Resilience & Lemonade

Featured

One of the main components of resilience is to make sure that you stay in control of what you can control and let go of anything else that you cannot control. I learned that when I kept putting on weight whenever we moved out of a host country and came back to the U.S. and moved again to another country. After 50, I decided that the only things I could control were my body and my mind, and that allowed me to lose 25 pounds.

This time, my move is quite different; it is not what we call, in our jargon, a PCS (permanent change of station). It is not permanent – at least I hope so. But I do have orders. Orders to leave my home, leave my husband without saying goodbye, leave for an undetermined number of months with a tiny carry-on. This time, I am an evacuee from China. I don’t know about your kids, but when I was a kid, never in my wildest dreams nor nightmares, I would have thought that one day, I would define myself as “I am an evacuee … from China.”

Like for other difficult situations, you always think that only others than you will get impacted. The tsunami is not for me, nor the earthquake, nor the C-section, nor the house on fire – this clearly only happens in the movies or in faraway countries. When I followed a seminar to be prepared for a medical evacuation, I didn’t think it was for me – my health is great. And then, one day, I had to be medically evacuated … because accidents happen. And when you give birth naturally to your first baby, you cannot imagine that you might ever require a C-section for the second baby. When the earthquake shakes your building and you are in the shower with shampoo in your eyes, it’s hard to remember the numerous training sessions: do I shelter in place or get out of my building as fast as possible? Those who were not naked in their shower ran outside … and I am still here to write this.

The sense of “it’s for the others” applies to countries, not only individuals. In Beijing, they thought “it’s only in Wuhan”; in the West, they thought “it’s only in China”; in the United States, they thought “it’s only in Italy”; in Wisconsin, they think “it’s only in New York”.

In Beijing, China, we felt safe. China is a very – very – safe place; maybe because the people are nice, maybe because of all the surveillance cameras, or both. I don’t want to know why; all I know is that as an individual I feel very safe in China, I feel safe to take the metro at any time, I feel safe to walk in the streets at night. I do not feel safe to do this in most large cities in the West.

Who could have predicted that a sudden virus would change all our lives? It used to be the lives of all people living in China, and many questions arising for expatriates like us who do have a choice to shelter somewhere else. But now, our plight is being shared by the entire planet in epic proportions. When you are young, you are taught that sharing is a good value … with many exceptions!

There’s a proverb in the United States that I like very much because it’s so positive: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Turn the negative in positive, in other words, find the silver lining(s).

So rather than dwelling on the separation from my husband, not being in my home – some 6,922 miles away, having to adapt to a new job, and finding that where I am now is not any sanitarily safer than where I was – get out of the rolling wave just to be smacked and engulfed again by another giant wave that takes you, breathless, in a spin, like being in a washing machine, I need to see that my situation is not as bad as many others and that it has silver linings.

Others don’t have a shelter, a job, food on the table, they have to cancel their wedding, can’t see their baby being born, can’t go to funerals, can’t visit their elderly relatives, others are bankrupt, endure domestic violence, don’t have internet to follow online classes, will fail their school year, and the list goes on.

My Lemonade

After all my pain was swallowed, I started to count my silver linings:

  • We are posted in China for the standard Foreign Service three-year tour so when we say goodbye, we say goodbye to family and friends for three years, even four years sometimes. This sudden move gives me the opportunity to see family and friends after only 18 months of separation. These strange times also allow me to see them more than once and see many more of them.
  • My mother-in-law had to move to assisted living the day Wuhan was locked down and my sudden move made me the first respondent when my husband could not be there. I helped her move and feel comfortable in her new home. I advocated for her to ensure she received proper care. I was able to thank in person the people that had helped her.
  • My employer found me a very interesting new position in Washington, D.C. I am now in a section where I learn and stretch every day, surrounded by smart people who are nice also.
  • I have been evacuated at a good time when Beijing is still extremely cold while Washington, D.C. has a milder climate this March and I was able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and the magnolias in bloom.
  • Besides making lemons out of lemonade, it is proven that you can build resilience by helping others that are less fortunate than you. I now have more time to dedicate to my volunteering activities.
  • I finally made time to take some online classes.
  • I am discovering the uplifting world of TED talks.
  • And the list goes on …

I would have added that Washington, D.C. is a great place because all the Smithsonian museums are free, but measures of social distancing were enforced before I could even visit one of them!

