about us     |        contribute      |       site map       |     disclaimer      |      advertise

By Kirsty Rice

This article was first published in the blog 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagleThe author is a seasoned expat who carries with her a significant entourage (as the title suggests!) and has a varied selection of assignments under her belt, including Libya.   Subscribers to her blog will want to laugh and cry with her as she articulates the expat experience for all its highs and lows.

The expat wife has a terrible reputation: gin swilling, lazy, diamond dripping, drunk by lunch time, double kissing, designer handbag owning … Do I need to go on?

Of course, now that it's 2010 they're no longer called expat wives, they're ‘trailing spouses’. Yep, thanks for that, I feel so much better now. I love the visual of me trailing behind my husband, hunched over and waiting for direction. Maybe we'll forget about the title.

So, who and what is she?

In my experience she's like any other woman; 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 or not they were going to take ‘the job’ overseas. In our case, I was eight weeks pregnant when that conversation came. We did the maths and it seemed impractical to turn the job down. The salary my husband was offered was nearly the same as our two salaries in Australia, our worries of affordable child care and negotiating maternity leave arrangements would be non existent, and it just seemed to make sense to go.

My husband Greg was an expat child and 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. As for me, I simply envisaged two years in Indonesia to save some money, enjoy the experience, then come  back home. I didn't resign from work, but took a leave of absence. Even 11 years later 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 Greg went off to his first day at the office, I sat in our hotel room looking out over the grey city skyline, while all logic and practicality had 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 a role where my whole existence appeared to be being Mrs Greg. In fact, that's what the staff at the hotel called me, Mrs Greg! 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, with 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 and they had a pretty good idea what was going through my mind.

When I started to spend time with them I realized that it doesn't matter whether you're a hippy or a conservative, or even how old you are. Surely anyone would be amused by 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. They laughed about their language disasters, rats in their drier 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 as ‘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 known for only 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 and 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’s in China, she'll come round.

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

    * Is the milk OK to drink?
    * Do you have a good doctor, mechanic, dentist, physio, etc?
    * Can you draw me a map to the school?
    * Where do I buy a decent bra?
    * What sort of cab should I get into?
    * Do they have Napisan here?
    * Why is there a sign saying ‘this meat does not contain traces of mad cow disease’ in the supermarket?
    * Why can't I find tampons?
    * Where can I find a maths 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 have 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.

First published in November 2010 on 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle.  Republished with permission in December 2010.

> back to feature



Published Dec 2010