Changing Places, Changing Faces


Changing Places, Changing Faces

Re-examining the Definition of an Expat Family

By Apple Gidley

Global Living – Issue 11 | March/April 2014

Much has been written about the ‘expat bubble’ – that rarefied space inhabited by some expatriates, the ones for whom nothing is ever quite right, or quite the same as dear old ‘home’. The reality is, like most things, a great deal more complex.

To leave all one knows as familiar is difficult – more so for some than others. But, again, like most things, it is the attitude with which one travels that determines the success of the global experience. Roadblocks are naturally encountered in life no matter where we live but can be exacerbated when family support is an ocean away. Now spare a thought for those dealing with similar issues but who are not part of the recognized – by many organizations and indeed countries – family makeup.

With changing demographics in many developed countries becoming more readily accepted, it would be easy to fall into an assumption that the world in general was becoming more tolerant. ‘Love conquers all’, however, is an adage, which does not always hold true – sometimes with sad consequences for the families involved. Religion and cultures mix unevenly, if at all, in many countries with an outlawed, and outdated, belief in who is allowed to love whom. What is now accepted in Britain may not be in Singapore, where homosexuality laws, for example, are still mired in those of a colonial past.

Should organizations sending employees abroad take into account lifestyle choices? There are a number of schools of thought on this – one stating that change can only be wrought from within; another which attests that respect should be given to a country’s mores and religious beliefs; another being flat-out denial, as when, prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Mayor of Sochi, referring to those in the LGBT community, declared on BBC’s Panorama program, “We do not have them in our city.”

The decision in 2013 by the U.S. State Department to appoint Wally Brewster, who is gay, as ambassador to the Dominican Republic created headlines in both countries, questioning the diplomacy and possible effectiveness of Brewster’s time in post, when his lifestyle choice was taking center stage. Objections were overruled, and the ambassador and his partner are now in Santa Domingo. As Judy Rickatson, long involved with the Families in Global Transition organization, said about living in a Middle Eastern country, “[Homosexuality] was never acknowledged, not even hinted at. The closet door is not just closed; it’s been wallpapered over. It is terribly nerve-wracking, and not a risk worth taking for Western expats who usually cope by keeping their heads down and flying below the radar until it’s time to leave.”

Human resource professionals are quick to quote non-discrimination policies regardless of where they send personnel; however, the reality does not always merge with utopia. “Primary focus should of course be the skills and requirements of the job to be filled,” says one HR specialist. “Realistically, the process of selecting employees for expatriate assignments involves a mutual decision by the company and the selected employee, and both would give consideration to a wide range of factors.”

Wayne Trimble, a senior business development manager who is in a committed same-sex relationship, poses a pragmatic belief: “If any country has an issue with an appointee with an alternative lifestyle, then I believe notice should be taken. In any industry, if your customer does not like their ‘rep’, perhaps you should consider assigning someone else with whom the client can build a strong rapport, so that you do not lose the business.”

The decision to expatriate for many couples is now often based around the possibility that the accompanying spouse, whether male or female, may not be able to find employment in the new host country. Loss of income could be a factor despite expatriate uplifts; however, loss of identity is often a far bigger driver – the ‘what-will-define-me-now’ syndrome. If that hurdle can be surmounted, the accompanying spouse often realizes dreams that, before expatriation, had been in the distance, having the time to pursue an activity, or a business venture, or just spending more time with the children.

According to the latest report from Brookfield Global Relocation Services, over 20% of overseas assignments are now held by women, which shines the light on the often under-supported male accompanying spouse. Attitudes towards stay-at-home men, whether looking after children or pursuing other activities, are not always forgiving from either the host country or, sadly, expatriate wives who are not able to pigeon-hole them. Despite international groups often proclaiming openness to men and women, the reality can be very different. Women are often more emotional when discussing the lows of expatriation – missing their career, family, an often-absent spouse – which in turn can make the lone male in the group uncomfortable. Men in a similar situation tend to shrug off or bury their feelings, perhaps only allowing them to surface in an all-male environment with others in the same situation, hence the popularity of groups like STUDS (Spouses Traveling Under Duress Successfully) in Belgium and London.

Families are complicated, of course. Split-family assignments are sometimes necessary if, for example, a child needs to finish a school year at one post before moving to the next. Blended families on assignment add another dimension, with child-rearing issues playing a pivotal role. Single parenting is undoubtedly hard. Add an overseas assignment to the mix, and logistical planning goes to a whole new level, particularly if travel is required for work. Despite the possibility of home help, a deeper level of trust is often required and, when there is no grandparent or sibling readily available to fill the breach, life takes on an even greater complexity.

It is vital, then, if an overseas assignment is to be successful, that sponsoring organizations take into account the changing family dynamics, both at home and abroad. Another HR professional pointed out, “Good policy shouldn’t tie the corporation but should allow flexibility.” The same professional also suggested that “marginalized groups have already proved their adaptability”, and so arguably would show the same resilience abroad.

Perhaps some of us living in that ‘expat bubble’ would do well to pierce it, and set about living in the true reality around us wherever we are in the world.


Apple Gidley, a freelance writer and author of Expat Life Slice by Slice has traveled extensively and is a seasoned expatriate, having started her nomadic life at a month old in West Africa.  She has lived and worked in Nigeria, England, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Papua New Guinea, The Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Scotland, Equatorial Guinea and the USA.  Apple currently lives in Houston, Texas. Read her blog at www.my.telegraph.co.uk/applegidleyor visit her website at www.expatapple.com.

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