J Simens.com

Beloved Stranger: Hired Help or Much Loved Reference Person?

This weekend, I was lucky enough to share a view about my family’s exposure with household staff around the world. FIGT (Families in Global Transition) near Washington, D.C. was the perfect place to showcase these beloved strangers in an Ignite speech.

If you are not aware of what an Ignite speech is, it is a great way to get a topic across to the audience. Ignite is the name for a particular type of speech that is held throughout the world—organized by volunteers—at which participants speak about their ideas and personal or professional passions according to a specific format. The event holds the motto, “Enlighten us, but make it quick!” The presentations are meant to “ignite” the audience on a subject, whereby awareness, thought, and action are generated on the subjects presented


We used to believe that dinner would magically appear on our dining room table and that our daughter’s long, long hair could be easily braided – French Braided in a matter of seconds. We thought our toddler’s t-shirts actually looked better when they were ironed!


For you see, we were an American Family that moved  abroad, and we had household help.  We were a family of four, but we added more people into our home. How many of you have had household staff? It can be a dream come true!

Some of us even believed that folded, stacked, and ironed underwear is common.


But here’s the thing – Let’s talk today about the neglected souls we leave behind as we move from assignment to assignment.

As our friend Eva calls them, “Beloved strangers”.  They are the nannies, the maid, the drivers and the cooks that are part of our global families framework.


Raising my own two children abroad- five different continents, nine different countries and in a variety of homes, we have had our share of support people or “additional family members” such as Shri, Watti, Sarman, Heddy, Khun Oil, and Somchai they were a much-loved part of my children’s lives.


 My 3-year-old son was comfortable speaking Bahasa Indonesian he would often fall into that language, did it bother me? No.

Did it make me worry about the sharing of love he has for his nanny who taught him this language? No.

Did I perceive it as a competition for his love? No – not at all.


Well perhaps when late at night as he snuggled into bed, and I’d ruffle his hair and he mummer in Indonesian…. “saya suka”.  I knew this meant ” I like”…but late at night in his soft baby voice, it felt more like “I love”

I wondered who that was that directed to?



Living in Jakarta during the overthrow of their government of 30 years, we had a set of security guards for our home. These guys worked a very complicated rotation of shifts, but our home was protected 100% of the time. Our company defined them by their job description, Security guards, Night Watchman, rotational guards. And at times I did to.


My son knew which one would gladly give him a piggy back ride from the car into the house, which one would share his soda with him and even who had children about his own age. These were things I didn’t know until my own son shared that with me.  I am not proud of this.


These-Cross-cultural relationships take effort to foster. They can be eye opening; they come with their share of hardships and misunderstandings as well. They are not easy.  Sort of like eating cookies and making them look like this! Making families mesh and understand each other when they come from completely different backgrounds isn’t always easy.


When you open your home for a beloved stranger, they get to visit your world. But you can also visit their life by being pleasantly introduced to things you never thought you’d see, do, smell, taste or feel. My children left pieces of their hearts in many locations around the world.


My son is a writer. He said, “The hardest part about a life overseas is the fact that nothing lasts forever. You can never know if it is your last year in one place, and whether or not you have to say your good-byes. He announced that he would love …


To take back all those good-byes and turn them into “welcome back”. He said, I would not just keep my clothes, gadgets, and idle playthings; I would keep my friends, my family, my nannies, my cooks and my drivers -everything that matters most to me.


At this young age he was trying to combine his four cultures.  He said, “I can live anywhere in the world- It wouldn’t matter to me, as long as I am with the people that matter most to me, and I’d go anywhere. As for now, my house is simply a plane, moving me from location to location, dropping me into new memories and new faces.”


Often staff seems invisible, defined only by their job description – their personality and character traits do not seem of great interest in many expat families. At least not to the adults in the family. Kids are often much more interested in them.


