FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: May 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is May 12, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Kay Soe. Welcome, Kay, and thank you for being interviewed for this important project.
SOE: Thank you. Thanks for having me here.
Q: Great. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you’re from and the posts where you’ve served with your Foreign Service husband?
SOE: Sure. By way of background, I am Burmese. I was born in Burma [Myanmar], but I grew up in Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand, and I also spent time in Malaysia, and I studied abroad. And I met my husband in grad school in the Thailand campus, but the university is in St. Louis, Missouri, and we were classmates. That’s where we met before he joined the Foreign Service. After he joined the Foreign Service, I was working in Indonesia, and he was in the Foreign Service. We were doing this long-distance marriage and decided to reunite, and I started to assume the life of a trailing spouse. And we served in Cote d’Ivoire, India, and China, two domestic assignments, and Burma. The last one was in Burma in Naypyidaw. Oh, we also served in Ethiopia.
Q: When did he join the Foreign Service? That is a lot of posts.
SOE: He joined the Foreign Service in 2009, so 13 years in service. But the thing is that Cote d’Ivoire was cut short because of family reasons: we were expecting, and I had a high-risk pregnancy. So, I was medevacked and then he curtailed it. Then in Burma, we were so excited to be there for three years, and the coup d’état happened, and we were evacuated.
Q: Okay, and these things happen in the Foreign Service with you personally, and things happen with the political and security situations.
SOE: Absolutely. In Ethiopia, too. When we were there, there was a power struggle between the ruling party and the opposition, and there was some killing, and we had a stay-at-home order for a month, and we couldn’t go out anywhere. That’s a byproduct of leading a Foreign Service life.
Q: Absolutely. So, you met your husband when you were both in grad school in the United States. And then he decided to join the Foreign Service. How was that process for you of deciding on this lifestyle?
SOE: Well, like I said, my background was not very far from the foreign service, only that my parents were not diplomats; they were employees of an international organization. I also grew up outside of my own country and was used to the change and moving around. But back then, it was so much harder than today, with its internet and social media, where we can maintain close connections with friends and family and the communities.
Q: Okay, so in a lot of ways easier, it’s good to hear. I know you’ve been evacuated and faced some dangers, what have been your other great challenges of marrying an American Foreign Service officer?
SOE: Like most trailing spouses, I also experienced how, in a new country, you have to navigate the new health system, language and culture, and new labor market. As I’ve said, my career is around public policy and political science or international relations. There are some things that might be issues of your choice and close to your heart. But being a Foreign Service wife, you are also censoring yourself not to exhibit your opinion out in the public because you don’t want to be misinterpreted because of the opinions of the posts or whatever. So, sometimes there are times you have to bite your tongue when you see [things like] children being put into cages at the border. I’m an advocate and the migration policies are so close to my heart. These were a bit of a challenge. But you learn to deal with it because you find another channel to express your feelings: a closed-door meeting, advocacy, or your work. You don’t have to go out in public and express your opinions.
Q: Right. You’re talking about how your background and your experiences impact your life as an FSO spouse and how it really makes it richer, because you do have significant international policy experience.
SOE: Yes, I work in the international development sector, and that’s where I feel that my career is a little bit portable. I’m very privileged to be able to continue my career wherever we go. Even when we were in Ethiopia, I was able to make a trip to Nepal to go with my mission.
Q: You’ve been able to take your career to every single post?
SOE: I have been able to so far because I don’t exactly work in the local labor market, per se. A lot of my work is from home. So, I can travel to the site of where my clients are, be it Bangkok or Indonesia or Nepal when I’m posted to Burma, for example. Being in those regions facilitated my mobility and travel for work.
Q: That’s great. So, you can work on the ground, perhaps not in the city you’re living in, but at least in the same region, and the rest of the work is telecommuting?
SOE: Exactly, yes.
