The myth of the Glamorous Expat

The myth of the Glamorous Expat

Just another couple of glamorous expat wives. At a Hallowe’en party, of course!

There’s a long-standing rumour circulating that expat life is inherently glamorous. Would that it were true! I’m sure some people do lead terribly exciting jet set lives in their host countries, but if my experience is anything to go by, an international move doesn’t guarantee you’ll be swilling Cristal with the Beautiful People. I lived overseas for seven years, and Diddy never called once.

Yet the idea persists. Whenever my friends back home pressed me for details of my dazzling life, I was forced to confess that I was too busy getting on with the business of day-to-day existence to have one. I don’t know how they thought I was spending my time, but they refused to believe it could possibly be as prosaic as I claimed.

As expats, we have only ourselves to blame for perpetuating the stereotype. We’re the ones who move to exotic locations and send home breathless missives of our adventures as we try to find meaning in an onslaught of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and customs. Most of us, I’m willing to bet, wax rather more poetic about the positives of expat life. We tend to focus on those aspects that present us in the best light, while playing down the bad, the ugly, the discouraging — anything, in short, that would lead those back home to doubt the wisdom of our decision to pack up and move clear across the globe.

It’s easy to see why the illusion endures despite evidence to the contrary. If that’s the face we choose to show to the world, why wouldn’t people buy it? It’s human nature to accept things at face value, especially if digging too deeply might take us places we don’t necessarily want to go.

Because we travelled, I suppose my humdrum expat life may have appeared slightly tinged with glamour to those on the outside. (It’s a stretch, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, anything is possible!) A closer look, however, would have revealed a pleasant but emphatically ordinary existence.

Sikh doorman, Raffles

The iconic doorman at Raffles Hotel.

The disconnect between perception and reality is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. This hit home for me the day I walked past the hulking Sikh doorman at Raffles Hotel, and into its celebrated lobby. Named after Sir Stamford Raffles (the father of modern-day Singapore) the iconic landmark, which opened exactly 123 years ago today, has a long and storied history.

It’s said the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot there; whether in the Long Bar or the Bar & Billiard Room remains in dispute. It’s also widely accepted that the Singapore Sling was invented there by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon. Scores of the rich and famous have slept within its walls, including Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad, Michael Jackson, Noel Coward, Elizabeth Taylor, Beyoncé, and various monarchs.

Raffles has also had its dark times. During the Japanese occupation it housed senior officers, and later became a temporary camp for released POWs. The hotel has suffered numerous financial setbacks and has changed hands several times over the years, always managing to emerge stronger and more vibrant than before.

Christmas at Raffles, Singapore

Raffles Hotel, all gussied up for Christmas.

I’m a sucker for stories like that, and just walking by Raffles used to give me shivers. The first time I ventured inside, I was thrilled to the core. After everything I’d heard and read and imagined, I wanted — so very badly — for it to be perfect.

And at first, it was. Entering Raffles is like walking backwards in time. It’s the epitome of old-school colonial glamour: its high, chandeliered ceilings and crisp white tablecloths evoke a more civilized era. But a palpable sense of history isn’t enough. The sad truth is that Raffles is more about style than substance. The food and the service weren’t bad… just average. When your expectations are jacked up by more than a century of hype, it’s hard not to feel deflated when the reality fails to measure up.

Maybe that’s why so many people cling to the smoke-and-mirrors myth of the Glamorous Expat. In a world where “reality” is a fluid construct and widespread disenchantment is breeding a new generation of cynics, it would be nice to believe that fairy tales really can come true. An ordinary family leading an ordinary life in an extraordinary locale doesn’t quite feed the fantasy.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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12 Responses to The myth of the Glamorous Expat

  1. gaijinchic says:

    We are exactly one of those ordinary families leading an ordinary life in an exotic locale. Yes we travel to exotic locations for holidays and our kids get to learn multiple languages and are immersed in a new culture. But, we still have to do the grocery shopping, pay the bills and remind our kids to brush their teeth. I think this can be a shock to new expats hoping to dodge the mundane by moving overseas.

  2. ML Awanohara says:

    Interesting… As a repat like you (to Canada’s neighbor!), I think about these questions a lot.

