I just met a mother-writer new to my neighborhood who — thrill of thrills! — has read my column. We discovered we both parent in expat bicultural families in Thailand, have preschoolers and infants under one, and wordsmith for the children’s fiction market.
“You know that coffee shop in the strip mall by the gate, the one the expats don’t go to?”
“Yes, I write in there, too! Every time I have a deadline!”
“You know this children’s content conference coming up in Singapore?”
“Yes, I’m going! Are you?”
Our conversation flowed naturally as we affirmed each other both as multicultural moms and as storytellers. The experience was rare and sweet: As an expat “trailing spouse,” I grow used to having my physical place and professional community oceans apart. Though I live in Thailand, the people I work with tend to live in the U.S. and Japan; I talk to them online and meet them once or twice a year, if at all. They rarely see my home, and my neighbors do not see them.
I am hardly alone in this: our expat neighborhood harbors many spouses who left a career or went freelance to follow a partner’s job overseas. These spouses boast various professional backgrounds — labor and delivery nurse, realtor, designer, engineer, journalist — yet these backgrounds can disappear when their most visible job is being the at-home parent.
As my newfound colleague and I dip biscotti and watch the time, mindful of preschool pickups, our talk turns to long-distance Master’s programs, sometimes termed “low-residency” or “low-res.” These programs can benefit expat spouses who live away from desired graduate schools, yet want the feedback and qualifications they confer. I earned my own MA from a program in the UK, studying at home and writing exams in Bangkok: an American testing in Japanese at British Council Thailand.
The opportunity was priceless, but the experience taught me that “low-res” can be lonely. At a time when minding an infant made it hard to “get out” anyway, the course deadlines made it tough to spend time with friends, neighbors, or even my husband. Instead of exploring Thailand, I spent evenings, weekends, and holidays doing assignments that I sent abroad. I found I became both “low-res” in the UK and “low-res” here — and not fully understood where I live, where the work lacked context. Any freelance work performed abroad can bring with it this “low-res” pitfall.
The chat with my fellow writer got me thinking about the opposite state of affairs — the state of having one’s work life merge with one’s place, like the overlap of circles in a Venn diagram. Maybe the term for this should be “high-res”: a state of being who one is, where one is, with nothing hidden from view. “High-res” as in high-resolution, like a high-quality image with nothing cut off or blurred.
In my own life “low-res” makes me think of neglecting our apartment while planning conferences overseas, and missing church to translate stories set elsewhere. “High-res” makes me think of writing reviews for a local expat newsletter and having my husband and daughter see their names in a book I translated. I even shared the book with a fourth-grade class here, using Thai-language examples to discuss translation from Japanese.
I recently had the ultra-“high-res” experience of donating a Japan-based mentor’s novel to the international school library, then seeing her invited here to speak with middle and high school students. I watched her praise a friend’s son’s story about a dragon, lunch with a teen my husband taught, and sign books on our living room sofa as my daughters and a gallery of stuffed animals looked on. She met the friend I found by doing this column, with whom she shared an acquaintance. I felt like part of an experiment in combining plots.
Though serendipitous, such moments have shown me that “high-res” is partly a matter of effort — of doing one’s work, irrelevant though it may seem, and being present in one’s place, that the twain may meet. If trailing spouse-dom (or motherhood anywhere) means rethinking a conventional career, it is still worth pursuing a vocation. And attempting connections, because sometimes they take.
My idea for this column began when I finished my “low-res” MA thesis and saw my mother festoon it with gold stars, but wished I could share a description of raising her bicultural grandchild in a third, and fourth, culture. I wanted this for her, for relatives, for friends and Kansas cashiers (curious about my foreign credit card) who had yet to taste miso or tom yam soup or arrange play dates with phrasebook vocabulary. Writing Four Worlds has led to, yes, more weekend hours alone, camped at the strip mall cafe, propping our preschooler’s art on the dessert menu and wondering if the baby has napped for my husband.
But from there I watch, as incense smoke curls toward a spirit house, as a businessman offers a hasty wai, as tuk-tuks and songthaew pickups whiz by and a daughter of roadside vendors approaches the plate glass window, eager to exchange smiles with the foreigner. I grin back, and write about it. Wonder of wonders, I am plying my trade where I live — capturing my place and time in a form I will share with my husband, our daughters, and readers from the mom-writer down the block to my mother on the other side of Earth, and in between. I am myself, and I am here. I am living the dream of “high-res.” Res for resident and resolution; high as in high honor, Japanese hai for yes, sky high, and a four-year-old’s jumping high-five. Hi to you, who has read to the bottom of this, and thank you for sharing this dream with me. I hope you enjoy a “high-res” moment today, and every day.