Rob and I recently watched the Help and thought it was a fantastic movie. I'm happy to see it is getting a lot of props so far this "awards season." I still haven't read the book, but it's sitting in my Kindle queue. It's funny, because when I first started writing, I wanted to write a novel told from the point of view of domestic helpers in China.
It was interesting to watch the movie from the eyes of someone who has a helper or two, especially here in China. It prompted me to share a couple of Ayi stories with you.
As most of you know, we have a full-time Ayi who acts as a nanny to the twins as well as a cleaning Ayi who comes to our house 2 times a week to top-down the house. As a middle class American living abroad it has certainly been a treat to be able to afford help around the house.
When we first moved to Shanghai, a Singapore-Chinese friend/colleague of Rob's invited us to his house for dinner (lovingly prepared by Ayi). He and his wife lived in a small flat - maybe 1200 sq. feet - in Shanghai with their 1 year old daughter. They had a full-time "baby-ayi" and a full-time cooking/cleaning ayi. At the time I thought this was absurd, as many of you reading this may agree, but now I'm just so used to having domestic help that it doesn't really phase me anymore.
Anyway, we engaged in this conversation with husband and wife about how the flat is small, how can you keep the cleaner employed full-time, etc. What does she do all day?
Husband: "If she has nothing to do I create work for her."
Rob: "Like what?"
Husband: "For example I will just take all of my clothes out of my closet, throw them on the floor, tell her they look like shit and to re-iron everything in the house."
Rob (and I): Speechless.
Another story comes after we moved to Beijing. As they do every day, the twins and Ayi were playing at the clubhouse while I worked out. When I finished my workout a local Chinese woman approached me and proceeded to tell me that my Ayi "tortures" the twins both physically and verbally. Then she told me I pay her too much money and I am artificially inflating the market price. I tried to explain to her that she cares for 2 babies, and she told me I should hire another ayi so they each had their own.
Obviously I was quite shocked by the accusation. This Ayi had only been working with us for a few months but I certainly hadn't witnessed any torture. She is firm with them, which is unusual for an Ayi, but these twins are no walk in the park and need someone they can't walk all over.
We had a chat when we got home. As it turned out, my Ayi had told this woman's Ayi how much money she makes per month, which was about 700 rmb ($100) more. So this woman's Ayi asked for a 200 rmb/month raise.
Mind you, this woman lives in a 2 million dollar house and has 2 BMWs but decided it was better to lie about someone and get her fired than give her own helper a $40/month raise.
The bit about the toilet really resounded with me because our old Ayi used to live with us. For a while, she shared a bedroom with the twins (she was in a bed and they were in cribs). It was a nice room with her own private bathroom and a double bed. I figured it was better than having her sleep on a cot in the basement. One day a little girl who is from a nameless developing country (who is also used to domestic help), maybe 10 years old, was playing at our house. She asked me where the Ayi sleeps, I told her she shares a room with the twins. Her response, "Eww, that's disgusting."
I could go on and on, but I won't. Obviously one of the major themes in The Help revolves around race relations in the US. I can't even begin to add anything productive to that conversation. Sadly, it was what it was. It is what it is now - which certainly isn't perfect - but slowly but surely I think it is getting better.
In China, though, it is more about social class. The rich people here like to pretend it's about the economy. They don't want the serving class to make too much money because that will cause hyper-inflation and blah, blah, blah. I call bullshit to that based simply on how I've seen Ayis and Drivers treated as well as conversations I've been a part of that made my skin crawl.
I always kind of thought race relations/class relations came down to time and education. I don't know what the government is trying to do, if anything, to help the situation. And I've been here for almost 5 years and haven't seen any positive change.
It should be interesting to watch the middle class develop in China. Of course, I don't know if "they" will let it because once the middle class reaches a tipping point a few problems could surface: the goods and services here will become too expensive and manufacturing (hence money) will start to leave the country and the masses will then get a voice and won't be able to be controlled.
If I was a betting woman, I'd say they will continue to supress the masses to avoid all hell breaking loose. Any body out there have any thoughts on the matter?