What does the volunteer work of expatriate wives in China reveal about growing global inequalities between women?

Around the world women do most of the work of caring for others, whether it’s tending to children and elderly parents, doing household chores, or volunteering in the community. Feminist scholars place care work into two main categories: 1) “emotional labor” (face-to-face interactions that build an emotional bond), and 2) “reproductive labor” (domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning).  Because reproductive labor tends to be physical rather than cerebral, it is often considered less skilled or important than emotional labor.  In this global era millions of poor women have migrated from developing countries to industrialized regions to perform reproductive labor as nannies and cleaners for middle-class families, allowing affluent women to provide more emotional support to their loved ones.  These differences in care have deepened inequalities between women in industrialized countries.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy article takes a fresh look at this global trend by highlighting the experiences of first-world women who migrate into developing countries and perform care work as volunteers.  This study is based on more than a year of observations and interviews with an organization that I call Helping Hands, a group of expatriate wives that assisted a small state-run orphanage near Beijing, China.  I was intrigued by the fact that the Western women and Chinese caregivers (ayis) often disagreed over how to care for children.  Their conflicting perspectives mirrored the two types of care described above: while wealthy volunteers wanted to stimulate and nurture the children (emotional labor), the low-paid ayis prioritized domestic tasks such as cleaning and laundry (reproductive labor).  One Helping Hands member told me, “The ayis asked me to wash the floor, and I just laughed!  I mean, come on.  I’m there to play with the babies, not do the work for the ayis!”

Why couldn’t these two groups see eye-to-eye on something as seemingly straightforward as childcare?  In order to answer this question, I develop the concept of “logics of care,” that is, ideas about good care that are shaped by our life circumstances and access to resources.  I suggest that expatriate wives’ experiences of migration led them to equate good care with maternal nurturance.  Specifically, women who followed their husbands to China for the sake of men’s jobs were required to sacrifice their own careers and become stay-at-home moms.  Because nearly all foreign households employed at least one domestic servant, expatriate women were able to devote emotional labor to their families and volunteer work.  The Chinese ayis, on the other hand, were expected to focus their energy on reproductive tasks.  Consequently, their logic of care reflected their heavy responsibilities of caring for large numbers of high-needs children while simultaneously maintaining a clean facility.  In the end, neither side would compromise and the collaboration fell apart.

So what does this all mean?  This particular situation shows how logics of care are socially constructed and the ways they can conflict within certain settings.  There are real outcomes to incompatible logics of care, as seen in this case with less aid being given to extremely needy youth.  Ultimately, we should be aware that our views of good care often reflect whether or not we can afford to have other people do our “dirty work,” a social distinction that is becoming increasingly global every day.

 By Leslie Wang on her article “Unequal Logics of Care: Gender, Globalization, and Volunteer Work of Expatriate Wives in China,” published in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society.

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