Cultural Exchange: Let’s ramp up our learning

by cv harquail on August 20, 2010

The world of au pairing makes some pretty big promises.

Au Pairs are promised a year of hard work and adventure, the chance to live in the USofA, and the opportunity to learn first hand about American culture. Families are promised an energetic adventurous young adult who will partly assimilate into their families and partly celebrate their own unique cultures. It’s supposed to be a mash-up of people, caregiving, hosting, sharing, working, and learning.

201008201716.jpgCultural Exchange in the Au Pair-Host Parent Relationship

But, when I think about the role of the cultural exchange in the au pair world, I wonder if we are doing enough to take advantage of our opportunities to become more culturally sensitive and more multicultural ourselves.

Host families usually know only what happens in their own families. Short of the annual host family gathering that some agencies’ reps hold for their clusters, we don’t see or talk much to other host families. So we don’t have many chances to share cultural challenges and cultural learnings.

When we do talk explicitly about what’s being exchanged that’s cultural, we tend to focus on holiday celebrations, regional foods, and — if we make an effort — some conversations about politics back home or child-rearing beliefs. And, we seem to agree that the cultural exchange element is a part of the au pair experience that is important to us, even when we can’t identify what specifically ‘cultural ‘ things we’re learning.

When is it “culture”?

When something comes up within the host family-au pair relationship, it’s often hard to know when there is a cultural issue at play and/ or when some cultural learning can take place. As I discussed in the post about sunbathing norms, and only partly in jest, it’s hard to know whether the ‘differences’ we experience are due to personality, age, our role in the family, or our culture of origin.

There is a lot of untapped opportunity for learning more about the content of our own culture(s) and our au pairs’ cultures — such as which values are most prominent, and which practices are culturally-defining.

And, there is a lot of untapped opportunity for learning about cross-cultural practice and process, including

  • how to recognize the cultural element of an issue,
  • how to talk across cultures, how to hold on to what you believe without suggesting that someone else’s beliefs are wrong (or weird) and
  • how to become a person who is fluent in a world full of people from all sorts of value systems and cultures.

201008201721.jpgI have often wished that there were more chances for my family, my DH, my kids, and our au pairs to develop our cultural knowledge– both the content and the practices/processes of multiculturalism. At times I’ve fallen back on the frameworks, exercises, and recommendations from organizational diversity trainings (the kind that I ran, myself, as a diversity consultant so many years ago!). But, I’ve wished there were more that we could do that was au pair specific.

An Opportunity for Intercultural Learning

And, looks like my wish is coming true. There may soon be an opportunity for host families and au pairs to participate in dedicated, au-pair-world- specific intercultural learning.

A few weeks ago I connected with Shana Medah of Jamana Intercultural, a new company devoted to intercultural learning. Shana was a Peace Corps member and an au pair agency counselor a regional customer service manager for an au pair agency, and has spent many years working within other cultures and facilitating cross-cultural learning for others. Shana and her DH, Eric, are creating a business that offers cross-cultural training through webinars (and ultimately other formats), and their first set of learning programs will focus on issues important to host families and au pairs.

Shana’s company website, and their webinars, are still in the beta stage, and thus not quite ready to try. But, as soon as they get their website up, I’ll get a chance to take their introductory webinar– and give you my report on it. I am hoping to be able to recommend it to other host parents as a way to ramp up their cultural exchange experiences.

I can already tell you that I’m impressed by their company; I perceive that their company’s values and mission are quite in tune with the values that we share here in our AuPairMom conversations. From both their printed materials and their interaction with me online and over the phone, Shana and Eric feel like people I want to get to know, and people I want to learn from.

I’ve asked Shana if she would start contributing to our conversations here on AuPairMom– partly so that we can get to know her, but mostly (selfishly) so that we can ramp up the cultural element of our host family experience.

So, look forward to seeing Shana in the comments, and in a few guest  posts.

Please let me know via email if there are some particular cultural issues you’d like us to talk about here, and I’ll serve them up!

See Also:

Is it Cultural, Generational, or just Me?
What counts as “cultural exchange”?
A Different Perspective on Cultural Exchange
Cultural Exchange and Having an Au Pair

Images: Henna from dava marie, henna hand for amanda’s weddingfrom HennaLounge


2boys2girls August 20, 2010 at 9:19 pm

I am looking forward to reading more about practice and process. We have noticed in our family, when the cultural exchange works really well, a process that goes something like this:
1) The AP makes cultural contributions that follow the new holidays/new foods model
2) The process then moves beyond these contributions to include an appreciation of a different cultural outlook. The family members come to understand the AP and their view on things.
3) The next part of the process is then the transformation. Some of the basic assumptions about “how things are” that our family once held are shifted due to the cultural exchange between us and the AP.
and finally
4) The changes become normative not only within the family but move outward into our understanding of our own culture and how we interact with people other than our AP.

