The Trials & Triumphs of a Male Expat Trailing Spouse

MaleExpatTrailingSpouseThe Trials & Triumphs of a Male Expat Trailing Spouse

By Roy Stevenson

Global Living – Issue 11 | March/April 2014

“Hi Honey, I’m home! Guess what happened at work today? I was offered a job in Singapore.”

From the moment my wife, Linda, said those fateful words, my life was forever changed, and there would never, ever be any going back to my former, comfortable, suburban Seattle life.

Two months later, Linda moved to Singapore while I tidied things up back in Seattle. We put our belongings in storage, I found a property management company to rent out our house, and I took a leave of absence from my job as an instructor at a local technical college.

Singapore idyll

By the time I arrived in Singapore, Linda was settled in our furnished apartment and in her job at an aerospace firm near Changi airport. Our apartment was a short walk from Orchard Road, Singapore’s shopping and commercial hub. I was to get to know this road as well as any street back in Seattle, especially my favorite shops – the massive Kinokuniya bookstore, and the nearby Borders.

At first I missed my job. I was the kingpin of a Personal Trainer program that I’d founded in 1986, so after 16 years of running the show, I was missing it and my students badly. It was a great career and the pay was okay for an educator. I fretted over my program, the students, and anything else that seeped into my mind. I kept in email contact, hanging on from the other side of the world.

A fellow teacher told me that I was feeling a misplaced sense of loyalty to my work, and that I’d have a great time traveling and seeing a lot of exciting places—more than most Americans would get to see in their lifetime. He was right, of course, but first I had to get my head around being footloose and fancy free, and that it was okay to miss what I had left behind.

Early on in Singapore, I was disoriented. Not that there was any reason for this. Singapore is one of the easiest countries in the world to live in and adapt to. The people are highly educated, friendly, and polite, speak good English, and welcome foreigners. It’s so nice, that it’s almost like living among five million boy scouts.

The Singaporean culture is highly westernized with enough Asian influence to be alluring and exotic, yet westernized in a very efficient and comfortable sort of way. And the food selection in Singapore is the best on earth.

Singapore is regarded as an ‘easy ride’ among expats. And, indeed, later when we moved to Brussels, I would look back at Singapore and our easy life there with great memories and fondness.

But in the early days, I wondered what to do with myself. I was lost. We had so much travel planned from Linda’s job all over Asia and the Pacific, plus our own excursions around Southeast Asia, that I did not want – nor need – to work. Traveling along with Linda gave me something to do.

At first I didn’t like being referred to as an ‘expat trailing spouse’. It made me feel like a leech on my wife’s talent. Eventually, I realized this was silly since we were both comfortable with the fact that she’d always earned more than me.

When we weren’t traveling, instead of moping around our lovely apartment and pool, I’d wander around Singapore to see what was interesting. And this was how I found a group that would make my days in Singapore much more enjoyable.

Secret Men’s Business 

I visited the Australia and New Zealand Club office one day, and they told me about SMB (Secret Men’s Business). It was a male-only ‘club’ for expat spouses. We were an eclectic mix of nationalities and ages, with guys from Australia, New Zealand, the U.K, the U.S., Canada, Korea, and anyone else who wanted in. We blended into a fun group. And, believe me, there was nothing secret about our business. Everyone knew what we were up to.

We’d meet every Thursday at Brewerkz Microbrewery and Restaurant on the bank of the Singapore River and have lunch outside under a shade awning to keep the hot tropical sun off our backs. Then we’d create merry hell while consuming copious amounts of beer and playing pool, darts, or just telling each other BS stories.

We often departed Brewerkz—or outlived our welcome there—late at night, dragging our sorry selves back to our wives who, although feigning disappointment at our juvenile antics, were secretly pleased that they’d had a quiet evening to themselves.

