What counts as “cultural exchange”?

by cv harquail on August 3, 2010

Host Mom KMW writes with this thoughtful question:

Most families seem to include the cultural aspect of having an au pair as an important reason for going the au pair route. I have been thinking a lot about the pluses and minuses of Au Pairs vs. a US based nanny… and I’m wondering how much of this cultural exchange is ‘real’ and how much is lip service?

When other families think about cultural exchange, what kinds of things count?

  • People say they like to expose their children to another language, but how many host kids have actually learned that language (more than counting to 10 and hello and goodbye)?
  • How many au pairs actually cook food from their country?
  • Do host families take part in any other cultural activities from the au pair’s country (such as celebrating foreign holidays)?
  • Have you learned anything much about politics or culture from your au pair?Free Pink Flower pick sherbert.jpeg
  • What kinds of specifically cultural things end up being shared between an au pair and a host parent?
  • In the end do these make a big difference in the experience?

KMW, this is a fun question to think about ... especially since so many of the ‘cultural’ things that we’ve learned from our au pairs have come in bits and pieces, and are often indistinguishable from personality differences.

Readers, what counts as something “cultural” for you?

{ 71 comments }

calif mom August 3, 2010 at 11:53 am

* How many host kids have actually learned that language?
— My 6 year old understands what au pair and friends are chatting about. (Which they don’t all realize! ;-) )She has fabulous phonemes that I can only dream of. Our entire family adopts certain phrases that resonate and become part of our family’s shorthand. We all say “Saudje” when someone sneezes (I’ve even done this at work, oops), or we’ll throw out an au pair’s super-effective phrase for getting kids out the door and to the pool: “Lez GO!!!”

* How many au pairs actually cook food from their country?
–Most of ours have, even the ones who didn’t last long. We have incorporated a type of homemade Brazilian candy into our bday celebrations, and learned the recipe.

* Do host families take part in any other cultural activities from the au pair’s country (such as celebrating foreign holidays)? Brazil Day is big with the Brazilians, but not very cross-cultural. Celebrating foreign holidays varies depending on the AP.

* Have you learned anything much about politics or culture from your au pair?
–absolutely! I’ve been reminded just how hard it STILL is to be a young woman in most countries, how dependent they are on others for livelihood, and how many opportunities my girls have that I am thankful for (not satisfied, of course, but appreciative of what we do have).

* What kinds of specifically cultural things end up being shared? Songs, foods, traditions.

* In the end do these make a big difference in the experience?
–Absolutely! Depending on personalities, this can be much more rich experience, because there is more of a sense of “in this together”–both parties are just plain in the same home for more hours, and your interactions cover a broader range of experiences (dating, for example, never comes up with a nanny!). That said, our first nanny share a lot with us culturally, so it does depend on the individuals involved. If you pick someone who is really ‘into’ the cultural aspects and joining your family as a member, you will get a lot more of this than someone who is more independent.

darthastewart August 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Do you make Brigadeiros? They are so yummy. :) I’ve gotten people at work hooked on them. Do you make the chocolate or the vanilla kind(with the clove on top)?

Amelie ex-au pair August 3, 2010 at 2:12 pm

I made brigadeiro once for an au pair meeting my host family attended, everybody just loved it! There’s a similar candy with coconut that is also very yummi, called “beijinho” (portuguese for “small kiss”). Also very popular on birthdays.

Honestly, I didn’t bring much of brazilian culture into my family… I taught a few words to the kids and once or twice talked to my host parents about politics… But it was about it.

MommyMia August 3, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Yep, those Brigadeiros are the best! (Haven’t heard of the vanilla ones, but I’ll go search for a recipe!) We didn’t get any cooking or culture, though, from our Brazilian AP–it was only when she was leaving and I found a recipe for them and Coxinhas(?) and made them for her farewell party, as well as sent some of the candy with her as a gift to her new host family (always did wonder if they made it, or got eaten on the plane flight?!) Luckily, my kids didn’t learn the few choice Brazilian words that were muttered under her breath when they misbehaved or talked back, but also this AP didn’t learn much English in six months here because it was too easy to speak in Portuguese with all her friends.

With other APs, we have some really great recipes they’ve made and shared with us, we’ve put out shoes on Saint Nicholas’ Day, celebrated birthdays the way they would at home (yet they’ve experienced “our” version, with the too-sweet cakes served with ice cream!, and learned some basic songs and words, but that’s OK, because the second language used most often in our area is Spanish, and I’d rather my kids learn Chinese or Russian so that they’ll be better able to deal with international business and politics when they’re older. With some, we have had interesting discussions about economics and politics and current events in their countires and other parts of the world – others would rather find a good nightclub and be with friends during their off time. Overall, we’ve had a great mixture of cultural experiences, but the best are those when we go visit THEIR homes and countries (as we’ve done with previous exchange students, and hope to do) someday with our great au pairs!

Calif Mom August 4, 2010 at 9:02 am

yep–Brigadeiros! (I couldn’t remember the name. My kids have much better Portuguese than I…)

We make the chocolate kind, by cooking down a can of condensed milk, adding chocolate powder, and then and rolling in “sprinkles”. A serious crowd-pleaser, and so easy! As long as you can get enough of them actually into the little paper thingies and onto a serving tray, instead of the rollers’ tummies… :-)

Calif Mom August 4, 2010 at 9:04 am

(…also caipirinhas, but those aren’t for sharing amongst the silly bandz set!) ;-)

darthastewart August 4, 2010 at 9:02 pm

I make mine with butter too… omg.

I’ve got a great stash of cachaca. :) come over to my house for a round of caipirinhas.

My 2 cents August 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Candidly I can answer “no” as to all the questions.

