The Expat Woman

Expat women have a terrible reputation. Gin swilling, lazy, diamond dripping, drunk by lunch time, double kissing, designer handbag owning, do I need to go on?

“In my next life I’m coming back as an expat wife” scoffed a middle aged man at my partner’s Christmas party. We’d just agreed to head to Jakarta – from our Australian home.  Over the past twenty years I’ve (thankfully) seen more men taking over the role of lead parent while their wife has gained the contract, visa, and benefits to go with it. The only downside is the new moniker of  “trailing spouse,” yep, thanks for that. I love the visual of me trailing behind G, hunched over and waiting for direction. Maybe we’ll forget about the title.

So, who and what is the expat woman?

In my experience she’s like any group of women, she’s a nurse, a doctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, a chef, a banker. The one thing she usually has in common with her expat friends, is that at some stage she sat down with her partner and had to make a practical choice on whether they were going to take “the job” overseas. In our case, I was eight weeks pregnant when the conversation came. We did the math and it seemed impractical to turn the job down, the salary G was offered was the nearly the same as our two salaries in Australia, our worries of affordable child care and negotiating maternity leave arrangements would be non existent, it just seemed to make sense to go.

G was an expat child, he was incredibly excited about hitting the road again, there was a piece of family nostalgia there for him and he was happy with the idea of showing a child the expat life, me, not so much. The plan was two years in Indonesia, save some money, enjoy the experience and come home. I didn’t resign from work, I took a leave of absence, 11 years later and I still haven’t been able to formally resign from that role. What do you think Freud would say about that?

When we arrived in Jakarta and G went off to his first day at the office, I sat in our hotel room looking out over the grey city skyline, all logic and practicality disappeared from my mind.  I quickly forgot our agreement. I wondered what on earth had possessed me to give up my career, friends and family to take on the role where my whole existence appeared to be being Mrs G. In fact, that’s what the staff at the hotel called me, Mrs G! As I wandered around the city I felt incredibly lonely. If I wasn’t working then who was I?  I kept looking in the mirror at my five month pregnant body not really knowing who she was either.

After a couple of very quiet days the phone began to ring, British, American and Australian accents at the end of the line. “My husband mentioned there was a new Australian at the office and his wife was pregnant, do you have a doctor? I had a baby last year” a woman with a thick Scottish accent said. Someone invited me on a museum tour, someone else for a coffee “have you heard about ANZA?”. None of these women were the same, they were all from different parts of the world, all different ages but they had all been the woman in the hotel room, they had a pretty good idea on what was going through my mind.

When I started to spend time with them I realized that it doesn’t matter if you’re a hippy, or a conservative, at any age, the story from the very well dressed dignified woman in the corner about how she had to poo in her handbag while stuck in traffic in Mumbai with a serious case of Delhi belly is hysterical to everyone. They laughed about their language disasters, rats in their dryer pipes, no electricity or phone for days, cold showers, doctors who diagnosed them with terrible non existent diseases and the tragic haircut where “just cut a little bit off” translated to “just leave a little bit there” (it took me two years to grow that haircut out).

An expat wife acquires the skill of looking across the room and thinking (as my friend Jen later told me) “I’ll have her, she’s mine” as they see something in someone that looks familiar. A lifelong friendship can be made in a moment, over the death of a family member or a terrifying health scare for a child. You’ll find yourself sharing intimate stories with a friend you’ve only known for a few weeks, the terrible ex boyfriend, the miscarriage and the fight you had with your sister when you were eight, because you need to share, if you’re going to be good friends she needs to know the details. That’s why when you phone her the next day to say the car won’t start and your husbands in China, she’ll be there.

An expat wife will nervously walk in to a room full of strangers biting the side of her cheek, armed with a list of questions

  • Is the milk okay to drink?
  • Do you have a good doctor, mechanic, dentist or physio?
  • Can you draw me a map to the school?
  • Where do I buy a decent bra?
  • What sort of cab should I get in to?
  • Do they have Napisan here?
  • Why is there a sign “this meat does not contain traces of mad cow disease” in the supermarket?
  • Why can’t I find tampons?
  • Where can I find a math tutor?

It will be more than likely that she will leave the room with the answers, a list of phone numbers and an invitation for tomorrow. She may not have met one person she can see herself being friends with but that fear of never meeting anyone will be gone. She’ll feel indestructible, it will be better than the best performance review she’s ever had.

That weekend you’ll see her, leading the way with her trailing spouse behind her, she’ll be showing him how the city works and what she’s learnt during the week, because in reality we all know who the real trailing spouse is.

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