We had poker nights and gambled with our wives’ money. Our SMB group, or individuals within, would organize travel outings to places like Johor Bahru, Malaysia’s sin city just across the causeway from Singapore. Here, we’d tour the few attractions this rather seedy place had to offer. Other side trips went all over the Malaysian Peninsula, with small groups of us renting a car. I even took some trips around Malaysia alone, by train, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

My SMB friends lifted my spirits, and I still have friendships with some of these compatriots although we’ve all since repatriated back to our own countries.

Within a year, Linda and I were thoroughly integrated into the Singapore lifestyle. We dined out at this fascinating little city state’s numerous Asian restaurants and food courts: Thai, Malaysian, Nyonya Peranakan, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, you name it. We would also take a taxi out to East Coast Park to dine at our favorite seafood restaurant. And the food was always “cheap and good”, as the taxi drivers liked to say.

We celebrated special occasions by dining at Raffles Hotel, that last marble-tiled bastion of imperial colonial rule, and reveled in it. We often took a double-decker bus to Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts, sitting on the top deck at the front like it was our own private limo. Their orchestra is one of the finest in the world, and we’d sit in front box seats, immersed in their music.

We could tell we were locals when, one night, we had to take an extra layer of clothing with us. The temperature had plummeted to a ‘bone chilling’ 78 degrees F.

Our travel was virtually unlimited, and we visited practically every country in Asia along with a couple jaunts to Australia. My well-thumbed guidebooks practically disintegrated from overuse.

After three years, Linda’s project in Singapore had come to an end. But just as we were packing up to return home, Linda was asked to transfer to Brussels, Belgium. We decided to give it a try, and I, having completely adjusted to being a kept man, trailed along happily.

Culture shock in Belgium 

Belgium was different, and culture shock hit us both. It took some getting used to, especially after the ‘ease’ of Asia. Common things I took for granted, like shopping at the local supermarket, become a major event in my daily life. There was a lot of bureaucracy to get through. And everything took about five times longer to accomplish than we were used to.

On top of that, neither of us spoke French or Flemish, the official languages of Belgium. Reading correspondence in the mail was daunting, given the choice between these two languages. I dusted off my high school French, took lessons through a local Berlitz school, and became conversational in la Francais again.

Fortunately, many Belgian people are multi-lingual and were able to switch to English when we had a problem. But, this was not always the case. Linda often relied on her work colleagues to get us through the language barriers.


Fortunately, before too long I heard about another group of male expat spouses – STUDS (Spouses Traveling Under Duress Successfully).

The STUDS group of guys helped me adjust to the multiple waves of culture shock that rocked me in my first year in Europe. They hailed from the U.K, the U.S., Norway and Denmark, and tended to be an older crowd than my SMB buddies, and most of the time, more sophisticated. These were wine drinkers instead of microbrew beer guzzlers, and their wives held posts with the European Union or large banks. You get the idea.

The STUDS gave me invaluable insider information about tourist attractions in Belgium and around Europe, local restaurants, Belgian administration and laws, driving safely in a county of aggressive drivers, and much more. They commiserated with me when I mentioned (less and less) that I missed my job, helped me deal with European culture shock, and helped me practice my French. And, they understood completely how I was feeling.

Suffice it to say that I struggled through the first year in Belgium. At the end of that first year, we were missing Asia, so we took a trip through Vietnam and revisited our friends in Singapore. Strangely enough, when we got back to Brussels, I felt more at ease. It was like someone had flipped an ‘adjustment’ switch in my head.

From that moment on I loved Europe and its self-imposed difficulties. I learned to accept the bureaucracy. I enjoyed my weekly chats with my local Irish butcher. I chatted in broken French with the Vietnamese fruit and veggie ladies in our local shopping center. Instead of stocking up on groceries because food stores were closed on weekends, however, we found a Sunday market with everything we needed – fresh vegetables, cheeses, herbs, baked goods and much more. My wife and I would trek down the hill to shop every Sunday morning and we looked forward to our outings.

