Thursday, July 7, 2011

"I Can Cook, Too!"

You've heard the stories, you know the rumors. If one lives in a country outside of the good old USA the domestic Help is often inexpensive enough to make it "necessary." 

Here's my tale ~

Our home came with a built-in  "Ayi". That's a term of fondness and respect, literally meaning "Auntie," and refers to hire able female domestic Help who will watch your children, clean your house, wash and iron your clothes, cook, walk your pet, & basically do whatever domestic chore you can come up with that isn't against the law.  Gardening and house repair is usually left to a male hired hand.  This is the first time this house has been rented to anyone, as our landlord and family lived here for about ten years. Some of their belongings remain in the garage, an upper loft and a staircase storage closet. The house is fully furnished, in an opulent Asian decor. Framed artwork, antiques from the Ming Dynasty, really god-awful regal dining room chairs, beds/desks/dressers, a never used built-in dishwasher, custom draperies and so forth made it instantly a home, not a blank canvas. So, although not my taste the style befits the region and quickly fit us like a comfortable slipper. We shuffled things about to our liking and brought our own bed from Michigan since sleeping on a mattress the comfort level of the dining table would not suit our aging spines.

Every floor in this villa (condominium) has rich dark-stained wood of one meter boards; finished and gorgeous. The steps to all the levels ( there are five) are dark wood.  Nanjing, being a growing city, has construction on every corner.  Hearing jack-hammers, diesel trucks and seeing cranes and scaffolding everywhere is truly, the norm. They build roads around the clock. With those improvements come what I fondly call, "Nanjing Gold Dust."  Surfaces inside and outside need a daily dousing to keep the dust and sneezing to a minimum.  I justified that all arrows were pointing and flashing toward needing hired Help, the sooner the better.
<and I'm guessing, dear readership, that you whole-heartedly agree...>

Yi Ayi cleaned like a tornado and because she worked for the landlords before us she knew the villa inside and out.  I'm quite sure she informed the landlord if I took down a picture, moved some furniture or left on a light. I was not bothered by her familiarity with our new home because she cleaned it so well. 

At the outset I asked her the following questions:

"Do you iron?  - NO.
 Do you do laundry? - NO.
 Do you cook?  - NO. 
 Will you stay with our dog while we are gone? - NO! NO!"

Okay, so now I knew where I stood.

Yi Ayi cleaned for us during the month of April, for 3 half-days least five neighboring ex-pats informed me that I was paying way too much for what she was and was NOT doing.  Who knew?  So I let her go - (try doing THAT in a language not your own!)

For the month of May and a portion of June we tip-toed through the Nanjing Gold Dust and tried to keep up with all of it.  I know I sound really privileged to most of you at this point, but as I've said before, "Everything is harder in China!" For example our  washing machine holds a maximum of two bath towels, OR 3 men's dress shirts, and line drying in 98% humidity require clothes to be hanging in the dusty breeze way longer than they were ever on our bodies! 

Before arriving in Nanjing I thought that I might appreciate some Help a day or two a week. Then there was the cooking debacle.  I reasoned that watching hired Help shop in a local grocery store and cooking in my kitchen would be beneficial.  I could learn so much from how she selected groceries and how she prepared a meal without an oven. I'd come home in December, season a 'proper' wok from IKEA and "Bam!" wow the family with who knows what kind of delicacies!

Like magic, new Help graced my doorstep. -  Pei Ayi.  She is NOT afraid of dogs and is willing to take care of our pup while we are gone.  She irons!  She launders!  She cleans! She can cook, too!  She is patient with the language barrier. (Although she often enunciates and raises her voice so I might understand her native Mandarin more "C L E A R -LY" - why do we ALL do that?)  Pei Ayi putters about the five levels wet-mopping surfaces, cleaning 4 bathrooms, launders and irons. The place *=*sparkles*=*.  She's an ironing wizard, ironing white t-shirts, towels and what we used to call "unmentionables." Raise your hand if you remember that term....

