When my husband and I came to China, it was primarily for his work. His job would be to provide IT support for an International School. I, on the other hand, came as the ‘accompanying spouse’ without any particular job to do. Before leaving for China, I had a job where I felt fulfilled and accomplished – I had found my niche there. I came to China wondering: “Will I find my new niche once I arrive in this new place?”
By definition, to accompany means to go somewhere as a companion. I smiled when my computer’s Thesaurus also used the phrase “tag along with”. I guess it is a little better than ‘trailing spouse’ – a phrase that leaves me feeling dejected and left behind! I was happy to accompany my husband on this new adventure.
I had mentally prepared for the change, and was curious to find out what awaited me. I had hopes and dreams of working in local orphanages and perfecting the Chinese language … neither of which was actualized.
Finding my niche became a gradual process that grew out of simply living out the life of an expat. It was not one I could have predicted or planned for, but one that naturally developed as time progressed. What became my niche? I have been in China for almost eight years. For the first three and a half years I did a little of this and a little of that, and mostly took care of my new babies and adjusted to living in China.
The more settled I became, the more I wanted to find a way to help my children and myself be more involved in our neighborhood and community. As a stay-at-home mom with small children, I thought maybe I could host a playgroup and invite moms and kids from the neighborhood to join. For the last four years I have been hosting a variety of playgroups in my home with local moms, grandmas and their children. I have loved it! This has become my niche. This is what excites me and has given me fulfillment. Here are some things I learned along the way:
1) Take your time. I remember a wise lady in our community sharing with me within the first week of our arrival that she had taken a whole year of observing before committing to specific activities or taking on certain roles. Sometimes we are in such a hurry to find fulfillment in our doing that we miss the better yet to come and settle for the present okay.
2) Don’t let others define your niche for you. By all means be open to suggestions, take note of what others are doing around you, and try a few things. But remain open and take your time before deciding what you will pour yourself into more long term. Let your heart, not the pressure of the community, guide you to where you want to be involved.
3) Consider your passions, the things you love, the things that excite you and consider new avenues for pursuing them. I have a friend who took her experiences with the challenges of breastfeeding and trained to become a certified La Leche League consultant in our city among both expat and national mothers. She has found her niche and is passionate about it!
4) Recognize your limitations. Looking back, I can see that I was not ready to find my niche during my first three years here. During those years I was adjusting to living in China and being a first-time mother. Some days I felt overwhelmed by just those two tasks. Had someone told me then that I would be hosting groups of Chinese women and children in my home on a regular basis, I would have laughed in their face. I wasn’t ready then. And that was OK.
5) Try something new and out of your comfort zone. While playing outside in our neighborhood, I met other local moms with their children. I started to carry a pen and paper and would ask for their phone number and name so I could text them information about joining a playgroup at my home. With limited Chinese language, I began inviting strangers into my home … definitely out of my comfort zone!
6) Don’t force something that is not working. I had hoped that I would be able to immerse myself in the language, but once babies started to come along my brain seemed to stop working. My niche was not going to be language immersion, to my initial dismay. I had to give up that expectation and be gracious to myself.
7) Consider that a weakness might also be a strength. My inadequate language ability actually worked to my benefit! Local friends wanted to practice their English with me and have their kids play with my kids to expose them more to the English language. It was a win-win situation, and hopefully I have picked up some Chinese along the way.
8) When you find something you love, go all out! Initial playgroups developed into a bi-lingual-moms-as-teachers-preschool-type program. Our home was rearranged on a continual basis to accommodate our hosting situations. At one point, our living room was transformed into a classroom for a year and a half. It wasn’t ideal for hosting adult guests for dinner, but that was OK, because hosting dinner parties was not my niche. Hosting groups of moms and kids was, and our home arrangement reflected that.
9) It’s OK to try several different things and then let go of those that did not quite work, guilt-free … even if others thought you were meeting a need. During those early years of being here, I taught a class at the school where my husband worked. I enjoyed it and it filled a need but I did not love doing it. I fulfilled my commitment for that school year, but did not sign on again even though I knew others would have liked me to do so.
10) When you find your niche, share what you are doing with others, but also understand that there might be someone who has not yet found hers and may be intimidated by yours. Just because you love what you are doing doesn’t mean that everyone else is going to want to do it too!
As with most everything about the expat life, flexibility and adaptability are key. There will likely come a time when the niche you have found changes because of a variety of circumstances. As I anticipate my youngest child starting school, I know that hosting playgroups in its present form will naturally come to a close, and I’ll be looking to find a new niche again. Making this list has helped me think through how I will approach this change.
Though it took a while initially, finding my niche has helped me find contentment in my role as “the accompanying spouse”. It has been rewarding to feel like I am able to contribute something to the community around me, while I continue to learn and gain so much as well. Whether it be orphan work, becoming an expert in the language, mentoring others on your team, providing decorating advice to help others make their home feel beautiful and welcoming, sharing kitchen or homemaking skills, or opening your home to host playgroups with expat or national moms, we all have something to contribute and share.
Have you found your niche yet?
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