Expat Magazine

EXPAT WOMEN: Don’t Call Us Trailing Spouses — We’re Trail Blazers!

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

expat women

When talk of the ‘hotelier’ taking a job on China’s Mainland first came up and we were living in Hong Kong (a hop, skip and a jump from China…aka, a 2.5 hour flight) a lot of people joked, ”Oh you can stay here in Hong Kong and he can come home every weekend — easy!” 

Now, admittedly (just between you and me) a teeny, tiny part of me tried to imagine what that might look like…. I had a great community, work, friends, and everything was extremely convenient….if you could do it anywhere, you could do it in Hong Kong! 

CUT! (picture fades to black!)

Clearly a fanciful idea, at best — and for both of us, simply not an option. 

A) We couldn’t afford to run two lifestyles, especially when one is in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

B) I’m not saying we’re Romeo and Juliet but, why would I want to live away from my husband? …….. Ahhh many good reasons you may jest….think of all the guilt-free shopping! 

Jokes aside, ironically when we ALL did move to the middle of China, many of the hotelier’s colleagues would see me around the place and say “Oh how long is Nicole in town for?”  “Um what? No, she lives here…..with me!” My slightly taken aback husband would say. Then the shocked response…”Really? She lives here, in Xi’an? (Lots of thoughtful nodding ensues..) Wow!” 

Call me crazy (and for the first six months and many times since I’ve concluded, I must be a little bit crazy!) but we kinda like hanging out together.

And then…..”How about your little girl? Can she go to school here?”  Why, yes! Yes she can!  

Xi’an for all intents and purposes is a city with eight million people and therefore has a pretty reasonable level of infrastructure going on. (It may all be falling apart underneath but it’s there!) (She mocks!)

In all reality though, these colleagues’ questions are not so far fetched. 

A lot of spouses choose to stay put in bigger (dare I say, more civilised) cities – those with a 1st tier ranking.….Shanghai or Beijing or in other cities nearby like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where heaven forbid, they can communicate. 

Moving to China as an expat wife

For us though – at this point in time, it’s one in, all in!

But I’m not hear to blow wind up my own [email protected]#! (For non-Aussie readers, basically that means I’m not here to talk about how fabulous I am for moving to the middle of China (ok, maybe just a little bit!) 😉  )

In all reality, I’ve got it pretty darn good. I get to live in a hotel bubble! I cannot complain (much). (Even if I did find myself curled up in the foetal position in my heavenly bed the first week we arrived, while the hotelier had to exit Xi’an for a three-night visa run. Alone, stranded in China!

There’s no denying, no matter which country you’re in and what sort of place you get to call home — when you open your eyes that very first morning in a foreign city, where you know not a single soul and even more terrifying, can’t speak a word of the language and everything outside looks about as close to life as you know it on Mars AND it’s ”home” for the foreseeable future – it is a pretty daunting place to be, even for the hardiest of us. (If you’re new to the game and need survival tips, check this post out!)

Expat Wives

What I really want to say though – despite those initial feelings of complete and utter loneliness and an immense desire to stay horizontal, covers over your head — the expat women that I know and often read about – are definitely not Trailing Spouses! If you haven’t heard the term, it’s a nice fancy one they give women who find themselves in a foreign country with their husband or partner who is usually contracted to work in that country.

The term “Trailing Spouse” was coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove to capture the concept of sacrificing your career plans to follow your partner. And admittedly, there are many sacrifices to be made for all involved with such a decision to move half way around the world.

living overseas

Careers are lost…friends and family are farewelled and every ounce of normality ceases to exist…..but at the same time, these things are also made. (Much to our initial disbelief.)

And the majority of expat women I know will probably tell you, they find that term a little offensive (no disrespect Mary Bralove).  Usually, we haven’t been dragged kicking and screaming across the globe, trailing behind as we struggle to keep up with our Commanding Partners in Chief!

For the most part, the majority of expats (working or not) have a desire to see something different, experience a different way of lifeand heck….Go. On. An. Adventure!! 

In many cases, it’s the women pushing for the move, making the final decision to take the new job and deciding where it will be and for how long.

expat life

In our case, (and to many people’s surprise) I was the one who said, “Let’s go to China!” Even if it did seem mildly crazy, when places like Bali and Melbourne were on the radar. 

