple but this does not take into consideration the fact that hardly any taxis in Shanghai have rear seatbelts, therefore finding one that does, is more or less roadworthy and doesn’t have exhaust fumes leaking into the cabin, (or is using a pineapple as an air freshener – true story!) can take some detective work. As you can see, this all eats up quite a large part of your day.
All of the above pales into insignificance compared to the real reason our Ayi has been such an essential addition to our life here in China.
Having a baby in this, the most foreign of countries, this city where I moved knowing no-one, many thousands of miles and many hours time difference from home is hard. I mean really hard. As in ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ hard. Those moments where your baby won’t stop crying and you’re absolutely at your wit’s end and you want to call your Mum or best friend and beg ‘Please come and hold my baby for 10 minutes so that I can lie down in a darkened room and sob/wash for the first time in five days/inhale a double espresso and a fistful of biscuits’, well, that’s not possible when they live on the other side of the world. Even if you could persuade Skype to hold a signal for more that 12 seconds to call and ask where it is you’re going so very wrong, the chances are that it’s 3am wherever your friends and family are and they might not want to advise on your little cherub’s colic right now.
When you have an Ayi, you know that at least for a few hours in the day, you have another adult to speak to, someone you can trust to leave for a few minutes while you
hide from your child in the kitchen make yourself breakfast, someone who will offer a sympathetic ear and a bit of advice, and remind you to sit down and have a cup of tea in those all too rare moments that your baby is asleep. Those are the real reasons that I have an Ayi.
The gleaming kitchen floor is obviously a bonus.