Expat World – it’s very weird

“Where do you go for a new tyre on a golf cart?”

This was one of the questions posed on a local expat forum last week. Nothing wrong with that at all, and people started adding thoughtful replies and suggestions. Hopefully whoever posted the original comment soon had her new tyre and her golfcart was once more back on the road…errr, green….

But occasionally when I see comments like this I stop and think what an absurd world we live in. Back home, how many of us would ever ask where we would need to replace a tyre on a golf cart on anything but a specialist golf forum? And how many more of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid when we saw such a question posed? Yes, it is a weird world we live in.

Many people call it the “expat bubble”, although really, given all the debate there is over the word “expat” and how it differentiates from the word “immigrant” or “migrant”, I think it is more about a certain type of expat bubble. Really, this is the bubble of those of us lucky enough to be posted on corporate or government packages which include housing and schools, and to countries in which we are able to afford to do things like play golf all day. The down-side to this, of course, is that we often also can’t work – finding a job as an expat partner in many of these countries is downright difficult thanks to the local labour market or things like visa restrictions. Hence the need to find things to do – like play golf. So long as our tyre isn’t busted!

As I read the question about the golf cart tyre I was reminded of the chapter I wrote for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide about domestic staff. The chapter starts with a discussion on a parenting forum between women living in a country like Singapore or Hong Kong, where having a full-time nanny is normal. They talk about whether it is better to have a live-in or a live-out. Had the discussion been kept just to those expats who had experienced this way of life then it would all have been fine. As it was, they were interupted by others – others who had only ever lived in countries where in order to have a live-in nanny you would have had to be married to a hedge-funder. Or be a hedge-funder yourself. Or both.

Children and their nany - 1924

Children and their nanny – 1924

It wasn’t a bad-natured exchange between the different groups of women but it did show the original group up for what they were – immensely privileged women living in a world where everyone else was in exactly the same situation so they possibly forgot how unusual their circumstances were. Not to say we don’t all appreciate our lives as expats  – it’s hard not to when you pass men literally on their knees begging for a bit of food for a few rand at traffic lights every day. Or you donate some scuffed old shoes to your helper who tells you she will give them to the school where her granddaughter goes because there are children at the school with no shoes at all.

So it’s not that we aren’t aware or that we aren’t grateful but I do think sometimes we forget how weird it all is. That it’s normal that every single other expat I have met here has a swimming pool in their garden. That we book safari weekends away in the same way that we would book a shopping trip to London back home. And that asking about a new tyre for our golf cart is as normal as asking about where to get the half price offer on cocoa pops.

Yes, it’s a weird world we live in. But a rather wonderful one as well.

(Nanny picture: Robert of Fairfax)

4 thoughts on “Expat World – it’s very weird

  1. Great article, I remember when I first moved to SA I was adamant not to have a “helper /slave” work in our home. My husband kindly pointed out that the lady that currently lived there would become homeless and unemployed and was supporting her family and wider community back at home.
    Over the past 5 years, we employed her and her friends (that also didn’t have work) they have become part of our family. One of the joys of expat life is the constant challenge and provoking your way of thinking, to see things through a different lens. It is still really weird for our friends and family that come to visit.

    Always refreshing to remind ourselves of the bubble, I guess all we can do as expats is make the best of our time we have, and act in a loving, respectful and kind way to those we meet, in the hope that our actions will continue to provide new opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Hannah – I wonder how many people think like you before they go somewhere, until they realise how devastating it is to someone not to employ them? Personally, if we can afford it, I feel we almost have a DUTY to have staff – so many of them, like your helper, support so many others as well as themselves from their salary. It all comes down to how you treat them and how you perceive the job they do. My helper Sanna is MUCH better at doing what she does than I am so I am more than happy to pay her to do it while I get on with my own work. When you start to think about it, it’s no different from paying someone in an office to do the filing and photocopying while you write a report, or to paying someone to design your book cover or paying someone to make furniture for you…..


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