General / Parenting

The Au Pair Saga

As I hinted in my previous post, that Korean au pair of ours was a big ol’ bust. It’s funny, because an reader, Maria commented back in May, perhaps foreseeing the fate of our family with this au pair, that this concept didn’t exist in Korean culture, while wishing us luck. We knew this to be true from our own knowledge of Korean culture, where family helps or else help comes from work-seeking neighbour-countries such as The Philippines. The pool of young South Koreans looking to become au pairs is already quite small since the concept is not well-known. Throw on top of this the lack of nanny and babysitting culture – finding any qualified candidates is tough.

So we were encouraged when a nice-sounding young woman posted in her profile that she had experience working at a kids cafe, playing with large groups of kids plus cleaning up in the cafe area. Unfortunately, this experience wasn’t particularly substantial. We thought that she would be well-prepared to take care of three kids, but I think she was prepared to just play with them a few short hours at a time. Despite the interviewing,  scenario-posing and Skype conversing that we did before she came, we didn’t make a good match. I wrote about my recommendations on finding the right au pair in this German Way blog post.

Soojin (name changed) was with us for two months, which was about one month too long. I would almost go so far as to say six weeks too long, but I took the advice that I found on Many readers there, both host mothers as well as au pairs, emphasised that the first month is always hard for everyone, especially for first-time families. Everyone is making adjustments, and it takes time to figure it all out: for the au pair to live in a new country, for the family to find a good working rhythm with having someone new living in your house, for the au pair to build a relationship with the kids, etc. That seemed fair, so I gave it a month. And then I gave her another month to figure out where she would go next, which in retrospect was generous of me but not the best decision for my family. I had originally thought it would be better for all of us not to make changes until Ferien (school holidays).

SujinIn the end, it all comes down to trusting your instincts, and I don’t believe that anybody has to wait around to be sure. It did much more harm than good for my family to have Soojin with us for so long. When someone is there that can’t set boundaries, you are going to have kids who try testing that out at every opportunity. My kids are usually in bed by 7:00 p.m. every night. While Soojin was here, I was lucky to get them in bed by 8:00. We also had some safety issues that she didn’t seem to understand were serious. She only casually mentioned to me, almost as if to inform me how badly behaved and disrespectful my kids were, that they had played with her medicine and put the tablets in their mouths to then spit them out. It took everything in me not to flip out at that very stressed out moment.

At the end of our two months with Soojin, I felt so burnt out and demoralised, I didn’t think I had it in me to look for another au pair let alone welcome and train her. I widened my search to include young women from various other countries based on positive experiences I had heard about. On one hand, I knew that the likelihood of finding someone with the right experience was much greater, but on the other hand, I started to worry that she wouldn’t like Korean food and then maybe I’d have to cook double because of that.

After a few weeks of half-heartedly responding to nice-sounding girls who all loved kids, Aneta, our au pair from Poland, appeared in my inbox. She had that holy grail of experience: experience working in a Kindergarten plus she was talented with languages, art and cooking and gave us the impression that she was a lovely person. I found her fascinating. She had spent time working, studying and travelling in a number of foreign countries including Portugal, Italy and, wait for it, Korea. She had had such a positive experience there, that she was thinking about going back, and she wanted to learn Korean. She was in fact pretty excited to have found us. Aneta has been with us ever since, and I still wonder how we got so lucky. And then I remember how tough it was while Soojin was with us, and I figure that we suffered and survived in order to experience this fortune.

We have already extended Aneta’s contract, and have been formulating ways that she could stay with our family longer. My daughter Stella even said to her, “I hope you stay with us as long as possible.” There might be a day though when Aneta finally decides to move on when I might try again to find a Korean au pair again. These are some things I’ll keep in mind the next time I look for one. Most points can be also applied to a general au pair search:

