As you may have guessed, DiploDad and I have had a LOT of conversations about the last 100+ days in America. Those of you who know me and are in regular contact with me may just have been part of those conversations, but even then, unless you actually work for the Department of State, you probably haven’t been involved in ones where we circle back to the most personal question of all that just hits us in ways we can’t even begin to articulate. What’s the question? Well, it’s really more than one, but they all boil down this:
Why do the American people hate us?
Hate, I recognize, is a very strong word. I’d guess that even the most conservative, anti-government, lizard-in-a-suit would deny that she/he “hates” us. I respectfully disagree, and when someone stands in front of me or hides behind a computer and tells me they support diplomacy and then talks about how the foreign service wastes money on things like schools or housing or programming about equal rights, climate change, or events that are really representing U.S. interests abroad, they’re showing their ignorance.
So, let me break it down for you.
- The Foreign Service is made up of ordinary Americans from all over America. People just like YOU.
In the 19 years I’ve been associated with the Foreign Service, I’ve been amazed at the diversity. “Diversity”, for those of you who just rolled your eyes, isn’t a bad word. Just shut up about it already, because it doesn’t mean what you think it does or what Breitbart or RT news told you it means. At the Consulate in Mumbai alone, we have people from the states of Arizona, Oklahoma, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, Michigan, Virginia, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia – just to name a few. That’s a lot of different parts of the country. Sure, there are graduates in the Foreign Service of some of the elite colleges (yet another bastion of “we hate those people” for the American public) such as Tufts, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and Princeton, but there are also people who went to West Virginia University, Oklahoma State University, University of Virginia, University of Kentucky, The Citadel, University of Arkansas, and Ole Miss.
We come from a variety of backgrounds. It is the rare creature indeed who comes into the Foreign Service directly out of college or graduate school. According to AFSA, approximately 20% of us have served in the military prior to entering the Foreign Service, so those of you who think the two career paths or philosophies are incompatible can chew on that for a while and ponder the fact that the kind of people who are motivated to join the Foreign Service really aren’t all that different from the publicly lauded (and deservingly so) military. In my lifetime, I’ve met people who have had an astounding variety of jobs and careers prior to the Foreign Service. It’s not just the traditional teacher, civil servant, or military who signs up. College admissions counselors, social workers, lawyers, Peace Corps volunteers, journalists, photographers, travel agents, ministers, nurses, physician’s assistants, doctors, social workers, and IT folks are all represented in our ranks. Most of us have had a number of curious jobs along the way too: Baskins & Robbins ice cream scooper, vintage record store clerk, USO director, and I know of at least one former trapeze artist.
- The work the Foreign Service does isn’t glamourous.
I often tell people who make those lame jokes about my “high-flying” diplomat husband that his days “aren’t spent drinking champagne in a casino with James Bond”. It’s actually pretty annoying how much influence Hollywood has had in pushing out the stereotype of the pampered, ineffective, career diplomat. He (or now sometimes, she) shows up in the action movie or Bond serial of the year only to provide a comic foil or to get capped before the “real hero” saves the day. Even in situations where the FSO is the hero, the American public misses it. Seen Argo? Remember the scene where the authorities didn’t believe that the hostages were a film crew and they were questioning Ben Affleck? CIA dude Affleck wasn’t having much luck with the officials and some guy barges in and starts speaking Farsi and next thing you know they’re on a plane. That guy? He was a consular officer badass, people.
While that’s not the typical day diplomats have overseas, it is an example of the kind of presence of mind, assessment of the situation, and take charge that diplomats representing you show in their daily work. It takes smarts, skill, and intelligence, and yes, sometimes bravery to deal with what diplomats do on a day to day basis.
Political officers meet with foreign governments and prominent people who have the power to influence relationships with the United States and issues that matter to the U.S. for reasons of security and policy. Economic officers usually get rolled into that office, and they look at trade and business issues, interacting with business leaders, providing understanding to American policymakers. No, you can’t put a dollar value on it, exactly. But the next time you read about a big overseas transaction, the part you don’t see is that often, a diplomat helped make contacts, connections, and introduced the right people to the American corporation. They are the eyes and ears of American policy, and they are the constant presence on the ground. They attend and coordinate American business and political participation at conventions and conferences. They are the ones at the table negotiating trade agreements, limits on nuclear weapons, climate and clean energy policy, human rights, and military agreements. They work closely with the Foreign Commercial Service (part of the Department of Commerce) to help American business abroad.
