Five Reasons Not to get an Ayi in Shanghai

Shanghai Living

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I’ve been living in China since 2006, and not once have I hired an ayi to clean my apartment. Not even for the day after my annual Christmas party, which crammed about 25 guests into my very small apartment this year. You might not be surprised to know that I am the only foreigner (or maybe the only person!) I know who has resisted the services of the counutry’s very affordable cleaning ladies—one friend even accused me of being selfish by denying one of these women the miniscule salary she would make from doing my laundry for me. But still, I refuse to hire an ayi. Here’s why:

Getting Spoiled

Cleaning your own apartment is really not a big deal. Billions of people do it around the world and still live happy lives. But tell that to the recently repatriated as they face the horrible task of mopping the floor by themselves after a seven-year holiday. I never want to be that person, and will not allow myself to go soft.

Cleaning Is Great Exercise

Is it a coincidence that obesity rates have soared as household appliances have shrunk the average amount of time spent cleaning in the developed world? I don’t think so. Obviously, it’s not the only factor, and no, I do not want to use one of those old washing machines that you have to crank by hand. But I do work up a sweat—or at least get warm enough to take off a layer—while mopping, which burns over 150 calories an hour.


The idea of some woman from Anhui touching my dirty underwear fills me with shame and horror. I’m not worried about having things stolen, but I really, really dislike the idea of someone I don’t know very well touching all of my things, and knowing just how much takeout I order (that stays between me and Jinshisong). And you know all the ayis get together to discuss the disgusting foreigners they work for. I don’t want to be a topic of that conversation.

Colonial Guilt/Personal Pride

This is a bit of a mix for me. On one side, the idea of me lifting up my feet while someone less fortunate sweeps beneath them, still in my pajamas at 3pm on a Saturday makes me feel deeply embarrassed. On the flip side, when my apartment is spotless, I feel particularly proud that it was I who made it that way. I could never experience that level of satisfaction from paying someone else to do the cleaning for me.


As someone who spends the week barely moving in an office, there is a certain joy in physical work. It helps calm my thoughts and focus my attention. Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh wrote a beautiful essay about how washing the dishes can be a wonderful opportunity for mindfulness and meditation, and I agree completely.

There are also many things one could write about the pros and cons of having an ayi take care of your children—including the fact that your kids will probably sound like peasants when they speak Chinese—but that’s territory I rather not venture into as a child-free professional.

What do you think? Am I cruel in denying the ayis of Shanghai another RMB300 a month?

Crazy to wash my own socks and scrub my own toilet? Or is there anyone else out there who also still does their own cleaning?

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