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How to Deal With Culture Shock as an Au Pair in China

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Aupair Lara with host kids in Ningbo

This Article was first published on GoAbroad.com

As a new or potential au pair in China, there are a few things you should know about dealing with culture shock.

There has never been a lack of excitement when exploring the world in new countries and cultures that have not been experienced before. These unknowns, however, can sometimes be surprising or even confusing, and sometimes especially so as a new au pair in China.

For au pairs who live with a local host family, such confusions might be exaggerated, due to first hand exposure to local culture. The feeling of disorientation when immersing in a new culture is known as culture shock, and might be particularly strong among young western adventurers who are discovering a brand new world, like China.

What might culture shock be like in China?

It might be odd seeing people holding umbrellas to shade themselves from sunlight on a lovely sunny day while you just want to embrace the sunshine. Or feeling a bit foolish when standing at the door waiting for servers to take you to a table as you normally do at home, while seeing local diners go straight in and find their own seats. Other times, the family you reside with can also be a source of culture shock. Host families are sometimes perceived as overly hospitable, which can lead to uncomfortable feelings.

It is, therefore, essential to know about the rationale behind those “unusual” practices and understand the culture that informs them. But don’t worry! We have tips on a range of aspects to help travelers prepare for their upcoming or ongoing exploration during their au pair in China experience—not just physically, but mentally as well. We’ll help you learn the art of dealing with culture shock as an au pair in China.

12 ways to deal with culture shock during your au pair in China experience

1. Learn and keep improving Chinese to overcome the language barrier

One of the biggest concerns during an au pair in China experience is the language barrier. Some au pairs may feel frustrated because it’s difficult to communicate with host families and meet new friends.

Try using translator apps, such as Youdao. It provides immediate translation, enabling you to talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time. WeChat can also help. It can translate  messages into multiple languages, and make your communication with others much easier.

Learning Mandarin is a humongous undertaking, so consider part-time online classes. Chinese videos on YouTube or elsewhere online can be a huge help in dealing with culture shock. There are lots of Chinese-speaking YouTubers introducing cultural differences and Chinese learning, and also Chinese vloggers sharing their daily life. Check out Chinese video platforms as well, such as Bilibili, where you can find your own community, meet new friends, and learn Mandarin while having fun.

2. Talk with friends who have traveled to China before

Some young travelers have friends who have worked in China, and have been inspired  to have their own experience thanks to the incredible stories. Those friends are reliable sources of information and can provide a real image of life in China. It can help you better understand the culture and you might learn from those experiences as well.

Talking with your friends who lived in China can be very helpful, as they have already gone through the culture shock stage and can offer you some constructive suggestions on what to expect, as well as what can be challenging about living in China for the very first time.

If you do not have friends who have been to or who are from China, getting in touch with previous au pairs from your agency or program can be a good way to find out what to expect as well. Talking with former au pairs not only offers you the opportunity to get to know what a typical day for an au pair in China is like, but also what challenges you should be prepared for while staying with a host family on a daily basis.

3. Understand what your family expects from you as an au pair

The responsibilities of being an au pair in western countries mainly focus on babysitting and housework sharing. However, in most Chinese families, housework will be taken by nannies or housekeepers while teaching and tutoring host children is the priority (as well as the most important responsibility) for au pairs.

Have a conversation with your agency or program provider, and your host family if possible, in order to understand the expectations your host family has during your au pair in China experience. If you know what to expect, dealing with culture shock will prove much easier.

4. Be aware of time sensitivity of your host family and plan your time

Chinese culture leans towards less time sensitivity and more spontaneity, especially when it comes to work schedules. An au pair in China might find their working hours may not be strictly adhered to, as some Chinese host families tend to be more flexible about time. This can lead to misunderstandings or frustration if you come from a culture that often “counts the clock” in the workplace.

To deal with such situations, au pairs are encouraged to remind their host family that early notices about alterations to work schedules is preferred. Communicating how you are feeling and working together to solve problems will be a cornerstone strategy in dealing with culture shock.

5. Be aware of Mianzi

Chinese face culture, or Mianzi, can be one of the trickiest interpersonal practices you come across as an au pair in China. There is no accurate definition for it and the best way to understand it is to experience and learn from it.

It is rare to see Chinese give negative comments in front of people they know, especially those who are elders and seniors at the workplace. It’s not that they prefer saying negative things behind someone’s back; the rationale is to avoid embarrassing the other person (AKA “saving face” or Mianzi).

Au pairs in China may experience such an occasion when they are told by a third party, normally their au pairing agencies, about dissatisfactions from their host family. This can be found to be extremely off-putting to au pairs who come from confrontational western cultures and who prefer straightforward conversations.

Keep your perspectives in check. Dealing with culture shock as an au pair in China will involve reminding yourself that just because it’s not the way YOU would do something, doesn’t necessarily make it the wrong way to do it. 

6. Let your host family know about your communication style

Chinese communication style also shows the profound influence of Mianzi culture. In the case when making a complaint in person is inevitable, remember this: A compliment goes first, an important “but” follows, and positive comments will be reiterated to relieve feelings of guilt over complaining.

Criticism in the public can be offensive to some, even if it’s informal among friends. Sometimes it may even be viewed as insulting. To overcome potential problems due to these different practices, remember that honesty is always the best rule of thumb.

