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 29, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: It is April 29, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Layla Murphy, who is a Third Culture Kid, a child of a Foreign Service Officer and foreign-born spouse. So welcome, Layla. Tell me about your background, where you were born and the posts where your parents have served and the ages that you were when you were there.
MURPHY: I was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 2002. We don’t have any family ties there, but I was born there because my dad was stationed in Nogales, Mexico, on the other side of the border in Sonora. They really liked Tucson, and they wanted me to be born in the States, so they had the birth over there. They had been there for four years before I was born, and then we were in Tucson for a few months.
After that we went to my first international post, Kuwait, from a few months after birth until I was about two, from 2002 to 2004. But we were evacuated in 2003 to Brasilia, which is where my mom’s parents were living at the time. My grandfather was a professor at the university there. So, my brother, my mom and I were in Brasilia for a few months while my dad stayed behind in Kuwait. We always joke that we were hanging out on the beach while he was in his gas mask under his table–gallows humor. My first word was actually in Portuguese.
The next 10 years after that we spent in Latin America. We moved from Kuwait to Chile, where we lived for three years–2004 to 2007–so I was there from two to five years old. And that was the first place that I remember. I was in pre-K, in Montessori school, and later kindergarten. My brother was in elementary school. That’s where we both learned Spanish.
After Chile, we moved to Cuba for two years, 2007 to 2009, ages five to seven; and then we moved to Mexico City for another two years, 2009 to 2011. And then we were in El Salvador from 2011 to 2013. So, 2004 to 2013, we were in Latin America.
We were supposed to be in El Salvador, where my dad was DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], for three years, but things happened, and we ended up only staying there for two. We got sent back to DC for a year, which was a really strange experience for all of us. The move was really hasty, and we didn’t have the notice that we had for other posts. We were there for 10 months. I was in seventh grade, I was 11.
Then, in 2014, we moved to Egypt. My dad was DCM there, and we were there all together for three years from 2014 to 2017. Then he got posted to Saudi Arabia from 2017 to 2020.
By this point, my brother had already graduated and was here at Penn [University of Pennsylvania]. He graduated in 2015. He took a year off and was hanging out with us in Egypt for some of the time and took intensive Arabic courses at the American University in Cairo, and then he came to Penn. But in 2017 when we got news that we were going to be moving to Saudi Arabia, I basically threw a fit and said that I wouldn’t go, which I’d never done before. I don’t know what it was about this move that was so different, whether it was just my age, but I felt like I particularly needed the sense of community we had built in Egypt. My brother had moved three times in his high school career, and I had seen it take a big toll on his mental health, his academics and his college life. So, both I and my parents had a better sense of why staying in one place for high school might be good. And so my dad went to Saudi Arabia by himself, and my mom and I moved out of our beautiful embassy home into a tiny apartment that was just big enough for both of us. I finished out high school in Cairo.
My mom moved back to join my dad in Saudi Arabia after I graduated, finished out that post, and now they’ve been in Abu Dhabi since 2020. They’ll be there for another year. I actually spent a good deal of time in both Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi; it was only a couple hours’ flight from Egypt to Saudi, so I would visit my dad on the weekends when I was in high school. My mom works in Tucson, Arizona, so she’s gone for a little less than half the year every year. When it was just the two of us living alone, I was often staying with friends, or when I was staying by myself, she would have people spend the night at our house or just check on me every once in a while. So, when she was gone, I would often go and see my dad. And then I spent a good deal of time in Abu Dhabi, as well, because of the pandemic. I took time off from school, so I moved home and lived there for about four or five months.
Q: That is quite the history. I don’t know if there is a typical Third Culture Kid, but it’s difficult, and you have spent almost your entire childhood and adolescence overseas. I can see why you chose Penn, where your brother was studying.
MURPHY: Yeah, definitely. People always ask me that; neither one of us knew Penn existed until he applied. It wasn’t anything that we’d grown up talking about. We kind of thought we would come back to the States for college, but in the end, it was an arbitrary choice. And then him being here was a big pull for me to come as well, just because it would have been a crazy transition anyway, coming back and starting university. But we always say we’re like more fourth culture than third culture, because we have my mom, my dad, and where we’re living. And then this other thing that is completely different from all three of those. So, it definitely has been interesting.
Q: And what are you studying?
MURPHY: I study Philosophy with a minor in Cognitive Science.
Q: And what do you plan to do with that?
