The Solitary Service August 12, 2006Posted by KG in FS Life.
(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.