Public diplomacy officers respond to questions from the press about American policy, activities of the United States and U.S. persons, corporations, and organizations in the countries they serve in. They also provide information about U.S. culture, government, and policies that is truthful and accurate. In some countries, that is quite a feat where a government may not necessarily care if truth is disseminated, or feels that it is advantageous to its own interests to have America be the boogeyman under the proverbial bed. PD folks also run exchange programs, and help bring talented future leaders to the United States to see what we are all about – the rule of law, freedom of expression, religion and the press, equality, and innovation are all principles exchange participants learn while meeting American officials, experts in the exchangee’s field (e.g., education, journalism, government, or the arts), and ordinary Americans. So often, exchange alumni come back and say that their most rewarding part of the entire experience was the time they spent with ordinary Americans. PD officers also engage with the general public of the host country online, messaging about U.S. culture, amplifying policy messages, and covering presidential visits, military activities, and ties between America and the host country. They shape the public face of America abroad, counter misinformation and inaccuracies, and set the record straight. If that confused you, PD folks make sure people understand and like us. Don’t discount how important that is.
Management officers keep it all rolling – making sure the Embassy has power, water, and you would not believe how difficult that can be. When the President comes to visit, these are the guys and gals making sure The Beast can drive on that bridge (it can’t always, for the record), that the hotel is procured, and the wheels roll on the motorcade of support staff. They are the ones who do all the logistical stuff when the merde hits the ventilatore and there’s an earthquake, a flood, or other crisis.
Finally, there’s my personal favorite (as you all know) the consular officer. These are the people that issue those visas for folks to visit the United States. You know, the people who invested more than $2.9 trillion in the U.S. in 2014*, the 77.5 million international visitors who spent more than $217 billion on tourism to the U.S. in 2015**, and the international students who contributed $35.8 billion to the U.S. economy for the 2014/2015 school year.*** There’s your dollar value, America. It’s pretty significant. Then there’s the stuff you couldn’t put a value number on if you tried. Consular officers issue reports of birth abroad for U.S. citizens who have their children outside the U.S. (including military personnel), visit Americans when they are arrested, ship your dead Aunt Mabel’s remains home, and help Uncle Olaf when he goes off his meds and thinks he’s Captain Marvel. When Warren Zevon said, “send lawyers, guns, and money”, he was talking about the consular corps. Do you think you could walk into a morgue with inconsistent temperatures and pick out a body from a stack in the corner? Ever spent an afternoon supervising the preparation of the body and sealing of the coffin for a two-year-old? Ever been dropped off in a war zone to assist American citizens with only a few changes of clothing and a satellite radio, completely unarmed? How about you walk your average joe ass into a jail, a government building, or a police station and demand access to an American citizen, not knowing 100% if you’ll come out? Maybe your day will be slightly less stressful and you’ll only have to deal with some unmedicated schizophrenic threatening to tear up the American Citizen Services waiting room. The next time you lose your passport on vacation, need a reference for an attorney because your kid made the poor decision to bring some weed into another country for spring break, or your daughter has just been sexually assaulted and someone shows up to meet her at a police station to file a report in a country where it’s not outside the realm of possibility that she’d have that experience again at the hands of the local authorities, that’s who you should be thanking.
- Our daily lives involve a LOT of hassles, dangers, and inconveniences most of you take for granted you’ll never experience.
For the most part, our families and friends stateside live an average suburban existence. Kid’s soccer games on the weekend, visits to the local playground or park, errands, backyard BBQs. Ours is often anything but average, and if it is, it’s because we work our ass off to cultivate that normalcy. Where you might walk your dog in a local park, the city streets, or a manicured suburban area, we walk our dogs (if it’s even safe enough to let them out of our compound) past piles of garbage, on cracked and broken (if existent) sidewalks, and carrying a stick to ward off feral animals. Even finding dog or cat food in some places is a challenge. Our kids go to private schools, but that’s often because the local schools consist of nothing more than a basic room, benches and desks, and a blackboard where a teacher writes down what the students have to learn (that means memorize) for the day, and asking a question results in corporal punishment. The great public education your kids get in the U.S. is available for us only at a cost, and only in very few places. International schools might have after-school activities, and they may have buses, but you pay for them, and sometimes you pay extra. Soccer leagues? Tae-kwon do? Baseball? In a lot of places, if they do exist, they are organized and run by us, the facilities aren’t anywhere near what kids get stateside, and can often have hazards like open sewers, piles of garbage, and exposed wires adjacent to them. Next time you start to bitch about the inconvenience of that Saturday 8 a.m. soccer game at the manicured field, remember that you’re damn lucky if you don’t have to stand next to a pile of live wires on a dirt field edged with garbage, shooing kids away from it when the ball goes out of bounds in 104-degree weather.
