In China, business for agencies providing au pairs to host families is booming as a multitude of eager-to-learn twenty-somethings from Europe move their lives to China to better their Chinese, learn more about the culture, and simply gain experience, all while teaching English to wealthy Chinese children.
More and more young Westerners are flocking to China to live and work for host families as au pairs to their children. Today’s au pair is a role somewhere between a live-in tutor and a nanny. The host families provide food, accommodation and pocket money to the au pairs, who are there for the cultural immersion and don’t mind not receiving a salary. Most of the time, au pairs cite their experience as amazing, and they are welcomed into their host families’ lives warmly. Other au pairs have not been so lucky – stark cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings and tensions can arise, resulting in a damaged relationship and a severed arrangement.
The trend of having a Western live-in au pair has swept across wealthy Chinese families, who expect their au pair to teach their children English and spend time with them. Previously, most nannies were local Chinese or Filipinos, but the demand for Western au-pairs-cum-English-teachers has been increasing.
Most of these upper class households already have a housekeeper, and some have several tutors that come nightly for additional academic study and musical learning.
Li Zengchun is a program service manager at the Beijing-based au pair service Lopair, where business is considerably stronger thanks to the trend.
“More and more Western au pairs come to China to learn Chinese and understand Chinese culture,” Li said.
Au pair agencies do not have to look far to find new recruits wishing to work and live in China. Word-of-mouth is a much more effective way of spreading information on the growing industry. Most au pairs go back to their home countries and talk about their experiences with their friends and share photos or anecdotes on social media, which inspires other young people to look into the opportunity.
Prospective au pairs have to pass strict English tests before being accepted by the agencies, who take care of their flight expenses. The higher they score on the exam, the more the family is willing to pay the agency for their services, said Li.
Li shared that au pair fees are usually between 8,000 and 9,000 yuan (S$1,584 to 1,782) per month.
Shedding light on how the Chinese families deal with foreign au pairs, Li told another media source, “Often, these families work for a foreign company or have lived abroad, so they can accept a foreigner in their household.”
“They already have an understanding of Western culture and hope that their child can also grow up learning about Western culture and languages.”
Another media source shared the stories of Giacomo D’Alessandris and Salima Chérifi, who live and work as au pairs in Beijing.
Chérifi, who is from France, spent 18 months in China, referred to being an au pair as the “best experience” of her life. She formed quite a bond with her host family, speaks with them every week and has even booked tickets back to China to see them again.
“They treated me like a real family member,” she said, adding that she called her host parents “mama” and “baba,” which is Mom and Dad in Mandarin.
Chérifi was given around 4,000 yuan every month as pocket money from her host family, much higher than the standard 1,500 yuan per month. She was also able to accompany her family on all-expense paid trips to Japan and Hong Kong.
Giacomo D’Allessandris, who was studying Mandarin in his home country of Italy, he considered the au pair program as the best and “cheapest option” to live in China and learn the language properly.
Having “fallen in love with Beijing,” D’Allessandris has spent two summers here as an au pair, living so far with five different families. The changes happened because of contracts ending between the agency and the family or when the family went away on a trip, which his single-entry visa prevented him from joining.
Experiencing life with different families was an interesting experience for D’Allessandris. One family very generously provided him with an apartment in the city centre, which they were using to house their pet cats. He was expected to play with the family’s children, do some sports activities with them and teach them English.
It was not always that easy for D’Allessandris. Another host family that lived far away from the city centre gave him a 10PM nightly curfew, which isolated him from socialising and prevented him from having time out of the house himself.
While most au pair-host family relationships are pleasant and even fond, some do not have the same experience.
Lopair reported that 25 to 30 percent of au pairs have switched families during their stay in China, mostly because of differing expectations or cultural misunderstandings that are made worse by a language barrier on both sides.
“In the West, people may ask if someone needs help. In China, they expect you to provide help without asking,” Li said. As 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 being asked if she needed assistance, the mother was too proud to say yes.
In some cases, the relationship between the au pair and the host family becomes irreparable and needs to be terminated.
On the website gooverseas.com, au pairs can review and rate the agency and their resulting experiences. One au pair called “Keira” said, “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.”
Another user “Annie” shared that her host family did not trust her anymore just because she came back late from her day off.
In the unsuccessful cases, Lopair analyses how the arrangement between au pair and host family broke down. However, former au pairs who worked in China said that it was unfair as the agencies would always side with the host families regardless of the actual reasons, just because they are the ones paying them. Lopair has firmly shot down the accusation.
“We want that both the family and the au pair are happy with the arrangement,” Li said.
The Western au pair trend is sure to continue on its upward course as the rising middle class in China gets wealthier and seeks better English-learning opportunities for their children.