On swapping kids clothes and a sense of expatness

If there was one piece of advice I would give to members of expat families right now, it would be to relax.

Today during a walk I was talking to an American expat whose granddaughter is about the same age as my daughter (a bit over 5 months).  We happened to get onto how hard it was to find decent-quality decent-priced baby clothing in Bishkek and I mentioned that I had tried to start a kids clothing swap with the Bishkek expat kids group, but nobody else sported any enthusiasm.  And part of that very well may have been the thought of the stigma of using second-hand clothes.  For me it’s a pragmatic matter: small kids grow fast and I know we’ll go through several changes of closet before we leave Bishkek.  I’m not filling my entire baggage allowance with clothes she’s outgrown, and I assume others also don’t want to cart around clothes their kids have outgrown from one country to the next.  And while I tried to buy enough clothes to last her until our next planned visit home (in March, which means I came back to Bishkek with clothes for 3-9 months covering 3 seasons), I obviously didn’t calculate in how often I like to do laundry. It is possible – generally – to find safe and sturdy(ish) kids clothes here, but it can be really hit-and-miss, and finding something like winter stockings may see you trekking to half a dozen stores and across the city (true story). Exchanging clothes just makes so much more sense.

But I also feel like there is this stigma attached to doing anything ‘on the cheap’ for certain expat circles in Bishkek.  Like exchanging kids clothes might imply that one doesn’t have as much money or can’t afford a certain lifestyle.

I’ve begun to notice that in Bishkek: it matters to have nannies and housekeepers and drivers, to have that level of comfort, to have (and be able to afford) “help”.  Being part of the ’embassy elite’ – or associated with an embassy – and all the privileges it entails can be a buoy, something to cling to and something that sets people apart.   And it seems that there is a subtle pressure to maintain this separation, to claim oneself as “well-to-do-enough”.  Perhaps this is in part because Kyrgyzstan is a relatively low-income country and, regardless of one’s job title or income bracket in their home country, expat employees are almost automatically guaranteed to be part of the country’s economic elite, and there are many people here who thus have access to certain comforts or status markers that they would not have at home.

I don’t mean to imply that these things – having household help, choosing to not use non-new – are ‘bad’ in and of themselves, but simply that they do not make the sum of a person, and there can be so many different factors and choices that go into any one decision (see above with the baby clothes) that it can’t be necessary to judge y or expect one standard.

I don’t notice the above phenomenon within the Turkish expat community, especially within the university – perhaps because everyone has the same employer, is one the same salary scale, and most live either in standard flats on campus or in one of a half-dozen newerish flats in the immediate vicinity.  While status and politics may be at play in the office, in economic terms there’s a more egalitarian view and certain level of nonchalance.

This was also something I never noticed while living in China, as I was young and single and hung out with other people who were, for the most part, young and single and unestablished.  We were there for the adventure, the experience, the vast spread of what could be learned and seen and achieved.  We bought local brands and laughed when they fell apart and laughed harder when we found outrageous fashions that somehow made it through production. We ate at cheap restaurants without a sense of shame because we were there to try what was local, instead of trying to recreate a copy of life back home.  It was a completely different way of approaching expathood – permanent exploration versus an emphasis on establishment of a temporary home. I obviously care a lot more about the safety of our infant daughter’s clothes than that of my own.  But there is something I think we can still borrow from that way of approaching a country as an expat: take what you find, enjoy what it is (lament, laugh), and don’t stress to much about cultivating a sense of status or how people might perceive your relative ranking.  Relax.  Where you are is what you create. Our relationships with others are as we create them, and far more valuable relationships are forged when we let down our guard a bit, when we forget to worry about how others might see us.

And, for those of you who are curious: I’ve cobbled together kids clothes from the following sources: LC Waikiki and several baby stuff shops in Ankara, amazon.com (brought by my mother when she visited), my mother (enthusiastic first-time grandmother = an irresistible urge to purchase a lot of tiny adorable outfits), Kidsmart in Bishkek (Toktogul/Togolo Moldovo), Aliexpress (shipping takes over a month), and one expat who was leaving and looking to sell off all her 16-month-olds baby clothes. Our cleaner’s stepmother just had a daughter 3 weeks ago so we’ve been channeling her most of our daughter’s outgrown clothes and baby paraphernalia (I’ll admit, I did have to keep one of two of our favorite first outfits…).

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