In rereading this I am not sure this makes sense to anyone but me! I am sure Shana can do a more professional job, but I wanted to start this conversation.

Shana Medah August 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm


Believe it or not, you have pretty closely described the process by which one develops a true intercultural outlook. The first step is to become aware that differences do, in fact, exist. Then over time, with repeated exposure and the right frame of mind, a person begins to understand the deeper culture that underlies the differences. The highest level of intercultural development occurs when a person is able to choose from among all the cultural information available the most appropriate way of seeing understanding, behaving and reacting in any given situation. In other words, you not only learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, but to also feel the shoes with their feet.

Gianna August 20, 2010 at 9:25 pm

How cool ! My understanding from friends who were Peace Corps volunteers is that a major component of that program is sharing once they return home. I have been told that this is one reason that it is so important for aupairs to hone their return home skills ; that is why the State Department discourages changes of visa status. Aupairs are meant to return to their country of origin and share what they have learned in the US , for better or for worse. The experience of living abroad, in another culture is definitely a broadening experience. I thought that was extremely clear when host parents shared on this blog their experiences living abroad or as foreign exchange students. In the old days, I traveled internationally for business. To my mind, the intercultural impact was minimized by the fact that I was with a multi-national corporation that was almost a country unto itself. But I would love to hear about return home skills and how aupairs took their experiences home and shared them.
I want to say that Franzi’s comments have always been interesting to me and from time to time I read her blog. I am always looking for experiences like that.

Shana Medah August 21, 2010 at 6:11 pm


You’re right about the coming home part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer – your mission continues when you return home to be a cultural ambassador of your host country to other Americans. I have often thought that the au pair program shares a lot of similiarities to Peace Corps service – an au pair comes to perform a specific job (caring for your children), and the relationship works best when both parties take the ambassador role seriously. In many ways, going home is the hardest part, since you don’t just walk in the door and pick up where you left off, as if you had pressed the “pause” button on your DVD of life while you got up to get a snack. You have to rebuild your life, incorporating the things you’re learned and the changes that have occurred in you while you were away. You’re not the same as you were before, and you are now different from your friends, family, and fellow countrymen in ways that they may not be able to understand. An intercultural mindset is a double-edged sword. You gain understanding and can see many points of view at once, which can be a great advantage, but having one foot in two different cultures means that you are no longer wholly a part of one or the other, and it can be a lonely position to be in. The great challenge of coming home is learning how to harness the enormous potential of that precarious position and putting it to the best possible use.

Shana Medah August 21, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Greetings to all!

Thanks, CV, for such a warm welcome! I am honored to be invited to participate in your community discussions and to add to the cultural learning opportunities that participation in an au pair program brings. I think the au pair program is a wonderful idea, and the potential for learning is great. However, while some cultural elements, such as food and language, are quite obvious, the great majority are invisible to the untrained eye. One of the main goals of Jamana Intercultural is to help host families and au pairs identify their “cultural baggage” so that they don’t keep tripping over it. I am quite impressed with the interest the Au Pair Mom community has demonstrated in learning more about culture – and by the personal experience many of you have had in living in another culture yourselves – and I am very happy to offer whatever I can to keep that good thing going.

Anonymous this time August 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

This is a terrific discussion!

I think there may be a precursor step to the above process: being open-minded enough to observe differences without judging them harshly in a knee-jerk reaction.

For example, a young woman who has been living in a culture or community that is most generously described as sheltered (read: xenophobic) will probably struggle to get her footing living stateside in an urban area where there is a diversity of races–alongside a not-necessarily-overlapping diversity of SES’s–everywhere she goes.

How can I open the eyes of a young woman who associates immigrants and non-whites with laziness/stupidity/hate/crime/threats to her personal security? How to show her that the world has room for everyone? Is it through repetition–not letting her ‘get away’ with ignorant, blanket statements made in casual conversations?

And how can I help her learn and respect how we describe people in front of my kid when telling the story of “what happened today”? How do I let her know that the skin color of the person she encountered should not be the first detail she includes in her retelling of the day? How do I explain that “PC” is not

On the one hand, she came here to get away from that sheltered community, and “loves America”. On the other hand, if she really wants to learn about (our version of) the States, she needs to open her eyes, mind, and heart a bit.

How do I encourage this kindly?

How do I keep her from saying uncareful things in front of the kid?

There is a big risk here that she decides we are just “PC”, and throws us into that box of judgment and dismissal, and misses out on her opportunity for what I would call growth, because I DO think respecting and appreciating and learning from people who are not like me is a fundamentally better response than being xenophobic–but if growth is too much to expect, at least she would be exposed to different ways of living and experiencing life, rather than just shutting it all out.

