Mother of Two, ISO Nanny
Finding a caretaker for one’s kid(s) is so personal. What do we seek; what matters to us? Is it just the requisite positive traits or for Mash-Ups, does the issue dig a little deeper than that? Korean-American Helen Kim explores this question and what it means to pass along to her children a culture that’s not her own.
Don’t forget to catch the first part of Helen’s essay, “Are You Their Mommy or Nanny?”
My kids’ nanny Amita* is a vibrant Nepalese woman with a vivacious laugh and the patience of a saint (or of many saints, in fact, since we’re talking about caring for twin toddlers). I don’t view Amita as my employee so much as an expert in early childhood development. When she comes through the front door and calls out, “Good morning! Namaste!,” my son and daughter break out into their widest, gummiest smiles. At lunchtime, they eat lentils flavored with Amita’s homemade masala, waving their open hands back and forth to imitate Nepalese dance movements taught to them.
When I first starting thinking about a nanny for my twins, a friend asked, would I want an Asian nanny? The question gave me pause. I hadn’t thought about what country I wanted my children’s caretaker to hail from. I considered this for a moment. Did I care?
I hadn’t thought about what country I wanted my children’s caretaker to hail from.
The practical side of me believed it didn’t matter where the caretaker came from, as long as she was patient and loving and kind. But another part of me, stemming from a small, insistent voice in the back of my mind said, Let’s stay closer to home. Which is weird, because home is America, where we’re a mixed bag of different races and cultures. So what was that inner voice telling me? To find a Korean nanny? That would be nice, I thought. I was born in Seoul but grew up in the U.S. — a Korean nanny could make up for my lack of Korean-ness. She could teach the kids Korean. Feed them (and me!) home-cooked Korean food. Win!
But wait. Was I being too narrow-minded? Wasn’t this the same thinking responsible for the glass ceiling in the corporate world? When white men say candidate X is qualified, but not a “good fit” for the firm, don’t they just mean, “We want to work with someone who reminds us of us; who we could see as part of our family”?
As a fledgling mother and domestic employer, the thought gnawed at me. Perhaps I should actively try to hire someone who would bring a different perspective and culture into our home, I thought, to show my children that a middle-class Korean-Italian-Irish American home isn’t the only kind of household out there.
Then again, I wasn’t a corporation, and our household wasn’t subject to anti-discrimination laws. There was nothing wrong about wanting my children to be taken care of by someone similar to me, who would know to take off their shoes at the door and treat rice as a basic food group. Still, I decided to interview wide and far, and go with the person who seemed best qualified.
In the end, a Korean nanny candidate never surfaced. After I interviewed Amita, who emigrated from Nepal 20 years ago, that was it. As with boyfriends, when you find the right one, you know.
As with boyfriends, when you find the right one, you know.
Under Amita’s care, my babies have eaten eggplant, chicken, zucchini, carrots and myriad other vegetables cooked in her delicious recipes. They listen to her hum Nepalese songs. When Amita arranges a playdate with someone from her Nepalese nanny network, they speak their native language to one another, and English to the kids. One of Amita’s friends showed me how her 3-year-old charge, a sweet Jewish-American girl, could greet me with her hands pressed together by her forehead and say, “Namaste,” as she bowed. (I fully expect my kids to start doing that when they can speak. In fact, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t.)
It’s entirely possible that my children are absorbing more Nepalese culture than Korean. That’s OK, because I no longer think of the nanny as some abstract substitute for the Korean-ness that I lack. Instead, as I hear Amita play with the toddlers and tell them, “This is a ball. Go get the ball! Kick the ball!,” I realize my children are getting something that’s more authentically me: what it means to be a Korean-American, living in America. Where a Spanish-speaking nanny tells you proudly the little girl she cares for speaks English, Hindi, and “beautiful Spanish.” Where a Jewish toddler greets you with “Namaste.” Where Korean-Italian-Irish twins eat bowls and bowls of dal before their first taste of pasta or kimchi.
When we talk about kids — mine or in general — Amita often says: “They are all our children.” When I try and pay her for a toy or a book she’s bought for them, she shoos my offer away. “I love them too!” she says. “They are my children, too.” In our Korean-Italian-Irish — and Nepalese — household, I can’t argue with that.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.