MURPHY: I’m not sure. I’m really interested in mental health work. And all of the work that I’ve done in college so far has been human rights and nonprofit-oriented. So, some combination of those two things would be great. I’m working at a startup this summer that does mental health work, but I would love to go back abroad pretty soon.
Q: So, you speak Spanish and also Arabic?
MURPHY: Yeah. I grew up speaking Spanish and English equally. I was put into a fully Spanish preschool when we were in Chile, so I came out of it fluent. Once we moved to Cairo, my brother and I both took some Arabic classes, and he ended up doing a really intensive Arabic program in his gap year, so he got very formal instruction in it. I always say that I only got playground instruction. And it was just from hearing my friends speak all the time and being immersed in it that I picked up enough to manage, but I’ve definitely lost it since coming to college, which is a shame because there was a time when I was pretty proficient, like I could hold a decent conversation. So, it’s really context dependent, and I have no occasion to speak it here. I did try to take some classes in my gap semester when I moved back to Abu Dhabi, but it was a different dialect than what I had spoken when I was in Egypt. So Arabic is kind of tough like that; it was hard to find somebody to teach me Egyptian Arabic when I was in the Gulf.
I grew up taking French in school. When we lived in El Salvador, I would say instruction was 50% English, 30% Spanish, and then the rest was French classes. I spoke French well all through my schooling, but I’ve also lost it a little bit coming to college. I speak Farsi semi-fluently because of my mom. And I’ve taken that as my language at Penn for the past few years.
Q: Really international. So, with all of your moves, how did your parents prepare you for each one?
MURPHY: For our family, we didn’t know a life where we weren’t moving every two years, so there wasn’t as much of a burden on my parents to prepare us because it wasn’t a strange thing to have to move. We always expected that when we got somewhere we’d be leaving pretty soon, which, I mean, the psychological implications of that I’m still working through.
I think it was always like, “This is so exciting; this is the place we’re going; this is where you’re going to go to school!” and trying to make as many choices for us as possible. So, wherever we wanted to go to school, of the options that are approved by the embassy, for instance, we would talk it through as a family. The same with our living situation. They’d say, “This is the house we’re going to be in, and it’s going to be lovely, and you’re going to have the same room as you have here–it’s just going to be there.”
And another thing also that I’ve really benefited from was the way that we set up our house would always be exactly the same. I always tell my friends at Penn that it’s the art on my walls that makes me feel like I’m home, not the place. Because there’s embassy furniture, that’s pretty stable. The Drexel furniture is very familiar to me. My parents have a pretty sizable art collection, so that’s what signals to me that this was my house. It looks the same, it smells the same, it’s decorated the same. I can recognize the paintings, the same ones that I’ve seen since I was two years old. And we would paint the walls the same colors, for example. So, I think that sense of stability in the home, at least in our family, was really helpful for us.
Otherwise, it was just about trying to spin it into an exciting adventure. And there was always a sense that our family was going on adventures together. I think we got really close as a result of that, closer to each other than a lot of families I know, which is a pretty logical consequence of having only each other when you move around so much.
Q: What about changing schools, school activities, and different schools and different friends? How did that go for you?
MURPHY: Our schooling experience was interesting because Foreign Service families tend to go to American schools in other countries, but we had by chance fallen into the British system. So, we were in the American system for the first chunk of childhood, and then we switched to the British system, so we were really familiar with IGCSEs [International General Certificate of Secondary Education] and IB [International Baccalaureate], and all that stuff that American schools didn’t always have. So, we were doing it a little bit differently from the rest of the embassy community. Changing schools is hard. It’s not something that every 10-year-old wants to be doing. Also, we were fortunate because we were bright kids, so it was easy for us to just take on whatever the level of the school or the type of academics or anything, and we were pretty quick to adapt to that sort of thing. And I think that if a family has kids with more intense academic needs, that it would probably have been harder for them.
Q: Do you have activities at each school, like certain sports or certain clubs or whatever?
MURPHY: Yeah, we did. I kind of mirrored what my brother did; he would do Model United Nations, so I would do Model United Nations, and that was something that we did across multiple schools. And I always did theater and got involved with music and things like that. So, there was relative consistency. But it depends a lot on what the school has to offer. My high school didn’t have a robust theater program, for example.
The one thing about being uprooted all the time is that you don’t build the long-term relationships with teachers that you might have elsewhere. You’re not building many lasting relationships with anyone because you’re moving so much. And not having the opportunity to build our academics over time and be able to say, “I’ve been in this club for this many years,” or “I have consistently won this award for this many years in a row,” or that kind of thing. You’re never going to be on the same level as somebody who’s been there for five more years than you who’s had time to build more of a rapport with academics at the school, which isn’t the biggest deal, because we always did fine. And I think sometimes there were other Foreign Service kids around to make that feel more normal. But that was something that we had trouble with, for sure.
