Cultural Exchange and Having an Au Pair

by cv harquail on October 20, 2009

Today I was interviewed by a journalist who is writing an article for a parenting magazine about the au pair hosting experience. One area she was very interested in was the idea of Au Pairs as a cultural exchange experience for the host kids. She wanted to know:

How much of the host family experience is about learning about another culture through your au pair?

difft from other girls.jpg

Maybe I can’t see it any more, but for me the whole idea of “culture” has disappeared under the personalities and life histories of each of our au pairs. For example, I’m not sure I learned as much about South African culture as I learned about Krishnie, Anusha, Elrina, Collette and Lisel as individuals.

The times I see “culture” differences the most are around favorite foods and recipies, holiday traditions (e.g., Santa Lucia with Clara from Sweden), and fairy tales. I see a lot of similarity around Mc Donalds, Disney, and Coke…

Often, culture comes up when I bring it up, by asking things like “Do women in your part of South Africa celebrate a coming of age/sweet sixteen/quincenera? Or, culture comes up when I’m trying to unfold a conversation about some kind of miscommunication, when I ask things like “Am I being too direct and American?” “Does communicating with emails feel okay for you?”

When does “culture” come up for you?


PA au pair mom October 20, 2009 at 3:38 pm

I find that, for us, culture comes up mostly as it relates to food/meals and at holidays. I am always asking questions and trying to make our au pairs feel comfortable with our traditions while finding out what their traditions are. I love to try to incorporate at least one aspect of their xmas holiday into our celebrations.

Anonymous October 20, 2009 at 4:57 pm

To tell you the honest truth, I, too, think of aupairs now strictly as individuals but this is after a number of years. Because we have had so many German aupairs, I hardly think of Germany as another country anymore. With the French aupairs I’ve had , their attachment to their own language heightened the sense of cultural difference but not in a bad way. I had two South African aupairs who did not work out and the blatant way they made racist remarks did stop me short and cause me to realize that no matter how far we have to go in this country, racism is becoming more and more an indication of ignorance and low class status. It isn’t poliltically correct among educated sophisticated Americans. The sad stories I heard from these girls about everyday violence in Africa underscored the cultural differences – one aupair could not believe that we could just walk into a retail bank and set up an account for her.
I think this fading of differences is a great thing , actually. Nevertheless, we are going to check out Asia next time around. We don’t want to miss out on any cultural experiences before our kids outgrow the program. We will probably explore Japan first.

A October 20, 2009 at 5:47 pm

We have only had one au pair so far, so maybe things haven’t blended in my mind yet…but “culture” comes up in small and unexpected ways. Like when our AP (who is German) told us that we shouldn’t cut our baby’s hair before his first birthday. The next day, I asked my German friend, “did you cut your son’s hair before he turned one?” She answered, “No! It’s bad luck!”
That’s just one example, but I’ve learned lots of little things I didn’t know and hadn’t thought about.
Then again, having an au pair has been no more of a cultural shock than having a potluck roommate in college (which was also a fun and eye-opening experience).

Jade October 20, 2009 at 6:19 pm

To anonymous be carefull when calling south africans racist. We had a turbulent past and it is the young generation that suffers the most. We can open accounts at any banks, perhaps your aupair was just ignorant. Also we have a high crime problem but we are not nearly as backward as you might think.

CoCa October 20, 2009 at 7:58 pm

For us, culture came into it in rather an unexpected way.

We chose an au pair from the country I grew up in, thinking that since I had moved away from there when I was very young, she might be able to help us keep my ‘old’ culture alive in our kids.

What I hadn’t bargained with was the fact that the au pair also chose us for a reason: she expected to feel more comfortable and at home with at least one family member being from her own country.

The problem was that I have never lived in that country as a true adult – I left to go to college abroad and have since only returned for short periods of time. I have definitely never experienced raising kids there, and consequently don’t live or act anything like a ‘typical’ mother in the au pair’s experience.

