the perception of privilege: a look inside the expat bubble

Privilege: The idea for this piece came to me at a glamorous party in London a few weekends ago. Is what you see what you get? 

My husband’s younger cousin visited us recently from Montreal.  Last week he accompanied me to the collect the kids from school. Security guards waved my car through the parking gates. I parked directly opposite the tennis courts.  We got out and walked through a courtyard with a simple but pretty fountain surrounded by a cluster of quaint, red-brick buildings– designed to be in keeping with the original 16th century tudor architecture.

The mood was jovial yet industrious. Groundskeepers were busy clipping hedges. Staff members stood under brick archways and nodded to us politely. Kids in school uniform sat on benches outside reviewing notes or could be seen through French doors to their classrooms—open for the first time this season.

We walked across the road to the other side of campus. Here the architecture seamlessly transitions to that of 18th century Georgian mansions. I led him  around the imposing main building and out to the back terrace which overlooks green fields stretching far into the horizon.

Since my family is now wrapping up our fourth year here in England, I no longer pay much attention to these surroundings. His cousin, however, was awestruck.

“Um, Cat, sorry to interrupt you but OMG, where are we?! This school is …. WOW!! Do your kids have any idea that a school like this is not normal? Do they have any idea what a ‘normal’ school even looks like? Actually, do they even know what ‘normal’ is?!”

We’ve had a long, cold winter and for many months now I’ve repeated that all my life I’ve labored under the false pretense that Hell was a hot, fiery place. It’s not. It’s cold and rainy and miserable. And for the better part of this academic year, Hell has been RIGHT HERE in England.

But his statement made me look again. As if on cue, swans appeared and glided across the school ground’s ponds a few hundred meters away.

Since the weather at present in England is especially “fine” (am purposely choosing not to make too much of it, lest I jinx things), I can see what he means. Our school looks particularly impressive in the sun. The promise of summer is in the air, staff and students are all smiles and even the parents have more pep in their step. The weather and our collective moods make one helluvah a sales pitch, I’ll give him that.

But he’s referring to something else that is another, albeit abstract component to this expat way of life: privilege.

There. I said it. I’m even hesitant to write this word down: “privilege”— it’s become nothing short of taboo to utter the “P” word, given the current economic climate.

Do my children know what “normal” even means? Do they believe they’re privileged? Now that’s a fascinating question for all expats to consider. In the expat world, what is privilege?

The Package & the Players

For those who aren’t generally familiar with expat perks, let me throw open the kimono on this supposed “privileged life”.

The “Holy Grail” of an expat package is the entirety or a subset of the following: The company foots the bill to move a family from origin to destination. They hire relocation consultants to help them navigate the waters in foreign lands and if there are kids, education advisors to help figure out where to live and school the children. Depending on what’s negotiated, companies may pay for housing, cars, private international schools and private medical insurance.

Some expats live in secure compounds with their own self-contained services (beauty salons, daycares, nationality-specific grocery stores).

Some families get school bus service, country club memberships, a domestic staff, “home leave” flights back to the country of origin, etc.

Does this sound glamorous? It certainly can be. And then sometimes, not necessarily. A friend of mine from high-school whose father held a high-level position at the Canadian embassy in Kenya explained that in the foreign service, there are “hardship posts”- assignments in developing countries that aren’t necessarily secure places to live – hence the “jacked-up” perks.

I stayed with them once in Nairobi when I was a teenager. In the top drawer of every bedroom dresser was something that looked like a remote control with a single red button. My friend’s little brother who was eleven at the time pressed it. Bars came down on every window. The doors were sealed by thick iron walls and the garden was suddenly teeming with security guards brandishing weapons.

As to glamour, many families who are new to the expat game are led to believe that the budgets they’re given are more than ample to lead what they expect will be a life of luxury. They’re shocked when they realize that the “big” money they’ve negotiated will actually get them less than half of what they had back home.

Other families have huge housing, school and car budgets—which their companies may use as leverage to pay them lower salaries.  On the outside they appear to live large. In reality, these families dive into their credit or savings every month just to get by.

I’ve also seen families live very leanly in modest housing. They save a significant percentage of their housing budget while on assignment and then go “BIG” when they’re repatriated.  These are the ones who have the last laugh.

There are of course, those families who fit the classic definition of privileged—but the privileged exist in every society. The expat families I know who fit this category keep a low profile.

