It is not easy to uproot one’s life and move to another country. It is especially difficult if one member of the family is moving to a new country for his or her job, and the spouse and children have to go along as “trailing” family members. This problem has been mostly thought of as the issue of the trailing wife, although these days it could instead be a trailing husband.
In my novel, A Wife in Bangkok, I describe a situation that was extremely lonely, unhappy and traumatic for a trailing wife. Indeed, research has shown that more than half of expatriates are at high risk for problems such as anxiety and depression, a rate 2.5 times their US-based counterparts. But it does not need to be that way. Here are some thoughts on how to have a pleasant and an enjoyable and even exciting experience as a trailing spouse.
Learn the Language: If you are on a vacation of a couple of weeks in another country, you might be interacting mostly with hotel staff, tour guides, and shopkeepers who speak English. That works fine. But if you are living in another country and want to feel comfortable moving about and more deeply experience the culture, it is well worth the effort to learn the language. There often are organizations or institutions that offer language training, or you could engage a tutor. You don’t need to be able to engage in a philosophical argument in the country’s language, but it is incredibly helpful to be able to speak in everyday situations.
When I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, I immediately began a 15-week course that met for four hours each weekday to learn the Thai language. That investment made it possible for my family to travel around the countryside without needing guides or translators, and to meet and talk with the many local people we encountered along the way. It also made everyday life much easier to navigate. For example, in most cases I could get a much better price for what I needed to buy by discussing and bargaining with shop owners in their own language. And gave me the ability to solve minor disagreements among people working for us in the house who did not speak English before they blew up into something major.
To work or not to work: In my novel, the wife had to leave a job she loved to follow her husband to Thailand. That also was my situation when we moved there for my husband’s job. In today’s world it is possible for some people to continue working at their U.S. jobs no matter where they are. There are upsides and downsides to that. Staying connected to your work can give a sense of accomplishment and provide continued interaction with your colleagues. It can prevent your life from coming to a full stop because of the move. But continuing to work full time at your customary job can close off opportunities to get to know the country you are living in and participate in its life. Depending on where in the world you are and the nature of your job, the time differences may mean that you are, for example, working through the dinner hour and into the late evening.
I had this experience a few years ago – not when we lived in Thailand, which was before the time when remote work was possible – but on a month-long trip to Jerusalem, Israel that was supposed to be a vacation from my work. I was taking a class in the mornings and had planned to do volunteer work in the afternoons so I could be more immersed in the life there and improve the fluency of my Hebrew language. Then I received a message from the head of the non-profit policy organization where I worked that an important fund-raising opportunity had come up and we needed to prepare a complicated presentation to give just at the time I planned to return from my “vacation.” I had to take the lead in assuring that it got done. So I took my class in the mornings when Washington, DC was still asleep (Israel is 7 hours ahead of Eastern time), and then worked in the afternoons and evenings. Volunteering wasn’t possible, and neither were leisurely dinners with family and friends. This experience made me think back and realize what I would have missed out on if I had been working in Thailand. But if you have a portable occupation, such as teaching, part-time work in the country at an American or International organization can be ideal.
Connect: It is extremely important to find communities in which you feel comfortable within the country. For some, it will be a religious community. In most places in the world where expatriates find themselves, it is possible to find churches, synagogues, and mosques. Even if these are somewhat different from the ones you are accustomed to attend, give it a try. It is one of the best ways to be welcomed and find friends. If religion is not for you, there may be an association for spouses of Americans who are working in the country that conducts volunteer activities, or other possibilities for volunteering at a museum, a cultural institution, or a school. If you play bridge or play a musical instrument, you can use these or other hobbies to find like-minded people with whom to associate, maybe even with locals rather than exclusively expats. If you have children in school, meeting other parents through play dates for the kids can help. And in some countries, there may be volunteer opportunities related to wildlife protection. Community can be the key to keeping busy and feeling good about your life.
Travel: Take every opportunity to travel – with your spouse, with a new friend, or with a group that takes trips around the country. Try to do more than just hit the tourist spots. You can buy some detailed guides to the country, talk to other people about where they have been, and look for groups with which to travel that are specialized in different areas such as viewing art or hiking. You can write a blog about where you have been, which helps keep in touch with friends and relatives back home.
As mentioned above, the success and enjoyability of travel often hinges on knowing the language or traveling with someone who does know the language. Traveling by train in middle of Italy recently with my husband – neither of us knowing any Italian – a conductor came up to us to say we were liable for a large fine because we hadn’t put our ticket into a machine in the station corridor to have it stamped before boarding. The signage by the machines had been in Italian, and we had no idea that we were supposed to do that. We got away with a warning, but the situation could have had a worse ending.
Entertain generously: A large part of expat life is entertaining people at receptions and dinners and being entertained by others. If you are overseas on a diplomatic assignment, entertaining will probably be part of your family’s job – with the trailing spouse often required to make all the arrangements. If you are overseas because your spouse is with a company or a nonprofit, or as a junior diplomat not expected to provide official entertainment, you will have to make more of an effort to figure out whom to invite. You may be able to entertain people associated with your spouse’s work. If you are actively trying to connect with people and groups in the country, you will likely find some people who seem compatible and you can get their contact information. Don’t wait to find perfect friends; just invite people you meet. The more you entertain the more you will be invited. You will meet new people at someone else’s reception or table, and over time find good friends.
Iris Mitlin Lav is the author of the novel A Wife in Bangkok to be published in September, 2020 by She Writes Press.
Some of this advice could also apply to someone moving to a new city in the United States. But I’d argue that it is more important when moving to a place with a different culture and language. Hopefully, these thoughts will help you have a great experience.
About Iris Mitlin Lav
Iris Mitlin Lav grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. She moved to Washington, DC, with her husband in 1969, where they raised three children. She is retired from a long, award-winning career of policy analysis and management with an emphasis on improving policies for low- and moderate-income families. She has traveled extensively in the US and abroad, and she lived in Thailand for two years in the 1970s. She and her husband now live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with Mango, their goldendoodle, and with grandchildren nearby.