Q: Wow, that’s great that you’ve been able to manage that. How have you adapted to all of the various places that you’ve been? You’ve lived in Africa, Asia, and Washington, DC. How have you coped with all of these changes?
SOE: Well, personally, I’m open to all these new exposures and new challenges, as well as the learning opportunity. I find myself always adapting to new situations, pivoting myself, or remaking. And it’s not always easy, but because I know that the Foreign Service is very important for my spouse, and he loves experiencing new cultures and new posts serving his country every two to three years, I wanted to be supportive. I also like connecting with people from different parts of the world. The good thing is, in the Foreign Service, you have a very closely-knit community and other EFMs [Eligible Family Members] who are very supportive, who are great. You are not exactly on your own. While you’re navigating the limits of this newness; you still have some anchor. That’s the beauty of the Foreign Service.
Q: That’s interesting. Besides your fluent English and Burmese, what other languages have you learned along this journey?
SOE: Even before I met my husband, I learned French when I studied in France. I speak conversational Thai, and I studied Chinese at FSI [Foreign Service Institute].
Q: So, you took advantage of the language instruction that FSI offered.
SOE: Yes. Chinese was the first language I took from FSI. And I am really happy that I took that because without Mandarin, living in Guangzhou would have been quite a challenge, even day-to-day things like shopping and interacting with domestic help. Yes. Very grateful.
Q: Okay, so are you a US citizen? If so, how was that process for you?
SOE: I am naturalized. The process was actually kind of complicated and confusing even though at that time, my husband was a consular officer in India. It is so much paperwork that you have to fill out—wait times and so many policies and guidelines that you have to learn and adjust. But, like everyone else, we went through it, and I adopted the United States as my second home. I accepted it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly part of it.
Q: What are the advantages of being a US citizen now?
SOE: Well, travel to the region is a lot easier now. Because of the coup d’état, a lot of countries were starting to implement a stringent immigration policy against citizens of Myanmar, which would have been very difficult for me. It’s also important for me to be of the same citizenship as my children so that in case something happened to my spouse or myself, my family had these legal rights.
Q: Did you encounter any difficulties with security clearances?
SOE: I tried once to get a security clearance before I had my own consulting business, and I applied for EPAP [Expanded Professional Associates Program] positions. I was in the process of applying for it, but I never secured it. I withdrew my application because I was pregnant, so I decided to put it on hold and have babies. So, I never received a security clearance. And my fellow EFMs said that the security clearance process is pretty cumbersome. Unless you have a job offer, you cannot get a security clearance. And if you don’t have a security clearance, it is very difficult for the jobs at post to be offered to you because they prefer people with security clearances. It’s a vicious cycle for EFMs.
Q: I see. But it sounds like you’ve had a really successful career, and so there was no need for you to have a job in the embassy or the consulate where you were posted in all those different countries.
SOE: Not anymore. It was really interesting because I was talking to a spouse of a management counselor at one of the posts and she’s also an HR specialist. We were talking about the pros and cons of being in an EPAP or EFM position and starting your own portable career, your own business, and she really encouraged me to go for it, because structurally, EFM positions are very much dependent on the sponsoring officer. So, it is quite difficult to make a career out of this track and continue to carry on. Of course, if you had a CLO position from previous posts, that always weighed in positively on your current post. But you have to be sure that there is a vacant CLO position in the current post. The timing has to coincide, and you are kind of dependent on your spouse as a sponsoring officer, and when he curtails, you also have to leave your CLO career behind.
Q: It sounds like the positions you’re in and the work that you’re doing really fit perfectly. You’re able to do that regionally and virtually as well. That works for you so you wouldn’t even need to work at an embassy or consulate.
You talked about kids; you have two children. Tell us where and when they were born and about your experience raising Third Culture Kids.
