Saturday, May 21, 2011

Expat Women: Confessions (A Book Review)

Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth

I was excited about reading and reviewing this book once I heard about its launch in May (no, I was not paid for this review) – I enjoyed reading it and considering throughout how it might be of use to those who read this blog and expat women generally.
The pink cover and whimsical title font of Expat Women: Confessions might lead you to believe it’s written along the lines of a bubblegum girlie book – you know, like the Shopaholic series (I’ve never actually read one, mind you).
It’s not.
The format is Question-and-Answer, and inspired by the Confessions column featured on the site from which the book originated. The issues discussed are not bubblegum in any way – they’re the tough, rarely aired in public issues that many women feel nervous about discussing in the insular expat communities one finds in most countries. I wouldn’t call myself “connected” to either end of the expat spectrum in Taiwan but even I know how quickly gossip spreads in these communities.
Expat Women: Confessions never really clarifies if the questions are fictitious, “inspired by” or real, or whether they are unique to the book or culled from the popular column. My guess, given the range of issues and different voices of those asking, that they are at least based on real, submitted questions, with some details changed to protect submitters’ anonymity. Edited to add: reading other blogger reviews of this book, it is clarified that these are real questions from real women living abroad, and are taken from the eponymous column on the Expat Women website.
The questions themselves – which range from adjustment issues to affairs and infidelity and abuse abroad to medical issues abroad to substance abuse to job loss and repatriation – are answered brilliantly (for the most part – I’ll discuss the answers I disagree with below) and in such a way that the specific question is not only addressed, but the answer also has broader appeal to those dealing with similar situations who might see a little of themselves in some of the queries. The questions are categorized into chapters: Settling In, Careers and Money, Raising Children, Relationships, Repatriation etc.. Each chapter has a few questions that (I assume) were selected as they would be likely to have broader appeal and be a basis for advice - questions on topics such as a husband asking his trailing spouse wife for a divorce while abroad, a woman who reacted to her husband's high-travel role and contract extension in Bangkok with an affair, issues children who grew up abroad face especially when moving "home" (wherever that is), alcohol abuse abroad, reverse culture shock after twelve years in Mumbai, long work hours in Taiwan, and someone whose friend has admitted that she is physically abused by her husband. There are many more, but these are some of the questions that caught my eye.
I do believe this format is one of the book’s strengths. It is also written in a strong, clear voice, the writers have empathy but also detached common sense for all of the expat women whose issues they tackle, and the tougher questions are clearly fielded by a pro.
For these reasons, I would recommend that any woman living as an expatriate buy and read this book. I would say overall that my reaction was quite positive.
That said, you guys know me. I wear my cynicism on my sleeve. I never think anything is perfect and I over-analyze everything. Here are some things I didn’t like – keeping in mind that these issues are minor and my overall “thumbs up” still stands:
Marketing Demographic –
Here’s the thing about me: I don’t fit in to any one particular expat circle. I would say overall that I am not connected to either spectrum of the expat community – I’m too young for the cram school teachers and most students at the language centers and too young, hippie-ish and critical of the business world (even though I work in it!) for the older folks who are here on company assignments. I have my assortment of expat friends of different backgrounds and a bevy of local friends. I don’t say this with much pride: I don’t feel that having a lot of local friends and being connected to the expat community are mutually exclusive. I am not one of those “I am better than you because my friends are local” types. Those people annoy me too. It’s just how I am – I’ve always had “assortments of friends” rather than a “community”.
As such, it was immediately clear to me who this book is marketed at – not all expat women are identical, and they chose to go for the women sent abroad for business or “trailing spouses” – women living abroad due to their husband’s overseas assignment. If I had to narrow it down further, I’d say it’s mostly aimed at those women living abroad as trailing spouses, as the authors admit several times that most overseas assignments go to men, and that more often than not the “trailing spouse” is the wife.
In that sense, the book didn’t entirely apply to me, although I found a few of the questions and answers interesting and relevant - there was a question about loneliness and making friends that resonated with me, and as someone whose entire relationship-now-marriage has taken place in Taiwan, the section on relationships was interesting. 
There are a lot of asides about contract negotiations, what your company is giving you as a package, whether or not you have a company car and corporate culture abroad. A lot of the discussions center around family and children abroad, something I have no experience in. I'm not saying that to criticize - plenty of women abroad do have those issues and it's worth it to bring them up. I mention it as supporting evidence that the book is marketed to a demographic that I don't belong to. There's nothing wrong with that, of course!
I came here, taught kids for a year, took a few classes at Shi-da, got fed up, quit to study on my own, and started focusing more on my job as a corporate trainer. I moved abroad alone and my now-husband moved here later. There was no “package”, there were no contracts to review. I was in my twenties and made it happen for myself. I would have liked to see more advice aimed at women who did not come over on a corporate contract or as the spouse of someone who did, and more references to and advice for women who would raise their eyebrows at the idea of a company car or relocation package – women like me. I realize that books need to be marketed to a demographic, but as an expat woman who moved abroad independently, I’d like to see more advice for my demographic.
That said, this blog has no such target demographic. I would suppose that many of my readers are younger and I hope at least half, if not more, are female (as I do focus on women’s issues as much as I can). If there are any women in Taiwan sent by their company or trailing spouses reading, this book would be of greater use to them.
I guess, I felt that the book targeted women older than me (although not all women abroad due to a work assignment are older), with a different lifestyle, different reasons for being abroad, and more of an interest in meeting other expats than spending time with locals (questions about friends tended towards friendships with other expats and less was said on local friendships, which is a very complex issue). I feel as though it was written for the women I see in Tianmu, the ones in their mid-thirties to fifties, with a kid or two trailing behind, whom you'll meet if you attend an event at the American or European schools. That's great - and I have nothing against those women or a book for them - but they don't represent me.
A dearth of discussion on issues of sexism in expat life -
I would have also liked to see more of a discussion on the reasons why more “trailing spouses” are women and more people sent abroad for work are men, rather than a blanket acceptance of this inequality. It is addressed, but only in a few sentences. I would like to see someone really pick this apart. As someone who has never been sent abroad by a company, I’m not sure I’m the person to do that (though if nobody does, I sure will give it a go).
There was also a discussion of sexism in the workplace, which while valuable, I felt didn’t delve deeply enough into this issue – an issue that I do feel is the catalyst for many women abroad to pack up and move home. The sexism can be psychologically difficult to deal with both at work and in the every day life as an expat woman, and yet it was only just glanced over. I feel an entire chapter could be dedicated to this issue alone. If we discussed it more, perhaps we could come up with a canon of solid advice that could help struggling women feel better about life abroad, handle the sexism issues they face, and perhaps fewer would end up going home for this reason.
Workplace realities -
There are a few other areas where I would not give the same advice as the book – one questioner wrote in from Taiwan, where the long working hours were killing her. The advice was to scale back her hours to something more reasonable, and if it was reasonable, the company and her colleagues would accept it. I do feel that this is inaccurate: a deeper knowledge of Taiwanese – or even East Asian – work culture would reveal that this is in fact not always (or even usually) possible. “Reasonable” work hours are different here – locals regularly work ten or even twelve hour days – and a more appropriate answer would have acknowledged this fact, and the expectations that come with it. Scaling back to a more reasonable schedule, such as eight or nine hours, would not be respected.
This is, by the way, one reason why I am so cynical of the business world in general, and business in Asia specifically.
The realities of resources -
Finally, there were many calls to visit a “life coach” or talk to a counselor or therapist. While this is admirable advice for several of the issues for which it was mentioned, the reality surrounding language issues and taboos about psychological problems and their treatment abroad was not discussed – the entire issue of therapy abroad was treated as it would be in the USA. That is, as a service readily available and while still stigmatized to a certain extent, not as frowned-upon as it is in many foreign countries.
Take Taiwan for example – good luck finding a talk therapist here (although one resource was posted in the comments - thanks Catherine!). A psychiatrist would be easy (through work, I actually know two who speak excellent English, although one is currently a clinical researcher and the other specializes in rehabilitation, so not much use for someone with psychiatric issues that are not related to brain injury), but a therapist? Who speaks English well enough to help you through complex issues? Good luck with that. There are Chinese-language resources – many churches offer counseling (but most will assume you are Christian or put a Christian bent on their advice, which is fine if you are Christian, but if you’re not it may not work for you) and therapists do exist, but generally speaking the stigma surrounding depression or other psychological issues is so great here that you are not likely to get far in your search (if I ever do find a licensed talk therapist who speaks good English, I will post a reference. I don’t need therapy so I haven’t exactly been looking). Life coaches abound, but you have to speak Chinese to avail yourself of most of them.
I did briefly search for premarital counselors at one point – we had no issues, but it’s better to do a spot check when things are great to make sure your foundation is solid, right? – and found quite little (although a Google search does turn up some leads – most of them religiously affiliated, which I didn’t want).
Conclusion –
Despite everything above, I do think this book is worth reading for any woman abroad. Even if you dismiss everything about contracts, children and spouses and you take advice about therapy and work hours with a grain of salt, there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Chances are that you’ll see a little bit of yourself in some of the questions, and even if you don’t, it doesn’t hurt to be mentally prepared for issues you might face.


