I love traveling, but I hate being a tourist. Fancy restaurants, nice hotels and American-inspired attractions are all nice, but they get in the way of connecting to the country’s real culture. The country’s day-to-day realities, like living conditions/cleanliness levels, typical access to water and styles of communication and manners, are almost impossible to experience in touristy hotspots and their surrounding areas. I want to see the world, but not through such a limited lens. Pledging to fully integrate myself into a foreign land and avoid America-ness like the plague, I decided to become an au pair in Santiago, Chile.
Mi Casa es Su Casa – Basic Responsibilities
An au pair is a live-in nanny that typically teaches the children a foreign language; in my case, English. They live with the family, eat with the family and vacation with the family in the hopes of fully immersing the little ones in the language (no structured curriculum is necessary). Like many American nanny positions, au pairs also take the children to school, plan afterschool activities, help complete homework or projects and provide entertainment. Other everyday jobs vary depending on the host family, but cooking, light cleaning and running errands are other common responsibilities.
¿Qué se necesairo? – The Skills Needed
When going into an au pair position, previous nanny experience is highly recommended. Babysitting experience is usually a plus, but there are major differences between nannies and babysitters. Babysitters are occasional, fluid and their only concern is amusement within a set window of time. Nannies, on the other hand, are regular, establish routine and usually have to carry out some kind of discipline. They are demi-parents. Lieutenant generals. Mary Poppins-esque. A regular babysitter may not fully understand what it takes to be a nanny, so the transition to an au pair may be particularly challenging.
It’s also good idea to have experience with kids in the same age group as those in the foreign family. There is a big difference between a three-year-old, a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, and each requires different kinds of attention and au pairing skills.
Another really important quality in an au pair is good communication skills. Not only will au pairs need to encourage the children, they will also need to be able to comfortably talk to the parents about everything that happens–the good and the bad. Living with a new family is quite an adjustment, for everyone, and there will almost surely be discomforts and hard times. Unless problems are vocalized, they will just be a foundation for brooding and unhappiness. I like to give daily updates to the parents about the children, and, about once a week, I also ask the parents what I can improve upon.
La Familia – Connecting with a family
Arguably the most difficult step in the process, finding a family is also the most crucial. To have any sort of fun and a beneficial experience, the au pair must mesh well with the kids and the parents since they are quite literally becoming part of the family. Family styles can be very different,some are more discipline orientated while some are sans discipline, so it’s totally worth meeting the family face-to-face and playing with the children a few times (if possible) before making any commitment. The last thing you want is to agree to work with a family only to have to repress with your own morals and values every day because it’s not the way you grew up.
There are lots of online resources where families search for au pairs and where au pair can upload their resumes: aupair.com, aupair-world.net and aupairfoundation.org. But before going online, always try and look around your local community first. Sometimes there are ads for au pairs in local newspapers (especially those in a university/college town).
In my case, I found my family through networking. I was a nanny and babysitter all through high school and college, and was recommended through a friend of a friend when their neighbors decided to move back to their home country of Chile. They had three young children and were worried they would lose their English. I went through interviews, met the family and was offered the job. Within a few months, I landed on South American soil.
If the family you are trying to connect with are already abroad, and face-to-face interaction isn’t possible, make sure to Skype them a few times before agreeing to be an au pair. If you get a family you don’t get along with, the year will be long for both you and the family, and that’s the last thing you want.
No se olvide – The Fine Print
Being an au pair can be truly wonderful, but the fine print of the proverbial contract needs to be addressed before leaving the country. Ask questions like: Will I have your own room? How many evenings/days will I have off every week? Will I have the freedom, either with a car or otherwise, to travel where I want in my free time? What will I personally be expected to pay for and what will be provided for me? Will I have internet/telephone so that I can contact my loved one at home?
Every family is different, so there isn’t necessarily a set standard for answers. But one thing is essential: au pairs need to establish personal space and personal time. Living with children and having to keep them busy practically 24/7 will be a huge change and will be exhausting, and you will need time to recharge. The kids will not be happy if you’re not happy, and you want happy children.
Lo bueno – The benefits of being an au pair
One of the best things about being an au pair is the language immersion. Although au pairs speak only in their native tongue to the children, the entire environment is mostly another language. Street sings, music, television shows… everything. Of course it’s recommended to have background in the language of the country you’re going to, but you can always wing it. I didn’t know a lick of Spanish before arriving in Chile, but I’ve absorbed so much in my first month here. If you do already know some language, your comprehension and conversation skills will quickly approach fluency.
Au pairs get a feel for the true culture: what normal families eat, how they travel. There is acknowledgement of all the yearly celebrations and traditional activities. You will be able to see what the people of a country value by exploring local stores, meeting other people and watching the news. As part of a family, there is exposure to the political issues, especially around election time, that would otherwise be missed.
And, obviously, there is the travel. In their free time, au pairs can travel and go to the touristy places that “shouldn’t be missed.” Chile is luckily nestled between the South Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, each located an hour outside of Santiago, so I can go skiing, check out the beach, or see the museums in downtown. I can take a day trip to Argentina, which is only about an hour-and-a-half drive away, or plan a visit to Easter Island. But after a crazy day of sightseeing, I can settle back into my normal routine of Chilean life.
Being an au pair is one of the best ways to fully understand a culture and break free from American ties. It will open up a world of opportunities. At the end of my year in Santiago, I plan on putting my newly-learned Spanish to good use by traveling around the continent. I will be able to communicate with the locals in some of the best adventure spots in the world: Patagonia, the Amazon and the Andes, among others. Not to mention, I’ll have great friends and family ready and willing to house me whenever I visit.