Guest Post: On Being an Expat Wife in China

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

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.

Do you have a guest post you’d like to see featured here on Speaking of China? Visit the submit a post page to learn how to get published on the blog.

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…

Astrid laughed:

– 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.

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

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24 Replies to “Guest Post: On Being an Expat Wife in China”

  1. Antonella, I’m looking forward to reading your book. I’d also be interested in reviewing it on my blog. Expat wives and how they adjust is definitely a fascinating topic, but not much has been written it.

    When I was a “trailing spouse” in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, as far as I know, the term hadn’t yet been invented. We were just expat wives.

    I had to do a lot of research for my first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, which was set in China in the 1930s and ’40s. I’d visited China couple of times by the time I started writing it, but I’d never lived there, and certainly not so many years ago. Now I’m working on a novel about an expat wife. It’s set in countries I’ve lived in, so at least I don’t have to worry about research.

    1. Hi Nicki! Definitely life of expat wives can be of inspiration for many books! I look forward to yours! Thank you for your interest in reviewing my novel, you can contact me on my email (contact page on my blog).

  2. We live in the United States right now. We deal with some struggles. Things are not perfect here for Americans married to Chinese men. Americans and Chinese think us too strange. I have Chinese women in the United States asking my husband. “Isn’t he hungry!? American wife?! What will you eat?!” Really, I would never walk away from my marriage, but it can be difficult sometimes. If we are ostracized here, what will happen in China? Will I have friends? Will Chinese women continue to shun me as a joke wife? I will follow my husband anywhere with no regrets , but it still feels overwhelming.

    1. I understand exactly what you are saying about marriage and its difficulties, however, one of the things that should never contribute to the potential struggles in a married life is how others may judge you.

      Think about this: Every single day, we are judged no matter where we go. I get on a subway train in NYC and immediately notices people looking, at me or at other people also getting on. When I sit down, then I naturally glance at others getting on or off. It is normal of people to judge when they see something, anything. People see my dusty work jacket and heavy canvas gloves sticking out of a back pocket and immediately think “oh, this guy is a construction worker and he is Asian”. Well I do delivery driving but thats close. And if I see a man reading a magazine with energy drink commercials and exercise equipment on the cover, I may think “oh this guy probably does mixed martial arts or something”. Thing is, if we pay attention to EVERY single detail of other peoples’ thoughts, implicit or otherwise, we might just go insane from the information overload. It will be like walking down a street trying to memorize every license plate that drives by.

      People judge, and we should not let that affect what WE as individuals do. We are not diatoms that make up a coral colony or worker bees serving a queen. We are individuals with every right to pursue our own dreams and goals. I understand it is sometimes frustrating when you or your husband receives looks or a random poorly thought out question. Hell, it is the same for me, a single individual. Sometimes people whisper to each other on the bus if I might be a drug dealer or an addict or some burned out thug when I get off from work and I am disheveled and my clothes are dirty. And I drive an unmarked white box truck for local freight sometimes. Yes here comes the kidnapper and pedophile jokes. I hear them and I am forced to ignore them for productivity’s sake. This is what a single working guy deals with on a daily basis. Not to mention the times I am standing outside a convenience store to finish a cigarette, my hands in my coat pockets and the guys working inside glance among each other no doubt thinking I am gonna rob the place or something. If I let all that get to me I would have to lock myself in some remote cabin somewhere and close off all contact with the world. Yeah and become some horror story hermit LOL right?

      What others say should never undermine a relationship. The companionship and love between two people who share such strong and positive emotions for each other is simply too precious to allow to be damaged by remarks or questions from strangers who dont know better. It is like me using a $200 Browning hunting knife to cut down a pile of dirty waterlogged shipping cartons at the back of the warehouse trash storage. No I am going to use my cheap expendable Home Depot stockman razor for that. That Browning stays oiled and sharp inside my belt just in case it has to save my life or someone elses’ life.

      Please dont let the “bandwagon” pollute the wonderful relationship you have with your husband. Like you said in another post, Kong and Julie will ALWAYS be Kong and Julie and it should be that way for always. May the best of luck and my warmest wishes be with you and your husband. Dont ever let something so precious get tainted by the meaningless BS that we as people deal with every day in life. Oh by the way, that cheap stockman razor broke this morning when I was prying out pebbles from the tire treads of one of the trucks in the lot that had apparently been taken offroad yesterday in the rain. HAHAHA oh well. I can get another one for 2 dollars.

        1. Thanks so much Jocelyn! The first thing I felt when I read Julie’s post was almost heartache and anguish since I know exactly what she and undoubtedly many other couples are going through, but after taking a minute to think and especially put two and two together I realize that everybody faces the same thing in life, in many different forms. Hence the few examples about myself I had given.

          Life itself gives us enough obstacles as it is. Whether it be something as simple as missing important appointments due to a train delay or traffic jams, or truly serious manifestations like illness, bankruptcy, social unrest, death, war, crime or substance addiction. Relationships and love are the two most precious things right next to living and breathing oxygen, and it shouldn’t be taken away from us by the daily and meaningless things which are nothing compared to the real depravities that go on every day in the world.

          Me personally, people can talk all they want and think all they want. I have had people call me every single insult you can think of. And in the future if I find my true love I am sure there will be those clowns that will try to make our lives miserable. They can say all they want, and all they will get from me is a polite smile. As long as the BS is kept to talk that is. However, if they attempt to physically interfere with me or my beloved’s right to live in peace and love each other in peace, they will find themselves in a contest that they will lose BADLY. Because as long as I am drawing breath and I am not entirely in the cold embrace of the grave I will defend and protect my beloved one with absolutely ZERO regard for my own safety or health if it comes down to that. Even though I am getting older and sometimes I am not as fast as I used to be and other times need a shot of something both dark and 80-proof in the morning to ease my waking aches and pains, I am still from the streets and the hard lessons you learn from that kind of life never leaves you.

    2. Dear Julie, I’m so sorry people judge you like that. I’m sure you feel very lonely and left out. I think Blue Sky Country offered you a beautiful response. I would add to that that you never need to justify your relationship or choices to other people. If they don’t understand or they think it’s strange, that’s their problem, not yours. What you have is precious and wonderful. Sending you hugs.

  3. BlueSky, you always confirm what I know so well. I think that you have a lot in common with Kong. He also does construction. He built all the restaurants with his own hands and he gets stares as well. Lol. We think it is so so funny. I believe that I said this before, I will say again to you that I think you will be an amazing husband.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Julie! Your post on the “multicultural marriages” thread about you and Kong moved me so much. Just the way you wrote about your relationship is enough to state the fact that you two are truly meant for each other. When the there is a lot of negativity in the world, which there is, it tends to build up just like the smoke from a group of pool players puffing repeatedly on cheap cigarettes in a small enclosed room. There is absolutely no need to get all that ash and stench on your clothing, in your nostrils and in your lungs and make your day miserable.

      My best wishes once again to you and Kong.

  4. Jocelyn, thanks for the kind words!!! They mean a lot to me right now. I know you understand how it is in the United States and prejudice. Your husband’s civil case is a pretty solid and unfortunate situation. I know you have experienced how it can be here. Many days reading articles and blogs on Speaking of China give me much solace when facing difficulty. Thanks for giving a safe haven. We are the lucky women with extraordinary husbands. ????

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