Everyone seems to have an idea of what a diplomat’s wife does on the daily. Most of it is usually a lot more fancy and dull than what it really is. Only three years in and two countries later, I think I’ve heard everything – from “Aww, too bad you lost your career.” to “I envy your life of leisure!”
While a lot of people may mean well, I thought that it would be great if one of us diplowives sets the record straight. I have received e-mails and even have some friends asking what is it exactly that we do. While it’s fun having some sort of mystery and having a unicorn-like appeal, I thought I’d share some insights.
So, I’ve listed some of these common myths and misconceptions. I’ll also be debunking them here by telling you what’s the real deal. Ready? Here we go.
1. It’s where women’s careers go to die
Personally, this is the one thing I hate the most. It’s only a career graveyard if you want it to be. The Philippines and Germany currently don’t have an agreement that allows spouses to work. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck. You just have to be creative. In this day and age, it’s so much easier.
I’m lucky that as a journalist, all my work can now be done online. My writing and video reports are sent over and published by companies like Forbes and Rappler that are outside the EU. My friend Arpita and I also founded a startup digital lifestyle magazine in Kuala Lumpur called The Binge. It’s a lot of work doing freelance. You gotta hustle! But I love it. I love it so much since having my career is so important to me.
And writing isn’t the only thing available for spouses. I know of wives and husbands who were doctors and lawyers. They couldn’t practice outside their home country due to some regulations in their post. So, what they did was learn new skills that they can be passionate about. Some went to becoming painters and digital nomads. Some went into the academe. One of the wives that I really love is a photographer, an artist, and a Reiki healer. How cool is that?
Being a spouse to a diplomat doesn’t mean we have to fade into the background. There’s always so much more to us than being a spouse and/or a mom. I’m my own person and my husband knows how much I hate it when people think of me as just his plus one. This is why I always introduce myself as Carol the journalist before mentioning that I’m also married to a diplomat. Works every time. 🙂
2. It’s just a life of partying and being a glorified plus one
I think this one comes from not knowing what the purpose of certain events are for. National Day celebrations, cocktail parties, and other ‘mixers’ are there so that the diplomats can network. Like journalism, having a good network as a diplomat helps a lot in one’s job.
These events are the fun part of the job but it’s not like people are there to get wasted on booze and get rowdy. Not at all. In fact, it’s still work and you have to carry yourself well. You’re representing your country on a diplomatic stage so it is expected that you do this properly and at the very least, don’t be an embarrassment.
As a wife, being a glorified escort is a running joke amongst us. But like the career graveyard question, this comes down to us as well and how we handle it. I’ve never felt like a glorified escort as these events are also a chance for me to meet like-minded people I can really be friends with.
It’s also how I meet people who I can write about. By the time we left our first posting in KL, I had a solid group of women I hang out with.
Spouses usually have an organisation that keeps us busy. In KL, it was the ASEAN Ladies’ Circle and we’ve done charity events to help people in need. In Germany, it’s Wilkommen in Berlin that helps us get to know the country and its people, help others, and even learn new things.
3. All of us have help so we don’t do anything the whole day
This is a matter of priorities and time management. Some choose to hire help because to them this is a priority. A majority of us, believe it or not, are very DIY. I do the cooking and the laundry and my husband, a junior officer at our embassy, is actually a pro at cleaning our apartment. We split our chores like most millennial couples do. This isn’t 1882.
Ambassadors and their wives, definitely have to have help. There are more responsibilities and the events they organise are bigger.
4. We get away with anything
Diplomatic Immunity has always been a strong point of contention and a sort of scar used to shame diplomats and their families for being ‘privileged.’ This, once again, comes from misinformation as to what it’s really for. It goes way beyond parking tickets.
Immunity exists so that diplomats can do their work unimpeded, especially when two countries are not in the best of terms. As they say, don’t shoot the messenger. But this does not mean a diplomat and his family can get away with absolutely anything unscathed. You can be expelled by the country and declared persona non grata.
