How do you answer the question “What do you do?”

I recently attended the Shanghai Expat Show as well as a networking event hosted by a professional women’s association here in Shanghai. This has been my first foray into networking and talking about myself since I left my job to move to China.

At the expat show I introduced myself to the person manning the booth for an American organization, and during the conversation he asked what I did here in Shanghai. I said, “Well, I don’t do anything.” He took a step back and was so confused. “Nothing? You don’t do ANYTHING?” “Well, I am doing some volunteering in my field and I take care of my son.” I might as well have said that I was a beggar on the street. He was so visibly confused and uninterested in talking to someone without a “real job.” He went on to mention that he heard of other people like me and that we could surely find volunteer opportunities to fill up our free time, since we had nothing else to do.

I left the show angry that someone would immediately dismiss me as a person because I didn’t have a paying job. I have no idea why I was surprised at his reaction, though. This has been a big fear of mine since I quit working last year. Will I still have an identity? Will people find me worthy of conversation? Who am I without my job?

After digesting this man’s reaction, I prepared myself for answering this question at the networking event. I tried to start with the volunteer work I am doing in my field, but I felt that many women there were uninterested in hearing more about any volunteer jobs I have once they knew I wasn’t who could help their career.

My feelings of inferiority were further cemented when the board of this organization stood up and announced what they do. The women all said their positions on the board but then said, “But in real life I’m a lawyer (or an event planner, etc.).” That phrase hit me hard: “in real life.” What does that mean for someone like me? That I do not have a real life because I am not working for a salary right now? That a volunteer position I have is fake?

I don’t want to criticize these women—I don’t think they were ill-intentioned and I don’t think that all working women look down on those who are not working. But I do find myself trying to justify my decisions to spend more time with my son and pause my career during this time in my life. We are fortunate enough that I do not have to work right now, and I have really enjoyed spending much more time with my son over the past 15 months. Actively deciding not to pursue a full-time job here in Shanghai has also allowed us to travel frequently, and it means that I can go home for weeks at a time to see my family. I LOVE the opportunities this assignment has given me, and I am much more well-rounded now that I have the time to join groups, meet friends from all over the world, explore Shanghai, and spend time learning Mandarin.

The desires of wanting to be valuable and interesting to others while also wanting to quietly spend time with my son should not be mutually exclusive. So many people hate their job and don’t want to be defined by it, yet that’s the first question people ask when they meet you. They want to add you to a category in their mind that helps them understand who you are. I am often guilty of this too, though I am now trying to ask questions that focus on someone’s life instead of just their job.

So where does this leave me? How can I worry less about what I think someone thinks of me, and focus more on what I think about my life choices? It’s not an easy mindset to change. Most humans want to be liked, valued, and appreciated. So, when those traits are questioned by others it’s hard to accept. I’m working on being more confident so that when these questions come up, I can feel good about my answers no matter what the other person’s reaction is.

How do you answer the question “So, what do you do?”

4 thoughts on “How do you answer the question “What do you do?”

Add yours

  1. As a SAHM and trailing expat spouse myself I also have had various reactions to my ‘what do you do’ answer. My answer to the question depends on my mood of course. Sometimes I keep it simple, ‘I’m a mom and a wife most of the day. Sometimes I get out of the house to do something for myself.’ Other times I get more specific, ‘Well I’m a diaper changer and vacation planner.’

    I gave up my identity in my career a few years back when I struggled with the decision to find a job doing what I loved, not just what I thought I should do with my schooling. I chose to no longer be a hip, creative, profound ‘designer’ but work in the creative field as a project manager. I finally let the ‘designer’ title go and found myself to be very happy in my new role and okay with not getting to call myself a ‘designer’ to new people.

    For me the expat life fulfills a wish I’ve had since graduating undergrad; to have time, to have space in my brain, to have the energy to do whatever I want, whenever I want. Yikes, I prayed for the time/space/energy but early in my time as an expat I realized I had not thought enough about WHAT I was going to do if I got it. So here I am.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I look forward to reading more.


  2. Nikki B, that’s a great point… I too was excited about the “free time,” but then I struggled with what to do to make that time meaningful or useful. Some days I nail it, others I just have to take a nap.


  3. Thank you for this post…it’s raw and honest..I feel the same way and often find myself talking about the job ‘ i used to do’ almost like i need to validate my existence…it’s been tough especially as it wasn’t a choice i made. I assumed other women or moms would be keen to help trailing spouses and moms get back in the game as ‘women support each other’, sadly this has not been the case…it’s comforting to know others feel the way i do.


    1. I think what is doubly hard about losing your job identity is also that it coincides with becoming a mom and shedding your pre-baby identity. These two things converge for a lot of expats and it’s a huge mind shift. You go from having a career with a focus on your own needs and wants to being “unemployed” yet working 24 hours a day as someone’s milk maid and diaper slave. I kid, of course, but the harsh reality of motherhood is that this is a job far, far more demanding than our previous jobs but we can struggle to feel validated in this role because it’s not glamorous. So many conflicting emotions in this season of life. Thanks for reading, Vivan!


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