We did not get into this for the cultural exchange and, in my experience, the cultural experience is more for the au pair that it is for you. That being said, what was a big shock to me was how much I really enjoy teaching a new au pair about local or regional customs and just the general experience of helping a young adult living apart from parents for the first time foster their independence and explore new things on their own (safely of course!). It really is rewarding for us. I didn’t buy into this whole notion of au pair as a family member — at least from the emotional side; we do treat our au pairs like family members for the most part — but it has taken root with certain au pairs.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm

We enjoy the cultural exchange. Both HD and I lived outside the US for a year as graduate students (and I did a stint as an undergrad as well) and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Most of you know that we attempted to sponsor our first AP as an employer, and our son was completely and utterly bilingual until he was 4 (today he studies Spanish, not Portuguese, but I think having had the exposure to Portuguese makes language acquisition easy for him). Our first AP cooked for the children, but because she was working 45 hours a week and after the first 10 months going to school full-time, she rarely cooked for us as family. By the time she left, after 3 1/2 years, I had receptive Portuguese, which distressed her (no speaking on the phone in front of me any more). We found several Brazilian cultural events to attend.

AP #2 arrived just before the Christmas holidays and shared differences with us, but didn’t put candy in our son’s shoe until her extension year. She did a lot of cooking for us, and especially enjoyed making Austrian cakes, with our son.

AP #3 didn’t cook, but being from Brazil, we easily incorporated attending Brazilian events once again with her. We attempted to make Brazilian-American food for her.

AP #4 incorporated her Swedish traditions with us, cooked special meals, and when her family visited they made us special meals as well. She threw a Midsummer Party, which the kids got to attend a little bit. We found special Swedish Christmas sodas and surprised her with them.

AP #5 went into extreme culture shock when she arrived. She hated non-Chinese food from the start (we cook foods from a variety of countries, albeit with an American take). So, to make her happy, we started the tradition of having her cook for us once a week on a night when we were going in several different directions, but still coming back to the table together for dinner. It worked well. She made a special Chinese New Year dinner for us and for neighbors who have two adopted daughters from China. She is a good cook and has done more cooking than any other AP, but then she is the only AP to have completely rejected the food on our table.

While the cultural exchange necessarily goes more from us to the APs – after all they’re living in our country, I must say we have adapted our cooking to their tastes. My cookbooks are filled with who likes what, so that when they return for a visit, it’s not difficult for me to make a favored dish. Because I have many food allergies and intolerances on top of my preference not to eat meat, my cooking is funky and experimental – and some of my APs have visited other AP friends and have been surprised that food in their American families comes from a box or a car (e.g. – is frozen or delivered).

Aupairgal August 3, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Taking a Computer Lunch just made me think of an interesting question by stating that she and her husband both did a year abroad. I’m curious as to how many host mothers/fathers here have lived abroad or were raised in different countries and how has it affected their abilities/interactions/understandings regarding having an aupair. I’m hoping CV makes this a new thread :)

Hula Gal August 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm

My husband is from Northern Ireland. His sister was an au pair. If it weren’t for that I would have never known that US families have au pairs. I studied abroad as well which allows me to relate to the au pairs and culture shock. The cultural exchange is not a priority for us especially since we have a two year old but we end up entertaining the notion of cultural exchange mostly out of curiosity. Our au pair does cook food for us which we think is great. We asked her about certain aspects of her culture. It happens organically.

Hula Gal August 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm

I should clarify that she occasionally cooks for us. I certainly don’t want anyone to assume that we force our au pair to cook for us every night! LOL!

MommyMia August 3, 2010 at 6:59 pm

That would be interesting! I did live a year abroad, also, studying a language, and think that’s what made me/us receptive to the whole idea, which for us began with exchange students long before we had children. I think it does help sell us to some prospective APs.

cv harquail August 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Aupairgal-
that’s a neat topic… I’ll add it (probably next week)…. cv

Aupairgal August 4, 2010 at 1:56 am

Thank you thank you!!

Kat August 3, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I wanted to put candy into my hostchildren’s shoes for “Nikolaus” on December 6th, but my hostfather wouldn’t let me.
He said something about already having plenty occasions where they’d get candy and other stuff. That was like a punch in the face. I wanted to share something from my culture that one time, but he just said that right in front of the kids.
And the worst thing was I had already told the kids that something “special” was going to happen that night and that “Nikolaus” would come to their house as well this year because they had someone german around. I didn’t even wanna make it an every year tradition for them, I had said clearly that it’d only happen because I was there or something.
From that day on, I just stopped trying to introduce that kind of things from my culture… Sad!

2boys2girls August 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I am so sorry you had this experience! All five of our au pairs have been from Germany and we LOVE Nikolaus – I have never seen the kids work so hard at cleaning anything!!! :)
It sounds like your host dad could use some sensitivity training…

CS Nanny August 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm

My first family disliked everything American (except plastic surgeons) and constantly compared Switzerland to the US. I felt like I was pretty much cheap labor, since I was considerably cheaper than hiring a Swiss nanny, and there wasn’t much cultural experiences exchanged. Why the hired an American, I don’t know. Thankfully, my then-boyfriend’s family (they were Swiss) took pity on me, and included me in all holidays and various traditions. In the two years I was with that family, they never asked me how we celebrated holidays back home, etc. So it is awesome to see that the HF’s on here try to include their AP’s in daily life as well as the fun times. And that the AP’s feel comfortable sharing their culture!

NY Hostmom August 3, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Sorry that happenned to you. We thought it was great fun at our house! American children probably get too much candy anyway, so what’s one more day of it? Keep trying!!!

Host Mommy Dearest August 3, 2010 at 11:11 pm

That is so sad, I agree. The DH doesn’t need to prohibit “Nikolaus” and take away the excitement and fun. I agree that at least my kids get too much candy, but that doesn’t mean you lock out the Easter Bunny or call off Halloween, you just set limits to the amount of candy intake per day. It’s strange to be the Easter Bunny and the mean mom rationing the candy at the same time….but they are still excited to get candy even if they couldn’t possibly eat all of it by the next candy holiday at the rate I ration it. I end up eating some and throwing out a bunch to prevent me from eating the rest.

