Chinese-American parents invest in a multilingual future for their children
Ambitious parents are increasingly hiring Chinese-speaking nannies to boost their children’s Mandarin language skills
For Mia Riverton Alpert, passing down her Mandarin language skills to her children is an absolute priority.
“Growing up in the Midwest [United States] in the 1980s, I didn’t have the internet and was at an English-speaking day care,” said the Los Angeles writer and actress who is of both Taiwanese and white American ancestry.
“I didn’t have as much exposure as I wish I’d had to develop fluency. As much as I wanted to impart what I’d grown up with, I actually wanted to build on that scaffold for my children to reach an even higher level of fluency and literacy.”
Riverton Alpert, whose children are eight and four, is among a growing number of Americans who are pouring time and resources into raising a new generation of multilingual children. Their ambition is to position their youngsters to reap the rewards of an increasingly interconnected world.
But while Mandarin immersion schools in the US have boomed in popularity in recent years, American parents across ethnicities and social classes increasingly are opting to take what could be called “the Ivanka Trump route”: hiring Chinese-speaking nannies to boost their children’s Mandarin language skills.
“Americans are notoriously monolingual,” Riverton Alpert said. “So, for those of us who really want our children to stand out, this is one way we can help them climb the ladder of achievement.”
The two Chinese au pairs she hired through a US government-backed programme lived in her home for four years while they helped her children develop their Mandarin language skills.
The idea of bringing in a college-age jiejie, the Chinese word for big sister, with abundant energy to play and interact with her children, appealed strongly to Riverton Alpert.
“It was more like an exchange student situation with someone coming from a different country, and I really liked that idea of cultural exchange,” she said.
Hiring an au pair also was a more affordable option than bringing on a traditional live-in nanny. As well, the youth of the Chinese au pairs lessened the risk of awkward disagreements. The programme required them to be between the ages of 18 and 26.
“In Chinese culture, there’s respect for elders and it can be a tricky dynamic, having someone older than you who’s working for you – especially taking care of your children if they have raised their own,” Riverton Alpert said.
“I’ve had Chinese-American friends who’ve used older ayi s – or domestic helper nannies – and many of them struggled with that dynamic.”
Ivanka Trump’s use of a Chinese nanny to develop her daughter Arabella’s Mandarin speaking skills gained wide public attention last year. The then-five year old girl, who had been speaking Mandarin with her nanny since she was 16 months old, entertained President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan with her deliveries of a Chinese folk song and poem during the couple’s visit to US President Donald Trump’s Florida estate.
Her Mandarin skills became an element in what analysts said was a rare use of soft diplomacy by President Trump to win China’s favour – in the era before he turned to tougher measures and launched his trade war.
But Chinese nannies had a place in American culture for years before that. Ethnic Chinese nannies have been used by Chinese immigrants in the US for decades, and many Chinese-language employment agencies in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco cater almost exclusively to the Chinese diaspora.
Still, the emergence of Ivanka Trump and her daughter as high-profile symbols of the trend have helped the Mandarin-speaking nanny phenomenon carve out an even bigger place in mainstream American culture.
Today, having one’s children learn the notoriously difficult language is the latest sign of status among wealthy white celebrities.
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was rumoured to be hiring a Chinese nanny last year. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s children and even Britain’s Prince George, who is third in the line to the British throne, are taking Mandarin lessons.
Seth Norman Greenberg, of the upscale domestic staffing agency Pavilion in New York, said the trend for hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies had grown substantially from over a decade ago, when it was limited to families working in finance who were watching China’s runaway economic growth.
“I can say with certainly that in or over 57 years of business we have never been as busy with requests for Mandarin speaking nannies and tutors as we are today,” he said.
“Now it’s more mainstream, with the creation of Mandarin immersion schools … we are getting requests for Mandarin-speaking nannies and tutors from every type of client. I have more requests than I am able to satisfy.”
While those interviewed for this story said they used Mandarin-speaking nannies and au pairs for various reasons, all cited China’s growing importance on the world stage – and in what is increasingly becoming a global economy – as factors in their decision.
