Working Girl?

I was asked recently by a reader whether or not expat wives can work in Beijing. The answer is “yes, but”…Let me explain.

If you speak to women who’ve been trailing spouses in China for a while, some of them will tell you they were given an automatic work visa along with their husbands upon entry into China.  That’s certainly what I was told but alas it has proved untrue.

The combination of the 60th anniversary (which raised feelings of invincibility to a whole new level here) and the recession have meant the Chinese government sees less and less need for foreign workers. I’ve been told anecdotally that work visas generally are now much harder to come by, with companies having to provide a lot more detailed evidence of why they want to hire a foreign worker over a Chinese one. Information from the Chinese government on this point is often conflicting and unclear.

If you want to find work here it is possible. Many expat wives set up their own businesses to ensure a portable career. Others decide to start a family. Others find companies willing to take them on under the table (albeit for a token wage – think around EUROs 150-300 a month), and others trawl around for freelance work, the favourites being writing/editing and teaching English. A very good place to start and to seek up-to-the-minute advice is the excellent VIVA network which holds monthly networking meetings and is run by seasoned expat business women. I’d also recommend the national chambers of commerce, specialist Beijing-based groups on LinkedIn and alumni associations.

All of this brings me to the bigger topic of what happens when working women become expat wives. I know from personal experience it is not at all an easy transition to make. Whatever the benefits of taking time out, don’t let anyone tell you there is no loss of identity involved in becoming a tai-tai. Speaking personally, loss of financial independence is a big part of this. I’ve seen firsthand how it can make expat women here in Beijing incredibly lonely, depressed and angry, and take a huge toll on marriages.

There have been a couple of very interesting stories in the media here about this phenomenon over the last few weeks. I’m linking them here so those who are new to this odd trailing spouse life know they are not alone, and more importantly, that there is help out there. Get thee to an expat coffee morning!

Salaam Bombay (or what I’ve learned from Mumbai)

I hate goodbyes. Even when I want to leave somewhere, saying goodbye to friends and familiarity is not pleasant.

And I absolutely, definitely, do NOT want to leave Mumbai.

But needs must, and a global recession can be used as justification for just about anything these days, n’est-ce pas? It is a shame the internet is not truly anonymous so that I could indulge in a good old-fashioned rant about having to leave this fair city. Ah the tales I could tell as an outraged expat wife right now.

I digress.

Being enrolled in the Bombay section of Wife School for the last year has taught me some valuable lessons which I thought I might share:

  • Patience – part one –  looking back at how frustrated I got during my first few months is almost like watching someone else. I don’t know at which point I finally understood and accepted that getting anything done here is a never-ending process rather than an endgame but thank God that happened. I’m much calmer and less teary/hysterical now when Mr B gets home from work. He is much relieved too. Of course, having the indomitable M around to help out is no small part of this.
  • How to say no – mostly to beggars and hawkers. Again, there is a point at which you learn the correct head and hand gestures to show disinterest. And off they go to bother someone else. Mumbai hawkers can spot a tourist from 10 miles out, I’m sure of it. I only hope this does not mean I am less compassionate for the destitute….
  • Indian head waggle – I fear it is going to stick around for a while. It is just so damn catchy. Mr B is a regular addict of the head waggle. Especially on the phone.
  • Hinglish – I now catch myself regularly saying things like, “Mr B is liking butter chicken too much,” or “I’m here only”. Mr B has taken to saying “aacha” (OK, fine, good) A LOT.
  • How to cross the road in under 20 minutes – Japanese expats are offered lessons in this by moving companies upon arrival in Mumbai. Seriously. Driving in the city has helped a lot with mastering this skill. And there is a method in the apparent chaos and madness, I promise.
  • Staring – for the first month or so it freaked me out. The stare seemed so threatening. Then I realised it was just sheer curiousity. Indians are unabashedly curious (Accident? Must stop and have a look. Big machine digging hole in road? Cue for crowd to gather expectantly). Next, I realised that I stared at people just as much as they were staring at me. And a lot of the time I’m taking pictures which is actually pretty rude. Next time you’re in the supermarket or walking down the street minding your own business,imagine some foreign idiot snapping away. That’s me here. I’m not going to stop, but I try to be more sensitive and discreet about it now. Ahem.
  • Patience – part two – if you can wait it out, a solution will present itself. If it doesn’t, send Mr B in to get shouty. It is a role he has come to relish.
  • Patience part three – the realisation that, as M says, “this is India madam, all things are possible”

Amen to that.

Thank you Mumbai. I love you!

PS Of course the driving license saga is not yet over. I’ve now passed 2 tests and due to a screw up by the driving school who did not pay the proper fees on time, I apparently now have to come back on 7th May to process the license. And probably do another test. I’m resigned to this. At least nice 3-star officer has promised to process my paperwork personally upon return. Only small problem with this is I will be in Beijing by then…what to do? Start all over again in China? Is this a sign that I am just not meant to drive (legally) ever???????

Inconvenience Is Regretted?

Mumbai is a city under construction. Constant construction. It is needed to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of people flocking to the Island City hoping to make their fortunes.

I was reminded of the fabulous Indian road sign (“inconvenience is regretted”, d’oh) that accompanies building work here, when we had it confirmed a few days ago that we are being moved.

This is probably the single biggest drawback to being an expat in the current economic environment.

We’re not the first and undoubtedly will not be the last people we know  in Mumbai to be moved to a more established market as companies re-jig themselves and try to survive.  We are counting ourselves lucky. We know of many people who have simply been made redundant and have headed home to face massive uncertainty.

Still, the speed of our move has come as shock to me – I feel as if I have only just settled back in from my time in Jakarta.

