I completed the Summer Educare programme; an experience which has left me with mixed feelings about the programme. It is an excellent opportunity to truly experience a different culture by being immersed into life in China with a Chinese host family. I was able to gain insight which wouldn't be possible when visiting for a short period of time as a tourist. Everyone's experience will be unique as host families have different interests and can introduce you to different cultural aspects. The mandarin classes are also fantastic as I went out to China with no previous knowledge of the language but came away after 8 weeks being able to communicate with basic mandarin.
I was supposed to be living with a lovely family in Shenzhen. Sadly, they pulled out of the programme last minute after much deliberation regarding other plans for their young son. With less than two weeks before starting the programme, Lopair helped me find new families quickly and really seemed to empathise with my situation. However, the family I ended up with in Beijing turned out to be an unfavourable match and I worry about their suitability for the programme at all. I want to give praise to all of the coordinators in Hangzhou who made me feel so welcome and took our small group (3 au pairs as we arrived earlier than other participants) around Hangzhou after orientation training. Unfortunately, Lopair's support seemed to dissipate.
There were numerous negative occasions with my host family but I will limit these to just a few examples:
- the family did not make me feel welcome or accommodated and I didn't feel like "a member of the family". Many mornings I had to go without breakfast because the parents or one of the three nannies would not set the table or cook for me. I was made to feel very awkward about asking for food and the nanny seemed to resent making me a fried egg (most of the time the only thing which my breakfast consisted of). There were no snacks provided for me (apart from the occasional bit of fruit) and I was not allowed out of the house so I couldn't buy any. One time the family went out for the whole afternoon until evening without telling me and I didn't get any dinner. I politely messaged them asking if they could bring me back some "leftovers" which they did a few hours later. As I sat down to eat, the three year old (who had already been out for a big meal) started to try and take the little bit of food I was bought back. He made a commotion and the family gave a large portion of my food to him! I was also hit on different occasions by the boy for no reason (punched in the nose and face as well as my legs) and the mother didn't even react to tell him off or at least check that I was alright.
- no privacy: the family got annoyed with me for shutting my bedroom door—especially locking it—but this was necessary to keep the three year old out of my room when getting changed or sleeping. I wasn't even allowed to lock the bathroom door sometimes (of which I did not have my own and had to share with the three year old and his nanny) which resulted in the boy catching me in the shower—something the family then blamed me for. Even in my free time I lacked privacy as I got criticised for shutting my bedroom door. This was a strain as I was prevented from recuperating and relaxing which had a damaging effect as the weeks went on.
- during week 7 the family had plans to travel to Tianjin and Jinan but this meant I was yo-yoed from one hot cramped car to the next with lots of travelling, no rest, and I was not always given any water. The trip made me very ill for my final week. As soon as we arrived back in Beijing (after a full day of travelling) my body couldn't take anymore and succumbed to the illness it was desperately suppressing under the constant changing of environments. I was up the whole night and the day after throwing up. I wasn't able to eat for over 4 days and it took a couple of days until I could start stomaching fluids again, meaning I was severely dehydrated (something especially uncomfortable in the heat). The family unfairly blamed me several times for being ill because I "ate too much" on the trip—something which was not even true. After the parents asked if my insurance covered going to hospital (to which I said I just needed rest and to try and get over the illness, unable to take anymore distress after the week of travelling) they lost interest. They did not try and look after me or even check up on me which made me feel incredibly isolated. Luckily, despite the difficult language barrier, the daughter's nanny (a different nanny to the one who usually cooks) started to look out for me and made me small portions of plain rice or noodles: a great relief after being neglected by the rest of the family.
To top this off, I had to plead with the mother for a lift to the airport at the end of my placement as I was still unwell. She refused to get one of their drivers (of which they had a few) to take me and insisted I use the subway. I then had to try and appeal to the father who eventually agreed to get a family friend to take me. Not the tearful sendoff I would've hoped for at the start of the programme.
A friend I made on the programme (who was also in Beijing) had messaged two different coordinators urging them to check on me because he was concerned about how unwell I was and the lack of support from the family. I wasn't aware of this until after completing the programme as I was shown the messages by said friend. Lopair did not bother to get in contact with me which was beyond disappointing, especially as I was experiencing such trauma. Even before this—during a misunderstanding with the family—I found my coordinator would favour the family above me despite assuring me in private beforehand that what I was feeling was completely justified and valid.
That is not to say I never enjoyed my time as an au pair because, despite the hurdles, I did have some memorable times with the children. In fact, I got on with the ten year old daughter very well. However, the family generally did not treat me very well. I completely lacked the freedom that I was entitled to, even on my one day off a week. The family were not flexible on their 9pm curfew (I even received texts demanding I start coming back at 7pm on my day off to ensure I was back way before 9pm). I was always with an au pair friend but they would try and justify their control over me by saying I was unsafe. I was rarely allowed out of the house and I had no front door key to aid any independence (I politely spoke to the parents several times and they refused to give me one).
I had an amazing time in China itself and it has undoubtedly helped me develop as a person and gain invaluable cultural insight. I visited some amazing sites like the Great Wall and my days off were by far the happiest of my time in China. Nonetheless, the positives of my experience are not down to Lopair and I can't imagine how my experience might have suffered further had it not been for the support of other au pairs when Lopair were more than inattentive. To give advice for anyone thinking of doing a programme with Lopair, make sure the family you are matched with are right for you. I believe that if circumstances had been different and I had a more accommodating family my experience would have been even better.