Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Family Pressure and Female Expats

Now that I'm married, there is less expectation that I'll move back to the USA, but I still get asked...a lot.

Something I have noticed after years in Taiwan -

While there are fewer women than men living abroad long-term, especially single women (by "single" I mean "unmarried/not in a very long-term marriage-like partnership"), among those I know there seems to be a trend that isn't visible among men.

That trend is the pressure of family - specifically, the pressure expat women feel (you could call it "pull" for a less negative connotation) toward their families back home, or that is put on expat women by those families. This is not a personal post - although I admit that my family is more vocal about pressuring me to move home than my in-laws are, I think that has just as much to do with family culture (mine being vocal and opinionated with a tendency to overstep a few boundaries when expressing themselves, though I love 'em anyway and I readily admit I do it too - nurture over nature methinks) as it does with me being female. This is an observation of a trend.

When talking to female expats I know, especially those who have been here for over a year, I hear similar lines again and again - "my parents are bugging me to move home as usual", or "they're supportive of my travel but they'd really prefer I live closer to home" or even "my folks sure lay on the guilt trip about me living so far away, I think they want me to come home, marry a nice local boy and live less than an hour away for the rest of my days". They get asked more when (not if) they're moving back, they get more admonitions, or hear more worrying chatter, about how "dangerous" it is to live abroad - don't even try explaining to most of these worrywarts that Taiwan is not only extremely safe, but safer than the USA and possibly/probably safer than their native country, all they envision are white slavery markets, "Not Without My Daughter", "Brokedown Palace", rapists and robbers, or at least kung-fu movie-style Triad gangsters, passport thieves, drug mules and pickpockets.

I know many will say "but this is normal, all parents worry", and they do. I am sure the parents of all those male expats worry too. The difference is that they either don't worry as much or don't express it as much. They may not worry as much (even as they think they worry plenty) because there's an implicit narrative in most cultures that grown men move away, build lives, start their own homestead, go independent, and that that may take them to faraway lands - and that's OK, because they're Grown Men and they can Handle It. Early explorers were men. Early settlers were mostly men (women did come along, at least eventually, but almost always as the relatives or spouses of male colonists and settlers). Until very recently men held the jobs, bought (or built) the homes, earned the money, built the family. It's expected in our culture to foster this independence, to expect it, and when that independence takes a Grown Man Far Away, it's...OK.

Or they may worry, but not express it - a parent or grandparent worrying over a daughter far away will get lots of cooing sympathy noises. A parent or grandparent worrying over a son far away will get some sympathy, but there's an implicit cultural expectation that they have to Let Go because their son is a Grown Man and has his own life. The worry is reflected upon and then set aside, rather than repeated to friends, other relatives or the grown son himself.

Women, on the other hand, until very recently lived at home until they married and moved away only when their husband's job required it - of course, exceptions exist, but we're talking general social trends here - and lived as a helpmeet to the person who made it all happen. There might be talk of "building a life together" but it was quite well understood who did the building and who made it pretty. While single women did move away, it was more rare, and it was generally not quite so far away. Women explorers? Ha - can you name one? (If you can, please say so in the comments, I'd love to hear it). Women colonists? Look at this roster of people on the Mayflower. There were women, but they were all companions/relatives, wives and children of men. I see plenty of men coming independently on that list, and not one woman. Women expats? There are plenty, but not as many as there are male expats (see linked article at the top). Stories of women going abroad in the age of colonialism and sea travel are rife with wives, mothers and sisters accompanying or visiting their male relatives/spouses abroad. I can only think of one - fictional - account of a woman going abroad by herself without any male companion at the outset or destination (whether or not she found one later - well, I won't spoil it). Compendia of travel writing by women, or fictional stories about women abroad without men, tend to be modern.

You may disagree, but I see this as pretty compelling evidence that women just aren't expected to go that far from home by themselves, and so their families back home are granted more leeway by society to bray for their return. There's even a saying: "a son's a son until he takes a wife, a daughter's a daughter all her life". That's about marriage, but I'd argue that it opens a window into how society expects men to flee the family nest, possibly to remote locations, and for women to stick as close to home as possible. It's not difficult to see how this would impact female expats, especially single ones.

Usually this is couched in the very real language of "we miss you", and parents of children of both genders certainly do. It's quite rare that parents come right out and say "a single woman shouldn't be so far away" or "you should be home, you should get married, that's what good young ladies do" in their entreaties, but you know what? I've heard this too. The parents in question were extremely religious living-out-West-in-pure-evangelical-Republican territory and had Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum-like views of the world, but still. It's not unheard of.

The pressure gets pretty intense, too. I have heard female expats talk about family who wants them to return to help care for ailing relatives in a way I've never heard male expats talk - although I suppose the "anecdata", such as it is, may be skewed by the fact that fewer male expats may wish to share such confidences about family. Female expats, from my observation, tend to spend more time on Skype or on the phone with family back home, and the conversations tend to be more emotional in the "we miss you!" department. My husband is an exception, he e-mails his parents more often than I do mine, but my e-mails are longer.

I can say from firsthand experience that this changes once a female expat marries. I still get asked when (not if) I'm coming home, but less often now, and with more acceptance that I may stay. Now that I'm married, the expectation seems to be that I'll "settle in", and it's more acceptable for me to do that abroad, as long as the settling happens. It gets better - but not that much better.

