The Reinvention of an Expat Trailing Spouse

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Distractions

In early 2003, I arrived in China burned out and disillusioned from my corporate position in a small company that had just been taken over by a large corporation. My last days there were spent watching long term managers escorted out of the building clutching paltry severance packages. I couldn’t get out of that toxic environment fast enough. With my expectations high, I gladly signed on as a trailing spouse and vowed to spend our proposed assignment sitting back and enjoying the stress-free life of a pampered housewife.

Our first few months in China were spent battling culture shock as I slogged through a haze of expat parties, dinners, and setting up house. I’ll admit that I also competed with other wives in the endless search for the best deals on knockoff purses, tailored coats, and elaborate antique furniture. When I’d filled my closet and my house with pointless trinkets, I came to my senses and looked for something real to be a part of. What I found was almost five years of an intense chapter in my life as I battled bureaucracy to fight for the rights of children living behind the mysterious walls of a Chinese orphanage.

Kay with Xiao Gou
Kay with Xiao Gou
It started out as a few hours a week spent with the children but quickly became a passion that took over and rocked my perspective of my place in this world. Along with hours spent pacing aisles holding feverish infants, and participating in assembly-line bathing, there were heart-wrenching goodbyes whispered to those destined to leave the world too early. I soon found myself leaving the orphanage each day ashamed of the indulged existence I was living when so many had next to nothing. It was my first initiation into an environment much harder than any I’d ever known, and many devastating moments remain branded in my memory.

Over time I, and the team of women I slowly built up, accomplished a lot in our pledge to improve the lives of the little ones, but even though I’d found something meaningful to do, there were times that I was completely disheartened—a battered and bleeding soul. I remember a day when another child I’d been fighting for had died, and when the news reached me, the usual strong armor I wore fell from me, leaving me broken as I sobbed for hours. We’d fought so hard for little Xin Xin and lost–her life cut short because of miles of bureaucratic red tape.

When asked how I got through it all, I can honestly say that it was through a hobby I’d had all my life that I was able to hold back the demons and release the daily pressure cooker of emotions I held.

Writing. It was the through the keystrokes on my keyboard that images I couldn’t speak of came to life again, allowing me to grieve for the precarious truth of institutional life in a third world country. I left China almost five years later, torn between wanting to escape the sad environment I’d immersed myself in and wanting to stay to continue the fight.

Silent Tears - A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage
Silent Tears – A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage
Taking the advice of many who read my emotionally packed words about the life I was leading, I fulfilled a promise to the children I’d left behind and put their stories into a journal titled Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. It was never meant to be shared with the world, but it happened and to this day has sold thousands. Piecing it together and trudging through the editing process was gut-wrenching but also therapeutic. When it was complete, I came out stronger for it and with an ability to see the whole picture of the gift my time in China really was. Since the memoir launched, I’ve received hundreds of emails from readers around the world telling me how Silent Tears has impacted them or prompted them to do something for children who need a voice.

Soon after returning home, because of the stability of a salary and significant title, I was sucked right back into the corporate environment. I spent a few years back where I’d started, wasting my life in a job that meant nothing to me. Quickly becoming miserable again, I took a step back and realized that I thought I’d left China with nothing, but the truth was that I left having reinvented myself and my role in society, yet I was squandering that opportunity!

Inspired by the success of my memoir, I once again focused on doing what I loved and began writing more material. I have now authored six Asian-inspired books and am on my third publishing contract, this time for a 3-book deal–a trilogy chronicling the inspiring life of a scavenger in China. The first book in the Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters will be released in August 2013.

Thankfully, I am no longer forced to navigate the demanding maze of a corporate environment to help support my family. I may not be able to hold those children any longer and look into their dark, trusting eyes as I pledge commitment to them, but I can do the next best thing. I can continue to use my platform as a writer to create fictional but truth-inspired stories to bring awareness to issues that affect women and children in China.

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4 Comments
  1. This was an inspiring post. Many times it takes something painful to wake us up and get us to realize what it is we really want to do in life. I’m so glad you have found success living your dream. You deserve it. Thank you for sharing this and for sharing the stories of the children for others to read.

  2. I am leaving the UK in August to move to Beijing with my husband and I believe I will become what is known as a ‘trailing spouse’. Like you, I want to use my time the best way I can and would love to get involved in working with children. I understand you are busy with your writing but if you could advise me on the best way to get into this kind of voluntary work, I would really appreciate it! All the best, Tessa.

  3. Thank you, Caddy, for your kind words!

    Tessa, congrats on your upcoming move. It will be an experience of a lifetime. Go into it with a positive attitude, but knowing it will be hard. Google around for Beijing Women’s Association or expatriate associations and contact them, ask to join a volunteer group. That’s your best way in. Good luck!

  4. This book really opened my eyes about life for an orphaned child and in general, life in China. When your at the bottom of the so-called totem pole, it is not a very nice life. I think that Kay Bratt did an excellent job in telling her sad story about how children and pets are perceived in china and it is so different from america that it is almost unbelieveable. She was a very brave woman to go over there and take the challenge on of creating a good life for her husband and children in a foreign country and of changing the lives and attitudes of children and the way they were taken care of in an orphange. I hope that the changes she brought about continue and that other orphanges follow her ideas. I would definitely recommend this book and I have been telling family and friends about it since I read it. It is a book that stays with you and makes you feel.

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