Published January 22, 2016

Trailing Spouses Go to Work

By shanghaiexpateditor

As the trailing spouse, finding work in Shanghai takes work. But the good news is that for those who left behind careers to follow their partner to China and who want to reestablish that side of themselves, opportunities exist. In your home country, finding your employment path usually starts with identifying your skills or what you like to do. But in Shanghai, the first step is to identify the practical obstacles. How long will you be here? If you have children, how much ayi or in-law help do you have or want? How much does your spouse travel? Do you speak Mandarin?

The answer to that last question – language – stops a lot of people in their tracks. Don’t let it. Sure, if you were working in public relations back home you might not be able to step in as head of a Chinese PR firm here, but as you start looking you’ll find the city has lots of related opportunities.

Once you’ve answered some of those practical questions, start assessing your individual strengths, goals, ambitions, interests and values. What would you like to do here? Trailing spouses report time and time again that Shanghai afforded them the opportunity to try new fields. For example, many have started small businesses – from jewelry making to leading cultural tours. Others have branched out into areas related to what they did at home. For example, one non-Mandarin-speaking expat who had worked as a retail buyer in the U.S. contacted some Chinese manufacturers near Shanghai and landed a job as a liaison for their western customers.

The one step there’s absolutely no getting around in establishing – or reestablishing – a career in Shanghai is networking. But as one trailing spouse who rebuilt her business here says, “People in Shanghai are eager to network with others.” Professional and social organizations abound. Go to their events. Even wallflowers will leave with a stack of business cards. For some job seekers, corporate recruiters are another productive vehicle. Whatever the path, the trailhead begins in the same place. Ask yourself what you want to take home with you from your experience in China. Your first job may just be figuring out what that means for you. Here, five women share their insights and tell you how they did it.

Packing up a business and rebuilding it: Rashmi Dalai, United States Rashmi Dalai tells a common story. In following her husband’s career to Shanghai, she left behind her own. And she felt the loss keenly.

The owner of a U.S.-based healthcare consulting company, Dalai says it was difficult walking away from a business she’d helped build. But the bigger challenge was “losing my sense of purpose, challenge, affirmation and autonomy.” With a two-year-old daughter and another child on the way, Dalai figured she’d start a new career in Shanghai as a fulltime stay-at-home mom. And she threw herself into the smaller accomplishments like teaching her daughter to say “please” and “thank you.”

But she quickly discovered she wanted to be a mom – and work at the same time. For her experience in Shanghai to be personally sustainable, she needed to work. In Dalai’s case, her U.S.-based career turned out to be transportable. With the help of online communication tools and her U.S.-based partner, she has been able to continue her consulting work remotely – albeit with some changes and challenges.

For one, her business depends on building relationships, managing negotiations and developing the client base. And the lack of face-to-face opportunities compromises Dalai’s effectiveness. As with many remote employees – or business owners as in Dalai’s case – she has to work harder to remain relevant to the business and stay connected. And in order to succeed, Dalai says she needs to start rebuilding locally.

And rebuilding in an entirely new context is the real challenge. To do so, Dalai has started by setting a goal to “touch an idea at least five times during a week.” For Dalai, touching an idea may mean having a conversation about an idea with a friend; cold calling people related to her field; or researching her idea online. Of course, touching those ideas requires networking. Dalai has turned often to her alma mater’s (Columbia University) alumni network as well as various professional women’s association meetings to find contacts.

“People in Shanghai are eager to network with others” says Dalai. “[Shanghai] is unlike New York where you have to call 20 people to get a call back. People here are willing to talk.”

As she works to establish her business in Shanghai, Dalai isn’t limiting herself to the business model she followed in the U.S. She’s exploring a variety of visions. But most important is to reach out to others. She says it’s how you figure out the feasibility of your vision. “If you touch an idea at least 20 to 25 times during the month and you continue to think about the idea then you find yourself working out how the idea will unfold and you can move forward.” Coming home –and starting over: Dan Xie, China

While Dan Xie was born and raised in China, it didn’t make her job hunt any easier. Married to a native of Denmark, Xie’s life was overseas.