  • Been abroad before. It helps when she has already been abroad and lived alone before. This eases transition time and indicates that she has some wherewithal
  • Communication. Being able to communicate is critical. I know how hard it is to learn English or German as a Korean native speaker because as a native English speaker, it’s tough for me to learn Korean and much easier to learn German. But, the question is whether or not you can really understand each other, even if the words aren’t all there. I spoke Korean AND German with Soojin, and it didn’t matter. It was like speaking into a blackhole. I tried giving explicit, detailed instructions, and that didn’t help. I tried to give her some freedom to use her own judgement and figure out what worked best for her. That was a mistake. I tried to be verbally strict and clear, and that didn’t help. It was frustrating to spend time explaining and planning for her to then respond when I asked her if she had any questions about what she had to do, “Is there a direct train between here and Munich?” Language barriers aside, it’s a must to be on the same wavelength.
  • Professionalism. I usually eliminate anyone who hasn’t written back in one week or so. I also don’t like it when there is an overuse of Korean-style emoticons: ^__^ I know, I’m a meanie, but we won’t be communicating like this when she’s in my house. Remember what I said about wavelength?
  • Age counts. I will only consider someone who is 21 or over and even that wouldn’t be a guarantee of being able to work independently. This leads me to my next point…
  • A different upbringing. The way they raise kids in Korea is just different, and it can be hard for the Koren au pair to understand how German parents try to foster self-sufficiency in the kids, for example. Korean kids are told to just study. And this breeds the generation who is unable to care for kids and take responsibility. Soojin was not only unable to look after my three kids, she didn’t want to. I ended up paying for babysitters to look after them when I needed extra care or having to do a lot of things myself because of her inadequacies. If I find anyone who has had experience babysitting or au pairing in the US or Germany before (rare but possible – I’ve encountered both), I will hone in on her. Most candidates mention playing with nieces or nephews, but this is most often not substantial experience.
  • Passive or active: This one is hard to figure out before you meet, but I remember that Soojin did a lot of just standing around and watching – like while my toddler Lenny jumped in puddles without any rubber boots or rain pants on. I think this also falls under a general common sense thing.

By the end, Soojin was just playing with her smartphone, barely taking her eyes off of it. Our cleaning lady was not impressed that someone could just sit around playing with her phone when stuff was lying around all over the place – toys, clothes, dishes. What I’ve realised since Aneta has been here is that this falls under helping out because you live in the same house together versus being off duty.

It was a very frustrating and disheartening experience. I think that Soojin was simply overwhelmed by how tough it is to look after three kids and didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She wasn’t able to learn and she ended up not doing much at all serving to be a more disruptive variable in our household. I ended up wanting to throttle her and resenting her presence and dependency on us. I felt saddled by this Korean-style obligation as if I had been forced into taking care of a second cousin’s close friend’s daughter, burdened more by the fact that she called me “Emo” or Auntie. These dynamics didn’t make any sense since we weren’t at all related, and she wasn’t living up to her end of the au pair deal. I was paying a very high price for having an au pair without getting the help I needed. Aneta on the other hand makes us want to give her more. I feel like we can’t give her enough since she works so hard, does such a good job and truly is like a part of our family. That’s the way it should be.

I’m not giving up on having a Korean au pair again in the future, but I’m pretty darn grateful for the au pair whom we have now.

10 thoughts on “The Au Pair Saga

  1. Quite interesting! Add to your check off list must, just simply must, be Punchyish. The professor wouldn’t consider someone who lacked this nature; kids just love it you know?


  2. Sorry to hear my predictions came true. Not quite my own experience, but just what I thought would happen.
    Korean adolescents are only told how to study, day and night. They know more about cram schools and academic goals and have little to none practical experience.

    Young adolescents have a lot of learning to do, but in the case of Asians, there is no emphasis on hands-on experience. It’s all academic only. Study all day and study all night. If you sleep more than four hours, you are a failure.

    In Soojin’s case, I’d assume, she just felt overwhelmed. When was she ever asked to take charge of a family….? Her task is to study. Kids take care of themselves. Moms leave kids unattended for hours. Taking care of kids is not a task. You just leave them to themselves. My mom left me alone for hours….

    Different culture and different expectations. When we, in the western world, leave our kids with someone, we want it to be meaningful (until it’s bedtime). In Korean culture, minding kids has little value.

