Living Worlds Apart Doesn’t Mean Growing Apart

Helping your relationships thrive with family and friends back home

By Gretel Backman Patch

Electronic improvements in the last few years have made it easier to keep in touch with loved ones while living abroad in the Foreign Service. What used to take weeks if not months by “snail” mail, now takes seconds thanks to email. Online photos, movies, family websites, and blogs make it easy to share your latest adventures. While technology has made communication easier for Foreign Service families, it probably won’t ever solve the greater problem: relating our very different lives to the people we care about back home.

How do we share the amazing experiences we have without coming across as superior or pretentious? How can we keep our relationships strong when our daily lives seem so outwardly different? How can we remain close to family and friends no matter where we live?

There’s no easy answer, but these questions were posed on AAFSW’s email discussion group, Livelines, and an interesting discussion emerged, which is highlighted below. Members of this online Foreign Service community outline the unique challenges we face, offer a few helpful reminders, and explain how they are sharing their experience with others.

It may be bumpy, but what a ride!

“This is a problem for all expatriates, not just U.S. diplomats,” explains Sarah Chandler, who has lived in Kigali and Sydney . “Our family and friends say, ‘One time when I was in Oklahoma .’ We say, ‘One time when I was in Kenya .’ It’s just a different world. You can try to censor by saying just ‘One time.’ and leaving out the place, but this often kills the story.”

Chandler has learned that staying in touch is often a one-way street. “I typed myself blue in the face for four years before giving up,” Chandler said. “Nothing is more frustrating than trying to stay in touch with everyone, and then coming home and having them say, ‘So, where were you again? And what were you doing?’ It makes me want to yell, ‘Didn’t you read my letters?'”

Kelly Midura can relate, as one who has been in the Foreign Service since 1988 and has lived in Colchester, La Paz , Guatemala City, Lusaka , San Salvador , and Prague . “Don’t go on about your overseas experiences unless you are asked to,” Midura says. “Your mother will probably want to know every detail, but your friends? Not so much.”

Our lifestyle brings an inevitable amount of distance, but fortunately we are not alone. “Foreign Service life does in some sense isolate us from family and friends back home who cannot easily relate to our experiences,” says Hugh MacDougall, who lived in Conakry , Recife , Paris , Abidjan , Lourenco Marques ( Maputo ), Dar-es-Salaam, and Rangoon before retiring in 1986. “While at the same time, it creates a permanent ‘community’ with anyone who has lived extensively abroad, including people of all nationalities who can relate to our nomadic, multi-cultural life.”

“This is an issue shared by almost everybody in the Foreign Service,” says Debbi Miller, who has lived in Milano, Paris , Bridgetown , and Wellington . “A certain amount of distancing occurs despite our best efforts. Nobody really understands what it is like to live and function in a second, third, or fourth language and culture except others who have done it. Nowadays we are blessed with ever-more sophisticated electronic means by which we can keep connected and bridge that gap.”

The gap seems large at times. “No matter how your friends and relatives care about you, when you return for home leave or to visit, they may ask you what you really do in the Foreign Service,” says Lisa Wilkinson, whose husband retired in 2001 after 39 years in the Foreign Service and who has lived in Mazatlan, San Jose, Buenos Aires, Taipei, Guayaquil, Manila, Seoul, Bangkok, Bonn, and Guadalajara. “Most of them have no idea what the Foreign Service is.”

Embrace the change, accept the challenge, another adds. Whatever bumps we may face along the way, it really is a wonderful ride.

Relationships 101

This wonderful ride is worth sharing with those we care about, but what are the best ways to do that? It helps to remember a few basics.

“The first rule of friendship is always to show an interest in the other person’s life,” Kelly Midura notes. “And people do lead full, interesting lives without ever joining the Foreign Service.” While your friends and family back home may not be able to relate to all of your experiences, they will have plenty of experiences you can relate to, so ask them about their lives, Midura adds.

“In my opinion there is no reason why your life at home and your life overseas cannot be integrated,” says Heather Turner, who is living in Conakry and whose father is also in the Foreign Service. ” A lot of it probably depends on the personalities of the people in your family but there are ways you can involve them in your new life.My family helps keep us grounded, in touch with reality and I think that is a very special gift. Reach out to your family, be honest with them about your concerns and the things you are nervous about, and they can help you adjust to your new life,” Turner adds.

“As long as you inquire into their lives, relate to the norms back home, and slowly release the details of the life you’re living, things should go fine,” notes Michele Hopper, who has lived in Manila and Lome. “It’s when we want all the folks back home to be as excited about the changes in our lives that we find disappointment. They can’t relate so we feel they don’t care, and then our feelings are hurt.”

It sometimes helps to share some negative along with the positive to keep things balanced. ” You are going to have plenty of experiences that people back home will not envy one bit! What’s so great about food poisoning, intestinal bugs, dengue fever, filthy beggars, high-crime posts, endless stuffy receptions, moving every couple of years, or not being able to understand anyone around you?” Kelly Midura asks. “My point is just that your life is not necessarily going to be BETTER than anyone else’s-just DIFFERENT. Always keep that in mind, and make sure you include the bad with the good during your storytelling, and no one will think you are bragging.”

Reach out and touch someone

Today, we are only just a click away from friends and family. Many affordable or free services are available to help us communicate via the Internet. Here are some modern and traditional ways some people in the Foreign Service are keeping in touch.

Create a family website

Many think a family website is the best way to keep others in-the-know, simply because loved ones can look at it on their own time and according to their interest level. You can post photos, writings, videos, or whatever works for your family.