5. We are rich and live cushy lives
This is probably one of my favourites. I remember laughing to myself when I realised how happy I was over a EUR1 (USD1.18, PHP59.98) basic tee that was on sale. At H&M, no less. Cushy? Lol. I love myself a bargain.
While Filipino diplomats get an adjusted allowance to the cost of living in the country they are posted in, I wouldn’t say it’s at a rate that we can live cushy lives. I’m married to a bureaucrat at the end of the day. We allocate a huge amount of our time in budgeting our earnings. We also save and invest so we can fund things that we need or go on vacation.
Whatever it is we buy, we save for. I also work as a freelance lifestyle journalist so I can spend on things that I love like clothes and makeup. They don’t come cheap so I often find myself interviewing people and spending hours in front of a computer, transcribing and typing a story away. Sometimes, PR companies send me gifts because of my lifestyle journalism and this blog. That’s always a money saver.
While we are given budget for entertaining diplomatic counterparts in restaurants or at home, being posted in Europe where everything tends to be a little expensive isn’t that helpful. So, a little creativity goes a long way in putting together dinners and lunches while on a government budget.
It’s not easy, but we make it work.
6. We only do fancy
Let me stop you right there. I get this a lot because I also write professionally about luxury. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know of a lot of wives like me who have no qualms about getting out of this fancy category people seem to put us in all the time. I love bazaars and markets and would go for some street food in Manila streets any day. (Fish balls and betamax for the win!)
Again, it’s just a small part of our husbands’ jobs to be invited to such things and we luckily get to tag along. I also get invited as a journalist and a blogger to fancy events. But that, in no way, means we do it 24/7. #MarriedToABureaucrat through and through.
7. Our families live a tax free life
For the record – the Philippine government taxes my husband’s salary whether we are in Manila or at post. Like everyone else. Back when I was a full time journalist in Manila, my earnings were also being taxed even after I married my husband.
While at post, we don’t have to pay taxes to our host country. That, is a privilege, yes. But that’s because our income comes from our home country. Diplomats posted in Manila also enjoy the same privilege.
So yes, in the end, we are paying taxes somewhere somehow. Just like you.
8. We’re just on an extended vacation
I’ve been away from Manila for over three years now. It seems like a short time when you’re just typing about it. But in that span of time, I’ve missed out on so much when it comes to my grandparents who are living there. They are getting old by the day. My friends’ lives are also moving forward at lightning speed. While it’s easy to stay connected thanks to technology, you always find yourself playing catch up. There’s also uncertainty if I can come back to a full time career when we go back to Manila after our first posting.
Living abroad is very different from being a tourist who’s there for a vacation. There’s the stress of the move, navigating a strange new city, finding an apartment that fits your budget when you don’t even know where to begin looking. There’s also learning enough of a language to help you on your daily life and dealing with a different kind of bureaucracy every time. Nobody who’s been uprooted and planted somewhere else over and over would say it’s easy. But this is the life my husband signed up for and I choose to be with him every day. So no, this is not me complaining but I also won’t call it a vacation.
Of course, it comes with perks like getting to travel because of a posting and really getting to know cultures. We also get to see more of different places when it’s our chance to take a vacation that we saved up for.
But all these come with work. Many, many hours a day. There have been instances when, my husband was out the door by 6am and back home 2am the next day for ASEAN meetings and summits. There are also those calls at three in the morning when one of our citizens was in trouble and needed help. Their jobs are not always easy. It’s not a 9 to 5 thing and it comes with a lot of stress. So in the end, the wife is also the diplomat’s personal support system. We’re on our own here after all.
Wives are also expected to do a bit of work. We help out when we can – usually in putting together cultural events and presentations. In my case, it’s usually writing and being an assistant to visiting delegates. Up to now, I still know how many storeys the Petronas Towers have as well as when and why it was built.
So there. That’s my list. If you’ve got anything to share, fire away on the comments section below!