Not-so-desperate housewives: Expat spouses who thrive in Bangkok

Not-so-desperate housewives: Expat spouses who thrive in Bangkok

Fighting everything from predatory prostitutes to boredom can be tough for some expat wives, but one magazine is trying to help

The September 2008 cover of Acclimate, the magazine's first issue.


Though little heard of, American and other foreign women who move to Bangkok with their spouses often suffer confusion, depression or even divorce while grappling with Thailand's strange food, "predatory prostitutes" and limited job offers.

But there is reason to be optimistic. Despite being viciously mocked by local bloggers, Acclimate magazine's American editor-in-chief, Tracey Starr, boldly confronts subjects whispered by foreign women when they nervously compare notes about their lives in exotic, opaque Bangkok.

Worst-case scenarios include expat husbands who fall in lust for a Thai woman and leave their wives. Best cases include foreign women who join local volunteer groups, learn Thai, revel in the spicy cuisine and explore the countryside, culture and religion.

‘Living here doesn’t make a man cheat’

Liz, also American, is the magazine's pin-up example of a woman who lost her husband while in Bangkok, but emerged one year later to build her own career.

"[Liz] believes that if your husband is going to [go-go] bars frequently, and refuses to stop, there's a problem," Acclimate warned readers in its first issue in September 2008. In August 2009, the magazine wrote, "there are other bars and restaurants in Bangkok where men can go for a night out with the guys that doesn't involve predatory prostitutes and bar girls."

But Bangkok is not solely to blame, Acclimate magazine explains.

"Living here doesn't make a man cheat. However, it can make cheating seem easier and more acceptable for those who are so inclined."

Liz and her unidentified husband divorced after she found "a long, straight, black hair on the bed."

Despite this awful experience, Acclimate proudly updated readers one year later that Liz had fallen in love with another man and now "will serve as a Foreign Service Officer in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Her first foreign assignment will be to Mexico in 2010."

Other morale-boosting stories fill the glossy, 64-page magazine, which has attracted advertising from Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital, jewelry stores, international schools, furniture shops and shipping companies.

The reluctant house wife

Many of Acclimate's 2,000-3,000 readers are "trailing spouses" or "accompanying partners" in Bangkok, says Starr, 36, from her new base in Hong Kong where she is currently working on the magazine's seventh issue, which comes out in May.

"Trailing spouses are those people who give up their own careers or traditional roles to follow their spouses on overseas employment postings," she says.

"You might expect that it's just about the cushiest, most enviable role on the planet. Your partner makes enough money that you don't have to work. The employing company is probably subsidizing your housing and other costs of living, allowing you to save more money than you could in your home country.

"In many countries, especially throughout Asia, it's customary to have maids, nannies, and drivers to take care of your everyday needs. And you have the opportunity to travel to exotic locations far more easily than you could have from your home country."

Unfortunately for many of these pampered women, boredom soon sets in, typically exacerbated by an inability to qualify for a work permit.

"It's scary and depressing. Add to that the guilt you feel when you hear from your friends and family back home who have to work to put food on the table, and it can make you feel like you're going crazy."

Not The Nation mocks foreign women’s plight


Starr has been harshly teased for focusing on foreign women's lifestyle problems. The popular, satirical website -- which some foreign correspondents suspect is run by a witty Brit who may have worked at Thailand's Nation newspaper -- recently published Starr's photograph atop a story headlined:  "Female Expat Maintains Positive Self-Image Despite Living in Thailand."

Without naming Starr, who is married, the satire made it appear that she was an imaginary Canadian expat, "Martha Herkimer," and unable to find a boyfriend in Bangkok.

“Friends say Herkimer has not yet attempted to compensate for her inability to interest farang [Caucasian] men by engaging in humiliating episodes of attention-seeking, such as drunkenly removing her shirt and clambering onto the stage of a go-go bar to arrhythmically shift her heavy frame among the stable of bored-but-still-sexy bar girls," it said. quoted an apparently fictional Thai "clinical psychologist" who said: "It's almost inconceivable that she can remain totally unaffected  by how poorly her sweaty, hulking figure compares to those of the much more slender and lithe Thai women who surround her."

Lifestyle tips, including what to do if there’s a coup

That satire echoes a sad reality, frequently expressed by foreign women in newspapers, magazines and online, about how they are "invisible" to other foreign men in Bangkok, and end up self-conscious and lonesome.

But Starr, who was president of the American Women's Club of Thailand, says Acclimate can help women tackle the woes of "marital problems, including infidelity and divorce."

The magazine's other themes provide positive, constructive ideas for "real women in our community, who have either overcome great obstacles or lived through exciting situations," and how to deal with "identity loss -- that loss that trailing spouses experience when they give up their own careers, or established roles, in their home countries," she says.

Acclimate's readers are "typically holders of college degrees and, in many cases, advanced degrees. Many have held professional jobs."

Schools for children, medical advice, financial tips, books, where to get big bras and other information are also favorite topics. Starr even has tips on what to do if another coup is staged in Bangkok.

"Keep a supply of food and water on hand so you're prepared to wait out a situation for a few days. Keep a supply of cash on hand in case banks close or you don't have time to get to an ATM. Have an escape plan, which could include having open-ended plane tickets on hand for the family, as well as knowing what you would take with you if you had to leave suddenly."

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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