The Struggles of an Accidental Housewife
This article is a part of the photo essay series Women of FEW, introducing FEW Members to one another and beyond. For more personal stories from expat women, click here.
by Liz Noh
When people ask me what I do, I say, “Not much. Actually, I’m a former journalist, turned accidental housewife”. I’m embarrassed about it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m lucky that I don’t have to work, thanks to my wonderful husband. I’m grateful that I can live the life that most people dream of. But even so, it’s been a struggle for me.
It all happened about five years when my husband and I were living in Zurich, Switzerland. We had just gotten married. That’s when I became a trailing spouse and an accidental housewife.
The bright side was that we were together at last. We had been seeing each other for several years. But the last three years of our relationship, we were living oceans apart. But it was worth it. I’m very happy in my marriage. I love my husband dearly. He’s kind and sensitive, and he respects and supports me in whatever I want to do.
My greatest fear was that I could become lazy. I tried to keep busy.Liz Noh
Living in Zurich was exciting. I got to explore a beautiful new city and country, meet new people and travel in Europe. The thrill lasted about a year. I became bored and frustrated. My husband traveled extensively for business and that made it worse for me.
With all due respect, I’m sure being a housewife is a noble profession. But if you don’t have kids to raise, how hard can it be? My husband always had clean clothes and our place was always clean. Even though I hate cooking, I made delicious and wholesome meals occasionally. I took care of all the household matters like paying the bills, keeping our bank accounts in order.
Yet, I had a lot of time on my hands. My greatest fear was that I could become lazy. I tried to keep busy. I learned about the history of Zurich and Switzerland. I took German lessons for a couple of months.
Then I took up knitting. That’s when I met other accidental housewives. We bonded in our common plight. Picture us at a Stitch and Bitch group, knitting and crocheting at Starbucks. Those women were younger than me, in the prime of their careers. Back in their home countries, they had professions — lawyer, pharmacist. One woman had a PhD in math. Another woman was an aviation lawyer and a former pilot in the U.S. Navy. Their lives changed too when they followed their husbands. It’s interesting that women still do that in this day and age.
It’s not easy to find work in Switzerland when you’re competing with Europeans who can speak several languages, including English. You can’t even work at McDonalds if you don’t know German, French or Italian.
I felt guilty that I wasn’t contributing to my marriage financially. I felt like a freeloader. So I tried to be the best housewife I could be. But I cringed when I had to write down “housewife” as my occupation on official forms.Liz Noh
I became a knitting fiend. Each project was like a job. I made so many scarves, hats, shawls in the three years that I lived in Zurich that I can’t count. But it’s something that I enjoy doing. There’s something about creating things with your hands.
The irony is I should have been happy living the dream. Who wouldn’t, right? But I wasn’t. I struggled with the fact that I wasn’t making my own money. I’ve been working since I was 18 years old. I felt guilty that I wasn’t contributing to my marriage financially. I felt like a freeloader. So I tried to be the best housewife I could be. But I cringed when I had to write down “housewife” as my occupation on official forms. Occasionally, I would have meltdowns about it. And through it all, my husband has always been understanding and supportive.
It wasn’t exactly my dream to be a housewife. I come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother worked. My mother worked and retired with her own pension. My parents were hardworking immigrants. I was born in Seoul, South Korea, but my family moved to Canada when I was seven years old. I lived most of my life in Toronto. I’m Canadian of Korean origin.
I had a life before. I was a newspaper reporter and a magazine writer. I was a researcher and news producer at CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. Some of the stories I produced have won awards. I attended G7 Summits as a journalist and as an academic analyst. I’ve been in press conferences with world leaders. I’ve worn army boots. That’s right, when I was in the army reserves in Canada. I lived abroad on my own.
One day in 2007, I left my job at the CBC and life as I knew it to seek a new life in Asia. My first marriage was long and miserable. I was so depressed and stressed out. I was tired of supporting a deadbeat, alcoholic spouse. Thank the gods, we didn’t have children. I finally left and never looked back. I call it my prison break. My only regret is that I had to leave my dogs, Mickey and Katie, a beagle and a collie.
Good things happen when you venture into the unknown. I made a new life for myself in Tokyo. I was an editor for NHK World, the English channel for Japan’s public broadcaster, and Kyodo News, a Japanese news service. I freelanced for Voice of America.
I made new friends. They were expatriate women like me, who came to Japan from far and wide in search of work and adventure. The yen was high and life was good. It was like the TV show, Sex and the City, Tokyo version. Well, sort of. Those were the days!
I also found the man of my dreams, my current husband. A Canadian and an American met in an Irish pub in Tokyo of all places! It really does happen when you’re not looking. It’s like the universe brought us together. That was almost 12 years ago and we’ve been together ever since.
One of the hard things about being an expat is saying good bye. It was bittersweet leaving Japan in 2012. Little did I know then that I would be back in Tokyo five years later as a trailing spouse.
It felt good to be back in my old stomping ground. Living in Tokyo the second time has been very different. I live in a nicer home than the little shoebox apartment that I lived in before. I could have gone back to my old jobs at NHK or Kyodo News. But why go back? No, this time, I’ve been doing things that I didn’t have the time to do when I worked. I took intensive Japanese classes. I started drawing again. I still knit. I reconnected with some old friends and made new ones.
Just as I’m getting settled, I have to move countries again. The life of a trailing spouse will take me to New York in April. I know. Poor me. Some people would die to live in New York. But there goes my plan of being a volunteer at the Olympics. It’ll be bittersweet leaving Japan again.
Through my struggles as an accidental housewife, I’ve learned an important lesson. Having the luxury of not having to work for a living, I’m more compassionate toward working people, especially the ones trying to eke out a living and supporting families. In the next chapter of my life in America, maybe I’ll reinvent myself as an activist for social justice and women’s rights. So the next time someone asks me what I do, I’ll say, “I’m in a transition period.” Or I could just say that I’m retired. That’ll do.
Women of FEW is a photo essay project that aims to share inspiring and powerful stories of our diverse Members through text and photos. This project is done in collaboration with our Sponsor,