The official’s hand hovers over my application form with a Tipex brush. An innocuous enough item in itself but to me it looks like a threatening weapon. In the “occupation” box on my Dependent’s Pass application I’ve automatically written “journalist”.
“What company do you work for?” he asks at his desk in Immigration Tower, Wan Chai. “I don’t work for a company.” He looks confused. “So you are Hong Kong Housewife?” Out comes the Tipex, and he holds it aloft ready to strike. “No!” I remonstrate, probably slightly firmer than necessary. My twenty year career is about to be wiped out in one casual swipe of white gunk. The official hesitates and looks at me again. “I’m a freelance journalist – self employed,” I try to explain.
Something makes him stop and he leaves my occupation listing as it is, ushering me on to the next official in the process. For him, it’s probably more hassle than it’s worth. For me, it’s the last vestiges of my identity. I never knew how much my very being was tied up with my career until I moved to Hong Kong. Like many women I know I have harboured a desire to leave the office with its politics and egos behind and live the seemingly golden life of a freelancer.
But arriving in Hong Kong I quickly realised that the female sex are viewed in only two categories: career women or housewives (nicknamed Tai Tais in Cantonese). In expat terms, the former came to this city alone to take up high powered posts in finance and PR, the latter are sometimes charmingly known as “followers” since they came for their husbands’ or boyfriends’ jobs.
Guilty as charged. My own managerial job was left behind when I boarded the plane at Heathrow but I wasn’t expecting this 1950s label of Housewife. Especially as the Hong Kong Tai Tai does anything but housework – that’s what they employ a Filipino “helper” for. Leaving the Tai Tai free to go to Pilates and tennis lessons and lunch at Zuma and be ferried up and down the Peak in an A Team-esque van. And they feel none of the embarrassment of the moniker as there would be back home where women on maternity leave firmly call themselves “mothers” rather than “housewives”.
When I recount the Dependent’s Pass story to my husband he rolls his eyes. Unwittingly my desire to hang on to my identity could have caused trouble. While I have a right to work as a “dependent” I am arriving here as just that, despite how I see myself.
A few days later we visit the bank to open a joint account. With my husband’s occupation established, the clerk turns to me as he attempts to complete our application form, “You are Hong Kong Housewife?” I open my mouth to put him straight but catch the look on my husband’s face. “Yes, I’m a Hong Kong Housewife.”