Picking my bag up from the bag carousel in Pudong airport and heading towards the arrivals hall, I was very much unsure what to expect about my 3 months in China with Wanderlust Exchange. It was my first time in mainland China – and the first day of my new life in China. A new job, family, language, city, country and culture awaited me the other side of the sliding doors.
With my time in Shanghai nearly finished, it is only now that I realise how much I have experienced and seen in the last few months. In my first few days, I saw much of Shanghai with Lisa, Wanderlust’s brilliant and very lovely intern, on the orientation course. Seeing many of the major sights (the Bund, Peoples’ Square, and the Pudong skyline) and the inner city with someone a bit more native to the place than myself helped me feel far more comfortable with the sheer scale of the city. Even though I have visited many of the world’s most influential cities (London, Paris, New York), none of them could quite prepare me for the size of Shanghai, which has roughly 3 times more people than London! Therefore being able to explore with someone who spoke the local language and could explain many of the customs and traditions was invaluable – and the continued support of Wanderlust has meant that slowly but surely I have begun to understand more and more of this huge city and this historic country, although I will be the first to admit I have only scraped the surface.
The monthly cultural activities arranged by the agency for all the au-pairs have also been great for discovering more of China – we have all had a great time bonding over our various abortive attempts at the venerable art of Chinese calligraphy, as well as our unique contributions to the Shanghai paper cutting tradition. These activities have not only been great for learning about Chinese culture, but also for bonding with the other au-pairs from around the world over our shared experiences and challenges of life in China – in the process not only learning about China, but about places all over the world. Both during these cultural activities and in our spare time it has been great to meet so many of the au-pairs and form such a close community with them. Sometimes it’s good just to be able to talk to someone with a Western accent!
Not only have Wanderlust and the other au-pairs been very good and supportive throughout my whole stay, I have also been very lucky to have been matched with such a great host family. My host family are a family of 5 (two parents, two children, and Grandma), and they have been brilliant to me – treating me as if I was one of their family and including me in a plethora of family activities. We have visited historic sites across China, including an unforgettable week in Guizhou Province on the western side of China seeing how different inland China is to Shanghai and the coastal cities. They have introduced me to many of their friends, classmates, and extended family members at many outings, and it has been great to be able to meet so many people and discover all about Chinese culture and society in this way – over many delicious meals and glasses of Chinese firewater. My favourite memories of my time with them include visiting a traditional Chinese spa in the heart of Shanghai, going to a family birthday party for one of their 1 year old nephews, singing karaoke together after a family barbecue, and celebrating the eldest daughter’s admission into university over a meal with many of the parents’ friends and classmates. These occasions have all been great fun, and are very good for seeing “living” Chinese culture. My host family have really gone out of their way to make me feel part of the family and to show me all parts of Chinese culture, and I am sure I have formed relationships with them that will last far longer than the remaining weeks I have here.
Teaching the 2 children English has been incredibly rewarding, a lot of fun as well as a good challenge. We have covered all sorts of things, from helping coach the eldest daughter successfully through the IELTS test for university admission to a top Western university to discussing British history and sports with the younger child. The variety of things that we have talked about has been really interesting, and has definitely kept me on my toes! The proudest moment of it all was seeing the daughter leave for university in the West, having achieved the IELTS grade needed and being far more confident in her English and understanding of Western culture as a result of all that we had discussed.
As her English improved, so did my Chinese! Twice weekly lessons at the Mandarin Garden School have been an integral part of my time in Shanghai, and they have been really useful for helping me develop some basic Chinese skills. Mandarin is as different to English as could be imagined, but it has been great fun trying to tackle it as a result. I am still very much a novice, but the Chinese lessons have been something that has really made my time in China as fun as it has been, and I definitely feel a lot more confident interacting with locals and going about the city as a result. The lessons are only a small part of your life as an au-pair in terms of time spent, but they have really made my time in Shanghai many times more enjoyable, and they have given me knowledge and skills that will be helpful in the future.
All in all, it has been a really rewarding experience to spend 3 months in China with Wanderlust Exchange. It has not been easy, and at times has required a lot of determination and mental strength - as is to be expected when moving to a new country to start a demanding job like an au-pair – but I am definitely very glad that I have persevered. This is definitely not a holiday program though - it is extremely rewarding but you you have to work hard! If you are looking for something relaxed I'd say go sit on the beach in Bali, but if you're looking for something a bit more fulfilling this is definitely for you I have a great time and although I will be ready to return home and see my family when the time comes, I will certainly miss Shanghai and think of my 3 months here with fondness for a long time to come. Thank you Wanderlust Exchange!