Sunday, June 9, 2013

Serial FCO Spousal Abuse

Men make a lot of selfish excuses about not being in a position to take three years out of working life to accompany their wife or partner overseas. They are burdened by the irrational gender constructs of society. And tend not to give up their economic, social and cultural capital.

Well I did. 

I was in my early thirties and in a long-term relationship. Relocation for the wife’s job was just a sabbatical from my own in London. But it was tough. I went from being in a two-career relationship and experienced the themes of the male trailing spouse crisis at first hand; no recognition that I had given up a career, lack of cultural support, inability to maintain social identity in a new environment, reduced self-esteem, alienation from my "friends" and “peers”.  Despite talk in Western Society about gender equality and househusbands, the majority of people are conventional. I was seen as the jobless partner. And tolerated a great deal of sexism from both men and women. I was used, abused, bemused but amused! 

Since the article in The Times I have had bundles of hate mail. Some from people we knew, and people we didn’t.  Ironically, they confirmed every point made in the feature. This one came from an FCO staffer in Bangkok.  “I've got a trailing spouse and he's never experienced what you describe. Your article has conformed to all the clichés and assumptions about civil servants abroad. Who actually do a great job despite your complaints. This is insulting. It's not even well-written. I'm switching off, I suggest others do likewise”.

I got this gem from a former Entry Clearance Officer from the Visa Section. She shouldn’t have mentioned the T word (Tsunami). 

“It’s a shame that you obviously didn’t have the rich and rewarding experience that I and my “trailing (male) spouse” had during my posting to Bangkok from 2000 to 2005. It’s also a shame that by writing this article you have decided to follow the Ferrero Rocher route (yawn - you even mentioned it) that so wrongly labels the people and their families who choose to work for HMG abroad. It’s not a landscape I ever encountered in Bangkok – and I was a frequent visitor to the Embassy after 2005 as I was posted to nearby Hong Kong and returned to Bangkok regularly until 2010 so I was also there when you were - but I guess it makes for a much juicier article. I wonder whether you realise that the CLO and friends whom you denigrate in your article can be easily identified? Or is your arrogance (or ignorance of libel) such that it doesn’t bother you? Just three points:  It’s a great wordbite that the facilities provided at the Embassy are: “pool, gym and tennis court paid for by you, dear British taxpayers”. But do balance it out for your readers to also highlight the various (and not inconsequential) sums awarded to you personally as the partner of an HMG officer overseas: the allowances, the free housing and the fare paid leave journeys (also paid for by you, dear British taxpayers)? You sneer that you could have got a job within the Mission “to renew passports in the Consular Section ….for a “locally engaged rate,” (not the UK minimum wage even though the Embassy is UK territory)”. You miss the critical point that it is a very decent wage by Thai living standards, and that not everyone does a job to get the best pay or to say “look at me”. My spouse worked outside the Mission for over 2 years (on an official basis, giving up his Diplomatic Passport without a “stuff that”) and then moved to the Consular Section as a Pro Consul for the last 2 years of our posting which included the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. He drove down to Phuket that day and stayed for a fortnight, identifying the dead, zipping body bags and comforting relatives. No doubt you’d have been in the journalist pack who came down a few weeks later, ready to blame, ready to sensationalise - and ready to barf all over their i-phones and expense accounts once my husband showed them the reality of the insufficiently cooled morgue. “As a couple we were viewed and identified as “different,” “eccentric,” and “weird”. I’d venture that this might be directly connected to the fact that you were different, eccentric and weird rather than the fact you happened to be a male spouse. And if being a trailing spouse is what’s really beating up your ego, then I wouldn’t worry: your partner’s life in any Mission is going to be so miserable now that her colleagues know you’ll knife them in the back for the sake of good copy, you’d be wise to look for something that makes you the Alpha Male (or should that be Daily Mail?)”

