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Chinese nannies are the latest New York trend
Updated: 2006-01-06 09:01

Chinese au pairs are New York's latest fashion: Manhattan's elite wants to prepare its progeny for the economic world of tomorrow.

Her parents are caucasian Americans, her home is a $1 million villa on the Hudson River and her favorite place to play is a swing in the yard.

But when Hilton Augusta Rogers, aged 2, swings through the air on sunny mornings she doesn't express her joy in English. "Geng gao," she calls to her father Jim. "That means 'higher,'" he says, pushing the swing.

The girl is happy and burbles in a child's Mandarin Chinese: "le, le," she says. Then she asks for a fresh piece of "gua gua." Each word makes her parents proud of their little globalization project: Who else at Hilton's age can already say "melon" in the language of a future economic world power?

Hilton is Jim Rogers' latest investment. The 63-year-old earned millions of dollars by founding the Quantum Fund in the 1970s with George Soros. And while the world speculated on Internet startups a few years ago, Rogers invested (successfully) in sugar, copper, and nickel. Since then he's been known as the "Commodities Guru."

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Now he wants to prepare his only child for the 21st century. "China will be the next world superpower," he says. "We think we're doing something very good for her." That's why he and his wife Paige, 37, have put Hilton in the hands of a Chinese au pair.

Like Rogers, many Americans believe China will overtake the US both economically and politically by 2040, at the latest. So they're looking out for the next generation. At the very least it can't hurt if your child can hold her own linguistically with the mightiest world leaders of the future.

For this reason the "Chinese nanny" is now chic in New York's wealthier circles -- to the extreme annoyance of French governesses, who are finding it hard to defend their traditional dominance over Manhattan's nurseries against competition from the Far East.

Clifford Greenhouse is head of the Pavillion Agency. His firm has helped find maids and au pairs for America's richest families since 1962 and now new requests for these most sought-after of nannies are landing on his desk so fast that Greenhouse can't keep up.

"I'm desperately seeking qualified Chinese women," he says. "Bring me one and I can give her a choice of ten top families." The in-demand nannies from Beijing or Shanghai can easily earn $100,000 per year with the right references -- $60,000 more than their colleagues from Old Europe, who used to be so popular.

Not only do they need to speak fluent English and Mandarin, they also need to manage the complicated lifestyles of their young pupils. "My customers' kids are busier than most adults," says Greenhouse.

It took six months for Jim Rogers and Paige Parker to find a nanny. For a while only unqualified candidates from New York's Chinatown answered their ads in Chinese-American newspapers.

"Most of them come from the countryside and speak Cantonese," says Rogers. "We didn't want that." Hilton Augusta will one day have to communicate with the business elite of Shanghai, and they speak Mandarin.

Her parents brought Chinese friends to the au pair interviews to serve as a kind of language police. The idea was to keep Miss Rogers from learning the wrong sort of Chinese, and finding herself speaking undesirable slang later on.

It is evident just how seriously her parents are taking all of this when one enters their home for the first time. The au pair they eventually found, who goes by the name "Shirley" in the US, has hung Chinese tablets all over the villa -- every floor looks like a three-dimensional, walk-through language primer, where Hilton can almost casually pick up the terms for "door," "fridge," or "bookshelf."

The drill starts at breakfast. Paige Parker keeps flash cards in the kitchen. On the back, for the mother, are English spellings for "milk" (niunai) or "good morning" (zao an). Young Hilton sees Chinese script on the front. (She'll learn the English alphabet later.) "She absorbs everything, like a sponge," says her mother.

Other industries have also caught onto this trend: Toymakers now produce dolls that can say "My name is Ling" in both Chinese and English, and private schools like St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's in Manhattan have Mandarin classes for three-year-olds.

Hilton Augusta is already a big hit in Chinese restaurants when she orders food in baby Mandarin. Waiters gather round and laugh, and find it hard to believe that the young heirs to the world's lone superpower are trying to learn their language.

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