The Male Trailing Spouse keeps himself busy at a salon in Atlanta
I am at a tea party in Bangkok surrounded by embassy wives, enjoying, nostalgically, a cucumber sandwich. As we small talk about apartments near the British Embassy (with pool, gym and tennis court paid for by you, dear British taxpayers), the best personal trainers and the abhorrence of thieving maids, I try my hardest to pass as one of the women. I am the cuckoo in the nest, the only male, one of a rare but growing new breed of expat husbands.
Wives moving abroad to their husband's career is as old as the diplomatic service itself. Trailing male spouses, on the other hand, has been an almost unheard of phenomenon, but the past decade has seen a huge explosion of us. Today, 20% of expatriate employees are female with a male spouse. Because I have a brilliant wife whose mission is to save the world from poverty and bad housing, I have been a STUD (Spouse Trailing Under Duress) since Oct 2003, when my wife and I relocated from London to Bangkok with the Department for International Development.
Undated postcard of Queen Victoria memorial (since moved) British Embassy.
It certainly felt like I was one of the first expat husbands, and among the diplomatic community in Thailand's capital city, where we spent 9 years before relocating to Atlanta, I was an anomaly. Before being posted overseas, I had a Ferrero Roche image of life as a diplomatic spouse -- one of ambassador's receptions, sparkling company and James Bond intrigue. Unfortunately, the British Embassy in Bangkok turned out to be more like a dysfunctional version of Downton Abbey.
The class warfare and bureaucratic snobbery was perfectly encapsulated by the unofficial nicknames the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) gave each other: "Dumb Fuckers in Dungarees" for DFID, and "Fucking Cunts Overseas" for the FCO.
“Never get mixed up in a Welsh wrangle.” (Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh).
Life at the UK Mission resembled a daytime soap opera. The ambassador's son who came backpacking and never left; the love-starved personal assistants on the hunt for Mr. Right in the wrong city; the DFID spouse who saw conspiracies against herself everywhere; drunken diplomats squaring up at pool parties and official functions. It was a far cry from the ambassador's receptions in those perennial Nineties ads.
Male Trailing Spouse and the Contessa (my wife)
In the time warp of expat social norms I soon realised I was regarded as a freakish phenomenon, an enemy in the camp. At the British Embassy May Ball soon after we arrived, a chap from the Political Section of the FCO disclosed: "Everyone thinks you're an unemployed guy who lives off the earnings of his wife." The Post Security Manager once inquired, over ullaged champagne and vol-au-vents: "Don't you get tired following your wife round the world and poncing off her?"
It was a sudden loss of social identity. There was no recognition that I had given up a job and a life to follow the better half abroad. The message was clear: I was a himbo, I couldn't earn my keep. Every gathering and function with FCO, DFID and UN officials became an exercise in self-restraint.
Fag Break: UK Embassy May Ball 2007
As much as I wanted to point out their boorish 1950s sexism and that their wives hadn't lifted anything heavier than Hello! in years and nobody had batted an eyelid (and are you really OK that she's bonking the tennis instructor?), I kept my mouth shut. When faced with discourteous and drunken diplomats, a trailing spouse must be diplomatic at all times.
The Servants' Entrance, British Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand.
The fact is, employment options open to a trailing spouse are limited. The embassy housewives gave me the brief. Teach english "on an unofficial basis" to the natives. Work within the diplomatic mission selling plonk, Marmite and Angel Delight at the commissary. Or renew passports in the Consular Section for "sexpats, drunks, drug addicts and tax dodgers" (that's the 50,000 non-official British community in Thailand) for a "locally engaged rate" (less than UK minimum wage even though the Embassy is UK territory).
Doris Day and David Niven
90% of all spouses are forced to relinquish their own careers in order to pursue their partner's move abroad, according to a 2008 study by the Permits Foundation. Only 12% of those find a new job, even though 75% of those surveyed would like to work, according to a 2010 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services. That worklessness is doubly hard when you are a man. Was I emasculated? All the bloody time. It hurt, at first. Then I learnt to find it funny. If they wanted a himbo, I decided I'd give them David Niven all rolled up with just a hint of Richard Gere.
Richard Gere in action
Instead of scrabbling about trying to find a job that might pay me £3 a day (the Thai minimum wage), I wrote articles for UK newspapers and magazines and became the happy househusband charged with all the usual housewife chores: picking up dry cleaning for the wife, washing dishes, cooking, taking out the rubbish, etc. But this burden was light in Bangkok when we had a mae baan (housemaid) with a black belt in ironing. So I dedicated leisurely time to more traditional expat wifely pursuits.
The cliche holds that an expat wife is a pampered, bored female who fills her days with the spa, shopping, and chardonnay-soaked lunches. Sometimes a cliche exists for a reason. And since one dedicated to stereotyping expat husbands has yet to develop, I took up the female one with relish.
In the sports press (far right) down Rompo Gym
I was the first man in history to get his arms waxed at the local salon in Bangkok. Weekly pedicures and deep-cleanse facials became routine. And let's not forget the gym. Morning's were spent with Fat Nick, my personal trainer, followed by Thai boxing in the afternoon. I indulged in a Thai massage (minus "happy ending") twice a week to compensate for middle age and overexercising.
Long lunches became the highlight of my day. Since my companions were invariably women, many looking for the male perspective on their love sagas, I became an expert at navigating the choppy sea of female troubles. The expat lonely hearts club had a healthy (and eccentric) membership list.
Male Trailing Spouse + Blonde.
The flirty girl from the Bangkok Post; the teenage supermodel with an accute case of cannabinoid psychosis; the willowy, blonde PhD from Australia doing her thesis on refugee displacement; the American heiress who, high on a tabloid combo of drink, drugs and antidepressants, threw a mini Christmas tree at me (reader, I promise you I didn't throw it back) -- the list of lovelies goes on. I listened to their problems and gave counsel. They gave much-needed advice on ingrown hairs.
Brunette: The American Heiress.
Redhead: The Teenage Supermodel
Once I accepted the limitations of my gilded cage I came to love it. This way of life suits me, the itinerant writer, and my breadwinning wife. Although I am yet to be offered a gold-foil wrapped hazelnut bite, I wouldn't swap my status as a STUD. Give it 20 years and expat gender norms may even have caught up with the motherland.
Until then, when in ambassadorial company, I'll keep my opinions on the best day spa in town to myself.
(This article was originally published in the London Times, April 29th, 2013).