Q: So as you were leaving, how did you decide to stay in touch with some of your friends? Are you still in touch with some of your friends from various postings?
MURPHY: Yeah, definitely. Obviously, social media has made it a lot easier. I’m still in touch with people that I lived with in Cuba 15-17 years ago.
I think DC and the northern Virginia area is an interesting phenomenon because it’s like a group of people who are consistently getting left behind in a really different way than what we’re used to. Like we’re really used to leaving things behind, but not to getting left behind. And I think it has similar applications for kids in terms of their friendships and development. It contributes to this thing where it’s like, “Well, I don’t want to get too close to this person because I know that they’re going to be gone soon.”
But by and large, I keep in really good contact with everybody that I went to high school with, and I am in decent contact with people from DC. Everyone before that, I still follow just to keep tabs on them and remember they were in my life. It is a little like, diminishing returns with time… it’s harder to stay close to people from a longer time ago. But I have better contact with people in recent memory.
Q: So. you were mentioning your father having unaccompanied postings or places where you weren’t there with him. How was that for you and your family?
MURPHY: My family is a unique case because my mom, who’s a trailing spouse, was always doing that. Her schedule was that every two months she would leave for three weeks. She’s a doctor, a Pediatric Hospitalist in Tucson, and she crams all of her shifts into a really short period of time. She started doing that when we lived in Cuba when I was five, so that was a constant throughout my life. I think the reason that being away from my dad was particularly hard is because when she left, there were no parents left for me. So, I think we were really lucky to have made so many wonderful and trustworthy and deep connections with people in Egypt that we felt like it was fine for me to be there by myself. And my mom trusted various people with checking in on me or she was happy to leave me to live with them for a couple of weeks. And people were very generous and welcoming. And I think by and large people in the community understood that demands like this would arise for certain families sometimes. And we were obviously happy to return the favor for them.
Saudi Arabia was not an unaccompanied post; we could have gone, but we just didn’t. And that was not something I ever thought I would do. I think it was a really unique circumstance. Having seen my brother struggle and feel incredible frustration with having to move around so much in high school, I mean, when your frontal lobe is developed enough to understand that this is really sad and difficult. My parents were more willing to accommodate me, even though it was really hard for our family, especially because of my mom’s job. So, it was a tough experience, but I’m so grateful. I spent five years there, which was inconceivable to me that I could ever be anywhere for five years.
Q: Were you in any posts where it was dangerous for you and your family?
MURPHY: Dangerous can mean a couple of things. I think when we lived in Cuba, it was politically dangerous, and my parents were sometimes worried that I was going to say something problematic. And I remember there being weird rules about what they wanted me to be talking about, like a six-year-old. We had food shortages all the time, so we would grow some of our own produce. My mom had this group chat with some of the other spouses, so if somebody went to the grocery store and there were tomatoes or milk, they would send a text in this chat, and everybody would flock to the grocery store and buy the milk because there’s never milk. So, a lot of it was hard in that way. It was a sensitive political situation, but it wasn’t dangerous. El Salvador was a little bit more so because there was a lot of gang violence. I wasn’t allowed to walk alone. And outside we actually had a friend get stabbed, like crazy gang-related things. So, it was dangerous there for sure.
Then Mexico City is a big metropolitan area, so there’s as much danger as you’d expect from a similar place in the United States. And then in Egypt, I never felt in danger other than there was a lot of concern about sexual harassment. I think that was really tough. And both my mom and I and virtually everybody that I knew had experiences with that. I remember taking Arabic classes and them telling me don’t ever take a cab by yourself, don’t ever walk outside by yourself, don’t make eye contact with any man that you don’t know, ever.
It was dangerous, but it was also just about learning street smarts. I will say, it was also an immense amount of stress to be under. I was only 12 when I moved there, so having to think about those things at 12 was definitely challenging and having to watch it affect my family, which it did later on, was also really difficult.
In Saudi Arabia, there’s all this stuff happening with Yemen, and there are missile attacks and things all the time. I don’t even think of that as a danger now; it’s a reality and just another part of life. Danger gets pretty normalized. We always took what are called hardship posts; we never were anywhere warm and cushy.
Q: It’s been suggested by some of the people I’ve interviewed for ADST’s Partners in Diplomacy podcast series that it’s helpful to bring kids back every summer so that they can be grounded in America, feel American. Did your parents bring you back to the States? Did you have a home base?
