Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Attitude and the Collective Consciousness

Life in the foreign service takes you out of your comfort zone, and although your comfort zone expands as you adjust, there may be certain aspects of living abroad that always make you anxious. Everyone interacts with a place differently, and as we travel one of the most important things we have the opportunity to explore is ourselves.

Anxiety about not having control comes with worldwide availability, and it is not uncommon to feel the need to distance ourselves from posts that scare us. However, by being aware of our feelings, we may be able to avoid harming our fellow foreign service members by imposing our negative feelings on our teammates.

Everyone has a different opinion about what makes a post "good." Some people love small hardship posts for their tight knit embassy communities. Some are happiest in large, cosmopolitan cities. Some people love danger posts in developing countries for the opportunity to be a part of an important American mission at the ground level. Some base everything on whether or not they can take their Vizsla for a walk. Regardless of our personal preferences, communicating negative opinions about another person's post assignment is never helpful.

It is perfectly ok to have feelings about a post, and absolutely necessary to express these feelings in an appropriate manner to the appropriate people. However, because our experiences are influenced by our expectations, we must be sensitive about expressing negativity to our fellow teammates in the diplomatic community. Facts are helpful; negative emotion is not. This includes feelings about a post's safety, especially if that post has recently made the news.

When you are going to a hardship or danger differential post--or both--it helps to know that you have the support of your community behind you. That your service is appreciated as a contribution to a larger global purpose; not as something happening to you, but as something you are doing with the support of others. 

We have all, at some point, responded poorly when hearing of someone else's post assignment. What is important is whether or not we were aware that we responded poorly. As a whole the foreign service is remarkably supportive and collegial, and it is this characteristic that makes it a joy to be part of this community. However, mindful sensitivity is an ongoing practice, and we must remember that even when we are separated by oceans, we are all in this together.

Julie overcomes her fear of the unknown

Friday, March 26, 2010

Blue Sky Thinking

In American culture, a person's identity is linked to his or her job. We make assumptions, sometimes incorrectly, about an individual based on his or her profession. When a person is occupied in a way that makes it difficult to label him or her as a teacher, doctor, lawyer, homemaker, etc., the average American may find him or herself at a loss as how to define this person. We want want to know what you do.

Indeed, having something to do is important to our sense of self, and having fulfilling work contributes to our happiness, but the nature of the foreign service lifestyle requires an FSO's family members to be extraordinarily flexible regarding career opportunities, school choices, and many other aspects of daily life. For some FS family members, it is difficult to see past these losses to appreciate the rewards.

When our family decided to pursue a life in the foreign service, we agreed that I would not be expected to have a paid job. Although many foreign service families do not feel that one income will support their needs--perhaps especially those with kids heading to college--foreign service family members are not guaranteed a job at post. Thus, family member employment is an important element of the Family Liaison Office's advocacy and resource development. However, even though I do not feel compelled to have a paid job, I do seek "active indispensable employment."

Regardless of whether or not I am paid, I will always be able to define myself as a social worker as long as my work contributes to social justice and social change. However, before we left Florida, I wasn't sure that volunteer work could sustain my career. And I was concerned that not being paid could make me feel that I was less of a contributing family member.

I am no longer worried. As I research the opportunities to practice social work in Manila, I find myself drawn to volunteer and per diem work rather than full time paid jobs. Although that may change, I also realize that if I have a full time job as an embassy office worker, I will have less time to explore the city and learn about Filipino culture. However I employ myself, looking for work as a foreign service spouse is difficult, but offers the opportunity to expand one's definition of a meaningful occupation.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beyond Boundaries

When people are thrown together into an unknown situation, it is not uncommon for strong friendships to form quickly. Everyone is new, most are excited, and more than a few are a little anxious. The shared experience forms common ground, and your fellows in the process may come to feel like family.

In the Foreign Service generalist orientation, it only takes about four weeks for these bonds to form. Between the long days of class, the formal and informal social events, and a high percentage of the class living in one of the three Oakwood housing complexes, most FS officers and their families feel quite comfortable with each other by the time Flag Day rolls around. Thus, it can be startling to realize that the people who have shared this experience with you will soon be scattered around the world.

Although it may seem odd that some of us are leaving in April while others are here until February of next year, the friendships formed in A-100--and at our future two or three year posts--will endure beyond the boundaries of fourteen hour flights. And we have friends to visit in every part of the world. We have already invited ourselves to Mexico, Africa, China, and a few more.

Today we go to the swearing in ceremony at main State--"graduation" from A-100--and next week the newly appointed FSOs and some of their family members will start language and/or job specific training. For some, this may be the point at which the journey begins to feel real. For others, it's just another chapter. I'm just hoping that everyone has a guest room.

The 151st A-100 plans its leave time

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Unexpected Explorer

Flexibility and non-attachment: essential elements of foreign service life. Most foreign service families are aware of this, and have varying degrees of success in managing their expectations. For some FS newcomers, Flag Day, the ceremony in which an A-100 class' post assignments are announced, is the first time it's clear that we truly have No Choice.

As we approached our flag day I felt flexible and unattached. I was aware that I preferred a post in the western hemisphere, but with over thirty open posts in Latin America, it seemed likely we would be assigned to one of them.

