The rise and fall of a pseudo expat tai tai

The rise and fall of an expat tai taiI once made a group of Singaporean estheticians cry, and it was all Lihong’s fault.

Lihong, my Mandarin tutor, was a Chinese national with a graduate degree in Chinese language and literature. Unfortunately, she’d only been living in Singapore a short time, so while she knew tons of stuff about the Chinese spoken on the mainland, she wasn’t really up on the local lingo.

One of the earliest lessons Lihong taught me was the use of honorifics. I learned that titles are much more important in Chinese culture than they are in the West. My children, for example, were taught to address their teacher as Liu Laoshu: Teacher Liu. In this particular lesson, I learned the word tai tai (太太), which means “wife” and can also mean “Mrs.” (Which would make me Foley Tai Tai.)

I decided to try out my newfound knowledge during a rare foray into a typical expat wife pastime: the facial.

Facialist: You work in Singapore, ah?

Me: No.

Facialist: You no work? Wah — so lucky.

Me (getting defensive): My husband travels a lot and I have small children.

Facialist: Ah, you housewife one! Stay home, lah.

Me (casually showing off): Yes. Wo shi tai tai. (I’m a wife.)

Facialist (screaming with laughter): Wah! What you know about Mandarin? Tai tai, ah? (More uproarious laughter and an explanation in staccato Mandarin to the other estheticians, who laugh so hard the tears stream down their faces and they all get stomach aches.) Now I do face massage.

It turns out that tai tai has a more narrowly defined meaning in Singapore, one that Lihong hadn’t yet picked up on. It translates loosely into “one of the ladies who lunch.” Tai tais are always impeccably made up and coiffed, rail-thin, and outfitted in high-end designer wear. They are invariably haughty, often tote small, fluffy dogs, and take very tiny steps in very high heels. No tai tai worth her salt would be caught dead in public sporting, as I did that day, a stretched-out Gap t-shirt, a messy ponytail, and a bare face. It was painfully obvious to all of us that my reckless claim to being one of them was spurious and completely without merit. I just didn’t have the right stuff.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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8 Responses to The rise and fall of a pseudo expat tai tai

  1. Hi Maria,
    You’ve just described my spa-going attire perfectly. And, we have our very own tai tais here in Dubai…better known as Jumeirah Janes!

  2. Sine says:

    Precious! Love the Singaporean conversation, so authentic. And you should get credit for learning Mandarin! When I went to the beauty shop in Singapore to get my hair cut or something, I always felt like Elaine in that Seinfeld, where all the Chinese are chitchatting around me and probably about me and I sit there an smile stupidly because I don’t understand a word.

  3. What a great story! Language is such a tricky thing, and it can cause lots of trouble, good and bad, when you’re learning it. This incident was a fun one and makes a great memory. I’m just now starting to learn Romanian since I just moved to Moldova, and I know what’s waiting for me 😉

  4. Funny story, and you’re a good sport to laugh along. I was also thinking ‘what a great first lilne for a novel or short story’…

  5. Lol. I’m taking it’s not safe to assume that you know just because… 🙂

  6. bookjunkie says:

    Loved this cute story 🙂 Hahah yeah you definitely need to have your nose in the air…I don’t think you qualify 🙂

  7. Maria says:

    The tai tai life was not for me — too much work!

  8. naomi says:

    Classic, Maria!

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