When my husband got a job opportunity in China five years ago, we accepted the challenge and moved. Like many other women who follow their husbands abroad, I quit my job. I became a “trailing spouse”: a wife who drops her old life to support her husband’s career and keep the family united.
The kids were at school the whole day, I hired a cleaning lady and I didn’t have to go to work, so I found myself with a lot of free time! It may sound wonderful, but after a while, however, I got tired of sightseeing, shopping and hanging around with friends. I needed something meaningful, something that could make me feel I had a role again, not just being the wife, the mother, the follower of somebody.
In China, you need your own work permit to be allowed to work. In order to be hired and get the appropriate permit, you have to be a skilled worker and demonstrate that you can get the job done better than locals, otherwise there is no need to hire a foreigner. In Italy I was an accountant, but I decided I didn’t want to put myself in the job market again, only to fight for a job in the same field. Since I love writing, I thought this could be a creative way to keep myself busy, something that could maybe turn into a job in the future. I started a blog, in which I described the daily life of an Italian family in China. And I started to talk with people, especially with my fellow female expats, to listen to their stories, to understand their situation.
There is a whole hidden story about trailing spouses, the ones who just “follow”. They are the ones who organise all the practical matters regarding the relocation. They send emails, contact people, ask questions, collect information. They help children adapt to the new environment and comfort them if they feel stressed. They have to find the right places where to buy food – and if you think this is an easy task you probably never lived in Asia! They need to socialise, make friends. They must always look happy and supportive. They make a lot of choices, in most cases very brave choices. Because when you move abroad, especially to such a different country as China, the smallest situation can turn into something difficult and scary.
I thought this story deserved to be told, so I decided to write a novel about these women. A story which could explain the feelings, the challenges and the fears of expat life in China, from a woman’s point of view.
In the novel Parsley & Coriander I tried to describe as many kinds of expats I could: the ones who are flexible and get the best from their life abroad, and the ones who can’t cope with the differences and eventually give up.
There is the wealthy “Taitai”, who has a privileged lifestyle but isn’t satisfied yet, the business woman who tries hard to succeed, the young student who does her best to somehow feel part of Chinese society.
It’s a story which portrays foreigners’ daily lives in China: all the little struggles, like going to the hairdresser – where probably nobody will understand you – and praying the result will be passable. Or, more importantly, buying healthy food in a country which is famous for its food industry scams.
How do all these women get by? They make friends and support each other. Because when you are not alone in the journey, you don’t feel so vulnerable. This is why I suggest that you start creating connections before you move, making use of social media (like Facebook groups and blogs) in order to make some friends who can give you the right tips, and are available to meet you when you finally arrive on site.
Husbands, the breadwinners, may seem the ones on whom the whole family rely on while abroad. However, without the women’s support, the family would fall apart. Wives are the secret pillars of every expat assignment and I think they are special women whose stories deserve to be told.
Antonella Moretti is an Italian expat living in China since 2012. She is the author of the novel Parsley & Coriander, a story of expat women in China. She’s a mother of three, and when she’s not busy with her lively children she writes on her blog and works on her second book.