You can tell your host family in advance that you are open to complaints and let them know to feel free to have a talk with you in person if you prefer not having a third party involved. Have regular chats with your family too. It helps you understand how they would like to communicate and you are more likely to end up having direct conversations in the future.

7. Talk in advance to your host family about your privacy preferences

In western culture, individual privacy is always highly valued and respected. As an au pair in China, however, your living situation might feel intrusive when staying with a host family. For example, children may enter your room without knocking, or parents might send the kids to play with you in the evenings without asking if you’re okay with it.

Lack of privacy can exacerbate feelings of culture shock, so let your host family know about your privacy preferences. Consider also making a list of what your host family can do without your permission and what they definitely need to ask you about beforehand. Establish a timeframe during which you think it’s fine for your host family to enter your room without warning.

8. Learn about the ways of Chinese host child(ren)

Aupair Tyler doing worksheet with host kids

Due to the Chinese way of parenting, dealing with Chinese children can be different to dealing with western kids. Unlike the generation of their parents or most western families, the majority of Chinese millennials are only-child, who are often doted on by family, and particularly by grandparents.

This can lead to some self-centered children. Sometimes it can be frustrating to see host parents do nothing in response to children acting up, or intervention from grandparents when children are being told off by their parents. 

Furthermore, Chinese kids can never shake off heavy school work under the harsh education system. As an au pair in China, you may find that for some kids, time after school is just the beginning of another circle of study.

Again, open communication will help you learn how to deal with culture shock as an au pair in China. Talk with your host family to understand their child(ren)’s personality, as well as parents’ expectations in the case when child(ren) act up. Make sure to have a general understanding of your host kid’s workload too, to help you design teaching activities.

9. Understand your host family’s standard of housework sharing

One thing which might slip from your mind during your au pair in China experience is the differences in lifestyles, and in particular, expectations of cleanliness. Therefore, it’s important to know about your family’s standard for tidiness during your early days in the house.

A simple way to do that is to ask the family members to see your room after you tidied it, and ask them questions like “Do you think it’s clean enough or is there anything else you’d want me to change?” It’s a good way to show your respect for the hosts, and it helps you to

know about the family better.

Another way to show your respect will be to offer them some help for some light housework, such as doing laundry and doing dishes. And don’t get surprised if your help gets rejected. That’s your host family’s way of showing their hospitality.

Both your offering of help and their rejection of your help are known as keqi in Chinese society. Sometimes it’s important to keqi a bit with your host family, and don’t be afraid to insist on offering your help a lot. Your host family will feel happy and grateful just by you offering.

10. Keep in touch with your agency or program coordinator

Your program coordinator should be the person who provides any support you might need throughout your stay in China. That could be to help you get a local SIM card, offer suggestions on local scenic spots to explore, or advice on which hospital to go to when you do not feel well. 

A lot of culture shock comes from different customs, which can produce confusion or frustration. Some even lead to the feeling of being offended. However, these misunderstandings can be clarified if you talk to your coordinator whenever you feel confused, uncomfortable, or even frustrated.

11. Make new friends with locals

For many people who visit China for the first time, making friends is the most important but difficult task—and it’s essential in dealing with culture shock as well. As an au pair in China, you might find that most of the time you are asked to speak in English; thus, you do not have much opportunity to practice your Mandarin with the host family members. 

Other times, you may find yourself really homesick, and would like to hang out with someone who understands and shares your feelings. In order to meet new people and make new friends in China, use apps and online forums to join in Chinese study clubs or social meetups (AKA expat communities) that you are interested in. 

There are so many expats and international students in China who are learning Chinese. Meeting someone who shares the same interests as you is already halfway to success in terms of making new friends! You like dancing or stand-up comedy? Just go find a club on the Meetup app or search Facebook events. The internet really can help people get closer.

12. Be proactive in bonding with your host family

Host family visits Aupair alumni Sherry in Australia

Living in a foreign country alone is tough enough, not to mention living in a foreign country with a family you’ve never met before. While getting along well with your host family can really make your au pair in China experience unforgettable (or even one of the best

experiences of your lifetime!), it is still easier said than done.

Bonding with your host family will help immensely in dealing with culture shock, so try to join family activities when you’re comfortable to do so. It will be the easiest way for you to get close to your host family and understand their personalities and vice versa. During family activities, you may find communication much smoother, as everyone is very relaxed and in a

good, communicative mood.

Try being a big sibling to your host children, instead of just a teacher or nanny. It is always easier to bond with someone you can play with. Patience, love, and respect are three key words we recommend you keep in mind when you are with host children. Kids are not always easy to understand, but with patience, love, and respect, you will eventually become friends.

Finally, share your culture and stories. As an au pair in China, it is a great opportunity for you to share your home culture with your host family, and to let them know more about your hometown and you as a person. Families who invite au pairs to stay with them are normally very open-minded, so they would love to know about your cultures and customs. That’s how you become friends and “family”.

Dealing with culture shock as an au pair in China is normal

Dealing with culture shock can be a challenge for au pairs who are from western countries or who are traveling for the very first time to a country where the culture and the way people live are totally different from their own. However, it is a valuable experience for any ambitious wanderlusters who are keen to see the world and grow from it. It makes the journey more meaningful!

Now that you’re aware of these cultural differences that you might experience in China, along with tricks for dealing with culture shock, your confidence will hopefully be boosted. Go exploring China, leave your concerns behind, and enjoy your au pair in China experience!

You can also read this article on GoAbroad.com

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