International Women’s Club


I’ve been thinking of you, lovely readers of this little blog. As I assembled the post for the Secret Valentine Exchange yesterday, I was struck by a feeling of déjà vu. I dug around the roots of my memories, and realized that almost everything about this blog takes me back to a very particular time in my life: grad school.

After teaching English in Japan for a couple of years in my mid-twenties, I knew that I would be a basket case trying to transition back into American society (ironically my English was in a state of complete atrophy), so I did what comes naturally to me and went back to school. I figured I could while away some time nestled in academia while I re-acclimated to giant food portions, direct communication styles and inefficient public transit.

As part of my Educational Psychology studies, I was required to find an internship. Luckily, I landed my first choice: the International Center. Here, I would work with students, faculty and staff from around the globe by coordinating programs and providing “counseling” — the counseling amounted to little more than advice on bureaucratic, visa-related information, however, and not the brainy/emotional stuff I had anticipated. Anyway. A foreboding orange building designed by a world-famous architect housed The International Center, and secretly everyone thought it was ugly. But inside, it was airy, brand-spanking new and filled with light.


The Director of the International Programs didn’t like me. It wasn’t overt, her dislike of me, and I thought it was my newly defunct language skills that made our interactions stilted. She was my assigned mentor, so it was a bit of a problem. She hurtled project after project at me with virtually no instructions but with plenty of inscrutable looks, and then took extended lunches. It became pretty clear that she wanted me to fail. Fortunately — or unfortunately — it turned out that I was very good at project management. She disliked me even more.

While that drama was going on, I busily managed a large number of programs including an ESL class series, a housing assistance package for newly arrived faculty, Los Angeles tours and orientation parties for international students, and campus events. I thoroughly enjoyed coordinating all these programs, but my favorite was an oft-ignored group known as IWC, or “International Women’s Club”.

Now, there were a lot of things wrong with the IWC, starting with its name. The program aimed to provide resources for the spouses of international professors and researchers invited to UCLA. First of all, the assumption that the academics would all be male and the spouses female is ridiculous and must have been a carryover from the previous century (or most likely modeled after the Officer’s Wives Club?). There was no International Men’s Club. Adding to the ridiculousness was that the program offered zero resources and was merely a line item in the handbook the international folks received as part of their welcome package.


In fact, I didn’t even know it existed until a couple of women wandered into my office asking about it. It was an awkward moment. But the women seemed keen on doing something — “we can join, yes?” they asked, so I agreed to come up with an idea and told them to meet me the next week.

The following week, they showed up, and we went to a coffee shop. We got to know each other over lattes and pastries (two things that seem to always mark significance in my life). One was a stunningly beautiful Korean woman married to a Swedish professor. I still remember her name, Sohyang. Her English was bare bones, but she was a mover and shaker and gesticulated animatedly about her many ideas for our new “club”. The other was from the Czech Republic with a higher command of English and equal enthusiasm. She was an academic and scientist herself, but her husband received the research grant and she found herself with too much time. The two talked of the loneliness, the unwelcome idleness – these were intelligent, competent women who had full lives back home. I understood.

We planned a weekly meet-up of varied themes, and I would be responsible for executing them. The following week, four women showed up and we went to the Getty Museum. The week after that I invited a French graduate student to lead a cooking class, and a couple more joined. And each week as we explored the city and attempted crafty or cultural activities, more women showed up. Word kept spreading, and after a few weeks, we had more than a dozen women — not a huge number, but more than I’d ever dreamed of and I had to rent a bus for our field trips. As it so happened, the spouses were mostly female, and it truly became an international women’s club. Japan, India, Hong Kong, Russia, Korea, Germany, Czech Republic…

We were friends. Amid what seemed like froth and frivolous activities (we baked Valentine’s Day cookies in my cramped apartment one week), we dealt with life-altering matters too. I helped a woman buy and take a pregnancy test – miming the process was undignified to say the least; I listened to stories told in tear-filled, broken English of family left behind; I answered questions on how to take a driver’s test. Quite a few of the women got together frequently outside of the weekly meet-ups too. In a small way, the IWC gave a foothold in an unfamiliar territory for these women who used to be skilled and successful professionals and contributing members in their home countries. Now that I’m thinking about it, new motherhood held me hostage in a similar helpless state of being. Nothing challenges your sense of self like wiping up baby poo from the wall and trying to decipher the ear-splitting squawks. It’s often messy, confusing and disorienting being a transplant.


At the end of the year, we celebrated with a big cookout. I ordered t-shirts with an “IWC” logo, rented space near a marina, and we all brought food representing our home. The food! So delicious. After a year of regular outings, we were comfortable in our hodge-podgeness with many inside jokes, a lot of extra hugs, knowing that this was the end. Some women had already departed on the next leg of their journey to far flung locales; some women would be staying longer – I was graduating and leaving the city, headed to San Francisco.

Sadly, I’ve lost touch with those remarkable women but I’ve never forgotten them, or the sheer magic of the community. It just worked, you know? I was a little forlorn too when I found them. After my stint in Japan, I had returned to the US a stranger, needing a place to call home.

