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  • Will Vagari

Ayi Editorial – The multifaceted auntie

If you are familiar with Mandarin, chances are you are no stranger to the term 阿姨 ayi i.e., auntie, or more precisely, sister of one’s mother. Why then make such a simple concept as ayi November’s topic of the month?

Apart from their primary usage, it is common in China to use kinship terms (uncle, elder sister, elder brother, younger brother, younger sister, among others) to address people, even if you are not related to them and, sometimes, even if they are complete strangers. Using them aims at establishing a proximity similar to family solidarity and acknowledging the generational hierarchy between the speakers.

Ayi might be the most common of these “extension of kinship” terms, and its usage is unsurprisingly determined by the generation the addressed woman belongs to. If you are eager to seek the help of a 40-year-old-looking woman in the street for instance, you would address her as ayi, especially since such kinship terms are often used when asking for a service.

More specifically, ayi can be used to address:

  1. Your mother’s sister

  2. A woman of your mother’s generation i.e., a middle age woman

  3. Your housekeeper

  4. Young women, usually in their 20s (in this case, more commonly used by little kids)

Behind these four categories, the term ayi used as an extension of kinship refers to generational groups as well as socio-economic realities that make up what China is today. They participate in the country’s economy, culture, and overall zeitgeist in various and rich ways that are worth our attention.

For instance, the middle-aged women that one would easily call ayi were often born in the 1970s-1980s, and the decades that followed shaped their lifestyles and tastes. The dancing ayis gathering in parks, squares, and compounds’ ground floors, bloomed in the mid-1990s and represent the most famous instance of this generation’s culture. Far from being leftover by technological development, however, the ayis’ presence on Chinese social media influences trends and online practices greatly.

Housekeepers on the other hand, widely called ayi even on the platforms dedicated to hiring them, belong to a different reality. They take care of people’s apartments and, sometimes, their children. In big cities, they often are migrant workers coming from other regions, and thus have a very different experience of the city’s life.

This month, we aim at showcasing who are the ayi that you would so often interact with in China, what are the realities they experience, and the culture they bring to life.

Let’s thus discover together the many faces of the multifaceted ayi!


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