Yesterday is history,

Tomorrow is a mystery, but

Today is a gift.

That is why it is called the present.

Enjoy it!

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part IV – Islamabad

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Parts I, II and III for a full picture.

After learning in Virginia, working for the Commercial Service in Dakar, the Department of State in Dakar and Mexico, Narcotics in Mexico, I joined USAID in Pakistan. For a curious person like me, avid to learn every day more and more, joining yet a different agency was thrilling.

When diplomats are deployed to sensitive countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, the family either cannot or doesn’t want to follow. If the children are young chances are that the remaining spouse will stay in the U.S. with them. Even without children some spouses just don’t want to move to certain countries. If the spouse does want to follow they have to work full time, this way they are protected inside the Embassy at least 40 hours instead of being in the streets.

When my husband received his orders for Pakistan, the kids decided that they wanted to go to boarding school and I would try to follow my husband. I immediately applied for jobs, got interviewed and was offered a very interesting position as Grants Administrator for small grants and ambassador’s grants within USAID. Small meant $70,000 to $250,000 as opposed to my colleagues working on million-dollar deals in Energy or Health. Big deals can take years to see the light and a normal tour here is one year. With my ‘small’ grants I could see, feel and touch the projects. I could meet the impacted people, and it was deeply moving.

We approved projects to build a classroom or renovate a school, to build and furnish a library, to bring water to villages, electricity to homes, to teach women how to make preserves to become bread-winners, to install composting devices, to operate poor women from blindness to full sight. In Pakistan 85% of blind persons can see again with a surgery that costs less than $100! This is mind blowing.

My first boss took me on a trip to Karachi within my first two months. I immediately met the people managing the grants and the people benefiting from them. It tremendously helped me understand the impact of my job when I got back to my daily routine.

The difference was striking between what we read in the press about the ‘bad Americans and their forbidden drones’ and the spontaneous and generous welcome we received in the villages. Women used to walk everyday six miles – one way – to fetch water for their families and could only carry a gallon or two at best. We helped divert a clean river stream to bring water to the village. In another village there was no electricity which meant less time to work (sew, knit, or make baskets for example) or study, or worse: getting bitten by snakes when they went outside the perimeter of the huts and houses to do their bodily needs in the evening. I saw how they lived. Even the ‘rich’ ones with a concrete house rather than a wooden hut only had one single room to share. Less than 200 f2 for a family of 7 to 10. Mattresses were piled up high during the day and laid out at night. Life happened mostly outside the house. One old toothless lady called me her daughter and kept caressing my hand.

I was very touched when I was asked to plant my own tree to celebrate the end of a successful project. I was a drop in the ocean of that project but as a representative of USAID I was treated like royalty. Another teary moment was when I entered a class room and they activated the fan where they had laid rose petals on the blades.

In this job I was also involved with a Gender Equity Program and you can only imagine how busy this kind of activity is in Pakistan where fathers and brothers kill their daughters and sisters to ‘wash’ their honor…when husband throw acid at their wives’ face…

Chopped heads in Mexico were far from me; misery in Pakistan was awfully close. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time in Islamabad and met great Pakistani colleagues and vendors. We had more fun than we could have ever imagined. I’ll tell you later!

Next on EFM Employment: My jobs in Hungary (CLO and EPAP Green Coordinator).

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part II – Dakar

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Part I published yesterday for a full picture.

When my husband applied for the Foreign Service we lived in France and knew one person, in a different section, in the Foreign Service. We were not inundated with tips, we had no clue what or where we were getting into. When he applied we had very little chances that he would be selected because I was foreign-born. I had a full time job (60+ hours per week and my 4-hour per day commute, except when I was travelling one to two weeks per month) as marketing director for Europe so I did not look for any information about what might potentially happen … or not. Once my husband received his offer, he had two weeks to pack and leave (the email had been sitting in his inbox for another three weeks but we had no connection during our holidays in Africa) after a clearance/decision process which took three years. He had to leave without me and the kids. We were not prepared. Once he left, I used all my lonely nights to do some research. I learned the many acronyms, the few jobs for spouses, the housing and schools situation; I educated myself. I understood I would have to fight to get a job but sometimes it just depends on your date of arrival, and that I might work only one year out of two or not at all. After eight months, we were ready to join my husband in Virginia.

