What? Wondering why you are STILL reading about unemployment instead of baking cherry pies? Read the first parts of this series and find out what’s going on here. Still wishing you could read about a recipe? Here you go!
So Chris and I up and moved to China and I become unemployed.
Not just unemployed, but unemployed in an expat community where unemployment is not so much a dire problem to be solved as a occasionally irritating, but wholly acceptable lifestyle choice.
People, there are “ladies who lunch,” here. There are tennis clubs and coffee dates set up by woman, for woman, during working hours.
I’m not knocking these activities nor the “ladies who lunch” circle; in fact, as I’ll get to in just a bit, I’ve been a bit envious of them since I got Chengdu. It’s just that having time during the day to play tennis and go for coffee just wasn’t what I planned on for China.
As I’ve sifted through job opportunities and non-opportunities, I’ve found that dealing with unemployment is not just about having good days and bad days, there’s a whole lot more to it. You adopt new habits and personality traits that you never thought you would. You go through some weird phases emotionally and intellectually.
None of this is code for depression or week-long, staying-in-bed crying jags. Depression is a whole other ballgame that I feel lucky to have avoided up until this point.
I wake up happy most days here, but what I’ve realized is that being happy is sometimes like throwing a blanket over the unmade bed of a restless insomniac and then crawling in to sleep after a long, tiring day.
It’s definitely warmer and cozier all over with the blanket on top, but there are still those high spots and low pots and uncomfortable wrinkly spots-and they sure can keep you up at night. Simiarly, you can be happy and grateful for having a wonderful life and still feel frustrated that you are unfulfilled in some part of it.
So today, before we get to the high points, I’m going to write about those low and wrinkly spots. Frankly, I’ve been looking forward to this post the most because some of it strikes me as just so weird, so wholly “err-that’s-not-what-was-supposed-to-happen,” that it feels liberating to write about it and hopefully hear back from you on your own experiences.
As I started writing this post, I realized that it was going to be a loooong one so I’m going to break it up into two posts on the same topic: weird experiences while being unemployed. This is supposed to be a blog, not a memoir, so like Charles Dickins with the Pickwick Papers, I’m going to wait until Monday to publish the next installment.
Talking about not-fun stuff like this I find often has the wonderful effect of turning the frustrating into the manageable and even the bad into the just plain funny. If you can top the phases and experiences I write about, please let me know, I want to hear about it.
And so, in no particular order, the first in a two part series on the more “interesting” phases of my unemployment:
1. The Evolution from Frugality to All-out Cheapskate
I stopped working when we moved to China but due to some location pay adjustments and the lower cost of living here, our household income has actually remained pretty close to, if not relatively higher than what it was B.C. (Before China).
Try telling that to the my subconscious though. No longer being responsible for bringing in part of our family income, I’m now having a much harder time spending it than I ever had before.
Theoretically, my husband and I operate on a “what’s yours is mine” philosophy when comes to money-and just about everything else really (except the cookie dough chunks in a pint of ice cream-those are just plain unequivocally mine.)
In fact if you were to ask my husband how he felt about his wife free-loading on his salary, he would tell you that he wouldn’t care if I went out everyday and spent the money he makes on whatever I wanted–whether it be house stuff or baking supplies or a new pair of shoes. And it’s totally true. He has no problem with my lack of income in the slightest.
I’m the one with the problem. I’ve always tended towards the frugal side of things but I’ve never been cheap. I’m happy to spend money on and with the people I love.
So imagine my surprise then when we move to China and I find myself refusing for weeks to buy kitchen hand towels because I think they are too expensive at $4 dollars for a 3 pack.
I started declining dinner invitations out when I knew the bill would be more than a few dollars a person. The first time we attempted to buy Chris the electric scooter he so enthusiastically coveted, I told him it was too much money-even though it was his money to spend. The second time we went to buy the scooter, I couldn’t even bring myself to witness the transaction. Instead, I wandered around outside the way some people pace a room waiting for a bad-news phone call.
Since moving to China, I’ve sat up multiple nights contemplating how we can save more money, feeling guilty for a nice meal out or even for not bargaining hard enough at the market.
I even started worrying about unborn children’s college tuitions and our retirement savings that won’t come into play for at least another 30 years. And I’m pretty sure the only person who can be excited about that is my father-who works as a financial planner and stock broker.
I’m getting better but even just last night, as Chris and I sat at the computer planning a vacation for October, I contemplated telling him that it was just going to be too expensive and we weren’t going to be able to go.
And then I remembered that this vacation was supposed to be our honeymoon-the one we’ve been putting off for a year now. I have a serious problem obviously, but admitting it is the first step right?
