On Life Overseas
I was going to blog about some serious topic, like the UN or reforming the Immigration service, but it just isn’t in me tonight. I hope, therefore, that readers will permit me the indulgence of a brief digression from the usual heady fare, even if it is tangentially related who we are and what we do.
A common misconception of life in the Foreign Service is that we spend our days in vaulted offices behind hardwood desks and our nights at cocktail parties swapping gossip over martinis. I like to poke fun at this stereotype, but it is largely untrue. For one thing, most offices are not that nice (I work in a 6 x 10 foot cubicle), and while we do have to go to cocktail parties and receptions, they are overrated, and I personally would rather spend that time with my family than with the Peruvian Second Secretary for Dingleberry Affairs.
There are other downsides to life in the Foreign Service: moving every few years, leaving old friends, having to make new ones, to say nothing of the threat that comes with being a US government official overseas. I don’t think the average American has to remain vigilant of hostile surveillance (either from terrorists or foreign intelligence agencies), varying routes and times of travel so as to make themselves a hard target, nor do they have to have their car searched for bombs every time they park at work.
The other thing that is difficult for many FSOs is that spending such a huge chunk of their lives (around two thirds of their careers) overseas means sacrificing time away from their families. Being away from your parents as they age is nearly as difficult as knowing that your parents can’t be there to see their grandchildren growing up. If a parent should become ill or die while you are overseas, you must deal with the guilt of knowing that you couldn’t be there, even if your presence there couldn’t have helped.
To compensate for this feeling of disconnection from American friends and family, Foreign Service families become closer and embassy communities become close-knit. While this fishbowl-like situation can have its downsides, the feeling of community in an Embassy is one of my favorite things about the Foreign Service.
Today I went to a party in honor of the 40th wedding anniversary of a colleague. He and his wife have been in the game for a long time, working for several government agencies both domestically and overseas. They have traveled around the world several times, and had created a series of posters with pictures of their children and their various travels in exotic locales. Due to work/parenting commitments, their children couldn’t make it to the event; fortunately the wider embassy community consisting of friends and "surrogate family" came out in numbers.
We had a great time, eating, drinking, sharing stories from around the world. The food was good, the company was great, and to top it off we sang songs from various periods to commemorate the lucky couple. The whole event put into sharp relief a few things about this life that far overshadow the negatives I mentioned above.
It is axiomatic in the Foreign Service that as you spend time living overseas in other cultures you both begin to lose track of what is happening in America vis-a-vis popular culture and gain an enhanced appreciation of America, Americans, and what it means to be one. This manifests itself in many ways: you find yourself discussing your hometown (which you were all too happy to leave behind for college) with your colleagues with a surprising fervor and longing; conversations about your sports team evoke a shared nostalgia; and you find yourself craving the most amazing things, like Burger King or Taco Bell.
Luckily, one of the most essential aspects of the American character is reinforced overseas: the sense of community and mutual support that I believe we often take for granted. Much ink is spilled over the decay of American communities, but I believe that this is alarmism. I believe that it took September 11 to make us realize that a sense of community and of neighborly helpfulness is woven into the fiber of our nation, and it transcends all of our contrived divisions, be they red-blue, democratic-republican, or whatever.
Those of us that are fortunate enough to serve our country overseas are always aware of this; we rely on it. I know that, should I need something, I could call any one of twenty or so people who would drop whatever they were doing to come and assist me. Naturally, any one of those twenty or so people could rely on me should they need anything. The friend who provided such support for me after the distance between the US and my post proved too much for a long term relationship became the recipient of my support when a bitter relationship ended in divorce (an occurrence that, like alcoholism, is more prevalent in the Foreign Service than among the general populace).
The bad news is that these people, with whom you become so close, eventually pack up their bags and move on, to another post, to retirement, or to a job back in the US. Or they remain behind while you pack up your bags and move on to another post. The good news is that when you are in Abuja, and they are in Ulan Baatar, and you just had a hankering to go to Mongolia, you know who to call. And while a phone call may be expensive, they are always there to talk to, even if you got the time zones all wrong and called them at 4:30 in the morning.
And there is always the thought that, since Washington DC and the staid confines of the Harry S. Truman building are the axis mundi of the State Department, you will in all likelihood run into your friends in the corridors or cafeteria in the land of the grape smugglers. Then there are stories to exchange and old times to reminisce about, and the possibility that you might meet up later at the Brickskeller or some other place for beers and more reminiscing.
This afternoon, just as the day was beginning to grow old, we loaded the car and headed back home, the laughter, stories and singing echoing in our heads. The good weather only added to the good mood. As I piloted the car home, the sun glinted off the water on the horizon, blotches of black describing ships plying the waters. Privately I realized that this was one of the moments where, despite the numerous hardships the job entails, I’m a pretty lucky guy.