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Tue, Oct 13, 2009
The Jakarta Post, Asia News Network
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The secret lives of expat wives

The term “expat wife” is laden with even more stereotypes than those that come with that outdated term “housewife”: coffee mornings and tennis clubs, bridge and bazaars, ladies of leisure whose only job is to enjoy the good life. We don’t tend to hear as much about the less glamorous and more challenging tasks that come with the job description, which often requires sacrificing careers, leaving families and friends, and building a new life from scratch, sometimes over and over again, all part and parcel of the commitment to a husband whose job could have transferred him anywhere, anytime.

The move often initially includes common factors such as not being legally able to work, not knowing much, if any, of the local language and having only a few acquaintances to call friends – the combination of which almost always makes the experience both isolating and overwhelming at times. These days, creating and maintaining a blog – a weblog or personal online journal – often proves an ideal solution, a valuable resource that gives those who are far from home for the first time a new way to share their thoughts with family and friends, as well as anyone else out there who might be interested.

“Unlike our husbands, we don’t have a ready-made pool of would-be friends from the office,” says Mrs L, who shares her personal stories about life in Jakarta, as well as practical tips for newcomers, on her blog Confessions of a So-Called Expat Wife. “I spend most of my day talking to a baby and am ever so relieved to have my husband return from work. I don’t spend my days in spas or salons, contrary to popular belief.”

The mother of an irresistibly cute 8-month-old boy and the wife of a man lovingly referred to as “Dear Hubby”, Mrs L refers to herself in her blog as “Mrs Top Monkey”. Her posts are organized according to relevant topics, which can include anything from Family to Relocation, Money Matters to Health, and of course the most popular, Baby.

“I’m Malaysian, married to an Englishman who has dragged me from the familiarity and comforts of Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta,” she introduces herself to new readers. “Well, I did say to him, ‘Darling, I love you and will follow you anywhere.’ So here I am and this is my story.”

In addition to stories of settling into family life in Jakarta, several of her posts offer resources and advice for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

“One of my biggest challenges as an expat wife was finding something meaningful to fill my time,” Mrs L says of her transition from a busy career in marketing, “Then the baby arrived and I found some direction in my life again. ... I thought I would write about my experience so that fellow mums who were moving to Jakarta could get some info. I started getting email from those very people I was writing for, asking about things like the standard of healthcare in Jakarta or if baby food in jars were available, and I’ve tried my best to help them.”

With access to an online community that spans the globe, blogs offer an outlet for many while going through those initial experiences that come with moving to a foreign place, when missing certain familiarities and adjusting to various unknowns. For women who have committed themselves to following their husbands to what may sometimes feel like the edges of the earth, a blog provides a sounding board, a support network, reservoirs of information, access to vicarious experiences and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of community – one that doesn’t require living in the same place because it exists in the world wide web.

“I love blogs of other mums who live in far flung places,” says Jenny, who writes about the experiences of her family of five and their move from Australia to Jakarta in her blog JenJenqld. “We are like-minded souls (not many people are prepared to uproot their family and be a trailing spouse). Reading about the trials and tribulations of others in similar circumstances around the world makes me feel not so isolated.”

Sharing experiences with others often makes it easier to see the lighter side of a situation, and in the case of blogs this goes for both writers and readers.

“Writing about the unfamiliar allows me to see the funny side of things,” says Mrs L, whose sense of humor shines wittily through all her posts. “Plus it gives you things to do in a traffic jam! Instead of fuming about the jam, I’ll be observing the situation so that I can write about it and try to paint a picture of it for my readers.”

Rachel started her blog An Earful from the Ericksons to keep in touch with faraway family and friends, after moving from the Midwest of the United States to the north coast of Papua, where she and her husband run a youth hostel and raise their four children.

“Everything was so different here,” she remembers, after almost three years in Sentani, where they had come with plans to only stay for one. “The heat was unbearable at times, and I didn’t know any of the language so I couldn’t even communicate with my pembantu [housekeepers]. I tried to tell them to, ‘Please feed the cats’, but instead I said, ‘Please eat the cats’. Another time I wanted to say, ‘You can eat’. But instead I said, ‘You eat balls’. I also confused the word roti [bread] with the word mandi [bath] which made for a very confusing sentence! I was frustrated by how unprepared I felt. One way I dealt with this by starting a blog. It allowed me to vent my frustrations, and proclaim my joys.”

What might start out as a way to communicate with friends and family, a memoir, or an online scrapbook for their children to look back on, good blogs quickly become a meeting place that allows perfect strangers to connect on often personal levels.

“When I am having a really hard day and I blog about it, I will often receive letters back from readers encouraging me to not give up,” Rachel continued. “And when I blog about going to the beach or hiking up to the waterfall, people write to me and remind me how lucky I am to be in such a beautiful place.”

We all know what it’s like to receive such reminders, to take a weekend trip to the Thousand Islands and decide that priceless perks like these are worth every single one of the Jakarta traffic jams we’ve sat through. But sometimes it takes being reminded by someone with a fresh perspective for us to remember that hardships are relative, and that most of us, whether we have just moved to Indonesia or have been living here for too many years to remember, are among the world’s privileged.

“What’s more difficult to bear than the traffic jam is witnessing the poverty of some of the people who live in this city,” confesses Mrs L, who has now lived in Jakarta for just over a year. “It’s very sobering to know that they have so little and will probably always never have any more and they live side-by-side with people who have more money than they know what to do with.”

When Amanda moved to Palembang with her husband and 7-month-old son, she started blogging professionally.

“I thought I could make some money and feel useful, but found that I was always forced to blog about topics that I had absolutely no interest in,” she confesses. “When I realized that there were people out there who actually took the time to follow me on a daily basis, I felt that it was betraying them not to blog from my own heart.”

Amanda started her blog, The Milk Bar, as “a place for venting, raving or just mumbling in general”. While documenting personal experiences and observations might often start out as a therapeutic exercise during the new experiences of living in a foreign place, becoming an “expat wife”, or being a new mother, the discovery that people are actually reading brings a sense of responsibility.

“Whenever possible, I try to get people I know to take me to different areas in Palembang just to walk around and talk to the locals,” says Amanda. “My favorite blog topic is sharing what I learn about the everyday life and ordinary people here. So, after a couple of years here, and a couple of years of blogging, I spend a lot less time ranting and instead, I really want to show the world how differently some people live. Sometimes with so little, yet they are proud, happy, resilient and generous.”

For those like Amanda, the opportunity to share these experiences with others can motivate the experiences themselves, to get out there and explore this new place that is, for now, home. For her readers, these posts provide valuable and intimate access to a foreign world that otherwise always seems to feel just out of reach, even if it is just outside their door.

readers' comments
Good for them!
Posted by malinablu on Fri, 16 Oct 2009 at 05:02 AM

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