Meet the Expatriate Housewives of Bangkok

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I think it can be said, without hurting anyone, that many expat’s stories goes like this: One, very often the man, works in a big corporation, the job is nicely paid, the partner works as well, life is pretty good. Then faith or life or coincidence or ambitions offers a chance for the man to work abroad, that could be in Thailand. It’s a huge decision to make, so you discuss the situation. What to do with the dog, the house, the family. You end up seizing the opportunity and bringing the family with. Now only one is working, full-time, traveling a lot and the partner needs to build a daily life for, let’s just say it, her-self. But how?    

Meet the Expatriate Swedish Housewives of Bangkok. ScandAsia joined SWEA Bangkok (Swedish Women’s Educational Association) on a hellish hot excursion to Bang Sai’s art and craft centre near the former capital Ayutthaya and 57 km from Bangkok.

Okay, admitted the trip was not dangerous nor dramatic at all actually, but it was insightful and somehow exclusive, as it was arranged for and by Swedish Women, two qualities that disqualifies ScandAsia’s man in the field. Though it should be said, that anyone, despite of sex and nationality, could join if they were invited by a member.

Meeting the ladies

We meet in the lobby at the Exchange Tower in Asok, downtown Bangkok. They’ve all turned up, when I arrive. We’re around 20 people in total. Normally 5-10 persons turns up to clubs events, Maria Junkrans, one the organizers behind the excursion, tells me. So this is a rather great success. Even though it’s still early morning the excitement can be felt in the lobby. Middle-aged, most of them blonde, and all talkative. It reminds me of a school excursion. Maria crosses my name from the list. We’re ready to go.   

A caravan of Toyota Fortuners elegantly approach the valet parking lane outside of the building, the women climbs in and the group shrinks in. You should think that this was arranged by Toyota or a likely sponsor, but it isn’t. This is just the car most of the women drive – or their personal drivers drive in this case.   

I share vehicle with Maria, the organizer, expat since August 2015, Annette Hjelmberg, co-organizer, expat for 2 years and Anna Björklund also expat for 2 years. They all share more or less the same expat story. Their husband got a job and they moved with, but they can’t follow their husbands all places, they have to keep their own lives as well, as Annette says. She just returned from a trip to China, where she went to see the Great Wall with a friend. Apart from sporadic trips around the region, everyday life gets by with: grocery shopping, thai classes, reading, meeting with friends and SWEA-events like today. It’s the simple life and they just want to enjoy it for some time. In Sweden Annette worked full-time as a Bio Medical Technician, Anna was working in a school canteen and Maria was an accounting manager.

As we exit Bangkok center after 30 minutes of traffic jam, roads and landscapes seems more deserted on a hot Tuesday morning like this, almost like a Western. This atmosphere persists when we enter the Bang Sai Arts and Crafts center archway and meet with the others. Apart from the staff, our groups are the only one there.

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The history of SWEA

SWEA is an 40 year old international organization for Swedish women abroad. It was founded in Los Angeles, Californien, in 1979 by Agneta Nilsson, who was designing and selling bikinis on the sunny American west coast. She had been living abroad in the States for more than 14 years, before she understood the need for SWEA.

Agneta Nilsson married a Swedish station manager at SAS and lived a rich life, often crossing the Atlantic to visit family and friends in Sweden.

“I understood that I was a lucky draw, who could read Swedish newspapers and had the closeness to Sweden whenever I wanted. Otherwise it could be tough to live abroad back then. You maybe only had the chance to call home a few times every six months and you only went home when someone died. It was the 60’s. I thought if I still have this need to be close to Sweden with my privileges, then there must be others that feels the same way”, Agneta Nilsson said in a interview with Hemmets Journal in 2014.

So she founded SWEA. Today the organization counts around 7500 in 70 local branches spread in 30 different countries and 5 continents. In SEA-region SWEA is organized in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Beijing. As a prestigious crowning of SWEA’s position in Sweden, Princess Christina, Mrs. Magnuson of Sweden works as the organizations honored President.

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“My life would have been poor without SWEA”  

“Welcome”, Monica Nilsson, president of SWEA Bangkok, since February 2016, takes the floor in the ceilinged hall and gifts shop-area. The group gathers around her. She runs through today’s program. We’re all free to strut around and look at the workshops and the gift shop, then we’ll meet again for lunch at noon. It’s basically free play.

The group scatters and divides into smaller groups of 4-5 women. I quickly do my best to hang on to the president and while we’re strolling by the showcases that displays the different jewelry, glasswork, handbags and other trinkets, produced in the centre, I ask her why SWEA is important.

“It’s a huge leap to move from Sweden to Thailand. For many people moving abroad can be very lonely and difficult, especially in the beginning. So SWEA is basically a good place to meet people, network and get a base when settling a life in Thailand”, she says. Birgitta Olsson, a 4 and a half year Bangkok-expat, joins the conversations.

“SWEA has been very important for me since coming to Bangkok. More or less all my relations origins from SWEA. It’s an important input to the everyday life, to have the option for golfing or day-travels like this”, says the 57-year old former midwife from Örebro.