“It’s simply logic,” said Sonya Miller, a doctor based in Davis, California whose young son and daughter go to a Mandarin immersion school. “Just looking at the population of China, how much debt the US has with China, their growing financial power.
“If you believe anything about the global world and the global economy,” she said, “you have to try to expand and know more about not just your culture.”
Riverton Alpert agrees that China’s economic clout – the trade war notwithstanding – is not dying out any time soon. Parents want their children to be able to ride that wave.
“It’s clearly the other global superpower at this point, and it makes a lot of sense preparing our kids for the global future and the global economy,” she said.
“Not to be cynical, but it’s probably a large part opportunism in the case of non-heritage speakers. For the ones I know and am friends with, it’s really about wanting their kids to have jobs when they grow up.”
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Lydia Carlson hired a Chinese nanny to give her daughter extra help learning Mandarin over the past two summers. She expected the girl, who attends a Mandarin immersion school, would benefit from the extra help since she comes from a white American family.
“She preserved her fluency a lot,” said Carlson, who lives in Minnesota and works in marketing. “Her Mandarin proficiency level was already quite high but it’s gotten much higher just from being able to chitchat with someone during the day.
“She also reads [Chinese] books every single day with the nanny to help improve her literacy.”
Carlson said she believed her years as an expatriate living in Indonesia made her value a global mindset, and that her husband, who used to live in Singapore, shared her view.
They have holidayed in China as a family once a year for the past five years, hiring a local tour guide to give her daughter extra Mandarin practice.
“It gives her a great opportunity to interact with the local people in a way that we couldn’t do if she’d always spoken English,” Carlson said.
“We wanted her to understand not only is China different and wonderful, but there’s a whole civilisation there too, like in the West. We wanted her to be exposed to that.
“Having lived abroad, we know how important this is too, to be able to interact with locals in a way you can’t interact if you don’t speak the local language.”
But for parents of Chinese heritage, passing down the language has emotional significance too – especially if they want children to build ties with non-English-speaking relatives.
“No one can guess what [ethnicity] my children are and that’s fine,” Riverton Alpert said. “But it made me realise that when they’re growing up and looking in the mirror, they’re not going to see what is known to be an Asian face.” Her husband is white.
“It was really important to me from an identity standpoint to give them that connection to their culture.”
Notwithstanding the rewards, there are drawbacks to bringing a stranger from a different culture into one’s home.
Sonya Miller hired two Chinese au pairs through the US national programme when her family moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to California, taking her children out of the Mandarin immersion school they had attended.
But both au pairs only stayed in her household for about a year. Driving ability was a factor, she said.
“Many times in the US, we’re looking for the au pair to be able to drive,” Miller said. “You realise what one person in one place felt were great driving skills, you’d consider average at best.”
Riverton Alpert’s multilingual family faced challenges when her American husband, who only speaks English, felt left out of conversations in Chinese.
“Of course there were some frustrating moments when he couldn’t understand and felt left out, but it wasn’t pervasive, just a little bit of sacrifice for a greater goal,” she said.
Sun Ying, one of the two au pairs Riverton Alpert hired, acknowledges that culture shock was an initial hurdle, and that her spoken English needed improvement. But thanks to her host family’s patient support, the native of Hunchun, in China’s far northeast, said she gradually grew used to American life.
“I was really lucky that my host family helped me solve a lot of problems, such as renting a car, buying a mobile phone and driving on US roads,” she said. Being an au pair is a popular way for young Chinese women to “try out” American life before committing to an overseas university course, she said.
As long as Mandarin immersion schools continue to thrive in the US, the trend for hiring Chinese nannies and au pairs as a way to supplement children’s language skills is not likely to end any time soon.
Despite the trade war, ambitious parents are not daunted – especially since China may be an important source of jobs for their children in future.
“There’s a real cross-section [of parents who want their children to learn Mandarin],” Carlson said.
“One thing they have in common is that they see the world as much bigger than a state or a city; they have a global perspective and they want their kids to be part of that.”