Catherine Shu said...

I have a couple talk therapy resources here:
Both the Community Services Center and Reankos specialize in English-language "Western" style therapy... i.e. the goal is to discuss your issues in depth, with meds seen as supplementary.

They don't just treat mental illnesses either... both also do stuff related to home studies for adoptions, intercultural couples therapy and cultural adjustment issues. CSC works on a sliding scale, while Reankos is more expensive.

Drew Triebe said...

Uh, ok, I didnt get any feel as to how the book is laid out or whats even in it.

While i respect your firsthand experience and advice to western women living abroad in this blog I found this entry to be a few scraps of spotlit book content wrapped around a large rant about how you're not the typical female expat. I am left confused about whether this is a book review or a whinge.

Jenna... what would Emily say about this book review?


Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Uh, that should be quite clear. It's advice that deals with some of the less talked about issues of expat life for women, it's in question-and-answer format (I suppose I could have noted that the questions and answers are categorized into broader groups, although I did touch on that, saying it discussed issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, repatriation, adjustment issues, marital issues, family issues etc. while abroad), and I noted who it's marketed to.

If that's not abundantly clear in the first few paragraphs before I mention a few of my criticisms, then I'm sorry, but I feel it was.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Catherine - thanks for that link! That really is useful. It can be really hard in Asia to find resources like that, even in major cities.

(Note: I have edited the post a bit to mention more about what's in the book, but I do believe my own feelings on not being in the book's target demographic are valid and do not intend to delete them).

Catherine Shu said...

I just realized I made it sound like Reankos offers home studies for adoptions. I'm not sure if they do, but they do offer all the other services I mentioned.

Expat Women said...

Hi Jenna, Wow, this is certainly the longest blog post about our book by... anyone! ;) No seriously, Jenna, I do really appreciate that you took the time to read the book, blog about it, and work your own thoughts into the blog post as well. It's great to read feedback and experiences from all over the world. Thanks so much and best wishes for all your ongoing adventures in Taiwan! Andrea :)