Life of the Tai Tai

Former pharmacist and journalist Karen Tye says there is no shame in being a Tai Tai. She writes from Shanghai.

In Australia, one of the first questions Sydneysiders will ask you is: “Where do you live?” In Melbourne the million dollar question is always: “What school did you go to?”

In Shanghai, it would seem the big question is “what do you do for a living?” And the answer, I’m sad to say, determines whether one is worth their salt.

When I completed high school in Melbourne in the ‘90’s was I the girl most likely to… become a lady of leisure or a housewife? Absolutely not.

At the end of high school I was a sure bet to become many things, including a journalist. A lady of leisure – or as we are known in Shanghai – a ‘Tai Tai’ – was not one of them! But I can now proudly admit that that is exactly what I do these days.

If my 18-year-old self could read these words, she would be flabbergasted and disappointed. I went to an elite private girls’ school in Melbourne with the belief that “a woman can do anything just as well as a man can” ingrained into us all long before we left the school’s iron gates. So how could I have “wasted” all my talent and hard work to end up a tai tai?

I was eager to fulfill my destiny and become a career woman after leaving school. I had my first byline in Melbourne’s Sunday Herald Sun by the age of 19. At the age of 23, I became a community pharmacist and not long after, attained the title of pharmacist manager. I was living my dream.

Then, I fell in love and got married. Like so many expat partners here, I packed my bags, gave up my life in Australia and moved to Shanghai, a city so foreign that even an overseas-born Chinese like myself experienced culture shock.

Limited by my poor Chinese language skills, I stuck to a journalism job for three years in Shanghai, and while I clocked up more career milestones, I couldn’t ignore the unhappy reality that I was not working in my ideal industry of health. Add to that the fact I was stressed out and overworked, which made me resent living in Shanghai.

Finally, a year ago, I quit my full-time job as an editor to take up a full time job of a different kind… that of the tai tai.

Needless to say, my close-minded, career-oriented self had trouble getting used to my new occupation as a tai tai with bouts of anxiety about making the right decision and about the person I am, in particular, what defines me if not my career?

This was compounded by the fact that any confidence I had took a beating whenever I attended social functions or met new people, which in Shanghai is almost an everyday occurrence.

For crying out loud, I felt guilty whenever I got a facial or my nails done, as if somehow it was proof of me embodying the stereotype.

The reactions to my self-imposed unemployment have been varied though not uninteresting. There is definitely, despite my educational background and past career accomplishments, a stigma attached to being a tai tai. There are times when it’s nervously joked about, or times when I’m completely ignored and shunned in a group conversation.

Other times, it is assumed that I must not be smart enough to have a job or that I am my husband’s doormat. A few people, women in fact, have on occasions flatly declared to my face that I’m lazy and not being able to multitask as fabulously as they can.

It would seem that those in professional circles – especially career minded women – have little respect for the role of tai tai, and they sure aren’t afraid to voice their opinion!

However, chatting to the local Chinese has helped me view the tai tai role in a different light and embrace my situation in its entirety. Among Chinese people, Shanghainese tai tais are pretty much envied and revered for their dominance over their households. They are regarded as empowered, beautiful, smart and modern women who have husbands that work a full day to then come home to cook and clean for them.

Slowly, I began to see that those that mocked me were either brimming with jealousy or swimming in an ocean of misconceptions and prejudices, much like my younger self once had.

There is no shame at all in being a tai tai, in fact it should be celebrated. Not everyone has the financial freedom to choose such a lifestyle, plus it takes an intelligent, strong and selfless woman to run a happy and united household.

Since having the luxury and making the decision to become a tai tai. I am much more relaxed and content now not working a job that I don’t love and no longer losing sleep over people’s opinions. I’ve been able to pursue my Chinese studies with more vigor and enthusiasm and have also realized just how lucky I am. Needless to say, my family life is more solid, as I have more time and energy to devote to it.

So my message to all you tai tais out there is to blow a kiss to such negativity that comes your way and treasure your fun and fortunate life wholeheartedly.

As for other readers, remember, the role of women at home should be given the same respect and weighting as the role of women in the workforce and beneath the exterior of this well-kempt tai tai lies a feisty journalist who is ready to argue this point till she’s blue in the face.

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