Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Loss of face (and our Ayi)

By Kevin

As I pulled on my jacket and prepared to head out for our weekly team meeting, Juliana clung to my leg and cried, using babgyhua to plead for me to stay with her. Ayi's face crinkled and she joined the chorus, replacing babyspeak with rapid-fire Chinese, which – with the right combination of unfamiliar vocabulary – often manages to carry nearly the same meaning from my ears to my brain. What I could understand was that she too wanted me to stay behind. "As long as you are here, AnAn is OK," I understood. "When you leave, she just cries.”

I encouraged her to bring Juliana outside and Ayi responded with more rapid-fire Chinese. This time I understood even less, so Ayi began to pantomime what we already knew had happened the day before: she took Juliana outside, and even though she was constantly hovering right behind our little adventurer, Juliana managed to trip over a crack in the sidewalk and cut her bottom lip. This, on the same day that the other little girl Ayi watches also sustained a minor injury.

I tried to reassure Ayi that it is OK, we thought she was doing a good job taking care of Juliana. But she insisted that she wouldn't be able to take her this day unless I stayed in the apartment too, which wasn't going to happen, because our meeting was about to start. I suggested bringing Juliana outside, since our daughter loves running around outside. In fact, everyday, she'll walk over to the door and say, “side” – meaning “take me outside.” But Ayi was hesitant. I dressed Juliana and brought her downstairs, thinking that perhaps she would be ok with letting me go now that she was outside.

Juliana was OK with the idea, but Ayi was too afraid Juliana would fall and hurt herself again, so I walked over to the “bike shed,” where we and a couple hundred other residents park their bikes. As I put Juliana into the bike seat, Ayi asked if she should go home. I tried to find a polite way to say it, but my words spilled out quickly: “I guess so. If you can't watch her, then you can go home.”

The blood drained from her face. I'd just insulted her. She was losing face. Even worse, there was a man from the neighborhood looking on. It was a public shaming. I needed to show my displeasure with her reluctance to do her job, but I'd botched it. Trying to regain a little bit of composure, I said I'd see her tomorrow. She agreed and I biked off to our meeting, worried that we may have just lost our babysitter less than three weeks into our “trial period.”

My suspicions grew when she called our teammate, and then me, the next morning and said that she had some sort of family matter so she'd miss the next two days of work, but she'd be back on Monday.

We probably should have began our search for a replacement then, but we were optimistic that some important family matter had just come up and the loss of face wasn't irreparable. Unfortunately, our Chinese isn't good enough to catch the spoken subtleties or the nonverbal cues that she was trying to express her dissatisfaction with the job. So we hoped and prayed for the best.

The next Monday, she came as usual. She watched Juliana and seemed to do fine with her. Then, Tuesday came along. She began telling me how tired and worried she is and how much Juliana cries when she watches her. I assured her that we thought Juliana liked her. “I can hear from the office, when you play with her, she is happy.” She insisted that Juliana wasn't as comfortable with her as with the past Ayi. I told her that we thought that it was just a matter of time. It also took her a couple weeks before she excitedly jumped into the old Ayi's arms everytime she walked through the door. “Maybe you can bring (your old) Ayi back,” she suggested. “She has a new job now,” I reminded her in garbled Chinese. “Juliana has just reached the point where she doesn't cry anymore when I leave. Things will get better.”

Then she dropped the bomb, something along the lines of: “I don't think I can watch Anan anymore.” Ruth was meeting with her tutor, so I opened our office room and asked if her tutor could help us translate because I wanted to make sure understood. “I'm pretty sure that she's quitting,” I said. I was on the right track. We repeated the same lines and Ruth's tutor managed to convince Ayi to stick around. For a moment, we thought crisis had been averted.

The next day she came, watched Juliana and did great with her. Our hopes continued to rise. When I left to go study, Juliana didn't cry or cling to me. She laughed and played and had a great time. When I came to pick her up afterward, Ayi said, with a bit of surprise, “She didn't cry. She was happy.” The same thing happened again the next day. We figured things were looking up. In fact, the teammate whose kids she watches each morning and I were discussing how we should pay her, since tomorrow would be her fourth week working for us, and we were splitting her services. Perhaps we should give her a raise?

Then Thursday came. With it came our teammate's news: “Ayi quit today. We managed to convince her to work one more day.” A couple hours later, she came to our house one last time to clean.

Our previous Ayi, who attends a fellowship with the one quitting happened to stop by in the middle of her last day. The old Ayi loves Juliana and, if she had more time, would probably love to continue watching her. In fact, she stops by every few weeks just to say hi and play with Juliana. She too spent some time trying to convince her to stick around because it'll get better, but it was to no avail. Eventually, she officially broke the news to us that we had heard earlier in the day. 

Unfortunately, when your house-helper quits in China (at least here), you can't just thumb through the yellow pages or hop online and find a handy service that will bring in another (not that we know how you'd find someone in the States either--we'd never be able to afford someone there). It's all about who you know. Thankfully we know a lot of foreigners in this city who have kids, so we immediately began throwing out feelers. Our first candidate was interested, but she lives outside of the city and didn't want to work at times that would work for us. A second candidate just didn't seem very interested in the job when our teammate met with her. The third was promising, so he brought her by with Ruth and I were out shopping. Ruth liked her, so tomorrow Ayi number three starts. We're hoping she'll be able to keep up with our little runner.


Candy said...

'Sure hope the new ayi works out well -- and that she has lot of energy to keep up with Juliana!

Nate and Molly said...

This is starting to sound a bit like Mary Poppins. . just kidding! ;) I'm sorry you're having to go through this AGAIN!