The parallels are obvious, right? Here I am, in my airy, light-filled digital space, meeting with you daily to talk about things that seem outwardly insignificant. And every week, a few more of you show up to join me, forging an international community that feels comfortable, connected. Maybe the people who thought up the International Women’s Club weren’t sexist pigs but understood something important. That women are powerful together; that we naturally gravitate towards each other and accomplish unexpected and wonderful things. And just like my IWC ladies, you are amazingly intelligent and beautiful and strong – you are creators, and savers of lives, defenders of laws, researchers of science, teachers of Important Lessons, students of everything, givers of nurturance. You have become my friends. Thank you for giving me a foothold in this crazy, unfamiliar online world. Hmmmm, this turned out longer than I expected. My sentimentality knows no bounds, but that’s all for today. Over and out.

26 thoughts on “International Women’s Club

  1. So nice. This made me teary. In part probably because I am currently a spouse of a university professor who finds myself in a city where it is not possible to practice my past career, and I have struggled to find my own foothold. I have a professional job, but it is not exactly doing what is most rewarding for me. Plus, with having children, I am finding working life in general less rewarding than family life anyway. I think the lack of the things that used to occupy me – like work and better shopping – is what has interested me so much in new alternatives, like sewing and reading blogs. There is indeed a sense of community, which is enriching, and also it has taught me that I do have some creativity, and that is extremely rewarding.
    Thanks for this lovely post. Maybe I need to form an IWC of sorts for us transplanted spouses here in my city!

  2. I love this story. (Can you hear the clapping?) And wow- t shirts and buses and everything- you do sound brilliant at project management! Very cool.

    1. Oh, thank you Gita! I think I’m only good at certain types of project management. I was once in charge of a rather high tech project and totally bombed…

      1. I forgot to mention how much I really connect with the part of this story that highlights the importance of women connecting with women and forming community- no matter how hodge-podge or temporary. I also feel that hazy lost feeling very often as I tread through these waters of the living abroad experience. And if anyone asks me what I miss most about my country- hands down, I say “my women friends.” It’s so awesome that you experienced the power of those connections with a group of women that came together for that moment in time. I love that in these modern times the internet is providing an extension of that kind of community that helps us feel more linked to our creativity, our potentials, and our basic goodness.

  3. What a lovely story! You are right about the online world though, there is a great sense of community on so many of the blogs I read. I love the fact that the interwebs connect me to so many people who love sewing as much as I do because none of my RL friends do!

    1. So true, Nicki — there’s something about the sewing/crafting folks online that I ‘ve found to be very welcoming. It really is a great group!

  4. I totally agree with you, and being on a new city where i have no family or friends, makes me feel like the women You helped back then, as i come here everyday looking for inspiration and finding situations and emotions i can relate with. I love your blog an enjoy your writing so much that when i read You, i feel like i’m having a conversation with an old friend. Keep going on this awesome blog, Sanae!

  5. wow. just wow. I lack eloquence in the face of your perceptive, emotive writing. the power of female friendships – whether in person or across the miles – is an amazing blessing in our lives. thank you for sharing so much of yourself on your blog, Sanae!

    1. “Write what you know,” right? If there’s one thing I have a ton of, it’s stories about myself 🙂 And yes, I’ve been very very lucky to have had and continue to have some amazing friendships!

  6. I am all teary, too! You voiced that beautifully, Sanae. Yes, we are strong together. And thank you for providing a small but strong foothold in the online world.
    Seeing the international line-up of people who have already signed up for the exchange makes me all happy! It is an international Valentine´s club!

  7. Sanae, this is a beautiful post! Thank you for being so honest and emotional. It’s an honour to be part of this community.

  8. My blogger “friends” are definitely a comfort and help me to know I’m not alone in the sewing world. I also have a group of mom home schooling friends and they rock as well. Even though we are so unique it’s great to be brought together with a common purpose.
    BTW do you have any great tips for where to buy/find knit that looks like denim (like the stuff you used for K’s tiered skirt that was in the year review). I found some at kitchykoo but was looking for a bit closer. although I might just order it from there it looks so nice. it’s for skirts with attached shorts I want to make for the girls for spring/summer. I thought the denim look would go with everything. Thanks!

  9. I have to echo – what a lovely post! It reminds me of the time when I was part of a women’s group at a church I used to attend. I sorely miss that sense of fellowship and community!

    1. Thank you, Fiona! I’m definitely a girl’s girl, and have always loved being a part of women’s groups. 🙂

  10. I think there are international womens groups wherever there are expatriate communities. I was a part of a wonderful group in Pattaya , Thailand. The group did charity work as well as being a wonderful way to make friends with interesting women from all over the world. I miss the expatriate sense of camraderie, adventure and understanding. I live too far away from a major city to be a part of anything like that now but fortunately I have found a local group of women who are similarly minded, we have such great fun together. I just realised how much finding this group has improved my life here.

    1. You’re right, Corina, it seems that women always manage to find groups of like-minded ladies for support and fun. I have a good set of friends here in Seattle too! 🙂

  11. I’ve been living abroad for the last 5 years, and I know what you mean about losing a foothold, feeling adrift, lonely, etc… The group that helped me was my knitting group. We still meet up every Sunday, go on field trips, support one another, and whatnot. Transitioning cultures is tough, and your IWC ladies were very lucky to have you help them along the way. Truly.

    1. Crafty groups are so great! Knitting in particular lends itself to being a good group activity. A friend of mine who is a great knitter likes to go to baseball games with her friends – they knit while watching the game!

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