Living outside your country of origin is exciting and proposes any number of adventures—the lure of being a permanent tourist for a set amount of time. So regardless of the cost, when families are posted abroad they travel more than they would if they were at home – taking trips at every opportunity to explore the new world around them.

Weekend jaunts to Copenhagen, Prague or Budapest — are pretty standard here (yes, I am aware of how that sounds). Expats living in say, Hong Kong, think nothing of heading to the Boracay Islands for a family trip.

Half-term in the expat bubble is spent in places like Dubai, Tanzania, Madagascar, Sharm el-Sheikh, or Koh Samui. This is what our children see—their very own version of “normal”.

A girlfriend who transferred to London from Singapore once told me that the big banking firm where she worked in HR highlighted two types of expats (there are many types apparently): “those who understand that the expat bubble is just that but appreciate and take advantage of it while they’re abroad (the Realists); and those who pretend and spend a great deal of their time and money trying to convince others that they have always lived like this (the Posers).”

For the Posers, the game of Keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ as an expat has an added layer of “check out who’s checking me out.”

Abroad on assignment, we’re all mixed together and as part of the “speed dating” that takes places in these communities we’re all pretty much astute enough to know who is who. Our kids, however, don’t. Their perspective, very much like the perspective from the outside world on how expats live, is one-dimensional.

Bubbles Will Burst

I mentioned this theme of normalcy and expat privilege to my girlfriend on the train home from London the other day. She says “There has always been privilege, Catherine. This is nothing new.”

True—but the “expat bubble” affords a layer of perks that many of us may not have access to otherwise back at home.

From what I’ve seen, whether you’re expat community (private sector) or expat colony (diplomatic service), when you’re back home, the above-mentioned perks (paid housing, company car, paid schools) come to an abrupt halt.

Abrupt halts… that’s another dark side of this life. When an expat is laid off or his contract is not renewed he/she is SOL (there is no eloquent way of saying this). The company will sometimes pay to repatriate and that’s about it. The work visa is cancelled, the family is here on tourist visas, and often times there is no longer a “home” to return to.

When I first moved here, stories were abound of a group of families who had been transferred with a large telecom company. The contract was supposedly set for several years. After a few months, their “rock-solid” contracts were cancelled. Some of them hadn’t received their containers yet from the States. Several of these families had already sold their houses back home.

How’s that for privilege?

Lost in Translation: This “Luxurious” Life

Most expats know what I’m referring to. Going home is a huge rude awakening from so many perspectives – and not just the reverse culture-shock I referred to in my last essay on expat exoduses.

One commentator on that essay asked me to mention what it’s like to no longer have a house boy, a live-in nanny, driver, cook or bodyguard.

That commentator was essentially highlighting another reality of repatriation– footing the bill for your own life once you’re home. I’m aware that this essay may appear as if I’m describing a very spoiled set with no sense of reality. Not at all.  I’m not trying to elicit pity. In some overseas assignments, these perks are mandatory inclusions. Buying food at the meat market in Nairobi is not for the faint-hearted. Having a bodyguard in Lagos, Nigeria is supposedly a necessity.

My Argentinian girlfriend who was repatriated back to Buenos Aires after diplomatic assignments in New York and Venezuela says the family has had to store most of their furniture until the next posting. “Being home as locals means we live and pay as locals and the huge house with the pool we had in Caracas is now a distant memory.”

And when we head home–whether permanently or just for the summer—back  to our friends and family and talk about all we’ve seen and done and experienced in this particular adaptation of “normal”, it’s as if we speak a different language.  The Realists tone it down. The Posers play it up. Either way, we’re all and often misunderstood.

My girlfriends who have repatriated to New York, California and Colorado mirror what many readers have commented on in my last essay: few, if any people, care to hear about our worldwide experiences. At a certain point being home, you realize that every time you start a sentence with, “When we lived in X…”, eyes start to glaze over or you sense that internal eye-roll and you can almost hear them say,  “Here they go again—bragging about their glamorous, expat lives..”

Glamorous. Hmmm. Try explaining to others that managing a household abroad with kids is just as mundane (oftentimes harder) as anywhere else– with or without help. A common text I get or send throughout the week to girlfriends looks like this: “Dropping the dog at the vet, then groceries, then laundry. Fun times!!”

