Living Here Living In Hong Kong

The reinvention of the trailing spouse

Trailing spouses and partners are increasingly leveraging the many professional, educational and philanthropic opportunities available in Hong Kong to create a more robust expat experience.

expat relocation issues, living in Hong Kong, family life in Hong Kong
Being a “trailing spouse” can be challenging

Before becoming a trailing spouse, Scottish-born Lillian Atkinson worked as a successful solicitor in London and Paris. She had also taught French at a local primary school. With a move to Hong Kong for her husband’s job in 2011, Atkinson suddenly found herself in uncharted territory: starting life all over again in a foreign city, leaving her former professional pursuits behind.

“I moved here with a three-year-old, an 18-month-old, and a six-month-old. Hong Kong was a culture shock for many reasons,” remembers Lillian. “My husband started travelling all the time, there was no day-care for the under twos, and there was the added struggle of understanding how domestic help works and if I really wanted it. I decided not to work here, as there were too many new things for me – and I wanted to make sure the children felt safe and happy.”

But, as Lillian’s children grew a bit older, she found herself with more time to focus on what she wanted to do and a window of opportunity to pursue her interests. She decided to go back to school – online.

“I applied, and was accepted, to do an MSc in Psychology through a university in the UK. I could fit my studies around the demands of the kids, and I felt like I was doing something for me too,” says Lillian. “I’m glad to say that I achieved something while living in Hong Kong – so my husband and I both have reasons to be here; it feels more fair. And I feel proud of making something for myself here.”

An apt definition?

For many expats, the term “trailing spouse” – the idea of one sacrificing career hopes and dreams to follow a partner – feels like a heavy, wet blanket that drapes over all prior professional accomplishments. It conjures up images of spouses, mostly women, with too much time on their hands for trivial pursuits. While some of this is accurate and appropriate – cultural exploration is a huge benefit of living abroad – many trailing spouses and partners in Hong Kong are increasingly seeking out more.

The term was actually coined by Wall Street Journal writer Mary Bralove in 1981. In her article “Portrait of a Trailing Spouse”, Bralove explored how companies looking to relocate an employee needed to begin considering the career options for both spouses. The trend of dual income couples has risen considerably since the article was published, making these considerations even more important today. While there are expats who might recoil at being described as a trailing spouse, the term does capture well this new state of being. According to a 2015 Expat Insider study, conducted by the social networking site InterNations of 14,400 of its members in 64 countries, trailing spouses are the second least happy group of expats living abroad, coming in just behind those who have moved for family reasons. Delving deeper into this study, they found that of the 84 percent of trailing spouses who are women, 50 percent hold postgraduate degrees, and only 24 percent were currently employed in their host country. The reasons for lack of employment vary from person to person and country to country, but more often than not, trailing spouses or their career plans are typically not considered in the relocation package.

Starting over

For some trailing spouses, though, moving abroad brings opportunity for reinvention, either into a new career or down a new educational path. Hong Kong can be a terrific place for a trailing spouse to explore new professional and academic pursuits. Making things even easier here is the fact that gaining a work visa for a spouse is relatively easy compared with many other countries around the world. Also, online learning has exploded and many local universities offer classes that can be audited or enrolled in fulltime by expats. There are also endless commercial opportunities – expat spouses and partners in HK have started businesses ranging from photography to fashion and fitness.

Examples abound of spouses and partners taking on these new challenges alongside an international move. One American expat used her time in Vietnam to obtain a master’s degree online from an American university and now authors a blog about children’s literature from her home here in Hong Kong. A Spanish mother of two recently relocated from Madrid and, having just completed her graduate degree in neuropsychology, plans to begin teaching at a school. An Australian woman, who had a previous career in banking, secured a job with the Australian consulate – proving again that opportunities for reinvention abound.

This article first appeared in the Aug/Sep edition of Expat Living magazine.

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