FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: June 2, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is June 2, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and we are joined by Ratna Cary to talk about foreign-born spouses. Welcome Ratna!
CARY: Thank you, Bonnie. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Q: Okay, so can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and the posts where you served with your Foreign Service husband? And when were you there with him?
CARY: Thank you very much. My name is Ratna Cary, and I was born in Indonesia. I met my husband in Jakarta, Indonesia, way before he joined the Foreign Service. At that time, he was working in the private sector in Jakarta as was I. I was an experience financial officer for a multi-million-dollar company in Jakarta. Right after we got married, he brought me here to the United States to Seattle, where he’s originally from. He only joined the Foreign Service after we had been married for six years. Prior to his Foreign Service job, he was working in consulting job while I was taking my MBA in Financial Management. Coming to America itself was a very new experience for me, being a foreigner in a foreign country. And when my husband got the job as a Foreign Service Officer, that took me to even more foreign countries’ experiences. That was very challenging, yet it has been a very interesting and rewarding time.
We were posted in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from 2005 through 2007. We liked it very much. Even though Bangladesh was a poor country, and we also experienced a government coup at that time, we were happy there. Although there were very limited things that the country itself could offer, the international community was very tight knit. We made a lot of friends, built communities, and created fun activities. There were so many things that were happening and were being offered among the international communities. I served as the treasurer in Dhaka American Women’s Club, and this opened so many opportunities. I created a sewing project for abused women in making tablecloths and table runners using the beautiful Bangladesh Saree. I also joined a small group of Australian ladies working in teaching life skills for young women working in prostitution business in the effort to give them a better life condition. It was a rewarding effort, and I think I found my calling in doing volunteer jobs, especially to make other people’s lives better. We also took the opportunity to visit India and Nepal while we were there. Our next post was Muscat, Oman, in 2008. We were supposed to be there for three years, but unfortunately after only a year, I got medevacked back to Washington, DC for a life-threatening illness. Oman is a beautiful place, but we didn’t have a lot of chance to explore the country and the opportunities, and I wish we could go back there. We stayed in Washington, DC in 2009 and 2010 for my treatments. The children and I remained in Virginia when my husband was assigned to a yearlong tour in Afghanistan Helmand Province from 2010 to 2011. And then from there, we were posted in Singapore for three years. Singapore was a perfect post for us. The job my husband was assigned covered both Singapore and Brunei Darussalam. The medical services were very accommodating for me to maintain my health. The school was great for the children. Singapore is a very nice place; we all liked it there. It is a beautiful place, and it is easy to go to many surrounding countries to explore and experienced. We then were posted in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 2014 to 2018. Of course, we were very happy because we had a chance to be in my country. The children got a chance to know their relatives from my side. They started to know the language, the people, the culture, and the food! They liked it very much and really fell in love with Indonesia. They are proud to be Indonesian, too. The school was great, and there are so many beautiful places in Indonesia to visit and explore. Indonesia is very rich with so many different cultures, and they are all beautiful, unique, and special. In 2018, we moved back to Washington, DC. My husband was sent to study at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. for one year and since then, he has been working in the Overseas Building Offices and presently in Consular Affair as one of the directors. We are almost ready to be posted overseas again very soon.
Q: You’ve been to many places, but you also discuss some things that happen with Foreign Service families, and that is when there are not adequate medical services. Also, coming to Washington when it’s not your home country and having an unaccompanied post where you stay in one place and your husband goes off to a dangerous post. So, you have had different experiences that have happened to many Foreign Service families. You knew that you made the decision together, for him to join the Foreign Service. So, that was probably an interesting discussion that you both participated in.
CARY: Yes. My husband always involves me in every decision for the family. To become a Foreign Service Officer was life-changing for our family, so naturally he discussed taking this job with me. Becoming a Foreign Service Officer had been his dream job since he was very young so when he passed the tests and was offered the job, I supported and encouraged him to accept. Growing up, I had an uncle who was a Military Attaché posted in some countries. In my young mind, it was a very interesting, rich lifestyle, so I thought I will be able to walk this lifestyle, too. So I said to him,“Let’s go!!”
Q: So, it sounds like it was a lifelong dream for him, which finally came true. And you were all in. It was a mutual decision. As a foreign-born spouse, how did you cope with and adapt to life in the Foreign Service?
CARY: First of all, when I came to America, I, myself, was a foreigner in a foreign country. And that was the first time for me to be far away from my family, from the place where I belonged, and from my comfort zone. And it was a very hard time, especially because for a long period of time since we moved to the USA, I didn’t meet anyone who spoke my language, ate my own food, or understand me. So, I had to learn to adapt until I felt comfortable to be in America. When my husband started this job and we went to the new country, I had the basic training on how to adapt and how to live in a different situation. Even though, of course, in every country, the situation was always different, the basics were already there. I am always grateful for that. I am very grateful to be able to get the opportunities to keep learning, to keep growing, and to keep experiencing new worlds.
Q: Unlike a lot of American-born spouses who start out in Washington and that is their home country, your first foreign post was Washington DC. And you’re saying it’s helped you to acclimate to other very foreign posts, where you were associated with American embassies there. I wanted to ask you about whether you are an American citizen or green card holder, and how you made the decision and how the process was for you.
CARY: I’m a green card holder. As a green card holder, so far, I don’t have any problems going places with my husband, because I’m under his orders. Being under his orders, I also don’t have any problems with the amount of time I can spend in America where you should stay in the USA for minimum of 180 days in a year. Right now, with the kids becoming older, they have decided to stay in America, and they are, of course, American, so, I started to think more heavily about taking my citizenship. And with my husband ready to go overseas again, there’s a fairly big opportunity for me to do so because the Global Community Liaison Office will expedite the process. That’s the plan.
