FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: April 22, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: It is April 22, 2020, Earth Day. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am talking with Isabella Lozano, who, for her teenage years, has been a Foreign Service child, a Third Culture Kid, and a child of a foreign-born EFM (Eligible Family Member). So, welcome Isabella, and I look forward to hearing about your life. Tell me about your background, where you’ve been posted with your family, and the ages you were when you were in those places.
LOZANO: I would first like to start off by thanking you, Bonnie, for letting me be part of this interview. I think it’s a great opportunity to be able to share some of these experiences that I’ve been sitting on for a while right now. And I think it’s just a great opportunity just for people to be able to see themselves represented in the Foreign Service community.
My name is Isabella. I’m a 19-year-old college student in the Netherlands currently, but I come from all over the place. I was originally born in the Philippines. I lived there for 14 years. And then when I was 14 years old, I moved overseas to be with my stepdad and my mother, who were working at the time for the Foreign Service at the embassies.
Hence, my first post was Beijing, China, where I stayed for one year, my sophomore year of high school. And after that, we moved to Brussels, Belgium, where we lived for two years. I graduated from high school there, and now I’m in The Netherlands.
So, I think it’s probably also worth mentioning that I’ve never actually lived in the U.S. myself. And actually, my whole TCK [Third Culture Kid] experience intersects with my own immigration experience. So, during that time that we were moving around a lot, I also acquired American nationality. My TCK experience was basically a process of acculturating to three different cultures at the same time. First, learning American culture through the Foreign Service and being in the embassies; second, local culture of post, whether it’s Chinese, Belgian; and third, which is the international culture of the schools and environments that I’ve been exposed to.
Q: Multicultural. Was your first language Tagalog, or did you speak English at home?
LOZANO: Oh, I spoke English at home. Yeah, it’s my first language.
Q: So, when you were moving around, how did your parents prepare you for your new homes and your new life?
LOZANO: I think that’s a great question. A lot of Foreign Service families have a sense, but until you’ve actually experienced it multiple times, especially within such a short timeframe, you learn it through experience. So, I think my parents mostly encouraged us to learn the local language and read up and watch a lot of videos about where we were moving, just to learn how to navigate this new country. So. it’s just gathering as much information as we can so that when we move, we’re actually more prepared. At least in my experience, one thing that’s more specific was that, prior to moving to a new post, I always got to see my family wherever it was. Mostly it was the Philippines, but I also got to travel and see a little bit as well, like the U.S., prior to moving to these new places.
Q: So, you could feel Filipino, but you could also know something about America, because you were at an embassy where your parents were representing the U.S.
Q: So, when you were talking about languages, did you learn Chinese? Did you learn French?
LOZANO: Yes, I learned Chinese for one year, but I lost it because it was only one year of Chinese. But afterwards, when I moved to Brussels, I really took it upon myself to learn French, and I found that that was very, very useful in getting around and learning this whole different world.
Q: Are you in an English language university or a Dutch university where they teach in English?
LOZANO: It’s a public Dutch university. But there are a lot of internationals here as well. So, a lot of the courses are taught in English.
Q: How did you deal with changing schools and activities at each post? You started from the Philippines, and then you went to Beijing, and then you went to Brussels. And so, what were some of your successes and challenges in that transition process?
LOZANO: Each school had its own different culture. For example, when I was studying in the Philippines, I went to a private school there, not an international school. So, in a sense, there was a little bit of a culture shock in the way that the teachers would teach or, the small nuances that you would have in school. For example, I used to wear uniforms for 14 years, and suddenly I got to wear whatever I wanted; it was a big adjustment. Many choices! Suddenly, I had to get a new wardrobe. One very specific example that I remember was that I did theater once I moved to China. And the school that I went to was actually a very artsy school. But when I moved to Belgium, that school was more academic-oriented, so they didn’t really have as big of a drama department. It was difficult, because now there’s a disparity between those two programs, and a little bit frustrating as well. But I think what really helped was just trying to build upon other areas of life, such as learning a language, sports, volunteering, making friends. So even though you have to put away some of those hobbies, you can always pick it up at a later point.
Q: That’s an interesting point, because some of the activities that you mentioned are thing that do provide continuity. Like if you did drama in one place, that you would transition and you could do drama in another, or if you played soccer in one place. But it sounds like there was a disconnect between your different posts, and so it was more challenging for you to find something that you could do at each place.
LOZANO: Definitely. And I feel like this whole idea of TCK is not really knowing and almost kind of questioning their own identity, because there’s always a little sense of discontinuity in between each post. So, I guess there’s just more of the challenge of trying to find your own essence. You’re finding your own essence, regardless of what you’re doing, and being sure of yourself and knowing that you’re still who you are, despite not being able to do the things that you necessarily love.
