No matter what kind of place you’re renting, it should have all the basics – air conditioners, TV and DVD player, washing machine and so on. Note that the washing machine may be cold water only in a smaller flat, and that dryers are less common. Dishwashers tend to be found only in the biggest homes, though special sterilising cabinets for plates and glasses are more common. If you move into a furnished home and aren’t happy with some aspect, have a chat with your landlord and see if they’re willing to sort out replacements. If you’re willing to do the legwork and go find that new sofa, there’s a fair chance they’ll be willing to fund it, within reason.
If you’re going to be looking for your own furniture, the most obvious option is the IKEA in Chaoyang District. If that’s unappealing (it does get pretty crowded, particularly at weekends), there are furniture stores big and small all around town. Places like COFCO and Easy Home offer a range of brands in a pleasant environment, and there are lots of smaller options too. If you’re interested, it’s fun to wander around the antique furniture places dotted around the city, best taking the word ‘antique’ to mean a certain style rather than actual age. For fabrics, there’s the famous Silk Market (also in Chaoyang), or for better prices (but probably more of a hike), Muxiyuan Fabric Market in Fengtai District. Lots of shops have sprung up around both markets to offer fabrics in a less hectic atmosphere, so it’s worth heading to the area even if you don’t go to the market proper. The same goes for furniture shops around IKEA.
Locals have an admirable facility for hanging laundry to dry out windows on long bamboo poles, using special hooks to get it in and out and never seeming to drop a single stitch of clothing. If you’re in a city apartment without a dryer you can try this yourself, but best to let the ayi handle it. There are dry cleaners all around the city, at very reasonable rates, though serviced apartments and compounds will be able to sort this out for you. There’s no real way around the fact that Beijing’s pollution will do your shirts no good (especially the white ones) as time goes on.
Almost every foreigner here employs a domestic worker, known as an ayi (literally, ‘auntie’) – as do many middle-class Chinese people. It’s considered entirely normal and a way of employing people and improving their lives, rather than as a sign of laziness. Rates are extremely cheap, starting from around RMB15 an hour (just over US$2), and services flexible. You can employ somebody live-in, helping with childcare; to cook; to come in every day for a few hours when the kids come home; to come by twice a week to give the place a once-over. An ayi is also invaluable if the power suddenly goes off, or you need someone to help you call the Internet company to send someone over and fix your router – a good ayi simply makes life easier.
To that end, take the time to figure out what you need first. If you’re coming home exhausted from work most nights, having a healthy meal waiting for you could be a huge relief, as well as a way to try out new kinds of food. Do you want your ayi to do laundry? Walk the dog? Simply clean the house top-to-toe once a week? Once you’ve got your needs straight, it will be much easier to explain what you need.
Also think about whether you need your ayi to be part- or fulltime. A part-time ayi will be shared with other families, perhaps in the same compound, and will come in to take care of what needs to be done, often doing different main tasks each day, while a fulltime ayi will be around the whole day and may end up feeling like one of the family, particularly to children.
No matter what you decide, the key, of course, is finding somebody you trust. Your best bet is to ask friends for recommendations – most people who have a good relationship with their ayi are delighted to pass more work on to her. You may also be able to get recommendations from your compound or property management people. Failing that, there are scores of ads on websites like The Beijinger, eChinacities and Beijing Kids from both people recommending their own ayis and agencies providing them for a fee. There’s nothing wrong with agencies, but a sincere recommendation from a fellow expat should carry more weight. If you use an agency, they’ll charge you a fee, but should introduce you to a new ayi for free if the first one doesn’t work out. Agencies may be useful if you need very specific skills, such as being able to cook Western food, but don’t always end up saving you that much trouble in the end.
Be patient but firm about what you need. There can often be teething problems at the start, and you should take the time to show your ayi exactly what you need her to help you with, as well as how everything works. She’s very unlikely to speak any English, but if she’s used to foreigners you’ll be able to work it all out. Best to meet her along with a Chinese-speaking friend the first time. Show her how you like your vegetables done, how the vacuum cleaner works and so on. If you want her to avoid using MSG or spices, or go easy on the oily cooking, let her know. Your life will get a lot better if you learn some basic Chinese terms to help her understand you, but on the upside your children may find themselves with a surprisingly good grip of whatever dialect she speaks – you can even encourage them to talk to her for practice (though encourage her to stick to Mandarin for that).
To avoid misunderstandings, you should make sure you both agree on the important details before she starts work. Pay usually starts at around RMB15-20 an hour for foreigners – locals are often able to bargain the price down lower, but it’s in your interest to be generous since the difference is so little but could be important to the ayi (and in any case a good ayi is worth her weight in gold). This means you could end up paying as little as RMB100-200 a week for short visits, or RMB1,000-2,000 for a fulltime ayi, and more for a live-in. If she’s going to be fulltime, establish her days off. Discuss what sort of cooking she should do, how often you need the bedding changed, everything that comes up. You may even want to be home the first couple of times to make sure there aren’t any problems.
Make sure there’s a sheet of paper with key phone numbers and instructions in Chinese in case of any trouble; for example, your office number and the name of your assistant if appropriate. Insurance companies offer ayi insurance to cover her if she has an accident while working at your home, which is a good idea.
Remember that if you need her for special events outside normal working hours or days, you should politely ask for help, and show your appreciation both verbally and financially. Ayis usually take off about two weeks a year for public holidays, including Spring Festival (some time between mid-January and mid-February), the October National Day Holiday (held around October 1), Qingming in early April, May 1 and Mid-Autumn Festival (September). Spring Festival is the most important, and be aware that you’ll be expected to give her a hongbao (red envelope) with maybe a month’s pay as a gift. Most ayis come from other provinces and may only go home once a year, so give her extra days if you can; if you need to ask her to work during another of the national holidays, make it clear that she can refuse with no hard feelings and that you will pay her a better hourly rate for her time.
Most people don’t use contracts for their ayi, and in general any serious problems are dealt with by simply letting the ayi go. The advantage of a contract, however, is it can make clear in writing that certain behaviours are not acceptable – such as having friends over to your home or disclosing personal information to others. We should stress that problems like this are rare, and more often the product of cultural or linguistic misunderstanding than any kind of malice. The rural sense of privacy and the border between public and private can be considerably different to the urban. Clear understanding from the start beats having to replace an ayi whom you otherwise have a good working relationship with. As with anything else, clarity and frank discussion in the early stages will head off many problems down the way.
Beijing Ayi Housekeeping Service
Room 220, Sanxiazhaoshang Building, 11A Jiuxianqiaolu, Chaoyang
Beijing EX-PATS Service
Rm 6003, Ambassador Mansion, B21 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang
Beijing Huijia Ayi Housekeeping Service Company
16 Qianquhe, Gaoliying Zhen, Shunyi
11-1808 Zhichun Lu, Haidian