Q: So, it sounds like the time is right for that. In the past, living in different countries, have you had any issues with getting security clearances?
CARY: As a green card holder, I don’t have my security clearance from the Department of State, and so far, I have never had any problem in going to countries that we were posted in because the countries that we went to and lived in were not countries that have restrictions on Indonesian citizenship. During those times with the Foreign Service, we stopped by in many other countries, and we didn’t have any problem with that either.
Q: Okay, good to hear. In all of your postings, including Washington, have you had jobs or done volunteer work?
CARY: Because I’m not an American citizen, I couldn’t get a job at the embassy. As I mentioned earlier, I found my calling in doing volunteer work when we were in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, in every post that we were at, I tried to join projects or start a social project. But when we were in Indonesia, because I’m Indonesian, I was able to work a professional job on the local market. I got a job in one of the biggest corporations in Indonesia as their managing Director for their Charity Foundation. Double rewards for me, enabling my professional and social expertise at the same time. This job opened so many other charity projects that I eventually do. So, I work with the foundation for visually impaired people in Indonesia. I’m still on their board of directors. And I also found a group of refugees in Indonesia. They are refugees from Iran, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan who were supposed to go to Australia but were stranded in Indonesia. Because Indonesia was not in the refugee convention [UNHCR Refugee Convention], the Indonesian government doesn’t have any obligations in any way to help them. But these people need to live. So, they are just depending on other people’s good will. Because life is very complex, the only thing I thought I could try to help was in helping their children getting their education. With the grant funds from AAFSW [Association of the American Foreign Service Worldwide], the Simon Kirby Fund enabled me to build a library and a learning center for them. With having library and learning center, it was easier to encourage people to donate books and study materials. I even managed to received boxes of American textbooks for middle and high school age children. That way, wherever they will end up living, their education is catching up. I also believe when we work with the children, we are touching the future.
Q: You talk about a lot of opportunities that came up that you never expected when you were overseas and how you were ingenious enough to apply for a Simon Kirby grant that is provided for projects like yours. So that’s very cool and a great way to help people.
CARY: Yeah, that’s the other benefit of being associated with the U.S. Embassy too, especially in this case with AAFSW [Association of the American Foreign Service Worldwide]. I got a lot of information about the grant being offered. I realize with the situation where I cannot work in most places, I still can do something else that is worthwhile, especially for other people.
Q: That sounds very gratifying. So, you are the mother of three children. Tell us about your children and their journey as Third Culture Kids living in different countries but having parents who are of different cultures.
CARY: Yeah, for my children with parents who come from different cultures, it is already very different for them. At home, we try to create our own traditions that are mostly the combinations of my family traditions and from their father’s traditions, so they have some kind of ground. My husband and I convince them that our own tradition for sure is different but very unique and rich because we try to take the best from both worlds. We also speak my language at home. I was always told that being able to speak and understand more languages are benefitted to your brain, so why not take the opportunity? When they were younger, they often asked, “Who are we? Where are we from? Can we say that we are American? Or do we say we are Indonesian?” It was a confusing situation for them. So, we would say to them, “Let’s make us not as somebody who identifies from where we come from but instead as someone who can bring values to others.” Especially because we are given the opportunity to learn and experience so much with living in so many places and cultures, we have a lot to offer. Learn how we can give back to the place and people where we live, since they give us so much. It has been successful. I see how the children are having wider views and tolerance too. They realize that being Third Culture Kids is a privilege, and they have to be grateful.
Q: Yeah, so it’s a different way of thinking about identity and values, because your three kids, who are in college, finishing high school and in middle school, have really spent most of their lives as Foreign Service children and Third Culture Kids, but in a very rich kind of lifestyle that you’ve made for them.
CARY: Yeah, they are very lucky. In my perspective, they have wider concepts of life. This is a very good opportunity for them.
Q: Absolutely. Do you have any advice to give to foreign-born spouses?
CARY: I would encourage everyone to be brave, to experience as much as they can, to absorb everything as much as they can, and to explore everywhere they are. Make friends, especially with the local people, because that’s where you can get to know the culture, the people, and the cuisines. And being with them, they will make sure that you’re safe and make sure that you’re protected. They will be the ones to introduce you to wisdom and real life of the country, and it’s always fun. It’s always beautiful and meaningful. Enjoy, explore, be brave. And if it’s possible, give back to the community everywhere you are.
Q: Great advice. Anything else that you want to add other questions that I haven’t asked that you would like to talk about?
CARY: I can talk about being associated with the U.S. Embassy overseas. It is a very great opportunity. Especially in the places where we were, people still consider America as a superpower country. So, doing a project together with somebody who is associated with the American embassy, they feel honored, and they will do the project seriously together, and that will open so many doors and so many other opportunities. So, I really take the opportunity to be associated with the U.S. embassy, because that way it is easier for me to meet with the local government, and it’s easier for me to reach my goals, especially in charity projects. So, I’m very grateful for that.
Q: Very interesting. Well, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your outlook on life that has made this such an enriching experience for you to be a part of the Foreign Service. Thank you so much, Ratna.
CARY: You’re welcome. The pleasure is mine. Thank you again for the opportunity, and I hope our talk today can benefit others and make life easier.
Q: I’m sure it will. Thank you.
End of Transcript
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