The Ambassadors’ Wives

04.03.2011 The Ambassadors’ Wives
There are 3 main groups of expats out here, with another 4th subgroup I suppose you could call it. They are the diplomats, the corporate wives, the NGO staffers and the teachers of all the aforementioned’s children.
In the main I hang out with diplomats, in particular the German crowd. I’m not sure how that happened except they are a great bunch, all seem to have young children and many have been here a relatively short time, just like me. I’ve not met any Brits from the Embassy so I’m not sure where they are hiding and there seem to be relatively few Americans though they have a huge Embassy and Club here. Someone said, with a touch of bitterness, that they tend to hang around their own, staying on Embassy compounds, shopping at their commissary where they can get ketchup and Hershey’s and only venturing out when there are other Yanks around. I don’t know if that’s true but then I’ve not met many as I said – we’ll get our chance at their annual St Patrick’s Day hoolie! The Australians I’ve met are lovely and as mentioned in a previous blog have a great family friendly club. Diplomatic families move around every 2 – 3 years and will often take over the last family’s house and staff; one estate on the edges of Inya Lake has been rented by the German Embassy for over 20 years for example. It is lush!
Not all countries are represented by embassies (Sweden for example though rumour has it they are lobbying hard) but the ASEAN countries are here. Last week I went to a flea market at the Royal Thai Embassy where they all had a stall; Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and even… North Korea! (They were selling sushi). Astonishingly the Russians were there too (selling apple cake and squash) and apparently have a massive embassy with lots of Russian businessmen having settled here many years ago. Bizarrely, there is not one Russian restaurant or shop to be found anywhere in Yangon. Although to be fair, what would I know?
I do have a great friend in the corporate world, Kathleen, who is Irish and has travelled the world with her husband’s work, first at Shell and now at Daewoo (Daewoo and the French Total being the biggest businesses here). It was Pete who first met Kathleen – on the internet, though not a dating site I hasten to add. Both were attempting to do some research on Myanmar and coming up blank but got on an expat website fishing for info and found each other. Kathleen moved here a couple of months before us and has been really helpful, taking me under her wing and introducing me around. Next week we’re off to Pilates!
They live quite a different life, the corpo rate wives. Not that I know that many but they often live in serviced apartments (with gym, doctor, yoga, playgrounds, playgroups, pool, taxis, reception staff etc all on hand at the push of a button) and have drivers who know Yangon like the back of their hand so getting around is no problem. Neither is money an issue; they work hard and play hard and, having travelled around for much of their lives, have houses dotted around the world and kids in private education. I met one guy last week who works here (4 weeks on, 2 weeks off) but lives on a 3 500 acre bird sanctuary in Belize. Nice!
With 50+ NGO’s out here, though winding down in numbers since the Cyclone Nargis emergency in 2008, there are plenty of kids to fill up the nurseries and kindergartens, most of which tend to stick to English, American or French models. That said, most international staff tend to be young(ish) and single and I’m vaguely aware of a bar-hopping life that includes the Captain’s Bar on Wednesdays, the Strand on Fridays and the British Club once a month. (Though I’m sure there’s more than that going on!) There are of course the NGO lifers, families who have chosen this uncertain life permanently as careers and who tend therefore to have senior management positions and live in big old colonial houses with an array of staff picked up over the course of a few years. Many have lived and worked in all sorts of exotic places and are generally great fun to hang out with even though they seem to always be on their way to somewhere else.
A subdivision of the NGO, or perhaps the uberdivision is of course the UN who have a huge number of staff working here in many different departments including Unicef, WHO, UNDP and all the others (11 at the last count). Their lifestyle is again a little different, due in part to their vast salaries and incredible ‘perks’ such as being able to buy (for a pittance) cars and drive themselves, employ the best staff (cook, housekeeper, nanny, driver, gardener, handyman), full medical cover, school fees, flights home and of course a full network of contacts, IT and security access, not to mention like-minded people and nationalities. Lots of NGO staff talk dreamily of one day going to work ‘for the dark side’.
Obviously I have come across quite a few teachers, thanks to my stint at the ISY (International School Yangon, not to be confused with the International School Myanmar). They tend to be either expat spouses or again, careerists who have chosen to travel with their work and are as apt to settle down as they are to move on to the next International School. The kids in these schools tend to be affluent, multi-lingual, motivated individuals where class sizes constantly fluctuate but rarely reach over 20. Extra-curricular activities are encouraged in all spheres (the art gallery and theatre made me green with envy) and the sports facilities are fantastic, with hops to neighbouring countries to play matches in badminton, volleyball, basketball and even ultimate Frisbee quite the norm. I was astonished on my first visit to see young kids with iPads and iPhones but was even more surprised to find them all so articulate, polite, enthusiastic and passionately interested in me and my background, as well as fearlessly questioning all my instructions – to find out why they were doing a certain exercise, not just to be bolshy! It must be a joy to teach in these schools, though the principal has lots of hilarious stories of teaching around the world (Kuwaiti boys like to wrestle and hold hands a lot, apparently!).
There are allegedly about 3000 expats in Yangon, including children. A teeny tiny amount really though with everyone moving on all the time, difficult to quite get to know EVERYone. I haven’t counted the Korean’s and Chinese in that number, they probably triple that in their communities alone, but we (i.e. European, US and Australian) rarely mingle.
I’ve been told more than once that the expat community has changed considerably over the last couple of years; in particular there are very few spouses at a loose end and available for charity work (visiting orphanages, arranging veg deliveries to old folks homes, that sort of thing) or functions, which in the olden golden days used to be something to behold. But the times they are a-changing and the world is different now. It would feel odd to spend thousands of dollars on a Ball when babies are dying on your doorstep. Spouses want to work (and with every man and his dog working as a ‘consultant’ that’s not asking too much) families want to experience all the region has to offer, integrate with the locals and travel around the country and South East Asia as much as possible, suck up the whole shebang before the career elastic snaps them back to another place, another country, home even. Maybe the corporate wives are the last bastion of colonialism, struggling to make each place just like home, discussing where to get decent sheets and parmesan or which gym is best value for money, whereas the young gun NGO staff are like, ‘why would I want home comforts? I could get those at home!’ and are more likely to argue over where the best local curry can be found and getting the best price for fruit in the street market next door, or indulging in fantastically cheap beauty and cosmetic treatments while they can.
I flit from group to group not sure where I fit in and not sure it matters really. I have extra kudos wherever I go because of being an actress and therefore not easily categorised in the above groups. Luckily I’m a joiner and never knowingly say no to an invitation if I can help it so I’m happy to hang out with them all and soak up their incredible stories. My only gripe is the distinct lack of Ferrero Rocher. Honestly, these ambassadors are really NOT spoiling us… 😉

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