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Some glances at the glass cases, others points and discuss the goods, now and then someone shops a scarf, everyone are talking and catching up it seems. I follow a group to the workshops behind the gift shop hall. Most of us soaked in sweat, while peeking in and out of the 10 different oblong workshops, where woodwork, glasswork, steelwork are crafted by concentrated Thai laborers. Anette has already shopped a handbag that she carries in a plastic bag. She tells me, that she was quite skeptical to SWEA before engaging with the organization.

“When I arrived 2 years ago and heard of SWEA I wasn’t interested. My first thought was that it would be old ladies drinking wine. But I found it was hard to adapt and I very easy got restless with not working. So I engaged and now I understand that my life would have been very poor without SWEA”.

I ask her why.   

“It’s very rewarding to meet with someone who’s in the same situation in life as yourself. We’re in the same stage of life and that gives a shared understanding to one another. Most of us have grown-up kids. This expat life is like a second youth to us”, she explains and compares it to when younger people backpacks or travel around in their sabbatical years.

Anette has engaged in a lot of SWEA’s initiatives. One example are weekly visits to migrants pending to be granted asylum in Thailand. This weekly event is now cancelled because of some issues that she doesn’t want to reveal.  

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Encouraging Swedish culture in Bangkok

There are 531 SWEA-members in Asia and Australia. The Bangkok division counts 62 members and is the fourth biggest in terms of members behind Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Singapore.

SWEA Bangkok started as a subdivision to Singapore in 1998, but broke out as an independent division in 2000, which was celebrated last year with a 15th anniversary party. Like any other SWEA-division, SWEA Bangkok contribute to display Swedish culture and traditions for expats as well as curious outsiders.

They are very attentive to mark all the greater Swedish anniversaries and encouraging Swedish culture.

We just had a Swedish summer party this Saturday with both Midsummer theme and Swedish food – the whole lot. 6th June we will have a Swedish National Day celebration together with Swedish Chamber of Commerce. We have held lectures at the Swedish Embassy where the Swedish Ambassador spoke about his daily work. Last year we arranged a number of company visits to SAAB Secure and Defense, Volvo Trucks and Tetra Pak and to Pandora”, Monica, the president, tells and adds that they of course also take an interest in Thai culture, as the visit to Bang Sai Art and Craft Centre illustrates.

“Mainly it is a social network where Swedish women meet in their own language and help out and have fun together”, she concludes.  

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One of the challenges for Monica and co. Is that the expat community is an ever changing community with lots of “hellos” and “farewells”. Members swiftly comes and goes. One would think that a lot of pioneer-work is required in order to keep a stable member base, but that is not the case, Monica says:

“As reaching out to newcomers, it is mainly from mouth to mouth – most Swedes know SWEA when moving abroad and they contact us via the web site. After that Karin, who is our responsible person for membership write a long nice Welcome letter to the person and attach our activities and tell about all info channels we have”.  

Monica admits though that the swiftly changing community can be hard, but it’s a unavoidable part of being an expat.

“To meet new people and also having to say goodbye to friends who will move away, is in a way part of being and living as an expat as I see it. People come and go in a 2-3 year period. It is the same for our children going to international schools. It is hard to say goodbye of course to people you attach to and like but you also know for sure that new friends will come and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if you are open minded and have social skills”, she says.

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The boring life of an expat-wife?

We gather for lunch at the center’s food court. The women alternately shows the acquirements of the day, afterwards queuing for rice and noodles. As we all sit divided at two tables my thoughts simmers: it has been pleasant, it has been nice and it has been a fairly interesting day. But I can’t stop thinking, maybe because this group of people is so far from what my life as a young man(almost boy in some ways still) in the beginning of my twenties, don’t they ever become bored with this expat-wife-life? Not working, not pursuing a career. It’s like years of summer vacation. I don’t dare to ask that while we sit and share a lunch. But while writing this article, I feel a need to ask. I pick up my phone and call… Firstly Birgitta Olsson, Bangkok expat for 4 and half years now and before that 26 years experience as a midwife in Sweden:

“I really have a good life”, she says “I enjoy this expat life, it’s a quality life, I have the time to be together with my husband and travel a lot. I have worked my whole life, so I really appreciate it. I mean everyday is not a happy day, you have sad days here as well, but that’s life. Every summer I return to Sweden for three months to work and visit friends and family. Sometimes you need to work and when I work for these three months during the Summer, then I enjoy the relaxed life as an expat here even more”.

I give Monica Nilsson, the president, a call:

”Of course I have days when I miss my previous full time working life tremendously. I worked the last 7 years as Meetings and Travel Manager at ESS, the large research facility to be built right outside of Lund in Sweden but it is a choice you have to make together with your spouse. It is hard to give that up but you gain other things instead. Life is an ever lasting adventure. If you want”

Lastly I ask Maria Junkars, the co-organizer of the excursion, who’s been enjoying expatriaity since the summer of 2015, if she ever find the life as an expat life boring.

“I guess different persons have different views of expat life. To me it is an opportunity to spend more time with my family, especially the kids but on the other hand I also miss my working life and to have a career of my own. Overall I think this expat period is a good experience for my family as a whole, that it creates a lot of good memories for us as a family and that I will look back  with gratitude. I plan to pursue my own career when I return to Sweden and in a lifetime perspective the expat period will only last for a short period” she answers as she tells me, that she “would very much like to work” in Bangkok.

I think I understand her. We have our lunch, finds shelter from the intense sun in our fleet of Toyota Fortuners and return to Bangkok.

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