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May 06, 2013

Trailing Spouses: The Expat Tai-Tai’s of Shanghai

Elle had worked for 15 years in various capacities of human resources. Most recently she had been a recruiter for a medium-sized staffing firm. She loved this work, found it very satisfying to understand each candidate’s profile and then try to match them in a job that would be a good fit. She felt very fortunate to have found this role as she’d taken a break relatively early in her career to have three children. But they had all long since started school and so she’d decided to return to work. Her oldest was now a freshman in college, the middle one a junior in high school and the youngest in eighth grade. As of last spring her life had been rolling along smoothly, it felt like she and her family’s life had a plan and a direction.

But then one afternoon her husband had come home early from work and broken the news that everything was about to change. He was being transferred to the company’s Shanghai office. He would be promoted to a much more senior role in the company’s Asia division with a more generous compensation package to match. He felt it was too good of an opportunity to turn down, while she felt that no amount of money or success was worth disrupting the comfortable life they had built for themselves. However, she finally decided that she didn’t want to be the one to get in the way of her husband’s career dreams, so she agreed to go and tried to put on a brave face about it.

To say the kids weren’t happy either would have been an understatement. The youngest one was probably the most flexible: while he didn’t want to leave all his friends just before 8th grade, he was somewhat excited about the adventure and prospect of having new friends from all over the world. The eldest, who would stay in the US to attend college, was not excited about her family being so far away when she began her studies. What if she needed help with something or was having a hard time? And what about holiday breaks? But the middle one was by far the least happy. At her current high school she was doing well academically, involved in sports and had a large group of friends. She was enjoying high school and couldn’t believe that she would be losing all of it to be dragged to the other side of the world for her dad’s job. Her mother had tried to help her see the benefits of all this, but to no avail.

Imagine that several months in to the family’s expatriate assignment in Shanghai Elle walks into my counseling office. What are some of the things that might be going on for her, that she might be struggling with?

The first, and most obvious one is that she may be feeling a lack of direction or purpose in Shanghai as a result of her job loss upon leaving the US. After an initial period of feeling relieved to have so much free time, she may be wondering how to spend it, how to organize her days, weeks and months. She may be struggling with losing this piece of her identity, of how to answer the question, “So, what do you do?” when meeting new people.

It’s also possible that she’s preoccupied with worry or guilty feelings over having left her oldest child in the US. Even though this “child” is technically an adult, it may bother her to not be nearby during this transition, especially if this daughter has a difficult time adjusting to university.

Thirdly, she could be feeling isolated from her husband. He may be working much longer hours or traveling more for work than he usually would have. Often work expectations are much more demanding for those on expat assignments, mostly likely due to the fact that the company feels they have invested so much in relocating the family.

And finally, it’s possible that her housing may not be what she expected. It can happen here that apartments look okay on the the surface but then have a lot of problems like mold, broken heating/hot water, poor insulation, etc. If her husband’s company has arranged the housing, she may feel she has little control over changing any of it.

While Elle is, of course, a fictional character, aspects of her case have been drawn from expat women that I’ve worked with and known here. And this list of possible struggles is certainly not complete - a myriad of other things may be going on.

In Shanghai there can be a stereotype of the expat “tai tai” (a Chinese word for wife) who only goes to long champagne lunches, shops, gets her nails done and occasionally does some charity work. People (including the husbands of the women) may talk about this lifestyle with a tinge of envy or disdain. While this lifestyle can be fun and relaxing for a period of time, it seems that lunches and manicures are cold comfort if one’s community and sense of life purpose have been left on the other side of the world.

These spouses who followed their husbands across the globe, hence the term “trailing spouse,” may have given up employment, the homes where they’d lived for years or may have even had to leave behind a child or two due to circumstances. Many of them have faced difficult decisions and have demonstrated a lot of courage in setting up a new life in such a different place. Ultimately it’s important that they can find a way to feel a sense of purpose and meaning in the life that they’re in. We as counselors overseas can support in this work as can the ones stateside who may help families prepare for a departure.

Note: While this blogpost deals primarily with the challenges faced by expat wives, “tai tai’s” because usually families are transferred over on the basis of the man’s job, it’s worth mentioning that it is becoming slightly more common in Shanghai that a trailing spouse may be male. (A “guy-tai”) In this case he may face all the same challenges listed above and perhaps also some stigma for being a stay at home dad.
Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here:

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1 Comment

  1. 1 Kyle reilly 02 Nov
    great questions posed here.  I am a counseling MS student who will be doing my internship in Shanghai for the 2015-16 academic year and the types of presenting issues you explore here I find very helpful in my preparation.  While I certainly will be able to relate to clients who are having trouble adjusting to a new culture, as I myself will be adjusting, the specifics you bring up are very helpful to me as I think about prospective clients.  The sense of micro-aggression that the husband might feel for the "trailing-wife" is a great insight I hadn't thought about.  


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