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 21, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is April 21, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Virginia Blaser. She is a Foreign Service Officer and the mother of four children of varying ages. And we’re going to be talking about raising Third Culture Kids because Virginia has been all over the world. So, Virginia, tell me about your background, your posts, and the ages of your kids when you were in different posts.
BLASER: I’ve been in the Foreign Service for 34 years. I started right out of college. All four of my children were born in different overseas postings. My postings included Madrid, Brussels, and back-to-back postings in London, El Salvador, Mauritius and the Seychelles, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. My children are aged 27, my first daughter born at my first posting in Madrid, Spain; 23, my son born in Brussels; 21, my daughter born in London; and then my daughter 12, born in Mauritius. I can certainly tell you that kids are a very expensive souvenir to bring back from your assignments overseas, but they’re lovely.
Q: When you were choosing your foreign posts, how did you keep the needs and wishes of your kids in mind? What criteria were you considering?
BLASER: My kids’ needs came at the top of my decisions on all the posts, including, in particular, once they got a little bit older. I was perhaps less worried when they were in the kindergarten ages, but once they hit school age, I really needed to make sure that they had school environments that I felt were going to be a good fit for them. Many times, my children did not attend the traditional American school; they attended a local school. And they attended the British school in some of the countries like El Salvador and went to a local school in London. So, I would go and interview and review all the school options. They did go to the American school so far in the country we served in for high school in order to graduate. They went to both AP and IB high schools. So, I’ve had kids in both systems, and all three of my older children graduated from an overseas school and went to university in the United States.
Q: You had so many moves. How did you prepare your kids for each new posting, each new home, each new school?
BLASER: I will say that the schools were so important to me that I was offered an ambassador job which I declined because it only had four kids in the [high school] graduating class. So, that’s how important that element of our life was to me, and I gave the children a lot of choice or input on where we would go. I would cobble down a list and do a spreadsheet to make sure that I had posts there that I was actually qualified for that were reasonable bids. And even as young as five or six, I would give that list to my children, and I would let them do their own research on the internet. I remember one time one of my children was so excited to attend one school in one country, because the school lunch menu looked really delicious. So sometimes their reasoning behind why they liked a certain post or why they liked a certain school—you maybe need some parental vetting.
The fact that they were part of it, I think really built their confidence and their feeling that it was an inclusive process for them. So, their opinion mattered. It wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always hard. It wasn’t always the same kid for which it was easy and hard. I remember one time we had our choice of some pretty amazing assignments, and my daughter was happy with nothing. And she finally said, “Just pick what you want. I’m 16. I’ll be unhappy wherever you take me.” But the point is that it’s so critically important to me that they were part of that decision, de facto and de jure, and that drove a lot of the decisions I did make for my family and for my kids.
The question you had was how to prepare them. One way was feeling that confidence that their voice genuinely mattered in the process of selecting a post. Anytime I could get my hands on photos, maps, or on some information where they could visualize themselves in a post and what their day would be like, asking colleagues to have their kids reach out to mine, and vice versa. My kids have so often been the kid who reached out when they found out a Foreign Service kid was headed their way, because I think having the sense that there are friends waiting for them is really comforting for children at all ages.
I remember one day when I was a junior officer in London, and I had three little kids at that time, taking a whole bunch of my senior colleagues’ kids who were summer hires out for lunch for pizza. There were six kids interning for all the different Minister Counselors. And they were all teenagers. I said to them what you’re asking me, “What did your parents do that made this life for you better, or that made it a comfortable lifestyle for you?” because I felt like if I could get their advice, and I can apply it for my children, that would be a really great opportunity. I was surprised at some of the things these teens told me that I then incorporated into my life. One of them said, “I am so proud that I’m the only child of all my friends whose parents let them paint their bedroom any color I want.” Now, as you may know, the USG rules can be very strict, depending on the post; if you paint the room, you’re going to get fined, and it has to be painted back the color that it was. But this mother said to her son, “Paint it any color you want, and I will pay whatever it costs to put it back.” He was so proud, he got to put his identity in that room. And that was a lesson I learned from him that I incorporated with my children.
