Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: 101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People

101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People is written by Yi S. Ellis, a Shanghai-born woman raised in America. She moved back to China as an adult with her American (presumably white) husband, Bryan. Through the cross-cultural experiences she's had with Bryan interacting with her family and adjusting to life in China, she has compiled a trite list of 101 anecdotes that demonstrate behaviour that Chinese people find weird about Americans/westerners and vice-versa.

As one Goodreads reviewer points out, the book's biggest weakness is that Ellis writes at approximately a 3rd grade level. One of my friends' kids is 5 years old and, with little assistance, she could write (or at least dictate) a more sophisticated guide. Paradoxically, it is a remarkably easy read and painful to get through due to errors. 

This book is not researched in any fashion. If you are looking for insight into the origins of some Chinese behaviours or reflections by the author about their experiences, you have come to the wrong book. 

I found a copy of this book at my work's expat library. I thought it would give me some help navigating a Chinese workplace and I wasn't completely wrong. Some of Ellis's examples of "saving face", especially at the office, have come in handy now that I'm in a Chinese work environment. (With the caveat that these are stories her husband has told her about his experience as a boss with 100% of these stories ending with him devising a clever strategy to mitigate cultural differences. Some of these strategies come across as condescending and verging on racist.) 

About 10% of the content was useful with maybe 1/3 of the stories coming across as interesting. For example, a western friend told me the other day she found it rude and strange that the Chinese CEO of her organization always left events early. That night, I read about high ranking people leaving celebrations early so guests can start partying without feeling judged or leave if they want to without offending their bosses. I'm not sure how accurate this is but it provided a plausible explanation. Conversely, multiple stories about how her husband made mistakes while learning Chinese are neither educational nor interesting.  

All of her stories should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt. She vastly oversimplifies and generalizes. Any middle-aged or older Chinese couple displaying affection, including holding hands, is engaged in infidelity. Blowing one's nose into a tissue offends Chinese people. 

The author's perspective is very limited. Even though she has Chinese parents, speaks Chinese, and has lived in China for several years, she gets around by driver and does all of her shopping in supermarkets. She doesn't want to buy off local vendors because she doesn't know the prices and might get ripped off! God forbid she interact with a Chinese person who isn't hired by her husband or raised her. Of the 101 anecdotes, nearly all are about interactions between her husband and business associates, her family, or their nanny. 

Keeping all of this in mind, I would still recommend this book to people coming to China for the first time. You can read it on the plane, cover to cover. If you already live here, you won't have any major revelations but might get something out of it. Even better, if you have literate children over the age of 9, you can get them to read it and clue you in on the best parts. 

101 Stories is out of print but you can find it in libraries or used.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

when I was a young and happy taitai

My job search has come to an exciting end. Starting tomorrow, I'll be managing two nonprofits in Shanghai and I am delighted, to say the least. It is a bit sad to be leaving behind my taitai life and I figured I would share with you all what exactly that entailed.

I decided to embrace the taitai (housewife) label when we got here. I think it's silly to define a person by their marital status but, frankly, I would have gone mad long ago in England and China if I let it get to me too much. The term "guytai" has been coined for travelling male spouses but it is far less common than foreigner women not working. There have been a few times when I've explained that I came to Shanghai with my husband and "我找工作" ("I'm looking for a job") and the response is, "Oh, so you're a housewife". Even when I opened a bank account on Friday in order to deposit my paycheque, the employee ticked off "housewife" as my employment after hearing I was married. Probably easier than explaining nonprofit manager, I guess.

Okay, fine, taitai it is. But I was a terrible housewife. We have an ayi (housekeeper) who comes for 2 hours each week to clean the floors, bathroom, and kitchen, and iron. Housewife fail #1. Some days I didn't even have dinner ready for when my husband got home! Imagine that. Without kids or even a dog for the first 3+ months, I didn't have much of an "excuse".

So what did I do exactly? One reason I resurrected this blog was to share what I was up to. This isn't quite advice, but if you're someone thinking about how to fill their days, it might help you brainstorm.
My husband loves my cooking

Housewifely things

While I got a wonderful break from the full-time grind, the Irishman didn't do too badly either. Cooking, dishes, groceries, other errands -things we normally share- I did a vast majority of. (Anyone want to take bets for how long it takes for us to cave and hire the ayi for more days per week?) We've hosted people at our place for dinner once or twice a week since we've arrived. And before Christmas and our trip to Harbin, I was able to park in front of Netflix and spend afternoons knitting. Luxury! Plus, I got to do a lot of yoga at home. Does that tick off enough taitai boxes that I'm forgiven for not doing any ironing all year?