Q: Right, so your own identity, your own personality. And that fits in with the question of, your tips for adjustment and making friends at new posts. So, if you knew of other people who were moving and who were in high school or college, what would you tell them?
LOZANO: I really thought a lot about this because it’s a very interesting question. Me being in college right now and having to live on my own, by myself and being in a completely different environment than what I was used to in the embassies, which I would say is very American. It’s a question for me as well. I’m just very curious. Yeah, even I struggled to answer it a little bit to this day, just because it’s a process of learning and learning and learning.
One thing that I really recommend to other TCKs is just to keep an open mind to all experiences. The life of living overseas, especially as someone in the Foreign Service, is an immense privilege. There will always be new things that you’re going to be learning every day. Whether you’re at school or at your parents’ work in the embassies or whether just walking the street, you’re always going to learn something new. So, keeping an open mind and perspective towards approaching all of these things is important, because one of these days, those very things will make very great stories.
One last practical tip: the internet is also a very, very powerful tool for a TCK. I find that I get really busy in the first few months of adjusting to a new post, so I never really found the time to keep up with my old friends from the previous post or my family back in the Philippines. But it’s always nice to schedule a call, a Google Meet, put it down in your calendar, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, and to tell your friends and your family that, “Hey, although I’m busy, and I’m far away, we still have a connection, and I want you to know that I’m thinking of you.”
Q: So that’s really a way to keep in touch with people and to keep current with friends. One of the great things about the internet that we did not have when my husband was in the Foreign Service, it was hard to connect with anybody. Now it’s so easy with Google Meet or FaceTime or whatever.
Q: Did you deal with any hardships or dangers in any of your posts? For some teenagers, it’s too dangerous for them to go around on their own in their environment because the security issues are really daunting. But it sounds like where you were you didn’t face any of those problems.
LOZANO: Yes, I would say so. Looking back at my own TCK experience, I was really being pushed, especially by my parents, to be very independent and try and figure out how to take the metro or a taxi, especially in a place where there’s a huge language barrier. Like in China, for example, I had to go around speaking broken Chinese just for them to understand me. So, I’d say that would be sort of a hardship. But at the same time, we also made sure that, as a family, we would always have our mobile data on and have a GPS and just always send a call just in case. Having situational awareness, basically, just always looking around and going like, “Okay, am I safe here?”
Q: Good tip. Do you have siblings?
LOZANO: I have a twin sister, so she lived basically the same life story and path as me. And she is also in The Netherlands as well. She’s attending another university, though.
Q: Very interesting. So, wherever you went, you had an instant friend who was your age and your grade. Did she have similar experiences, was she as open-minded about this kind of lifestyle as you are?
LOZANO: It’s very interesting, because me and my sister always have these conversations about what it means to be a TCK, belonging, identity, and so forth. And as we talk more about it, we start to realize that although we’ve had a parallel trajectory, we’ve had very different experiences. Obviously, it relates to our personalities, like which classes we took. All these little things that really change our personalities in general.
Q: But she made the same decision as you did, even when your parents are in DC, to be a continent away and go to university in The Netherlands. At least you have her there.
LOZANO: Oh, and she actually takes the same law program. The law program that I take is called International and European Law. The one that she takes in this other university is called Global Law. Very similar.
Q: You mentioned the technology and Google Meet. Can you suggest any other important resources and sources of support for TCKs as they’re navigating, especially through high school and college?
LOZANO: There’s really a growing online presence in TCK communities, especially in social media, that I’ve noticed a lot, following different pages specifically focused on being a TCK. More workshops, more conferences that are centered on navigating and being a cross-cultural family and also learning how to navigate identity-building. My favorite one, for example, is this page on Instagram called TCK Global. And they have all sorts of different resources there: books, posts, online seminars, even socials, free ways to connect with other TCKs.
Q: Did your Foreign Service parents have any unaccompanied postings? And if so, how did they decide where the rest of the family would live? And do you have any advice about how to handle the challenges of being separated and the parent possibly being in a dangerous post, or at least in another post?
LOZANO: Well, our situation was a little bit complicated, but just to simplify, my stepfather, Tom, was posted to Afghanistan for a year. So, while me, my sister, and my mom were living in China, Tom was in Afghanistan the whole time. So, it was more of a practical consideration as to why we decided just to stay in China as opposed to moving someplace else.
To give some advice to people, aside from setting up times to call, one thing I specifically remember was we actually had a digital picture frame with an app that you can send photos to, and the photos will show up within that frame. So, it created a sense of connection, and at least knowing what my stepdad was up to, despite being in the distance. So, I think that’s one way to connect.
Q: And you can show him, “Here I am at the market in Beijing, here I am, doing my play and at school in Beijing,” or whatever. And so, just a way to feel more connected.
LOZANO: Yes. So that’s, that really, really helps, I would say.
