We are so very lucky to have a wonderful ayi (auntie) who helps keep some daily sanity in our house. She appeared one day not long after we arrived in Shanghai, arranged by our Chinese friends, who insisted that a household with twice as many children as the average Chinese family would definitely need the help of an ayi to prevent the descent into certain anarchy. The fact that we had survived without an ayi for the previous ten years didn’t figure for them – we should have an ayi, they had already arranged an ayi, and she was starting tomorrow. That was that. For many families, Chinese and foreign, their ayi cooks, cleans, pays bills, goes to the market and looks after the children, an incredible luxury. We felt a bit overwhelmed and ridiculously guilty at that thought, and so we opted for just a few hours cleaning a week.
So Xiao Xu (Little Xu) began to come four mornings a week to clean the office downstairs, and afterwards, would come upstairs and help us for an hour or two. At first, we would race around the house after breakfast, washing dishes and tidying up, before she could see what a mess we lived in. It took a long time to lose that strange combination of guilt and gratefulness that you feel when someone is doing your housework for you, and for us to learn enough Chinese to learn about her life, her husband who works on a Shanghai construction site, and her ten year-old son who lives with his grandparents back in Anhui province. She sees them twice a year, at Spring Festival, and during the October National holiday. Xiao Xu does all our washing ironing, and despite us telling her its not necessary she still does wonderful things like ironing our pyjamas. We love her.
For Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) she returned to her home in Anhui province for three weeks, to visit her parents’ farm, see her son and husband, and have a holiday. It’s never quite clear when she’ll return, because train and bus tickets are just as difficult to get at the end of Chinese New Year as they are at the beginning, and we tell her to take as long a holiday as she wants to spend time with her son.
So I was surprised to see Xiao Xu on Friday – she came in and wished me a happy new year, then handed me a plastic bag dripping with blood. ‘From my farm!’ she said. Inside the bag, you can see, was a freshly dead chicken and eighteen small eggs, still covered with feathers and chicken manure. Luckily she didn’t have to travel with a dead chook and a plastic bag full of eggs for more than a few hours, because that could have been one helluva smelly mess after a long bumpy train ride.
What a great gift! Xiao Xu knows I love to cook, and would be excited by farm-fresh food. By tradition, families who employ an ayi will give a hong bao at Chinese New Year, a red envelope with one to two months wages inside, and we had done the same. It was lovely to receive a gift in return.
So now what to do with this great chicken? And all those eggs? I have two great ideas, with recipes tomorrow. I have always wanted to learn how to make Chinese tea-cooked eggs, those dark brown, fragrant, mysteriously marbled eggs, and these little ones will be perfect for that, all I need is a good recipe. And as for the chicken – the best Chinese chicken recipe I have learned is called White Poached Chicken, which gives little clue to what must be one of the most delicious ways to eat chicken in the whole universe. Recipes tomorrow!