Tag Archives: expat

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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Searching for Ginger

Today B and I went to Times Square, a mall on our side of the lake, in a fruitless attempt to find powdered ginger to make Christmas cookies.  Fresh Mart in Times Square and Enjoy City in Harmony City, the newer mall across the street, were the fifth and sixth stores where I attempted to find ginger.  As I had already started the gingersnap batter based on the mistaken belief that the spice I had bought at Love’s Bakery (a baking goods store on the other side of the lake) was ginger (not a crazy belief as it had a big picture of ginger on it) (from the smell I think it’s some sort of presumably gingery curry powder) I really wanted to find some ginger.  The closest I came was “gingerbread spice” which included ginger, but not as the first ingredient.  I did my best with that, some crushed brown sugar-ginger candies, and a bit of ginger-infused honey (a Korean “tea”) and made gingery cookies, if not exactly ginger snaps.

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I know that I have it easy here; there are several foreign food stores, I can buy fresh milk in a shop just outside the compound, and there are an increasing number of delivery services that will deliver foreign foods to my door.  I have read an essay on living in China years ago and the near impossibility of finding butter.  And yet, when I want to make Christmas cookies and go to 6 stores in four different neighborhoods without finding the spices I need, even when they are ones that are usually in the Chinese groceries (unlike cardamom, which I had to buy in Germany), it gets very frustrating.  While foods are available, they are not reliably available.  For a while, we could not find any salt (we eventually figured out how to recognize Chinese packages of salt, and then all was well).  There was also a spell when the only peanut butter available was Chinese and quite horrible (we now keep a stock). And the first time we made Pennsylvania pot pie here the only potatoes I could find were purple. Expats here become hoarders; it’s the only way to be sure we will have what we depend on when we need or want it.  Spottings of weatabix (which I find about as tasty as cardboard, but which are a favorite of a couple of friends’ kids) or of cranberry sauce or other special items are quickly communicated.  We have multiple boxes of grape nuts because their availability is fleeting. Experiences like these are reminders of my foreignness and of the potential precariousness of our expat existence. Nothing can be taken for granted.

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Why enough dumplings?

We are moving to China this summer.  All three of us — two grown-ups (professors) and our kiddo, who will turn six soon after we arrive.

I don’t think we will be typical expats.  It’s been a long time since we graduated from college, so we’re not traveling the world as young English teachers.  We are not being moved there by our company.  As a family, we haven’t lived out of the country before.  But circumstances conspired to force a choice of what to do, and we decided, after much discussion, to take the opportunity to have an adventure as a family.  We are lucky enough to have been offered the chance to move to Suzhou and teach architecture there to Chinese students (in English, which is a good thing, since we don’t speak Mandarin).  So now we are working on our visas, viciously editing our possessions down to what will fit in our suitcases (and our storage locker), and getting our minds around this big move.

We don’t know how long we will be there.  It could be for the rest of our lives, it could just be for a year or two.  We think that schools in the U.S. will be interested in faculty with China experience if and when we decide to move on.  Meanwhile, kiddo, whose favorite food is steamed dumplings, says that after three years, it will be enough dumplings.

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