Not Exactly a TaiTai

It’s a little odd being a working expat woman.  The gendered structure of work is very different among expats in China than it is at home.  Back in the U.S. most women I knew work outside the home.  A few stayed home when their children were small or if they had special needs kids, but staying home was the exception, not the rule, at least in the circles I ran in.

It is different here in China.  Expat families are often brought here on the basis of a man’s job (although not always).  The combination of the difficulty of getting a work permit and of (for many people, although certainly not all) good benefits that make it financially quite viable for a family to have just one working adult means that many women suspend their careers while they come here.  There also are a number of families of high-up executives, although they generally live on the other side of the lake and I only interact with them from time to time. Several women take advantage of the opportunity to get a Masters degree to improve their credentials, or to learn Chinese in one of the intense university programs, and learning helps them from going stir crazy too, I imagine.

In any case, it makes for a very particular kind of society here.  I feel a bit like I’ve time travelled to the early 60s, except without the condemnation of working mothers.  School is organized with the assumption that parents can come in for activities during the day on a regular basis; when there is a special activity like an assembly, we often are told with only a day or two’s notice, making it difficult to arrange our time to go.  The school clothing shop is only open during school hours; I’m in the embarrassing position of sending my son to school in pants with holes in the knees because we haven’t been able to go in to buy him new ones (kiddo does not find this embarrassing; he says it’s his style).  There is no regular after school program (although there are activities 2 says a week), or at least not for anyone except teachers’ kids, so we had to hire an ayi so that kiddo can be met at the bus.

Women’s social lives tend to circulate around “tai tai” activities (tai tai means wife, but it is used to refer to stay at home wives here): coffee, exercise classes, clubs, and outings, all of which take place during the day, when kids are in school and I, and other working women, are at work.  Inevitably, I end up at the social margins, less likely to be part of activities even when they are in the evening, since I have no opportunity to become part of the crowd.  I do manage to arrange my schedule to be able to do some dance classes and knitting meet-ups, although not as regularly as I would like.  In the US, my dance classes and spinning guild always met at night.

I am sure this is an odd experience for many people who are here: the women who have put their careers on hold and are trying to find their way around in a strange land; the men who have followed their wives here and are part of a world that assumes that all trailing spouses are female; the partners of both sexes trying to keep up a professional life cybercommuting and working freelance . . .  The expat world is an odd place to be.



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2 responses to “Not Exactly a TaiTai

  1. This working Mum, who admires you greatly, can relate to everything you say except that fact that as a teacher, I too, can only find occasional events relating to my childrens’ education to attend since I teach… and then… I am a mother….. I don’t consider myself as anything other than a TEACHER …. My 3 children find that they are often second in line for their mothers’ attention due to the fact that she has 15 other children FIRST….
    Be peaceful Jessica, realising, that I know a little man who is a very receptive, well adjusted and is knowledgeable young man due to his parents’ hard working ethics and as a mother and teacher, I appreciate this more than anything…. Yes… we live in a world of tai tais who I envy more than anything, but then I remember that… my child will remember the experience and quality of time I offer to them rather than quantity… I find myself humbled by the travel, life experiences and WORLD that I offer them rather than thinking about … the less stressful times that I could be having myself…. YOU are doing an amazing job… and never forget that….

  2. Isabel

    This is a great, thoughtful post Jessica. I really enjoyed reading it. My husband and I are on the other end of the gender spectrum ie I am here studying Chinese and he followed along, not studying, just working a bit from home and supporting me. He is often questioned intensely by older Chinese men who can’t seem to understand why he would be here supporting me, instead of here just for his own career purposes. The gendered nature of work and being a ‘bread winner’ and parenting (which I have no experience of) and the expectations placed on both genders I find fascinating. And frustrating! But definitely fascinating. Thanks for the post and I’d be keen to read more about your experiences in the Chinese work force x

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