What is it like to be an accidental ex-pat? So much of what we think of when we imagine the ex-pat lifestyle is a conscious choice to branch out and explore new countries, either solo or with your family. But what if the path to ex-pat life is only a path in retrospect?
Today we’re talking with Emma, a Hong Konger by birth, an Australian by choice, and a globetrotter by way of marriage to a European. Life is certainly complicated sometimes!
Emma, tell us a little bit about your time before arriving here in Shanghai. “Well, I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Australia for University in my 20s. After that life changed so much. I was a very simple person growing up; I figured I would study, find a job, and get married. I didn’t realize when I went to Australia I would basically never return to live in Hong Kong. I met my husband at Uni in Sydney, but after over three years of long-distance dating we knew we needed to live together or break up. So, I moved to my husband’s home country of Germany.
The problem with Germany was the teaching positions just weren’t available to me there, so I moved once again to the UK where I was working at a university for three years. Finally, we said enough was enough and I quit my job, moved back to Germany, and got married.”
So once you moved back to Germany around the time of your marriage, what did you do for work? “I moved back and started my own business selling independent designer clothes online. We always spoke about being entrepreneurs, and we thought we could do something different and better than what was out there. We were fortunate because money wasn’t a concern, so I thought “I might as well give this a go.” What I learned though is that when you read about starting an online business it sounds very easy. But in practice it was not that easy to make money. I had a huge learning curve because I had to learn to start a business and do it in a foreign country with a language I barely knew. After six months of research and a year running the site, the opportunity for Shanghai arose within my husband’s company and we knew we had to take it to further his career.
We haven’t touched on this just yet, but at the time you were told about Shanghai you were not only running your own business but you were a new mother as well. How old was your son when you were told about the move to Shanghai? I can’t remember, I wonder if it was before he was even born. It’s been in the pipeline for a long time but we didn’t talk about it seriously until right before his birth.
What ran through your head when your husband told you about the move? “I was not super excited even though it would get us much closer to my family. With a new baby, I was worried because China is not the best place for raising a baby in our opinion, particularly differences in cultural norms, views on medicine, and higher levels of pollution. But, in the end the ex-pat package was good, and we have help here, which is great and makes the package even more attractive. For my husband, it was a good step forward for his career. Nowadays, who doesn’t work with the Chinese? You must work with and understand the Chinese culture in business, at least a little bit. It would also be better for me than Germany. Shanghai is a place I understand part of the language, culture, etc.
How long have you been here? How long do you plan to stay? “We moved at the end of June, 2016. So it has been just over a year, and we think we’ll be here at least another year or year and a half.”
Do you know what’s next? “No. And it is actually something that we have been talking about. The default is Germany because we’d be returning to the company headquarters, but I don’t want to go back to Germany. My first choice is Australia, and I think it’s a fantastic place to raise our son. I consider myself Australian. The problem is Australia is very far away from Germany, and the structure of their economy is quite different. For me, it’s important that I also get to enjoy my life too. I’ve been moving for my husband for so many years and I want to be able to do something that I enjoy. I studied for so long and I want to make use of my skills and experience.
I think Bangkok is also an option, though. It might be a little bit easier for him. But after this experience in Shanghai, I would really like to not move anymore. We can’t retire in Bangkok so we would have to move again. The experience here is fantastic if we look at the big-picture, but the problem is it puts a lot of stress on our relationship. He has been and continues to be quite stressed at work. Getting used to the new culture, the new role, the new work dynamic takes time and I still don’t think he really fits in. He will always be a laowai especially because he can’t speak Chinese. He spends a lot of hours at the office and even when he’s home his mind might be at the office.”
But then I ask myself, “how did you not know this would happen?”
For yourself, did you try to work here? Or did you want to be a stay-at-home mom? “The idea of work is always in my head. I was raised that way. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and since we were little she always told us you always must work. In Cantonese, we have the term “yellow-face wife.” If you stay at home for too long you’re too detached from the outside world and you let yourself go. You won’t be the attractive lady that your husband wants to go home to.