My son’s art shows the confusion for these neglected souls that were in our expat family. They warranted an equal space on the page but only in pencil. They were the same size as his family of four, but in pencil -. Is this because they are easily erased or changed as we relocated?


My time is almost up, and I still haven’t had the nerve to say the word -servant. This is an uncomfortable word to me. Yes, I paid them. But we prefer… Much Loved Reference Person.  We long to appreciate their service beyond the material compensation I paid.


  • We need to validate our memories.
  • We need to admit our feelings of appreciation.
  • We need to show our gratitude.
  • BUT we need to feel our loss.

Many of these family members are unable to trace even if we return to their home country. We don’t have enough information about them.


These neglected souls are the ones who comfort, who protect, who reassure us daily – and they are there for our family with out fail  – they are solid as a brick wall, supporting us always but easily fading away as we move on.



So let’s face the facts – redefine the expat family – include those forgotten neglected souls we leave behind as we move from assignment to assignment.

These  “Beloved strangers” – Are a part of your family – And now you are a team now, a progressive cultural force to be reckoned with.


Will your beloved strangers become visible and recognized?

Let’s kindle the relationships of these beloved strangers in our homes here and abroad. Let’s continue this discussion. For the sake of our children, let’s continue the discussion.

*Please let me know what you think about this presentation in the comment section! Thank you.


I did not start moving around the world until I was the age of 19. As a child who grew up in Kansas, I am always aware of how little things creep into my life. Did you notice the black and white pictures changed into color pictures?

I am a ‘Kansas Girl’ at heart and will always be. The most famous movie about Kansas is the “Wizard of Oz”.  Color was very expensive in the 1930s, so not many movies were filmed entirely in color. Lots of films had one color scene, which often represented a dream or something. Most of these films, when you see them today, the color scene is gone or it’s just in B&W. But in those days it was very rare and unusual and it came as a big surprise to audiences. It was a ‘gimmick’, an added inducement to see the film.

If you read the book, it explains how Oz was a ‘fairlyland’, i.e. a magical place where the rules of nature were different. For instance, all animals could talk. Inanimate things could become alive and move around (like the scarecrow). And witches and wizards had special magical powers (except the Wizard never really did, he only pretended to all along). So the idea that Dorothy came from Kansas and ended up in Oz was sort of a magical thing, and the shift from B&W to color would make that clear.

I wanted to use that same sort of “pow” in my ignite session. I have been just like Dorothy! Going from Kansas to a life abroad for almost 40 years –

  • Stacey Wallace
    March 23, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Five years after repatriation I deeply desire to express my appreciation to my former staff in Lagos. I printed several photos of them and the kids, organized them, and neatly placed them in envelopes. They have been sitting on the coffee table for three months now. I want to include a letter, but what do I say, “thank you for helping me survive.” “There were many days you drove me absolutely crazy!” “I’m sorry.” “My kids are better off because they were loved by you.” “I miss you.”

    Am I seeking ‘closure’ or am I reaching back to open a connection? Maybe soon I will find the words I need.

    Very interesting article…thank you!

    • March 25, 2014 at 3:49 am

      Interesting Stacey – closure or connection is something to ponder. I love all the possible combinations we could add to the letters to our staff. Lagos is one location that really needs these support people in our lives to make or break the time we have there. I still remember how we felt sending Victoria back to Ghana after her twins arrived. I so, so , so much wanted those lovely little boys in our lives but she really needed to be home with her extended family where she’d get life-long support instead of just the two to three years I could offer her. As that big truck pulled up to pick up all of her things and kids and etc. I was glad that we were able to get them a safe journey home across several country lines and security lines but felt some of my heart leave with her. I can’t imagine how my own two kids felt as the truck pulled away at 1:00 AM. They were set to leave at 10 PM so as many things in Lagos the extra time allowed us to say a proper goodbye.

  • March 24, 2014 at 3:47 am

    Great job at FIGT ! Was a pleasure and a privilege to see the Ignite session. So pleased you put it online so others can see your views on beloved strangers. Will this stay on this web page so we can link to it?

