A few days ago, someone on the Foreign Servive Facebook group posted a question asking about what sorts of preconceptions family and friends had about the life of a U.S. diplomat abroad. Many folks weighed in about various things, from helper issues to travel to money and perks. Honestly, I recalled the entire “What I Really Do” meme craze from a few years ago, and I knew there was one for Diplomat, so I posted it. As a complete afterthought, I did a search for “Diplomat Wife” and while I came up with a few “Expat Wife in Doha” or other specific places, there wasn’t one for Diplomat Wife specifically, so I made one up. (I will let the Diplomat Husbands do their own – they know better than I do what they do all day.)
Predictably, other DiploWives clicked “like”. Someone else took them and posted them individually and together, and last I checked, there were over 100 likes and several comments, most of them positive. One person in particular, however, decided to leave their sense of humor at home and commented, “Seems sexist to me”. Well, DUH.
Whether or not we want to believe it, we live in a world of sexist stereotypes. But in every stereotype, I’ve learned, there is a grain of truth. And the question is, really, do we want to address them directly and poke fun and laugh, or do we want to get all strident and self-righteous? Do we want to examine them in the light or relegate them to something so horrible we shouldn’t even take them out of the closet or drawer in our psyche that houses them? Never mind that I did the meme and I am the stereotype. Shouldn’t I be allowed to poke fun at myself? In a way, it’s like a black person using the n-word, or a woman using the word bitch if I do it right? But I think that I am enough of an adult that if a man (that I knew) made the same meme, I’d be laughing too. Just as I laughed at the Diplomat meme even though I am definitely not the diplomat. So let’s break it all down, shall we?
Photo Number One:
Truth. My friends picture a jet setting me, boarding yet another plane to live in yet another country they’ve only seen in the pages of National Geographic. And honestly, I DO. I get on the plane with DiploDad, the DiploBoys, and the DiploDog in cargo and just up and leave. Even other expats are shocked to find out that I’ve never been on a “fact-finding tour” in advance, to scout schools, housing, and see if the family can take it. Nope, I show up, get off that airplane (looking much worse than anyone in that photo will ever look) and live there. I will admit that there are times when I have hit the tarmac and said, “What in the Hell have I gotten myself into?” But yeah – I go off on a plane on a new adventure.
Photo Number Two:
I think this is true. My mother seems to think that my life is one big party. It is, but just not in the way she thinks, because often I am responsible for planning the damned thing. We do entertain a lot. There are a variety of reasons that we do this. We have a Halloween party for the kids every year because it’s our favorite holiday and something distinctly American. There’s a certain degree of satisfaction one gets from watching Ghanaian kids bob for apples for the first time and in explaining to an Australian mother that yes, we have an entire holiday that revolves around “lollies”. We have a Holiday Open House every December as a way to thank our friends for the year we have spent together and to bring a little cheer into a time of year when so many of us miss home, family, and friends. We have epic birthday parties, because I celebrate the fact that I have actually survived another year of whining, laughing, parent-teacher conferences, and exploding marshmallows in the microwave. The entertaining that we do privately includes rituals and traditions that I can take everywhere and they are things that the DBs look forward to and which root them to something, if not a neighborhood, state, or community. That’s the first kind of party.
The second kind of party – which looks more like my choice of picture – is the Official Function. The Official Function can be SO nerve-racking to the Diplomat Wife. I remember my first functions in Cameroon as a first-timer. I never felt so on display in my entire life. I was a curiosity then, the wife who came in only occasionally while her husband stayed in country full-time. I second-guessed my outfit, my choice of beverage, and my conversation skills. I still do. I recently went to a serious party in a maxi dress from Target while every other woman had on couture. I once mentioned how much I loved Budapest for its mixture of Eastern and Western vibes to an Eastern European diplomat at a small gathering and got an angry denial that the Ottoman Turks had ever been as far as Vienna. When I take a second cream puff, I worry that someone in the crowd is thinking to themselves, “The Fat American Wife should just be eating air”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a privilege to be invited, and I’ve had some lovely times at German National Day and The Queen’s Birthday. There was the time I went to the Australian National Day and DiploDad was surprised because he knew virtually no one and I had the time of my life because I knew so many from my yoga class and other pursuits. Still, I think there will always be something in the back of my mind that wonders if I am saying the right thing, drinking the appropriate amount of alcohol, and wearing the correct outfit. That’s the second kind of party.
So yeah, there’s some truth to the photo. But it’s not every single day, Mom.
Photo Number Three:
Ah, the shopping Diplomat Wife. Excuse me while I reach down into my LV bag and grab my platinum card.
There is truth to this and then there is THE TRUTH. Yes, we shop. I’m not as much of a shopaholic as some of my friends, but I’m pretty bad. Our homes are filled with stuff from all over the world, and how do you think they got that way? Us. Every time I hear about a new assignment, I make my mental shopping list. In India, I’m on the hunt for an awesome Lakshmi statue. I buy my clothes locally when I can. In Africa that meant batik skirts and dresses in Western style and a traditional up-and-down dress for functions. In India, it means kurtas, which in complete honesty are made of very thin cotton that is actually cooler than if you wore shorts and a t-shirt. I have acquired a few saris and some Indian-style bling. It’s practically expected that you will get some of it and wear it to official functions or local parties and festivals. You should – it’s polite and it’s fun.