Q: Okay, so you talked about the challenges and the advantages of being a TCK. What do you think would be the highlight of your teenage career? What are some of the things you were able to take advantage of that a regular high school or college kid in the United States wouldn’t have the opportunity for?
LOZANO: Living overseas is an incredible privilege, and to seek unique space, you will constantly be exposed to all forms of information. And, at least in my experience moving in all these countries, one thing that really stuck with me was theater and learning and being able to travel using all of these. I remember my international school made us travel for theater. And all of these experiences, learning different types of theater when it ranges from Chinese theater or going to London to see plays. Even in that one aspect of life, you already grow so much as an individual. And you really learn how to navigate all of these spaces and present yourself in these spaces and always have to prove yourself.
You had the question about bringing children back to the U.S. for vacation every summer. And the question on reentry into DC, like you look and sound American, but didn’t have prior experience. How to help college students whose parents live many time zones away. And any advice? Basically, those are the four that I would really love to answer.
Q: Even though you have not experienced reentry into Washington, DC. Did you make a lot of visits to the U.S. to get an idea of what the culture was?
LOZANO: I’ve been there four times for an extended period of time, and I’d say the most meaningful of those two was the latter two visits. The first was to actually get naturalized, have my ceremony over there. And the second, the most recent one, was visiting my family after they settled down in Virginia, which really helped give me a sense of, “Oh my gosh, I live in the U.S. This is my home in the U.S.” And it actually made me feel more American in that sense. So, I came back feeling like I’m a fresh American. I’m proud. I also got a lot of chances to learn about Washington, DC, which is where I say I come from in the U.S.
So, there was actually just one question about reentry into Washington, especially as someone who looks and sounds American, but didn’t have prior living experience. I did adapt more into American culture before moving to the U.S. And when I visited my family last December, I found it very interesting. So even though I haven’t lived in the U.S., my peers here in the Netherlands would say, “Wow, you sound super American.” But whenever I come back to the U.S., I’ve never felt out of place, because especially given my own immigration background, everyone in the U.S. comes from everywhere, which means a lot to me. There’s this sense that we’re all just in the same boat. I actually feel most at home in the U.S., even though I’ve never lived there. Interestingly enough, I’d say that the biggest difficulty was just learning how to do all of these bureaucratic things that I’ve never done before, such as filing taxes for the first time. And I’m just like, “Okay, this is so different from what I’m used to.” But yeah. I’m very proud to call myself American.
Q: You mentioned that your parents are in DC, and you’re at university several time zones away, so how do you keep in touch with them?
LOZANO: I can definitely relate to this question, because being in Europe, I’m six time zones away from Washington, DC, but I’m also six time zones away from the Philippines. So, I kind of had to memorize which parts of the day I can actually call my family in the U.S. and the parts of the day that I can call some of my other family in the Philippines. So, what I do is I set a specific time in the week to call my parents. Saturdays are when I’m going to call my family in the Philippines, and then Sundays for an hour or two, I’d be calling my family in Washington.
Q: What about advice for other TCK kids or TCK parents who are moving from one post to another? You were saying, “Be open-minded, take advantage of what’s offered in each place.”
LOZANO: In this unique international space, and your kids will soak up many, many different cultural perspectives and languages, which is going to be outside of your controlled home environment. So, for example, they may learn a very different approach to a situation or even learn a different way of communication. It’s not going to be an easy journey, especially when it’s compounded with the normal motions of growing up. Puberty, friendships, trying to fit in; it will get messy. But that’s actually what will make great memories and great stories. So, let your kids make the most of it, and allow them to be exposed to these meaningful experiences. I would say the key is open communication, knowing exactly how your child is feeling, how you’re feeling about a different situation, then negotiating what works best for you as a family.
One thing that was in my experience that I still find kind of funny is that I really wanted to learn and follow American convention by calling older people by their first names, but that’s not something that my mom was used to, especially because we’ve seen in many Asian cultures, it’s like a level of seniority. So, she would insist on me calling them Mr. or Miss, and I’d be like, “Mom, what? Everyone’s saying just by their first names.” So yes, there may be conflicting cultural beliefs, but you as a family have to find this right balance. I’m taking a course in my university about intercultural competence, and one quote is that it’s very important in the TCK life that there is no such thing as right or wrong in the intercultural.
Q: That’s really interesting. So, it just depends on people’s perspectives. And morality, ethics, all of that, depend on where you’re coming from. Also, that cultural sensitivity is so important. Well, thank you so much, Isabella. And good luck with the rest of your sophomore year and onward with your career, and thanks for participating in this project.
LOZANO: OK, thank you so much, Bonnie, for hosting this. I loved it. It was an absolute pleasure to have conducted this interview with you and also AAFSW in general. It is important that TCK and identities get addressed. I’m really interested in these sorts of projects, so please do not hesitate to contact me for future projects.
End of Transcription.
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