One year our AP asked me (in private) if it was ok to give Easter baskets for the kids. I thought that was really considerate of her to ask and I said of course they would love it but also asked if she could keep the candy minimal and put a few non candy age appropriate things in the basket such as stickers (at the time) and the like.

NannyChristina August 4, 2010 at 12:02 am

Intresting note, my family is primarily french-german originating from luxembourg. But most (if not all of my family) are american born and we do the St. Nick tradition. I had no idea that it wasnt a typical american thing.

Calif Mom August 4, 2010 at 9:17 am

As someone who is concerned with nutrition and food sourcing, some people are surprised by my policy on sugary holidays: I tell the kids to just to go to town. They usually self-limit their intake, and I don’t have to be an ogre. I’ve actually seen my kid with a super-huge sweet tooth stop eating a bowl of ice cream that was too big. This approach is very liberating! It’s harder at the holidays when the sweets are ubiquitous for weeks on end, but it works great for Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s, etc.

And that HD should be embarrassed. I’m sure it was a knee-jerk reaction and he just wasn’t thinking.

AP–I agree that you shouldn’t give up on sharing things that are important to you. The next time you want to do something like, talk to the hosts ahead of time, in private, so they don’t have the pressure to make an instant decision in front of the kids. Tell them the reason it’s important to you, and you might even gently them know that the Nikolaus thing hurt your feelings a bit. You might even teach Insensitive Dad something! And I know you’ll be proud of yourself for having that touch conversation. This is *your* year to grow, too.

Kat August 5, 2010 at 10:24 am

Thanks for all your support. But this experience was in December 2007, so unfortunately it’s too late to talk to him about anything at all ;)
But if you know my HD, you know that’s just the way he is. We got along ok during the year, but I constantly got annoyed with him or was sometimes even afraid of him. Often I waited for my hm to come home so I could ask her for the car instead of him. I just didn’t like talking to him or asking him for favors.
So after a few months of being sad or even crying because of things he’d said (or sometimes just the way he’d said them), I learned to just do whatever he told me and not to take it to heart anymore. It was just senseless. He’s probably a good dad who loves his kids, but he just likes to be in power a little too much…..

BLJ Host Mom August 5, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Sorry Kat. What a jerk!
I agree my kids get too much candy then too. But he could have easily have ask you if Nikolaus could have brought a few little toys instead, or a few healthy granola bars. Good for you for trying. We love Nikolaus with our first Geman AP and hope to do it again this year with our second one! I don’t blame you for giving up, and I’m so sorry for your experience!

darthastewart August 3, 2010 at 1:41 pm

We have gotten into the cultural exchange quite a bit. We asked the first 7-8 au-pairs to all speak to the kids in German. But it became clear that some of the kids weren’t learning much. (some did better than others. My 9 yo speaks a fair amount of German)

We have German videos, and the kids love to watch them. And German books. And the kids LOVE German nutella, and schokomac, and pancakes, and almost all German food. Now most of my kids eat their spaghetti with ketchup on them. (Yep, a German tradition.)

We try to remember to celebrate the German holidays, like St. Nicholas.

Our current au-pair is surprised at how much we’ve picked up.

We’re actually a bit limited in the au-pairs we get countries from, since I speak both Spanish and Portuguese fluently. I tried one time to have a Mexican au-pair and he never learned to speak English. (even after 5 months when he went awol). It’s HARD to make yourself speak a language that you know they don’t understand, and is inefficient for communication.

CO Host Mom August 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm

We’ve loved the cultural exchange aspect. Our current au pair is from Macedonia. No, my children don’t speak Macedonian, but they have learned some basic phrases. She cooks for us often, and shares a lot of information about her home country including holidays, traditions, politics, etc….

Our incoming (arriving Friday!) au pair is from France. My 12 year old son has been wanting to learn French and is fascinated with all things associated with France. (He is an avid ballet dancer). This year I specifically looked for a French au pair because of that.

Not only do my children get a cultural exchange experience from our own au pair, but from the other au pairs in the cluster. The kids love meeting the other au pairs, learning about their countries, etc….

Yes, I’d say for our family, the cultural exchange aspect is a huge part of why we have an au pair versus a domestic nanny.

First Time HP August 3, 2010 at 2:08 pm

From my experience a lot of the cultural learning is picked up through small day to day stuff. Many times we’ll ask how such as such in in their country and pick up something new, its usually just a quick tidbit but adds up. We’ve also done some bigger things, like having the AP cook and trying to follow some traditions around holidays. We’ll also discuss current events, sports, politics (I know probably a no no) to get a different perspective and have enjoyed that aspect fo the program.

I agree that the APs gain a lot more than the families but feel satisfied with the cultural learning’s we have gained.

AUPAIR Momma August 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I love discussing politics..one of the fun things.

used to be an AP August 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm

During the orientation week we were told several times never to discuss politics with our HPs. According to the instructors most HPs would get very mad if an AP even hinted at a slight disagreement with current American politcs (this was in 2001, so Bush was president and he was very unpopular in Europe). I never mentioned anything about politcs in my HPs presence.
I was the 6th German AP in my HF and besides “Gesundheit” and “Danke schön” (both pronounced incorrectly) the children did not know any German words.
I don’t know how much they actually knew (or now know) about German culture. I did the “Nikolaus Stiefel” for them, played some German games with them, and now and then I cooked something “German”, although the problem was that I hardly like any typical German dishes.
But I learned a lot about American Culture (I am now getting a PhD in American Cultural Studies…) and my HPs were really great in teaching me in this respect. Also, my HM asked me as soon as I had arrived whether I’d like her to correct my language mistakes. I said “yes” and this really improved my English skills a lot.

MommyMia August 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm

That’s something I’ll do in the future – ask if they’d like me to correct language/grammar mistakes (kindly, of course!) That’s something that’s always been a bit tricky – some of the quicker ones notice when I’m correcting the kids’ mistakes, and I notice them copying the good, rather than the bad, after that!