2. The highly disturbing and totally insane “I want to have kids NOW” phase.
Sure Chris and I said we wanted to wait at least a few years to have kids but soon after we moved to Chengdu I experienced an intense, totally illogical desire for offspring of our own-immediately.
Wooooahhhh, bet you weren’t expecting that one right?
But seriously, have you been to China? There’s a reason they’ve had a population problem-their kids are dangerously adorable. No wonder people here actually pay to be allowed to have more than one child.
There are over a billion people in this country and sometimes I swear at least half of them are cute little 18 month olds running around with pigtails and butt-less pants and the most kissable chubby cheeks you’ll find anywhere. I’ve even got the evidence.
And so it came to be that seeing cute kids on the street would nearly make me burst into tears. My mom friends inspired weird twinges of jealously. When Chris would mention anything having to do with children, or even future career plans, I would become inexplicably irritated with his desire to spend the first few years of our marriage childless.
And all of this from the girl who used to say “I don’t want kids until I’m at least 30!” Haha.
It took me a few weeks, but I got through this-though I’ll admit I suffer relapses occasionally when I go volunteer with the kindergarteners in Guangji (they are just sooo cute).
Looking back I can say now that, no matter how much I’m looking forward to them someday, Chris and I are still not ready for kids yet. I can also understand why I wanted them so badly though.
Without work, there’s a fairly sizable crater in the area of my pyschology reserved for feelings of purpose, fulfillment, and meaning. Kids are important, kids give the most mundane chores purpose. After all-they can’t really feed themselves until they are like 18 right? (I kid, I kid). People tell me that raising children is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, but also the most fulfilling. And, let me tell you, I was craving some serious fulfillment.
Kids don’t just provide purpose, there is also the undeniable fact that kids give you a whole lot of totally legitimate sh*t to do during the day. When it’s only 2pm and you’ve already walked around the city for a few hours, picked up groceries, worked out, applied for a few jobs and studied your Mandarin, you can’t help but do the mental math and consider that, practically speaking, kids would provide a lot more stuff and a lot more important stuff to do with your time.
Spending your day changing diapers, and teaching your kid the ABCs? Totally legit. Hitting the refresh button on the NYT homepage 20 times in one afternoon (true story)? Errrr, not so much.
Kids are also the VIP pass to the day-time social scene in Chengdu. They might as well check everyone at the front door for a diaper bag and toddler in tow. Having children provides access to a community, it’s also a killer way to make friends. Between the play groups and the pool parties and the recitals, you always have someone to hang out with, even if you spend half of that time imploring your kid to share their toys and to stop eating the grass.
When you are childless and home during the day, you might have a heck of a lot more freedom, but you don’t quite have the same sort of peer group. At a smaller post like Chengdu you might not have any peers at all. Things can get lonely.
I feel lucky to have a number of great friends here in Chengdu already but let’s be clear-they are way too busy most days either raising their kids or working at full-time jobs to be hanging out baking with me.
3. The Baking as a substitute for Full-Time Employment
I’ll admit it; the second week we were here I ordered 25 pounds of flour from King Arthur’s Flour Company. The scarier thing? I’m already half-way through it all.
Though I wish I could say that with all of my free-time I started water-coloring or invented some new technology or volunteered 40 hours a week (not yet, but maybe soon), the reality is I’ve done a lot of baking with my currently meager kitchen resources.
I’ve experimented with mini loaf cakes and homemade bagels; with granola bars made in pie-plates. I’ve stood on a dining room chair in front of our stove, furiously whisking 7 minute frosting by hand for 30 minutes to get that electric-mixer consistency.
I’ve made my first layer cake with mismatched pans and candy for decoration. I’ve made my first bundt cake because it’s the only other pan I have at the moment. When I’m not baking, I’m usually scouring blogs for new recipes to try.
In a weird way, baking fulfills a certain need for Goldilocks challenge in my life: you know, those tasks that are not so easy that they are boring and not so hard that they are frustrating.
It’s not always easy to find recipes that I can make the ingredients and implements I have available here. I’m getting back to how our grandmothers baked–without all sorts of convenient electric mixers and access to fancy ingredients, and there’s a bit of fun in re-learning how to bake in this way.
We all need little goals in our lives that are difficult, but attainable. Finding a job, learning Mandarin, figuring out what I want to do with my life-those are all things that are just plain tough and, though I devote a lot of time to them, sometimes it feels good to just do something else for awhile. Something that’s fun and challenging and provides seriously delicious, preservative and junk-free results for myself and Chris, and now our entire social circle.
So, for now, baking it is.
Stay tuned for Monday when we talk about more fun phases in the unemployment journey. Happy Weekend everyone!