I just came back from China to Germany and am happy to share about my experience. Beware though, it might be long :P. I stayed one year in Shanghai. My first six months I spend in a Japanese-German host family and with a different agency. After I went into rematch and had problems finding a new host family (due to Visa related issues that I will shortly discuss below) with my former agency, so I switched to YesAuPair and found an amazing host family with two little girls aged 3 and 6 that I quickly learned to love dearly.
After I left my first family (the reason for the rematch as me not being able to handle the child's aggressive behaviour and a me feeling like I am lacking the support from the very busy single mom), I faced a pretty difficult financial situation. Originally I had chosen to be an au pair because I wanted to improve my Chinese level and attend free Chinese University classes. So me, a poor student with almost no money in my pockets, came to China. The monthly pocket money of 1500 Yuan is not a lot in a city like Shanghai but sufficient if you consider that you do not have to pay for board and lodging. So you are able to experience fun stuff even on this tight budget (non the less if you have savings or parents to support you, that is definitely amazing, too). When I decided to leave the program with the first agency I was in financial trouble because I was already enrolled in my second semester of my university. The host family pay for the au pair's language classes, so obviously I needed to pay them back about 8000 Yuan and in addition to that I lost my flight reimbursment, so I had no way of going back to Germany. Because au pairs usually come to China on a student visa, the visa is tied to a specific university or a specific language school, so I could not easily drop out of college without losing my visa. I had two options at this point a) find a host family in Shanghai that is fine with me continuing my Chinese classes and will pay for the tuition fees or b) drop out of the school, go to Hong Kong and get a new visa and find a host family outside of Shanghai and attend a different school or private language classes (this way would also have cost me a lot of money).
As my first agency did not find a family in Shanghai for me, I looked for a new one and that's how I found Kim and her agency YesAupair.
Kim was very kind and we were able to negotiate about my school problem, flight reimbursment, etc. and in the end she was able to find a great host family for me. I did not have to worry about my finances anymore and had found an even 'better' host family.
From the start Kim was there to help. We had monthly get togethers where all au pairs would be peer sharing about their troubles and good experiences in their host familys, which was truly helpful. In the beginning every au pair got an introduction and useful advise for living with a Chinese family and also a crash course on how to teach English as a Second language to Chinese children. This is especially useful, as most Chinese families are looking for a foreign au pair purely to teach the kids English with actual sit down language classes at home. Most host families even have engaged live in household help, who also take care of the physical needs of the children, some even have extra live in teachers, so in many cases the au pair will not be the only 'outsider' being part of the family. In my case, my host family seemed to be a bit more modest. We did not live in a giant mansion or luxury apartment like many of the host families but in a very nice three bedroom apartment with the kids sharing a room and me having my own room. We had an 'ayi' (ayi means aunty and is a term to address the house hold help) who did not live with us, but came for four hours every afternoon on week days and who cooked delicious food and cleaned). It truly was nice to not even have to clean my own room and bathroom :P.
At our au pair orientation we also each got a hand book with many good information about Chinese culture, common rules, ideas for activities with the kids and what I think, most imprtant, a template in which we could fill our weekle plannes and actual schedule.
An au pair is usually supposed to work up to 30 hours a week and has 2 full days off. Quite a few of my au pair friends did not even work the full hours, as many of the children have crazy busy schedules themselves with long hours of school and tons of extracurriculars, so there was simply not enough time for the au pair and child to actively engage to hit the 30 hours within five days. In these cases a lot of familys suggest that instead of having 2 days off a week, this could be reduced to 1 or 1.5 days. My host family suggested the same, and I can tell all future au pairs: don't agree with that! You will want to have your full two days off, as a full day off gives you much more freedom to relax and explore than only half a day! In the beginning I was still quite shy to communicate with my host family about topics I disagree with, so I felt lucky that I could talk to Kim about my problem and right away she communicated it to the host family. In all honesty, being an au pair will most likely help you grow personally and become even more confident, it sure did for me. Sometimes you have to be brave and try to handle stuff on your own. Most of the time I felt confident enough to handle bank, school, police related stuff and discussing with my host family on my own (probably also because I already spoke some Chinese before I came to China), but in certain situations I was very happy to have Kim and her colleague by my side.
