I am really pleased to be able to introduce another man in my male trailing spouse series – Stefan, who lives with his husband in Beijing, China. As well as being a man, Stefan has also had to navigate the tricky waters of expat-partnership as a member of a same-sex couple. In his case, this seems to have been relatively straightfoward (I say relatively – see below for more details) but I know for many gay couples moving abroad things are not always so simple. For this reason, I would love to hear from other same-sex expat partners (male or female) as I think this is another area of expat life that is often neglected.
In the meantime it is over to Stefan to tell us about life for him as a male trailing spouse…..
Thank you for being part of this series Stefan. First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself and your partner.
I am a Belgian lawyer, married to a Brazilian diplomat, and we live in Beijing, China. One could say we’re truly an ‘international couple’. We have both always loved travelling, learning languages and discovering other countries and cultures, so we consider this a great riches in our lives.
We are based in Beijing for about three years now. This is our second posting, at least if we also count my husband’s first posting in Brussels, where we first lived together.
As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you considered moving to your new country? How did it turn out?
Moving to a new country, especially a country geographically and culturally as distant as China, is always daunting. Especially if, like in my case, that means having to give up a job that you like. I was concerned that I wasn’t going to find another job, and I was also concerned that living in China was going to be very hard, it being so different and with the pollution etc. It turned out just fine. After insisting for a while, and fiercely defending my case, I secured a secondment to our Beijing office with my former firm, and when they insisted on me coming back, I already knew more about the local needs and job market, so i knew who to contact here to apply for a new position, based here. So with the right plan, and sufficient preparation and determination, it proved definitely possible to secure another, equally, or even more, interesting job than the one I had in Belgium. You have to be flexible though and be prepared to work in a slightly different role (and for a lower salary) than in your home country, to adapt to the local needs/ possibilities.
Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?
Yes. That was my major source of insecurity and doubt. I think the same goes for most (male) trailing spouses. The lesson I learned however is not to give up too quickly. I am convinced one can find an interesting job in most places, but it may take some/ a lot of effort.
Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?
It is relatively easy to meet other foreigners in China’s main cities (Beijing/Shanghai), as there is a large expat bubble here. Most people do not know anyone when they arrive so people are quite open to meeting new people, and it is relatively easy to make friends. There are also quite a few male “trailing spouses” here, mainly in the diplomatic community, which is nice, because you feel there are other people with similar lives. The downside of expat friends is of course that expats often leave after a certain amount of years in one place, and it can be painful to see your best friends leaving. The other side of the coin here is also that it is relatively difficult to make Chinese friends, mainly because of the language and cultural barriers.
Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?
Yes. Although it got a lot better over time, I feel most people are still (consciously or unconsciously) biased. Especially if the male trailing spouse doesn’t have a job in that country. People regularly depict such male trailing spouses as leading an easy, carefree (or even lazy?) life. A little anecdote in this regard is the word “guytai”, often used in china to refer to a male trailing spouse. It comes from the Chinese word “taitai” 太太, that can be translated as “respectable housewife”. Male trailing spouses are sometimes referred to as guytais, whether they have a job or not.
Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS? Either positive or negative.
However, especially for gay trailing spouses, getting there can be tough. A majority of countries still doesn’t recognise our marriage for instance, including China. That meant that, to the local government, we are just completely unrelated flatmates. That may create some difficulties for visa purposes. Also, the local authorities now seems to grant partner visas for gay trailing spouses as long as their union is legal in their home countries, but for some reason, that doesn’t count for couples where one of the partners is a diplomat.
Being a gay couple can also give rise to hilarious situations in China.When I talk about “my husband” to some people here, they may assume I am making a mistake and am actually talking about my wife… until they meet “her” and see “she” has a beard. The confusion can be very funny. People here generally aren’t fiercely homophobic, it seems like it is to most just something funny and unexpected to them.
What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?
First of all, before leaving you will start doubting whether you really want to do this and whether you’re prepared to give up your job etc. you will question the reasons why you would move (including your relationship/marriage).
This can be very intense, but do know that this is all completely normal. Weigh the options, but try not to lose yourself in the petty details, break the big problem of moving down into chewable pieces (e.g. visa requirements, job applications, etc.). Know that you can most probably find a job in that other country too, but be prepared to work for it. Talk about it with your best friends and your family. Prepare several months in advance and explore the local job market, explore what kind of jobs are available to foreigners in your new home county (including visa requirements) and visit the place and try to talk to as many people there as possible about job prospects.
But my best piece of advice is: make the decision of going or not going independently and consciously, but then resolutely stop questioning that decision. A lot of unhappiness can come from keeping on questioning (“was this really a good decision? What would I be doing if I would have stayed.”) and blaming the move for everything, even after having made the move. Never victimise yourself. Know that you are leading a life that is very rich in new experiences and that is probably more interesting than the life that you would have led if you would have stayed home.
What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?
The (unconscious) bias against male trailing spouses is probably the most annoying thing for male trailing spouses. The mentality of society should change, and I am convinced that this will happen, slowly but surely.