This Is What We Do

I’m smack in the middle of putting together a presentation on women and the effect of professional and social online networks. Except I’m not just writing about women, I’m writing about expat women. I write about expat women a lot. It’s possibly because I’m an expat woman, or maybe it’s that I feel we’re often a misunderstood bunch, but primarily I think it’s because I have an abundance of respect for expat women. For over 15 years, from day one, I have watched in awe while women from all walks of life have got on with the process of creating a new life overseas.

It was about two days after my arrival in Jakarta all those years ago that I met a woman called Karen with a crisp English accent and a welcoming smile in the foyer of the hotel I was staying in. She’d been assigned with the job of collecting me to take me for coffee. We sat together in the back seat of her car, while a driver navigated the Jakarta traffic. I was 5 months pregnant and greener than the grass at Wimbledon. She handed me a basket with some goodies; a directory of where to find almost anything from bed sheets to bbq’s, a list of names to call, a notepad, pens, a scarfe, and confectionary. It was a basket that had been compiled with the forethought of a thousand women who’d come before me. Women who knew my next few months were going to be all about survival. Women who had all had to find a home, get furniture, discover the local supermarket, make friends, buy a car or secure the number of a reliable taxi, find a doctor, and work out how to pay the telephone bill. The basics of life had just become daily missions. What did you do today honey? Oh, I spent the day looking for the post office.

When I thanked Karen for the basket she told me there was no need, it was part of her job. She was a “welcome co-ordinator”. And when I asked if she was paid to do the role she threw her head back and laughed. I gathered quickly the answer was no. I didn’t get it though. I’d come from a world where people were paid for services like this. I knew the company that G worked for at the time was making buckets of money, why didn’t they pay this welcoming organisation? And with the voice of the wisest owl in the expat woods she looked me in the eye and began with a little bit of expat 101.

“Expat women have been doing this for years, we don’t need an organisation. This is what we do.”

She wasn’t doing it for the organisation.

Yesterday I stumbled across a call for help from a woman who had driven with her family from Doha to Muscat for the Eid break. This is a drive which requires crossing the Saudi border, it’s a chance to don your favourite Abaya and hand the driving over to your husband or your brother (because not only are you not allowed to drive, travelling with an ‘outsider’ can be problematic). The holiday was going to plan until her husband broke his leg and now getting the car home was going to be slightly problematic if he couldn’t drive the Saudi leg (pardon the pun) of the journey. I put a call out on the Facebook page of the blog. Within minutes there was a smattering of replies, in hours there were phone numbers, ideas, condolences and possibilities.

This is what we do.

At the end of last week a friend from Amman tagged me in on something on Facebook. I met Alma here in Doha before she’d moved onto Jordan. “You made an appearance in Amman today…” she’d attached a picture of a group of women at an International Women’s Association meeting. They were all looking up at a screen with words, it looked like someone was giving some sort of presentation. It took me a few moments before I realised they were my words. It was the last paragraph from this post.


My reaction was to burst into tears. Pathetic? Maybe. But here’s the thing. Someone reading this post will still be stuck up in the second paragraph where I mentioned Karen had a driver. And because of it they will have decided that she was spoilt, indulged and spent her days being chauffeured like a rock star. It’s the same person that is confounded by your woes of rats in the house, daily power shortages, flooded kitchens, lack of fresh vegetables, and complaints of homesickness, who replies with a “but don’t you have help?”

There are so many perks to this expat life: the travel, the new friends, and the adventure are at the top of the pro list. Along side it in the cons is the dislocation, the feeling of being stranded or somehow adrift while you search for your tribe, that one friend to call. The move is akin to a surgical procedure.  Without anaesthetic a piece of life removed, leaving a scar to feel and an ache for something that was and cannot be. Another time.

I burst into tears because you’re not stuck at paragraph two. You get it, and I can’t tell you how much it means to actually see someone reading my words, as I said to my mother and sister when I forwarded them the pic “My words! Up there on the screen! MY WORDS!!”

We gather, we talk, we help and we welcome. Some of us do it better than others, but we do it.

This is what we do.

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