MURPHY: Yeah, we had a home base in Tucson where I was born. And we still do, which has been really helpful, especially during the pandemic, to have somewhere to go back to that’s closer, because international travel during the pandemic has been difficult. And I did come back every summer, but I don’t know how useful it was. I ended up doing a couple summer camps, so there are people that I know for like a month out of twelve every year. I don’t know how much those connections are lasting or meaningful and how much they’re offsetting the effect of being away for the other eleven months.
In fact, when I lived in Egypt, I always felt like I was missing out a little bit on stuff when I would leave for the summer because Egypt in the summer is fantastic. You spend all your time at the beach and there’s no school, and you’re with all your friends, and it’s fantastic. But as a Foreign Service family, it was always just implied that we’d be gone for all of the summer, so in that case we were missing things.
It’s a mixed bag. I’m grateful that we have the Tucson house because I think especially now being in college, having somewhere that’s relatively close by is great. And my grandparents live there, actually. We moved them there from Iran after we decided to make it our home base. We have a couple of friends that we’ve made over the years. So having Tucson has been helpful, but I wouldn’t say it has grounded me in America. I don’t really feel grounded there whatsoever.
I had to live there during quarantine at the height of the pandemic, and it was even more isolating than the pandemic by itself. For a lot of my friends who moved home, it felt like a continuation of high school, because they were moving back to where they went to high school, and all their friends also were there, so it was like they were repeating high school again. But I didn’t have anyone, I didn’t know people in Tucson since it was just a summer base for us. It felt like we were in a war zone. It was like, you weren’t seeing anyone, and you had your family, and that was it.
Q: What was it like with the transition from living in Cairo for five years and then coming to university at Penn, where probably most of the kids are American and you look American and you sound American, but that wasn’t your background. So how did you deal with fitting into your college life after being overseas almost your whole life?
MURPHY: I was sampling different pockets of Penn that I could have maybe fit into, and I ended up somewhere that was not where I would have expected the beginning. I was considered an international student, so I was put into international student orientation, and I was introduced to all of the international affiliation groups. I’m in the Latinos at Penn group chat because I was introduced to that crowd at international student orientation. How am I not going to feel kinship toward other Latinos, when we lived in the same place, we speak the same language? But I look and sound like this when I’m speaking English. So, I get funny looks from people when I talk about how important the Latin American part of my background is. I probably feel more Latin American than American. And it’s just not something that I can really claim here because the culture of being Latino here is completely different. These people are kind of close to what might be a group that I could fit into, but not quite. And that ‘not quite’ ends up being a barrier to entry in lots of cases. I’m in Penn Persian Society; I’m in Penn Egyptians; I’m in Penn Latinos. So, it was a lot of ducking my head into different groups and being like, this is similar to something that I would have fit into maybe five years ago, but it’s no longer something that I really feel like I can claim anymore. And people aren’t really comfortable with the idea of me being here. In the end, I have had to deny some of the culture that I had when I came here in order to fit in, which is a shame. And it’s really sad, but I’m grateful for how things ended up, I guess.
Q: Just finding your identity in a new setting too.
MURPHY: Yeah, it was kind of more about creating one, it was about making up someone here that would fit better. I’m being true to my interests and true to my values. But the culture that I had coming in was totally different. My accent has changed; I didn’t sound like this two years ago; I sounded like I had been living in Egypt for five years. And I just don’t have that anymore.
So, it’s very sad. I think there’s some extent to which you have to mourn 18 years of a different person. And I think it’s part of why I’m itching to leave, because I love it here, and I’m really happy with the friends that I’ve made and the connections that I’ve made, but it’s really not who I was in the most formative time of my life. So, this is another person that I’m going to add into my belt that I can turn on when I need to, but it’s not who I used to be at all.
Q: So, can you briefly tell us about one or two experiences that you had overseas that you never would have had, or an opportunity, an experience that you never would have had if you had spent your whole life, like probably many of your friends, living in the United States?
MURPHY: I graduated high school in front of the Pyramids of Giza. That’s something that never would have happened, graduating on this pedestal of amazingness and magnificence! Of course, I never would have spoken another language as well as I did. I never would have been that immersed in Spanish, I never would have learned Arabic.
Q: I want to mention this SOSA Award [Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad, from the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide] that you got and whether that was connected to your background living overseas, what you did to earn it.
