The Expat Woman

kirst-header.jpgIf you’ve seen the French and Saunders skit of the two expat women who can barely get off their chairs to pour their gin, you would have to agree that expat women have a pretty terrible reputation. It’s obvious with their cushy lives that they spend their days playing golf while dripping in diamonds, surrounded by staff who fulfil their needs. “In my next life I’m coming back as an expat wife” G’s first boss in Jakarta told me, my smile remained fixed while his colleagues laughed and nodded in agreement.

Of course now that it’s 2014 they’re no longer called expat wives, they’re “trailing spouses,” yes, thanks for that, I feel so much better now. I love the visual of me trailing behind G, hunched over and waiting for direction.

So, who is this mythical expat woman and what is she?

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 8 weeks pregnant when that 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 2 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 5 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 8, 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 husband is in China, she’ll be there.

An expat woman 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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  1. That’s the ticket. Spot on. Trailing and returning spouses, expats and repats. Repats forming a slightly different category depending on where they end up returning to.

  2. Yep yep yep
    We also started with one 2 year contract.
    Its been nearly 8 years now and our 4th adventure is only one year in. Who knows where/when Adventure 5 will happen but it will.
    I detest ‘trailing spouse’ and all the perceptions were hit with.
    I WISH even half of them were true and that we have an opportunity to live that life on a gig.
    Love the attitude ‘I’ll have her she’s mine’ it goes well with my girl-dating scenario.

  3. This is all resonates and still so raw for me… 6 months in and I’m still not the ‘chameleon’ I committed myself to being, and gosh do I hope the tears stop soon.
    I’m sure it will get better, I find reassurance in your posts and your readers’ comments.

  4. sunnydebruyn says

    Loved this! And bizarre timing – I just wrote a post on my blog titled ‘I’m not an expat’… first time expat in Singapore. 7 weeks in. Desperately wishing I wasn’t here and was home in Sydney! Thanks for writing such a lovely piece – made me laugh, and feel a little bit stronger.

    • Debbie Newton Jeffrey says

      Me too, Sunny. 9 weeks in, Jakarta. I hate that “trailing spouse” tag, , and the “housewife” one (I nearly vomitted when they wrote that on my bank form) & the “expat” one.

      • sunnydebruyn says

        Oh Debbie, how awful is it!!!! I feel like I’ve been reduced to some pathetic 1950s housewife with no identity! Thankfully I’ve met plenty of other ‘just an expat’ wives since I’ve arrived who are all fabulous and have kept me sane (barely). Check out my blog if you want a laugh (mainly at my expense..) Everyone keeps telling me it gets easier and I’ll simply love it here. I sure hope so. In the meantime, there’s wine…

  5. Not even 2 months in… I cried when I read this. And yes, I’m showing MY trailing spouse how things work!

  6. I just love this so much!! Especially, “they had all been the woman in the hotel room” and “A lifelong friendship can be made in a moment, over the death of a family member or a terrifying health scare for a child.” Check. Check. And check! Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is a great post Kristy, I love it. Still laughing about your poor friend pooing in her handbag……probably shouldn’t laugh but it is funny. It was so great to meet you at the QT.

  8. You sure have a way with describing what we have all felt. Spot on! I loved the last line about who the real trailing spouse is. Truly a great feeling to go from unsure to bold and be that person showing your spouse here and there. It led to an incredible experience for us.

  9. thank you. I’m about to move to Dakar after 6 years in NYC (I’m American). We lived in East Africa previously (and I did love it, but….) so I know what I”m in for. I haven’t stopped crying for 2 weeks… I’ll be back to this blog often.

  10. Home is where the heart is says

    I think “Trailing Talent” is the way to go… let’s emphasize what we gave up to be here!
    And our current post hit me really hard. I find the first year I was in a state of mourning for what we’d left behind (friends, family, my identity). After a year of solid depression, it mostly went away for no particular reason…. I think “mourning” is a good way to look at it, because we know it will end, and we know when we leave we’ll have had a really good time and miss the place.

  11. Very well written! I can relate as a “Trailing Spouse,” though of course won’t ever be pregnant. The first six months turned me upside down, but now four years later I feel I have a pretty good handle on things. I continue to baffle embassy staff by not applying for embassy jobs, instead deciding that guiding my kids as a stay at home dad is the better way to go.

  12. This article touched me deeply. I am currently the woman in the hotel room, one week in. Thank you!

  13. great post! I’ve got 4 kids too, lived in 5 different countries (including jakarta!) and always feel lost the first months..

  14. boom! what a great ending to a great piece!!!!! i have been trailing my spouse for going on 4 years and have enjoyed finding my own path through not traditionally working. Sometimes they call Husband, Mr. My-Last-Name and i secretly (and then not so secretly) love it. I’ve been writing about my expat life on a few different blogs and am soooooo excited to read more of yours!!!


  1. […] 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. […]

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