Commercial Specialist – I had a great start in the Foreign Service since, as soon as I landed in Senegal, I began as a Commercial Specialist for the Department of Commerce U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs)! I had applied in April, received the offer promptly after my interview and only moved to Senegal three months later, ahead of my husband actually. Being francophone with a background in sales and marketing were the key skills which helped me seize this amazing job.

Based in Dakar, I was in charge of all West Africa and part of Central Africa.  On one hand my customers were in the U.S. and I had to advise them about the best strategies to enter the West African markets, which sectors were in demand for U.S. products, which importers were solvent. On the other hand I had African importers who wanted to know who they could import from, which companies were reliable and used to do business overseas. The big thrill of this job was organizing and leading delegation of West Africans to trade fairs in Las Vegas or New York on various topics such as building materials or cosmetics.

Community Liaison Office Coordinator – For ‘needs of service’ I also became a CLO in Dakar, a fascinating job which is considered the Rolls Royce of jobs for EFMs (eligible family members) within the Department of State. There is a long definition for CLO that you can check on the link at the top of the page. The short definition is: ‘in charge of good morale’ of everybody in the mission. If officers have good morale they will work better. If their EFMs are happy, the officer will be able to concentrate on his job. It sounds simple but it is a complex job since it encompasses eight areas of intervention and involves a lot of un-rooted people. Some happy to be there, some grinding their teeth. And this complex job changes with every continent and every country because hardships come from different elements.

I will continue later on my jobs in Mexico City, Islamabad and Budapest.

My Jobs in the Foreign Service – Part I

My husband joined the Foreign Service as a second career. I followed, reinventing myself in each country. This post might help people who think about the Foreign Service to determine whether it is for them or not, depending on aspirations of their better half.

First of all the following spouse needs to be at peace with their own career. In most cases your past career as a lawyer or a dentist or an engineer will just have to stop. If you were a contracts writer you might be able to become a teleworker. If you were a teacher, there are usually openings at the international schools. If your past career in the U.S. was stay-at-home parent, it will not change much but will still require some adaptation. Note that I didn’t say ‘stay-at-home mom’. There is a ratio of 80% female and 20% male spouse following the diplomat spouse. The male number is growing slowly but steadily.

There was a time (40 years ago?) when the following spouse just followed. Nowadays the spouse wants to work whether this wish is driven by the need of a second income or the need to fill an entire day outside the house, and socialize. So the Family Liaison Office (FLO) was created. “FLO’s mission is to improve the quality of life of all demographics we serve by identifying issues and advocating for programs and solutions, providing a variety of client services, and extending services to overseas communities through the management of the worldwide Community Liaison Office (CLO) program.” About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say.

I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics and let you know that it is possible to work as long as you do not expect to either match your past salary if you were an executive or use as much brain since the majority of jobs offered to following spouses are clerical in nature. Actually following spouses and children have an acronym: EFM for Eligible Family Member. Eligible to be on the Diplomat’s order, get a plane ticket, medical clearances and eventually eligible to get a job in an Embassy.

I’ll make a difference between the official jobs where I had a paycheck and the other jobs that were just as demanding or more but did not receive a monetary compensation.

Official Jobs

  • Commercial Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs). Serving West Africa from Dakar, Senegal.
  • Community Liaison Officer in Dakar, Senegal
  • Procurement agent for the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) in Mexico City
  • Staff Aide for the Minister Counselor of Consular Affairs for Mexico
  • Fraud Prevention Unit investigator in Mexico City
  • Grants administrator for USAID in Pakistan
  • Community Liaison Office Assistant and Newsletter Editor in Budapest
  • Green Team Leader – EPAP* – in Budapest

Ad-Hoc Jobs – in between Official Jobs or also overlapping

  • Packing and move coordinator (do not underestimate this very important role)
  • “Declutterer”: organizing yard sales and advertising through Craig list and FreeCycle
  • French teacher
  • Volunteer: docent, financial adviser, working women’s group coordinator, newsletter editor for the Diplomatic Spouses Association in Mexico (ACD), parent delegate at school, demolisher-constructor for Habitat for Humanity, …
  • Social agenda organizer
  • Travel and Holiday Guru

I will go in more details about them in a future post.
*EPAP: Expanded Professional Associate Program, in layman’s term the best job an EFM can get (about 186 in the world in 2015).