I’m thrilled to publish this guest post from Antonella Moretti, author of the novel Parsley & Coriander: Life in China with Italian Flavor. Here’s the description from Amazon.com:
How would you feel if you are told that you have to give up your whole life and move to China? This is what happens to the three Italian women in the story, who decide to follow their husbands abroad.
Challenges, thrills, ups and downs and the struggle of having to deal with a very different culture.
Antonella Moretti portrays a group of trailing spouses: some of them adapt to the new reality and reinvent themselves, others simply can’t bear the cultural shock and give up.
Stay tuned, as I’ll be featuring an interview with Antonella about her novel later on the blog.
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My name is Antonella and I moved to China from Italy in 2012. It was our family’s first experience abroad and I didn’t know what to expect from this new adventure.
So, what happens when your husband receives a job offer in China and you decide to follow him?
You’ll probably become a taitai.
Taitai in Chinese means married woman. But for us, the wives of foreigners who work in China, it also means to be a lady who sacrifices a part of her life and goes toward the unknown. A woman who will probably become a privileged housewife, with an ayi hired to clean the house, kids all day long at some international school, maybe a driver to take her around. And a lot of free time.
Sounds great, isn’t it? But sometimes, if you were used to being a busy woman, you struggle to fill that time.
Taitais meet in foreign coffee shops, trying to deal with the diversity of Chinese culture. Some of them like their new life. Others are overwhelmed by cultural shock and only desire to go back to their motherland. Many of them become addicted to shopping and fill their wardrobe with fake bags and clothes. Others are obsessed with their body and spend their days at the gym. Some try to work, but for spouses it is not easy to find a job in the same field you were employed in, especially in China.
When I decided to follow my man, like many others I quit my job. I was an accountant and never really loved that job, So no tears from me when I told my boss I was going to resign.
Becoming a taitai myself, I had to deal with all the unusual spare time. To find myself without anything to do was really weird! I feared I had no purpose anymore. Shopping sprees and neverending chitchats were not meaningful activities to me. I wanted something more! So I had to reinvent myself. And what was better than rediscovering my old passion for writing? I started a blog and after a while, I wrote and published a novel.
What is this novel about? About expat women, of course! The topic I know best. I didn’t have to do much research to write about it. Even if the book isn’t a memoir, I poured into the pages all the experiences, the stories, and the feelings of my first years in China.
I wrote a novel because I wanted to describe the most expats I could — from the ones who adapt easily to the ones who never fit in. And fiction helped me to mix everything and create a captivating plot.
The women in the book try to get the best out of their “taitai life”. They challenge themselves, doing new things that sometimes frighten them. Like Astrid, who becomes a stronger person:
“Every choice she made, trembling with fear, she did wondering if it was the right one. It was anything but a smooth process and left her worn out, tired and nervous. But now she understood that dealing with it all, taking all those risks, had made her able to do things she, knowing herself, would have considered totally impossible until a few months earlier.”
For someone this is just too much, and they lock themselves at home, frightened and shocked. There’s the young Livia, who says:
“Not everyone is like you, Luisella! Not everyone can keep smiling through difficult times. I know you don’t appreciate those who honestly admit not being happy in China, but we are not all the same, you know? Some of us need a long time to adapt, some will never fit in, but they should not be judged for it!”
In my case, I didn’t have that much of a cultural shock. Maybe because I’m flexible, maybe because I’m curious. Or maybe because, when I was young, I was a girl scout and certain things don’t shock me! But, joking aside, I understand that this is not true for everybody. This is the reason why many expats live in the “expat bubble”. They rent an apartment in a very nice compound and spend their time inside it, hanging out almost exclusively with fellow countrymen.
On the contrary, there are also expats like the young student Camilla, a truly China-lover, who arrives in the Middle Kingdom full of expectations, declaring she wants to find a local boyfriend.
“Astrid looked at the picture on her smartphone screen: only Camilla could find the courage to photograph a bank employee, not at all ashamed to be seen!
– He’s actually really handsome!
– He is tall, has dark, almond-shaped, irresistible eyes, a prominent jawline, a straight and long neck, broad shoulders…
– Did you X-ray him? Okay, but now what’s the next move? Are you going to ask him out?”
But dreams and reality do not always match, and she will clash with difficulties she didn’t expect.
Because of her declared love for Asia, she will become the favorite target of Fulvia’s mockery. Fulvia is one of the so-called “three witches”, a group of ladies who don’t miss a chance to speak ill about their life in China, giving voice to the ones who think they are right just because they are Westerners.
“The Three Witches (…) never missed a chance to rant about China and the Chinese people, and didn’t make the slightest effort to learn more about the country and the people that were hosting them. Indeed, their mouths were filled with mostly racist platitudes.”
Emma, instead, arrives China without expectations or prejudices. She comes to save her broken marriage and end up finding a new, complicated love: she falls for a calm, strong Chinese man. But their love will be destroyed by doubts, prejudices and guilt. Eventually, she understands that all she wants is to save their romance…but is it too late? Will she win his heart again?
“She felt as if she were floating on the clouds. The meetings with Shen had become a regular thing, and although nothing had happened between them, Emma felt satisfied and complete. She knew little or nothing about him, and yet she seemed to have known him for a lifetime.(…)
Sometimes, as they sat gazing at the river, their shoulders touched. Emma felt a strong urge to take his arm and put it around her shoulders, but at the same time she didn’t dare. She was savoring the tension that grew stronger every time but didn’t force his hand in any way.”
This was the only part of the story that required some research. Neither I nor any friend of mine have ever been involved in a cross-cultural relationship and I wanted to make it sound realistic. In this, Jocelyn and other women who share their AMWF experiences in their blogs helped me a lot. I discovered for instance that Chinese men show their love differently. They don’t use many words, they show their appreciation in a subtle way. Yet Shen is a very romantic character, and my readers loved him!
Living day by day in this country, you’ll learn to appreciate things you wouldn’t think you could. Like coriander, the herb which gives the title to the novel. At the beginning I really couldn’t stand its smell. I found it nearly disgusting. Then, little by little, I learned to enjoy it. And now I really love it!
Italian writer Antonella Moretti, who resides in Suzhou, China, is the author of Parsley & Coriander: Life in China with Italian Flavor.