Another child said, “My mom has this box that she takes out for every crazy holiday. And it’s the same tchotchkes that go on the table in the kitchen. Everywhere we are, those same little things come out at all the same holidays.” And it was such a small gesture, but to this child, it was that continuity, that safeness, the idea that no matter where we are our home is about the smaller things, not about the big things. And those were lessons that I tried to incorporate as I was making my children more comfortable about the posts that where they lived.
Whom I was replacing or whom I might know at my next post was really a variable over how much information I had on my housing or the things I could share with my children. I’m so grateful for my colleagues; and some of them who went out of their way to create videos or provide more information, not for me, but for my family. The reverse is also true; I had colleagues who were unhelpful and didn’t make any effort in that way. I’ve always sort of felt that for those who did, it’s a karma thing, and I always wanted to do it for others.
So, we have a big obligation to each other to create the spirit of understanding and cooperation and support and care to help people feel welcome. As a longtime DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission)—I was a DCM or Principal Officer for four tours for 15 years—I will tell you that housing means a lot to many people. And whether you think housing is important or not, if you have someone whose family is coming, if it means a lot to them, it’s their safe space, I really think we need to do everything we can to respect that. No more so than for kids who are really looking for their space and their identity and that safety and surety they can get if we put our effort into it as a community. It is not just the parents, it’s the whole community—GSO (General Service Officer), management, the DCM, your sponsors. I really think we can do a lot to help our families and our newcomers settle and be more prepared.
Q: You talked about how you dealt with changing schools. Also, children change activities, if you could give me an example with one of your kids, their successes, and also what was most challenging.
BLASER: I think one of the hardest things, and this won’t be a surprise, it really is friends. Friends mean so much to children, but particularly teenagers. And I think depending on the personality of my children—and even those personalities would change depending on their age or their confidence level—finding friends, keeping friends, having to say goodbye to your friends because they are only on a tour with you for a few years. It’s so rare we actually got our kids in a situation where they could be friends with someone and have that friend their entire tour because of the nature of the turnover in our schools and assignments. And I just think that has been extremely hard on them, made much easier as my kids got older and social media allowing them to stay in touch with their friends over the years. In fact, my daughter, who’s 27 now, is still in touch with girls she knew in El Salvador 20 years ago, and that’s a wonderful thing. But it’s still hard. My 12-year-old suffers from this idea of losing a friend. She just had a friend leave this week, and it’s been tough.
I will tell you as a senior manager, it was hard sometimes for me because I had a rule to be very open and equal to everyone who worked for me. But for my kids, they got to choose who their friends were (regardless of who the friends’ parents may be), whoever they were friends with, they were friends with, and I tried my best to protect it. It was always my feeling that my children got to be friends with whoever they clicked with, because it was hard enough a lifestyle, but it meant sometimes as the senior manager in an embassy having to balance that in a way that was not always so easy. I think that that makes it sometimes harder for my kids to be in that position. There were certainly challenges, but there’s also a lot of joy.
Q: You talked about maintaining friendships: Is this just via the internet? Or visits? How did your children have these lifelong friendships?
BLASER: Most of it was via the internet over the years. We have occasionally, very rarely gotten lucky where someone that they were friends with came back to a nearby post and would come and visit us, and we would visit them. That’s a real, beautiful part of the Foreign Service, when you can connect again, or be in the same region with people you’ve served with before, especially for the kids to see friends again.