Taking a Computer Lunch August 3, 2010 at 9:52 pm

An easy means to “correcting” English, without being obvious, is to answer the question fully using the correct words, rather than just “Yes” or “No.” When APs are new we try to enunciate a bit better and more slowly. When an AP mixes “he” and “she” (probably the most frequent and obvious mistake), just use the correct pronoun. (My smart-aleck nine-year-old purposely mixes up the use of “well” and “good,” which quite frankly messes up the APs.) When the wrong idiom is used, just answer in the affirmative with the correct one (when I call home to say I am running a couple minutes late, but I’m on the bus and will be home in ten minutes, my current AP often says, “See you later,” and after I mentally giggle at the thought of running away, I reply, “Yes, see you soon.”)

NC AP August 4, 2010 at 6:50 am

This question might sound stupid, but is there really a difference between “see you later” and “see you soon”? Could you explain it to me, please? I always thought those were both the same :)

Taking a Computer Lunch August 4, 2010 at 7:07 am

“See you soon,” to me, means “See you shortly,” and is usually said to a person on their way to see you, on their way home, or whose impending visit is implied. I might say “See you soon” to my mother in Nevada, when she plans to visit in a couple of weeks or if I am going to visit her in a short time period ahead. It’s a message of anticipation.

“See you later,” is usually a departing message. “I’m going out, I won’t be long.” You might say it as a goodbye to a friend who you intend to see later in the day, or to your HP as you head out the door. It may be casually said, to imply that you will see the person in the next few days as a goodbye, but usually it implies that you will see the person in the same day. I often say it to my husband when I head out the door in the morning, when he says “Goodbye,” I often respond, “See you later.” See you later may be shorten to just “Later,” as a really casual goodbye. If you mean to see the person the next day, you would respond, “See you tomorrow.”

NC AP August 4, 2010 at 8:51 am

Thanks for explaining it to me! Always good to learn something new :)

Calif Mom August 4, 2010 at 9:30 am

We absolutely talk about politics! Gingerly at first until we are sure we have similar values (but since we matched with this person, we will have a pretty good idea of where she stands on the political spectrum). This was *especially* the case during the Bush years, because IMHO it’s important for the world to understand that inside the US there are divergent opinions on everything, but we pull together when it really matters. Europeans weren’t the only people unhappy with the Bush White House. For an AP agency to suggest to new APs that any conversation topic is taboo, verboten, is naive and again, IMHO, insulting. I can see where a naive young AP with limited English could get herself into a tricky conversation she might want to avoid, but to make an entire cohort of new APs fear talking politics with Americans is ridiculous.

And understanding the U.S. government–historically, the most successful system of government in history, and widely emulated–is key to understanding many parts of our culture. (off soapbox now! The perils of a liberal arts education….)

Mom23 August 4, 2010 at 2:56 pm

We absolutely discuss politics as well. It is kind of hard to avoid in DC, which in the city proper is predominantly democrat. There are a number of political dioramas set up in people’s yards at Halloween and our au pairs have enjoyed photographing them.

We have, of course, had a number of au pairs who were apolitical and one very interesting experience with an au pair who had never been interested in politics start watching you tube videos of political demonstrations in her home country. It was fascinating for us to share this with her.

PA ap mama August 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I agree with First time HP that the cultural learning is learned throughsmall everyday things. But I have found that the really valuable insights come when you sit down talk to the AP about home. Who has time for that, week in and week out? But that is when you really know what it is like to be a young woman in another country. For instance, my AP said her mother would be disgraced(my word) if she went out into the world and didn’t know how to clean and cook. And this is priority #1, then comes education. As a result, as I am writing this, she has come to me to ask for flour and yeast. Apparently she is baking something. I have also been lucky that my APs have greatly desired to cook, and we have been treated to some of the best authentic foods you can get. It also has made the APs happy and more comfortable to eat their own foods sometimes. I know how to make a kick-ass goulash now too.

NY Hostmom August 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm

We have au pairs in large part because we want the children exposed to another language and culture. We have had American nannies when they were younger and could have continued that plan but feel that the cultural exchange is valuable to all of us. We have learned new foods, new holidays, and new ways of looking at things. We love trying new foods and learning to make them. Spaetzle is now a regularly prepared dish at our house, as are many of the German dishes we have tried over the past couple of years. My children are also able to spot German chocolate from across the room and would knock over anyone in their way to get it!

We have enjoyed making our aupairs’ holidays part of our family calendar and probably will continue to celebrate them for many years to come. St Nicklaus day has been a fun addition to our calendar and we can remember fondly the au pairs who introduced it to us. Who wouldn’t want a few more holidays to celebrate? The children love sharing our holidays with our au pairs as well. They love having them dress up for Halloween and go trick or treating with us. I think I spend a little more time preparing for our “minor” holidays like Valentines day and St Patricks Day than I otherwise would since I want our au pairs to really be able to experience the holiday. I enjoy watching the children telling the au pairs about the holidays and why they are celebrated. It’s good to know that they value these experiences.

It is said that you should never discuss politics or religion with friends and that should probably apply to au pairs as well, but I have found that lighthearted discussions about politics makes me realize that there is always some common ground to be found.

NewAPMama August 3, 2010 at 4:09 pm

It is more expensive for us to host an AP than it would be to hire an American nanny. We definitely do it for the cultural experience. I honestly think our family and AP both get a lot out of it. Our children are learning a new language (our aupair does lessons), eating new foods, and viewing a different culture. Our AP gets to see how a “real” American family lives (and that it’s different than in the movies), travel a bit, and improve her English. So I feel it’s a win-win for everyone.