Shopping paralysis. Another repatriation hazard. When you’re at home, you get asked to push your cart out of the way by annoyed shoppers as you stand in the aisle at your local supermarket and stare and stare and stare at the immense choice of goods that you’re no longer used to. Even though I’m home in the States at least twice a year, I stood paralysed in Target for a good twenty minutes last summer in NY– mesmerized by all the flavors of Gatorade on offer. In England you get Red and Yellow. Is choice a privilege?

Parking in the States is my all-time favorite thing about going home. I marvel at the size of the spaces and the fact that one doesn’t need to negotiate a twenty point turn to slot one’s car into a space the size of tampon. I park and then sit triumphantly for a few minutes just taking it all in – the “privilege” of easy parking.

And what about the family dynamics of being an expat in the process of repatriating? Another commentator who is preparing for her family’s next international assignment asked me to impress upon “that period of separation from your spouse before you move. Last time, it was seven months. This time it’s nine months while he works overseas at the new job and the kids finish out the school year.”

Our closest friends here, who are on the cusp of repatriating to the States, very much find themselves in this same situation. He works out of California during the week but flies across the Atlantic every single weekend to be with his family here in London before flying out again Monday morning back across the ocean. She has played single mom since September and assumes the lion’s share of managing the house, the kids and the dog on her own.

Another woman I recently met who has been an expat for fourteen years tells me that since her husband started his job back in the States, he only gets to see their daughters once a month.

The expat phenomenon of the isolated single parent — going it alone for months on end while the professional nomad in the family brings home the bacon from oceans away. You think it sucks being a single parent in the States? Imagine what it’s like being one in Romania.

What the outsider to this world doesn’t get it is that behind the facade of supposed luxury, we’re just like everyone else, slogging away at jobs that pay the bills. And frankly, it’s not like there’s someone standing at home offering us something better.

Once you choose this life, it continues to choose you.

Privileged families?

It’s absolutely a case of what you see is not necessarily what you get. This life that gives the appearance of the “picture of privilege” is actually a bubble, the “expat bubble”– fragile, precarious and apt to burst at any given moment.

So back to my question: What is privilege? What is normal? Do my children even know what normal is?

The only thing I can assert is that it is perhaps unfair of me to question whether my kids have a sense of normalcy. My own sense of “normal” has become skewed and this expat, for one, can no longer answer that question with authority.

  • Really enjoyed your analysis of the “privileges” of being an expat. On one level, many of us (though not all) live very privileged lives but we often give up some of the things that “normal” people take for granted. Your comments about what happens when contracts are terminated, about security issues etc. are spot on. I find that keeping my kids grounded is a particular challenge as they don’t always understand how very privileged they are – my childhood gave me a very firm grounding in “normal” but this crazy expat life is their “normal”. Thanks for a great article. Evelyn

  • Yes, expats are spoiled when it comes to the benefits that companies afford them. The moving costs, accommodation, education, transport….. and you do get used to it.

    We just moved back home after an almost five year stint in the Middle East, we had forgotten what normal was! The company paid for us to come back home (a quarter of the actual cost), then we had to buy new cars (with petrol prices that are through the roof), a new home, medical, health club membership, schooling (private in South Africa is best – at a cost), school uniforms, furniture to fill that which we had left behind, the cost of staying in a self-catering unit until we had found the home we wanted to buy, the costs just seem to go on and on. It is so important to realise what you are coming back to, to budget and have saved enough to do the move and check that you can afford the same standard of living in your home country on your return. It is not as easy as having the expat benefits, but it is doable. Just plan well.

  • Kay Romer

    Your points are excellent and very similar to my own experiences, except I’ve never been an expat. We’ve just returned to California after 14 years in Colorado, and the state that I thought was my home has changed so drastically it’s become unrecognizable. I’m paying $11,000 a year in property taxes vs. $3500 in Colorado, I’m on a “hello” footing with just three of my neighbors (most don’t speak English well) vs. living on a street with 35 kids who freely went in and out of one another’s homes, and oddly, the choices at the grocery stores here are far more limited than in Colorado. In short, I feel like I live in a foreign country.

    We visited “foreign places” while living in another part of the U.S. We never would have thought of vacationing in Missouri when we were still living in California, but you’ll never find a more beautiful place than Table Rock Lake nestled in the Ozark Mountains. The water is in the 80s, you water ski, float for hours, and just relax far away from the stresses of the world. Our California-born children have been to Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Washington D.C. My older son has also played in baseball tournaments in Oklahoma, Texas, and South Dakota. They never would have seen the first four states had they lived in California their entire lives. Who goes to the American Midwest unless there are relatives there?

