Ah Yi is Maid

Many households in Singapore rely on the services of domestic helpers for their daily activities, especially in families with the very young or aged. Many domestic helpters are the main caregivers who send and pick up their charges at the kids’ school.

As I usually see a good mix of parents, grandparents and domestic helpers sending and picking up the kids to and fro school, I didn’t know the influence of the number of domestic helpers would be greater than I could see.

It happened during dinner at my parents’ place one evening. I was using the opportunity to re-emphasise to Megan, the relationship of my mum and my younger sister to me – PoPo (maternal grandmother), Ah Yi (auntie, the younger sister of the mother). Megan answered perfectly of course, not that I expected any less from her.

Matthew was smirking at one end of the table as he didn’t fight to answer for once. Little did we know he was waiting to deliver the punchline, literally. To my sister, at least.

Matthew turned to my sister, his Ah Yi, and declared “Ah Yi is maid.”

Incredulous, my sister and I gave him identical shocked looks on our faces and demanded he explained.

“Ah Yi is auntie. Maid is also auntie. So Ah Yi is maid.” Matthew explained matter-of-factly, with a cheeky smile.

I burst out laughing; I couldn’t help myself. That was really funny, but it also showed the close relationships the domestic helpers must have with Matthew’s friends in school. My sister was angry, but resigned. That was how it was in English. There was no distinction among the relatives, unlike in the Chinese culture. It gets mind-bogglingly crazy if we really follow the rules. Don’t believe me? Check out this fantastic video by Off the Great Wall on You Tube. Of course, in Singapore, the younger generations of Chinese have generally lost the ability to call our relatives by their proper titles.

Luckily for me, though, now that I have a niece. According to Chinese culture, I am Yi Ma (Auntie, elder sister of the mother) to Natalie, my sister’s baby girl. And because I am the eldest, technically that makes me Da Yi Ma (Eldest Auntie). Which also means menses, or period, in popular Chinese slang. If Natelie calls me Da Yi Ma instead of Auntie, it would sound like this: Da Yi Ma Lai Le! (Menses is here! Menses is here!) Thank you very much. Call me Auntie, anytime. Better domestic helper than menses, sis. Count yourself lucky…

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