Left Alone in Shanghai

Left Alone in Shanghai

After an amazing summer spent in Bali and Southern China we were back to work in late August. A week of inservice in the late summer heat of Shanghai.  The kids were home with Ayi during the week, while Aaron and I went to work.

Our Ayi’s name was Shuang Li. Was being the key term here. She worked for us 6 hours a day, Monday through Friday. She cleaned, did laundry, and made dinner for us a couple nights a week.  The most important aspect of her job was watching the kids, and during the school year, picking them up from the bus stop and taking care of them until we arrived home.  Shuang Li had moved into Shanghai to get work doing exactly this, her family (husband and son) lived about 2 hours west of Shanghai and she saw them only on holidays.

This is not uncommon. China has a huge population of migrant workers, who have left their rural towns to move into the larger cities for work.  And I do mean huge.  This massive migration of rural Chinese moving to urban centers is seen as one of the largest human mass migrations in world history. The most recent number I could find came from the China Labour Bulletin 2017 which estimated that 287 million rural migrant workers had moved into cities around China, making up one third of the labour force of China.

Ayi is the word in Chinese for Auntie, and these women take a wide range of jobs in the cities. Their work ranges from school helpers, to custodial staff, to in-home help and they earn about 35 RMB (5 USD) per hour. More work is better, it is the only reason they have moved away from their families in their rural communities–to work–so work they do.

Our Ayi was working 6 hours in the afternoon and was looking for morning work.  I had written her a letter of recommendation and put her name out to different WeChat groups in the hopes of helping her find more work.  She wasn’t the greatest cleaner, but the kids liked her and she was dependable. She was taking English classes for hours of her Saturdays and she was eager for extra work from us, which gave Aaron and I flexibility on the weekends.

It was Tuesday of inservice week.  I was in the auditorium listening to our head of school explain the new and complicated after school bus procedures. As a secondary teacher, our students make their own way to the buses so I was scrolling through my WeChat feed (teachers are the worst students). I opened up the Huacao Community group. Huacao is the area within our district, kind of like our neighborhood. I had missed 23 messages so I tapped the button to take me to the top, just out of curiosity. The majority of the Huacao Community thread is about recommendations for restaurants, contacts to different services, questions about general community information, and the like. It has been helpful in many cases, but sometimes it can be people with too much time on their hands going back and forth over minutiae.

At the top of the feed a woman had posted something along the lines of, ” I have found two children crying along Baole Lu near Cafe du Village, they say their parents teach at Shanghai American School (SAS) and that their Ayi is not at home. ”

I continued to scroll a bit, reading the back and forth of concerned women, and thought it sad, but not my concern.

Until about 2 minutes later when I received a text from Ayi.

“I have made a mistake.  I had a job interview this morning and asked the children to go but they didn’t want to and since it is so hot I left them. They were waiting for me outside the apartment when I got home. They cried but they are ok. I was gone for 20 minutes, but I will never leave them alone again.”

After thinking for a moment I replied, “I am glad the children are safe. I am upset that this happened. We will talk when I get home.”

My heart sank.  I got a bit sweaty. I clicked back over to the community thread and frantically started re-reading the messages.  Those were my kids! But it said SAS? I teach at SSIS!

I found the top of the thread of messages and immediately friend requested the woman who had found the children, my children.  It was now 11:45, the first message had been posted at 11:00.

The all-staff assembly ended and I met with Aaron to grab some lunch. I was still shaky. When I told him what had happened, he was so angry. And as I explained to him what I knew so far, the woman who had found the kids messaged me.

She and I spoke on the phone.  This amazing, wonderful, expat told me she had found the kids on Baole Lu (approximately 1 km from our apartment), she had tried to calm them down a bit as they were both crying. She walked them back to the compound, to our building, and they waited together until someone opened the main door to our building. She sent the kids up to see if the Ayi was in the apartment. The kids came back down, no one was there and it was locked.

So they waited.

The woman said that about 10 minutes later Ayi showed up. The woman apologized to me for yelling at Ayi. Ayi took the kids up to the apartment. She said she was with my kids for approximately 20 minutes.

The wonderful woman said she then went back to the apartment, about an hour later to check on them again. She found that the kids were playing and the Ayi was there.  All seemed to be OK.

I did not ask to meet her, I did not even know what she looked like, I just thanked her profusely for watching out for my kids and dropping everything to insure they were safe.

Ayi sent me pictures of the kids playing through out the remainder of the day. I could tell she was trying to reassure me they were safe.

When Aaron and I arrived home we pulled the kids into their bedroom to check in on them.

My heart broke when Nora said, “Mom, I’m so sorry. I am so sorry.”

Magnus chimed in, “I didn’t want to leave, mom, I told Nora we couldn’t leave!”

