I am what is known as a “trailing spouse.” That is a person, husband or wife, who follows a spouse to a new job posting, usually abroad. I know some guys who hate being called a trailing spouse. Author, and recent Shanghai visitor Alan Paul, who wrote a great book on the expat experience called “Big in China,” described the term as “demeaning for anyone and downright emasculating for a man.” I like Alan a lot but believe he’s giving too much thought to what I regard as merely an easy descriptive term (alanpaul.net).
In many respects, I did follow Karen to China, as it was her job that brought us here. But I wasn’t dragged here kicking and screaming. We made the decision to move around the world together. If either one of us had said no, we would still be living in Michigan. That’s because both of us have jobs in this adventure. Her job comes with the title vice president, Communications, Ford Asia Pacific, while mine comes with many titles: Primary care-giver to our daughters, finance and administration head of our home(s), dabbling school dad, blogger, travel planner, finder of good restaurants for family brunches, and seeker of all things cool to visit in Shanghai (via a now somewhat beat up scooter). I honestly believe that I have the better, and sometimes harder, job of the two of us.
There are many other men in Shanghai who also are trailing spouses, which is a relatively new phenomenon here. The Shanghai Daily newspaper says there are a variety of reasons for that, including the rise of women to executive positions across all businesses, the hit many men took in the “great recession,” and the dramatic rise in demand for luxury brands in China, who tend to employ more women in executive positions. Friends who have been here for several years tell me that the number of male trailing spouses in Shanghai has jumped noticeably in just the last two years.
Which brings me to the Guy Tais, of which I’m one. The term Guy Tai is a cross-language reference taken from the English term “guy,” and the Chinese phrase “Tai Tai,” which is the respectful term for wife. Apparently, the guy here who made up the term Guy Tai almost 10 years ago did so because he was sick of being referred to as a house husband (a term that makes me like the phrase “trailing spouse” even more).
Today, there are over 100 members of the Shanghai Guy Tai organization, which you can join online (guytai.net). In fact, organization may be too strong of a word for what we Guy Tais really are, which is a loosely grouped bunch of guys basically looking to have fun in Shanghai. Currently, it is being administered (think herding cats) by a guy named Jim Arpin. Jim and I went to Grosse Pointe North high school together several decades ago, and only recently reconnected here in Shanghai (freaking small world). Jim is working very hard at managing the Guy Tai purpose and objectives, as stated below from the website:
“We are a group of stay-at-home dads and trailing spouses (or what we call Guy Tais) located in Shanghai. We are from all over the world and we meet up on a regular basis. The purpose of this group is to:
- Build friendships
- Share experiences
- Support each other
- Have fun.”
I will say that, through my participation in Guy Tai activities, I have achieved all four of those objectives. I have made lifelong friendships, had some very fun adventures, and helped support others. Our Guy Tai group is unique to Shanghai, though members who have moved on to other postings with their spouses have started talking about forming similar organizations in other countries. Shanghai, like many foreign cities, is a big, scary metropolis when you first arrive. Having a group of guys in place, organized, and ready to show you the ropes, is wildly helpful.
The Guy Tais meet once a month for lunch (Shanghai Brewery being a favorite venue for obvious reasons shanghaibrewery.com) to discuss upcoming activities and whatever happens to be driving us nuts about Shanghai at the time. The activities that I have participated in included a trip to the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, where we were given a private tour and lecture on the history of Propaganda in China. It was a fascinating tour, and very enlightening about Chinese culture (shanghaipropagandaart). After the tour, we had lunch at the Boxing Cat Brewery with brewer Michael Jordan. Approximately 15 of us enjoyed excellent food paired with the brewery’s beer, while Michael explained both to us (boxingcatbrewery.com). His IPAs are spectacular, hoppy, and strong. I was a little wobbly walking out, thankful once again for the appearance of our driver Steven.
The Guy Tais do a variety of activities, though not all are about fun and beer. We recently went to the Shanghai Children’s Hospital to visit a special unit there run by the Bao Bei Foundation, which works with medical organizations to provide life-saving surgeries to Chinese orphans (baobeifoundation.org). After their surgeries, the babies stay in the hospital anywhere from six to 12 months to recover and, hopefully, get adopted by Western families. (Cassidy has an American friend here whose family recently adopted an adorable baby through the foundation.) At the hospital, the Guy Tais played with the babies and many committed to go back on a regular basis to visit the kids.
I think my favorite Guy Tai activity so far was a Chinese cooking class we did with chef Helen Liu. Now that I live in China, I find Chinese cooking to be somewhat of a mystery, and nothing like that which passes for the cuisine in the States. In my observations, the Chinese use vegetables more as a main dish than a side dish, which is a good thing. They also eat a lot of pork, as well as pretty much every part of a chicken, including the feet, which are considered a delicacy. The sauces tend to be much lighter than in the U.S., and less sweet and salty (no MSG), but full of flavor and delicious. I’ve been working on my sauces and hoped the class would help me perfect them.
About eight Guy Tais attended the private class, which is run through Cook in Shanghai, a cooking and event company run by Chef Liu (cookinshanghai.com). Normally, they hold the class at their commercial kitchen in Puxi but, because we were a small group, it was held in Chef Liu’s home kitchen, which was pretty cool. We started the morning at the wet market, where we got the ingredients for the dishes we would cook later. Then we set about cooking Chinese dishes like Hot and Sour Soup, Mapo Tofu, Black Sesame Dumplings, Sichuan Peppercorn Chicken, and Bok Choy with Braised Shiitake Sauce. We each chose a dish (I had spicy Mapo Tofu) and, under Chef Liu’s direction, did our best to recreate her wonderful recipes.
It was hard work, but Chef Liu is awesome to cook with. Halfway through the class someone broke out beer and wine and things got really fun. Along with Chinese cooking techniques, we learned about Chinese cuisine and its role in the culture, as well as how to drink tea in China. It was a lot of fun cooking, eating, and drinking with Chef Liu and the Guy Tais.
One last thing to say about the Guy Tais is that membership in it is constantly changing as the working spouse’s assignment comes to an end and the family returns to its home, or moves on to a new expat adventure. It’s a dynamic that keeps the organization fresh with new members, even as old friends leave. It’s also a dynamic we as an expat family in Shanghai are starting to experience.
One of Stephanie’s good friends here, Audrey and her family are moving back to Michigan this summer for good. Stephanie is sad about it and is going to miss her. The flip side of this dynamic is that it means somebody new is going to come to backfill that job, and they will bring their family with them. So to Stephanie, the only good news about her friend moving back to the States is that she will most likely make some new friends this Fall. Well, that and we now have Audrey’s sweet trampoline in our backyard.