Sunday, February 28, 2016

Finding Friends in a Foreign Service Life

March brings our fifth anniversary with the State Department. Including three stints for training at FSI of about six months each, we are living in our sixth home in those five years. While this might sound like I'm about to write about packing and moving, I'm not (this time).  Instead, I've been thinking about the whole topic of friendships while living such a mobile, temporary life.  This is something my husband and I talk about quite a lot, actually.  The conversations usually take place over dinner when we start thinking about our plans for the weekend and where, when and with whom we plan to do something.  

Sounds like normal life stuff, right? Well, it's different in a Foreign Service life - a LOT different.  

After much thought on the subject, I've found that there are four general categories, if you want to call them that, of friends you can have while living abroad:
  • American work friends, 
  • Local work friends, 
  • Locals in general, 
  • Other ex-pats. 
Let's start with the obvious - American work friends:

When I first arrived at FSI as a brand-new OMS, my fellow Specialist Orientation classmates provided me with 68 new friends; folks who were exactly in the same boat I was. We had all just given up a previous job or finished an education; we had all just started a new job in a unique work culture; and most of us had just moved away from our familiar lives with friends and family.  Add the fact that the majority of us were living in temporary housing (hello Oakwood!) and the bonding was instant and easy as we all made our way through the transition. It felt just like freshman year in college moving into the dorms, but with salaries.  There were BBQs, happy hours, dinners out, museum trips etc... and I found great relief being with others who were experiencing the same thing I was and who understood how overwhelming finding one's way through the massive machinery that is a new federal career can be.  This period was probably the easiest transition in terms of friends, truly a "just add water and presto" situation.

Arriving at a first posting felt quite the same as arriving at FSI.  There were lots of new people in Bogota's massive embassy to meet. Someone was always planning some kind of activity or outing, there were game nights, dinner parties etc...  There seemed to be no lack of things to do or people to meet and over a short time we began to find our "niche" of friends naturally. 

No doubt, hanging out with other Americans can be very easy. After spending the work day communicating with limited language skills, it feels great to be able to express oneself fully in English; it's fun to share American holidays or sporting events and to laugh or commiserate about living in the new country with its inherent difficulties and pleasures.  However, after a while my husband and I started to question why we were only hanging out with other Americans.  One of the main reasons we joined the Foreign Service was to know what it was like to live immersed in another culture and out of our comfort zone.  

So now the next inevitable dilemma bubbles to the surface: How do we naturally make local friends?  "Naturally" meaning we gag at the idea of making friends mechanically, as if working through a list. "We really need to cultivate more native friends, dear." But at the same time - we do want to do just that. 

We saw the easiest source of local friends in the staff members we work with, who will always outnumber the Americans in the Embassy or Consulate. We've met so many great LES* whom we really like and want to spend more time getting to know. Besides liking them personally, they're also the perfect combination of people who understand American culture, speak English perfectly, yet can also teach us about their country, language, food, traditions etc..  So where's the catch? As in most things in life - there's always a catch. This is where we have stumbled and are still trying to find our way.

We're often the local staff's supervisors, and let's face it - it's a tricky situation being the supervisor and being the friend. And from their point of view, who wants to hang out with their boss after hours anyway?  After a few months in Bucharest, I said to a local colleague, "So when are we going to meet your family? Maybe we could all have dinner some time?"  He politely, yet clearly, responded with something to the effect of, "After you don't work here anymore."  I felt hurt at first, because after I don't work here is also after I don't live here anymore, and so... that kind of means never. I know he didn't mean that he didn't like us nor want to get to know us, he just knew what was best for the professional relationship. 

I've had some great bonding experiences with local coworkers when we've traveled together for work, which I've been fortunate to do a handful of times.  There's the laughing at the airport when we stand in the wrong lines or find ourselves so engaged in the gettin'-to-know-ya' conversation that we almost miss our planes (has happened twice). There's the fact that we are sitting next to each other on the plane or car ride, which makes personal conversation inevitable. We work together on whatever project or presentation we'll be giving, and finally we share meals before and after work as we're always staying in the same hotel - it just happens easily.  So it was in this setting that one coworker who I really like confided in me by saying what I'd always suspected: Why should the local staff invest in friendships when they know that the Americans will be moving on in two or three years, most likely never to see them again? She added frankly that she'd had her heart broken too many times to let herself fully invest in a real friendship.  Every going away party I've been to seems to involve American tears as we realize that we may see our American colleagues again somewhere - but probably not the local staff. We blubber away with promises to return to visit, and they give us a hug and then an hour later change the name plaque on our door. 

Further, particularly outside of Western Europe, Canada or Australia, there can be the awkward economic difference between local and American staff. Besides salary differences, we also don't usually live in the same areas, most notably because Embassy housing is generally in tony neighborhoods and not where the "regular folks" live. We find ourselves talking with coworkers about restaurants we've visited ("Yeah, it was great and not too expensive!") and then hear the awkward silence which means that our Thursday night pop-out-for-a-bite spot may be their only-on-a-special-occasion spot. And frankly it's embarrassing when you realize exactly what it means to accidentally say, "Oh, is it payday already?" to a local coworker. 