“Good boy, Magnus. And Nora, this is by no means your fault. You have nothing to feel sorry about. Tell me what happened.”

Nora dove right in. She talked about not wanting to go anywhere.  It was so hot, they would stay home. But once Shuang Li left she started feeling scared and to make matters worse, they couldn’t remember where Shuang Li had said she was going or how long she said she’d be gone. She decided they should go to Emily’s house. Emily is a little girl Nora’s age that lives in the same compound, but in a different building. We work with her dad at SSIS. So, after Magnus lost his battle of staying home, they set out to go to Emily’s. The only problem with that is that every building and every door looks the same. There had once been a lantern out in front of Emily’s building’s door, but the compound had recently been painted and they took the one indicator of Emily’s apartment building down. Nora just couldn’t remember which door was the front of Emily’s building.

They recalculated and decided that perhaps Shuang Li had gone shopping at the local market. To get there they would need to leave the compound out the main gate because the side gates required a key, which they didn’t have. This main gate is on Baole Lu, and would take them straight to the big intersection they would need to cross to get to the market.

And here enters our wonderful, amazing expat…also known as Divine Intervention.

As I pieced the stories from the expat and the kids together I came to the conclusion that Shuang Li had to have been gone for at least 45 minutes. This was not ok. Even if it had only been 20 minutes away from the kids it was still not ok. Aaron was furious.

I am a big sap. Most of you know that already. I cry easily and often. It is just the way I am. I don’t apologize. So, of course, as I am telling Shuang Li she is fired, I start to cry.

I knew this woman was trying her best to support her family. I knew that with out the job with us, she and her family would struggle. I knew that this was cultural. I had heard of one other Ayi leaving a sleeping baby in a crib and running to the store quickly. She and I had never had the conversation. I had never explicitly said, “Do NOT leave my kids home alone.”I didn’t think I needed to. I knew that if I told her, “Never, EVER do that again,” she probably wouldn’t. But this was too much.  Especially for Aaron.  He was done. He explained that to Shuang Li (without crying) and I used my translator app to really make sure she understood.

She said goodbye to the kids.  I cried. She pleaded for her job. Talked about how much she loves our family. She said sorry many times. I cried, but there wasn’t a question that it needed to be done.

We wished her good luck, exchanged a last payment for keys, and said good bye.


Honestly, we played it down with the kids. We talked about what they could do if this ever happened again. Which. It. Would. Not. and we apologized. We kept tabs on them emotionally, trying to navigate the emotions of their scary experience.

They came to school with us for the rest of inservice week with bags of games, movies, and other activities and we decided we would go with out an Ayi. See how that went. So the kids were with us every moment they were not in school. Rode the bus to school and back home with us, waited in our classroom/office during after school meetings, every minute with us.

No one was home to do the laundry, or to do even a half-ass job cleaning the bathroom. No one was around to watch the kids on the weekends, and when people offered we noticed the kids were afraid. They didn’t want to be away from us. Or more accurately, they didn’t want us to be away from them. For months we took occasional turns going out, managed work and home, and had no issues.

But, Aaron and I were tired. We were worried that being at work, working with other people’s children every minute, then coming home and being with our ownchildren every minute was not good for our health, especially as a couple.

So we started interviewing Ayis. I let Nora sit in on all the interviews. She is a good judge of a warm heart, and the first couple ladies we interviewed she said, “Nope, No way.” The minute they walked out the door.

I was a bit worried she would say that to everyone who walked in the door. But one afternoon a woman came in and went straight to Nora, picked her up and squeezed her tightly…and didn’t want to let her go. She moved slower with Magnus, he isn’t as open to that sort of attention as Nora is. She hugged me. She didn’t speak a bit of English, but moved around the apartment like she knew what she was doing and LOVED the kids. She stayed for a long time that evening, and with the translator app we went back and forth about the kids, their experience with the last Ayi, and what we needed around the house.

When she finally left Nora said, “Whoa, she likes kids!”

And so, she is AMAZING. She loves “the babies” as she calls them, she cleans much better than our last Ayi (more fuel for Aaron’s fire regarding Shuang Li) and most importantly, she gives Aaron and me a break. In more ways than one.

The kids still have a bit of separation anxiety if Aaron and I are going out in the evening without them. But Ayi does a good job of distracting them (mostly with hugs and tickle wars).

All is well. Mostly thanks to a complete stranger who took it upon herself to be a temporary guardian of my two, wandering “babies.”


2 thoughts on “Left Alone in Shanghai

    Thankful the kids were not hurt.
    Thankful for Random acts of Kindness.
    Thankful, Thankful, Thankful.
    Loves and Hugs❤

  2. Wow! What a scary experience! so glad all turned out well. It’s always so heartening to know there are good people in the world. Love to you all

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