AUPAIR Momma August 3, 2010 at 4:14 pm

We do get a lot out of the cultural exchange. My baby learned german and could respond to things as well in english and german at 15 mo. I really enjoy hearing the ‘shock’ at american culture and how things ‘are normal’ elsewhere. I feel a little less American centric knowing that other cultures legitimately do things differently. I am also less prudish knowing how prudish the Europeans find many American people are.

yeah , you are right ..none of my 3 aupairs actually cooked. I find it few and far between to find girls who really know how to cook the cuisine of their culture. Cooking ability has been a disappointment to me :(

Taking a Computer Lunch August 3, 2010 at 9:55 pm

We interviewed several APs who said that they enjoyed cooking, and invariably when questioned about what they enjoyed making, “Pasta,” was the answer. Sigh. When I was a teenager our family hosted a Rotary foreign exchange student from Denmark – he was horrified the first time he saw pasta marinara. Now, it’s probably a staple in the diet of most Danish children…

CS Nanny August 3, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Actually, Danish people eat their pasta with ketchup. My best friend is from Denmark, and I couldn’t believe it when she told me that.

Hula Gal August 4, 2010 at 9:57 am

Yes – it does seem to be very international, this pasta dish. LOL! We received the same responses from many of our interviews and these girls were from several different countries. So I’ve decided that this is code for “I have no idea how to cook and will be a picky eater.” Although, I’m willing to be proven wrong. ;-)

Calif mom August 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm

The lack of daily pasta w/overcooked chicken lunch has been extremely disappointing to my youngest this summer.

I’m ok with a candidate or AP who doesn’t know how to cook–but do not do well with someone who doesn’t know how to eat properly! These are important distinctions to look for in interviewing. Because if she can’t/doesn’t feed herself a balanced diet, she won’t feed your kid one, either. (Example: it’s really NOT ok for a 30 lb kid to eat 3 bananas a day.)

Taking a Computer Lunch August 4, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Yup, my son, when he was 4 said on Thanksgiving, “I’m not going to eat a bite of food until dinner today!” I knew exactly from whom he had heard it.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 4, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Actually, I think only being able to cook pasta is a sign of being a beginning chef. When DH and I first moved in together (23 years ago), the joke was that when it was my turn to cook we ate pasta, his leftovers or we went out. I’ve evolved, but I still rely on cookbooks for recipes, whereas he can often just make stuff up (his mother had been a gourmand).

So, to me, when an AP says “I like to make pasta,” it translates to, “I haven’t a clue how to cook my favorite foods, but when I’m on my own I don’t starve and neither will your kids.” All of our APs have been able to cook (at least with a cookbook or a recipe printed off the Internet), with the exception of one Brazilian who grew up having a household cook.

Jennifer August 3, 2010 at 4:25 pm

We have picked up a little bit at a time with each au pair. Not that we have become “worldly” but I think it has been great to expose my boys to another culture as well as expanding their horizon. They were shocked the first one had never heard of Britney Spears! LOL And my 2nd AP was shocked that we did not know some of the famous actors/movies from her country. We had a German during Christmas and I really enjoyed hearing the differences. She enjoyed experiencing an American Christmas. The food has been quite tricky as I have a houseful of picky eaters. I have let and encourage both AP’s to cook their food but do not guarantee we will eat it. This way she is not “forced” to eat our food either. :)

myaupairbook August 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Let me start this message with a praise for this blog – what a fantastic job! I have been an au pair myself and now I am an au pair host mother. Because I have been interested in this au pair world for quite some time it has inspired me to go a step further and create a meeting site for au pairs and families and also to write my own blog though it is not half as comprehensive as yours! I can identify with a lot said in many of your blog’s posts. I have also written about my ‘culture shocks and exchanges’ in the blog – if you are interested in reading it: http://www.myaupairbook.com/blog; section Memoires, chapter 2: broken hearts and culture shocks…hope you will enjoy it :-)

OB Mom August 3, 2010 at 6:37 pm

My boys know a few things about the different countries the AP’s have been from, but not that much. Language (other than hello, counting, and colors) is too hard in a short time. What they do know is mainly the flag, main export and favorite food. But, I do think that having girls from other countries living with us teaches them tolerance of other cultures as much as anything. They learn traditions (Nikolaus has come to our house twice and we have to explain that he only stops here because of our German/Austrian AP’s). I am hoping that this tolerance and awareness of the world around them will help them stay open minded and someday they will be able to go on an amazing world tour seeing their old AP’s in their homes (if they haven’t caught the cross-cultural bug and moved away).

We also do have a “World” section on our Christmas Tree … I try to encourage each AP to bring a Christmas ornament from their home towns. That way every year we can celebrate the differences in our cultures.

momto2 August 3, 2010 at 7:02 pm

We’ve enjoyed brigiadiero, arepas, arroz con pollo and currently lots and lots of boiled potatoes and rye bread. We enjoy cooking with our au pairs which we’ve found is one of the best ways to exchange cultures, especially when language is a barrier. We have encouraged the language teaching, however we have seen that most of our AP’s came here to improve their English so they do not really seem too interested in speaking their native language with the kids. (On skype and during outings with their same language peers is another thing–not an English word to be heard…). We encourage discussion about politics, government, sociology and holiday celebrations around the dinner table, and have enjoyed learning about their countries. We invite the holiday celebrations and do our best to accommodate the traditions, (except for the AP who wanted to burn a witch over the fire pit in a pagan ritual celebrating the summer solstice…..we felt this was a bit much for two small kids to appreciate). During our discussions, it has been interesting to learn how the US is perceived in their home countries. In most cases, their views have been positive, but despite our efforts to convince her otherwise, our Brazilian AP was adamant that the US was trying to steal the Amazon from her countrymen. (Not sure what we were supposed to be doing with it once we got it….)

PA AP mom August 3, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Our first AP wasn’t into cultural exchange at all. I asked her to teach our boys some German. After one session (about 15 minutes) she said they weren’t “interested enough” and vowed never to teach them any German.

