As I stood on the side of the road trying to hail a taxi I was wracked with fury. I am an editor for a magazine that helps people learn English, a writer for a local news magazine, narrate for the English news program at the TV station, teach and recently began exporting goods. I hardly have time to breathe. I only eat because I usually have to review the place or have a business dinner. I’d spent all week looking for the perfect pair of shoes to match my outfit for the engagement party at my house for friends the next day. In my frustration I began to question everything; how is it that everything in the world is “made in china” and you can’t find any of it in China? I am in the export city a short distance from hundreds of factories and none of them make brown high-heeled sandals? Why am I here again? Am I crazy? Why is life so unfair?
I went home and realized that I still had a lot to do for the party and the place hadn’t been cleaned yet. I’d left a note on the water cooler by the phone “remember to call the ayi”. An ayi (pronounced I-E) is a housekeeper. If you are a foreigner living in China you can more than afford one. We make 10 times what locals make and because things are so cheap here every foreigner has one. I met my ayi through a friend. The first time I lived here she would come and clean for me on Thursdays. She was a minority from another province who had come to work in the big city because her husband died and she had no way to take care of her son. Most poor people here would have sold or abandon the kids. My friend met her cleaning toilets in one of the big hotels she’d worked for him for 5 years. She charged a flat rate of 50 Yuan, which is about 6 American dollars (an expensive ayi). That included everything. It was difficult at first for us because she only spoke a little mandarin and so did I, but in time we were fine. She used to come in the evening so I would order dinner for her and myself, and she should talk to me (or try to). The first time I ordered dinner for us she was so happy she cried and kept bowing. I didn’t think I did anything that great I certainly couldn’t sit there eating while she worked. I know Chinese dinnertime is when she would be at my house. I would also pay for her taxi home, because she would leave my house late and I didn’t want anything to happen to her. I arranged with the shop downstairs for them to take dinner to my apartment for her if I happened to not be at home when she was there. Things I think are simple common courtesy not kind. I didn’t do it because I felt sorry for her. I did it because I had the utmost respect for her. I have always respected the people with “low end” jobs because they are willing to do anything to make an honest living. I don’t believe they should be treated any less than a CEO because they earn their money doing the jobs most of us wouldn’t do. Her 12-year-old son was learning English in middle school, she offered to clean for 10 Yuan so that I could tutor him. I told her it wasn’t necessary and I would send him letters through her to practice his English. And he and I became sort of pen pals. He would tell me all the things she said about me and how she never knew that foreigners could be so nice. But she wondered how my mother must feel with me so far away from home and if she knew that I hardly ever ate.
I left China for 4 months and when I returned was teaching at a private school that provided an apartment and an ayi for me. But I did let her know I was back. When I moved out of the school into my own place I asked her to work for me again, but my apartment was in the suburbs. She told me she would come but she didn’t show up. No problem she works for about 11 people and I knew something must have happened. She called and apologized and said she was feeling tired. She never came to my apartment in the suburbs and when I moved down town I called her again. This time she did come and I was really happy to see her. A Chinese friend of mine was there and I finally got to ask her all the questions I couldn’t before. I noticed she looked tired and asked her to take a break. As we talked she told us that now she works 7 days a week because her son has the chance to go to a good school and if he does he can be great and people will treat him with respect. She didn’t want him to be a “farmer’s son”. In my first few months in China I would have thought she was wrong to look down on farmers being that she was married to one. But living here you learn a lot about the culture and mentality. You learn that the worst thing you can do here is be born poor or should I say minority and poor. They are the “disposable people” they are treated like cattle. Only worse, big city people refer to them as vermin. In her hometown her husband made 300 Yuan a month, not even $50 American dollars.
As the months went on she came less and less because she was tired and not feeling well. One of my friends even arranged for her to see a doctor. At the end of January she said she wanted to go home for the Lunar New Year to be with her family. We (all of her clients) put together and gave her a bonus for the New Year and to see a doctor in her home province. She received around 15,000 Yuan from all of us close to $2000 a fortune in the farming communities. My friend put her on the bus and we said goodbye.
She was due back in March and here it was May and still no word. So I called my friend to ask if he’d heard from her. He told me that she’d died. It turns out she had blood cancer and didn’t want to tell us because in China if you have a disease no one will want to hire you. When she went to the doctor in her hometown he probably told her that her chances were slim, not necessarily because they were, but because she is a farmer and should not have that much money on hand. In the end she decided not to get any medical treatment and put it towards her son’s future. She gave her life for her son. The news was like reality kicking me in the head. I thought about her son who was now an orphan in China, he could live with her family but more than likely he will never see that money. I thought about the goals we make in life. I want to be, rich, important, blah blah blah. But how many of us just want to make a difference in someone’s life. I felt sick at the notion she thought I was a “wonderful young lady” for doing things anyone would do. It took me weeks to stop crying because I felt like she died before she got to complete her goal. And then I realized that to say she died for nothing would be the greatest disrespect, because even if she wasn’t able to change her son’s life (I will never know) she certainly changed mine.
I have never had to worry about anyone but myself. No kids, no dog, no cat. Just the way I planned it so that I could continue living a carefree lifestyle. I felt horrible that my biggest concern in life was a pair of shoes. I felt worse that my biggest goal in life was to have money and be happy and payback my parents so than quit talking about how “fortunate” I was. I realized that my life was truly meaning less. I teach 2 free classes a week to underprivileged 8 year olds. Big deal. I’ve volunteered at homeless shelters in the States because I wanted to make a difference but I doubt I ever did. I thought about all the times my parents told me how “tings did hawd” when they were young and wanted a better life for my sister and me. And I thought about how I would blissfully tune out until they quit talking about it. I thought about how unfair life was and how shallow I was. I felt guilty for writing off my parents’ worrying about me, as “bodarayshunm” I am told that I am spoiled and I never really believed it until now. I feel horrible that it took my ayi dying to really appreciate that parenting is a big deal. The only thing I can say I am proud of is that I learned such valuable lesson.
“Only those who risk going too far will ever know what they are capable of “