Tag Archives: gender

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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On Being a Year Closer to Retirement

It is my birthday, and if I were Chinese, I would now be just one year from retirement.  There are different retirement ages here for men and for women, and for women, retirement age is 50.  I think the assumption is that at 50, it is time for a woman to stop working for herself and to begin taking care of her grandchild.  Our ayi, who is just a year or two older than us, has seen her son marry and have a child in the two years we have been here (although luckily for us she is happy to keep working for us rather than retiring to take care of her grandchild). The majority of children we see being dropped off and picked up at the kindergarten next door to our compound and the elementary school across the street are escorted by doting grandparents, usually grandmothers, although there’s a good sprinkling of grandfathers as well.  The babies and toddlers who hang out on the central plaza of our compound are also often attended by grandmothers. For some of my Chinese colleagues, mothers and mothers-in-law have made it possible for them to pursue their professional lives by taking care of children while my colleagues studied or worked out of town or even in another country.  For migrants, the hukou registration rules, which restrict access to services such as education and healthcare to those registered to the village, town, or city where the services are offered, mean that children often remain with grandparents in rural areas where they have access to schools, however poor, while the parents work in far away cities where work is more plentiful (SIP is an exception, allowing easier access to schools for migrants’ children than is common in China).  Taking care of grandchildren is a common role for middle-aged and older women in China.

I, however, am some years off from grandchildren, since my only child is eight years old.  In the U.S., having a child at 40 is not that unusual for professional women.  Many of my college classmates, summer camp friends, and other age peers also have kids in third grade and some even younger, although several are sending kids off to college as well (and a few intrepid souls are in both categories). In China, this is more unusual.  In her book Leftover Women, Leta Hong Fincher describes how Chinese media (read “the Chinese state”) admonish women to marry by 25 or else risk being “leftover,” old maids, unmarriageable because they are too educated, too picky, too ambitious, too old (in spite of China’s gender imbalance, which should make women more valuable on the marriage market).  Once married, Chinese women are pressured to have children before they are thirty, both by news articles claiming that they risk having children with birth defects if they wait any longer and, presumably, by potential grandparents staring retirement in the face.  Women who give birth after the age of 30 are considered “older mothers,” their decrepitude recognized by extra weeks of maternity leave. In contrast, I suspect that the hospital where I had my child, in the affluent and highly educated Boston suburb of Newton, served very few mothers who were not “older” by Chinese standards.

My having a young child, combined with unfamiliarity with the aging patterns of non-Chinese faces, means that I am often misread.  In her excitement over her impending childbirth, our former real estate agent, who went by the English name Leaves, tried to convince me that I should have another child (especially since as an American, that choice is not constrained for me by the state).  I politely told her that, especially since we were lucky enough to conceive B via IVF, it was really very unlikely that I would have another child, that I was just too old.  She kept at it, until I told her exactly how old I was.  Flustered, she said “but, but that’s how old my mom is.”  The idea that I could have a young child at my advanced age was incomprehensible, just as it was to the students who made the lovely birthday video that I have linked to below.  They did not seem to realize, after filming my birthday candles last year, that the combination of the digits 4 and 8 meant that I was turning 48.

In addition to being an alien here because I am an expat, I am an alien again because of the relationship between my age and my life stage.  It is not only motherhood, but also my professional status that makes me feel out of place.  I had a great deal of difficulty getting some trousers made at Chinese tailor shop that had been recommended to me.  They spoke no English, and seemed puzzled by my proportions (although the dress they made me turned out wonderful after a few small adjustments).  On reflection, I realized that part of the problem is that they were making me middle-aged lady pants, as befits my age.  While I am undeniably a middle-aged lady, Chinese-style middle-aged lady pants are a poor fit with my presentation of myself as a professional (and a little dowdy for my preferred presentation of myself as a leisured lady as well (think striped skirts and doc martens instead)).  To be a middle-aged woman, a professional, and a mother of a young child is to disturb categories, categories I am sure many Chinese women are also disturbing and that I suspect will be more and more disturbed as time goes by.

Since this post has no pictures, I thought I would end with a video, although I am unfortunately unable to embed it because wordpress (which is of course blocked by the Great Firewall) does not yet support embedding from youku.  This is a fun film that my fantastic students made for me and showed to me in a surprise party last year.  It’s very sweet and quite enjoyable, especially if you are interested in where I work, where I live, and the variety of dialects of Chinese.


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