All of this, plus other issues (see again the link at the top) create more pressure on women to return home, and so it's no surprise that they often do, often more quickly than men. If I had not ended up in a relationship I might've returned home, too.

So what to do if you're a female expat and you're feeling pressured by family to come home?

First, validate. Their feelings are important, and they deserve acknowledgement. "I know you miss me, and I miss you too" goes a long way. They want you home because they love you - don't brush that aside.

Second, be conscious. Understand that this is going on - if you know what's happening, and if you seen the attempt at a slow attrition of your desire to live abroad by people back home, the best way to prevent guilt from getting the better of you is simply to realize it is happening, and keep your stores of inner confidence well-stocked. In fact, being conscious - seeing clearly the areas where your gender affects how society views you and what society expects of you - is the most basic and in some ways most effective weapon in any feminist's arsenal. Use it.

Third, be firm and be clear. You can prevaricate if you want - sometimes that is the better solution if a direct "no" or an answer that the person doesn't want to hear is going to cause an argument and not get the guilt-tripping to stop. That said, in most cases it's better to just get right to it, even if you feel the question is starting to push boundaries. Let the tone of your voice and the sparse words you choose close the conversation for you. A simple "No, this is where I live now" or "I have no plans to move home" or "I feel settled here" or even "This is my home now" will go a long way towards getting people off your back. Also, stay on message. You are your own one-woman PR campaign for why your life does not require the intervention or worrywart meddling of others (and I say this with love - again, they wouldn't worry if they didn't love you, unless your family is totes dysfunctional).

Fourth, don't let the exchange go on forever. As with all debates (and this is a form of debate, if the discussion goes on and on), saying more than you need to get your point across either buries the point too deep, or provides too many openings for people to jump on and discuss/argue over (whether it's a discussion or an argument depends on your family, and in some families the line isn't very clear). "Taiwan is very safe, Nana, there is very little crime compared to the USA" is a far better reply than a list of statistics on low mugging, gun violence, murder and other crime rates compared to the USA. "National Health Insurance is fantastic, Mom, don't worry" is better than "I won't get sick, jeez! First of all..." followed by a long list of reasons why it's easier to care for your health in Taiwan. It's a discussion, not a blog post.

Be honest but keep it positive. That doesn't mean feign happiness or say everything's "fine" when it's not - it means, be honest about your life, but speak about it using positive words and a tone of voice. If your tone isn't positive, and you can't think of anything upbeat or optimistic to say, maybe you should be questioning why you live where you do. That goes for anywhere, not just Taiwan or abroad. I wonder all the time why expats I hear whining about how much everything in Taiwan sucks, constantly, don't consider leaving...or just leave (it's one thing to have the occasional rant or acknowledge the occasional sucky thing - that's normal. It's another to always have something to complain about and very few good things to say).

Bring photos and think of cool stories - this won't convince the most hardcore conservative "ladies should live at home!" families, but it has really helped with my somewhat more accepting one. Create a 30, 60 or 90 (after 90 it gets boring) photo slideshow, depending on how long you've been abroad and how good a photographer you are, load it onto your device of choice, and offer to show it, with some very short comments you can make as it plays. Throw some music in there. Go for wild, wacky, won't-see-this-at-home photos. In Taiwan, think temple festivals and moutain and coastal scenery. Have a few stories on hand to tell - think them through beforehand so they actually go somewhere - about the amazing experiences you've had. And if you can't think of any? Expand your horizons, brah. Make it happen.

Find ways to keep in touch more - they may just get off your back a bit more if you take more time to stay in touch. Write a few extra letters or e-mails (Grandmas love letters, don't you ever forget it). Skype more. E-mail photos, or for the technologically challenged ("I can't open photos embedded in e-mails" "You have a Mac, just drag them to your desktop" "I don't have a desktop!" was a real conversation I had with a relative over Christmas) have them printed and mail them. Make it feel like you are closer than you are, and they may relax a bit. After all, what they really want is to see more of you.

If you can afford it, try to visit home once a year - I know some people can't, but making that annual trek home makes it feel as though maybe you just live on the opposite coast, not on another continent. A daughter in California would probably only visit her New England hometown once a year, so a daughter in Taiwan won't feel that different if that's what you do, right? I know this is not always feasible, and a post on how male expats are often more able to do things like this as they're more likely to be over here on business, not teaching kiddie English or studying (and how freakin' unfair it is) is in the offing.

Anyway, that's all I've got for ya.

Have more, better or different advice, or an experience with family pressuring you to move home? Leave it in the comments, I'd love to hear from you!


Anonymous said...

The family pressure issue has more to do with the family culture than anything else. I am a boy, not a girl. And my parents and siblings have asked me numerous times whether I plan to move back to Taiwan, even I have lived in the US longer than my time in Taiwan. But not every expat I know runs into the same question from their families.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Of course every expat gets some pressure, unless they have no family or are estranged or that family isn't close.

My point is that you may not even realize it, but you likely get *less* of that pressure than female expats do.

Florinda Silbato said...

Here, a conquistadora

She left Spain with the excuse of looking for her husband and ended up conquering Chile

Btw, great post and blog. I have been an expat in Russia and, despite all the support of my family, it still is difficult to be a woman in some countries.