    As far as saying “When we lived in XXX,” that applies everywhere. Coloradoans hated hearing me say “When I lived in California…,” and it upset me because I’d lived there my entire life and it was the only source of all my life experiences. I wasn’t comparing the two places, but I learned quickly not to preface my comments with “When I lived in California.” No one wants to hear their beloved place compared to another, so it’s important to temper one’s comments so as to avoid sounding like a snob, regardless of where you came from.

    I remember coming back to California for a visit about six months after we moved to Colorado. I sat on my friend’s sofa and wept at how I couldn’t make friends, everyone hated me because I was from California, and how much I wanted to come home. Well, last summer I got my wish and we went transferred back. We returned to a virtual foreign country that I no longer recognize, and now I feel like the proverbial Man Without a Country. My sons are in high school, and they were devastated to leave the only home they ever knew (they were babies when we moved to CO), and I left some of the best friends I ever had. I’ve had almost eight months of loneliness for friends left behind — something I never imagined would be the case fourteen years ago.

    While we never had our own compound or security staff, sometimes you can be an expat in your own country. I wish we’d had some of the assistance (school help, etc.) you’ve had, but not when we moved to Colorado. Rather, I needed it when we moved back “home.”

  • Jenni

    i never talk about life when I go home, I just got fed up with the brick walls….
    I was once told that my life must be like one long holiday…….

    • Cindy

      i’m still in my expat assignment but even when I do go home I only talk about my experience when someone asks me a specific question and even then I “dumb it down”. Should be interesting in 18 months when I move back permanently. Two friends have already drifted because they think that I think I’m above it all.

  • Garen

    Yes, Romania was a very special treat – 16 years ago!
    Chord struck – again!
    Thanks!

  • Suzy

    A good read Catherine, we are expating the very hard way, we chose to move to the Pyrenees off our own backs, no international schooling for the girls, straight into French school, lots of red tape and hurdles to get through and mark working in the uk all week and then flying home Friday night, Thursday sometimes if we are lucky, and flying back to the uk on sunday night, where he returns to his friends house to stay in a single room sith a single bed, having to cook, wash and iron, most people think we are mad and sometimes I wonder why we chose to do it?But the air is pure and clean, it is a very very non materialistic part of France, it’s predominantly agriculture and farming so lots of luxury tractors etc, beautiful mountains, it’s so like the uk about 50 years ago, they haven’t even heard of Pilates!!!!! The girls are learning another language which is great, very challenging but a good experience, so to summarise I would say we are the un-privelaged expats, but hey, that was our choice and it’s a damm good adventure, and what is normal? I don’t think there is a normal any longer! 🙂

  • Gfj

    Try being a military wife and moving 18 times in 25 years.

  • Dominique

    Your essay read like a “deja-vu” movie of my life 🙂 I have been an expat since 1994 and my children were born in California and in France and have only know international schools in Asia. I am Belgian, married to a Dutch so the kids are tri-lingual with the bilingual stream at school. We live in Shanghai (4 years now) and, on paper, we have a privileged life: paid big house, paid international school, paid school bus, paid health care, gardeners, cleaning lady, company car with driver, etc… Sounds great, right? it is, if you look at it positively but let me detail the priviledges:
    – houses in Belgium can be large too and the real estate there is amongst the lowest in Europe so my friends back home have equally nice places.
    – the public school system in Belgium (or Holland) is very homogeneous and high standards and “private” schools are free. They are just religious oriented so you go there by conviction (except international schools taught in an other language than French or Dutch).
    – Schools are within walking or biking distance most of the time so kids can go on their own from an early age on.
    – Health care back home is one of the best in the world and VERY affordable so no need for expensive health insurance
    – The gardener only brushes the leaves and mows the lawn twice per year. the grass is mostly moss that can’t seem to grow properly and obviously, the plants and flowers that I planted are not part of his job to take care of… He only takes care of the “landlord’s stuff” not mine…
    – cleaning lady. Yes she cleans and does the laundry and irons but she only speaks chinese and my 1 year of chinese classes cannot seem to go very far with her. So I canot tell her much. Their cleaning standards are quite different and I have had to explain to her some very basic things like cleaning the floor with HOT water AND soap and not just COLD water. But her main job, really, is to be in the house when the repair men come to fix something. And that ‘s a full time job right there! Chinese quality in China is worse than anywhere else in the world so there is always something to be fixed over and over again. Mine are TV and Internet. This week, the TV guy is coming back today for the 4th time and it seems totally normal… I will skip the floor heating problems in winter, the mold and the leaks, these seem to be recurrent whatever they try to do…
    – company car and driver. Well, my husband’s company doesn’t allow us to drive in China. Liability is too high… So yes, we have a car with a driver. And yes, it can be nice when he can drive the kids Saturday monring at 8.00 AM at rugby practice or at after-school activities… But we only have 1 car for the family and in a widespread city of 23 million inhabitants, this means a military organization between my husband and myself and other moms of the residents to get every destination covered. Privileged, right?