These are hard discussions, and I’m not sure where to start. Are they in private? over coffee? As part of a general conversation with our school-age kid (because I need them all to understand these things, and I want my kid to have a framework for understanding what the AP may (stupidly) say when I’m not around)? Do I need to have conversations with each of them? What are my goals in those conversations? Any tips?

I want to say so much, but also understand this is a process, and she has to be ready to take in new perspectives. Where do I start? Where are the most common ‘chinks’ in the armor that I can take advantage of?

I appreciate anyone’s feedback on these issues. Looks like this will be my turn to grow as an adviser of young people, as well.

Shana Medah August 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm

You are right that it is a process, and that people will hear what they are ready for. It can be frustrating for people who have reached the point where they see the value of inclusion and a multi-faceted worldview to interact with those who haven’t reached that point yet. But as you have wisely understood, you are also in a position to be a great advisor. However, you have to proceed with caution and understand that the next step won’t be directly to multiculturalism.

At the beginning levels of awareness, a common reaction to difference is defense. Differences threaten one’s own world view, so an “us vs. them” mentality helps keep one’s own worldview central. As a result, it’s helpful to emphasize commonality between members of the “in-group” and the “out-group” in order to break down the “us vs. them” barriers. Pointing out human challenges that your au pair shares with members of the groups she denigrates is a good place to start. For example, if she is not a native English speaker, you can point out that the immigrants you encounter share the same communication challenges she does. Watching movies where the main characters are immigrants or minorities who face challenges that are part of the human condition is another idea (the movie “Stand and Deliver” comes to mind – a true story about a teacher who led his class of disadvantaged Latino students to success on AP calculus tests – it sounds like a boring topic but it is a compelling human story. “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington is another idea.) Gently help your au pair to examine the source of her images of immigrants and non-whites (TV? Movies? The news?). Objectively and factually explain some of the historical context – the civil rights movement and the many subsequent branches (women’s liberation, awareness of disabilities, and why Americans feel that words and names are important). Addressing her anxiety about contact with the groups in question (and negative remarks are a way to express that anxiety) can also help. Keep focus on commonalities and avoid emphasizing differences or stances that will push her back into “us vs. them”. Use any situation that comes up – it doesn’t have to be a special sit-down conversation.

MommyMia August 25, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Excellent points, Shana. Another great “immigrant” movie is “El Norte.” (especially the scene where the housekeeper tries to use the washing machine – every time I teach a new au pair how to use ours, I think of this!) And a more recent, poignant story is “Under the Same Moon.”

Should be working August 26, 2010 at 12:43 am

MommyMia–I, too, always have that washing machine scene in my mind! The girl from Guatemala is told by her wealthy employers to do the laundry, and she starts using her own, pre-technological ways to wash the clothes, to the shock of the woman she works for! The washing machine is a miraculous object for her.

Anonymous this time redux August 24, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Lost phrase above–should read:

How do I explain that “PC” is not superficial, as it is often portrayed; that being intentional in how we name and discuss people and issues can change how we think about and relate to people–and ultimately broaden our understanding of how the world works?

Should be working August 25, 2010 at 3:28 am

My experience is also that APs from our preferred countries scoff at what they see as “political correctness”–e.g. calling people what they prefer to be called (‘African-American’, ‘physically challenged’). One thing that works for me is to tell them it’s about MANNERS, not politics, because at least then they can chalk it up to custom and not dogma, and it is obviously ridiculous to scorn the manners of a country you are living in. (In my view, these things are in fact much more complicated than a politeness issue, but to frame it this way for a new AP at least sets them up to behave in an acceptable way around my kids and others, and then we can let the discussions unfold over time.)

I have also talked to the kids privately and let them understand that we need to show our AP what is respectful behavior if she doesn’t understand how it works here.

Calif Mom August 25, 2010 at 9:52 am

Very good points, Should Be…

It seems to work well when I engage our kids in teaching/helping our new au pairs learn about America–the real one we live in, not the America they think they know from Hollywood. Since my kids haven’t watched a lot of TV, they are sometimes surprised by what new APs *think* they know about us!

Hailing from the Birthplace of PC Language, this conversation reminds me of what it was like when I first met my husband’s family. They are not haters, they grew up with no exposure to any kind of minority communities (except for a few Hmong families whom a local church had helped relocate during the 1970s). It really is a lack of exposure that made them feel so personally uncomfortable with racial differences. Frank discussions helped; I have pointed out once in awhile that there are *far* more uneducated white families on welfare than any other demographic group in the U.S. I also discuss what I know about how news is made (they are heavy abusers of TV news) to try and shift their understanding a bit. Results: even if I haven’t shifted their opinions, at least they don’t spout off in front of me anymore, and they are much more sensitive in describing social problems and their views on specific groups in front of my kids. That is probably as much as I can hope for; it is in fact great progress when I consider where they were when I first met them.

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