Our current AP hasn’t taught my boys Swedish, but she teaches them about the holiday traditions in Sweden. My boys love hearing how they do their big xmas family celebration on xmas eve and they liked watching the Swedish Donald Duck special with our AP on Xmas Day. It took host dad nearly 4 hours to find a good version online for them to watch, but it was fun for them to all do it together.

Pa Host mom of Two Au-pairs August 4, 2010 at 1:19 am

I don’t believe our family has been as lucky as all of the posters above, only one of our AP tried to teach a language for a few short months to the older teens. While one of them said to me the reason she didn’t accept another family was that she didn’t want to teach her language, she wanted to learn ours. As I remember correctly I have had one girl that loved to cook bread, none of the other ones care enough to try and make meals, even though we encourage it and stated we would pay for all the supplies. We have been happy with St. Nick visiting in December and learning a bit about their home country. I can honestly say that our past few au-pairs have not set the world on fire with the cultural exchange part of this program.

OzMum August 4, 2010 at 3:01 am

My two kids are still too young to be fluent in a language, but can sing various songs in other languages, as well as count, say small phrases etc
Our aupairs have often enjoyed sharing their cooking traditions, and we enjoy trying new things as a family.
We have celebrated holidays with our aupairs as they have wished to… we recently had ‘midsummer’ in our midwinter, and ate the traditional strawberries with loads of whipped cream, typical of our last aupairs region in Sweden… was yummy!! We’ve had a German easter, as well as St Nicolas… we’ve had a sushi party typical of Japan…
We learnt alot about our Japanese aupairs culture, and how hard she will have it when she returns home (family pressure of marriage, children etc, when this isn’t what she particularly wants).
We as a family really love the cultural exchange! We share the culture of our state, which is different to other states… we love trying our aupairs traditional cooking, learning some of their language, and learning how families live throughout the world. I really ‘sell’ the cultural exchange as one of the benefits of having an aupair… and if we didn’t have an aupair, we’d have an exchange student instead! =)

HRHM August 4, 2010 at 7:03 am

Language – our first 2 spoke serbian/bosnian, so we learned a fair amount of vocab (although not sentence structure). Not learning ANY czech this year.
Politics/religion – we spent a lot of time talking about these with the APs. Never one to worry about offending :). I felt free to get their opinions. It’s interesting (and sometimes frustrating) to hear how little they know about what is going on in the wider world.
Our APs have gotten variable amounts of culture. Current AP travels quite a bit and will see most of the highlights of the US (NY, DC, CA, Vegas, Niagra, Florida) before her 13th month arrives. AP1 & 2 only went to DC, 1 to visit cousins and 2 to party.

Overall, it is directly related to the work you and the AP put into it. You can avoid any cultural exchange very easily.

Gianna August 4, 2010 at 7:53 am

My family and I have learned more than I can tell about geography , especially in France and Germany. We have always looked up the aupair’s town and now, it is so
easy to do that with all the new technology. I like having a sense of what her town looks like, what the newspapers in her country are saying. Sometimes an aupair wants to share these things and sometimes she is happy to absorb everything she can of our culture. No matter what, we can explore new places. One thing I regret about email is that we don’t get letters or postcards with unusual postmarks or stamps. There was something really fun about getting a pretty envelope in the mail. On the other hand, we do communicate more now that we have email. And we send more pictures than we ever did. I love it when aupairs send a picture of themselves in local settings.

Jeana August 4, 2010 at 7:58 am

The cultural experience was very important to me. I have traveled quite a bit, and spent three summers in Russia. I don’t speak Russian, and while I was there, only developed a survival vocabulary for purchasing the most basic foods, and the ability to introduce myself. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed in a place where I don’t speak the language, and the culture is very different than my own. This experience is what led me to returning to school to study language acquisition. I am now an ESL teacher. During my time in Russia, I came to believe that we don’t begin to examine our own culture until we’re “rubbing bellies” with another culture. In the school where I teach, our students speak more than forty languages, and in my district, families speak more than fifty languages. My school district has an excellent reputation, so when families from around the world are called to this area for work, they often choose to live where I work. I would love to teach internationally when I retire, in the future. So, yes, the cultural aspect of hosting an aupair is very important to me, and I wanted our family to learn about different parts of the world. We’ve learned so much about my daughters’ birth country; far more than we could learn from reading.

Yes, my children learned some language, but not as much as I had hoped. I am aware, though, that research says that if children have a vocabulary of fifty words in an additional language, by age five, their brain is “primed” for future learning, if they have the opportunity. My daughter learned to say a prayer in German in about three days, and it took me about three months. We woke our aupair when I could finally say it by myself, and we said this prayer before eating, while our German aupair lived with us.

Our aupairs have cooked, and taught us to make food from their country. We’ve invited them to take part in holiday celebrations, and asked how they would celebrate in their home countries. I’ve also tried to share traditions that many families have (such as apple picking in the fall, eating apple donuts, drinking cider) and traditions that are unique to our family. Our last two aupairs were from China, and my daughters were adopted from China, so it was special to celebrate Chinese holidays, too. We belong to an active adoption group, and our aupairs joined our group for holiday celebrations, also.

I loved talking politics with our aupairs!!! Especially during the time when it was an election year, it was very interesting to know what the perceptions were, in different parts of the world. Trying to explain the electoral college was very interesting!!!

Our aupairs have visited my older daughter’s schools, and shared their home countries. We’ve just had incredible conversations, and so much laughter as we’ve compared and contrasted our countries. My daughters have had the opportunity to learn from others about their birth country. This aspect has been very important to our family. We’ve had very loving relationships with these aupairs, and I can say that this was important to having the trust to initiate conversations, and responding to questions. One of our Chinese auapairs and I had an incredible conversation about crime and punishment, and I feel that I learned things from her that I would never have known, without our relationship.

Karin Six August 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I lived in the Netherlands for 7 years and being an LCC really brings back that ‘international traveler’ feeling for me. As I house a lot of au pairs who are new and/or in transition, it is always a delight to hear their experiences here in America. I always ask what surprises them and get some pretty interesting answers. Right now, I have a French & Colombian au pair staying at my home. Our kids love the atmosphere as our meals are alive with international conversation!

