Foreign Service Flashback: Circa 1997

My writers’ group was discussing blog rants last week, and the article below came up. I wrote it in 1997! I don’t think it really counts as a “rant” by modern standards, but it is a snap shot of a much more frazzled me, preparing to move back to the States with two small children after a string of four hardship posts: La Paz, Guatemala, Lusaka, and San Salvador.

Those were wonderful years in many ways, but also very difficult. For me, they included large doses of pre-internet boredom, loneliness, and medical and personal trauma. While San Salvador was the best and easiest of the four posts, by far, I hear my own fatigue and frustration in this piece. After five moves and seven years in the third world, I had clearly Had It.

My family has since moved on to easier posts: Prague, Washington DC, Vienna, and Warsaw. I call it Foreign Service version 2.0.

The culture of the Foreign Service has changed since then. When this commentary was published in early 1998, it generated replies from older spouses accusing me of being “indignant,” “resentful” and unpatriotic. In that much more homogeneous Foreign Service, there was no understanding of our demographic: not only less economically privileged than the diplomatic corps of the past, but among the first wave to graduate from college burdened with student loans.

Two letter-writers even said I had nothing to complain about because the only language I had had to learn (at that point) was Spanish! One basically said that since she had to pay for her own language training, no one should complain if they have to pay for it themselves. I still don’t understand that logic.  Why would anyone who has lived overseas not want spouses to get language training? Why wouldn’t you want things to get better for those who come after you?

In short, I was seen as a whining member of the “me-generation.” Yes, one writer actually used that term, though it usually refers to people a good two decades older than me. Here are the letters in a PDF file, with names removed.

I doubt that this article would elicit that kind of response today. In fact, though it’s not written the way I would write it now,  I think this piece represents pretty mainstream thinking among Foreign Service family members. While it’s definitely not all about the money, of course we ask what’s in it for us. It would be crazy not to. And occasional bickering aside, I believe we are much more inclusive and supportive of each other, on the whole. The playing field hasn’t changed much, but the team definitely has.

Foreign Services family members do expect more than they used to, but they should expect more. Too much of this article could still be written today, 17 years later, as we prepare for our seventh, and last, Foreign Service tour.

(I do think I’m a better writer now, though. “Entitled?” “Rights?” Really? Ah, youth…)

What’s In It For Me? 

Written in spring of 1997, published in the Winter 1998 issue of the Spouses Underground Newsletter (now evolved into Tales from a Small Planet). Reprinted verbatim with a few formatting adjustments for this newfangled internet thing.

As I make plans for yet another move—our fifth in eight years—I can’t help but wonder once again if all this is really worth it. We are about to move back to Washington DC for the obligatory three-year round of handshaking on my husband’s part to finally get us off the “cucaracha circuit” and on to that dream tour (you know–the country with no ongoing plagues or civil strife?) On the other hand, a Washington DC tour also provides the perfect opportunity to bail out and live like Normal People for the rest of our lives–that is, if a Foreign Service family can ever be “normal” again!

So, as my kids grow away from me, and I begin to have a life apart from fulfilling their momentary needs, the time has come to reflect on the balance of benefits and disadvantages that the Foreign Service offers to its dependent family members, and whether it is indeed worth it to continue.

So, what’s in it for me, anyway? We all know what we have given up in order to follow our diplomatic spouses around the world—careers, family ties, stability, our intestinal health, etc.—but what exactly are we entitled to in return?

The time has certainly come to take a close look at this issue, and to define it in no uncertain terms, as the Foreign Service is changing before our eyes. Budgets are being cut, and will no doubt continue to be cut, and the services and employment opportunities that we as dependents count on to make our lives tolerable over­ seas are a mighty soft target. It’s the 90s and the largely female dependent community has other options than to put up with poor treatment from the foreign affairs bureaucracy. Many talented diplomats must constantly teeter on the verge of resignation due largely to their spouses’ dissatisfaction. The Foreign Service could risk losing some of its best people in the next few years.

Chase the dependent wives and husbands away, and the United States will be represented by a diplomatic corps of hard-drinking, lonely bachelors, walled up in their Embassy compounds. We as spouses are the friendly face of the U.S. overseas, coming in casual contact on a daily basis with the huge majority of local people that will never attend a diplomatic reception, or meet an Ambassador. We are more accessible and less intimidating than diplomats at work, and we almost never have to say no to a visa request. We are the parent who helps out at school functions, the club member who volunteers his/her time and talents to local charities, and the nice American lady who puts up with the supermarket bag boy’s attempts to practice English on her.

