“I’m sorry my darling. Did you say you have been offered a job in Shanghai?” Well that’s how my adventure started. “And really, you think it might work for me to give up my work and go to China and be a ‘stay at home’ dad?”
So I am here writing this because she did think that, and eventually, so did I. We have been in Shanghai now for three and a half years, and it has been the most challenging and inspiring adventure of my life. I sure never thought of myself as a potential ‘Expat’ or a ‘male trailing spouse’, and now I even find myself as a Guy Tai. A Guy Tai? you ask.
Well just like army wives have their organisation, and so do people who love to play table tennis, male trailing spouses in Shanghai have the Guy Tais to hang out with when the kids are at school and the emails are answered and the ayi knows what to shop for dinner.
When I first got here, it was all very exciting, and scary… I couldn’t read a sign, I didn’t understand a word of Chinese and there are just sooo many people. I don’t know about fast learning of Chinese, but I certainly learnt hand gestures pretty quick. Of course, two days after we arrived, my wife went to work, and left me organising getting the girls off to school ( Tina is eight and Suki is ten), finding an ayi, as I quickly learned everyone does, and buying mobile phones and the thousand and one things that I had NEVER done before.
Like I said, it was all very exciting and I was exhausted at the end of the day. But then, gradually, I got things under control, and after two months, I realized I was getting lonely. Not only that, but my life was filled with women! Now don’t get me wrong, plenty of women, that’s a good thing, but I needed to hang out with the guys a bit. A beer and the jokes that fly back and forth when a group of blokes get together is a necessary part of life. Of course, I hadn’t heard of the Guy Tais at that point, but a woman friend (yes, I do have them too) told me about this group she had heard of so I checked online, and yes, there was www.guytai.net and in two days they were going to visit a factory that makes robots. Wow. Wow. Men, lunch, beer, and robots! This city suddenly turned. I like it here I said to myself, and I still like it here.
Sometimes we visit a local tourist sort of place, you know, the water town, or a temple, or the formula one race track, sometimes we play pool or go-cart racing, and sometimes we just have lunch together. What I love is the shared experience. We are all married to a woman who is the primary earner in the family at this time, and we have chosen not to work full time. There is actually a very wide range of men in the group – who number some 80 members (although only about 30 regulars). At one end is the young chap who is contending with a six month old born right here in Shanghai, and two older siblings, and at the other, is a retired guy who has no plans to ever work again and whose wife is some hot shot lawyer flying between Beijing, Shanghai and Washington. We have guys who really are full time fathers, doing the whole show with only a part time ayi to do some cleaning, and others who are developing their own businesses, IT services or similar, and some who are continuing part time the work they used to do full time. There are one or two who I find quite intimidating. They seem to be like business tycoons who have pressed the pause button but you can see they are running on the spot in order to be ready to take off, the moment the brake is released. Fortunately, there are also a few who seem a bit more like me. They are curious and keen to learn about this mad country that is our home for a few years, and want to pursue a few interests along the way.
And of course, there are the weird ones. The chap who has been living here for twelve years, married to a local and reads Chinese, and spends most of his time talking to a bird in a cage. I have no idea how long it took him to get accepted by the local old Chinese men who meet every Thursday with their caged birds and play some card game I have never heard of. And then there is the IT security specialist who decided that the best place to hide from the Chinese censors was right under their noses. There’s the Englishman who used to be an engineer, gave it up to accompany his wife who now runs the largest cosmetics import business in China, and started painting. He is obsessed with painting bicycles with a four meter high pile of cardboard surrounding the rider. I think that’s because he hasn’t yet learned how to paint people.
At this time we are mostly white but we are definitely not all native English speakers, there are Swedes, Danes, Israelis, Germans, and Mike from New Zealand, who claims to speak English, but I dont believe him.
A few weeks back we had lunch together and Bob suggested we all tell about our wives and how it is being a male with a powerful woman who earns the money. It was fantastic hearing the different experiences. I think the common theme was how we experience ourselves as primarily being here to support her. That might be by looking after the kids, that might be by managing the home, and often its as an ear at the end of a crazy day navigating the grey zone between the stated law and how the government imposes itself on multi-national companies. And surprisingly, our choices about how we make life work for us here in Shanghai, is a big part of our task of making life work for our spouses. If it doesn’t work for us, then it won’t work for her. We are definitely all part of a family team, she just happens to be the one doing the full time job away from the home. It is clear that some of the wives are on the fast track to global CEO, and some will maintain their career thru to retirement, but I got the impression from one or two that they may swap places with their wife at some point and go right back into full time work. And with some, the children will grow up and he will go back to work.
So that’s all great, but what about the dark side? Well one thing I have struggled with is the turnover of friendships. Just as with all other expat groups, guys leave. Some of those are prime movers in the group and that gets weird. Last year, Lon left. He had been arranging things, welcoming new members, maintaining the email list, and generally being the driving force in the group. As he had simply been doing his thing, there was nobody in the group who wanted to be Lon. Others do things differently, and the flavour of the group changed completely. It took a few months before things settled down into the new pattern. Separately, there was one chap I got on really well with, and we met up outside of the group, doing a couple of trips with our daughters, and playing squash together. All of a sudden his wife was shipped back home, with just two months notice! I have not let myself get that close to someone since.
I now know that we will be leaving China next year. I will be a ‘Guy Tai’ in Switzerland. Well I’m not quite sure about that, would I be a Homme Tai, or a Guy Frau. Maybe I can start the Zurich group, affiliated to GuyTai International. This is an exciting move forward for my wife’s career, and lots of advantages for the girls. I have no idea how easy it will be to continue their Mandarin lessons but at least there will be horse riding again. I know I will miss my group of men friends, and suspect that it might be much more difficult to find a group than it was here in Shanghai. I don’t know who started the Guy Tais, but to whomever it was, Thank You. The Guy Tais have sustained me on several occasions when things got a bit hairy (like the time I needed someone to pick up my bicycle when I unexpectedly found myself in the hospital with a broken ankle).
A terrific group of men, who have a good time together, support each other, offer resources and knowledge about Shanghai to newbies, and sometimes get together to raise money for the less fortunate locals. Go well men.