Living the Expat Life

It feels normal and strange all at once – but that’s to be expected.

I have been back in my home country for nearly a year… Another year to go before we head back into the expat life and scene. The routines here are finally comfortably familiar, again! I’m still loving all the things I love about living in Michigan (changing seasons is a biggie) while the flirtatious heat of summer nostalgically hints and reminds me of the overwhelming heat of Niger (and so we refuse to run the AC) while the familiar tide of homesickness floods over me. But? I’m more adept at riding that wave now than even just a few short months ago. I remember how to get to, and more importantly get through, the store – actually handling shopping at a super Walmart without feeling too overwhelmed… as long as I go late at night… with a very specific list… and have a specific time I need to be finished by – like teenage daughter waiting at home for help with her Precalc or a sick preschooler waiting for children’s Tylenol (even though I had adult pills I could have cut and crushed like I did while overseas). I’m once again proficient at swiping credit cards and there’s no longer a temptation to try and bargain down prices for clothing or material. I’m desperately missing friends and loved ones, but that is always a part of life, no matter where I’m living.

And since things are feeling relatively comfortable, this introvert finally wrangled up the courage to try something new.

I attended a meeting for a group of women presently living in this locale, but who have also spent time living abroad. Accents and languages, skin and hair colors, clothing and jewelry styles varied… almost every corner of the world was represented. Some had grown children while others were just starting out. Some freely and lavishly consumed European wine, gourmet sandwiches and fancy finger desserts catered for the occasion; others, practicing vegans, consumed only water and sliced fruit. One even wore a scarf covering her head and upper body. Everyone seemed delighted to be there – with so much different, one thing we all had in common was the experience of packing up and moving to a completely foreign place and trying to build and make a life there.

Each woman in that group has a story – although I was only able to hear a few:  foreign spouse to one working for a large business company with an international division; an immigrant family who pursued and caught their “American dream;” the American gal vacationing in Europe one summer and just happened to meet her life partner; or the student who moved to America to pursue her education, decided to stay and thus began to call this land home.

It was a stretching experience – taking myself all by myself someplace to meet a bunch of strangers cold turkey is normally the kind of thing I avoid like the plague… But the women were gracious, welcoming, kind and oh-so-international – there were even French speakers, although there wasn’t anyone else who’d also lived in Africa. I’m pretty sure I’ll pay the membership dues and plan to attend meetings when I can next year.

Something else totally astonished me.

While there, I listened to the most interesting conversation – about maids and nannies and etc. And I hope no one noticed my chin on the floor as I listened. It might be a bit embarrassing to go back for the next meeting if they did…

Every place I have lived and worked overseas – W Africa and SE Asia, it is common – expected, actually – for expats to hire local men or women to cook, clean, garden, keep the gate and/or sometimes care for their children. I mean, EVERYONE had someone, at least part-time. For two of our years and for many reasons, our family decided to forego a house helper: my fellow expats thought I was a bit batty (I think) and our local friends just didn’t believe that it was true or that we could do all the work as a family ourselves. That meant, however, that we did have house help for almost fifteen years during our West African sojourn. We’d justify it. Everything DID take longer – from bargaining for and then bleaching all of the fresh produce – to dusting and sweeping like mad, and often several times a day – to making everything from scratch all the time because the closest we got to “convenience” food was street food and baguettes wrapped in day old newspaper also covered with a fine layer of street dust. Hiring local workers invested in the local economy. It gave us opportunities to meet people we might not otherwise have the occasion to know as well as consistent, regular practice working on the local languages, not to mention someone close by with insight into all those local cultural practices that seemed so odd and foreign at first.

Behind The Scenes - Tea Ladies ... July 1946

I have never dreamed of hiring house help while living in the States. On second thought, maybe I have dreamed… but I have never seriously considered engaging someone other than bribing a child with a bit of spending money to take care of a job that falls outside of their normally scheduled chores and household responsibilities.

Yet this group, these women… at least every single one at my table… all had house help. Most of them had a nanny, too. In the States??!


Even more surprising? They listed the exact same reasons/benefits… justifications… for hiring someone that I’ve heard my friends living in the developing world list, the exact same ones that I’ve used myself. You know. Those ones that I’ve just listed above.

All the while I’m listening to this conversation, I’m thinking, “Seriously?” But once I back out of a judgmental mode – which, if I’m being honest was a challenge because I KNOW living here, at least workload wise, is light-years easier than it was living in W Africa, I started asking myself some questions.

I don’t have answers ~ so I thought I’d bring them to you all…

Do people in your area hire local outside help for regular, around-the-house jobs and chores?

Is your locale considered developed or developing?

What is the reasoning for hiring local help in your region? If you have local help, why?

Would you, like me, have been surprised if you’d been listening to the above conversation?

Do you think local help is more of a genuine necessity or is it, in reality, more of a perk of living the expat lifestyle and being a stranger in a foreign land where you are expected to do things differently? Why?

photo credits (in order):

 Luke,Ma via photopin cc

 srv007 via photopin cc

 A.Davey via photopin cc

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Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. ||

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