Everything is Dangerous

Taking care of children in China.

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the January 2012 issue of NewsChina.

It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room— all scenarios require elders to enforce China’s unwritten safety regulations, whether for the child in their own care, or a classmate in the care of another, less attentive ayi. Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayi hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or with simply appearing concerned?

Four days a week I had a front row seat at the kindergarten where I would attend classes with my employer’s daughter. The ayi crowd always put on a show for each other, engaging in an unspoken contest of who was most attentive to the needs of their employer’s child. Amateurs simply forced their child to sit in their lap during class. More seasoned caretakers went to much greater lengths to prove their worth. The children under the watch of these women may as well have stayed home, as they weren’t going to have any sort of independent learning experience on their own. When it’s time to clap, the ayi grabs her charge’s hands and claps for them. When it’s time to eat, the ayi places the child in his chair, pushes him up to the table, and all but chews their food for them (while incessantly wiping their chin and reminding them to eat slowly and drink carefully).

Any journey up or downstairs invites a whirlwind of comments on the proper way to use a staircase. Daredevil foreign kids who hop down the stairs will quickly be intercepted by an ayi (not necessarily their own) who points out that by behaving so recklessly, they are endangering not only their own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of everyone around them.

There is also a wrong way to wash your hands. Most children stand in a trance as their ayi does the washing for them: turning on the tap, squirting the soap, rubbing their hands together. This is the correct way. The wrong way goes something like this: a two-year-old attempts to go through these steps on her own, and gets water on her sleeves. This results in a gaggle of concerned ayi flocking to the poor, damp child and shoving paper towels up her sleeves to keep her arms dry. There is, of course, also a lecture in store for the neglectful mother who has failed to appropriately educate her daughter.

The charges of the most attentive ayi have become so crippled in their ability to do anything that they fear even traveling across the classroom without an ayi’s hand to clutch.  The most traumatic event for one of these children is when the ayi excuses herself to run to the bathroom while the child is seemingly distracted by some activity. The screaming and crying that erupts when the child notices the ayi’s absence usually only lasts a few seconds before the frantic woman scurries back in.

Foreign mothers and ayis generally make no attempt to talk to one another. During the slightly calmer snack break, ayis congregate around the table of children eating to keep a constant vigil as the mothers retreat to the back walls for a hard-earned chat with their girlfriends. The resentment is clear from both the ayi and the Chinese teachers, who delight in any chance to scoop up the plate of a fumbling child or help push in a chair, all the while staring daggers at the negligent chatting mothers. It was abundantly clear what was on their mind: they were doing it right, and we Westerners had a lot to learn. And maybe, in a way, they were right.

In a crowded, competitive society in which children are taught from kindergarten to study hard for one big test at the end of high school which profoundly influences their higher education and career, perhaps the children left alone to learn from their own mistakes are precisely the ones left behind. But what does this mean for foreign children in the care of an ayi, the children who will go on to international schools and never be placed in the Chinese education system? I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to myself as a kindergartner—scraped knees, my self-styled hair in some bizarre up-do, making messy art projects that I no doubt thought exquisite at the time—and feel that these children were somehow missing out.