    After staying put in NYC for the past couple of years, I suddenly had two chances for international travel in the same month (when it rains, it pours!). Last month I went to England (where I was once an expat) and Indonesia (where I know quite a few expats). These back-to-back trips made me realize how much I missed the expat life. Is it the glamour that I missed? To some extent, yes, if glamour can be defined as excitement, adventure, and unusual activity: the glamour of being an explorer.

    As I note in my own blog covering some of these issues, unless you’re Emily Dickinson, it’s jolly hard to re-create that sense of exploration and adventure back home …

    It’s been my experience that while somewhat more courageous than your average Joe, we expats tend to be a rather unimaginative lot. We go abroad because of an overwhelming desire to see an “elephant.” Even if the elephant turns out to have wrinkles (eg, the average food at Raffles), we still hark back to the experience as one of the most enjoyable–and indeed glamorous–moments in our lives. As the farmer whose cart got knocked over by the circus parade put it: “Hang it all, I’ve seen an elephant!”

    • Maria says:

      I’m with the farmer! Expat life was amazing, and I don’t ever want to forget it. But I want to remember it as it really was, not some tarted-up version that glosses over the fact that a lot of it was unremarkable. Merriam-Webster defines glamour as “an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness.” Far from illusory, my life overseas was grounded in reality. I experienced excitement, adventure, and unusual activity on a daily basis, but most of it was small-scale: the excitement of getting to know my new city, the adventure of trying a different food. This is not what most people think of as a glamorous life! It was a good one, though, and I miss it.

  3. a.b. says:

    Is that the hotel used in “Tenko”? That was a fantastic show– but a traveling spouse nightmare.

    • Maria says:

      I’d never even heard of Tenko until I read your comment. Just spent 15 minutes reading about it on Wikipedia, and now I think I’ll have to buy the DVD. And yeah, from what I’ve read, it was certainly a glamour-free expat experience for those women. Raffles is gorgeous, though.

  4. Oh, yes, the expat life is so glamorous! I remember going to the Raffles Hotel, even ordered a Singapore Sling, and although it’s certainly a beautiful place, it was also not terribly exciting, and I was disappointed.

    Friends and family always think your expat life is so exotic. I actually wrote a story about it, while living in Armenia. It’s here if anyone is interested: EXPAT LIFE: HOW EXOTIC IS IT?

    • Maria says:

      The Singapore Slings at Raffles are revolting! I have quite a sweet tooth, and they were too sugary even for me.

      And I hate to say it, but your story about mailing a letter in Armenia actually IS exotic. 🙂

  5. ML Awanohara says:

    FYI: I have just now interviewed an expat wife, a Frenchwoman who married a diplomat–thus considers herself an “expat forever”–for my blog. She agrees with you all that living in various countries is far from glamorous. She mentioned that when her husband was sent to Sri Lanka, family and friends at home assumed she was having three years of “holidays” on a tropical island with beautiful beaches. In reality, she was often facing the threat of dengue fever, water and electricity cuts, violence and civil war…

  6. Crystal says:

    As a current expat in Singapore, I can relate!

    I recently went home for a month, and (in part) due to my blog, people have this idea that my life is far more exciting and fun than it is. On the blog, of course, I play up the funny stories, the adventures, the constant trips to the zoo for the 2 year old. But the reality is that I’m more often at Great World City to go to Cold Storage, not to take pictures of the bathrooms (although they were good for a number of entries…they’re gussied up and quite adorable)

  7. Dee says:

    I am feeling a little sad for you ladies. I am currently an expat wife and my experience couldn’t be more different.
    I left a conservative Suburban life & moved my whole family to Hong Kong.
    My life is anything but dull. We travel a great deal, and have had the chance to see and do amazing things.
    My experience here has delivered more fun in three years than 20 in my former life. Most days wake up pretty grateful. I think at the end of the day every experience is what you make of it.
    I went looking for the fun crowd & I found them. There are plenty of expat wives in Hong Kong who live in the same hum drum way here as they did back home but there are also many who have re-invented their lives.
    Having household help has been the greatest gift of my adult life. It means having a wonderful helper to assist me with my three children & help with the drudgery of raising a family.
    I have stolen back that time to revisit the dreams I had as a young women. Being creative, traveling & learning new things (and yes a few really long lunches!). Yes, at times it has been hard but I am forever changed and am so grateful to have this time that I dare say I will never have again.
    Galm expat wives are alive & well, but you need to go looking for the life you want to have.

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