The spread of tai-tai-ism

There is a strange phenomenon taking place around me the last couple of months. A lot of my female friends are quitting their jobs and becoming what is known in Cantonese as ‘tai-tais’.

I found this handy definition of ‘tai tai’, for those of you who don’t speak Cantonese…

According to website Hello Tai, a ‘tai tai’ is defined as  “noun: A term used in Chinese circles for supreme wife (implying situation where a man is  wealthy enough to have several “wives’)  but no longer strictly interpreted. … A Tai Tai is a privileged lady of means.”

The website Stuff Asian People Like simply defines them as ‘Ladies who Lunch’ and enjoy buying expensive brand names, such as Louis Vouitton.

In Hong Kong where people without a doubt work far too hard, people tend to label women as tai-tais with a hint of jealousy, as in, ‘Man check out those tai-tais having high tea in the Peninsula,’ or ‘The only people who can afford to shop in The Landmark are the tai-tais’.

I can admit, I too am a little bit jealous of some ladies who, thanks to their husbands’ jobs, don’t need to work and have all the time in the world: play tennis on Mondays, go to yoga class on Tuesdays, attend a book meeting on Wednesday, try out cooking a new recipe on Thursday, and on Friday go out with their friends. I do sometimes wonder if it gets boring, but I suppose it’s all up to you. You can either sit at home and do nothing, or you can do everything you ever wanted to do.

What surprises me, though, is that all of my friends who are leaving their high-flying big-salary jobs and opting out of the working world are all highly educated and previously very hard working women. They all have degrees — many have their masters — so it kind of makes me wonder… why do so many women choose to be a tai-tai? Has the job lost meaning for them? Or perhaps the job never had meaning for them at all, and they had just been pressured by their families to go study accounting and work for a big company?

I also see the trend in women who have babies.  I know lots of ‘successful’ women who, after giving birth, say, ‘To tell you the truth… I don’t particularly care if I ever go back to that job. It’s just a job. But this is my child. All I want to do is stay at home and raise my child the best I can.’

Now that hardly sounds like the words of someone who is lazy or self indulgent. The thing is,  they all say their confession with a hint of embarrassment, with a flush of shame, as though saying you want to be a stay at home mom means you are selfish, you are backwards, all you do is leech off your husband, you are a waste of all that money your family spent on years of university, you are a disgrace to working women everywhere. And it’s a fact — many women look down on women who don’t work. Thus the jealousy towards tai-tais.

The whole situation has got me wondering whether there might be some fundamental differences between what men and women consider to be ‘worthwhile work’. Or what the world considers to be ‘worthwhile work’. It often seems like today’s woman has been forced into a corner. You’re expected to go to school, get a big job, fight your way up the ladder, and somehow find the time to squeeze in a family and be a good mother and a good wife. How on earth is it all possible?

Is today’s woman trying to do two completely different — but two completely valuable — jobs at the same time? Is this why many women simply decide one day to drop out, and walk away from the supposed ‘big job’? And why is it that even today, women’s work at home is still not regarded as ‘real work’?

The reason I’m blogging about this is because I’ve been thinking a lot these days about work, why we work, and whether there are differences between men and women when it comes to work. Sometimes writing helps me sort out my thoughts. I’d be interested in hearing other’s peoples thoughts on the topic so please feel free to drop me a comment.

4 thoughts on “The spread of tai-tai-ism

  1. Maybe my feelings will change once I have kids, but for now I would like to have my own money, thank you, and I will spend it on whatever I damn well please. I don’t like the idea that ‘my’ money would actually be someone else’s and that they could say ‘actually, you don’t need that much to spend on meals out with friends’ or ‘this month i can’t give you a clothing allowance’ or whatever. I am generally fairly frugal, but my money is my money and i like it that way.

    For many mothers, I think that work gives them a chance to be someone different. I think if you are a stay at home mum, you often get defined by your children. Whereas if you work, you have the mum side of you, and then you also have your work side, which might be quite different.

  2. Well, I was always looking down on stay at home mums, that was until I had my own kids. Its the hardest job in the world, no pay, no sick leave or vacation. But no way in helll would I have willingly gone back to work, yet. I probably will in the future, work is something you can always go back to, while a baby is changing every day, blink and you miss it. And yes Katie you do get defined by your kids, because they are so incredible and you can’t help it. But I think this too will pass. I know lots of people defined by their work, which is quite boring to everyone else.

    I think it’s a great idea to have the OPTION of not working after you have kids. Most people don’t plan on staying home, but when they do want to they can’t, as their lifestyle is too expensive for a single income. So make sure your man can support you for a few years.

    And let’s be clear here – stay at home mums are not tai tais in any way, unless they got nannies at home. Minding kids is not easy.

    A friend who recently dropped out of work told me she was a mediocre worker and a mediocre mother crazily rushing between both ‘jobs’.

    And let me be clear

  3. Well to be fair, I think the only reason I see so much of this around me is because in HKG, particularly in the airline industry where pilots tend to get paid an incredible amount, it is all too easy for their wives to stay at home and do other things or pursue other interests. I’m sure that if these tai-tais were back in the US and their husbands had ‘normal’ 9-5 jobs, they would be working their asses off too, kids or no kids! I certainly hope that if I should have kids that I can stay home in the early years. But in the meantime, I agree with Katie — I like having my own money and never having to discuss it with my spouse.

    I certainly don’t look down on stay-at-home moms: like Miranda said, it is the most difficult and unappreciated job in the world. If a woman can afford to stay at home and do it, and wants to do it, then it’s great. But what I see a lot of is stay-at-home-wives, who don’t even have the kids yet, but don’t need to work anyway!!

  4. Something strange happens to you when you have a child. They obviously need you desperately, and statistically, babies who are looked after by loving, sensible mothers are better off. But in a few short years, the baby is a small person and SUDDENLY they are off to school! Then you say “Wow, I can go back to work!”

    I did work when my babies were tiny, I had to. But I was lucky enough to be there for them a lot. I am glad I was, you never get that time back!

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