On the other hand, I will say that this kind of environment created in all my children, even the ones that are sort of on the shyer side, a resiliency, an ability to create friends quite deliberately, to appreciate when they had good friends. There’s a real ability for them to go out in the world and engage with people that there wouldn’t have been a natural, instinctive role for them in terms of creating friendships, but that they developed because of the Foreign Service lifestyle we live in. Now, as I said, we as parents pick the lifestyle, and the kids in particular have to live what we choose. Every lifestyle has its positives and negatives, and I choose to focus on the positives of the Foreign Service life has brought my family, and there are a lot of them. And in the same way, if I had stayed in my hometown and raised my kids there, there’d be plenty of positives there as well. So, I think you choose your lifestyle, they all have good and bad qualities or aspects to them, and that deliberate choice can help empower confidence in your children over this being an opportunity. When my kids were little and at different phases, they hated being Foreign Service kids. They would say, “Why do we have to move?” But as young adults, my older three all have come back to me and saying,”I’m so glad I was raised as a Foreign Service kid. I’m so glad that I had all these experiences. I recognize that was hard on you during some of it, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Q: That’s interesting how they matured. And they didn’t realize it at the time, but as mature young adults looking back on it, they could see the advantages.
BLASER: I think it really came out for them in university and the idea that they had been exposed to so much in the world that many of the kids who grew up only in America didn’t know or understand. Even manifesting itself to the point that with a couple of my kids, especially their freshman or sophomore year, they were much more inclined to hang out with foreign students than they were with other American students. Eventually, all of them have found a group that includes mostly American kids that they have become friends with at their university. But their affinity was much more with the foreign students than it was with the American students that were in the U.S. universities with them, especially initially.
Q: That’s interesting. I want to get to the adjustment to college. But first, following what you were saying, what are the advantages of Foreign Service life for kids, and does it matter what age they are?
BLASER: To me, a number of the advantages I’ve seen for my children is the exposure to the world, the understanding of just the broader globe. We sit around the table and talk about politics. There were opportunities to meet leaders of other countries because of the positions that I had. Their exposure to media and influence being different. Their exposure to foreign languages. I remember my third daughter being at an amusement park somewhere, and there were all different people from all over the world in line with us. And while she didn’t speak those languages, she was maybe four or five, and she would say, “I think that person’s speaking Spanish,” “I think that person’s speaking French,” “Is that Arabic, Mom?” So just the ability to have an ear for other languages, to have an understanding of the world in a way that’s really a global focus, I think has been a real asset for my children, particularly as they’ve gotten older. They’re building up confidence. I mean, our small children can maneuver through international airports and train stations and the confidence of being able to find your way and never be lost and work out problems has really been a bonus for Foreign Service life.
They have learned languages at different levels. My oldest did learn Spanish when she was in El Salvador; that was really our only Spanish-speaking tour. But she kept it, and even in Uganda, she was the only student to get a bilingual Spanish diploma out of an IB high school. They created a program just for her because she had retained her Spanish and worked on it and then got an IB bilingual diploma in a program that she created herself in a place where there weren’t any other Spanish speakers. So, I think that kind of resilience and exposure and language skills and other things can be so positive. My son picked up Swahili—how good it was, I don’t know. He has Arabic now. He’s down in Argentina, getting a Master’s in human rights, doing it in Spanish. Those are the kinds of things that I think growing up in my small town in the South (I the U.S.) were not things that I or any of my friends would have ever contemplated.
Q: Right, huge advantages. In my interviews with Foreign Service parents for the ADST Partners in Diplomacy podcasts, it was suggested that it’s useful to try to bring kids back to the U.S. for vacation every summer to give them a sense of home and being American. What do you think of that?
BLASER: We had a senior ambassador come to my A-100 class thirty-some years ago, and he said his solution is that they bought a condo somewhere, and that’s where the family always returned for leave. We never did that. We visited family. I think it’s maybe a place but it’s also always going back and seeing grandparents or seeing an aunt and uncle. It’s those relationship reconnections that I think are really critical.
We spent all of our time overseas. And there were times, because of travel, or in this case, lately, COVID, we didn’t go home for two or three years back to United States. That did feel like a long time. I do think there were moments that my children maybe felt less American and more something else. My 12-year-old will tell people, having been born in Mauritius and lived her whole life in Africa, she says, “I’m African,” and I say, “You’re American,” and she will argue with me about it. In fact, she will tell me “Other people can’t define who I am. And I say I’m African.” See what I mean about that global confidence shining through? But again, I think the world is changing, and I think this idea that you can be a global person, not just a Third Country Kid but a third country citizen of the world is more apparent and more possible today than it was 20 years ago.
