On 6/13/2017 we met with a former au pair from a Balkan state who is now working in higher education administration. We spent almost an hour asking her questions about her experiences and challenges working as an au pair in Norway. Her trajectory through Norwegian higher education and into the skilled workforce provided a counterpoint to the common narrative surrounding au pairs in Norway as low-skilled workers. We were hoping that her perspective would add nuance and a new perspective to our understanding of au pair labor in Norway. We have identified three themes that spoke to her unique experiences and challenges throughout her time as an au pair: the motivations that drove her to migrate and eventually immigrate to Norway, the opportunities that she encountered along the way, and her national affinity with both Norway and her country of origin.
One of the motifs that came across in the interview was that of ‘motivation.’ At the beginning of the interview, the informant described why she decided to come to Norway, why she eventually decided to stay for good, and why her experience is actually quite unique compared to other au pairs. Her motivations for coming to Norway were shaped by an opportunity for cultural exchange and learning the language:
Steven: Did you always want to travel abroad and live abroad?
AP: Well, to start with, I was studying Norwegian [in my home country] and so the trip to Norway was kind of motivated by that. . . .
Steven: So if it was available to you now, would you go back?
AP: Back home? [Steven nods in confirmation] Well no, but . . . there are many things that have happened since. . . . I would say maybe the au pairs I have known during my au pair time didn’t have actually the same background as me or the motivation to come. So my motivation to come to Norway was basically to learn the language and to learn more about Norway because I was studying it. So my motivation to go back [home] was basically the same because then my trip would have meaning, but then after some period, along the way, I just figured out: okay I can just stay and [study at the university]. And I did that. And then after that I was like, well maybe I should start thinking about coming back [to my home country], but then . . . [my country] has changed, I have changed, so the conditions weren’t the same.
The informant’s motivation to come to Norway initially was driven by her desire to learn the language, and she recognized that motivation as something that set her apart from the motivations of most other au pairs she has met. She was already studying Norwegian in her home country, so it made sense to continue her language education in Norway. However, once she arrived, she found that life seems to have a way of ignoring original plans. After spending a few years in Norway, she realized that her home country and her motivations and aspirations as a person had changed. Eventually, it made more sense to stay in Norway where she had built a home and a life for herself.
One theme that was mentioned several times was opportunity. The informant mentioned opportunities as choices that close off other paths. She chose the path that was provided by the au pair program.
Will: Do you think your immigration experience would have been different had you not come as an au pair?
AP: Yes. Well I do because as an au pair first thing you learn is to be humble. . . . I don’t know if I would have the opportunity or motivation to experience those [cultural events] if I had come and had the salary I had as an au pair.
Will: Would you rather have come as a regular student than as an au pair in hindsight? Or do you value your time in the program?
AP: I think that from this point of view I would prefer to come as a student…. It can also be quite stressful to be a part of a family but not a part of the family especially coming from the culture I did and the bubbly conversations [we had at home].
The interviewee would have preferred to be admitted as a student instead of as an au pair in Norway, if given the opportunity. The au pair mentioned several times that the family did not provide her with the experience she was hoping for. She felt that she was a part of the family but yet again not in the family. Her time as an au pair was more challenging than she had originally anticipated. She may have made more friends coming over as a student and been able to fully enjoy the experience better in this path. This opportunity, however, was closed off because she did not receive a university scholarship.
Close to the end of our interview, the theme of nationalism became the center of discussion. Since she came from the Balkan, I asked about her experiences interacting and integrating with Norwegian culture. From the excerpt below, one sees the complicated way that she grapples with her identities:
Will: Do you consider yourself to be Norwegian?
AP: I like a lot of things about Norwegian culture. I have a kind of part of it, if you get me. I don’t think about it anymore. The only place where I see it is when I go back home and I get annoyed with lines and things not working. I’m like “oh, that’s a Norwegian part of me”. When I come back home again, to Norway…I call both places home, that’s strange… I might experience missing my home culture, in some awkward circumstances.
The fluidity with which cultural affinity is experienced is apparent towards the end of the interview. When asked the question “Do you consider yourself to be Norwegian”, the participant commented: “That is a funny question.” In her mind, she maintains a cultural affinity for both Norway and her home country in Southeast Europe, and in one exchange she referred to both countries as “home.” She was aware that she used that term in this manner and made note of it. She mentioned her “Norwegian side”, which she notices whenever she returns to her origin country. She acknowledged the political reality of her situation (she is still a citizen of her home country, and seeking Norwegian citizenship would mean forfeiting that, which is a sacrifice that she is not willing to make). In this way, the participant alludes to a disconnect between political citizenship and cultural citizenship. It is also interesting to note that she described herself as having a part of Norwegian culture. Whereas she mentions allegiance to Norway and her country of origin, this language reinforces the notion that the culture of her origin nation is more dominant than her Norwegian side. While she is integrated into Norwegian society, she still retains strong connections to her origin country.
Will: Would you say that others say the same thing [about considering you as a Norwegian]?
AP: Yeah, definitely! I have Norwegian parents. Well, they are good friends who could be my parents. They live in Bergen. They definitely consider me to be Norwegian. They say that I’m one of the most integrated foreign persons that they’ve met, and they’ve met many.
When asked “Do you think that others consider you to be Norwegian”, the participant again responded with affirmation. She cites her personal relationship with a non-migrant Norwegian family in Western Norway as her evidence (she describes this family as being her “Norwegian parents”). Again, there is a fluid nature to which identity is handled, but this time it is coming from a native Norwegian’s descriptions of an immigrant. The duality that normally exists with regards to national identity (the self-perception and the outside perception) is a dynamic one, at least in this situation of a European citizen working and living in another European country. It would be interesting to examine if this would have been the case had the participant come from somewhere outside of Europe.
The perspectives that our interviewee provided are an interesting window into the people who make up the Norwegian Au Pair Program and the experiences of immigrants in Norway. We expanded our knowledge of the Au Pair Program and we gained new insights into the life of an au pair.