MURPHY: I think my background only contributed by making me have a perspective that was helpful to the situation. I won the SOSA Award for my work with an organization called Do Bold. It’s a nonprofit that works in the Gulf, doing human rights advocacy and relief, particularly with domestic workers. And so we were working on a case of a few hundred Sierra Leonean domestic workers who had been trafficked to Oman and were in extremely abusive and precarious working situations there. We were running a large repatriation project to fund their return to Sierra Leone. This was during my time off from Penn in 2021, when I moved to Abu Dhabi for a bit. And so I wrote in my cover letter for that position that I’d had domestic workers my whole life, as most Foreign Service families do, which is a helpful perspective. Understanding how things might go wrong in a work situation like that, having seen these workers as mentors and companions growing up. In the speech that I gave at the award ceremony, I emphasized how much they feel like family, and how much they are a part of making your life in a different place feel more stable, especially for families with kids. I think it was the only reason that we did so well, because we had great nannies everywhere we went. We were protected, supported, and immersed in language and culture by them. I think they were a really important part of our family. These are people that we are still in contact with, that we visit and think of. I will be inviting them all to my wedding.
Q: So, what are the most important resources and sources of support for Third Culture kids?
MURPHY: We always had the TCK book on our bookshelf. I think that having a strong home support system was really important for us. So, all the people that have helped us out at home, like nannies, etc., have been really important in making family life be stable. For me, specifically, it was having my brother be in the same circumstances as me. And it was really important to speak the language of the places that I was living. And again, our family got really close through all of this. And I think having a strong sense of community in your family, because you’re going to be the only people that you see consistently. Having consistent memories and traditions with family over decades is probably the most important thing.
The embassy community was relatively helpful as well. It’s often a really helpful place, and the CLO [Community Liaison Office] activities are always great. It was more helpful to my mom than it was for me. In our schools, the proportion of people who were native to the country was greater than in my mom’s circle. So, I was more focused on things like, “How do I immerse completely?” “How do I get myself to be the same as these people?” I don’t want to feel different from them. And for my mom and my dad, it was a little bit different; they made connections with all kinds of people, but I think having a CLO was a really important resource for them. And my mom’s spouse organizations and things like that were really helpful for her, for sure.
Q: So, do you have any advice for other parents of Third Culture kids of how to raise your kids? Especially abroad?
MURPHY: Yeah. Put them in therapy early. And I mean that. Put them in therapy and have another kid.
Commitment problems are probably the most common and most predictable thing that can happen to kids that were raised like us. Commitment to anything is hard. A sense of community and a sense of belonging is really important for any kid, and so building that as much as possible within your family unit or building traditions that apply the same no matter where you are. I think my parents did a really good job of having our home be sacred and impermeable to whatever changes were happening on the outside. So, cultivating the sense of uniformity inside your house and inside your family is really important; that was one of the saving graces of the whole experience, that I would be playing with the same toys, that my walls would be the same color, that we would always do Saturday mornings the same way. And it was those sorts of things that made it a little bit more bearable to be uprooted all the time.
And I do think that when people specialize in regions where the kids are able to learn language, it’s really helpful, because being able to speak Spanish and being able to feel that at least in some way that I could relate to people who lived where I was living, through speaking the same language as them, was really valuable to me. So, I would say, if you can, if you have control over picking a region and staying there, that can be really helpful as well.
Kids need a whole bunch of psychological support because it can be really difficult. And it’s especially difficult when you’re old enough to understand what’s happening because I didn’t at the beginning. I mean, I was in it, and we had good momentum going. Every two years, I knew what was coming; I knew how to pack my stuff. But then once you settle a little bit too long, it gets really hard. As a teenager, I really was struggling, and I know my brother really struggled, and both of us needed extra support like that.
Q: So, is there anything else that I haven’t asked that you would like to talk about?
MURPHY: One of my passions and things that I would love to work on in the future is having more resources available like the project you’re working on. To hear that somebody else had a similar experience, to be able to connect to other people about this lifestyle that is sometimes really isolating, that’s really important. I would just encourage people to seek out others who’ve had similar experiences.
Q: And that’s why we’re getting these stories out through this AAFSW project. And also, through my podcasts where I interviewed 20 Foreign Service spouses in Partners in Diplomacy about different stories and previous eras and how the Foreign Service has changed and how life has changed and especially with the advent of the internet and ways of communication. So, Layla, thank you so much for participating and telling your interesting story.
MURPHY: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great.
End of Transcription
Download a copy of Layla Murphy’s interview transcript below.
You must be logged in to post a comment.