“Leave the interest level in their hands,” says Hopper. “We have our website do the talking. Our adventures are there if they want to read about them. They find things that interest them, and then ask about it, rather than me providing a deluge of information when we get together or talk on the phone.”

Start your own blog and encourage family members to do the same

Blogs, or “web logs” allow you to post your writings online for others to read. Think of it as an online journal. It minimizes paper and is accessible anywhere. Can’t say the same about the old journals buried somewhere in Hagerstown .

“The blog is primarily for me so that when I finally get my scrapbooking stuff, I can remember what we did when,” says Jen Dinoia, who has lived in Caracas and Reykjavik . “However, I found it has also really helped tell my PC-literate friends and family what is going on.”

“Encourage your family to start blogs,” adds Brian Neely, who is living in Almaty, “so you can hear about how Jeffy is about a week from taking his first steps, your father-in-law’s new weekend job as a starter at the golf course, your brother’s efforts to build a new house in West Seattle, and so on.”

Post your photos online

“People love photos and will look at them on their own time,” says Dinoia. “We have pictures not only of the stuff we are doing but also of our new home. It’s hard for others to imagine where you are living if they have no idea of what the place looks like. Include photos of the kitchen, and the bidet in your daughter’s bathroom.”

“We constantly send our family digital photos of the kids in their new home, with their new friends,” notes Turner. “Even if your family expresses no interest in knowing about your new country, they will want lots of photos of your kids.”

Photos help others see that Foreign Service life isn’t so foreign, as you still have to get up and go about your life, says Dinoia.

Encourage others to visit you wherever you’re living

This is perhaps the best way for others to understand what you’re experiencing.

“We’ve had friends and family come everywhere we have gone (even Cuba), and it has been so much more fun than the kind of visits we had before the Foreign Service,” notes Patricia Linderman, who has been in the Foreign Service for 14 years and lived in Port of Spain, Santiago, Havana, and Leipzig. “Instead of just sitting around, talking and eating, we’ve fished in pristine rivers in southern Chile, gone bird watching in the Caribbean rain forest, stayed overnight in German castles, snorkeled on coral reefs, and ridden horses in the Andes.”

People see this as an opportunity to come to a place they would not normally be able to visit very easily, adds Turner.

For those who don’t visit you and have never lived (or traveled extensively) abroad themselves, it is not much use spending a lot of energy trying to explain your experiences, Linderman adds. People will ask politely, but their eyes glaze over quickly. It’s not always their fault-if they haven’t had similar experiences, it is quite hard to relate.

Display pictures of loved ones in your home and talk about them often

“A wall with family photos (and stories to go with the photos) is helpful, both for memories and to help your kids recognize the people they see when you are on home leave,” suggests Betty Snow, who has lived in Adana, Ankara, Tunis, Kuwait City, Cairo, Dhaka, Wellington, and Bridgetown .

Keep it simple

“People want to hear about people, not about stuff they can’t do,” says Neely. “Communicate the wonder, the joy, the frustration, and the weird stories, and after talking about your hike in the canyon 10 miles from China , ask how Johnny’s basketball season is going.”

The trick is to remember it’s the little stuff that interests everyone and not that you jetted off to Paris for the weekend, another adds.

Have a few general-purpose anecdotes on hand (like “Did you know that the ‘OK’ hand signal has a rude meaning in Greece?”). Otherwise, try to stick to topics you have in common, like childrearing, good times you’ve shared in the past, or sports, suggests Linderman.

Find ways to help your family feel more connected to your new home. Tell them about books they can read and music they can listen to, says Turner. “Express to them the wonder you feel about where you are.”

Our Foreign Service Family

Fortunately, we have a large family who is interested, understanding, and sympathetic: each other.

People in the Foreign Service share many similar experiences. It’s fun to swap stories and keep in touch with old A-100 buddies, catch up with friends while in D.C., or exchange pictures with a mom from playgroup two posts ago. There are also great online forums like AAFSW’s Livelines and other organizations’ listservs and websites (FSYF, Dacor, AFSA, etc.) that help keep us connected.

No one quite understands our lives like those who are living it. ” Who else has any capacity for listening about our trips to New Zealand and Thailand, mixed with the experiences of having a housekeeper, job talk, and the trials of long-distance travel?” asks Hopper.

We also have an extended family that encompasses anyone who has lived abroad. There are many who have lived or who are currently living overseas in various capacities: military, contractors, Peace Corps, study abroad. The list goes on. “It’s never safe to assume that people have not lived overseas,” Kelly Midura notes. “You might have more in common with people than you think you do. And they are always willing to talk about their experience if not yours.”

Our adventures can become even more meaningful as we find ways to share them with those we care about. This can be challenging but also rewarding, as others experience our lives vicariously. Fortunately technology has made it easier and more affordable to keep in touch. The world may prove to be a little smaller for others because we have taken the time to assimilate it.

“The Foreign Service in a very real sense gives you the world in a way that almost nothing else can,” adds MacDougall. “So to those who worry about relating to family and friends-yes, it is a problem, but one worth living with and trying as best you can to overcome creatively.”

Gretel Backman Patch is the very tired but happy mother of 1-year-old Bronte and 3-year-old Ravi . She has recently earned the title of Foreign Service Spouse (after 7 years of trying!) and will soon leave for their first post to Djibouti . She is nervous but excited about this new life and looks forward to many adventures ahead. While she graduated with a B.A. in Communications: Journalism from Brigham Young University, she considers her real education living and savoring each day. Passions include: writing, reading a good book, eating a meal she doesn’t have to clean up after, finishing a complete sentence when visiting with her husband after the kids have gone to bed, and having an occasional nap.