What about locals from outside of work?

This might be the best compromise, but it takes more effort to find them.  Last night a young American coworker who lives in our building had a gathering at her apartment. (Side note: Going to a party by taking an elevator or walking two doors down in a compound neighborhood does have its advantages.) It was really impressive to see what a range of friends she'd already made, and in talking to them I saw that it didn't happen accidentally.  There were a handful from an outdoors adventures group with whom she'd gone skiing and ice climbing, some from a German ex-pats group that meets regularly (but they were all Romanians), a handful from the local Toastmasters chapter - but only a few of us from the Embassy. We ended up staying waaay later than I normally would simply because there were new and interesting people to chat with and best of all - we weren't just talking about work. 

Sharing a passion, sport or hobby is an obvious way to make local friends. In Bogota we found a good group through our volunteer work at an animal shelter.  Each weekend when we arrived at the shelter, we'd catch up with the other volunteers while caring for the animals and were flattered to be invited to spend "novenas" (celebrations leading up to Christmas) with one family. We spoke only Spanish with them and they laughed at our mistakes and then taught us how to REALLY say things. Hence my otherwise-inexplicable ability to speak about collars, leashes, worms and the quality and quantity of a dog's poop. We learned about their lives and families while scooping litter boxes and when they came to our going-away party, the tears we shared demonstrated exactly why my Romanian coworker doesn't let herself become too close. 

In Juarez we were fortunate to live in a gated neighborhood that was 90% Mexican families. We were even luckier that these neighbors were stable, professional folks. Meeting neighbors usually just involves working in the front garden a bit, or if you have one, walking the dog in the common area and not being afraid to strike up the typical weather-condition of the roads-pets-or-kids chit-chat. We did this with the family next door and soon enough we were invited to their kids' birthday parties and in exchange, had them over for their first American Thanksgiving. Openness to strangers will naturally vary depending on the culture, but in the typically outgoing Latin American style - it wasn't too hard. (Another side note: Let's just say that some of our coworkers weren't as lucky as we were and had neighbors who kept tiger cubs as pets and had parties with Mariachi bands playing in the back yard until it was time to go to work. I'll let you guess what line of work they might just possibly be in.) 

Finally, there are the other ex-pats. 

Looking for friends from this pool is a bit new to us as in Juarez, the Americans were the only diplomatic mission in town. I imagine this could be the case in other Consulates worldwide. But now being in an embassy puts us in the capital city, and therefore in an environment with a large diplomatic community and in a city full of multinational companies and their employees. We've been invited to Scottish, English and German holiday gatherings so far, which offers another pool of potential friends who are not coworkers or only other Americans.  For the French speakers, there's usually a Alliance Francaise in any large city, and in both Bogota and (surprisingly) even in Juarez  - we'd go to their movie nights.  International schools also attract teachers from around the world, many of whom live the same transitory lifestyle we do.  Like backpackers in hostels comparing notes on the road ahead, we've learned a lot about cities and countries we've considered working in from these teachers. For example, we've now moved Togo onto our short-list of possible West African countries based on a few such positive conversations. 

We miss our friends from home and are sad to see years-long friendships dwindle to Christmas cards and Facebook updates.  (Unless you get posted to Europe or some tropical paradise, which like having a pool in the backyard, seems to bring out every long-lost cousin with designs on your spare room. A true test of friendship is when they'll still visit you in Mauritania or Vladivostok.) It seems that at each post, we end up with one couple who we really click with and enjoy spending time with. But just as with our local coworkers  - we all know that summer camp will eventually end and we'll have to say goodbye. Veteran FS families have learned to maintain these far-flung besties through vacationing at each others' posts, or by re-igniting the friendship while at FSI.  It just means that you get to see that person you really like only every two or so years, which is kind of a bummer. 

So what's the bottom line?

Even given all the above options, however, we still find that we're stuck with a life of rather superficial friendships and lots of time spent with just each other, and trust me - my husband has already heard all my best stories and would probably appreciate some new material now and again. We hope our old friends from home won't tire too much of sentences that start with, "When we were in...," but we imagine they will. The best lesson we're learning is to just put ourselves "out there" and let ourselves enjoy the people who do cross our paths, whether for one conversation or for the entire tour.  

*LES = Locally Engaged/Employed Staff.  Formerly known as FSNs = Foreign Service Nationals.  The title was changed a few years back from FSN to LES because of the presence of third-country nationals working in the posts, i.e. neither Americans nor host-country nationals.  But it didn't take too long for someone to pronounce LES as "less" and a loud, global forehead slap was heard.  So, now we either go back to saying FSNs or use the full term "LE Staff." Sigh.