Flag day reminded me that life in the foreign service necessitates worldwide availability. They aren't kidding. It is unwise to become attached to any country, continent, region, hemisphere, language, or culture because you have chosen to serve your country, and will be assigned according to the needs of the service.

Manila is a terrific first post. The Filipinos are warm, friendly, and welcoming of Americans. It's a good post for dogs, and the travel opportunities are incredible. It is perhaps one of the best posts for my career, as I will have ample opportunities for paid or unpaid work in my field.

Being posted here also offers hidden gifts. Because we were not oriented towards this region of the world, we were not fully aware of its travel opportunities. Manila is a short flight away from Southeast Asia, a region that we otherwise may have never seen due to China's restrictions on dog importation.

People have said that the Career Development Office seems to knows us better than we know ourselves, and when I compare our core preferences to Manila I realize that this post is a good fit for our family. I also believe that when you don't get exactly what you think you want, you have two choices. You can resent that you didn't get to choose, or you can choose to appreciate the gifts embedded in what's been chosen for you. There are strengths and challenges in every city, country, and culture, and the foreign service will take you out of your comfort zone. However, unexpected opportunities for exploration are wonderful.

Manila doesn't know what's coming

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My feet feel just fine

World travelers are sometimes said to have "itchy feet." Those who use this axiom intend it to describe a person who can't stay in the same place long because he or she is compelled to be on the move. Although this may be true for many travelers, it is not an accurate description of all of us.

I am an explorer who is compelled to nest. I love to learn, and my travel is motivated by my desire to experience new things and learn about different cultures. However, I must have a safe place to come home.

My initial nesting tends to be centered on food--I don't feel comfortable in a new place until I know how to get to the grocery store and have found at least one decent restaurant. For many foreign service families, home is not defined by one's surroundings, but whether or not your family members are there with you. Although I intermittently feel sad about leaving my home in Florida, the only time I've felt acutely homesick was the night my husband was away on his A-100 class retreat.

My feet feel just fine, and although I don't feel compelled to be on the move, my curiosity is much stronger than my unwillingness to have to re-nest every couple of weeks, months, or years. On Friday we learn where we will be posted for two years. There are many places I will be comfortably excited about going, a few that will make me go "eek" but I will look forward to exploring, and a few that, despite my efforts at not forming expectations, I will be emotionally unprepared for if Brian is handed one of their flags. Nevertheless, I know that once I find the local grocery store, all will be well.

DC has plenty of good restaurants

Friday, March 5, 2010

Project Relax

Foreign service spouses, like their officer partners, tend to be flexible, open-minded, and adaptable. Although foreign service families originate from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, these basic qualities may be a prerequisite for even considering a mobile lifestyle, much less making the decision to uproot yourself and your family and dive in headfirst.

However, flexibility does not equal indifference, and being willing to adapt does not mean one is aimless. Spouses who accompany their partners overseas do not do so because they don't have personal goals and ambitions, and thus, face the unique challenge of finding a way to grow and develop within the parameters of constant mobility and/or waiting to be moved.

The Foreign Service is aware of this, and does its best to help its officers' partners thrive as foreign service spouses. In  addition to its training classes, the family liaison office network points us in the direction of valuable telecommuting resources such as the Rat Race Rebellion. However, by funneling us towards activity, these solution-focused resources don't address the first thing a new foreign service spouse needs to do: relax.

For those of us who have left or are anticipating leaving active careers, being in the pre-overseas departure limbo can be disconcerting. Up to this point our professional lives have been focused on upward mobility, and our first instinct in reacting to this change is to continue moving. However, the nature of the foreign service requires its officers' partners to be willing to stand still for weeks, and sometimes even months, which can be counter intuitive to a goal-oriented individual. Thus, my first goal is to embrace being on an extended vacation--to take a sacred pause--and the rest will come as it may.

 Project Relax has total buy-in from Julie and Grace

Monday, March 1, 2010

Identity Disorientation Disorder

The Foreign Service is aware that its partnered officers come as a package. To meet the needs of its EFMs (Eligible Family Members), State offers training courses, employs family liaisons, and strongly encourages spouses to attend post assignment meetings. Nevertheless, as with any private company, the State Department cannot consider its FS spouses equal to its employees. It's just not realistic.

For new foreign service families, this can lead to role confusion, especially for the officer's spouse. Many spouses leave careers in order to embark on this adventure with their partners, and almost everyone leaves their safety zone for the wide world of the unknown. Although I doubt that any spouse envies his or her partner's 40+ hours a week of training, finding where we, as spouses, fit in to this system can be challenging.

In many ways, FS spouses have it good, especially those who aren't keeping their full time jobs during the initial training.  We live in a world of possibility. At the moment I am considering multiple new career paths: online counselor, yoga teacher, artist, dog walker, community organizer, and a few more. One might say that I am experiencing an identity moratorium, except that I would love to make a commitment, but I can't. At this point, I can't predict what opportunities will be available at and/or accommodated by our new post, or which careers can withstand constant mobility. As with everything else about the foreign service lifestyle, it depends.

Identity is rooted in "personal sameness" (Erik Erikson, 1970), and thus, the challenge of every new foreign service family is learning how to create a sense of sameness despite nothing ever being the same. To truly accept a life of routine change, one must embrace the opportunities embedded within it. Two weeks into this life, I have no idea what I'm doing. However, with patience--and perhaps a post assignment--I trust that I will discover where and how I fit in.