I think the bottom line is that it’s probably a good idea to go back regularly to the U.S., particularly if you can go back to the same people and have some of those same customs in the same way that kid was telling me his mom pulled out that funny little shamrock that she put on the table every year for St. Patrick’s Day; that kind of thing, particularly for children, can be quite comforting. I have tried but been unsuccessful to get my kids into a summer camp, so that they can go back and make friends every year and see those friends again, but I didn’t really find it was a good fit for my kids in the end.
Q: So three of your four kids—one is too young—went to high school in a foreign country and then came back to the U.S. for college. So how was that transition and their adjustment after living overseas for their whole school careers?
BLASER: Yes, their whole lives. I think like anyone who has more than one kid, it depends, right? Every kid is different at different times in their lives, and my kids handled it differently. I would say that I really deliberately tried to build my kids’ confidence and skills so that when they were in the U.S., they were able to solve their own problems, whether that’s their car breaking down, whether it was an emergency of some kind. It was deliberately building their competence and skills so they can handle things independently and with good judgment.
Of course, they’re college kids, and I’m sure that wasn’t always true. I will tell you, with their permission, one thing I did as a parent that gave me a lot of peace of mind—because I was 9,000 miles away from them and in no position to be helpful if something happened—one, was to make sure that they always had access to banks, bank accounts, money, and quite a lot of latitude. Another was that they had access to whoever was the closest relative, depending on which university they went to. And third was, with their permission, I had a “find my friends” app, and I would know where they were. The agreement was I would not pester them, I would not call them. But if I woke up, as mothers do, in the middle of night, and thought, “I need to know where my kids are,” with their permission, I could look up and see where my kids were and take comfort that I knew that I had access to that. And they could do the same for me; they could see “where is Mom, can I call her, is she home?” because that time difference could be seven, eight, nine time zones away. In fact, I looked at the “where’s my family” app the other day, and we were literally on four continents. One was in the U.K., one was in the U.S., one was in South America, and we were here at the tip of Africa. And it was sort of a neat visual, my family scattered all around the world and safe and doing their lives and their things.
Q: So it sounds like from their experience being Third Culture Kids, they pursued this during college and after college to have careers that were international.
BLASER: I would have said they wouldn’t. I would have said, certainly in their teenage years, that they were going to go back to the United States, find a small town, and never leave. And yet, that’s not what’s happened. My son just started a Master’s program in Argentina. We never served in Argentina, we never served in South America, but off he goes on his own. My oldest daughter, the minute she graduated, got a car and drove all the way to Alaska to take a job which is, admittedly, still the U.S., but it is very far from anything she knew or anything she did, and obviously she went on her own. It’s funny, driving all the way to Alaska to take her first job. And then my third has talked about wanting to do Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] or something in that realm, focused on health around the world. Not what I thought they would do, but I’m very proud of the fact that they’re in position to make their own decisions. If they stayed in one town, I’d be delighted. If they move around the world, I’m also delighted.
Q: I know that you have a lot of experience on Facebook groups and that kind of thing. Can you talk about resources and sources of support for raising Third Culture Kids?
BLASER: I don’t think that I leveraged much in terms of public or other resources as I was raising my kids. I tried to find communities in the posts where I served. Again, we were unusual in that we often did not have our kids in the “American school,” so I didn’t always have that specific school community around my kids. I always felt that if there were breaks in a family, it didn’t matter if you were here in the U.S. or you were overseas, but that overseas environment can put a lot of pressure on a family because you are often isolated, you are so far from your family. And you asked about negatives. My kids never had cousins there for their birthdays or people there for big events. We were lucky when a big event happened like a school graduation, if even one grandparent or family member could come. So, I felt that the nuclear family that we built and we protected from a sense of being together was really elemental to my children being successful.
