Being an expat trailing spouse can have its perks but it also has its challenges, especially if you are giving up your job to follow your spouse abroad. I have done this twice, about 10 years apart, and I can tell you it can put a strain on your self confidence and your marriage.
Here are 5 things to look out for and what you can do about it. (You may want to share this with your spouse.)
1. Giving up your job is much more than just giving up your income
As a trailing spouse, not having your own income anymore is a challenge in itself, even if you know that living off one income is part of the deal. I talked to other expat wives, who left behind careers and also admitted that they feel weird spending money on themselves, like for a new pair of shoes, because they feel it is not their money and they are not contributing.
If you have always worked you probably define yourself, at least a little bit, through your job or career. Without that the inevitable question “what do you do?” can become a painful reminder that you feel like you are not actually doing anything. You are in danger of losing your professional identity. Be prepared for this question so it doesn’t catch you off guard. You can talk about taking some time off from your career to explore life in China. Better yet, try to line up some volunteer work or things you can do online, something you enjoy and keep busy with.
I know that some of this will be different for a stay-at-home spouse taking care of the children. That situation posts its own challenges but also comes with a different network through the kids and schools.
2. You need to find new friends
Your friends and family are many miles and often time zones away. While Skype and Face Time are great to stay in touch, those interactions don’t fully replace live social interactions.
Your working spouse will A) be very busy with the new job and B) probably meet plenty new people through work. So you are on your own to build a new network of friends. It is easier to meet new people that you have something in common with through work. But without a job, you have to rely on other avenues to meet people, and you have to be very proactive about it. Not an easy feat for an introvert.
Consider joining expat networks like INN Beijing or InterNations (affiliate link) or others. Attend events geared towards foreigners. And don’t be shy. Many people at events already seem to know each other and are not always that welcoming to newcomers if you don’t approach them first. Don’t give up easily. Sometimes it takes going to a couple events to meet a person you click with.
But one person is not enough, you need more than one new friend. In fact, finding new friends is an ongoing effort. Since expats are a nomadic folk, be prepared to lose and having to find new friends as people move on to their next assignment or back home.
3. Finding a job for yourself in a foreign country can be difficult
As an expat spouse, you will likely have a visa that does not allow you to work in the foreign country. You are an experienced professional and may think you will just find a new job in the new country with a company that will sponsor a work visa for you. Well, that often is easier said than done.
Even though many people, including Chinese friends back in the US, told me my skill set should be in good demand and finding a job in China should be easy, it was not. A European friend in an entirely different line of work experienced the same. In China, regardless of your skills and experience, two things are very important for finding a job: connections and the ability to speak Chinese. You are new to the country and likely have neither one.
If you are a native English speaker or speak decent English, you can likely find a job teaching English in Beijing. You just have to make sure that the school obtains a work visa for you. Working without a visa is a big grey area and many people do it but the Chinese government is cracking down on this. I don’t think this is worth risking your residency permit.
So rather than finding a job in your profession, be prepared to do something that may not generate an income or is not in your field and therefore may not contribute to your overall career goals.
4. You lose some independence in daily life and have to regain it
When moving to China, where the language and culture are so different, your independence in daily life takes a hit. In the beginning, you need help for almost everything, since communication without being able to speak the Chinese language is difficult to say the least.
At home, you probably had a car and were able to go wherever you wanted to go. Depending on where you live in Beijing (see also Where to live – 5 things to consider) you may rely on public transportation or taxis. For taxis, you need again some basic Chinese and knowledge of where you want to go to feel independent.
Learning Chinese goes a long way to help you get back your independence in daily life. In addition, it keeps you busy and provides an opportunity to meet people.
5. Your spouse may be much more excited about China than you are
For your spouse, the new job often means a great opportunity for their career, excitement about the new environment and new friends. Chinese workers often think more hierarchical than in the West and many don’t have much interaction with foreigners. So your spouse may enjoy a lot of attention and admiration at work, while you sit at home lacking both.
At the company, they often have the help of Chinese colleagues or assistants to deal with issues while you are on your own to figure things out. It seems like your spouse’s new life is great and yours sucks.
It is important not to fall into that hole. To prevent this, look back at challenges 1-4. You have to build your own life and happiness. This may go a long way in keeping your relationship strong.
If you are a working expat spouse or a trailing spouse, what is your experience or recommendation? Please share in the comment section to help others with this transition.