So, the question is: do we need the Foreign Service, or does the Foreign Service need us? I think that it’s the Foreign Service that needs us, and as such we should keep in mind that we are in a position to demand a certain basic level of service from our Embassies abroad.

Clearly there are many tangible and intangible benefits to a life overseas. The tangibles are obvi­ous: international experiences, affordable child care, not having to clean your own bathroom, etc. But many of the more concrete advantages to this life are eroding rapidly. There can be little job security in an era when entire agencies are threatened with extinction. Federal employees are subjected to the hardship of government furloughs on the whim of a few Congressmen. Pay is widely acknowledged to lag far behind similar work in private sector. These factors clearly affect us as much as they do our Foreign Service spouses there are few professions in which one’s entire way of life is as dependent on one partner’s job as the Foreign Service.

I recall when two long­-time American AID employees were suddenly (and apparently randomly) terminated last year at my current post. The effect on post morale was considerable, as the two employees and their families made hasty plans to uproot their entire lives and get back to an uncertain future in the U.S. Each family lost not one job, but two, as the wife was forced to resign her hard­ won position as well. Many of us awkwardly tried to offer words of consolation to them, but the thought inevitably entering our minds was better you than me. This can hardly be considered to be an idyllic work environment for anyone concerned.

So, what is the bottom line? At what point do we say “enough is enough,” and move on to what will hopefully be a better and more stable future? As we are a fairly modern Foreign Service couple, I suppose I hold veto power. What then, are my basic requirements for continuing in the Foreign Service?

A few items come to mind:

First, my husband’s salary and benefits, including housing, must add up to enough to support my family. We always knew that no one ever became a millionaire in the Foreign Service, but the fact is that a “normal” American family now consists of two income-earners, not one. As far as I am concerned, all those “luxuries,” such as free housing, or hardship benefits, serve merely to compensate in some small way for my lost income while we are overseas. Not to mention the fact that even in Third World countries the rents on de­cent housing are outrageous by American standards. So, the minute we are denied decent, free housing, or are taxed for using it, is the minute we resign.

The same goes for hardship differentials, not that we don’t deserve them just for living in some of these places any­ way. If it hadn’t been for the substantial hardship differential in our first post, there is simply no way we could have begun to pay our bills, which included two sets of student loans, on my husband’s meager starting salary.

Second, and on a related topic,

I expect the US government to make a good faith effort to provide employment opportunities for me while I am stationed overseas. Now, I knew when I got into this that it wasn’t exactly going to be the fast track for me career-wise. I have never expected to be handed a career by the US government. But, when there is a job that can be performed well by an American dependent at post, I expect that job to be opened to applications from dependents at that post before a Beltway Bandit is automatically called in at an astronomical cost.

I expect the application process to be open and fair, both because it is the right thing to do, and in deference to the fact that because we change posts every few years we cannot possibly be expected to “network” the way we might in the U.S.

I expect that I will be paid a fair wage for my work, and that I will be able to acquire some seniority both in terms of wages and responsibility over time.

Embassies should also provide some assistance to dependents in seeking employment on the local economy, through active enforcement of bi­ lateral work agreements and by gathering information about local work opportunities, (a service which is routinely provided to the spouses of relocating professionals in the States by their employers).

Third, I believe we are entitled to certain relocation services from the Embassies in which we serve. Most of these services are currently handled, and usually handled well, by Community Liaison Officers at the moment, but it looks like that funding may be imperiled. It seems to me that with each move we make we find that the CLO in the new community is doing less than in our previous post, largely due to cuts in funding. I don’t need my hand held when I arrive at a new post, but there are certainly those who do, and it is not unrealistic to expect Embassies to assist in coping with culture shock and other hazards of overseas living.

Services such as newcomers’ gatherings and the like are not disposable frills. They are lifesavers when you are surrounded by boxes in a bare house with not a friend for thousands of miles. I expect a CLO office to be equipped to handle my requests for information about community organizations, schools, neighborhoods, Embassy services, language tutoring, etc., and then I can take it from there, as can almost any other experienced diplomatic spouse. It’s a whole new country after all!

