How to maintain your kids and their Chinese-language skills
If you’ve spent enough time in Beijing that your children can say more than “ni hao,“ you might have thought about different ways to maintain their Chinese-language skills after you leave China for your home country, when the ubiquitous ayi will no longer be available. One option is to hire a Chinese au pair.
“More and more families are becoming interested in getting an au pair from China nowadays,” says Wu Chenggang, founder of China Au Pair International (CAPI). “The economy is growing, and people want their kids to start studying Chinese at a very young age.” CAPI was established in 2003 and enables young Chinese men and women to travel to Europe or America to improve their language skills while staying with a family and working for them as an au pair. “An au pair will be more than just a nanny,” says Wu. “They also act as a kind of a teacher.”
Li Drake, a virologist at the Mayo Clinic and a mother of two, has had a Chinese au pair since September 2007. Originally from Pingying, a small town in Shandong province, Drake studied immunology at University College London, then moved to the United States in 1993 to do her post-doctoral training. Drake, whose husband is not Chinese, was concerned that her kids were not getting enough exposure to Mandarin, so she contacted Cultural Care Au Pair, an agency that works together with CAPI in the US.
Besides keeping her children in touch with the Chinese language, Drake says having an au pair has other benefits as well. “We would like the kids to have a more personal interaction with their caretakers, and we also like the flexibility of this kind of child care,” she says. The only difficulty she sees is that au pairs often lack a driver’s license or other types of certifications, which can be somewhat inconvenient. “I have to take time off from work to drive my son home from school, because our au pair has not passed her driving exam yet.”
Au pairs usually work about 40 hours on a flexible schedule and are given one day off per week. In the CAPI program, au pairs headed to the U.S. can expect the host family to cover transportation costs, including accommodations en route. In the States, wages are approximately RMB 1,000 per week, while in Europe the salary can range from RMB 2,700 to 3,200. Au pairs who plan to go to Europe are responsible for their own transportation costs, however, which can cost around RMB 10,000.
Shanghai native Gong Ling is currently experiencing the American dream. The 20-year-old left China at the end of January to live in Arizona with a single mom who has two adopted Chinese girls. “America was always my personal dreamland. Besides learning more about the culture, this is my chance to improve my spoken English,” explains Gong.
Potential au pairs must have prior experience in childcare – at least 200 hours if they want to work in the US – and also demonstrate a basic grasp of the English language. Au pairs planning to work in the US must also spend a week learning about safety and childcare issues in a training course provided by Cultural Care Au Pair through St. John’s University in New York. These orientations don’t exist in Europe, however, and it is up to the host parents to prepare their guest for their lives abroad.
Families interested in hiring a Chinese au pair must fill out an application with CAPI’s affiliate in their country; if approved to be a host family, they will receive profiles of several applicants with accompanying photographs. After they select a few whom they believe would be a good fit with their family, CAPI will try their best to make a good match.
Even if a perfect match is found, other complications may arise. “It is really hard to get a visa from the U.S. embassy,” explains Wu. Au pairs may also encounter unanticipated difficulties. “We once had an au pair crossing the street at a red traffic light with her host children because she was used to doing it in China,” he elaborates. “The parents yelled at her and couldn’t understand her behavior.”
Though cultural differences may lead to miscommunication or misunderstandings, having a Chinese au pair can still be a rewarding experience for both sides. “The most important thing is to communicate with your au pair,” says Drake. “Having a Chinese au pair is important for my kids’ continuing exposure to Chinese culture and language while I am working.”