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Live in and learn
2013-7-23 9:04:00  Global Times

When Iva Slavova told her relatives and friends in Bulgaria she was planning to live with and work as an au pair for a Chinese family she'd never met before, everyone balked. Even her grandfather, a worldly and well-traveled man, advised against it.

"They know China, of course," she said. "But nobody they know has ever been to China. They didn't know what it was going to be like."

Her parents couldn't believe there was a family nice enough to take her in and pay all her expenses for half a year. But she decided to do it anyway. After two months in Beijing, Slavova describes it as a good decision.

Working as an au pair has always been a cheap option for people who want to travel and live aboard. The young person lives with a host family and takes care of the children in exchange for a homestay and cultural experience.

The concept is gaining popularity in China. Many middle- to upper-class families see it as an opportunity to enhance their children's English, while the au pairs have the chance to experience the culture and live China as the Chinese live it.

Off to see the world

After studying civil engineering at a Scottish university, Slavova applied for internships and jobs, but had no luck. One night, while browsing the school website, she found the au pair program.

"I thought it was the perfect program for me," she said. "I can use my English skills to help other people, learn about the culture and live with a Chinese family."

Eva Malek, from Poland, graduated from university in the UK this summer. She wanted to learn Chinese and perhaps find a job in China.

When she learned of the Early Bird au pair program while browsing her school's website one day, she decided to apply.

Henrique Marangoni, a 22-year-old college graduate from Brazil, came to China while all his classmates went to the US. He feels China is a more exciting place for him.

Rising demand

Wang Xiaolin, the director of the Au Pair Beijing program, said even though the concept is not widely known in China, she sees a rising demand.

"Usually, people from developing countries wish to go to developed countries. They want to learn a useful culture and language, but in recent years there's been more interest and attention in China. That's why we started this program," she said.

The families who participate in the au pair program are usually upper-class, Wang said. In order to qualify to host an au pair, the family must have a spare room and pay for all the expenses.

Li Wenlong, who is currently hosting Malek, is a professor at Peking University. He studied in the UK during college. "Au pairs are a popular concept abroad," he said. "Our children are obliged to find jobs when they graduate but Westerners travel the world or take breaks in their studies."

Li's 6-year-old son, Chris, has just started elementary school. The family has been participating in the program for two years and has already had three au pairs. Li hopes having someone around to speak English all the time can create a good English environment for his son.

Job description

Slavova soon found out that nothing in her previous experience quite prepared her to teach language to children. Slowly, she discovered that her young charge, Julie, 5, responded more to persistent cues rather than sitting down for a lesson.

For example, she once taught Julie a song in English, but the girl kept getting it wrong. Slavova began to feel like the child would never learn the song.

A couple days later, as the ayi was getting Julie ready for kindergarten, Slavova heard her sing the song with all the words correct.

"With children, I think you just have to repeat things all the time," she said. "I hope to create an English environment for her."

It's the same for Marangoni. He works a couple hours every day, speaking to his young charge all the time, no matter whether he responds or not.

"Even though he's young, he learns fast and understands me," he said.

The demand from families in China is different from families overseas, Wang said. Chinese au pairs abroad tend to be asked to do housework. Chinese families focus on exposing their children to English.

Like most Chinese hosts, Li prefers au pairs from English-speaking countries. The three au pairs the family had before Malek came from Russia, the UK and the US.

"We had the first girl for about a month. Her English vocabulary wasn't even as good as my son's, so we switched to a different au pair," he said.

Malek does her own laundry, but the rest of the housework is all taken care of by an ayi. Her main job description is keeping Chris company.

"You can't keep them too happy and you can't be too strict with them," Li said. "Some families like to use au pairs as housemaids. Of course, the au pairs don't like this," he said.

Cultural differences

Although she enjoys her job, Slavova admits there are differences between her and the family that she had to adjust to.

Because her host family doesn't make firm plans, Slavova has missed opportunities to hang out with her friends.

"I don't have a lot of free time, to be honest. It shouldn't be like that," she said.

Before coming to China, she was told that she would work 30-35 hours per week, which sounded like a good deal. But in reality, she spends weekends with Julie as well, leaving her no free time at all.

Slavova believes it's a cultural difference. In Europe, people tend to separate private life and business clearly.

Marangoni said he has heard friends complaining about overwork and not enough free time to experience the city. Even though he hasn't experienced it himself, he acknowledges that the position of an au pair is complicated.

"You live with your boss. You can't just say anything," he said.

Even when he's at casual family gatherings, he can't be entirely relaxed or cross the boundary of politeness.

On the other hand, it's also a big responsibility for the families that take a stranger into their home. Li said that his experience with the previous au pairs raised issues that he hadn't anticipated.

"If they didn't want to eat, they would throw the bread and buns away. It's normal for them, but Chinese people consider it rude," he said. "They think if they finish the meal, the host will think you are still hungry, so they intentionally leave a bit on the plate. It's not a big deal, but you need to communicate about this."

Li also thinks foreigners tend to be more interested in nightlife and socializing and bringing friends back home, which he fears might be unsafe for them.

"The family and the au pair have to make compromises and acknowledge the differences. If you can tolerate it, fine - if you can't, you probably should get a new au pair," he said. 

Marangoni says it's important to communicate. Following advice from his agency, he and the family sit down every week to discuss topics ranging from education to food.

The au pairs are all enjoying their time here in Beijing, despite some conflicts and issues.

Slavova said she misses home sometimes, mainly because of the food. In China, people eat healthier but it doesn't give her all the protein she needs.

"Sometimes I just want a big piece of meat," she said.

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