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Guy tai - the new trailing spouse
2012-10-18
By Yao Minji

Briton John Downham and Canadian Howard Firestone are separated in age by 15 years and have different backgrounds and careers, but they have formed a firm of unlikely friendship through the Guy Tai Community of Shanghai.

The cross-language phrase "guy tai" comes from the English word guy and the Chinese expression tai tai, the respectful term for wife. It's often used to describe unemployed foreign women following their husbands, often senior executives in international firms, who are posted in Chinese cities. It's a polite term for "trailing spouse."

Rapid economic development in China, and especially in Shanghai, has brought in many working expats and tai tais who must find a way to manage and forge their own community bonds in a different culture.

Many senior professionals at international firms get relocation packages that include housing, transport and driver, health insurance, children's school tuition and sometimes even a stipend for their spouse.

These women are known for making good use of their time and resources to connect with each other, learn about Chinese culture and take part in volunteer work for charitable organizations.

As more female professionals are posted overseas, the number of male trailing spouses or guy tais increase.

Shanghai's guy tai community was founded around 10 years ago and it's the biggest network in China for male trailing spouses. It has an informative subscription website (www.guytai.com) and arranges regular networking events, lectures, tours and volunteer activities.

From a few stay-at-home dads 10 years ago, the guy tai community has expanded to more than 100. They come from many different countries and have different backgrounds. Those subscribed to website range in age from 24 to 70.

"The growing Chinese market has brought many high executives here, hence, their spouses. As the market for luxury brands and cosmetics has continued to expand, more women executives have been relocated to Shanghai and brought their husbands with them," says David Foote, a New Zealand anthropology PhD candidate who has been researching on expatriate life in Shanghai.

"These husbands formed the interesting community called guy tai," he tells Shanghai Daily. "They share some traits with tai tais in terms of common relocation issues for trailing spouses, but they are also very different from the tai tais."

Many guy tais still work from home for part-time or freelancing jobs. They also organize more tours to high technology companies than tai tais.

Foote adds that one might expect it to be more difficult for Chinese, generally more traditional and conventional than Westerners, to accept the relatively new phenomenon of stay-at-home dads. But the reality is quite the opposite, according to his talks with a few guy tais, who say locals are quite accepting of the reversal of traditional roles or breadwinner and family caretaker.

Many of the guy tais in Shanghai once had highly successful careers, such as Canadian Firestone, who was head of marketing for a start-up Internet company and enjoyed high pay and flexible hours. He was more than happy to give it up for his wife's career.

"I was 60 and all the guys I worked with were 23," says Firestone. "The company was going public, my kids were in college. When my wife came home and told me, it was simple just to say 'Okay, let's do it'."

The story for Briton Downham is rather different. He left for Shanghai to marry a local woman. He left without a second thought or plan to return to the UK anytime soon.

The relocation for men who previously had a career might be more difficult than for women, especially those who were housewives in their home countries. Guy tais have to adapt to a completely different culture and environment, while learning about housework and home management skills. They have to find an ayi, take children to school and run errands when they can't even read signs.

Firestone and Downham note that some younger guy tais, who haven't had their shot at a career, may keenly feel they have made a sacrifice and some don't adapt very well.

"Some are planning on heading back in two or three years and picking up where they left off. This is definitely not a long-term thing in their minds," Downham says.

Like the tai tais, the guy tais network and organize activities, such as poker or golf, and often organize charity fundraisers or teach migrant workers' children.

Recent guy tai trips include a tour of the Baosteel plant in Baoshan District, a visit to a robot-making company and a trip to Ningbo's History Museum in Zhejiang Province, which was built using rubble and designed by Pritzker Award-winning architect Wang Shu.

"Some of us were looking at our core values, fun, friendship and so on, and we thought a bit of community enrichment should be included, such as giving back to our hosts," Downham says. "There are some things that we as men can do that maybe women's groups can't, such as wall building, painting, electrical work and other things."

They have been volunteering at schools and orphanages, working on building projects and carrying out their own fundraising for local charities.

When he arrived, Downham initially popped into coffee mornings hosted by larger expatriate organizations, where are often overwhelmingly filled by tai tais. He didn't quite belong.

"It's not that they don't welcome me," he explains. "It's just that I'm the only guy there."

There are even some Chinese guy tais who also participate in the guy tai community.

"Although some of the older or more conservative generations may frown on it, most people we come across are familiar with the guy tai concept," he says.

(Calum Anderson contributed to this story.)

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