So when her husband’s work landed the family back in Shanghai, Xie essentially had to start over. Initially, it made sense for her to take a hiatus from her professional career and stay at home with the couple’s children. But she did miss the intellectual stimulation of work and after she felt her youngest was old enough, Xie started job hunting. Even though she had the advantage of natively understanding the language and culture, Xie didn’t have a professional network in Shanghai and she quickly realized that landing a job would require persistence.

And landing a job meant first knowing what she really wanted to do. First, Xie researched various fields in which she could use her management consulting background, ultimately settling on the executive headhunting industry. And she was very clear with herself that she wanted to find a company that would allow a balanced lifestyle. “Chinese society does not traditionally support a career-family balance,” Xie says, adding that many of Chinese women who have studied overseas will come back with serious job ambitions and end up having to lean on ayis or grandparents for childcare. But Xie wanted balance.

Once she’d narrowed her focus, Xie was ready to search. And searching meant tapping everyone she knew – old high school and college friends and her husband’s colleagues. She says her husband’s contacts gave her the most leverage. “If a contact was not directly involved in the [headhunting] industry, they knew of someone that they could refer me to,” she says. Xie’s initial contact list was short, but talking to a small group of people led to conversations with others. Eventually, she was led to a group of people who actually worked in the industry and could point to some specific companies that they recommended she follow up with.

From there, the job hunt followed the predictable patterns. Xie contacted companies and went on interviews. While interviewing with one company, the interviewer told her she wasn’t quite the right fit for their group, but offered her another company contact whom she believed Xie be perfect for. As it turns out, the interviewer was right and Xie currently works as a principal with DHR International.

Through the process, Dan had to first know herself well and adjust her working expectations.  “I had to really listen to myself in order to understand what I wanted and what interested me,” Xie says. And with that she excuses herself and leaves work at 3pm to take her daughter to swimming lessons.

Coming full circle –teaching in Shanghai: Marybeth Krichilsky, United States

After 10 years as a teacher in the U.S., Marybeth Krichilsky planned on taking a break from work for awhile. So she spent her first six months in China exploring.

“At first, I was confused because I had to get used to not working,” says Krichilsky. “Although it was uncomfortable, I forced myself to go out on my own. I would ask the driver to take me somewhere and [I’d] just walk around. For six months, I explored Shanghai and in doing so, I learned about myself.”

Krichilsky considers the time she spent exploring as crucial to her growth in Shanghai. “If I didn’t take the time in the beginning to explore my surroundings and feel more comfortable in China, I don’t think I would feel as good about my [current working situation],” she says. “Life here is never going to be like where you came from. You have to recreate your life here.”

Along with exploring, Krichilsky also spent time volunteering with the parent association at her children’s school. Through her involvement, she built relationships with other parents and faculty and, in time, felt drawn back to teaching. Serendipitously, a teacher at her children’s school left his position and Krichilsky was asked if she’d replace him.

Though Krichilsky missed work, she’d also grown accustomed to the freedom. So returning to work wasn’t a snap decision, but she ultimately concluded that the opportunity was too interesting to pass up. “I thought to myself, ‘just do it’ because what an experience it would be for me to teach children from all over the world,” she says.

Unlike international school teachers who are recruited abroad, Krichilsky was considered a “local hire.” Local hires don’t get the benefits packages that teachers recruited abroad do. And they’re generally put under short-term contracts – which allows for more flexibility in matching the leading spouse’s overseas contract.

For those interested in working as international school teachers in Shanghai, Krichilsky offers a few tips. First of all, having a teaching degree helps, but you don’t always have to have one. Some schools will hire teachers who hold a bachelor’s in a particular field of study. Another avenue into teaching is as an English language teacher. For the latter, it’s best to get a “Teaching English as a Second Language” certificate (many courses available online).

Finally, another introduction to teaching is as a substitute teacher. Though the schools prefer substitute teachers to have some experience working with children (e.g., working at a camp or with an afterschool program), schools are open to hiring substitute teachers who do not have actual teaching degrees. As for her choice to return to teaching, Krichilsky says she’s opened another chapter in her life as an expatriate. “I’ve met fabulous people and feel good about myself.”