Most FS folks have an epic and interesting art collection, including such goodies as Ghanaian textiles and wax print, Southeast Asian deity sculptures, Venetian glass, German woodworking, Eastern European porcelain, and South American paintings. They didn’t just walk into our houses, some Diplomat Wife bought them. Shopping is such a huge stereotype and while I will admit that there is some truth to it, I’d like to point two things out.
One, in many of the countries Diplomat Wives live in, our shopping helps support a fragile economy. Many embassies and consulates support a variety of NGOs and private microbusiness initiatives not only with grants, but also with attention to their products and the embassy community buying up a lot of the product. I have very fond memories of Esther in Accra who did custom batik work for a lot of Diplomat Wives over the years and who went from a stand by the side of the road to a full-fledged corner store in a busy shopping area. Last Diwali, I got my hampers from an NGO that worked with the mentally handicapped. The next time you get a present or package from a friend overseas, think about how that present may have impacted the community, business, or a family.
Two, Diplomat Wives probably don’t shop any more than you do. Yup. Pot – kettle calling. Think about the last time you went shopping. When was it? This week? This month? How many times? What did you buy? Did you need it? You’re just as guilty as we are, you know? Just because you do it at Target (and you know what I mean because you walk in there because you need masking tape and you walk out of there with a full cart) or online instead of in a busy city where you stick out like a sore thumb doesn’t mean you shop any less. You just attract a lot less attention.
Photo Number Four:
Yeah, truth. A lot of the places I’ve lived it’s a lot more affordable to get a pedicure, massage, facial, or waxing. In DC, DiploDad got me a massage gift card for Mothers’ Day. For the same price, I paid for half of a membership to a spa here in Mumbai and had pedicures and foot massages weekly for five months. So, one session in the U.S. equals 2.5 months of services in Mumbai. In Ghana, I had a standing appointment every Friday with God’s Willing (that’s her name) for a mani-pedi for the bargain basement cost of $20, plus tip. She came to my house. Even in Germany, my facial was not nearly as much as in the U.S. In the Puritan-founded United States, spa time and personal maintenance is an indulgence, although it’s becoming more and more common with chains and other small businesses offering more than just a haircut and maybe a manicure moving into communities outside of resorts and big cities. You can probably get a hot stone massage in Lolo, Montana these days, but you’ll still pay for it.
In the middle of the African bush you can get a massage, mani-pedi, and awesome hair updo because there’s a full-service salon somewhere that caters to the community. Maybe if our attitude changes from “it’s an indulgence” to “I deserve to be pampered” to the usual “It’s just maintenance and necessary” as I seem to encounter often abroad, prices will be more affordable and it won’t be regarded as such a spoiled (woman) activity.
Photo Number Five:
Truth. I do think I do this. I haven’t yet ridden an elephant in my official capacity as a Diplomat Wife, but I have high hopes. I have, however, been an official guest of the Sultan of Bamoun, danced with pygmies in the forest, and been made an honorary member of the Fulani tribe of Northern Cameroon. I visited orphanages in West Africa to hand out toothbrushes, play with kids, hug babies, and get practically snatched bald as the kids pulled out my blond hair to save. I’ve been given private tours of really cool places, let into buildings outside of normal business hours, and invited into homes of local folks for puja, dinner, parties, and tea. I get to see a side of the world that I only dreamed of as a kid, and I get to experience it with the people. Am I treated differently? Sure. There’s a certain expectation of me and sometimes this is because I am a Diplomat Wife. It’s a courtesy that is extended to others like me, to foreigners in general, and while it sometimes may make me feel uncomfortable in all my American egalitarian-ness, I accept it, and by doing so only deepen the experience and understanding. Sometimes, as the unemployed Diplomat Wife (and yes, I know some of us are employed and this article is biased towards the SAHM), I get to experience more of this sort of thing than DiploDad. While he’s in the office, I’m Riding the Elephant.
Photo Number Six:
TRUTH. At the end of the day, I’m very similar to every other SAHM. I survive on coffee and wine. I pack lunches, go to PTA meetings (even if they are in German), go to the DB’s football games, go grocery shopping, make dinner (with or without help), and try to get the kids to eat their vegetables. I check homework, break up fights, supervise tooth brushing and ferry my kids to their doctor appointments. I nag DiploDad about putting his freaking socks into the hamper instead of next to it, and I sometimes channel June Cleaver and meet him at the door dressed nicely and with a drink.
I’m in the deep end of the pool age wise in the Consulate community. I’m Generation X, and not as Internet savvy as most of the younger Diplomat Wives. My chosen profession isn’t as portable as a lot of the younger wives who were in college thinking about how they could be flexible and mobile in a way I never did. I know that part of my own “prison” of SAHM-ness is in my own mind. I try to cope with that the best that I can, but I’m not always that great at it. A lot of Diplomat Wives have fallen into the Traditional Model, and I am guilty of that. More and more, I think we will see this photo change over time, but logistically, I think it will take longer than we as women may like.
There will always be the need for one person to come in and set up the house, settle the kids, and find out where you can buy cereal without pantry moths while the other person is on the visa line, vetting press releases, or helping promote American products and businesses. When the Diplomat is the husband, the Diplomat Wife will usually be the one to do this. And if that’s the deal you’ve made in life and it works for you, then that is just bloody fine. It’s not sexist.
I am a Diplomat Wife. I fly to exotic places. I go to parties. I shop. I have a standing spa appointment. I listen to screaming kids and stay at home.
And I Ride the Elephant, baby. I Ride the Elephant.