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The Solitary Service August 12, 2006

Posted by KG in FS Life.
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(I fully acknowledge that this post is heterosexist, but I can’t speak for the non-hetero members of the Foreign Service. If any wish to comment, please do.)

In reading over FSO blogs, I think the topic of the Foreign Service’s pervasive loneliness only gets alluded to. Maybe that’s because many FS bloggers have spouses and families. But there are many of us that are young, single, and scattered. And for us life is appreciably different. Miss KaKiser talks about this quietly, a subtheme to the story of her life in Japan.

It happens to some of us, maybe 50% (though the number is increasing), the folks that enter the FS sans spouse/partner and, usually, young. They bring you in, assign you, and ship you off to the far corners of the world. Sometimes you’re happy with your assignment, sometimes you’re not. But if you’re single, you’re in for a shock — because when you get to post, you’ll be in a foreign country, a foreign culture, an empty house and a life uprooted. Its difficult at the least, and it is what we sign up for. And nothing prepares you for it.

While in Pakistan, I lived in a five bedroom house. Massive, larger than my parents home, larger than any home I had ever lived in, with servants and a driveway and oddly, no dishwasher, though it had a great kitchen otherwise. I loved it. And I hated it. It was a dream space where I could hear my voice echo, and a place that amplified the isolation of working in Pakistan, the difficulty in being alone. I’d never done it — from family to dorm, from dorm to group house, I’d always been in a space filled with the feeling of people if not their noises and the ephemera of their presence. Now, shoved in a house not meant for me, but meant for a family, the pain of being alone stabbed me, deeply.

There are certainly places where this hardship is mitigated by abundant available companionship. South Africa, Thailand, Bulgaria, Mexico. Great places to be single — just get out of the house, go to the local bar, and talk to people. That is, if you’re a man. But if you’re a woman? Here, we’re coddled with (relative) gender parity as far as behavioral norms. But we’re a statistical minority as a culture, and not every Embassy or Consulate is Paris or London. With Transformational Diplomacy in full swing, even less will be. The goals of our diplomatic mission are in part to reach out to places where life is not going to be easy. And for young, single officers, the sad reality is that is going to mean dealing with the possibility of being alone.

Over are the days when the Service is male dominated, with spouses actually judged on employee evaluations. Where the posts are heavily dominated by Europe and the developed world, and life is cushy. As officers, we’re often asked to make psychological sacrifices, sacrifices that go quietly unsaid, dealt with through furtive emails and off topic conversations to local contacts: “what about for people like me? Will I be able make friends? I’ve heard this, can you confirm?”

I’m not without ulterior motives when writing this post. Everyone I know at Embassy Dhaka or headed out is married or partnered (I have yet to acquaint myself with Dhaka’s Marines). And MC is at Post, right now, dealing with culture shock that, when combined with being alone, is bound to be painful. Hearing about it second hand makes me profoundly sad. I don’t know how I will handle actually dealing with it. Islamabad was forced singledom, for those unmarried, as it was an unaccompanied post — and that made things a bit easier. It may be that for all this advance fear, Dhaka will be similar.

Life in the Foreign Service is sometimes portrayed as cushy, and I believe rightly so. But there are hardships that people may not realize, and I think the spectre of a solitary life is one of them. It’s hard now more than ever, with the baggage of our generation and the expectation of full lives both within and outside a marriage. I don’t want a future spouse who follows me around — I want one who is happy and fulfilled with a life of their own. Finding that is, from what I hear, one serious difficulty for married couples who are not themselves in the service. Many posts provide information on the job opportunities for so-called “EFMs” (eligible family members, usually your non-Foreign Service, American Citizen spouse) at the Embassy. But are these jobs fulfilling? Well paying? I don’t know, but I’ve met EFMs doing various things, and my suspicion is, in general, no. That’s unconfirmed, by the way, so please take this post with the small grain of salt that is my scant experience thus far in the Service.

Still, the Foreign Service is a good life. The hard thing to get around is that it is not, at all, a job. It’s a lifestyle, a choice one makes as much on how they want to live as where they want to live. Being this nomadic affects you, both in interacting with others at home and abroad and while sitting, at home, reading yourself to sleep after a long day of visa processing and before another, in a house that echoes, with your decorations somewhere between you and Antwerp. And a few weeks after your stuff gets there? You’re deciding on where to go next. Will I be able to meet people? Will my house there echo less? Who do I know to ask about this post? What will life be like?

And the cycle continues.

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Comments»

1. NiModa - August 12, 2006

KG–Thanks for that post. I’ve also been thinking about loneliness in the FS a lot lately. I joined when I was older but still single (how did that happen?), and, I must say, it isn’t easier when you’re older. In my pre-FS life, I’d lived in the same neighborhood for twelve years, and I had tons of friends, many of them old friends. My first post was certainly the most lonely time of my life. I have hopes for my second post, but we’ll see.

My hunch is that it does get easier once you’re further in and know more people. Ultimately, the FS is a small community, and we’ll keep running into the same people over and over. I’m just back at FSI, and already three friends who are still at post were back for some sort of training. It was *great* to see them. If you’ve been on the visa line for two years with somebody, you’ve got a pretty strong bond!

I think you’ll have a better time in Dhaka than you think–or at least I hope so.

Best,
NiModa

2. MC - August 13, 2006

Well put. I think the crux of the matter is in the sad reality that there’s no lonelier place than in a crowd. And for FSOs, usually living in large cities full of people for whom this is home, often in places (as is true in Seoul) wherein it’s almost unheard of for an FSO to be alone and without some kind of family, this reality can be particularly harsh.

