In recent times I have been obsessed with an interesting term: Trailing Spouse. By definition, these are the spouses that are destined to follow their other halves wherever they are posted for their job or profession. Their counterparts are generally offered a high profile job in a foreign country. The trailing spouses may otherwise be educated professionals who may have had a stint in their career in their home countries before. The tailing spouse may not be able to find work in a foreign country, because of lack of opportunities or lack of suitability to their qualifications to the new changed situation. It might also be because of their preoccupation with their growing up children or their immigration status prohibits them from taking up a job or profession. I have also had my share of a trailing spouse. My husband left India for work in early 90’s and I followed him wherever he went. We have lived in Bahrain, Singapore and now we are in Brunei. While in Bahrain, I was lucky enough to erase the “trailing” prefix as I filled in for someone who had left the job in Indian school. Bahrain is a small city state in the in the Middle East. The Indian school there is set up by the Central Board of Secondary Education of India. Except for foreign languages, the school teaching staffs were Indian. I taught physics to junior college students there. We decided to bid good-bye to Bahrain after our enjoyable stay of two years. We returned to India, set up home, and I used this time to work on my doctoral thesis. But in just a year my husband took up another assignment in Singapore. With that I had to be prepared to be a trailing spouse, with a ‘dependent’ immigration status. But I was lucky here too. Singapore had been very generous. Just in a year’s time I got some part time teaching offers and then a full time employment with the National Institute of Education as an Educational researcher. With a school going daughter, her activities, parent-teacher meetings, meet ups with other parents, we were never short of meeting new people. Adding to that, the work and the colleagues filled in some remaining vacant spaces. We became close to so many of our colleagues and friends that some of them were almost like our family members. We shared our happiness as well as our sorrows. In short, we had many opportunities to know new people and friends, the 17 years we lived there passed so quickly.
Two years ago, when my husband mentioned about Brunei, I was again prepared to be a trailing spouse. However the situation is different now. My daughter lives and works in the United States and it is just the two of us at home. After being in Brunei for last 10months, I can safely say that I am a trailing spouse. This is the first time I am actually experiencing what it is like to be trailing a spouse, leaving back everything; your home, family, friends, and work. Coming prepared to be a trailing spouse and then actually experiencing the life as a ‘follower’ are two very different things. I realised that my husband’s colleagues and his acquaintances are my only my points of contact. When we first got into Brunei we were living in a hotel for few months. The hotel provided only local channels so, with my inability to understand Malay, watching TV was out of question. The local newspapers did not carry much information about happenings. I did not get to see any prominent visuals in the malls or the advertisements at the traffic junction did not inform me of the latest happenings. I used to wait for my husband to come back from work and would take a stroll in Pusat Bandar. The streets were mostly deserted. I checked out with the hotel receptionist about local art and craft and hobby classes, but she could not help much. Tasek lama was within walking distance of our hotel. Every evening I would go there. I would take the steep road next to the Raddison hotel and enter the jungle there. One of the hotel guests was also regular there. A pregnant lady was often seen going up and down the slope. When I did not see her any more, I guessed that she must have had a baby. After 1 to 2 hours in jungle, I would be out of jungle and in the park. This was the only thing I could do on my own.
Human beings are curious animals, so am I. I would like to find out more about Bruneians. How people live in Brunei, what they do, what are their talking points, what are their concerns, aspirations, their hobbies, their lifestyle and their take on life in general. However, I don’t know much about the people in Brunei. Things have started to look like a closed affair. I kept comparing life in general in Singapore and in Brunei. In Singapore, with its prominent sign boards, active publicity of each and every instance, and the bloated newspapers full of news and information about Singapore and Singaporeans, you will probably never be at loss about information or what to do. If you wish to know about the everyday life of people around you, it was so easy to peep into it. It could be as simple as taking the public transport. You just hop on the train or the bus, and you are surrounded by interesting sights and sound. School going children, senior citizens, working adults, and kids in the pram create the hustle bustle. Folks reading books or flipping pages of magazines, give you a sampler of their interest. Age is no bar for playing games or listening to music on hand phones. You can see both teenagers as well as older folks engrossed in it. The loaded shopping bags provide you some insights about the shops or places people visit. Once I found myself sitting next to a teenager with a small needle and strips of coloured papers. Here I got introduced to paper quilling. These props people carry or engaged in also provide an opportunity to exchange some words with them. Well-stocked public libraries, humorous talks, live musical performances, hobby classes, also provide opportunities and spaces for small interactions with people. At home in Singapore, our neighbourhood residents’ group had fortnightly coffee mornings where in causal surrounding we came to know each other, our likes, our hobbies and went out occasionally for lunches and events. The first time I danced in a club was during our ladies only night outs. That time I came to know that I am not so bad at dancing. This give and take with people also allowed me to explore myself and create new interests too.
I knew about Brunei when one of our close friends moved here to work. She had also worked in Singapore so a comparison was obvious. When asked about Brunei, she would mention the big houses, tax free salaries and cheap petrol. She and her husband both are exercise freaks. So talking about greenery and ample trekking trails was a central point of her descriptions about Brunei. I could see how rested and stress free she sounded. Another friend of mine based in United States mentioned about an Indian naturopath settled in Brunei who offered naturopathic treatments and how he cured her illness symptoms. A search in Wikipedia informed me that Brunei is well developed country. So I was looking forward to lead a healthy and holistic lifestyle in Brunei. With the population one tenth of Singapore and the size 10 times of Singapore, with hindsight I knew that social contacts will not be something easily available, and that too for someone who is a trailing spouse.
Then came a time to say good bye to the hotel where I spent two months. Our employer asked us to choose our place of residence. We were given choices that included some lovely houses and apartment. I loved the idea of sipping afternoon tea or hosting barbeque parties on the manicured lawns of a house. Already I was hungry to get some friends and buddies. Also I dreaded the loneliness when my husband would be away for most of the day or travels overseas for work. So we made a deliberate decision to live in an apartment instead of a house. In apartments there is sharing of elevators and common facilities such as swimming pool. I hoped that I might also get a partner to play a game of badminton or May be my neighbour also be a trailing spouse like me and so I might get a buddy. So we moved in an apartment. My apartment is in one of the four blocks and is a gated property where most of the residents are expats. I am already in my apartment for over half a year, but hardly there are any human interactions except with the maintenance guys. We have a swimming pool but mostly it is used by children. In the evening there are a few men who are regular in taking strolls around the block that is all I get to see real people out of about 100 families that live in. At times I see some men playing a game of badminton. One of our expat apartment mates invited us to open house during Hari Raya. We went in, ate lovely food, met few women, and exchanged good wishes. But there was no gesture of meeting again. Although we have some friendly neighbours and we do exchange greetings and pleasantries, these do not go any further. My casual offer to meet up and have a chat over tea is usually politely turned down. A neighbour once tipped me about the fresh fish market in Gadong. I looked forward to it. However all the fish names were written in Malay and almost all the sellers could not understand English. So I ended up buying fish from the one who spoke some English. I go to tamu (local market) for my veggies, but the small talk with the sellers does not go beyond exchange of goods. I miss out the fun or muse that comes when both parties share a common language in dealing. Most of my transactions merely boil down to getting the job done. (Continued)