Regarding the working hours I personally found it very important to log your actual working hours in the hand book, and if you see that you are working too many hours, discuss it, it will get too tiring over the course of time! I most of the time worked more than the agreed upon six hours, but in return got additional days off, so I could travel more. Non the less at the end of my stay my host mum felt like I did not work enough, as at some point I started to pay attention to my working hours, and she was not used to it. What I learned from this: Pay attention to your schedule, make your hostfamily give you a new one every week, and stick to it for the most part. If something is not working as planned, communicate it right away with your host family and if necessary, with the agency!
One little thing I also want to address is the working attitude. I had been an au pair before in the USA, so I was well aware of the fact that being an au pair is kind of an actual job, but many of my friends (especially those just having finished high school and never have lived on their own) seemed overwhelmed or shocked that they were actually supposed to work their full hours and were not living a life like at home with mum or dad full time caring for them. We as au pairs need to be aware, that the host families are paying a lot of money for our service, they don't regard us as another child but as a grown up who can help them with taking care of their children!
Many au pairs come to China with the idea that they will travel a lot when they are here, some can manage, but I personally found it difficult due to a lack of time and also due to a lack of money. If you stay one year, you have two weeks of vacation plus every week two days off (that are not neccessarily consecutive days). I used my vacation days to travel to cities farther away from Shanghai, like Beijing or to the Avatar Mountains in Hunan (wow, so worth it!) and my weekly days off to spend with friends in Shanghai or the neighbouring cities like Hangzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou ... . If you are staying in Shanghai and missing some nature, I can especially reccommend going to Wuxi for a day or weekend trip! I was also lucky enough that my host family took me along to Xiamenn for travelling and visiting their family. In general though, if your main focus is on travelling and exploring the whole country, you should consider if au pairing is the right choice for you. It is not all fun and games it is also a full time job!
Despite traveling and exploring, I loved to spend my free time playing rugby with the Shanghai Pink Dragons and I also joined the table tennis club in my school. I highly recommend joining a club or social activities that interest you, if your school has none, you can easily search online. I knew that my rugby club was training every saturday and that games are on saturday as well, so I right away asked my host family nicely if I could have saturday as my regular day off and my second day flexible according to their needs. They happily agreed, I also think partly to me being ready to compromise.
I highly reccomend getting into contact with Chinese people other than your host family and befriend them. They can show you so much more and let you experience actual Chinese life! For me it was like my host family lived a rather atypical upper class life, but with my Chinese friends, it was like I experienced the more average China, they showed me where to eat and shop for cheap, they showed me the nicest places and I also had a chance to practice my Chinese! I am already planning to meet my Chinese friends in summer again, it is amazing!
On the other hand I also had a lot of fellow foreigners as friends. Classmates and fellow au pairs. This is also very good at times, cause we shared the same troubles and worries and could exchange thoughts about that. But as I said before, I also reccommend everybody to try to make some local friends!
To end this entry, I want to sum up what I learned from my experience: Au Pairing in China is not like in other countries, as the focus is usually more on the language learning aspect. An au pair has to behave like a grown up, be brave enough to talk about problems (your agency should always be there to listen to the au pair's needs, which was the case for me in regard to YesAupair and my former agency) and be aware of the fact that the host family does not want a second child but is paying a big sum of money for us to do our job.
I found it hard at times to live with a host family and follow all of their rules. Especially my host family did give me a ridiculously early curfew (they were good people and honestly worried about my safety). This was very frustrating for me, as a 25 year old girl, who had already lived on her own for several years. Despite at times feeling restricted by living with 'strangers' (even though over the course of time we grew closer obviously), I had a good time and feel like I grew as a person. Even though I don't regret my choice to have worked as an au pair, I think it would have been better for me if I had looked for a proper job in China, like an English teacher at a school.
I recommend being an au pair for those, who have not lived on their own before, maybe those who have just finished school and those who value having a safety net within China.