Monday, July 23, 2007

Surviving and Thriving as a "Typical Housewife"

There is something brilliant and honest in the conversation between a person who speaks a language natively and a person who does not. If you don't have a fluent grasp on a language, you are forced to reach for simple terms and basic concepts, resulting in at times, a seemingly harsh assessment or opinion.

My first real encounter with this was in conversation with a real estate agent visiting our home. As we were standing around making small talk- "where are you from?", "do you like Shanghai?", and the usual surface get to know you banter, the dreaded "what do you do?" question was asked. It is dreaded for a number of reasons, some unique to Shanghai, others my own personal feelings, and others, just concepts lost in translation. So I answered the question. As if pleading my case, I tried to explain that while I was not currently employed, I was looking to pursue my passions and start writing, take classes, learn Chinese, and realize some long standing goals. The whole time I was talking, the real estate agent nodded along as if he knew exactly was I was talking about. Then, in one sweeping generalization, he said, "oh- so you are a typical housewife". Knowing there was no point in trying to explain to him that I was not what he accused me of, I nodded my head in defeat and said yes.

Now before all the "housewives" out there get irritated with me, let me explain some things that are unique to the culture and the foreign community here in Shanghai. This "typical housewife" label does not apply to those of you outside this community. It is however, a new and perplexing identity I have been trying to grapple with since I got here. I'd always known that we in the US are defined by our roles and our professions. Just how much wasn't apparent until I moved here. I had no idea, however, the extent to which they do the same here in Shanghai. As I am learning, this is a society very focused on hierarchy and position. So for 10 years I was defined as a business owner and a massage therapist. For the first time in 16 years, I had no employment, and therefore, no professional identity. I found myself, not only in a completely foreign land with nothing comfortable or known to relate to or identify with, but I no longer had a profession. As I struggled through my own emotions over that, I was being lumped into a group known as "taitai's".

Taitai literally means wife in Chinese. However, when an expat refers to herself or someone else as a "taitai", there is an entire lifestyle and connotation attached to that. The expat "taitai" is a woman who often comes here begrudgingly, sticks to her own kind, remains as closed to the culture as she can, shops, goes out for lunches, shops some more, then heads off to the spa. Within the foreign community here, we know there are differing degrees of truth to this, applying at times to our own lives, but to the Chinese, there are no varying degrees. You are either a working spouse or you are a "taitai."

In my quest to find my niche and my identity here in Shanghai, I find myself fighting against this stereotype less and less. When someone asks me what I do in Shanghai, I can tell them about my job and hide behind that as an identifying factor. More and more though, I find myself mentioning my place of employment as a side note and talking more about my interests and future hopes. There are many reasons such a concept does not translate well in China, but I will save that topic for a later time. For now I will be as I am, a "typical housewife", in a not so typical way.

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