Fourth, I consider language training for spouses to be absolutely necessary. It’s bad enough that as a USIA spouse I do not receive the full language course that my husband does, but don’t even think of denying it to me altogether! As we all know, upon arrival in a foreign country Mr. Diplomat enters a walled compound populated by bilingual FSN employees, leaving us on the outside to deal with moving men, maids, repairmen, vendors, doctors, our children’s teachers, you name it.

This is not merely a matter of accomplishing the grocery shopping, or getting a haircut, although those alone would be plenty of reason to train spouses in the language. Most of the posts in which we serve have crime rates and traffic patterns which would terrify the average American. It is dangerous to move about these cities with no knowledge of the local language. Numerous spouses at my current post have been carjacked or robbed, and I myself have been mugged while accompanied by my three-year-old daughter. If I had not been able to understand what the muggers were after, I can only imagine how much worse things might have turned out.

I won’t even go into the usual argument about how we need the local language in order to be witty and entertaining partners for our spouses at cocktail parties in my opinion that implies that you don’t need the local language unless your spouse is a section head. At my current post there are many dependents who complain of feeling highly confined and depressed—lack of ability in the local language is a key factor in most of these cases. In short, the ability to communicate in any situation enables me to function as a normal independent adult while living overseas. If that is not a basic right, then I don’t know what is.

Last, but not least, we are entitled to respect. That is a pretty vague concept, but I can think of some pretty concrete ways in which it manifests itself. We need to be recognized as full participants in the Foreign Service, and not mere baggage. We may never be paid for all those receptions and dinners we organize (in our second language!), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thanked.

Furthermore, as full participants, we should never be expected to volunteer our time without being asked, and I mean really asked. It must always be our option to say no. Our opinions and concerns should be taken seriously by Embassy administrators, and even solicited on occasion when the issue concerns us specifically.

And we should never, ever, be asked to volunteer our unpaid time to fulfill basic Embassy functions, no matter how tight the budget. We are a large over-educated, under­ employed work force, and the temptation to take advantage of that is strong in an environment in which Embassy administrations are expected to accomplish twice the work with half the money. Our job is to cope with a transient, profoundly inconvenient lifestyle with the few tools that are given us. This is a tough and ongoing task, and no one has any right to demand more of us than that. We’re busy!

We as a group do have options about our futures, and occasionally the Foreign Service establishment needs to be reminded of this. It’s not as if we are a bunch of losers who do this because we have no alternative. We choose to make it possible for our spouses to serve as diplomats by directing our energies in what are by now non-traditional ways—full-time child rearing; volunteer community service; working at jobs that we were never trained for, and never thought we’d end up performing.

The benefits to this lifestyle are considerable, but they don’t just come to you, you have to reach out and grab them. I think that there are few tools that most people would agree are essential to make a life for yourself out of all this chaos. Take those away, and I’m outta here, dragging my husband with me. I am all for serving my country, but I’m no martyr.

So if you’re reading this issue of the SUN Hillary, roll over, poke Bill, and tell him about us

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4 comments

  1. I’m very interested in the respect dynamic you mention – particularly regarding being volun-told to do things, as opposed to being genuinely asked or having the real opportunity to volunteer. And what I mean by the latter is this: does your involvement, as a spouse, reflect on your spouse’s “corridor reputation”, which I hear goes a long way towards getting preferred posts and the like?

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    • That is an interesting question! You may or may not know that spouses were once included on employee evaluations. I am not making this up.

      But, that was a long time ago. I think that nowadays, a spouse’s impact on a career is mostly at the bidding/adapting level. Because most of us are more assertive about our needs, particularly employment, we can have a direct impact on the bids that an officer submits for posts and on the duration of those assignments–extensions and curtailments are quite often due to “family concerns.” Very few officers would take an unaccompanied assignment without their spouses’s OK, either.

      I asked my husband your question about corridor rep, and he says that he can’t remember a single instance of a spouse coming up with regards to an officer’s career except, ironically enough, in the case of very demanding ambassador’s wives, who can make life difficult for everyone at post. But usually those wives aren’t actually Foreign Service, being the spouses of political appointees.

      At my last post, I was never “volunt-told” to do anything. The most I have been asked to do over the last 15 years or so has been to attend a few events. My husband and I have an agreement that he won’t ask me to attend anything unless 1.) he thinks I would enjoy it or 2.) it really is necessary from a career point of view. The latter would include direct invitations to ambassadorial events (meaning, my name is on the invitation) or the occasional office or dinner party which I don’t mind going to anyway.

      Hope that answers your question!

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