I have been lucky enough to get exactly what I wanted from my Au Pair experience. For me this was a family living centrally in a large, vibrant city that I could explore, and living with a welcoming, friendly Chinese host family. I had hoped to find in Shanghai a city brimming with Chinese culture that also managed to be ‘tourist-friendly’ – I haven’t been disappointed. I’m lucky enough to live 3 metro stations from the city center, so it’s incredibly easy to explore whenever I have a free moment. I’ve also managed to have a lot of fun with the children I look after, whilst still (I hope) improving their spoken English. The host family I was matched with have been wonderfully kind and hospitable. Whilst I can’t guarantee every family would show every Au Pair the same warmth, if you take the necessary time to find one suited to you, you should get along just fine.
Of course, there were some rough patches as I adjusted to a new lifestyle and culture. When I arrived I had never been to Asia at all, and found some of the cultural norms very strange – for example the constant spitting in the streets. It also took time for me to adjust to spoken Chinese, which can come across as aggressive or impolite when you’re not used to its sound. I recognized the familiar symptoms of culture shock in my first few weeks. At first I was delighted with everything new, and was in a constant state of excitement and adrenaline. When this wore off after a few weeks I felt homesick and craved something from familiar; I bought anything I recognized in the supermarkets (which was very little) and called my family as much as I could. However, this melancholy stage passed as I grew accustomed to the culture and my host family and routine.
The Wanderlust Exchange agency have been a great source of support, simply knowing there is someone in your corner in case things go wrong is very comforting. It was brilliant to have a personal tour guide when I arrived, and the company representative took me sight-seeing. This also meant I had at least one friend when I got here. Additionally, for many Au Pairs who have issues they feel they can’t raise directly with their host parents, the agency acts as a go between and helps to smooth things over.
In terms of my personal experience with a Chinese family, I’ve been welcomed into a bustling and affectionate household where I do really feel a part of things. The family’s domestic lives have given me a glimpse of Chinese values, and the importance that’s placed on relationships and looking out for each other here. Living with a Chinese family shows you so much more than you would learn simply as a voyeur, viewing the sights. Additionally, it feels more worthwhile to be part of a cultural exchange; by teaching the children English and sharing a different culture with them you give something back, rather than simply harvesting what cultural knowledge you can from the country.
I have accompanied the family on many day trips and activities and have been taken to countless exciting restaurants where my host parent taught me about local cuisine. Perhaps my favorite part of this experience has been experiencing the multitude of new foods this country has to offer. I eat delicious, homemade meals that are different every day. Even the act of eating dinner with a Chinese family has taught me about the culture here; the communal, sharing dishes emphasize the importance of collectivity. This differs significantly to the Western tradition of having your own plate.
As for Shanghai itself, the city is a brilliant patchwork of the extremely modern and the traditional. It contains enough quintessentially ‘Chinese’ architecture to satisfy the romantic tourist, whilst remaining a fast-paced and convenient city. It has a thrilling and infectious energy. I think Shanghai was a perfect starting point for me, and I feel brave enough to now explore an older and more traditional part of China.
I would whole heartedly recommend the Shanghai Au pairing experience, for me it has given me an environment where I can be both comfortable, safe and well looked after, whilst simultaneously being immersed in a new and vastly different culture to my own. I don’t deny that I have been lucky with my family. I’d urge future au pairs to take their time and search for a family that you will get along with and that will help you have your desired experience. As long as you choose a match carefully you’ll have an incredible time.