I find myself awake at 4 in the morning because I am thinking about returning. I have come to Hong Kong as a trailing spouse. It is a common story in this place, and while it is often gendered female, I can think of a number of couples where the trailing partner is male. Indeed, there is even an internet group here called Tai Guy–a pun on the reference to Tai Tai. Tai Tai are the Hong Kong equivalent to ladies who lunch… and shop… and occasionally volunteer…and attend gallery openings on the first Tuesday of the month…and shop…and sometimes start businesses…and shop. Did I mention shopping was part of being a Tai Tai? Although technically the term for wife, it isn’t a complimentary one. It implies being kept.
The situation of the trailing spouse is one couples who move to Hong Kong should think carefully about. One of the Expat web sites describes the experience in the following way:
“You came to Hong Kong because of your partner’s job. You put your own career to a stop and hoped for a brighter one after settling in. You are bright, hard-working, career-minded and really good at what you do, but somehow are having a hard time getting employers to hire you for your talents. If this describes you, join us like-minded people in similar situations to put our heads together to generate ideas and actions.”
Although the group has only a couple of members, the description is one I have heard repeatedly. The fact of the matter is, if you are a trailing spouse and you want to work in Hong Kong, you have to make your own future.
The path toward your employment here will not be the straightforward one your spouse took. You will most likely not be able to continue in the career that you had before. Your work is likely to consist of a host of temporary or freelance options. You may end up teaching English, which is comparatively low paying at first. These types of opportunities are plentiful. Many people also start charities or businesses of their own and, if not more financially successful, claim that they are much happier because of it. The trailing spouse must be prepared for this reality, despite the fact that people will tell you before you arrive that you will have no difficulty finding a job.
The advantage of the dependent visa that got you into Hong Kong in the first instance is that the trailing spouse has the freedom to change jobs and work in a range of places. The employed spouse (and it must be the spouse) is the dependent’s sponsor, but his or her visa ties them to a single job, because their employer is their sponsor. Thus the heterosexual privilege within this is not without another edge, that of dependence and feeling trapped.
I was twitchy about this as a possibility when we moved here and so I did not resign from my job in the UK. My employer, very graciously, held my job. The contribution to work-life balance is considerable. We didn’t know what we would find and this gave us some level of certainty. But, understandably they have requested that I return to my job in the UK so that is what I am doing. I will be returning in early August.
On some level I am excited about returning to work. I am looking forward to being able to apply the knowledges that I have gained in Hong Kong, and they have been myriad. I am certain that when I return I will have been changed in some structural ways. I will certainly continue to focus my research on South East Asia and Hong Kong in particular (so this blog will definitely continue though some of the threatened “other places” in the byline are likely to appear with greater frequency). It will be wonderful to be back in an environment where my approach to research questions has a large community. It will be reassuring to be once again in secure employment; employment which includes benefits like retirement allowance. It will be good not to be dependent. It will be great to see friends.
But, I am not ready to leave. I will miss daily living in this city, which I have grown to love, no longer with the blush of a new lover where faults are overlooked, but loved in the way one loves someone you have been with for a while, where faults are recognised and one expends effort in order to ensure wellbeing.
There are a number of blogs and web sites devoted to shaping ones career around being a trailing spouse. This one, called Expatriate life, offers advice on career change and strategies for finding employment.
Working and living in HK also has some useful information, but be warned they put a quite positive spin on everything suggeting that getting school places, housing, and employment will be easier than it really is.
This post was written in response to the Word Press Daily Prompt: Journey.