Zhang Guilin’s second job was with a “Beifang ren” — or a northerner — a North Indian diplomat who tossed a friendly challenge her way to make round chapatis. Months after trying, he told her, “Ni de chapati jinbu le (Your chapatis have improved),” she recollects, laughing. To which, she replied in jest: “Woshuo ni de xuexi ye jinbu le (I told him his Chinese had also improved!)” Zhang, 51, works the Indian diplomat circuit at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, cooking and cleaning for young diplomats, who immerse themselves in Chinese language studies for 18 months. On a cold December morning, 20 years after she first came out to China’s capital city from Hefei in Anhui province to find work, she was effortlessly flipping aloo paranthas for Saturday brunch.
Zhang is a part of a network of 10-12 Chinese ayis (aunts) who work for Indian diplomats. At first, learning to cook Indian food was like being back in school. “When I first started working, I used to learn from a diplomat’s wife and I would write everything down in a notebook,” she says. The note-taking was meticulous: what are the ingredients, what size to cut the vegetables, what colour should they turn into, how long should it take, and rigorous notes on the intensity of the flame. “Every evening I would revise my notes,” she says.
Now, Zhang infuses Indian recipes into her Chinese cooking, making paranthas but with Chinese dough for her family and friends. But in those early years, Zhang felt anxious about getting things wrong, often calling other ayis who had started work a few years ahead of her, to seek advice.
When in doubt, a phone call would often go out to Long Taimei, 50, who started working for Indian diplomats in 2004, two years before Zhang. Long initially found Indian masalas tickled her throat and made her cough, but she persisted, using translation apps on her mobile phone to understand what was required of her. Her thought process was simple: Do it well, it should be tasty, and people should finish the food. “Most ayis feels bad when the food is not finished,” she says. “South Indians seem to like spicier food, so I just have to take care of the flavours.”
Long says there are many things that are different about Indians and Chinese, but after 15 years of interacting with Indians, she sums it up: “Indians pray a lot, listen to a lot of Indian music, and talk a lot,”she says. But she is cautious about generalising. “I have worked only with Indian diplomats, so I do not know about a common man’s perception.” Personally, her daily diet now includes Indian movies – “huge fan of Baahubali” – Indian news and recipes on the Chinese platform Toutiao.
Over the years, the network of ayis have had to learn, and sometimes unlearn, ways in which they traditionally cook. In a 2013 China Daily article, Xue Qianchun, also from Anhui, who worked for Indian expats in Shanghai was quoted saying: “Indian cuisine places great emphasis on the use of a lot of seasoning. For example, I used lemon juice instead of vinegar to impart a sour taste to cooked rice.”
The job description for ayis who work in expat houses across China includes more than just cooking: sweeping floors, cleaning the bathroom, doing the laundry, ironing clothes and taking care of the children. Ruan Yujin, 48, feels genuine affection for the children she has looked after. “I have worked as a babysitter for many diplomats but when the time comes for the kids to leave, I feel very sad,” she says.
Ruan was amongst the first to come out from Hefei city, the largest city in Anhui, to Beijing and to take up work in an Indian diplomat’s house. It was 1993. Does that make her the “boss ayi” then? “Bu shi (I am not),” she says with a laugh, clarifying that she has never organised labour to come over from her home province. “Indian officials trust the network of ayis who currently work for them and ask for recommendations. It is all done through word-of-mouth and all I do is help the new ayis to settle in, be responsible and trustworthy,” she says. “It is important since they trust us and even leave their house keys with us when they are away on annual leave in India,” she says.
Ruan’s instructions to newcomers is about three things: learning to cook the food, Indian hospitality since diplomats “invite people a lot to come over to eat” and Indian festivals. The first things she learnt to make were samosas, poori and rajma. Now she can also make tasty “dali” she says, referring to Indian dal. “I love cooking Indian food. All it takes is a lot of spices, a soft low flame and patience.”
For several ayis, working with expats provides a stable income, and they often remain with the same employer for years at a time until they leave China. When Ruan first started work in the early 1990s, she earned 10 yuan (Rs 100) per hour, now the rate is 35 yuan (Rs 350) per hour which is standard in embassy circles. “I only received two years of education. When my brother was born, I was pulled out of school and made to look after him,” she says. “I have since always been envious of people who are well-educated and feel embarrassed when Indian officials type on their mobile to explain something to me and I cannot read it.” That explains her WeChat ID, she says: “Yihan” or regret.