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February 23, 2016

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New parents learn valuable lesson after inviting superstar yue sao into their lives

LIKE many new parents in China, my wife and I decided to hire an ayi to look after our infant son.

It wasn’t an easy choice.

In the beginning there was some hesitation as to whether it was wise to share the parenting burden with a stranger, and as a result potentially be deprived of the fun thereof. But our lack of experience eventually convinced us to seek outside help.

So here she came, our ayi, surnamed Yu, 45, a native of Yancheng in east China’s Jiangsu Province. She settled down in Shanghai decades ago and married a Shanghainese man. Her 10 years’ experience has earned her a reputation as a “star yue sao.”

Yue sao are live-in domestic helpers who care for new mothers and their children for one month after they give birth. According to traditional Chinese medical theories, women had better be confined to home, and preferably to bed, to ensure a sound recovery in that particular month, known as yue zi in Chinese. Ailments contracted in the yue zi period will haunt the patient for the rest of her life, it is believed.

Ayi Yu is of medium stature and likes to wear her long hair in a braid that dangles over her work outfit. Her daily routine involves not only taking care of my wife and son, but also dispensing dieting advice.

Usually ayi is soft-spoken, but she becomes adamant when her expertise is challenged. Folk wisdom has it that pigeon soup can heal wounds suffered by new moms (my wife had a Caesarean section.) But our proposal was met with a firm “no” from ayi, who insisted that pigeon soup is not good for breastfeeding women.

We didn’t persist, but remain skeptical. Is her “scientific” eating regimen more effective than time-honored wisdom? And as employers, don’t we have at least a little freedom to not obey her every command? As the one who cooks for the whole family, my mom will sometimes mumble something of a complaint, but she too, is too polite to protest.

Our doubts, however, were put to rest after we witnessed how Yu devotes herself to her job. My son wakes up twice every night, whereupon ayi will change his diapers and feed him. More work comes during the day, including giving him a bath and washing his underwear. During the Spring Festival, I gave ayi three days off so she could see her family. Her absence accentuated her importance. The last night she was away, my son cried horrendously. Every method we used to calm him failed. His wails would subside only after he exhausted himself.

The next morning, ayi came to our rescue. In her soothing arms, our son immediately ceased to cry at night. It does take a professional to calm a baby, I thought as I looked on approvingly.

Over time, my wife and I got to know ayi better and friendship steadily grew between us. I learned that ayi is herself a mother of two twin boys aged 15, both of whom are now studying in Shixi High School, a prestigious institution in Jing’an District. She shares an apartment of about 60 square meters with her husband and two sons in Putuo District. With several mouths to feed, the financial burden on her family is enormous.

Surging demand

Ayi Yu is one among a growing army of domestic helpers providing yue zi services to Shanghai households. In recent years, their services have become increasingly sought-after as old parenting ideals give way to new child-rearing practices and philosophies.

The surging demand for yue sao has pushed their salaries to as much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,533) a month — good money by local standards. There are even reports that fresh college graduates aspire to become yue sao.

After nearly a month’s observation, I can tell that being a yue sao is no easy job. The pay is highly dependent on experience and years of service. And a wailing baby and frequent visits by relatives means ayi often manages only a few hours of fitful sleep each day. Despite what she says is fine pay, she works a maximum of nine months a year for health reasons. By the way, her work schedule is already booked till August.

During the Spring Festival holiday, we invited ayi to join us in celebrating my wife’s birthday. Perhaps our invitation so moved her that her eyes went moist. In an apparent emotional gesture, she asked us to take pictures of her carrying my son, and share them as a reminder of her stay with us.

If there is any lesson I can learn from our time spent together, it is that respect begets respect. Respect isn’t always there. Some are notoriously reluctant to show respect to people whom they believe are below them and there even are reported cases of home-helpers like Yu being driven away in the middle of the night following disputes with host families.

In about a week ayi will be moving on to her next job. We are already starting to worry how we will manage without her. Luckily, she has imparted much of her child-rearing wisdom to us.

What’s more, she says we can always consult her through Wechat.


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