I'm not allowed to do this anymore

Learning Chinese

Learning Chinese has been the most time consuming, rewarding, and expensive thing I've done since we moved here. Within a few weeks of arriving, I started classes, 3 hours a day, Monday-Friday. In order to keep up with the superhuman Johanna (18 year old German girl fresh out of high school who remembers everything) who I had class with, I studied for another 5 hours a day. No joke. Flashcards galore. Husband aggravating post-it notes all over the dining room. It paid off but I was definitely burned out after 10 weeks!

I took December off from class, doing a bit of review here and there, to let my brain recover from what amounted to 3 months of information overload. This year, I'm back at it but for fewer hours of tutoring per week.
Coin purse purchased for $3 on a taitai [grocery] shopping spree!

Other learning

I'm just finishing up Critical Perspectives on Management, a great MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, Wikipedia has great info about them) offered free through Coursera. It took about 4-6 hours per week to do readings, watch lectures, and complete exams. The professor was a capitalism-critical Canadian teaching in Spain so that may have added to its appeal...

I had tried to take MOOCs in the past but with work (and wedding) commitments, I never managed to complete one until now. I am registered to retake a free course in two weeks on behavioural psychology which I did all the reading for last year but no exams. We'll see if I can manage it once I'm working full-time again!

I highly recommend looking into MOOCs. The range of topics is endless. They are often completely free (e.g. management course), only require you purchase a textbook (e.g. psychology class), or are very low cost. MOOC List is an aggregated list of courses and start dates that you can peruse. Check it out!
Trying to sabotage my job search

Job hunting

Job hunting involved a mix of networking and finding gigs on CareerEngine and LinkedIn. The actual hunting bit, following up on business cards garnered at events and checking job postings, wasn't very time consuming. There weren't that many jobs out there in the marketing or non-profit spheres that weren't super specific to an industry or had language requirements I couldn't fill.

Early on in my search, I interviewed for one job that was out of my field. In the interview, the manager gave me a speech about how my resume needs a job on there that has lasted for several years. Rather than inspire me to commit to the role when he offered it to me, he made me realize that my next role needed to be something long-term that I could build off of. (Yes, I am very lucky that I was in a position to be this picky.)

Interviewing was the time consuming bit. I had several interviews before I landed this job. I did a lot of preparation for each interview: getting advice from friends and contacts, researching the organizations, thinking over my own work experience and history, coming up with suggestions and proposals. I had to prepare full social media proposals for a couple of the jobs and a few gave me more than one interview. Unemployment fills a surprising amount of time!
Buy a bear, help save a life!


I spend a lot of time with my foster dog. This is clear. No need to go on.

I also have volunteered with Chi Fan for Charity, Heart to Heart, and Bean in Shanghai. And I've kept up my role as digital media consultant/newsletter director for the Alliance Against Modern Slavery in Canada. I've been volunteering regularly practically since I could walk and Mama Cruz would be most disappointed in me if I didn't keep up the family tradition.
I should have starred in Real Housewives of Shanghai. So fashionable.

Explore Shanghai

I didn't do very much of this, especially after the air quality plummeted and Charlie became my stay at home buddy. I had a couple of mini-field trips but otherwise was mostly at home, studying. Either I could go out and lose momentum in my classes or I could stay in and lose the opportunity to visit things in off-peak hours. I'm okay with my decision; I'd rather go visit things with friends, anyway!

Lazy: celebrating a cancelled day of classes

Final thoughts before I enter the workforce

The hardest thing about taitai life (without kids) for me is the lack of stuff to talk about. Critical Perspectives on Management and hours of Chinese studying don't make captivating dinner conversation. I have been reminded by my husband that I talk about the dog a bit more than anyone wants to hear. Sorry everybody.

Loss of identity and marital trouble seem to be issues that other couples face when one partner is a non-working traveling spouse. This article, which is hidden behind a membership thingy now, basically advises women to get a job. While I was lucky enough to find a job in my field, I think that's a bit harsh. If we had moved somewhere where English wasn't used at all and I wasn't employable, I would like to think that I could still maintain my identity, build a skill set(s), and keep a strong marriage.

The main takeaway about why my experience worked out so well is two-fold. Firstly, I had a supportive partner who was 100% on board with the plan for me to invest in learning Chinese as much as possible from the get-go and to not settle for a job that wouldn't be a career builder. In addition to that, I had "jobs". Every day, with few exceptions, I studied Chinese, took care of my dog, and cooked. Some other traveling spouses (I can't seriously say "family relocation managers") start their own small businesses, take courses, explore the city, make art/write/craft, or freelance. Especially if the non-working situation isn't a permanent plan, coming away with skills, hobbies, and experience that will serve you in "life after staying at home" is crucial. Repatriation is often harder than moving out here in the first place, but that's another entry for another day.

If you have any tips for staying fulfilled and happy while being a traveling spouse, please add them in the comments!