I can’t speak for all stay at home spouses, but it wasn’t a matter of not wanting to work; it kind of just turned out that way. Four months after moving to Suzhou, I applied for a job teaching hotel employees business English. It seemed like a great opportunity for both sides: They wanted someone with a business degree, and my schedule was wide open.
The hotel was still under construction when I arrived for the interview. The staff was working in an underground bunker until the 700-room mega hotel was complete. A girl named Nina, a Suzhou native, lead the interview. She was professional, but hip, dropping some slang on me as I followed her down the hallway. “So, you enjoy golf, huh? That’s cool.”
We came to a steel door. When she opened it, there were twenty future housekeepers sitting quietly, all of them donning identical mint jumpsuits. “You have twenty minutes to teach the class,” Nina said, and took a seat at the back of the class.
“Nee how,” I said. This was answered with blank stares. “Can anyone say ‘hello?’” Nothing. Their shyness was astounding. When a young man coughed, I turned to him abruptly. “Can you count to three in English?” That wild look in his eye said it all: Had there been a window in the room, I’m sure he would have dove through it to escape. His classmates stared at the floor. It went on like this until I counted in Mandarin.
“Yi, er, san. One, two, three.”
Slowly, they started to answer when I called on them.
As it turned out, they could count to infinity in English. “And what is this,” I asked, pointing to yet another number on the whiteboard.
“Five hundred eighty-seven thousand, six hundred twenty-nine,” they mumbled in unison.
Convinced that they knew more than they were leading on, I spent the remainder of class preaching to them like an alien, divulging secrets of the future.
“When the people call, they will demand extra towels.”
Nina called me the next day. She fed me a line that I’d heard from disgruntled girlfriends, but not interviewers. “Can we still be friends?” Of course, this soft rejection was her way of ‘saving face.’ They say the Chinese strive for harmony similar to the way Americans idealize freedom. It didn’t seem like a win-win situation at the time, but then again, it never does when you’re the one being dumped.
The expat circle in Suzhou was tight. Although many of my wife’s coworkers had my email address, they insisted on relaying messages through her.
“Travis walked past my classroom today,” she’d say.
“What did he have to say,” I’d ask.
She’d throw back her shoulders and mimic their husky instructions. “‘Tell your husband: Poker, Thursday night. Peace out.’” After a long day alone, it was strangely refreshing to see a small Asian girl imitating a 200 pound rugby coach.
Guys Night took place in the dining room of a pizzeria on Shin Do Street, a popular foreigner district. The owners didn’t mind us gambling, so long as we kept buying half-liter bottles of Tiger beer. The majority of us were from the US, with the others hailing from Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia. Conversations were centered on disputes in game rules, work complaints, and drunken hedonism.
One guy, lets call him Richard, used to embark on epic, one-man benders, disappearing for days at a time. He would invite us to join him, but we weren’t that stupid. No one could keep up with him. The police once found him passing out somewhere – a park, perhaps. Not even Richard knew. Apparently they searched his pockets and found only a business card. When he finally came to, Richard was in the middle of the school courtyard, wondering, most likely, if he had a class to teach. Of course, it was Sunday, so he probably just stumbled into the nearest bar.
It was the juxtaposition that intrigued me. Outside of work, their lifestyle wasn’t much different than, say, your average touring funk band. Someone was always on the verge of a divorce, recovering from a motorcycle crash, or coaxing some fatally attracted ex off their balcony. I knew the characters, followed their stories, and rooted for them when they were down. Their stories never ceased to amaze me, but I couldn’t help but wonder if their lives were this hectic back home.
Travelers tend to be open minded when it comes to natives, but when we see “our kind” maneuvering outside the norm, lets face it – house rules are in effect. I’m not saying that everyone was a train wreck. Those just happened to be the stories I remember best. Most of the people I met were decent and hard-working; but drama observers, nevertheless.
My wife’s coworkers eventually started emailing me about Guys Night. We became friends, and I enjoyed their company. When it was time to cash in my chips, however, that unspoken fact still remained. I wasn’t one of them.
When I held up the mirror, that reflection – that reversal – was my everyday situation. White people were the minority. A woman worked while the man stayed at home cooking and cleaning. It was Bizzaro World with chopsticks - and I liked it. So what if somebody thought of me as a trailing spouse.
So, there’s that word again. Trailing. But I've decided not to attach feelings of resentment or inadequacy to it. I don’t focus on the adjective. I’m busy living the verb.
The sunny side of trailing my wife is the memories we make together all over the world. It means tropical breezes in Bali, sweating over a bowl of Tom Yum in Thailand, getting lost in the hutongs of Beijing, and having someone to confide in when no one answers the phone back home. The roles are many, and I couldn’t be happier with what I do. It takes courage to follow your compass, especially when it’s pointing in an ambiguous direction.
Society accepts the stay at home wife/mother as an institution, but man as “housewife” seems to be a burden that many women aren’t ready to take on. Male pride perpetuates, and often achieves, this illusion of “man as provider.” Women deserve equality, but once they have it, where does it end?
In their great, determined push toward equality, suppose the scale tips too far to the other side, beyond equality. A society run completely by women would be a very different place. Government would change. They have that supporting, nurturing sense of control people always seek when they screw up. Even war might become a thing of the past.
I’m not saying that everything would be perfect. Finding a decent plumber would be a nightmare. But what the hell? You can’t win them all.
So, perhaps it’s time to slide over and let someone else take the wheel. We’ve had a decent run, guys, and there’s nothing wrong with being domestic. Just think of it as being a kid again. As long as you finish your chores, you can go bowling, play golf, or start that novel you’ve been meaning to get around to.
In fact, that’s what I’m going to do now…right after I clean the bathroom.