Is it all chatty coffee mornings, lingering lunches and pretty pedicures? The reality of the lives of these, dynamic rather than desperate, housewives couldn’t be further from their stereotypes. Meet a group of women who live in Chiang Mai’s version of Wisteria Lane – a beautiful moo baan with Doi Suthep as a backdrop – where children have weekly sleepovers, neighbours help themselves to each others’ fridges and big houses are surrounded by mowed and manicured lawns.
Michelle Ring, English, 45, is married to an international sales exec with two girls, one lives in Australia and the other goes to Prem International School. She has been in Chiang Mai for ten years and is a serial entrepreneur, having opened (and closed) businesses ranging from hair salon, gay bar, tea/coffee shop, sex shop, to dabbling in export. Her next door neighbour, Joanne Robinson, 41, moved here four years ago from England when her husband was appointed MD of a large jewellery factory, along with their daughter, who also goes to Prem. She is currently doing her PhD in education, via correspondence, at the University of Bath as well as working as a consultant for a local NGO. Across the road is Michelle Green, 26, a Zimbabwean whose husband works for the tobacco industry. Green has been here for seven years and the Greens have two daughters, one goes to Prem while the other is still in kindergarten. Green had her first daughter when she was barely 17 and spends her days in Chiang Mai catching up on her education: now doing her first year of a degree in Finance and Accounting at the University of London. And lastly, and just round the corner, is American Sue Smith (not her real name), 44, and recently seperated (her husband cosily lives across the street in the same moo baan _ so that they can both be close to their two daughters who are also at an international school). Smith has a master’s degree in Voice Performance and taught voice in universities. She volunteers teaching refugees part time, and is trying to start a business teaching voice.
“I believe that there are many opportunities for expat women here,” said Ring, who also admits that it can be very difficult. “I can’t work in my trained industry (inspecting safety standards of space satellites), so I end up starting up businesses which are not in my field of expertise.”
“I was working 40 hour weeks in England and it was a real shock to the system finishing work on a Friday, moving to Chiang Mai, and waking up on a Monday with absolutely no idea what to do with myself,” said Robinson.
“I agree, I hate the fact that I feel inadequate because I can’t contribute; I have an issue with just being a wife, some people view us as kept women,” said Green. “And even if we can get a job, it wouldn’t pay well,” added Sue, followed by a sagely group nod.
Smith, who was uncomfortable with the entire interview, explains, “In the States the word housewife implies being kept and sitting at home all day eating bon bons.”
“Yes, it sounds so 1950s!” Green enthused. “I don’t like the word, it sounds like we don’t have an opinion and that we are just here to serve our husbands, when in fact I am in an equal relationship and want to be viewed as such.”
“We gave up our careers to follow our husbands’,” said Ring, who was quick to add that she was not complaining. “The quality of life we lead here is far above and beyond what we could ever expect at home.” Robinson agrees, “We get to spend more time with our family and I would never have had time to do a PhD had I been working still. I can’t deny that we have a fantastic social life here and we can afford things which we could never dream of at home.”
“I still miss the feeling of pride in my work and the banter with colleagues though,” said Green.
“I know many expat women who want to do volunteer work,” adds Robinson, “but even that is not legal here, which is a real shame, in my opinion.” Smith, whose plea for anonymity and vagueness about her work is a testament to that.
All four women agree that it would be very hard for them to ever return to their countries. “I can’t see myself ever living in England again,” says Ring with a shiver. “Oooh, can you imagine going back to watching the pennies to save up for an annual week in Greece?” shuddered Robinson, who was still sporting a Samui tan.
“On a serious note though, one thing we can all agree on is that living here is the best experience for our children,” said Ring, followed by another round of vigorous nods.
“Our children are more innocent here than they would be in the States,” said Smith, “they grow up too fast there because of all the commercialisation, they are expected to be women, to wear makeup, to follow fashion, here they can remain children for longer.”
“Compared to my friends’ children back home, my daughters are more respectful,” added Ring.
“It’s the quality and pace of life that allows us to spend more time with our children and to take the time to be kind to people, this has all rubbed off on my daughters,” added Smith.
“It’s not only my children who have grown up,” pondered Green, “I came here when I was 19, so I grew up here too. I have learnt about different cultures, beliefs and it has taught me so much about the world.”
“I have a huge respect for Thai culture and its people,” said Ring while complaining about the racism and unfriendliness of the English.
“Our girls [for some reason there is hardly a boy in the entire moo baan; every day after school gaggles of up to 15 young expat girls and tweens cycle and skateboard around the estate] don’t have a prejudiced cell in their bodies,” said Robinson with pride. “They don’t see race, religion or nationality, they just see people.”
“I think that my family has only grown stronger for living here. I not only have more time for my children and my husband, but for myself as well,” smiles Ring.
“The whole experience of living here is an adventure for the entire family; it binds us,” pipes in her uninvited husband, who, fascinated by the dialogue, has been hovering over the interview.
“Let’s be honest, we all know that there are also huge problems for many marriages here. There are so many temptations,” reminded Green.
“I have been through this recently,” murmured Smith, who has only been seperated a few months. “I don’t blame Thailand though, we had cracks in our marriage before we came and my husband and I actually have a stronger friendship now than ever before, the environment didn’t change us.”
“How many of our friends have been divorced recently because their husbands have left them for Thai women? Temptation is everywhere here, my Dave couldn’t get a date at a retirement home back home, but here, he is ‘handsome man’,” chortles Ring as her husband attempts to look indignant. “Still, I trust my husband and believe in our marriage, so I am not worried about outside influences,” she adds.
“We are all happy here now because we have settled and we have a life,” added Robinson, who said that when she first arrived she thought she would only be here a year or two so didn’t make much of an effort.
“Like being an expat anywhere, you have to take control of your life,” said Ring. “I knew we were going to live here for a while so I was active from the get go and I now have a fantastic life!”
Michelle Ring is now helping to establish a network of expatriate women in Chiang Mai. For more information visit www.chickynetchiangmai.ning.com.