Tag Archives: 1950s

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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France in 1958 and China now

This evening, we watched the Jacques Tati film Mon Oncle

Kiddo is a big big fan of the Marx Brothers, and we thought he might be primed to appreciate the quieter slapstick of Tati (which he was — when it ended he said “are there any more”?).  It has been a while since I’ve watched the whole film through, and of course I remembered the absurd modernist house with its fish fountain and push buttons and stepping stones (especially because of the connections between this kind of house and my current research on bachelor pads).

The Villa Arpel.  The fish spouts blue water, but only when someone important comes over.  From http://www.archdaily.com/259325/films-architecture-my-uncle/

The Villa Arpel. The fish spouts blue water, but only when someone important comes over. From http://www.archdaily.com/259325/films-architecture-my-uncle/

I had forgotten about the boys whistling at passersby to try to get them to run into the street lamp, which kiddo also found hilarious (he swears the boys in this film are the same gang of boys described in the Petit Nicolas books)

But aside from it being a very funny film, it is also, like Tati’s Playtime, a commentary on modernization in France in the 1950s.  The film is structured around the contrast between the traditional social neighborhood of M. Hulot, with its street sweeper and vegetable sellers and horse carts, and the modernist spaces of his sister’s house (enclosed behind high metal walls and gate) and his brother-in-law’s plastic hose factory.  Characters move between these two spaces over a crumbling wall, beyond which are rows of spare modern apartment blocks, and we see both new construction in process and old buildings being torn down.  (Playtime is in that modern space, but in a more fully urban context, and if you watch carefully, you will see great landmarks of Paris seen reflected on modern glass facades.)

Horsecarts aside, we kept thinking of China as we watched it.  The village felt like a French version of the old town of Suzhou, where neighbors sit in chairs in front of their houses, playing cards and chatting.  Sidewalks here are swept by older people with brooms made of branches, just like the street sweeper’s in Mon Oncle, although unlike their French counterpart, they do not always leave a pile in the middle of the street (they are more likely to hide it in the bushes).  While I haven’t seen a horse, I have seen a tractor and bicycles much like the one M. Hulot rides.  The old is being torn apart to make way for the new; just like in France in 1958, the new is celebrated, but like Tati, we mourn much of what is lost.  I have heard many Chinese friends say, with more than a hint of sadness, that they no longer recognize their home town.

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