The flipside of a coin: THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC COSTS OF BEING DIPLOMATS AND EXPATRIATES
Noorul Ainur M.N.
Life is no bed of roses for the "envied" diplomats and expatriates after all. Being diplomats or expatriates have its advantages and disadvantages and, surprisingly, the negative social and economic costs of the positions may outweigh the advantages.
This view was stated in a workshop on 'Gender, Transience and Identity' which was held on 6 November at the International Development Centre, University of Oxford. The workshop was a brainchild of Dr. Anne Coles and it is part of her on-going research. Dr. Coles, attached to the International Gender Studies of the university, sees the workshop as a venue to discuss the pros and cons of the global expatriate and diplomatic communities.
One of the paper presenters was Fiona Moore, a Ph.D. candidate, who explained the theoretical concepts of this global "exclusive" community. Nancy Barbosa had worked on a research on expatriates from transnational corporations. Marian van Bakel from the University of Nijmegen, Netherlands, focused her study on the performance of this group of people in their host countries. Finally, Emefa Amoaka from Ghana had done a research on the present Ghanaian diplomatic community in London.
My interest in this subject stemmed from the fact that I had undergone the same process of being a diplomat's wife and had lived in New York City for quite a number of years. Hence my presence in the workshop, I believe, could contribute to the discussions based on my "hands-on" experience.
By definition, diplomats or expatriates are individuals assigned to another country and they carry responsibilities or tasks set up by their governments or in the case of expatriates, their organizations or multinational corporations. Fiona Moore described this group of community as "transnationalist capitalist class" and she views them to be an economic-oriented focused group.
However, the diplomats as state bureaucrats, especially, have various set missions in the host, for example, in the United Nations, they are dealing with the global political, social and environment agenda. Others are involved in promotion of tourism, which deals not only the economic aspect but also social and cultural areas.
Nancy Barbosa, another presenter, looked into the lives of the expatriates of multinational corporations in the host countries. Their experience as expatriates is the same as diplomats except that they are project oriented and their economic purpose is their sole mission. This agenda is understandable considering that multinational corporations are profit-motivated and have profit-oriented projects or assignments in the host countries.
Nevertheless, the expatriates undergo the traumas of being entrenched in a totally different environment and culture as did the diplomats. There are a lot of similarities experienced between these two groups of global community. For the wives of expatriates, having careers of their own could result in depression upon leaving the homeland besides having to adjust to the local communities. However, most multinational organizations would send the family for training prior to the departure. This kind of networking helps them to envisage of the prospects of living in another country.
Marian van Bakel confined her study to the intercultural competence of the Dutch expatriates in England and France. She looked at influence of skills, attitude and knowledge of language and also some context factors as age, children, gender and partner on the performance of the group. According to Marian, language is not a barrier since the English language is the first foreign language of the Netherlands. It seems that age and attitude are the important criteria for them to excel in the host countries. She said that skills and knowledge do not play a vital role in the performance of the expatriates. Besides that, having children is also seen as a crucial determinant in their positive performance.
Interestingly, the discussion on the Ghanaian diplomats wives by Emefa Amoaka had started the ball rolling in the workshop. The consequences of overseas posting endured by the Ghanaian diplomat wives may not be of any different from the ones faced by the Malaysian diplomats' wives.
Emefa Amoako did a case study of Ghanaian diplomats posted to London. Most of the Ghanaian diplomats' wives have their own career back in their home country. Some cannot cope with the fact that they have to resign from their jobs and for those in the civil service, it entails a lost to their seniority in the service. Depression sets in when they reach their new environment, given that they have to cope with their family life without help from their extended families. One even lamented that if she had not gone for the posting to follow her husband, she would now be the Director of Education. Not being independent since they now have to get money from the husband is another reason for the depression. This scene is no different from the experience of Malaysian diplomats' wives. For the career wives, they have to take leave with no pay and at the same time this jeopardizes their career path. It would be interesting to see a research done on this aspect of the Malaysian diplomat's community.
According to Emefa, the Ghanaian diplomats' wives complained of the costs of living and the difficulty to pay for their children education in London. The difficulty to enroll their children in schools is already a setback to the welcoming of the host countries. Some of the children have to wait until six months to be able to get enrolled. Due to the expensive education, some have resorted to leaving some of their children behind and the separation is an added factor to the frustrations. As observed, this is a common practice by the Malaysian diplomats who have to cope with the living expenses in the host countries and also the children's school fees. For example, a private secondary school education in New York can reach up to RM40,000 per child. Due to the crime rates in high schools in New York, diplomats and expatriates are advised to send their children to private schools.
This situation leads to physcological depression not only for the parents, but also the children left behind. Most of the time they are sent to boarding schools where they have to be independent without having the support of their parents. The negative impact on this can be felt especially for teenagers who are experiencing the adulthood path and, without proper guidance, they can be lost on the myths and realities of life.
I am of the view that for children who are uprooted from one culture to another may find it to be a traumatic experience. Once they have adjusted to the new environment and new friends, they are entangled from the "comfortable" environment to be rooted to another environment. This entails them having to undergo the same orientation process of getting to be acquainted to the new place and having to make friends all over again.
There is a study done by researchers who had named this category type of children to be "Third Culture Kids". They do not find themselves entrench into the culture of the host country nor their homeland culture. They exist within the accumulation of cultures of the countries they had lived in. When they grow up they tend to be "borderless" children and might even opt not to live in their homelands. In another aspect, these children are "non-racist" for the reason that they have been making friends with children of different cultures. In some instances, they might even feel comfortable with the culture of their global friends than their own. Their absence from their homeland for a long duration can result in them being alien to their country's culture.
Being away from home also means that the Ghanaians have to severe the extended family ties. This is not a new phenomenon in the context of developing world. The culture of extended family is very much in practice anywhere. One Ghanaian wife regretted that she was unable to go home when her mother passed away.
Another lamented that she could not get jobs in London and thus not able to support the children of her family back home. She used to support them when she was in Ghana. The many instances of unhappiness voiced by the Ghanaian wives are again no different from the Malaysian diplomats' wives perspectives. It has always been in the mind of any diplomats that they would prefer that their parents and the loved ones to be safe until they return from their assignments. The news of deaths in the family is something that most diplomats and their spouses have difficulty in coping with.
The environment of the host countries can be a plus or negative factor to their stay, says Emefa. In the case of the Ghanaian diplomats' wives, proficiency in language is a barrier that they can live without. They are lucky because most Ghanaians speak English well.
On a personal note, the statement made by Datuk Seri Dr. Rais Yatim on English language proficiency among the younger generation of civil servants and also diplomats should be heeded by all. Language is the gateway to culture; one can be thrown into any community and can survive with having another language to communicate.
Finally, I would say that being diplomats and expatriates could impose high costs to their life. They are many things that they have to take into account during the pre-departure and also post-departure period. There may not be much difficulties faced if they get "good posting", but a "hardship posting" may be a nightmare for them who are used to easy living. Maybe the separation from their loved ones and their children will top the list of frustration for this community.
Dr. Noorul Ainur Mohd. Nur is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the International Gender Studies/Centre for Cross-Cultural Research on Women, University of Oxford. She is with the Economics Centre, National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN), Public Service Department. The writing is based on her personal view and does not reflect that of her organisation. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org