    Take care,


    • March 25, 2014 at 3:41 am

      Rick, Great to meet you at FIGT. It will be on the site under FIGT and Beloved Strangers. This year FIGT14 under the leadership of Kilian Kroll spent hours trying to weave the theme throughout the program. It was a nice end product. I am glad you were part of the presentations and also got to share your message. Fondly, Julia

  • Julia
    March 25, 2014 at 3:34 am

    Several Friend wrote me:

    You’ve hit on a very important point, Julia. We leave behind relationships with people who have been so central in our children’s lives. I often wonder how it impacts the kids in the long run? And I feel bad that we allow ‘our staff’ to invest so deeply in our family, only to eventually move away, never seeing or hearing from them again.

  • Julia
    March 25, 2014 at 3:35 am

    Another friend said:

    I found myself cautiously asking about their families. Often I wanted to help, but their problems were bigger than I could fix and sometimes more painful than I could bear. A difficult balance.

  • Julia
    March 25, 2014 at 3:36 am

    A friend said:

    My son is a writer. He said, “The hardest part about a life overseas is the fact that nothing lasts forever. You can never know if it is your last year in one place, and whether or not you have to say your good-byes. He announced that he would love …

    This is so poignant, and something to consider. Many families have a base somewhere where they return once or twice a year. It has made me think long and hard about doing the same for both kids and adults.

    Thanks for this article. It is fascinating and certainly something to ponder.

  • Ghadeer Hasan
    March 25, 2014 at 6:57 am

    Your time on stage made me reflect on how the relationships with staff evolve over time. During one of the breaks at the FIGT Conference a few of us began discussing your presentation. Smiles came across our faces as we remembered the exact time when staff became part of the family. IGNITE, you did. Much appreciated, Julia.

    • March 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks Ghadeer, it is a huge topic for my family since my children spent 100% of their time growing up with Drivers, Nannies, Cooks and security guards. I am sure that college hit without any household support was a killer for both of them, but they never told me that! What they did share is how important these people had been in their life.

  • April 1, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    Julia, I was sitting in the audience at FIGT as you presented, tears streaming down my face as I recalled helpers that were a part of our family in my growing up years; as well as house help, night watchmen, and cook who were a part of my family’s lives in Indonesia and Cambodia. They were like family to us and we have many enriched and fun memories of their lives touching ours.

    After years of being served in so many amazing ways by this ‘village’ of people, we repatriated back to Canada and the sentence became “Where is ____ (the cleaner, the cook, the security guard) when we need her/him?” The phrase didn’t just hold the desire for help, but the loss of connection and family we felt. We deeply grieved, yet didn’t realize it then.

    Thanks so much for putting this into words for us and I hope this gets out to many, so they, too, can have words to express those deep, deep emotions.

    • April 2, 2014 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks Becky, My own children often ask about our past helpers – and always with fondness. I enjoyed giving this ignite session since it was truly a part of my life abroad.

  • Dana
    April 7, 2014 at 10:50 am

    We have had two wonderful full time nannies and I keep in touch with both!
    I know that particularly the one in Africa supports her whole
    extended family on her salary and they live on the edge of hunger,
    so we send money sometimes. It means a lot to them that we
    didn’t forget them and their part in our lives because they
    will never forget us. Keep in touch however you can- through email,
    phone, make another contact in that country who
    can check up on them. Maybe your child will want
    to go back and visit one day, or maybe you will!

    • April 8, 2014 at 5:31 am

      Thanks Dana,
      One of the things that so many expats find hard is finding their staff once they have moved from one assignment to another assignment. For example, in Indonesia a person does not have to take their family name so they can be hard to trace. Often they are connected to a home and they stay when the expats move on but in other situations they move on when the Expat moves. Yet, they seldom go back to their “home” so unless they are connected by internet, they are hard to find.