Our au pair has now left, but the dynamic that was present while she was here was really quite strange for me, and I assume for her too. We would frequently speak to one another in our mother tongue, and would often discuss the differences between countries, but she didn’t find in me the ‘confidante’ I think she had hoped for – instead, she found that I cooked strange food, had a lifestyle unlike anything she had ever seen before, treated my husband and kids in a way that was totally alien to her…

And for me, too, the experience was odd. I guess I hadn’t realized before just how much I had changed in the 17 years I spent living away from my country of birth! I had a hard time relating to her, too, but because of the fact that we ‘should’ have been more similar, I often felt that she was lecturing me or critisizing in ways that I assumed she wouldn’t be if she had arrived in an all American family.

As I mentioned under another topic, we have decided to part ways with the au pair concept, but if we had not, I would definitely go for an au pair from a different country next time. In hindsight, I would have liked a more level playing field, where both parties had to get to know one another from a completely ‘blank’ perspective, rather than have all these preconcieved notions from both sides.

CoCa October 20, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Jade – Anonymous didn’t call South African’s racist. He/she said that they had had two South African au pairs who had made racist remarks. There is a big difference.

OBMom October 20, 2009 at 8:32 pm

I think there are multiple types of “cultural exhange”, part is the difference between countries, but also some is difference between us as mature adults and the youth of our AP’s. Maturity, guidance, that is were the individual personalities come out as well.

For the more fun part for the difference between countries, we have tried to move from country to country each time (#4 now). That way the kids learn a bit about the other countries. Agreed though that it it mostly food and holidays, but there are other things …

Our German AP was very nice about putting together a special gift for the kids first day of school … something they do for kids in kindergarten. She also taught them fun hiking songs on German. Our Canadian AP got the boys all excited about the Hockey playoffs (and got them Canadiens T-shirts). The Swede wasn’t with us long enough to impart much (rematch), but she did bring the boys cute soccer outfits that are yellow and blue. The Austrian is still new, but the boys already have teased her that she speaks “Austrich” instead of German. She laughed, which is a good sign. I’m sure she’ll highlight differences between Austrian-German and Germany-German for them. She’s already taught my older son that there weren’t “indian” tribes there like there were in CA (4th grade curriculum) — she needs to explain some world history to go with that.

We also have a multicultural house because my husband is from New Zealand, and we live close to Mexico, so she’ll go home knowing traditions from the US, NZ and Mexico.

I think its a great part of it, but it is something that as HF we need to encourage and acknowledge/praise when they do it too.

Emma October 21, 2009 at 2:23 am

Language, food, and holiday traditions make up a huge part of culture; superstitions, fairytales, and clothing often just fill in the gaps or are outward manifestations of that culture. How often do we notice our own culture save for when it relates these things? My host kids are learning about my culture by learning English and sharing Jewish and American holidays with me. Those are the events kids will remember most anyway.

aussiegirl October 21, 2009 at 5:20 am

I remember in the US My 3yr old host child going around telling people at different places saying it a voice full of such surprise. do you know my aupair calls candy “lollies” and sweaters “jumpers”!! It was very sweet. I also remember her one day singing the alphabet to herself and singing Zed(Z) instead of Zee.

In Canada I cooked the family on Christmas Morning our family tradition of baked Eggs for breakfast. It was great for them to share in some of my Tradition and equally good for me to share it with them!!

Ann from NE October 21, 2009 at 6:58 am

CoCa – I’ve had an analogous experience to yours, in that I share the language of both of my au pairs (from Eastern Europe), except my story is different from yours in that I wasn’t born in their native country, my parents were, they spoke it to me at home when I was growing up in the U.S. And I attended Saturday elementary school and summer camps in the same language etc. Now my daughter attends and I teach at the same Saturday school.

So there were many differences between me and my au pairs – both generational/technological (they’re more in need of cellphones daily than I am), and in the versions of the language/culture that we know. The version they know is post-Soviet/post-Iron Curtain; the version I know was passed down from the refugees that left during World War II when the country was still mostly agricultural, and had recently had German aristocracy. So the language that the APs speak has traces of either Russification/Sovietese or modern English jargon, vs. the language in the US emigre culture has either tried to retain the “pure” linguistic roots or there are many traces of German.

