As I hinted in my previous post, that Korean au pair of ours was a big ol’ bust. It’s funny, because an expatkimchi.com 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 aupairmom.com. 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).
In 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.