This diary entry comes as I see this Rappler article on my newsfeed entitled "Alone, Pregnant, in Hiding"
Back in 2015, when I was preparing to make the big move to study makeup artistry in Korea, one of the tips I saw online for foreigners looking for additional income was joining an "au pair program." It might seem silly to some that I'd be on a budget because I am in quite a comfortable position in life, but one and a half years on your own anywhere is no joke. I couldn't really rely on my parents' support because if they said no, that'd be over for me. So I strove to be in a position where their potential 'no' couldn't mean anything - very tough when you have no real wealth of your own.
With everything set in Korea as I had planned it, there was no way for me to earn stipends, allowances or salaries short of violating my student and eventual tourist visa. I could have survived on my savings if I took a short-course... but I didn't.
In forums and some organization websites I visited (can't be assed to find them now,) the premise of an au pair program is that it is a cultural exchange between curious families and foreigners. It was labelled a cultural program. All the literature talks about cultural exchange. The deal would be to live with the host family, kind of like as an additional child. And like a real child, you were supposed to pick up after yourself, and maybe a little extra chores. No heavy work, they'd always stress. Just light chores. But you had to make sure you spent time with the host family. To share your culture. And of course, to help you adjust to your new country, you would be given a small stipend. For helping to foster international relations. And sharing your culture with a curious local.
If I recall correctly, the deal would be free board and meals. This, on top of approximately USD 200 monthly stipend. 200 doesn't go far in Korea, but with food and lodging that's way better than anything I had planned.
I heavily considered this before deciding that I wanted privacy and didn't have the energy to be a dancing monkey for a year and a half, so I skipped this tip.
When I arrived in Korea, my European friends were so shocked that I considered being an au pair. Not that they considered housekeeping a lowly job, but because to them, I didn't seem to grasp that it was a housekeeping JOB.
And I'm like, no, it's a cultural exchange, right? For lonely couples or curious families?
And they, a German and 2 French, said that they weren't sure in Korea, but at least in Europe the au pair deal is apparently really undesirable. They shared that on the surface everyone says it's a cultural exchange, but the reality of these programs is hosts looking for cheap, immigrant labor. And if somebody can't afford labor but will go through all this subterfuge to get it, you can expect them not to be the most morally upstanding people.
I've heard stories as mild as au pairs being asked to do way way way way way way wayyyy more than what the documents imply (full-time housekeeping with as little as 4 hours of sleep), passports being held (in Europe, too?!) up to solicitation of sexual favors.
NONE OF THIS CROSSED MY MIND. I had never heard of au pairs, and had no idea what the words even meant, much less what they stood for in the 'real world.'
The websites and featured reviews were ~glowing~. They made sure to focus on the cultural exchange - a tactic to reel you in, I'm now sure. I still shudder when I think of what I almost got into, and what could have happened to me. I'm not dismissing Korean au pair programs as a sham especially since I never got into it, but being aware that people seek cheap migrant labor dressed up as cultural exchange... that changes things. I would have never even considered being an au pair if I had that sense. Sometimes you read stories on the internet, and you wonder how people could have been so dumb... well, I was that dumb.
Because Korea has its own social ills. Social hierarchies are very steep, and even as a casual, touristy-foreigner I got hurled a lot of abuse. What more, as a foreigner who signed up to be an "au pair?" I was very lucky to be bratty enough to have the option to say "no." While there are probably some successful and true-to-paper programs out there, being an au pair is a deal too good to be true and I was naive to think the exchange would be so simple.
In the end, the odd jobs I took (English tutoring, game show audience cast, modelling) as infrequent as they were, were safe ways of earning a little extra income. I would earn about KRW 10 000 per job, sometimes more. It definitely wasn't a lot, but that was pretty standard. I guess if you're going into a new country and expecting more than chump change, you definitely need to research because people aren't going to give real money away for just cultural exchange. Heck, people don't even give money for real work sometimes, what the hell was I thinking?!