Monday, 11 February 2013

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? No, your expat friends.

There was this puzzle that was going around quite a few years ago. You get asked a question: If you were drowning in the sea, and could only save one person, would it be your:

a) elderly mother
b) husband
c) child?

I don't remember what my answer was those days, but most probably I just waved a silly question off with 'oh, dunno. none of them!' However, life does often present you with situations when you have to make a difficult choice.

A woman on our compound is known to be somewhat of a hypochondriac. Not only is she always ill, she is also pretty convinced everyone else around her are either very seriously ill or about to get diagnosed with a serious life threatening illness. So, please forgive me for my initial lack of interest when I heard a few days ago that her husband was rushed in an ambulance to a hospital with bad stomach pains. I assumed he would be back at the end of the day diagnosed with constipation. However, the man clearly was not well. He was kept in the hospital and transferred to the ICU (for a few hours). And (this time understandably) terrified, his wife rushed to the hospital with him.

Now, most of the ladies in the compound are very nice, helpful kind of people. One of them (with a few children of her own) suggested (very kindly) that the children of the poorly dad did not need to be dragged around the hospital; but could be minded by her. What she clearly did not realize was that the wife would remain in the hospital for days and nights.

Walking back from a Pilates session late at night, I expressed my concern, which was that, as a mother of a very young toddler and an 8 year old girl, this woman has some responsibilities. I understand that her husband is in pain, I understand she is terribly worried and afraid. But she has small children who need her at home, at least for some time of the day. At which point another neighbour got quite excited and shouted that there would be no way, simply no way!!! she would leave her poorly husband alone in a hospital. 'Especially in this country', added another neighbour. They asked me if I've ever had anyone sick in a hospital before. Well, as a matter of fact yes, I have had. More than once, I wanted to point out, but there was no easy answer, because, frankly... I could see their point of view. I really could. However, my decision was still the same- children come first, and my husband, unless on the death bed, could be okay for a few hours in a hospital with medically trained staff (yes, in this country too) while I could return home to look after them. Four of us stood late at night outside our homes, discussing what choice we would make, and the opinions were split in half. Two of us were determined children needed us at home, for reassurance, for looking after, for just sticking together. Two of us were adamant they would never leave the husbands alone in hospitals while clearly, in so much pain.

Being expats complicates the answer. It is not just leaving your children. It is leaving them with someone in the compound. Leaving them with neighbours. Not relatives. Not parents. Not even very close, trusted friends. Can this level of support be expected from strangers who simply happened to get thrown together in this strange accidental multi-cultural expat pot?

And then there are other questions, of course. If not your expat friends and neighbours, then who? Who will you ask for help should something go badly wrong? Would your parents fly over if you were this sick? Would they just jump on that plane? Some of us believed that the answer was yes, definitely. Some suggested that they did not really expect their parents to come.

Being seriously sick is never a good idea, to be honest. But getting seriously sick as an expat takes it to a whole different level. And in the end who do you run to? Yep. A bunch of other expats, accidentally thrown together in a crazy multi-cultural pot.


  1. So wife did remain in the hospital for days and nights? I suppose it is something more serious than constipation.
    I personally don't see any problem in helping each other. I know communities (where peaople are not the closest friends) where people take turns. Kids stay dor couple nights in one house, and for anither couple nights in another. What's wrong with that?

    1. Nothing is wrong, really. Nice that people and communities like that exist. But what would you do?

  2. Situations like illness or hospitalization are a catalyst, in my experiences, to bring expats together. You fill the roles normally filled by family because you know that the family can't be there, at least not immediately, and you do things for someone else because you care, and because you know that in that situation, if you were in their shoes, you'd need and appreciate the help. It's a bright side to a bad situation.

  3. When my brother got ill and had to stay at the hospital during long months, my sister in law stayed with him at the hospital. I moved in to live with my nephew, who was 8 back then. Later, my sister in law told me she could be with my brother because she knew his little boy was safe at home, with someone who loved him.
    But I've never thought of how you'd deal with such a situation living in a foreign country. It's complicated, indeed.