Foreign Service Life Disruptive for Families

Foreign Service Series: Pt. 1

For the foreign service officer, life is much the same wherever the post may be. But for their families, each new post brings dramatic changes. In the final installment of our two-part series, reporter Megan Meline examines the impact foreign service life has on spouses and children.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today we have the second of two reports on life in the U.S. foreign service. At first glance, life inside an Embassy can seem very American: the canteen sells tuna melts and chicken nuggets, flyers advertise pickup softball games. But the barred windows and armed guards are reminders that the foreign service is not like living in America. Overseas, staying safe becomes a way of life.

Megan Meline is a foreign service spouse whose husband has served in Daresalam and Manila, and she has this report.

MEGAN MELINE reporting:

For many people, the word diplomat suggests cocktail parties and tropical places, with afternoons spent relaxing by the pool. At least, that's how foreign service life is depicted in some movies, like the Year of Living Dangerously.

(Soundbite of movie Year Of Living Dangerously)

Unidentified Man: Well, drinks all around.

Unidentified Woman: Oh yes, please.

Unidentified Man: Gin tonics for everyone.

Unidentified Woman: Mmmm.

Unidentified Man: You're staying at the hotel? You're lucky. It's a delightful spot.

MELINE: But in reality, diplomatic life is far from glamorous. Most Embassies are located in obscure capitals, such as Ouagadougou or Paramaribo, places that can lack the amenities Americans take for granted, like well-stocked grocery stores, functioning emergency rooms, and even paved roads.

It's a lifestyle that is misunderstood, says Phyllis Oakley. She's a former assistant secretary of state.

Ms. PHYLLIS OAKLEY (Former Assistant Secretary of State): Most Foreign Service posts today are pretty rough, and they can be rough from a health standpoint or from your ability to get out, or from security. So I think most foreign service officers look at the lifestyle as rugged and challenging, where people who don't know much about it look upon it as a pampered, effete, lifestyle.

MELINE: Even though diplomats can be posted almost anywhere in the world, many find life overseas resembles living in a small town, or even a fish bowl. Diplomats work together, live next to each other in guarded compounds or apartment buildings. They send their children to the same schools and they shop in the same stores.

Some say the lifestyle is quite lonely. Analisa(ph) Reinmeyer(ph) works at the American Consulate in Jerusalem. She feels people see her as a U.S. official, not as a person.

Ms. ANALISA REINMEYER (American Consulate, Jerusalem): I have dogs and in the dog park is a nightmare for me, because next thing I know I have a crowd around me asking all kinds of questions about how do I do this, how do I do that? You can't ever get away from it. And people recognize you. I did not know that about the Foreign Service. I did not know that people would recognize me and approach me in stores and say, oh, you work at the consulate. Can you help me with a visa?

MELINE: Cyrus Vance - the Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter -used to say that foreign service is not a job. It's a way of life. And that lifestyle can also be tough on families and marriages.

Diplomats move to a new country every two or three years, and the constant relocation takes a toll. Judy Antipa(ph) still recalls what it felt like. Her husband retired from the foreign service 10 years ago.

Ms. JUDY ANTIPA(Wife of Retired Foreign Service Officer): We would go to a new post, and my husband would go to an office. As he did, in the previous post, as he did in Washington, as he did in every country we were in. I got up in the morning, and I had to figure out where the supermarket was, where I was going to get dinner from. If there wasn't a supermarket - like the first time when we were in Bangkok - where the central market was. The first year that we were in Korea, I was lost every day.

MELINE: The wives - and increasingly husbands - of diplomats are known as trailing or accompanying spouses. As many of them have learned the hard way, moving their own careers is tough to do. Legal, linguistic, and economic hurdles prevent many spouses from working in their field or finding comparable salaries and responsibilities.

Craig Kelly is the U.S. Ambassador to Chile. He says the State Department recognizes the problem and knows that unemployed spouses affect the morale of foreign service officers.

Ambassador CRAIG KELLY (United States Ambassador to Chile): It's not surprising that talented foreign service officers have talented spouses. And the State Department and the embassies are working hard to try to overcome the challenges that we face in many foreign countries to find suitable employment for, you know, highly educated spouses. It's not easy, because in many cases there are complicated - for instance, licensing restrictions for American doctors and lawyers who might want to work overseas.

MELINE: Others say there is only so much that state can do to help dual-career couples. Former Ambassador Robert Oakley says the foreign service is an unusual career. Like the military, or even the ministry, it requires the commitment of both partners.

His wife, Phyllis Oakley, encourages people to understand what they're getting into before the join the foreign service.

Ms. PHYLLIS OAKLEY (Wife of Former Ambassador): Nobody gets it all. You're not going to have the perfect job, the perfect family life. You're not going to have the time to do anything in the community and put down the roots, because you're going to be moving so much. So you can't expect to get it all. And you just have to make the decisions about what's going to be the most important thing to you.

MELINE: Moving back to the states can be one of the toughest assignments. Diplomats and their families often feel out of synch with their homeland. Places like grocery stores, high schools, and even family reunions can feel strange and overwhelming.

Transitioning back into American culture can be especially tough for children who've grown up overseas. Suzanna George(ph) lived many years in Ramallah, in the West Bank. When it came time for college, her parents insisted she apply to American schools.

Ms. SUZANNA GEORGE (Daughter of Foreign Service Officer): I was really angry about it. My parents really pushed for me to come to a university in the United States. I wanted to go to London, but they wanted me to find my American identity. So I agreed to give it a try. Immediately, I was most frustrated with how many restrictions there are on teenagers in the United States. I just felt like, very out of place.

MELINE: George is a junior now at George Washington University, and is glad she spent time in the country whose passport she carries. But she still considers Ramallah home, and thinks of herself as an expatriate.

Ms. GEORGE: Maybe in a few more years I'll consider myself American, but I'm not ready yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MELINE: For diplomats and their families, the idea of home takes on a different meaning. Rather than a house or a town, home becomes less tangible - perhaps a handful of friendships, a weathered teakettle, or a family Bible. Whatever home is, its essence must always be portable.

For NPR News, this is Megan Meline.

MONTAGNE: Part one of this report is at npr.org.

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