SOE: They were both born here in Washington, DC, but they never lived here. This is the first time they are living here. They are seven and nine. They are loving it. Raising Third Culture Kids, I kind of really understand it because I have extended family who are also TCKs, and they always struggle with regard to forming deep roots with their own heritage and their parents’ side of the family as well as being overseas. That is the downside of raising a Third Culture Kid: not being able to really form roots and be deep-rooted in your culture, heritage, and ethnicity. But at the same time when I see them speaking broken Chinese with their friends on the playground, I know that they are very versatile and resilient, and they are really open to cross-cultural experiences. I think they’ll also have an advantage when they get older if they are in international relations or business. Also, being able to relate to other people other than your own culture, that is a positive point.
Q: Absolutely. Do you know where you’re going to be posted next, or will you stay in Washington for a while?
SOE: We might extend it one more year here in Washington DC, only because the kids love it so much. Their grandparents are here–even their aunts and uncles–and they’re really loving the American elementary school. It’s their first time attending here, so we might want to give them that opportunity.
Q: Okay, so your husband’s parents are here in Washington and where are your parents?
SOE: Actually, my parents died when I was young. So, I was brought up by my aunt who is like my mom; she’s in Bangkok. I see her often whenever I go there. My parents-in-law are in Nebraska, and my sister-in-law is here in Washington, DC. So, the kids get to see the family often.
Q: Now I wanted to ask about you. Because most Foreign Service officers are married to Americans, we come back to Washington, DC, and that’s our home country. But for you, first of all, you were evacuated to Washington, DC, so you never expected to live here, and America is a foreign country for you. So how has your adjustment been to living in this city?
SOE: My experience may be a little different than other foreign-born EFMs because I love being in DC because I can find a lot of people with similar interests. I also joined the National Endowment for Democracy’s and other think tanks’ webinars. They have their own similar small, close group of policy people, and we exchange views and get briefings and updates. And many other research institutes like the United States Institute for Peace, which is very much in the realm of women, peace and security, which is my field. So, I get to reconnect with a lot more people around this policy field here in DC. Occasionally, I give a guest lecture at George Washington University or New York University on the importance of gender inclusion in the peace processes. A lot of my colleagues are either in New York or in DC.
It’s a very different experience, for me, but I totally understand some of my friends who find it a very hard experience living here. That is true that the cost of living is way higher, we don’t have housing coverage, etc. The childcare is very expensive here. Back in other posts we can have caregivers who were very affordable. Also, the EFMs were very closely knit. So, at post, we can always rely on each other. Here, we are all scattered all over the Beltway, so if you have to have an emergency meeting, you kind of have to drag your kids along. There are some hardship aspects, but professionally it’s a networking opportunity. I love being here in DC.
Q: It sounds like you found a great way of networking professionally, both in Washington and in New York, and connecting with people in your field.
Okay, so what is your advice for other foreign-born spouses, especially for people who are marrying into the Foreign Service or just starting with their husband or wife in the Foreign Service?
SOE: I would recommend continuing the friendships that we make along the way in this Foreign Service journey. It is so special and a privilege. I still keep in touch with some of the EFM friends that I made over the course of different posts, and really genuine friendships and a caring community can be made along the way. So, through the internet, Facebook, and Instagram, we can maintain these friendships. Maybe you might be in the same post again or maybe you will end up seeing each other either at the FSI or somewhere around Foggy Bottom. That is something I find that is truly unique about the Foreign Service community.
Q: Great: the beauties of having the internet which really has connected all of us. So, is there anything that I haven’t asked or anything that you would like to add?
SOE: I know they have some webinars bringing groups together, meet and greet, and happy hours. I want them to scale up on these initiatives and help bring different EFMs together for like-minded groups or to exchange tips and tricks. On career development or even your own hobby, or interest groups. That is one thing I would like to propose.
Q: Very good suggestion. So much wisdom and so much experience here. Thank you so much, Kay, for participating in this project and talking about your adventures in all of those different countries.
SOE: Thank you. Thanks for your interest.
End of Transcript
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