THE WEST­ERN NAN­NIES

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Ka­trin Büchen­bacher

In China, de­mand for Cau­casian babysit­ters is ris­ing, but cul­tural clashes are pre­des­tined

At first sight, Gi­a­como D’Alessan­dris and Sal­ima Chérifi look like any other ex­pat in Bei­jing. They take Man­darin classes, en­joy site-see­ing and grab drinks with friends at night. But the two do not have their own apart­ments; in­stead, they live with a Chi­nese fam­ily. Nei­ther do they earn any salary. Their work­ing days ex­ceed the

reg­u­lar five days per week and their work­ing hours ex­tend be­yond 9 to 5. Th­ese young Euro­peans are here on an F (non­com­mer­cial visit) visa. They are au pairs.

D'Alessan­dris and Chérifi rep­re­sent a larger in­ter­cul­tural phe­nom­e­non tak­ing place in China, as more young Western­ers are work­ing here as au pairs in or­der to im­merse them­selves in Chi­nese cul­ture.

De­mand among wealthy Chi­nese fam­i­lies for au pairs from the West (as op­posed to tra­di­tion­ally Chi­nese or Filipino nan­nies) is also on the rise, and au pair agen­cies ca­ter­ing to that de­mand are do­ing boom­ing busi­ness.

Li Zengchun, aka Nancy Li, a pro­gram ser­vice man­ager at Bei­jing-based au pair ser­vice Lopair, con­firms this trend. “More and more West­ern au pairs come to China to learn Chi­nese and un­der­stand Chi­nese cul­ture,” Li told Metropoli­tan.

Among wealthy Chi­nese fam­i­lies, the au pair con­cept has be­come quite pop­u­lar, while ex­pec­ta­tions on an au pair's skills and du­ties vary con­sid­er­ably from other coun­tries. In China, lo­cal fam­i­lies see an au pair some­where be­tween a nanny and a live-in English tu­tor.

“Lots of Chi­nese fam­i­lies al­ready have an ayi (house­keeper), so they ex­pect the au pair to teach [them or their chil­dren] English,” Li said, ex­plain­ing that ap­pli­cants must com­plete an English test; the higher the score, the higher the fee the fam­ily is will­ing to pay to the agency.

Ac­cord­ing to Li, the fee ranges be­tween 8,000 and 9,000 yuan ($1,161 to 1,306) per month.

“Of­ten, th­ese fam­i­lies work for a for­eign com­pany or have lived abroad, so they can ac­cept a for­eigner in their house­hold,” Li told Metropoli­tan. “They al­ready have an un­der­stand­ing of West­ern cul­ture and hope that their child can also grow up learn­ing about West­ern cul­ture and lan­guages.”

Like a fam­ily mem­ber

Au pair agen­cies in Bei­jing have lit­tle dif­fi­culty re­cruit­ing new au pairs, as those who even­tu­ally re­turn back to their home coun­tries share their ex­pe­ri­ences with their friends or on so­cial me­dia, and thus the pos­i­tive word-of-mouth spreads, ac­cord­ing to Li.

Chérifi re­cently re­turned to her home coun­try, France, where she now works for her fa­ther's com­pany af­ter grad­u­at­ing from law school. She spent 18 months in China as an au pair, which she refers to as the “best ex­pe­ri­ence” of her life. She still speaks with her host fam­ily ev­ery week and has al­ready booked tick­ets to China to visit them again.

“They treated me like a real fam­ily mem­ber,” she said, adding that she called her host par­ents “mama” and “baba,” Man­darin for Mom and Dad.

Be­cause she en­joyed car­ing for her host fam­ily's daugh­ter and made im­prov­ing her English a per­sonal mis­sion, Chérifi didn't mind work­ing seven days a week. Her sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity went so far that she of­ten did not leave the house to meet up with friends un­til the girl was in bed. She had some time for her­self while the lit­tle girl was at school.

In China, au pairs are not paid for their work. Agen­cies pay for their flight tick­ets, Chi­nese classes and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties, while their host fam­ily pro­vides them with food, hous­ing and some pocket money.

The amount de­pends on the agency and the fam­ily. The Lopair stan­dard is 1,500 yuan per month, but Chérifi re­ceived 4,000 yuan and was also able to ac­com­pany her fam­ily on paid trips to Hong Kong and Ja­pan.

Dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions

Money is not what the au pairs sign up for. For D'Al­lessan­dris, who stud­ies Man­darin in his home coun­try, Italy, an au pair pro­gram was the “cheap­est op­tion” to live in China in or­der to im­prove his Chi­nese. Hav­ing “fallen in love with Bei­jing,” D'Al­lessan­dris has spent two sum­mers here as an au pair.

Thus far he has lived with five dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies. The changes were due to con­tracts be­tween the agency and the fam­ily con­clud­ing or when a fam­ily went on a trip, which his sin­gle-en­try visa wouldn't al­low him to join. In be­tween fam­i­lies, his agency ar­ranged for a stay in a hos­tel.

Th­ese fre­quent changes took a toll on him, he said, but it also al­lowed him to ex­pe­ri­ence a wide range of dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies. One host fam­ily that lived far away from the city cen­ter asked him to be back no later than 10 pm ev­ery night, which put a damper on his so­cial life.

An­other host fam­ily pro­vided him with an apart­ment all to him­self in the city cen­ter. The wealthy fam­ily owned an­other apart­ment just for their col­lec­tion of pet cats. His du­ties were sim­ply to play with the fam­ily's chil­dren, do some sports ac­tiv­i­ties with them and teach them English.

“Most of th­ese fam­i­lies also had sev­eral other pri­vate tu­tors for the kids, for ex­am­ple, a pi­ano teacher that came ev­ery evening,” D'Al­lessan­dris said.

Cul­ture clashes

Lopair ob­served a 25 to 30-per­cent rate of au pairs switch­ing fam­i­lies dur­ing their stay. Some­times, dif­fer­ences emerge when ex­pec­ta­tions di­verge or cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ings arise, es­pe­cially when the au pair's Man­darin level or the host fam­ily's English level are equally low, ac­cord­ing to Li.

“In the West, peo­ple may ask if some­one needs help. In China, they ex­pect you to pro­vide help with­out ask­ing,” she said, cit­ing an ex­am­ple when a host mother was car­ry­ing heavy bags, she ex­pected her au pair to carry them for her with­out ask­ing, and yet, upon ask­ing if she needed help, the mother was too proud to say yes.

On some oc­ca­sions, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the host fam­ily and the au pair can be dam­aged be­yond re­pair. On the web­site goo­ver­seas.com, where au pairs are able to write re­views of their agency, user “Keira” claimed that “Many morn­ings I had to go with­out break­fast be­cause the par­ents or one of the three nan­nies would not set the ta­ble or cook for me.” User “An­nie” wrote that she lost her host fam­ily's trust just be­cause she came back late from her day off.

In th­ese cases, Lopair said they will an­a­lyze the rea­sons be­hind the dis­cord. How­ever, some for­mer au pairs who worked in China claimed that, re­gard­less of the real rea­sons, the agen­cies al­ways side with the host fam­i­lies, whom they re­ceive their rev­enue from. It is an ac­cu­sa­tion that Lopair firmly re­jects.

“We want that both the fam­ily and the au pair are happy with the ar­range­ment,” Li said.

For­mer au pair Chérifi stresses how im­por­tant the choice of a rep­utable agency is, as “some agen­cies just look for profit.” Open com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the host fam­ily is also cru­cial, she added, es­pe­cially when the au pair en­coun­ters cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

De­spite th­ese pre­des­tined cul­tural clashes, Bei­jing's boom­ing au pair busi­ness is here to stay. With the rapid rise of a wealthy Chi­nese mid­dle class and the ex­pec­ta­tions for their chil­dren to learn English at an early age, West­ern au pairs will be­come more sought af­ter while Chi­nese nan­nies de­cline in de­mand.

For Chérifi and D'Al­lessan­dris, their sim­ple aim of trav­el­ing to China and im­mers­ing them­selves in the cul­ture and lan­guage for a spell was eas­ily achieved.

“Be­ing an au pair in China made me more open-minded and pa­tient while al­low­ing me to find my true path in life,” Chérifi con­cluded. D'Al­lessan­dris, how­ever, is al­ready mak­ing plans to come back to China, but this time as a stu­dent.

Photo: VCG

Con­nect­ing West­ern trav­el­ers with Chi­nese fam­i­lies is a boom­ing busi­ness for au pair agen­cies.

Pho­tos: Cour­tesy of Sal­ima Chérifi and Gi­a­como D’Alessan­dris

Sal­ima Chérifi Main: A three-year-old Chi­nese girl forms English words dur­ing a game cre­ated by her au pair Sal­ima Chérifi.

Gi­a­como D’Alessan­dris

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