Luckily, because of the rather “traditional” quality of the housing here (incl. wall-to-wall carpet except in the kitchen, utility room, and bathrooms), my new empty place does not echo. At least there’s that. I certainly wouldn’t envy those whose places do echo.

Here’s to both of us meeting other unattached types in our respective new cites and beginning to build a crowd of our own, rather than being stuck alone gazing in from the outside.

3. Consul-At-Arms - August 13, 2006
4. silent partner - August 14, 2006

I vowed after my first packout from DC never to do it again alone. All of my A100 mates had left, I had a broken ankle and precious few friends in town. It actually took a visit from my mother to get me ready for the movers. I picked up a significant other at my first post who accompanied me to my second and third posts. It made the moving much easier, the culture shock much less…shocking…and my time more fulfilling with a built-in social life. It doesn’t matter that I’m not straight, getting to post and coping with all the change that comes from uprooting your life was, frankly, better as part of a pair. Not to say there isn’t something gratifying about discovering that great corner restaurant or the local blues club all on your own, but it’s that much better when you have someone to share it with.

5. Editfish - August 14, 2006

Excellent post and excellent comments. This is something that just isn’t understood until you have experienced it. The first year of living alone abroad can be crushing–like being stranded on the wrong side of a deep chasm.

But it can affect married/partnered FSOs as well, especially if one stays at home, but if there is some coolness or distance in the relationship, the ’employed’ one can feel it, too. They just can hide or ignore it better. I would posit that this loneliness is a major factor in FS divorce and separation.

It can be overcome–it’s never permanent. It just takes a bit of stubbornness to persevere. Otherwise, you’d give up and go home.

Thanks for articulating this, Diplodocus. It’s extremely valuable to have this sort of discussion–I wish there was some way to have some sort of mutual support group. 😉

6. kristine829 - August 18, 2006

Thanks for posting this. I’m thinking of taking the FSWE next year, and I was wondering what being single in the FS was like. I’ve somehow read too much “Oh it’s so much easier if you don’t have a spouse to leave at home, or to worry about them finding a fulfilling career if they come with you!”

7. The Diplodocus » Something for the (Foreign Service) Ladies - August 23, 2006

[…] A little bit ago I blogged about the difficulties of being a single person in the Foreign Service. I forgot a few things, like noting my gender (obvious to longtime readers, but in case you don’t know, male). As noted before, I think being a single femaleFSO is even tougher than being a male. But wait! From the depths of Craigslist comes a savior for some lucky lady out there.  Since the original CL post will expire in a few weeks, and above all I want to preserve this for future mockery, here I present to you “I want to be a foreign service wife“: Just that. I’m a decent, single, normal guy, good looking and fluent in Arabic, French, and Spanish. I have an advanced degree in international relations, I don’t smoke and never drink to excess. I’m white, tall, in good shape physically, irrepressably optimistic and funny, love kids and am friendly to dogs and all other creatures. […]

8. JR - August 31, 2006

I’ve been in the Foreign Service for 22 years. 14 of them overseas. Six of those years I was single. No…it’s not easy…it can be lonely, but then again I was lonely in Minneapolis. It hasn’t always been easy, but looking back…it has been a fabulous life with wonderful experiences. No regrets. It is a lifestyle choice and even when I swear I’m fed up I get the bug every couple of years to go overseas again. Looking back, however, is easier than looking forward since the future of the foreign service seems so very different from the life I’ve known.

9. CA - September 13, 2007

I’m a foreign service brat, who after doing other things for about ten years, ended up joining the foreign service myself. In many ways I knew far more about what I was getting myself into than most FSOs, but that didn’t prepare me as much as I expected. I came in as a single female officer, and was lucky because my first post had a lot of single officers (yeah, it was a visa mill). That really helped, because there were people to play with, grumble with, and learn with.

At my second post, almost everyone was married with kids, and it was much, much harder. Having a social life took a lot more work, and a readiness to do things like go to the school play (which turned out to be much more fun than I expected). A fellow single female officer did date locally, but at 32 I was already older than most of the single men, so that wasn’t so much of an option for me.

I’ve found that socially things improve, but that it’s required work. Last tour I was the one who was married and had a child, while many of the others were single and leading a party lifestyle. We found a babysitter and joined in the fun occasionally. It worked. Now the concern has become the possibility/probability of unaccompanied tours. Thank God for a mother who understands, and who has offered to help with kids if it becomes necessary — but I’m hoping it won’t. I’ve been there/done that and still have the t-shirt.

10. Ariane - August 21, 2010

Thanks for posting this. This was definitely one of the most informative things I’ve read on the issue. I’m still gung-ho about entering the foreign service, but at least now I have a better idea of what I’m getting into.

Also, to the poster who said she was too old at 32 for the local guys, 32 too old?? I’m guessing the rest of the world doesn’t ascribe to the Sex and the City philosophy.

11. Ariane - October 11, 2010

*subscribe, not ascribe. I mix those words up often.

12. Can you handle being a single FSO? | FSO Pro - September 3, 2014

[…] Diplodocus has written what I consider to be the interweb’s best piece on loneliness and the single diplomat: […]

13. Can you handle the single FSO life? | FSO Pro - September 12, 2014

[…] Diplodocus has written what I consider to be the interweb’s best piece on loneliness and the single diplomat: […]


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