From fulltime mom to first-time business owner: Agnes Cohade, France

Agnes Cohade met serendipity in Shanghai. The mother of two moved with her family to China four years ago – their seventh country in 22 years. And something about the energy of the place galvanized her.

“It was the right place and time to realize [myself] apart from my role as a mother,” she says. Through a series of – yes, serendipitous – events – Cohade started Art+ Gallery, a forum for contemporary Chinese artists. Going from fulltime mom to first-time business owner started when Cohade met Ana Gonzalez. “I was invited to several exhibitions and often times visited galleries. On many of those occasions, I met Ana and we became good friends,” she says. “Our styles and values worked together quite well.”

Gonzalez had been working as a gallery director and was offered the opportunity to partner with two U.S.-based friends in building an art space in Shanghai. She was looking for a Shanghai-based partner and asked Cohade to join her. While it sounds like a business landed in Cohade’s lap, the task – and the decision – was actually daunting. First of all, she didn’t know how long her family would actually be in Shanghai. “But everything just lined up for me and I realized if I didn’t do anything now, I would never do anything,” she says.

Decision made, Gonzalez and Cohade now had to build a viable gallery. And the task confronted them with a whirlwind of challenges. From an administrative standpoint, the two had to acquire a business license, find a location and hire local, bilingual administrative help. Regarding the business license, Cohade says to hire one of the law firms or agencies to handle the paperwork. As for hiring help, the two posted ads in local expat magazines.

The building blocks in place, Cohade and Gonzalez needed to build their artistic network. And as with most business in China, “guanxi” or “relationships” plays an enormous role in their work. “Everything in China is networked. It’s important to build relationships.” says Cohade. Its how they’re able to match local artists and buyers.

While Cohade credits serendipity with putting her in business, she also says she crossed paths with that all-important chance because she was actively pursuing her interest – art – by going to exhibitions and galleries and meeting other art lovers. She advises other women searching to create meaningful work in Shanghai to identify what they’re interested in and explore how to work their skill sets into that interests.

Biding time by building skills: Sylvia Meyer, Germany

At home in her native Germany, Sylvia Meyer, M.D., studied Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) alongside her practice in obstetrics and gynecology. She earned a degree in acupuncture for use in pregnancy, labor and delivery for pain management, nausea, contraction induction, and other related issues.

And she wanted to know more. She also had two young boys and wanted to work more than the German socialized childcare services allowed at the time. So she encouraged her husband to look for a post abroad. When the opportunity came, it was in Huizhou, a very small city in Guangdong Province, and the Meyers jumped on it.

Huizhou was too small to support an international medical clinic, and speaking no Chinese on arrival, Meyer was unable to find a doctor to assist or clinic to join. So she began where she could – by using her year and a half in southern China to study Mandarin and learn the Chinese medical system.

The Meyers’ next stop was Japan. Like many countries, doctors in Japan are required to pass a medical exam to practice. Speaking no Japanese and not having trained in the Japanese system, Meyer was still unable to work or even volunteer. Recognizing that she may never have such free time again, she used the period to learn other wellness and healing techniques: shiatsu, reiki, and tai chi. “Medicine is so technical. Japan is a very spiritual place, and I loved the chance to approach medicine from a more spiritual perspective,” she says.

In Shanghai, Meyer knew she could finally work again, so after settling her boys in school and setting up the family home, she reached out to the German doctors at international clinics. They advised her to visit the clinics personally. So grasping fate by the hands, she went to ParkwayHealth’s Luwan clinic, resumé in hand. While there, the chief of ob-gyn was free for a few minutes and they spoke in person. A job offered soon followed.

“Get out and talk,” Meyer says. “The personal connection is much more effective than email and phone calls. It helps people feel at home with you. The best advice I received was to just take your C.V. and go.” And the best thing about working here, she adds, is that it gets her into the local community. It makes her feel like she’s really living in China.