US: To Give Children an Edge, Au Pairs From China

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Sep 5 12:55:38 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, September 5, 2006

To Give Children an Edge, Au Pairs From China


In a conference room at a Holiday Inn last week in Connecticut, 167 young
women from 22 countries received a tutorial in catering to the needs of
the affluent American child. (Lesson 1: Turn off the television set.) Many
of the women were German. But two drew particular attention, Kunyi Li, 23,
and Man Zhang, 24, among the first au pairs from China. Their services are
in great demand, in part because so many Americans have adopted baby girls
from China. Driving the need more aggressively is the desire among
ambitious parents to ensure their childrens worldliness, as such parents
assume that Chinas expanding influence will make Mandarin the
sophisticates language decades hence. Our clientele is middle and upper
middle class, said William L. Gertz, chairman of the American Institute
for Foreign Study, which oversees Au Pair in America. They see something
really happening, and they don't want to be left behind.

The last two years have seen an astonishing increase in the number of
American parents wishing to employ Mandarin-speaking nannies, difficult to
find here and even harder to obtain from China. Au Pair in America, the
20-year-old agency that sponsored the two young women in Connecticut, had
received no requests for Chinese au pairs until 2004, said Ruth Ferry, the
program director. Since then, it has had 1,400. The agency said it
expected to bring 200 more au pairs to this country before the end of
2007, and other companies in the business are beginning to recruit in
China, all taking advantage of relaxed standards for cultural-exchange
visas for Chinese.

Hongbin Yu, 23, of Harbin, north of Beijing, who like many other Chinese
college students studying English gave herself an Anglophone name,
Cecilia, was the first Chinese au pair to land in the United States. She
arrived in March through Go Au Pair, one of the 11 such agencies
sanctioned by the Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation at the
State Department. Her employer is Joan Friend, a former president of a
technology company in northern California who had been having her two
children, Jim, 5, and Paris, 6, tutored in Mandarin for several years. The
tutors just played with them, Ms. Friend said from her house in Carmel
Valley, Calif. They thought I was crazy because the children were so

After her son and daughter began to learn the sounds of Mandarin, Ms.
Friend sought more intensive training and repeatedly asked Go Au Pair for
a Mandarin speaker to live with the family. But visa problems and a lack
of contacts in China left the agency unable to place anyone with her.
Ultimately, Ms. Friend found Ms. Yu on her own, through an acquaintance in
China, and Go Au Pair handled the paperwork. Ive never been to China, said
Ms. Friend, a single mother who is retired.

She added that she considered China central to the future of global
economics, saying, I think China will rule the banking world in my
childrens lifetime, and I want them to be able to participate in that if
they want to. Like Ms. Friend, Jean Lucas, who lives outside Tampa, Fla.,
had been frustrated in finding a Chinese au pair for her four children.
She is now obtaining one through Au Pair in America who will arrive in a
few weeks. Ms. Lucas said her husband, Sky, a manager of a hedge fund,
initiated the search because he did not want to raise culturally
narcissistic, monolingual children.

My husband had been following China for some time, Ms. Lucas said, and he
simply believes that it would be better for international relations if we
all put some time and effort into learning Chinese. Im not expecting this
girl to come in and lecture. My children wouldnt put up with that. But I
want them to have an introduction, and I want it to be fun. Since she has
been with the Friends, Ms. Yu, who studied English and tourism in college
in China, has been reading to the children in Mandarin and teaching them
to count. In turn, Ms. Friend, in addition to paying her expenses and a
monthly stipend, has taken her on trips to Arizona, San Francisco and
farther down the coast to Newport Beach.

Begun in 1986, the State Department Au Pair program requires that young
nannies work no more than 45 hours a week and return to their home
countries after one year. Host families have to provide their charges with
a window into the American experience. It is only in the last few years
that au pairs have been actively recruited outside Western Europe. Among
Chinese-Americans, it is difficult to come upon young women interested in
child-care careers, nanny agency representatives say. This is not a field
they evolve into, Amy Hardison, founder of Nanny on the Net, said. We just
have a very hard time finding Chinese nannies.

In China's new culturally progressive climate, biases against such
domestic work prevail. Ms. Zhang, one of the au pairs who arrived last
week and moved in with a family in New Hampshire, said her parents had
initially disapproved of her decision, especially because she was then
working in customer service for Continental Airlines in Beijing. There are
prejudices about being a baby sitter, she remarked. They said:  You have a
great job coming out of college. Why would you want to go to America to
take care of children?

It is Ms. Zhang's hope to open a nursery school in China. And she would
like to immerse herself more deeply in American culture, she said, beyond
the knowledge she has acquired of it from watching Friends. As for
American cooking, she foresees it as a challenge. I don't hate it but I
don't like it, she offered. I had pizza yesterday.  Its better at home.


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