“I don’t know a single expat who didn’t say they weren’t challenged to rethink who they were, what they stood for,” McNulty says. (“Always Beginning Again”, Alison Langley, 2006, FT.com)
While I have never met Yvonne McNulty, I can tell you now, if we were to meet, I would not be contradicting her statement. While I would not declare myself as an exceptionally deep thinker (it almost always gives me a headache), I do know that I have been at times entirely uncomfortable with how others have perceived me since we started our world travels and, more importantly, the realisations that I was forced to concede about myself.
Our first expat assignment was to Singapore when I was 26. I was a relatively young expat and very green. I was thrown into the deep end. Singapore is not a difficult place to live at all. Anyone who has tried it should agree with me. However, my husband did not receive his first pay check until 7 weeks after we arrived as he had narrowly missed the last pay cycle. Granted I didn’t have a heap of friends whom I was meeting for coffee but there were occasions when a little retail therapy would not have hurt.
Crushing boredom seemed unbearable at the time and there were periods where we both felt I might become an olympic swimmer if I spent any more time in the pool. However, that soon paled after I began to meet veteran expats and was able to glimpse the reality of their existence. It wasn’t all bad but it wasn’t all champagne and roses either.
One particular woman unwittingly highlighted the actual dependence I now had on my husband. I am fairly certain that in each country we have lived, if my marriage was to end so too would my right to stay in my country of residence. It definitely was the case in Singapore. Swiftly on the heels of finding out that her husband had been having an affair with a colleague, my friend was told he wished to divorce her and, by the way, you’ll need to pack up and go home … now. She had a job, friends and a life she had carved out for herself that was completely dependent on her relationship to him. To a naive twenty something still in the honeymoon period, it was quite a shock.
Thankfully I was young and naive and usually fairly oblivious to people’s perceptions of me. Having children staved off an actual analysis of self as people could accept that I actually had a role to fulfil. When the kids grew up the illusion came to an end and I was forced to think about who I was, what I did and whether or not I had any justifiable purpose in the world. Not to satisfy myself. No, to satisfy the many people who asked the question, “So, what do you do?” (Note to all people trapped in conversations with your expat colleague’s wife … try rephrasing it. The conversation may continue past her answer.)
So what do I do beyond follow my husband around the globe, setup and pack up each house we live in, settle the kids and help them to establish routines that soften the blow that their previous existence is now dust. That is a bit harsh. That is not how I feel at all. However, it is what I feel when people ask me what I do. It is as if it is impossible to fathom that I have chosen to take on the role of the stabilising influence in our family. I have chosen to be a wife and mother first. To allow my husband the opportunity to follow his dreams and his path on his (or the company’s) timetable. I do not have the privilege of knowing that there will be job opportunities in our next country of residence. Usually there are language and/or visa restrictions that we have to identify prior to actually searching for a job and by the time we have reached this stage I’ll probably be packing again. With five moves in eleven years, that is not as defeatist as it sounds.
In her book, “Diplomatic Baggage: the Adventures of a Trailing Spouse”, Brigid Keenan states “The fact is that no one understands the ex-pat wife’s life, except another ex-pat wife.” Many of the women I have formed bonds with in recent years are ex-pat’s themselves. They may be of the la-di-da variety or their feet may hover a bit closer to the ground. They may be seasoned veterans or new to this lifestyle. They may have spent ten years in one country of be lucky to make two years between moves. The may resent their life or they may be embracing it. I am sure that their sense of self has been adjusted, their confidence levels fluctuated and their care factor rapidly disappearing.