CITY GUIDE >City Guide
Desperate expat housewives
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-25 10:58

Martina was drinking vodka at 7 am in an airport lounge somewhere in the Philippines when she finally realized she needed help.

She had traveled there with her husband who had to stay for more business meetings, which meant the middle-aged woman had to fly back to China alone.

Persistent loneliness is what pushed Martina over the edge. She had been battling with bouts of alcoholism for a while, but it was not until she left her life behind in New York City to move to Beijing with her husband that the disease would become crippling.

"All of a sudden I am an expat wife and I am not working," said Martina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

"I had all of this time on my hands, and my husband worked late a lot. I mean a lot."

To many, the lives that expatriate wives lead in Beijing appear to be shrouded in luxury.

Yet a number of the women who follow their husbands overseas secretly suffer from problems ranging from substance abuse to mental illness largely because they are lonely and unable to reclaim the professional lives they left behind back home.

"You do have a lot of expat wives who come here and struggle," said Dr Stephen-Claude Hyatt, a clinical health psychologist at International SOS China.

"They struggle because they don't fit in and don't have a framework in which to work. Enough thought isn't given to what a spouse will do here."

In the beginning, Martina, once an advertising executive in Manhattan, mostly spent her days shopping and visiting tourist sites. Eventually the mystique of a new place faded into boredom.

To pass the time, she sat in her serviced apartment watching DVDs and drinking.

She eventually started taking Chinese lessons, sipping wine spritzers while she studied in the afternoons.

Before the aerobics class she attended every morning, she drank vodka instead of water.

"I would say, 'I will just have a little swig of vodka before I go to class,'" Martina said.

"It was such a crazy life when I think about it now."

Martina has been sober for six years. She found recovery after she began attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in Beijing.

In the beginning it was far from easy. She was afraid she might see someone in AA who knew her or that word might get out in expat circles that she had an alcohol problem.

"It is very tough at first," she said. "What if I walk into a meeting and someone knows me?"

Aside from AA, there are few resources in Beijing for women facing similar issues, which lead to or are often compounded by marital problems, according to Hyatt.

"There are a lot of marriages that come here and die," Hyatt said. "A lot of these women suffer in silence because of what is happening in their marriages. They feel alone and desperate. A lot of them develop depression."

"Some eventually develop the courage and try to salvage their marriages," Hyatt said.

"They try to get their husbands to recognize what is happening but the sad reality is that some husbands say, 'I don't want you anymore,' and then they are abandoned."

Half of the patients Hyatt sees come to him with marital challenges stemming from infidelity, he said.

"Some (men) go to prostitutes, some hook up with Chinese girls and so forth," he said.

"You have a plethora of different realities surrounding the concept of infidelity here."

Martina is now back in New York and is still with her husband. She was lucky, she said.

He supported her through her battle with alcoholism and struggle to survive as an expat wife in China.

"I think there are a lot of expat wives who are out there drinking silently," Martina said. "I have been with other expat women, and I can see their drinking patterns, and I know they have a problem."

Desperate expat housewives

Desperate expat housewives