Bottom line: most of the expat women I speak with are here because ultimately (“I hate China days” and all) we choose to be.  

As expat partners not working, we are the ones forced to take a giant leap out of our comfort zone, making new lives for both ourselves and families. The one with the job — while challenging in different ways — can often assume ‘position normal’…. He (or she) goes to his job, each morning, just like he always has. 

As the spouse in a new country, there’s the unenviable job of finding a place to live; a school for the kids; a supermarket, a hair dresser, a doctor (should there be such things available). Or on the flip side, you’re the one left back home to pick up the pieces or finish off the deal — sell the house, the cars, the furniture — pack up…organise the shipping, clean the house to inspection standards! 

More often than not, when you and your partner agree to the big role, companies will want you there ASAP. You basically swig back that coffee gin as you hear the words “Yes, let’s do it” come out of your mouth… and the plane ticket is booked. Locked in. “Hello new life!”

Are you a trailing spouse

The first move we made, I was pregnant, working night shift and the hotelier had to take the new job within three weeks. I stayed behind to finalise the deal…I won’t say it was a walk in the park. (Thanks mum!)

One fellow expat arrived into town with two kids in tow, her already working husband had hoped to be there for the first two weeks to help everyone “settle in” but was called away the very next day. There she was in a city of millions, not a soul known and not a skerrick of Chinese spoken. Good Morning Xi’an!

Those first few weeks, even months can be long and lonely. Naturally the working partner’s job is intense….it’s new…there is work to be done and hours to be put in

Living in a place like Xi’an or anywhere in Asia for that matter, means there can be more travel involved than ever before. Spouses are left to fend for themselves for days on end. The routine of old is a distant memory…..as is the identity of old. (I wrote an article a few years back on making expat relationships work, here.)

As women on the expat journey we propel ourselves into the arms of exotically wild foreign lands at full throttle.


We struggle try to learn new languages or simply learn new ways of communicating – we become masters at charades; we force ourselves to make random new friends from all walks of life; we eat food that leaves our taste buds recoiling in shock; we visit hospitals and doctors in desperate times, with methods far removed from those we know and often we just don’t know what is being administered!

We ride taxis and busses along streets filled with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. We wake up on more days than we like, to a sky thick with pollution, we can’t see across the road — to days with no power, no water or both… 

We go on endless searches for our necessities that simply don’t exist. We suffer culture shock and cultural misunderstandings….. 

We listen endlessly and support our other half who is often immersed in a role that sometimes deals cards beyond anything you could’ve comprehended in a previous life.

We say goodbye to people we care about more often than we should. We deal with tough situations without our families close by.

Sometimes we just want to call it a day and go home, to a place we’re understood. But we stand our ground, knowing tomorrow is another day.

Surviving the trailing spouse tag

Many of us have left our own burgeoning careers and while we may be the one comfortably organising the move….the reality of leaving a career behind and suddenly seeing your name on the visa application as ‘house wife’ can be pretty soul destroying (you eventually get used to it)! (Let alone being called Mr James).

 I went from TV News Reader to expat mum up to my ears in diapers and chopsticks, in a matter of months! You can read about that interesting period here!

But I’ve seen a myriad of expat women rise up against the tide of trailing spouse stereotypes to redefine themselves and their working life….In Hong Kong alone there is an untold number of small but thriving businesses erupting across the city, all founded by expat women.  

But what about places like mainland China where the visa regulations don’t really allow you to work or you need to find a role that sponsors you as well, which can be nigh on impossible? Many previously working women are suddenly placed in an environment where they really have no choice but to be the home maker.

This is where your expat tribe comes in and a much needed sense of adventure. Once you meet other expats in similar situations, the bond is built quickly and negotiating foreign life is infinitely easier not to mention empowering.

We develop lifelong friendships with global citizens, we see the world in a way we could never have imagined, we travel, we experience once in a lifetime moments and we grow and learn about ourselves and other cultures, beyond anything we believed possible.

We are expat women —  we don’t trail behind, we blaze a path ahead!

living expat life

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