Cultural Care Au Pair

I became an au pair because I felt like I needed a break from regular life.

I was born in Giyani, but spent most of my life in Pretoria. As a kid, I changed schools a lot, and had to learn how to take care of myself starting from a young age. When we were living in the city, it was just me, my older sister, and my younger brother living in an apartment. I had to learn how to do my homework and cook for myself; at the age of 13, I was already taking care of myself and my 10-year-old brother. After high school, I studied sports management in college, and then I became a fitness instructor for a few years.

I felt like I grew up so fast—like I was always moving from one thing to the next. I was tired; exhausted. Things never changed, but I didn’t know what to do next. Then one day, a friend told me about the au pair program and recommended Cultural Care. I didn’t think I would actually do it at the time, but the idea always stayed in the back of my mind. Then one thing led to the next, and I found myself at an info meeting, and then I was really doing it—and matched with a family in Seattle, Washington.

In South Africa, I really felt like a grown-up. I had a car, I had an apartment, I had my whole life; all I was missing was kids and a marriage. Then I came to the USA and had to start from scratch. As an au pair, you have nothing except the clothes on your back. You have to get to know yourself more and find a new support system. You have to make your own friends—people who aren’t given to you but actually want to hang out with you.

I’ve also learned how to be my own friend and how to be more independent. I realized that back at home, I had so many friends and never did anything by myself. I was always waiting for them to be free or take me places. But here, I realized I couldn’t keep waiting for other people to do things with me, so I started to do more things by myself. Once I did one small thing alone just to get myself out of the house, I started doing bigger things, like going to restaurants and driving long-distance by myself. Soon, I’ll be traveling to LA and San Diego by myself, too.

Let’s talk about fears—I’ve definitely gotten better at overcoming those. I still remember the first time I ever drove in the USA. I was terrified and my leg was shaking so hard. Everything was on the opposite side, and there were so many signs! But because my host mom and host kid were with me, I had to hide how scared I was. It was only after I got back to my room that I sat on my bed and started crying, because I was so relieved that I had survived. Now, one year later, I can say that I’ve been on 4 hour-long road trips—all by myself.

Living with my host family has been a unique cultural experience, too. Because my host family is Jewish, I’ve learned about their values, traditions, and customs—from observing Shabbat on Fridays, to learning the Hebrew language. It’s taught me that there’s no “typical” American family, because America is such a diverse and international place. Meanwhile, I’ve been able to share my own culture with them. My host mom was actually born in South Africa and left when she was five years old, so it means a lot that I’m here now and I’m teaching her children about the culture she missed out on. I teach my host kids how to speak Tsonga; I try to cook South African cuisine for them, although their palates aren’t advanced enough and can’t always handle all the new spices and flavors! I teach them the games we used to play as children, and the stories I used to hear when I was young. In some ways, I’ve not only taught them about South African culture, I’ve also opened up their minds to the whole world, because now they are more interested in learning about other countries, and the traditions there. Now, when they hear about a new country, they immediately become curious and start googling facts about that place.

Looking back on my au pair year, so many of my favorite memories have been with my host family. I remember the day I arrived at the airport—my host family was planning to surprise me, but I saw my three host kids running around beforehand. Luckily, they didn’t realize it and I pretended to be shocked! I remember that the moment my host kids met me, they started telling me stories; in a matter of minutes, I knew what they did that day, what they did yesterday, who got a trophy, who didn’t. I was their new best friend! I remember the time when my host dad surprised me by buying me a meat dish from South Africa so I could eat food from home. I remember when they included me on their family vacation to Disneyland. I remember the time when my six-year-old host kid drew a portrait of her family, and I was in it.

So, what did I gain from my au pair year? I became more independent. I learned personal skills: how to be more patient, how to communicate. I learned how to adapt to different situations. I learned about new cultures, new religions. I gained a family. I learned how to be a big sister and second mom. I’m not Charity from South Africa with four siblings anymore. I’m Charity from South Africa with ten siblings, because I’m even a sister to my host parents. I have more than four grandparents now; I have eight! I have two homes in two different countries.

This experience challenged me in such a way that I learned I like to challenge myself more. Now, every time I get a challenge, I want a bigger challenge. It’s like the world opened up—there’s nothing that can stop me. I feel like I can fly! I don’t see the world the same—being on this adventure has made me feel like I can take on the world. What I learned to do here, I look back and realize that back at home I could have done more. When I go back home I know I can do more.

My advice to anyone who is considering this program is this: DO IT! If you’re afraid you’ll regret it, regretting something you didn’t do is so much worse than regretting something you DID do—because you would have never known. This a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: you never know what’s waiting in front of you. And I can promise you that you’ll never have this experience if you stay at home. Coming here will open your eyes.