Gianna August 4, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Ironically, it was an aupair who was extremely homesick who taught us a great a deal about her country. She was from South Africa and the whole time she was with us , she talked about her house, her school, the friends she missed… you name it. We learned about all the stops on the railroad and the demographics of different towns. She told us how she got stuck on a highway , once, late at night. She was really shocked that we could just walk into the bank without seeing a security guard. She showed us lots of pictures of home, too. She ended up dropping out of the program but we learned a lot during her stay
and we had to rethink some of our ideas.

Europhile August 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm

For us, the cultural aspects of the exchange are very important. We hire only au pairs that speak German (we live in an English-speaking country). The kids are bilingual in English and German, and it is the au pair’s job to speak to them exclusively in German during the time she watches them). Most of our social life is spent in English, so she still gets plenty of exposure to English. This has worked out really well for us, as the kids are balanced bilinguals (something we had a hard time with initially, when they only wanted to speak English).

Of the four au pairs we have had, only one (our current one) has been interested things like politics. This change has been intentional. We used to have people who could deal with very young kids (baby/toddler age). Since the kids are now a bit older, we have been more focused on getting someone who we can have a “real” “adult” dinner conversation with. This is working out well so far, and the cultural aspects that go into the exchange become more plentiful that way, too.

On the culinary front, each au pair has brought something else to the table. Even though none of them could really cook when they first came here, they all learn a bit while they are here and also dare to do their own things after a while (even if that is just baking cookies with the kids).

So yes, cultural exchange is important, but it takes two to tango.

aria August 4, 2010 at 10:12 pm

This sounds a bit like my experience! The family I worked for had me speak to the kids exclusively in English, and they were 100% bilingual (except for some out of date expressions they picked up from their parents) in English and French. The particular family I worked for was not a good family to be in if you wanted to learn the language (French) but luckily, I wasn’t interested in the language immersion, so it worked both ways.

Euromom August 5, 2010 at 3:32 am

Okay while I will admit I have not been very good on the whole cultural experience uptake and really should try harder there have been some very unexpected effects of hosting on my family.

For instance, my teenage daughter has become very tolerant of other cultures. She has learned not to take things personally and now understands that sometimes what we perceive as rudeness is just the cultural norm elsewhere. This was particularly evident on a recent holiday – we live in a very warm friendly culture (we’re known for it :)) and she found it strange/frightening when the locals did not smile or greet us or one another (we do in our country – even strangers).

When we began hosting she thought that are au pair was unhappy and my daughter took this on herself to try to make the au pair feel better (she’s a little doll really). She did not understand why this au pair did not smile (and thought therefore that she must be unhappy). The au pair was just a serious girl – she was happy but not the way we understand happy to be, i.e. smiling like the village idiot!

Hosting au pairs has helped her (and the rest of the family) realise that cultural differences are just that – cultural – and not personal.

Some cultures are rather serious in nature, some are friendly, some are rude, and some are a little bit crazy (please note I’m not naming any!)

Some cultural lessons are not so obvious although we seemed to have grasped tolerance almost by accident!

M2DAD August 5, 2010 at 10:29 am

Cultural exchange is a two way street. I want to share my country and cultural with individuals that may positively affect their view of America for the rest of their lives.

MN HD August 5, 2010 at 2:17 pm

We have had 4 different Au Pairs and with each of them the cultural exchange was a little different. Three were from Europe and one from South America. While they all spoke a little bit of their language to our son, he is not fluent in any of them. Although he can count to ten in five languages now. Regarding cooking, each of them did a little bit of cooking, but not much. Mostly that was because they didn’t cook at home and were just learning how to cook. Regarding politics, we talked with all of them about it, but only one had any real interest (she was here during the 2008 election).

I think one of the things that we have done with each Au Pair is ask them to put together a PPT presentation about their home country that they can share with us and our extended family (3 out of the 4 have loved this – the fourth one did it, but was a little nervous about her PPT skills). This has been fantastic as it not only allows the AP to highlight their country and its traditions, but it shows that we are interested in learning more about them and their culture.

OnceAnAuPair August 6, 2010 at 1:49 am

As an au pair and even as a nanny now (I’m american working in switzerland), I try to teach the children (and parents) different things about American culture. The family I was an au pair, sometimes appreciated the cultural exchange. The kids and I celebrated Halloween (a bit bizarre though, with a formal dinner) and I the kids really enjoyed peanut butter while I was there, and mac & cheese. They also spoke English really well, but a strange mixture of English (former au pairs were from Canada, Romania, and the UK).
The parents had very little interest in the US, except to bash it, often. They liked to discuss their point of view on American politics and they also liked to say how fat Americans are. The children’s overweight grandmother even said the youngest girl was going to get fat because she was eating American (jiffy) peanutbutter and then saying that was why “all american kids are fat”, meanwhile she was 50sh lbs overweight herself :0.
I nannied for a British family, that I adored. The parents often told the little girl I was from “America”. And they really loved the American English words the little would use, like “couch”, “bus” and “Truck”. They took me to their beautiful home in Bath, England several times and made me traditional English meals and scones often, it was a lot of fun.
The family I’m nannying for now, and leaving soon to move, doesn’t really care about my culture. They’re Italian and very set in their Italian ways, especially with cooking. I’m the one getting culture exchange, mainly by force, such as using the wrong olive oil. It’s interesting though to learn about Italian culture and cooking. The girls I take care of, are incredibly sweet, but really have no idea that I’m from another country, far away. I’ve told them many times, but they don’t really understand. I’ve made some American cookies, cupcakes, and cakes with them though. But I haven’t tried anything besides baking in the cooking field. The mother might die if I brought peanut butter into the house :). I suggested making the girls some not-spicy mexican once, and was describing a quesidilla to the mother and her response was “is that even good?” ;(.