Linguistically, my daughter has gained the benefit of both. She knows multiple words in the language for a number of objects, so I think she’s just as comfortable attending an emigre function here in the U.S. as she will be visiting our distant relatives in the Eastern European country (we haven’t been there yet). And it’s been eye-opening for the APs to realize that, despite the 3 generations that have passed since the refugees fled after WWII, how many people still speak the language, run the Saturday schools, summer camps, newspapers, and other educational organizations outside their home country. They don’t get taught much about that in their national curriculum. Our 2nd AP got actively involved in my daughter’s Saturday school, helping teach folk dance lessons etc. Both APs have enjoyed attending the annual midsummer solstice celebration, where women wear flower wreaths and there is a large bonfire. The “US emigre” version differs from theirs back home, but in some ways it’s closer to the agricultural roots 100 years ago.

It was a learning experience for me because although I’ve travelled to my parent’s homeland a number of times, I didn’t grow up there so I still have an “American superiority” assumption sometimes, when thinking of it as a developing post-Soviet country. But I learned to rethink my assumptions. I was happy to learn that that country’s system of maternity leaves, daycare system is more generous than here; and that extracurricular music school education starting from the elementary level up is widely available in most every village, compared to being more clustered around larger cities here (at least where I grew up in the U.S.)

What was difficult for my APs was the difference in daily lifestyles, that we don’t cook or eat much of the food they’re used to, that I probably wasn’t home as much for family meals as they wanted. In terms of child-raising, I also think they find the U.S. coddles its children more. Not a good or bad thing, but they were willing to follow my lead on parenting.

I feel that their time in the U.S. opened my APs eyes, especially the first’s, to a number of cultural things not just about the US, but all the ethnic subcultures within it. We intentionally tried to take her to different ethnic restaurants (or get take out), grocery stores, and other institutions so that by the end of the year she could feel she had been exposed to the world. We got permission from the local Indian Hindu temple to visit, and that was interesting for the first AP, as was an Ethiopian restaurant. The second AP we took to a Middleastern bellydancing performance, and when her parents visited, we took them to an African-American gospel jazz brunch. None of those experiences would have been possible for the APs or their families in their small, relatively isolated and homogeous home country in Eastern Europe.

For example, my word for the fruit “peach” is German derived, but the APs use a word derived from Russian. In other

clarice October 21, 2009 at 8:14 am

You forgot the swedish sausage”Falukorv” and the lovely chocolate ;)

Anonymous October 21, 2009 at 8:20 am

My greatest cultural exchange comes from having VERY personal conversations with these young women (I know not something all HMs do) I am a female surgeon and very opinionated about gender stereotypes. Both of my APs so far have been from former Yugoslavia and have very traditional and fixed roles for men & women in their head. It has been enlightening for both sides to talk about work roles, birth control and independance/interdependance. Of course, these have the risk of being charged conversations, but I always approach it as educational for me and them.
My kids are pretty little, but I hope that as the years go by, when they are young women, it will be a great chance for them to see how much opportunity exists for American girls that others don’t have, and be grateful for it.

Northern NJ Mom October 21, 2009 at 9:37 am

Our wonderful German aupair comes from a small village in Southern Germany. We have learned so much from her. Here are some examples.
-People bathe every other day.
-People wear the same clothes until they are dirty. There is no need to change clothes every day. (I learned this when she kept on putting the same clothes on my son, even after his bath. She herself wears the same thing three days in a row).
-She is mortified at the thought of throwing out food. She always volunteers to eat leftovers or to distribute the excess to her other aupair friends (who usually don’t get good home-made meals).
-She would not let us use plastic or paper plates and cups. She said it was too painful for her to watch. We bought Corelle dishes which are dishwasher safe.
-Cleaning ladies are rare. (I don’t know anyone without one here).
-Posing in the nude is not a big deal. She could not understand why posing topless is considered sleazy.
-Couldn’t understand why breastfeeding in public is controversial.
-Couldn’t believe Advil and other over-the-counters are on the shelf. She would need to see a pharmacist to get them.
-Couldn’t believe how every doctor’s visit results in a prescription. She says doctor’s in Germany prescribe one only if there is no natural remedy.
-Couldn’t believe how awful the drivers are here.
-She has never heard of a dinner party before.
-She eats raw meat. (When I was preparing the mix for meatballs, she took a spoonful and spread it on a piece of bread.
The list goes on…

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