Medical care in some of the places we serve is practically nonexistent. While the average American is whining about waiting for 20 minutes in a doctor’s office, or contemplating a lawsuit because a doctor wasn’t able to extend Aunt Lou’s life for an additional six months, we’re praying to God we don’t go into labor before we’re permitted to medevac, and hoping there’s not a traffic accident or heart attack in the cards while we’re posted here. We also deal with a host of diseases you’ve never had to worry about: malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, tuberculosis, and chikungunya. Google those – they’re lots of fun, and they’re not all particularly uncommon. I can name at least one friend or co-worker who has had each of those diseases, usually even more than one. Are your kids vaccinated against rabies? Nope? Mine are. You have a lock from your kid’s first haircut? I’ve got “baby’s first malaria test” glued into the baby book. Ever had a tapeworm? Are lice the least of your worries parasite wise? Have you had the unforgettable experience of changing the diaper of a toddler with giardia? Popped a mango worm out of that boil on your back? No? That’s stuff we deal with often.
We’re repeatedly told we’re spoiled because we often have nannies, cooks, drivers, and housekeepers. Yes, we have help, and I’m not going to apologize. Where I live, I have no mother-in-law or close family to watch my kids if I have an evening work event, and babysitting is pretty much a U.S. concept. If I want or need something done or need to navigate the very complicated local social and economic net, I need to pay someone. While you’re ripping open a bag of pre-washed veggies, I’m soaking mine in bleach solution and rinsing them with distiller water. Most Americans can swing by the grocery store and get everything they need in one place at pretty much any time of day; we may have to go to three or four locations just for “normal” ingredients, never mind all the gourmet and prepared stuff you folks stateside rely on. That giant parking lot you leave your car in (safely) while you run in for a moment? Doesn’t exist. Without a driver to wait for you and watch the car, you might just return to nothing, and you’re parked on a crumbling side street if you’re lucky, because again, parking lots are a U.S. concept. Another reason we have help is because stuff breaks. Often, and someone has to wait at home all day for the repairman. When’s the last time you had to call in an air conditioner repair? I do it biweekly. I don’t deserve A/C? It’s a “luxury”? Fine, then you turn it off when it’s 102F outside. I’ve had to replace all the water heaters in my house since I moved in 3 years ago – all five of them – and they were new. Changing a light bulb here involves wiring it in, and with the fluctuating current, you need an electrician. Many of us live in places where you wake up wondering if you’re going to have power or water or both that day. You just hit the ground running and don’t even consider that as a possibility. It’s really frustrating to look in the newspaper, watch television, and hear people (sometimes even our own family) begrudge us any kind personal comfort with the epic amount of inconvenience, danger, and hassle we are confronted with daily. Stop it.
- We’re on Duty All the Time
And I mean all the time. With the exception of a very few posts, the locals know we’re Americans, and if we’re in the capital city or any other frequent haunts such as business hubs or cultural centers, they figure out who we are soon enough. After you leave work, school, your home, you can pretty much disappear, and we can’t. Whether we’re in a taxi, at the grocery store, or at a party with friends outside of the Mission, we are still working, because what we do and say reflects on us, and on you, the American people. Our kids aren’t excluded from this either – if one of the DB’s acts out at school or in public, it’s that “American Kid”, and his behavior is setting the standard and expectation for all American kids for many people who will never know another American kid. That’s tough to put on a child, but that’s what my kids live with. Beyond just stressful, it can get downright scary – when DB1 was five, some random guy came up to him in the grocery store and said, “I know who you are and who your Daddy is” and proceeded to tell him DiploDad’s current position. I don’t need to tell you how freaked out I was, but he literally ran off when I approached him and I still have no idea why he did that. The anonymity you enjoy hasn’t been ours for quite some time, but we recognize that part of diplomacy is showing people in our host country what the average American is like, what our values are, and that we are people with families. We may be the only American some of the people we know ever meet – and we take that seriously.
- Terror Attack threats are real for us.
When I get pulled over during air travel (which I always seem to), I can’t help but roll my eyes, because dude – we are the target. I just want to laugh when I see some guy in the backwoods of Missouri or Oklahoma on CNN or Fox News going off about the terror threat, because the likelihood of him or his family ever getting hit is beyond miniscule. No, we don’t usually have embassies blowing sky-high and assassinations, but they have happened, and there’s a wall in the State Department with the name of everyone who has died in the line of service to our country. We take a lot of precautions, and a lot of calculated risks. We drill. We have diplomatic security who keep their ear to the ground, work with local and national police to keep on top of threats and take measures to avoid and disable it. We don’t have the freedom to go places that we can’t restrict for a backpacker tourists in some places, because we know what’s there, and while we warn with advisories, we’re bound by them and others aren’t. A dead diplomat is still a goal for a lot of very bad people, we know it, and we live with the knowledge that it’s often up to us, or fate, as to whether or not those bad people get one. As for the rest of you stateside? Get over yourself. You’re more likely to die from a legally-owned gun at the hands of a family member.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s nice to meet you. We’re your foreign service, and we’re a lot like you. We deal with shit you so you don’t have to, take care of business, and advance interests of our country on YOUR behalf because we are Patriots, and we believe in and love America. We’ve got your back, America – it would be great if you had OURS.