The term ‘au pair’ translates to ‘at par.’ Less opaquely, it means ‘as equal to.’ This indicates the unique place the au pair is expected to play in the family. Unlike the traditional domestic help, the au pair is meant to be considered a member of the family. She eats family meals, joins their outings, and participates in family activities. The au pair provides a simple service to the family (usually helping with children or around the house) and, in exchange, receives a small allowance and room and board. She is to be considered a member of the family, albeit a temporary one.
That all sounds well and good, but mention the word to ten au pairs and nine of them will shudder and, with a distant, haunted gaze whisper, “never again.” If you check Reddit you’ll find eager au pairs looking for advice and a wave of lascivious innuendos in the comments that assert she will serve as little more than a live-in mistress. When I told my friend that I had accepted a contract as an au pair she, having served five years in Germany, begged me not to do it.
Having now been an au pair for eight months, I’m more confused than ever at what I was meant to hate about my position. No, I’m not a mistress. No, I’m not “the help.” I have no Cinderella stories to tell. My family is lovely and, what’s more, feel like my family in every pertinent way. The annoyances I face are of the run-of-the-mill variety over how hot the house should be, leaving a dirty sink, or their insisting I join them for some family event when I’d rather lie around in bed reading and writing.
What factors contribute to my success as an au pair? Perhaps it’s because I serve in an Asian country and not a European one. The idea of being an au pair is clearly imported from Europe straight to the upper-echelons of Asian families. After all, lacking legally mandated parameters means we can create our own rules and that each family might have a different relationship with and expectations of their au pair.
The early-childcare industry is booming here in a way I doubt I could convey in words. The Washington Post’s Heather Long recently published an article with a study from OECD Social Expenditure Database which shows 75% of Chinese children are students by age three. To compare, in America, only 55% of children can say the same and in only one language at that.) Competition is fierce in China. I consider it an unofficial duty of mine to talk my host mother down from enrolling her 4-year-old son in yet another class. Between studying English with me five days a week, piano as often, and taking an online English course on the weekends on top of being enrolled in kindergarten, I don’t see how the little guy doesn’t lose his mind. From a lower-middle class American perspective, I long for my “little brother” to have the carefree afternoons of my childhood and to experience the exquisite privilege of boredom.
Being an au pair in Asia instead of Europe is no guarantee that you’ll have a positive experience. Parents who hire au pairs do so because they want to put their children ahead by fostering a live-in English environment. There are other au pairs I know here in China who have had these horrible experiences I’ve heard so much about. Some of them, I maintain, have brought it upon themselves but it doesn’t change the seriousness of the consequences of having a poor experience with your family.
Objectively, being an au pair puts you in a vulnerable position. In Europe, where the tradition is established, you have some legal protections. (Read this study for information about specific European countries and their protections for au pairs.) But in countries where being an au pair is legally considered little more than an extended couch-surfing session, you have none of those. If my family decided they were done with me tomorrow, I’d be out on the streets of Beijing with no legal reason to be here, not enough money to do much of anything, and having a very limited grasp (at best) on the national language. I know one girl who was kicked out of two different families and ended up owing the company she worked for something like 10,000 RMB (around $1,500.) Scary stuff.
This, I think, is the root of misery for so many au pairs. If our relationships turn into a power play, we’re in the vulnerable position. A la the Stanford Prison Experiment and a general understanding of human nature, we know what that can mean. Families demand more and more knowing their au pairs are actually little more than “the help” if they wish them to be and the au pair does what they’re told fearing the consequences of being rejected by their hosts.
These are real vulnerabilities and a real risk you run when signing up to fill this position.
That being said, being an au pair has been among the best decisions I’ve ever made. I finished my university courses during the day until I graduated two months ago. Now, my days are still free and I use them to develop this blog and my second and third languages. I spend relaxed evenings playing with a little boy who loves me and who feels, for all intents and purposes, like another little brother. My weekends are always spent with other expats here in Beijing making memories and friends that will last a lifetime. Why is my story successful? Why am I the one in ten au pairs who has this experience?
Frankly, I’ve no idea. But I can give you my theory.
My family had never hosted an au pair before and I’d never been an au pair. This was key to our success because both of us came in with no expectations of the other. I spoke to them genuinely about my qualifications- both what they were and what they weren’t. For instance, I told them I’m a babysitter and I have three younger siblings under the age of eleven right now. I told them I love to play with kids but I also am in no way qualified to develop lesson plans. I don’t even have an ESL certification yet!
For my family, that was fine. They wanted what I had to offer which was a big sister who speaks English with a good accent. My family provides the teaching materials they want me to use and I give them my honest opinions about what I think is working. When I first arrived, I was pretty depressed due to all the changes in my life and my little brother wasn’t super interested in hanging out with the scary stranger suddenly living with him. I asked them to be patient with us and they were.
That patience paid off because now, after a few hours of reading every night for these past few months my little brother can verbalize wants, likes and dislikes, and imaginative gameplay in a second language. For that matter, so can I!
It seems to me that a huge part of our success has been in open and honest communication of expectations and problems. When I came home late one evening from the gym and my host parents were worried about me they told me so and we dealt with that.
I’m not saying the mantra ‘communication is key’ will solve every au pair’s problems. I’m not saying being an au pair will definitely be great and I’m not saying it definitely won’t. What I want you to take away from this is that being an au pair is a genuine and excellent option for someone like me who finds themselves a little lost and unrooted in their 20s and looking for an answer in the world. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in another culture and work on your language skills and an even better way to grow as a person. It requires a leap of faith, humility, communication skills, and, above all, some dumb luck. If you can muster all that, you should be just fine.
Get out there and try. There are lessons to be learned.
If you’re curious about being an au pair in China, feel free to email me. I’m happy to let you know how I did it, what my average day looks like, and answer any questions you might have.
I'm a freelance travel writer. Join me as I bounce around the planet offering some advice, telling some stories, and trying my best to figure it out with you by my side.