Pei Ayi cooks two meals a week for us. It's been so helpful on the evenings we have Mandarin lessons here at our dining room table to pop up and heat up the 3 dishes she prepared earlier.
What a great benefit!  Last week I accompanied her on a shopping trip where she pushed the cart and picked out vegetables and meat for that evenings meal.  When she stopped at the chicken neck pile and tripe bins I gave the appropriate response, "Bu hao!," meaning "Not good!" complete with appropriate hand gesture, I might add. Walking down the kitchen utensil aisle I charaded the universal "whatever you want" gesture and she picked out a cleaver, dumpling ladle and a wok paddle. Any cook worth their rice will tell you that having the right kitchen tools will make a difference in the outcome.   "Stand back because this woman is a professional," I thought to myself. She was timid about the expenditure, but being the Fat Cat that I am, I'd part with $5/USD for all that! She skipped away happy and I was happy to provide her with what was going to benefit our loins. 

I carefully watch Pei Ayi's cooking techniques.  She prepares 3 dishes each afternoon, dicing the ingredients and placing them in a red hot, well-oiled wok. She flops that food throughout the wok over and over with her new magic paddle.  I sit on the counter like a kid watching my Mom frost a birthday cake.  
My well-seasoned Wok with Edamame

She uses about half of the meat and three times the oil I would, so that is eye-opening.

She cooks with lots of garlic,ginger root,chicken broth powder and I'm guessing MSG-monosodium glutamate.  Every grocery store I have been in has an entire aisle of different soy sauces, oils and vinegars. My pantry is beginning to blossom with a variety of each. Pei Ayi cooks the hour before she leaves.  I set the table with chopsticks and deep bowls before our lessons.  As our Mandarin lesson winds down I excuse myself, click the button on our 220 volt rice cooker and it's all Pei Ayi magic after that! 

It's a lovely life, isn't it? 

On Wednesday she took me over to the calendar and indicated that she couldn't come on Thursday but would be here on Friday.  Okay! This was truly a proud moment because I know the days of the week in Mandarin - (do I hear a "Wah-hoo!"?)
She had an appointment on Thursday that she couldn't miss and she indicated that she would be back on Friday. Returning on Friday she busily buzzed about, up the stairs and down.  When I walked in with my sweet Mandarin-speaking friend, Pei Ayi asked if she would interpret for her.  So the three of us "circled-up" and she spoke swiftly and sincerely.  I could tell that I was about to hear some god-awful news.

The interpretation went something like this:

"This is my last day here. 
They treat me really nice.
My grandmother is sick and dying and there is no one to take care of her.
It is up to me to care for my dying grandmother.
My mother has a bad knee and is very ill, she can't get around very well.
My grandmother is sick and dying and there is no one to take care of her.
They treat me really nice.
I like them.
This is my last day here."

I felt like I was punched in the stomach. This had come out of nowhere. There had been a rhythm to our weeks together. She was getting a fair wage that I had increased just days before. I bought her custom kitchen tools.  Hungry to know more about Chinese cuisine I was transfixed by her cooking prowess. Add to that the benefit of practicing my Mandarin and she her English and, well...

 I liked her, for Confucius sake!

Apparently, in the land of hired Help that simply is not enough. And just as she magically popped into our lives, Pei Ayi poofed into the air and pooped out. She will not benefit from our generous nature nor will we benefit from her HELP.

Pei Ayi Prepping to Cook

I think her dog ate her cookbook, too...

Thanks for Reading,


Have you read?~
Set in Mississippi in 1962 during the civil rights movement, the story chronicles the lives of three women, one white and two black, and how they came together to write a book about how "the help" coexisted with their well-to-do white employers.


China Diva said...

I feel so guilty... and more than a bit confused... that Wei Ayi is not showing any remorse for her ailing grandmother and mother!

And, the Help is the best book I've read in a long time!!! Excellent find!

Glee said...

Any chance of finding another through magic???? Here's hoping...

Buff said...

Love the Blog, not happy with Ayi!

ellen said...

Loved the book too. Any chance of seeing some "home decor" photos on your blog soon?

Julia X said...

Quite a twist--I enjoined reading the story.

mahesh said...

I love reading through your post, I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wishing you the best of luck for all your blogging efforts.

Kitchen Equipment

Lois said...

Our youngest daughter went to The Help she married a North Caroliner and enjoyed it . Loved the good day stories about Ayi,trips to the market.