In a week’s time I am going to be waking up in China. And I love Mumbai! How on earth am I going to master Mandarin? And Beijing is Canada-cold for a good chunk of the year. I’ll miss monsoon. And Diwali! And there is no understanding of being veg there but at least it will get me out of eating weird things. I hope. And poor M does not have another job lined up. How on earth is he going to support his 5 kids?

These and many other thoughts are preoccupying me at the moment.

We’re now scrambling to re-visit favourite landmarks and restaurants and say our goodbyes. One of my stops is going to be the Ganesh temple at Prabadehvi. The god of the city is the remover of obstacles and  also of good times. Perhaps a coconut offering will bring us back again here some day? Somehow I don’t feel as if we’re done with Mumbai quite yet. Is that just wishful thinking?

Wife School Lesson For the Day: Supervising the packing and finding a new place to live and unpacking and getting the utilities set up AGAIN (this time there is no English language option on tap) are very definitely wifely duties. Sigh. The Beijing Chapter of Wife School beckons.

Itchy Year

Thank God for paper diaries. In a fit of boredom in Jakarta I entered family birthdays and other festivals of note in my cool Mumbai diary. Good thing I did.

Leafing through it last night I realised that today is the official anniversary of when Mr B and I started dating many moons ago – our anniversary this year is of the 7-year variety!

The start of our relationship was….messy? complicated?…in any case, we arbitrarily decided on April Fool’s Day as our anniversary. It seemed highly appropriate somehow. Normally we both forget. The other day we even forgot the name of the place we got married. Sigh.

In any case, my remembrance of this auspicious day means Mr B will have to suffer my cooking this evening. I figure it is his penance.

Wife School Lesson For The Day: It was a stroke of genius to look up in Canadian cookbooks (thanks mum-in-law!) how much raw chops, steaks and chicken breasts should weigh. A vegetarian does not know these things, making online shopping in UK supermarkets a bit of a challenge. Pat self on the head.

Social Niceties

When he does not want to do something, Mr B has taken to delegating tasks to me on the proviso that, as I am not working, I should be kept as busy as possible.

These tasks are then dressed up with semi-official sounding titles and accompanying “duties”:

  • Director of External Relations: everything from organising our social life to ordering pizza (especially if foreign languages are involved)
  • Director of Internal Affairs: making sure bills are paid, laundry is done and the cupboards are stocked
  • Director of International Relations: organising trips home, holidays, keeping up with our friends and family outside India (in particular family birthdays – not my strong point)

He, however, maintains that as the official Head of Household (a title bestowed upon him by the Census Office in Belgium during our time there which he is not about to forgo anytime soon) he has a veto on all matters.

Director of External Affairs is probably the most important of my wifely duties here. One of the odd things about being an expat wife is that you pretty much end up taking charge of your husband’s social life.

In our previous existence, Mr B was more than capable of finding like minded friends for carousing the time away. In Mumbai, most expat husbands work in offices where they are the only foreigner or at least one of a very small group. Added to this is the fact many Indians do not feel comfortable socialising with goras. This often means that the only men husbands get to meet are the husbands of their wives friends.

We’re pretty lucky, so far this has worked out really well. As the 8hr brunch at the 4 Seasons yesterday and the dancing till 3am on Friday prove…

Wife School Lesson for the Day: Sometimes it is best just to leave the men to their own devices and take a black and yellow home. Other times, husbands should listen when their wives tell them that walking back home down a crowded street when she is wearing a low cut top is asking for trouble.

The Help

When we first arrived in India, we were so busy getting to grips with finding a place to live and overcoming culture-shock that we did not have a lot of time to think about getting servants.

At trailing spouse coffee mornings, I was advised that getting a good driver is one of the most important elements involved in whether or not our stay in Mumbai would be happy.

There’s no doubt that we struck it lucky finding M and Mrs M. They have taken wonderful care of us and made our lives much, much easier. The downside, however, is a lack of privacy and an avalanche of unsolicited advice. The most recurrent of which involves curd. Eating curd can cure all ills and should always be the first port of call, apparently. My favourite words of wisdom passed down from the non-English speaking Mrs M to me were that “person’s with no set schedule are inclined to become lazy.”  Yes, yes they are. Yipee!

Still, the most tricky element of having servants is trying not to get too embroiled in their lives. For some reason, we often find ourselves in the role of agony aunt and uncle. One of the trailing spouse publications cautions that as “Sir and Madam”, you may be called upon to attend family occasions or even name babies. No one said anything about arbitrating a spat between Mrs M and a family friend over alleged cheating of how much we were being charged by the car hire company. No one said anything about giving advice to M’s eldest daughter regarding her secret boyfriend.

Personally, I think it would be good for S to have a boyfriend but that is without taking the cultural context into account. Even though she is being educated at English-speaking college, it is true that if gossip starts regarding her “virtue”, her ability to find a “good” husband will be almost impossible. For a father with 5 girls, this is no small matter. Which is where I came in. As a newly married woman, I was asked to speak to S. I sweated about this for days. What on earth could I say? Where I come from having boyfriends before marriage is normal.

In the end, it turned out to be a storm in a teacup. Apparently the only interaction S and the mystery boy had actually had before the local gossips got involved, were a few conversations outside a classroom. The secret boyfriend turned out to be nothing more than an unrequited crush.

The consequences though, are astounding. S was promptly formally put out on the marriage circuit. She went through the process of meeting prospective suitors. An informal agreement with one family has already been reached. The only upside is that the family have agreed that S and her husband-to-be should both finish their respective educations. Which means the marriage will not take place for another few years.

It’s at times like this that I feel the cultural divide like a rock face.