Our travel around Europe was phenomenal. We’d take weekend trips, stay in little 2- and 3-star hotels in Paris (frequented by the locals, not tourists) and take the fast train home on Monday morning. We also explored Belgium’s pretty little country villages.

During the week, while our wives were working, I arranged World War II museum and battlefield tours for any of my STUDS friends who wanted to tag along. In my two years in Europe, I visited more than 300 World War II sites, including a week-long tour of the Normandy D-Day landing beaches and paratroop landing areas and battlefields, plus 19 museums.

I also attended dozens of track and field meets in Europe, including several of the Golden League meets, where I saw a number of world records fall. Bliss!

I led tours around Bastogne where American forces held out against several German armies for two weeks in the Battle of the Bulge. I became an expert on the Napoleonic Wars and led tours around the Waterloo Battlefield.

To top it off, we stayed at castles all over Europe. We roamed the Roman Coliseum and trod where Caesar and Brutus had their falling-out. We traveled constantly on the low cost airlines and flew Ryan Air everywhere we could, enjoying the ‘every man for himself’ seating arrangements.

I figured out European air, train, tram and bus transport. I worked out every day in a Belgian gym and got to know some of the Belgian Gym rats (they’re just like their American counterparts).

In our final year, Linda’s project was transferred to London, and I would spend a week in London exploring it like few people get to do, alternating with a week exploring Europe in our Renault Scenic.

I drove all over Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, and visited Switzerland many times. Once I’d conquered every attraction in the London guidebooks (some twice), I went farther afield on the magnificent English train system to other English cities and villages like Canterbury, Winchester, York, Lincoln, Hastings, Brighton, Cambridge, and Oxford.

A whole new perspective

During our time in Singapore and Belgium, we gained a different perspective on these places and the surrounding countries. It’s sure different living in a country versus visiting it as a tourist.

We visited 35 different countries during our time overseas. We became more ‘worldly’ and now have a better understanding of our place in the world. Unexpectedly, we also have a different view of the United States. After living in Europe, we developed a fond appreciation of American efficiency – stores open at convenient hours, meals served quickly in restaurants, and friendly customer service.

Our lives have been changed irrevocably. We became completely comfortable in Asia and Europe. We still often crave the daily uncertainty of living in another country. This probably explains why, when I returned home, I chose to become a travel writer.

Male trailing spouses are becoming more and more frequent in today’s corporate world. The GMAC Global Relocation Services research shows that 20% of American expat employees overseas today are female, so there are a similar number of male trailing spouses.

The statistics also show that 21% of expats end up cutting their stay short within their first year. Unable to adjust to living in a foreign country, they pack up and go home. This is sad. If I had given up during my first year in Belgium, which I was tempted to do, I would have missed that amazing second year. And I wouldn’t even know what I missed!

The moral of this story?  If you are a male expat spouse, acquire plenty of healthy interests and stay occupied. There will be good times full of new experiences, and not-so-enjoyable times when you’re homesick. Culture shock will hit you right between the eyes when you least expect it, but you can grow to love the place you’re living.

Even more importantly, once you’ve had an expat experience or two, realize that you may find it difficult to reintegrate back in your own culture after your overseas experience. Statistics show that 21% of expats leave their job within one year of returning to the U.S., for this reason.

Any expat who survives their overseas experience will tell you that it was the best thing they’ve ever done in their life. Afterwards, you’ll be more confident and view the world differently than you did before.

I grew tremendously as a male expat trailing spouse, so my best advice is to stick with it, find people to share your weekdays with, immerse yourself in the best parts of the culture, and have fun. In the blink of an eye it will be over.

Roy Stevenson

Roy Stevenson is a professional freelance travel writer and photographer based in Seattle, Washington. With more than 750 articles published in 170 regional, national and international magazines, newspapers, trade journals, and in-flight and online travel magazines, Roy is one of the most prolific travel writers in the U.S.A.  To view more of Roy Stevenson’s travel articles, go to www.Roy-Stevenson.com.


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