I did try to look for work and it was much more difficult than I expected. I thought since I was relatively fluent it would be OK but people have not been calling when they see my CV. I had two interviews, one with an American college campus in Shanghai, but they said I was too old, too experienced, and that I might not fit in. The other interview was for a job helping people apply for schools overseas. And they thought the job would be too demanding for my lifestyle as a young mom and that I didn’t speak Chinese well enough.
I have been consistently applying for the past few months and no one has contacted me. It comes down to perhaps I was expecting too much in terms of salary and I don’t think people think I’ll fit in well.”
Overall do you feel this experience has been more or less than you expected? “Compared to the option of staying in Germany this may be the better of two devils. This is not perfect but having help and raising a child in a language I mostly understand is better. At least here I get to see my family much more often.”
Now that you’ve had this break from the workforce, though, it’s allowed you to spend much more time with your son. After this year sabbatical, how does being a mom change what you want and are willing to do for a job? “I think time is the biggest concern. Even here, we have our ayi, but time is still a problem. Will a longer work day for our ayi affect the quality of care or will we like the way she cooks for us, which is not something she does currently. Right now, she is really good because I’m always home. What if I’m not? Will things change? Part-time work is not common in Shanghai. And it also must be something not very stressful. I don’t want to go home and be stressed like my husband. Our son doesn’t need two stressed-out parents.”
One thing I struggle with is the term trailing spouse. It feels so dismissive to me as a person. With this life, we’re always talking about developing and furthering the husband’s career, but do you feel there’ll ever be time for you to take the lead? “I would really love to do that but I can never make as much as my husband. Academia jobs are more meaningful but they do not pay. But I have been following my husband for quite some years now, and I’m afraid there is a slowly growing resentment about leaving places and jobs I like to follow him.
In many ways, I don’t love the fact that I don’t work now, but I try to tell myself that I am very lucky because I get to witness the growth of my son. As soon as he goes to school I won’t have the opportunity to see him as much as I do now.”
I agree, seeing their growth daily can be really rewarding. For you, what has been the coolest thing about being a stay at home mom with him in the past year? “Being able to spend time with him and understand everything he does. I understand the smallest gesture and sound from him. I even know the cries he makes. And I am happy that I have this connection with him. That’s the best part.”
As your first year in Shanghai comes to a close, what is your most important piece of advice for new mothers/trailing spouses just arriving in Shanghai? “Go to Shanghai Mamas before you move. Get a feel of what things are like and see that there is a support network. Consider getting some help. My neighbor doesn’t want an ayi but I worry that she’s stuck inside too much. I am not someone who could stay home 24/7. I need at least a few hours to myself. So, for us our ayi situation is perfect.”
Thanks for talking today, Emma. I think your perspective and experience is really helpful for women thinking about doing another ex-pat adventure after Shanghai. There are just so many things that each country brings that you don’t realize before you get here. “Maybe next time we need to choose a place where at least one party is familiar with, like Australia. Otherwise, I don’t know if our relationship can survive. It’s not easy, and what we did was kind of stupid. New baby, new job, new country….of course there’s stress. How can there not be?”
The dream of living a glamorous life of travel, exploration, and immersing yourself in new cultures can blind many people to the daily realities of functioning and thriving in a new country. I, too, was focused on some of the perks included in our ex-pat package, hoping the daily grind wouldn’t be as bad as back home. And if you look back at the Instagram version of your ex-pat experience, you see the highlights and think that more of the same in another place would be a good idea. But after awhile many people realize they’re more interested in roots than wings. Your answer to the question “should we stay or should we go?” may vary depending on the season of your life, but whatever happens, the underlying issues that plague you in one place will probably plague you in the next. “Am I happy as a non-working spouse?” “Am I fulfilled in my current situation? If not, why? What changes do I need to make?”
This life has some incredible highs and bucket-list adventures just waiting to be had. And that’s what I like to focus on when times are tough and I am missing the normalcy of home. But sometimes you really need to evaluate whether long-term displacement is really the best thing for you and your family. With any luck, though, you’ve had plenty of amazing experiences before you decide to head home!