Friday, March 14, 2014

Accidental Tai Tai

When Matthew and I decided to move to China, it was a joint decision. We said yes fairly quickly to the opportunity, but then spent the next few months figuring out the details. One of those details was my job.
A photo from our house hunting trip over 2 years ago

I have worked since I was 14 years old. I held jobs throughout high school, college, and graduate school. I've been a thrifty saver all my life and have always had a bank account, well padded with hard earned cash. I remember my mother instilling in me from a young age that I needed to be able to take care of myself and that I should never rely on a man or anyone else for money.

Which is why moving to China was a challenge for me. Matthew and I looked at our finances before moving and discovered that thanks to our savings, the profit from selling our house, and the benefits that came along with an expat package, I didn't have to work. Financially, we were fine.

The problem is that I wasn't. Our first indication that unemployment would be a challenge for me came at the rental car agency a few days before our departure. I had quit my job two weeks prior and was filling out the paperwork for the car we would take to the airport. The kind teenager behind the counter innocently asked, "Can you please provide your employer and position title on this form?" I blankly stared at him for a moment before writing HOUSEWIFE across the paper. I then promptly burst into tears.

The few first months in Shanghai were wonderful. I embraced my retirement, as we came to call it, and enjoyed leisurely lunches with new friends, explored the city, practiced my Chinese, and spent slothful afternoons snuggling my cat in bed. I was happy.

Life as a tai tai

But after a few months, that same unsettling feeling from the rental agency came back to me. Only this time it wasn't quickly squashed by an opportunity to ride first class on an international flight. The feeling was persistent and I found myself having an identity crisis. All the titles I held back in the states (worker, advisor, colleague) and the ones I still held (daughter, sister, friend) seemed as distant as the people who used them in reference to me.

During this time, I began to be addressed by a new title: tai tai. While this word is used throughout China to mean Mrs., in Shanghai it takes on a particular meaning. The assumption here is that a tai tai is a woman who doesn't work and spends her days shopping, getting massages, and generally emptying her husband's bank account. I quickly learned that mentioning I was a Shanghai tai tai would earn me a discount at most stores, because sellers assumed that meant I would be back often for more shopping.

Further complicating the matter was the fact that joint bank accounts are uncommon in China and our bank refused to give us two debit cards for Matthew's account. This meant that not only was I not contributing to our family income, I had to ask my husband for money. As a woman who has always seen herself as independent, having my husband give me an allowance was a tough pill to swallow.

After a year, I found a job. I had spent a few months researching positions but wanted to ensure I found something that made me feel valuable and where I would make a contribution. I contacted a small company that specialized in the field in which I hold my master's degree and was hired shortly after. I also took up a part time job as a cycling instructor at a local spin studio.

Overnight, I felt a renewed sense of self. Suddenly, people were once again looking to me for guidance and treating me as an expert in my field. Suddenly, I was needed.

When you make the sacrifice to allow your partner's career to grow at the detriment of your own, you can find yourself struggling to maintain your identify and sense of self. I didn't know how to be a housewife and frankly I wasn't very good at it (ask Matthew about my ironing skills).

My journey back to the working world isn't for everyone. Many people live extremely fulfilling lives here and abroad as housewives/husbands. But it wasn't the right path for me. I need the stimulation and challenge of a 9-5, even if it does interfere with my social life.

And yes, I still use my tai tai discount when shopping. Only now, it's my money that I spend.


  1. Great post, Kristin! Well said! (and Viva el Quattro!)

  2. oh! I am going backwards catching up on your blog. I've kind of gone thru it haphazardly since I first started looking for blogs after I found out about our move. I've been kind of stuck on the panda and monkey posts. LOL But wow! You are a spin instructor in China, too!?!? Confession: that is my dream. I am obsessed with Soul Cycle and after a weekend in NYC on my last work trip, I took 3 classes in 2 days and thought it would be awesome to lead classes in China! Did you have experience in the states? Certification? I'll be in Suzhou so I am not sure what is available there, but 30 minutes on the train to Shanghai for your class is about what I drive here in traffic for my classes! Ha!

    Seriously. I am so geeked out about this now! I might get some packing done now.

    1. I had friends who lived in Suzhou, it's a really pretty spot. I'm not sure what is available there for spin classes though many Chinese gyms do offer them. I took an instructor training class here in Shanghai but to be honest, you don't need to be "certified" to teach here. Also, as there is no official governing board for cycling/spinning, certifications are really just specific to the type of program you are teaching (i.e. Soul Cycle etc).

      You may find it helpful to go back to my posts from 2012 as that is when we arrived. Many of my early posts cover initial impressions as well as tips for moving. I tend to write more about travel and food lately (though I'm trying to be better about that!). Feel free to email me with any specific questions you have.


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