Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Trailing Spouse is Born!

I am proud to have been a Trailing Spouse (TS) for many a year now. I’ve happily trailed with the Department for International Development, the United Nations and now Habitat for Humanity International, an American non-profit organization serving the world, and all because I have a brilliant wife.

The term “trailing spouse,” was coined by Mary Bralove of the Wall Street Journal in 1981, for the female partners of expatriates in the military, diplomatic, government and private sector who relinquish their own careers in order to pursue their partner’s move abroad. Now that couples are switching roles and reversing gender stereotypes an increasing number of TSs are male. 

Prior to being posted overseas, like many British citizens, I had a Ferrero Rocher image of life as a diplomatic spouse – of Ambassador’s receptions, sparkling company and James Bond intrigue.  It was shattered when I was required to attend an interview at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. 

The vetting officer from the FCO fixed me with a stern eye. Had I ever beaten up my girlfriend (now wife), did I get drunk and start fights in public?

“I have to ask,” he said. “When overseas, diplomats tend to lose their inhibitions. They develop drink problems, physically abuse their wives, get into arguments and start fights at official functions, often causing a scene.”

Hang on, Mr. Interrogator. I am about to suspend my career to follow the better half abroad. I am already worried about what I am going to do with myself for the next 3 years in a foreign environment. I am just the humble boyfriend of a “UK based staff member.” All I know about the traits, values and behaviors of your elite tribe I learned from books and films, not close observation.  

He remained unfazed. “You are a male. And, if you were to beat up your girlfriend, or cause a drunken scene at an official function, you will be immediately recalled to the UK.”

I did not point out to the vetting officer that I would expect no less nor did I so much as hint that he was being sexist, presuming me violent on basis of gender. Instead, I meekly promised to be on best behavior throughout the duration of our first posting to Thailand. As it turned out I was not remotely tempted to pick fights at the British Embassy May Ball or even the Queen Vic, the Embassy’s pub, the ghastliness of which matches its EastEnders original.

During the first days in Bangkok, I received an invitation to a tea party at the flat of the Community Liaison Officer (CLO), one of whose main functions is to help new arrivals settle into post. I duly turned up at the appointed hour. There were a dozen female spouses, most of whom had been in Thailand quite a while, and me. They were dowdy in denim. I was cute in chinos.

After some slightly stilted small talk about apartments near the Embassy (with pool, gym and tennis court paid for by you, dear British taxpayers), thieving maids (one spouse had gone through seven in two years), and Thai women (universally dismissed as “slags” and “bar girls”) came the interview.

“What does your partner do?” I was the only person in the room to be asked that question. What did I do back home in England? I was a journalist. Shock flared up instantly in every eye. I was later to learn that civil servants, their spouses, and all their remaining servants, universally loathe and mistrust all members of the UK press. 

Would I be working in Bangkok? The options open to a trailing spouse were limited. Teach English “on an unofficial basis” to the natives. Work within the diplomatic mission at the “British Embassy Purchasing Group” (selling plonk and Marmite at the Commissary). Or renew passports in the Consular Section for “sexpats, drunks, drug addicts and tax dodgers” (the 50,000 non-official British community in Thailand), for a “locally engaged rate,” (not the UK minimum wage even though the Embassy is UK territory).  

It was a gloomy picture. Positions for trailing spouses in the local economy were even more limited and salaries even lower. Some TSs refuse to work altogether as you have to give up your diplomatic passport and all the privileges that go with it. Stuff that, I thought, deciding to lie around the swimming pool and go Thai Boxing until I had a better idea.

Back at the CLO’s tea party, I asked about their husbands. None of them said they would let their man out into the Bangkok night on his own. The temptation of massage parlors, strip clubs, girly bars and ping-pong shows was just too great.  Or so they feared. If it was a night out watching an England game, in one of the British themed pubs of the capital, then that was OK. Sort of. 

Surely the spouses of the British Embassy in Bangkok could not all be racist, sexist, little Englanders, with nothing but contempt for the host culture and not an ounce of trust between them for their husbands? Maybe that was just the signal they were giving to the alien male in their elite company.   

Trailing spouses, diplomatic or otherwise, are almost invariably female. A male TS is an oddity, a freakish phenomenon, an enemy in the camp. Although I officially existed, socially I did not.

Every gathering and function with FCO, DFID, UN officials and the motley crew of local expatriates would, thereafter, become an exercise in tolerance and self-restraint. Men viewed me as a love rival or a parasite, women as a gigolo (and probably one with a Thai mistress on the side). 

People refused to believe that I worked because I worked from home, and wrote. I was cast as the himbo and not the househusband. Supposed friends, even some work colleagues of my wife, made up stories, spread gossip. Bitchy comments would be made when my wife offered to pay my part on a restaurant bill (as couples do), but say nothing when I paid.

The Post Security Manager once asked, "Don't you get tired following your wife round the world and poncing off her?" Another from the Political Section once said to me, "Everyone thinks you're an unemployed guy who lives off the earnings of his wife." I remembered the briefing from the FCO’s vetting officer about not starting fights and rose to nary a word of it.

As a couple we were viewed and identified as “different,” “eccentric,” and “weird.” The men did not consider me equal. The women dismissed me as inferior, unable to earn my keep, unlikely to make a move on them. It hurt. At first. Then I learned to find it funny. If they wanted a himbo, I’d give them David Niven in the role with maybe just a hint of Richard Gere.

Do I lunch, shop and day spa? You bet. I was the first man in history to get his arms waxed at the local salon. Eyebrow threading to keep the Dennis Healey look at bay, and deep cleanse facials (once a week) became routine.  

And let’s not forget the gym, sweeties. Boy, did I go to the gym. Morning PT followed by Thai Boxing down the slaughterhouse district in the afternoon five to six times per week. Thai massage (minus “happy ending”) twice a week to compensate for age and over-exercising. Day in day out, no matter what, Johnny Homemaker’s gotta look good and stay fit for Mrs. Breadwinner.  

With the role came female company, and female problems.  Boozy lunches with lonely ladies, always looking for the male perspective on their love problems, helped settle me into the trophy husband role. This was usually followed by afternoon sessions of even more drinking and bitching back at the flat.  

The expat lonely-hearts club had a healthy membership list. The flirty girl from the Bangkok Post; the teenage supermodel with an acute case of cannabinoid psychosis, the willowy, blonde PhD from Australia doing her thesis on refugee displacement, the American heiress who threw a Christmas tree at me (reader, I promise you, I didn’t throw it back,) the list of lovelies goes on and on.

They all complained about the lack of suitable men (“Bangkok is full of losers”) and how, despite the contempt of most people we knew, they wanted to have a relationship “like you and your wife…how do I get that?”  I listened to their problems and gave counsel. They gave much needed advice on ingrown hairs. There was never any monkey business. I was a heterosexual variation on that well loved social institution, the Gay Best Friend.

Fast-forward ten years, I am still the trailing spouse, still the househusband working from home, still tasked with all the usual chores, picking up dry cleaning for the wife, DIY, washing dishes, garbage detail, etc. This burden was light in Bangkok when we had a maid with a black belt in ironing. But we are in the USA now, sans maid, happily living amongst the gay couples, gun owners and nuclear families of Virginia Highlands, Atlanta.

I try to be Mr. Perfect but no man is.  I am lazy in the kitchen.  And my wife is a better cook than me.  She grumbles (light heartedly, I hope) about cooking for her trophy man after a hard day saving the world from poverty and bad housing.  I show off my pedicure, my six-pack and the three thousand words I wrote that day.  And, just occasionally, we wonder what the trailing spouses of Thailand are bitching about tonight.