Nicola aupair August 7, 2010 at 1:22 am

haha, I aupaired in Italy too. My problem with food was that I’m Australian. In Australia, we get so many migrants that we can already enjoy authentic Italian pizza (although you have to know where to look), as well as most other European foods, along with heaps and heaps of Asian foods. I myself learned Japanese and Mandarin, and most of my friends prefer asian to european food. I almost cried when we walked into a Chinese restaurant one day! All I could think was “No peking duck for a whole year?!?!?!”

But I did get used to it eventually… ;) I was lucky that Italy does have such great food.

OnceAnAuPair August 7, 2010 at 10:40 am

I have lots of “food issues” with the Italians. Mainly, that the mother thinks I’m dying because I’m not getting “essential vitamins needed from meat” because I’m vegan. She thinks its necessary for humans to eat meat, cheese and milk. Especially her kids, they will DIE if they don’t eat meat or cheese at least once a day. I’m totally willing to cook vegetarian (not vegan) meals for the kids, but I just have no idea what to cook these kids because there’s nothing that I know how to make out of the food she buys! I would be more than happy to make mexican food, mac and cheese, omelets (they don’t eat eggs, but I’m not sure of her reason why, I guess dead animal carcass is more appealing than a chicken’s eggs)…mainly all the foods I grew up loving. But how do you make mac and cheese out of parmesean? Or a bean and cheese burrito with only gruyere cheese?!

AZ HM August 6, 2010 at 3:16 am

The cultural exchange part of the AuPair program was critical to our decision to host. My husband and I both lived abroad as young people (him in high school, me in college) and felt our experiences were life changing. That said, with our first AP, I assumed there would be an interest (and ability) on her part to share about her culture….but she had lived in another country herself for 7 years and really was inept (and uninterested) in sharing much about her homeland. When she tried to teach us some vocabulary from her language and we couldn’t pronounce words perfectly she laughed and discouraged and really just didn’t seem to want to teach us. She said she could cook…and she was able to prepare decent lunches (sandwiches) and warm leftovers…but she didn’t like to cook and couldn’t prepare a dinner from her own land our ours. To her credit she did introduce the kids to St. Nikolas — which we all loved…but that was the extent of her sharing her culture. And with regards to her interest in learning about ours — we just had really different values. She was more interested in celebrities than really learning about the pieces of US and our state’s culture that we think is more significant. Note — we actually were swayed in selecting AP#1 because she had been living in an English speaking country for years….but I think that her time away from her own home may have been related to her lack of interest/abiliety in the sharing about her own culture.

So, with AP#2, we made a concerted effort to find someone who we would be better able to learn from, as well as someone who seemed truly interested in our sharing. I can say that from all I’ve learned on this blog, I did a much better job in the selection process and our 2nd AP has exceeded our expectations in this area (as well as others). Our 19 month old knows her body parts, please/thank you, and many other words in spanish and english…our baby understands our AP (and her family over skype) when they talk to her in spanish. My 6 and 4 year old are singing in spanish and my 6 year old is reading some in spanish…It is really great. Our AP knows we value the 2nd language learning and she makes an effort to support the kids’ learning. Our AP also seems to know more about her country and is interested in sharing. We’ve discussed politics, family, and holiday celebrations — as well as other minor things that just come up in day to day life. I make a point to ask her about her home country and how they do things, how things are different, and how she feels about things….and luckily she is happy to share. On the flip side, she is interested in learning about those things in our culture I feel are worth sharing (less celebrities; more history, politics, museums, family experiences, etc…). For us this element of the match being better has made our overall relationship better. In addition, our 2nd AP also cooks lovely dishes from her homeland for our children (and if we are lucky we get a bite too).

This is a great post…as I would communicate to new HP that it is important to consider how important the cultural exchange piece is for you and then build into your interviewing process ways to examine what your AP thinks about sharing her culture and learning about yours.

aria August 6, 2010 at 9:42 am

I didn’t really share much about my (American) culture with my HF, but I didn’t spend much time with them either, since I lived in a separate apartment. Once in a while my HM would ask me how we did things, but I think the problem with being American is that a lot of people already think they know everything about the States from Bush, MTV, McDonald’s, etc. It’s a little disappointing. When I tried to set some ideas straight, “Uh-oh, Aria’s getting patriotic again!”

My HK were an amazing bunch. I really had fun talking to them about the States. They were only 5, but they were already interested, clever, and incredibly open minded. We used to draw flags from all the different countries their previous APs had come from, and by the time I left, they were able to point out all the embassies and flags they encountered on their way to school. I bought them Uncle Sam costume hats and now whenever they see him they can tell all about him! Unfortunately, I’m hopeless in the kitchen beyond pasta, but I know their previous AP used to make them cookies special to her country and they can still remember the significance of them, even 2 years later. I miss my boys so much!!!

Mumsy August 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

I have found that the cultural exchange aspect of the program takes a back seat to the AP having an enjoyable year.The cultural exchange with our 4 AP’s was very one-sided, with 3 AP’s offering very little of their culture, language or traditions unless specifically asked. 1 AP did share a little more than the others and we enjoyed sharing and learning from her. :)
Our recently terminated AP#5 shared what she implied were her cultural norms (read on) by refusing to do her job, yelling at me, slamming the doors in our home, etc. When I confronted her about her behavior, she told me that was how she spoke to her mom at home and that her behavior is acceptable in her home country. (No! It is not acceptable in that country or in any other country I can think of …..) This was certainly an exchange I could have done without!

DC Mom August 10, 2010 at 10:58 am

I can honestly answer no to all the questions. My two au pairs also had no interest in learning anything about American culture. The program might promote cultural exchange but that’s not the primary focus of the program (sadly, neither is quality child care) and it’s certainly not why either of my au pairs entered the program nor is it why I entered the program.

CS Nanny August 10, 2010 at 11:00 am

What drew you to the program?

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