This was my reply:
"I am glad that my article in The Times hit a raw nerve. I am writing about my experiences from a first person perspective. This is my experience, unique to me. You wonder whether I realize that characters mentioned in this article can be easily recognized. You ask whether I am arrogant or just ignorant of UK libel laws. I can assure you, madam, I am neither. The same goes for my boss at The Times. The backlash this article and blog has generated, amongst a certain group of people, is, I venture, their shock at seeing their bad behaviour so exposed. There is nothing in my work that is libellous. So do be careful with your threats. They are unfounded. To your comments about the additional perks paid for by the British taxpayer, please remain a loyal reader of this blog because I will be posting about that in the months to come (you mean as the partner of an HMG officer overseas I was eligible for an allowance? I don't think DFID had that. Damn, I should complain). Local jobs and wages. Let me quote from the DFID SEA Post Report Bangkok (page 20 of 29) Working Spouses and Partners (127) "Although there are opportunities to work within the mission, these are limited and mainly at administrative level. All such jobs are at local rates, which are very low by comparison with UK pay rates." Consequently, I found it more rewarding to continue working for the UK press. Ah, the Tsunami! That Achilles heel of the UK Mission and the default setting of everyone wanting to make out that they somehow have the monopoly on a tragedy! Anyone who was in that region at that time was affected, directly and indirectly, by the events of Dec 26 2004 when hundreds and thousands of people died. This did not seem to register with the embassy. All they cared about was their reputation and it is just not me saying that. We all knew people who died or lost family members. For the record, I was not a member of any press pack. And, in any case, the press is not there to prop up the failings of an ill equipped embassy. I refer you to the National Audit Office report (Nov 30, 2006) on the shortcomings and "selfishness" of the British Embassy in response to the disaster. This quote comes from a survivor in the NAO report: "I suggest we need better trained professional British embassy staff who do not treat the public as idiots and get rid of that superiority. I was very close to changing my nationality, in fact I thought their whole attitude was appalling." Another survivor said, "There was a lack of understanding and almost that we were in the way. They were out of their depth and totally overwhelmed." But of course this does not detract from the good work that your husband did. I was viewed as different, eccentric and weird because I look as if I come from an ethnic minority. Many members of the UK Mission seemed unaware that the UK is a multicultural nation with a Race Relations Act. I lost count how many times I was told that I did not look English. I would have been identifiable had I had worn a yellow star on my shirt. Let me bring your attention to the intro of this blog post, "I am proud to have been a trailing spouse" there's nothing beating at my ego, luv, but I would like to address the other threat you make, that my wife's life would be miserable in another posting. It seems you really are confirming my experiences. You allude that my wife would be shut out by her colleagues. That's not very diplomatic, is it? And on the last point, admit it, what really grates is that The Times asked me to write this article and not The Daily Mail." 

(I forgot to tell her that the only reason I mention, and keep mentioning, the Ferrero Roche Ad is because it pisses off the FCO).

This one came from another anonymous FCO troll, quoting me out of context (she must be from the Visa Section).

“You are right, not all British Embassy spouses are "racist, sexist, little Englanders, with nothing but contempt for the host culture and not an ounce of trust between them for their husbands?", but no one would know that from this drivel. Look around and see the many hard working, volunteering spouses making the most of their time overseas, learning the language, culture and with the greatest of respect for host countries. It is not easy for TSs male or female, the least we can do is help and support each other not 'bitch' as you have so successfully done.”

And this is what I said to the bar girl interrogator:  

“Dear Anonymous, I do not presume that all British Embassy staff are like the ones I met. I would be really worried if they were. However, I feel obliged to explain: I am writing about my experiences. I have been lucky to hear from others who have had nothing but great experiences and have expressed sympathy for what has been a bad one in my case. You are correct. It is not easy for trailing spouses and it would have been nice to have had more help and support from other trailing spouses around me, be they male or female. Unfortunately, as my experience above (and in The Times) has shown, that was not the case. I was also shocked to meet embassy staff and their spouses who deliberately chose not to learn the language or indeed understand the culture around them. If you were to read the articles on the links above, you will see that my assimilation into the host culture was more complete than others.”

We are in the 21st Century. But some of us are still fettered by a Victorian mindset. Men must be the “breadwinner”.  Men cannot give up their “career”.  Men must still be the alpha earner in a relationship, and so on.  What bunkum. I am proud to be a male trailing spouse. I do not care about clashing against convention. Or my prescribed gender role. That’s your state of false consciousness: not mine. I will continue to live, and work, as I please. And no one will stop me. 
Author exercising his Second Amendment rights with Kel Tec 9mm. Wardrobe by Bombaclat.