The studio, like all big companies in Shanghai, employs ayi (阿姨), cleaning ladies who also serve as after-hours receptionists and all-around helpers. The word ayi actually means ‘auntie’, and is used to address all cleaning ladies. The studio employs 4 or 5 ayi, and they’re all extremely nice and efficient, and they seem to have taken a liking to me ever since I displayed my poor Mandarin skills to them. (They just love when I go 我的中文说的不好, meaning ‘I don’t speak Mandarin very well’!)
Anyway, maybe it’s because I smiled a bit too much the day they offered a banana to me, but all the ayi are now convinced I just love bananas. Every time I go to the lunch area to get a coffee, an ayi will rush to offer me a banana. It’s not like those bananas are on display for everyone; they actually go get them from some secret cupboard, perhaps filled with bananas just for me.
The kicker is, I don’t especially like bananas. Sometimes, I’d rather have some watermelon, which they arrange for everyone… But the banana is such a symbol of kindness and friendship from them, I don’t have the heart to tell them no, especially since I don’t even know how to say “banana” in Mandarin, much less ‘I like bananas from time to time but please stop giving one to me every time I come for a coffee’.
Amazingly enough, this sort of thing happens a lot more often than you might think. My theory is that foreigners are easier to remember, so if we exhibit an unusual preference and a pleasant disposition, people will try to please us by remembering this preference. I can’t count the number of restaurants that remembered I like my beer cold after a single visit.