    I could also go on and on about air quality, food quality and availability, clothing availability (I am 178 cm and size 44/ size 14. Try to find clothes or shoes that fit in a country where the average female size is 1m50 and where size 36/ size 2(?) is considered M or L), etc so the privileged life is only a perception of somebody else’s 🙂

    Keep on writing!

    Dominique

  • Karen Holden

    Loved reading this, it’s so true. I’ve been an expat for 11 years and consider myself a realist. I’m embarrassed to tell people some of the perks we enjoy as a family but I am also sure they don’t understand the hardships we endure. You nailed them all! Thanks for making me feel a little less different today.

  • Sarah hood

    Love this article! 6 countries in 16 years and wouldn’t have changed any of it for anything. There are compromises to make but it is absolutely worth taking the risk and going for it! As far as I’m concerned my children have gained more than they have lost by being expat kids, and that’s really the most important thing. Thanks for being so perceptive; you’ve really summed it all up nicely 🙂

  • S

    Just back from 12 years in the Middle East. We were the “Realists”. We had a great run, put two kids thru school, and college (paid cash), traveled quite a bit, but lived frugally. We saved a great deal in 12 years and we are now enjoying the benefits. Many people joked about us being so “cheap” but it has paid off in the end. Now we keep hearing about how lucky we are that we have so much money. It is very expensive to move back and after 12 years we are pretty much starting from scratch but we planed for that and it’s fine. I don’t know how anyone would make much headway financially by staying any less than 5 years. Knowing what we know now we would have done it again. Happy to be back. Not going out again. Good luck to all.

  • Interesting read-there are ups and downs to being the expat life as in everything else. The downside of it has to be when good friends move…cheers, Jennifer

  • Kelly Mac

    Good post, enjoyed the band-aid post as well, experiencing that right now in Venezuela, just might know your former colleagues! A lot of what you write in this blog seems to infer that the wife is not working – sometimes the wife does work, especially in education, and this is the topic of an entire other blog….just a FYI. 🙂

  • Karola

    You do realise there are expats who are not company sponsored right? We actually live like locals in the foreign country and can’t afford guards, nannys, international private school, and the rest of your company paid benefits so yes, you are privileged by definition.

    • CTZ

      Absolutely. Expats with no benefits, no school allowance, no housing allowance, no home leave, no anything– that was ME when we first started out. I once believed these perks were the “be all and end all” of privileges — hence the term “Holy Grail”. Needless to say, my perspective after all this time has changed. These create merely a “perception”. True privilege in my book? The opportunities and open-mindedness that living abroad affords you. But again, I’m no authority…

  • BillfromNYC

    I think you missed part of the blog – the author does talk about the fact there there is a spectrum of situations for expats. There is no one definition of privileged — she questions the definition itself. Perhaps you too are priviliged by being able to live in a foreign country – it isn’t all about material privilege (as I think the author also alludes to).

  • Jen

    I understand what Karola is trying to say. I am an expat but not on any company sponsored package…they moved us here to the UK and we get a company car but that is it. My kids go to the local state school and I do not live where all the expats live. I am the only American in my village in Berkshire. But I do agree that most of our friends back in the States would say we are privileged. We are exposing our children to a different environment and allowing them to experience all sorts of different cultures through our constant travel to Europe, Africa and throughout England. Which is why we decided to give this a go…experiences over material things are what matter. So I feel we are privileged but not in the way the author indicates.

  • Dr Thom Kleiss

    Catherine congrats with this essay. As I am writing a (most likely) self-published book about our own and others’ expatriation experiences, I wonder if I could take excerpts of the blog into my work, with clear source identification and acknowledgements.
    How can we discuss this?

    • CTZ

      Thank you, Dr. Kleiss, for taking the time to read my piece. I will email you directly with my personal contact information to discuss.
      Kindest regards, Catherine