Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beyond Barbed Wire

Living and working abroad as a private citizen can be difficult, but living and working abroad as a Foreign Service family can be weird. As a Foreign Service employee your compensation includes shipping your household effects and vehicle, most work related travel expenses incurred by you and your dependents, and, of course, diplomatic legal protection, but you spend much of your daily life surrounded by other Americans. In many ways this familiarity is comforting, but it takes extra effort to immerse yourself in the foreign country's culture.

Many Foreign Service families do fully experience living in another culture, but it requires one to venture beyond one's normal routine, and in our case, the barbed wired walls and armed guards protecting our housing community. By our third week here my body was adapting to the environment and time change and we were starting to feel settled, but every night before bed I felt a little anxious, and it wasn't because I had just moved to a foreign country. It was because I had moved to a foreign country but was spending most of my time within the walls of a place that looked a lot like South Florida.

As a post Manila is unique in that it would be easy to try to insulate oneself from the city's culture. You can't avoid the traffic, the pollution, or seeing evidence of extreme poverty as you drive to work, but you can eat at Chili's, shop for groceries at S&R (Costco), and watch Scrubs and Everybody Loves Raymond on local cable in your air-conditioned housing. You'd find yourself inconvenienced by not finding everything you want, but life would be familiar. In many ways, having access to American products is one of the benefits of this post, but it can also feel surreal.

Fortunately for me, the weekend after I began to feel agitated we went to Tagaytay, which, being without transportation, we wouldn't have been able to do without our wonderful friends.  In Tagaytay I finally felt like I was living in a foreign country, and the bedtime anxiety disappeared. I find it interesting that in order to feel comfortable I had to pushed out of my comfort zone.

The Foreign Service community is one of the best things about life in the foreign service, but experiencing the exotic aspects of life abroad is equally important to enjoying this lifestyle. I look forward to exploring the Philippines further, and, in case I haven't mentioned it, the arrival of our car.

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