On China’s East Coast people are getting rich. The province I currently live in, Jiangsu, has a GDP equivalent to Switzerland (picture the Alps with more than 30 million people, and 100 degree heat). While much of this wealth is concentrated in a few hands, there is a growing middle class in the cities, and they are providing jobs to their lower class neighbors that are better than they sound.
The first job I wanted to discuss was that of the maid, only that isn’t close to being an adequate translation. The Chinese call the maid an “Aiyi” which actually means auntie (in the close family friend sense of the word). In English this job doesn’t offer the opportunities that it does in China, nor is it as common.
At the hospital most of my co-workers have an Aiyi come by their home 5-6x per week for a few hours. They do some cleaning, but their major role is to take care of the shopping and cooking. In exchange they are paid about 2,000rmb/month, which is similar to what a factory worker makes. They also receive generous bonuses on the holidays.
It provides middle-aged women with a job that allows them to work close to home and continue their family duties, which factory work does not. While these salaries aren’t enough to move them from lower class status, it is the kind of foundation that allows their children to move up in society.
The other job that offers more social mobility than you might first expect, is being a driver. In China a driver is not simply a chauffeur, he is more like a personal assistant.
They keep track of meetings, and are responsible for most travel arrangements, they even hold their bosses wallet so that he doesn’t have to deal with cash. Their schedules include long weekend trips, but those are often punctuated with banquets, nice hotels, and plenty of time for napping during the boss’s meetings.
As a driver though, a person can gain incredible access to guanxi. These guanxi relationships build the connects that allow the drivers children to aim for a brighter future than their parents could achieve.
It is also considered a fairly respectable position, since a driver is often one of the most trusted people in a company. At one of my former schools the drivers had computers before the teachers, since they were essential in planning the president’s travel.
I have a question, aren’t the Aiyis of wealthy families usually immigrants? I thought I heard so…
In Hong Kong most of the Aiyi’s are Filipino (which has spurred such classic books as “Teach Your Filipino Maid to Cook Chinese Food”). On the mainland it seems like it is mostly local women who take these jobs, and not migrant workers.
Maybe in Hong Kong or if it’s a live-in Aiyi but it’s pretty common to have a Chinese woman. Usually someone who has come from the countryside to try to move up in the world.
The thing that has always surprised me about the wages the nannies command is that they are on a par with many highly educated professionals, at least here in Shenyang. The best example is that our live-in nanny charges only fractional less than my wife earns in a month as a Dr of TCM.
I thought a lot about the role of ayis during my years in China. Because of historical precedents and an endless supply of labor, hiring an ayi is extremely commonplace, even for those who aren’t making a lot of money. Several of my co-workers were shocked to hear that my girlfriend and I actually cleaned the apartment for ourselves!
It’s these kinds of jobs that in some ways seem to lead to a state of arrested development in many adults. You grow up with your parents and two sets of grandparents waiting on you hand and foot until you’re 18. Then, you go to college where you live with 6-12 other people in a dorm supervised by aunties and during the day when you’re in class, you’re told what to do by teachers, and administrators. Once you graduate, provided you’ve found a decent job, your parents may make a hefty down payment on an apartment for you and, after settling down and getting married, your parents move in to take care of you and your future offspring. To provide for your parents and to allow them to live a life of leisure in their new home, you hire an ayi (or a distant relative from the countryside) to cook, clean, and care for your child when it proves too strenuous for you and your parents. At every point in your life, you’re constantly cared for and prevented from doing even simple things on your own, even upon reaching adulthood. Naturally, this applies primarily to the urbanized middle-classes in the bigger cities who have the money and the means to do such things.
For me, this kind of provided the context necessary to understand the things I saw and experienced on a daily basis. Why did that group of teenagers throw their empty soda bottles on the ground instead of depositing them in trash can right beside them? Because they knew that a street cleaner or a recycling collector will pick it up eventually. Why did some of the married couples I knew act like children when they go out on weekends? Because their parents and their ayi will take care of the child regardless of what state of inebriation their adult children happen to find themselves in when they come home. Why did that young woman lose her shit at the subway station and proceed to yell at the bored teenager at the security checkpoint about why she doesn’t have to run her purse through the scanner? Because she’d grown accustomed to getting whatever she wanted from her parents, her two sets of grandparents, and her ayi OR she’d had a really, really shitty day OR both.
Contrast this with many Western countries in which most children are taught from an early age how to wash their clothes, clean the dishes, help prepare dinner, mow the lawn, along with scores of other life-skills necessary for the inevitable transition to independent living that takes place after high school graduation. In this case, the prevailing attitude of parents towards their children is, “I love you, but SRSLY GTFO.”
The irony (for me anyway) is that my immigrant parents (who left in the 70’s) express the same sentiments about my American born generation that you are saying about the urbanized middle classes.