There is a Plan B: volunteers help Hong Kong's expat single parents

Parents, especially women, who lose their partners often need moral and practical support but don't know where to turn. A support network called Plan B is helping them get back on their feet

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 4:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2015, 10:06am

When Claudia Garcia (not her real name) followed her husband to Hong Kong after he was posted here in 2001, she hoped the fresh start might save their troubled marriage. But those hopes were dashed: her husband began travelling frequently for work, especially after the birth of their son; worse, she discovered he had been having an affair.

"To start with, I was in a very dark place filled with anger, resentment, loneliness and sadness. I was not sure whether to stay in Hong Kong or return to the United States where my family is. Also, having not worked for almost eight years, it was hard to decide if I should separate or continue in this very unhealthy relationship," she says.

She divorced in 2011 after a long and turbulent separation. To maintain stability in her son's life, she chose to remain in Hong Kong and return to work. But as Garcia navigated unfamiliar territory as a single mother, her friend Caroline Roy was struck by the lack of readily available support for expats who become single parents, sometimes unexpectedly.

"I realised that single-parent families and singles after trauma are a blind spot in Hong Kong. What concerned me the most was the difficulties faced by trailing spouses who get hurt when their life plan falls apart, be it due to separation, bereavement or a dramatic change in circumstances," says Roy, a German writer who has lived in Hong Kong for the past 12 years.

Although there are groups such as Hong Kong Single Parents Association, these cater primarily to Chinese-speakers. So Roy decided to create a dedicated support network for expat single parents: she wrote a post on her Hongkonqueror blog in May, appealing to readers to join the initiative, and reposted it on popular Facebook groups.

"The response was overwhelming. Many people got in touch either to share their own stories, to volunteer or to help. I brought the volunteers together and we developed a plan to help people. In Hong Kong, we have an exceptional surplus of resources [people] who are able to make a difference."

Dubbed Plan B, it includes financial advisers, life coaches, career advisers, change managers and full-time mums ready to donate their professional and personal time to help single women and men in crisis. Although still in its infancy, the initiative has directly helped 20 people (all women so far) and connected many more with organisations that provide legal advice and psychological counsel.

Most sought guidance on matters related to visas and immigration, finance, returning to work and affordable housing.

"To earn a certain income level to support themselves and possibly children all on their own - all while grieving, dealing with the logistics of separation and maybe children, too - that's a lot to ask of newly single people, especially trailing spouses," says Caroline Carson, a Plan B volunteer and founder of coaching business Back to Work Hong Kong.

Although the work culture in Hong Kong is not always conducive to a healthy work-life balance, Carson says many international firms have begun to embrace flexibility. Single parents may be pleasantly surprised if they ask for increased flexibility, she says.

What concerned me the most was the difficulties faced by trailing spouses who get hurt when their life plan falls apart
Caroline Roy, founder of Plan B

When Eliza Chen Yixia's husband died on a taxi ride home from work just 10 months after they moved here, her company's work culture proved to be a great source of comfort.

"I was glad to have a job since it took my mind off the reality of being a single parent and it also gave me a purpose to get up every morning. My boss didn't put any pressure on me to perform and my team had my back. It made me work harder when everything settled to show the team how much I appreciated being here," she says.

Chen, a unit manager at Manulife, decided to stay in Hong Kong with her two children because she found the city to be efficient and the people friendly.

"Even though we were only here for a short while, the people I met here were extremely supportive. I didn't feel I was isolated at all. I don't think I could've asked for more support than what I received in Hong Kong," says Chen, who has since remarried and is expecting her third child.

Sarah Powell, a director at Absolute Consulting Financial who also volunteers at Plan B, finds most people she met needed help organising their finances, planning their spending and discussing fee payments with their children's schools.

"Many expat women here are financially reliant on their partner and sometimes this means they don't have access to or know where money is," she says.

This support network was invaluable for Bettany, who turned to the group for emotional guidance and advice on how to manage her own business after her 16-year marriage collapsed.

"One of the things I really appreciate is Plan B's breadth of knowledge. In addition to giving me financial and career advice, they remind me to support and protect myself and still keep growing despite the changes in my life," she says. "This is such a fantastic resource that is a full-service shop for singles who need guidance. We don't have enough of this in this town."

Being a single parent is hard enough and with the added burden of being an expatriate lacking the usual support networks, life can get overwhelming.

Her husband's sudden death in 2007 sent Dominika Jezierska into a pit of depression and social isolation.

"No one knew what to say. I felt like a black sheep. I asked my therapist to introduce me to women who had been through my experience but she told me that most expat widows go home. I had nowhere else to go as I had left Poland years ago," she recalls.

Jezierska eventually rallied round and now runs her husband's fashion and music accessories business, but it was a tough struggle.

That's why the mother of two volunteers at Plan B: she hopes to alleviate some of the despair that expat single parents feel when their circumstances change dramatically.

"It's a wonderful initiative that I wish had been around eight years ago. It gives singles much-needed support at their most vulnerable moment and lets them know that, when their world as they know it is falling apart, they are not alone."