    When I was in Japan and had a baby, I looked for a babysitter (western style). I was told no student would be available for such a menial job, they had to go to cram school!

    Soojin came over with the same expectation (I’d assume). Caring for kids is not important, this is just minding babies.

    Sorry, but a Koran au-pair would be totally helpless unless she knows what the western requirements are.


  3. There are a surprising amount of Japanese au pairs here in Frankfurt. I think the concept is just catching on, and more and more youngsters are seeing it as a way to see the world, which is great.
    I’m glad you found someone nice now!


  4. Finding this post was interesting for me, I’m applying to be an aupair right now and its good to shee it by the hosts perspective. I’m trying to find a Korean family to host me but its kinda hard. Its so easy to find European families but korean families dont know much about aupair, i think? Maybe as much as korean girls dont know too…


    • Hi Yume, thanks for commenting and for offering your completely different perspective. The au pair concept is pretty foreign in Korea, but I think it would be an awesome opportunity to get some excellent, and much desired language exposure for their kids. I think we are on to something here…
      In any case, good luck with your search and let us know what happens. I’m currently looking for a new au pair and I noticed that a few candidates have indicated that they are interested in a family in South Korea.


      • When I first started considering to be an aupair in Korea, I found a few North American families who were there more because of one of the parents was a militar. But then I though that if I really wanted to experience korean culture, would be better for me to find a Korean family, and plus I want to learn Korean language so It will be better if I’d found one. But when I started talks with the agency, I realised it wont be that easy.
        Au Pair is not a very known thing there, the families who know about it would prefer a native english speaker, dont matter if I’ve studied english my entire life and can communicate well, I’m brazilian so i’m not supposed to be good in english. And worse: being brazilian dont allow me the Work holiday visa. So my only chance is to find an foreigner family that would accept me or going to an english speaker country to get the ~fluency~ they want to and try again, not with the work holiday visa, but with the student visa.
        But the biggest problem for me was the agency, actually. The korean agency wasnt very cool to me. I asked if i could do one of those tests like Toefel or Ielts to prove how good my english is and they answered me straight like: you need to be native or fluent. But how can they know when someone is fluent or not if they dont even are open for tests and this kind of stuff? They dont even tried to talk with me to test me or something… People talk a lot about how koreans are “cold” and this stuff that i never actually believe cause the koreans who live here are not, but if they’re just this rough with future au pairs I think it may scare them. Most of western girls who are applying wont like this kind of treatment and would think twice before choosing Korea, afraid that the family would be like this too.

        OMG i wrote too much o.O But well, I still want to live the Korean culture so I’m not giving up! If I find a better agency and a good family, I’ll be back here and share my experience with you XD And if you have an agency to point to me, please let me know too!!


    • Hi Yume!
      I saw on your comment bellow(somehow I can’t reply directly to it, I don’t know why) that you were looking for an au pair job in Korea through an agency. I’m also looking for a job there as an au pair. Can you give me the name of the agency please? My twitter username is @comosempretiza .
      I’m sorry for the invasion Jane, but I could find another way to contact Yume.
      Really liked the story, it’s always nice to read about the host family’s side.


  5. Hi,

    My name is Soraya. I’m 23 years old and I’m from Amsterdam. I really want to work as an au pair in Seoul, but I’m trying to get some information on visa and stuff. I’ve read that you need a company to work for if you want a working visa, but I guess it’s diffrent as an au pair? And I’m wondering if it’s “legal” to work as an au pair, like with taxes etc. I hope you can answer my questions. You would help me a lot with it! 🙂

    Kind regards,



    • Hi Soraya, thanks for your question. The comments that I have gotten from this blog post provoked me to get in touch with an old friend of mine to see if he or anyone he knew would want to open an au pair agency for candidates who wanted to work in Korea. He seriously considered doing it! However, this led to no answers for your question.

      In your situation, I would contact a few trusted local au pair agencies and ask them their advice. I am doubtful that they would know but ask them if they have any idea where they could get the answer. You could also contact your closest Korean embassy or consulate. If you do find anything out, please do post again!

      Good luck and best wishes,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s