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.
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.