Look, we have stressors. We had fights with parents, the kids fought with each other, just like kids everywhere else in the world. But again, picking posts that put my children first was a really big part of my career. I took professional back steps in order to be able to do that. I chose places where, quite frankly, there was help available, because as a working mom with four kids, I couldn’t do it all, and I’m very grateful to those people who supported me so that I can be a mom the minute I was off of work versus having to do the laundry and go grocery shopping and do this and do that. So those were choices that I built into an environment where, as a mom of four little kids working incredibly long hours and managing official visitors that eat up all of your “free” time, wherever I could be home and be with my kids was my priority. And they were great kids.
Q: It sounds like for that very reason, you didn’t choose unaccompanied posts, and you didn’t choose dangerous posts for your children either.
BLASER: That’s true, although we spent the majority of our last 15 years in posts that were fifteen percent or higher differential. Salvador, Uganda, Tanzania, those were fifteen, twenty, twenty five percent differential. So, we did go to differential posts, by choice, but I would always pick them carefully, particularly differential posts that had schools that I thought had the academics and had infrastructure that was successful.
One of the things I didn’t do early enough with some of my older kids, but I learned my lesson later, was paid tutors. If the schools were not as strong in one category or another, I learned that I couldn’t depend on the school to make that decision that it was good enough; I made it myself. And we would hire tutors to come in and help on those things that either I didn’t have time to tutor or maybe wasn’t my academic forte. Trying to teach math to your own children, I will tell you, is a hair-raising experience for most parents that I know and certainly for me, so bringing in someone that could teach them those things that would not create conflict between us was really important. So here was what I said, particularly with my kids, “If it was a problem that I could spend $10 and not have, it wasn’t a problem.”
So, my money, my time, my effort went into picking those posts where I would have those kinds of resources in raising my Third Country Kids and that I could afford to get help and support, if I needed it. Because if you were living in the U.S., you would go to a family member, you would go to your parents or your cousins. If you lived in a small town, there’d be a community you grew up with. We don’t have it overseas, so we have to build it ourselves. Or bring it with us. Or create or buy it from services from people that can do that. And I don’t think that’s how I grew up in a small town, but I had to learn that that was equally okay. It was just different. It wasn’t better or worse; it’s just different.
Q: What I’ve learned is that if a child has diagnosable special needs, that the State Department does provide funding for tutoring or for special accommodations. It sounds like you had to pay for your own.
BLASER: As a DCM, I oversaw a number of posts where we had kids with special needs, and what I would say, “yes, but.” The “but” is to do your own homework, the “but” is you know your children best, and if you need to do extra things, pay for extra things the Department doesn’t pay for, for heaven’s sakes, they’re your kids, if you’d do it in the States do it overseas. Whether that’s a special needs situation or something else.
The other thing I would say is yes, the State Department provides certain things for children— transportation to school, sometimes, under some circumstances; yes, they’ll provide additional academic expenses, sometimes under certain set of circumstances. What my advice would be that each parent should know those rules themselves. Don’t trust the management officer or a CLO (Community Liaison Officer) to tell you what benefits you’re entitled to. And I use that word “entitled” quite explicitly, because one of my frustrations as a senior manager was when I would find out that someone was not informed that they had the access to different allowances or support. So, I wish our system would do that. It doesn’t do that as well as I think it should. But it’s on every parent to find out those rules, know them well, if you have a management officer or GSO (General Services Officer) that pushes back, pull the rule out to politely, pleasantly, matter of factly, and say, “But I think this is what the rule says, could we ask Washington?” Because nobody is a better advocate for your children than you. And you should take the time to learn every possible rule that impacts the safety, welfare, and education of your children, because frankly, if it’s allowed, you’re entitled to it. It’s not a favor someone is giving to you; you and your children are entitled to those allowances that helped make Foreign Service life better for you and your family.
Q: That’s great advice. From your experience or from talking with other parents, do you have any other advice to share with parents of Foreign Service kids who are going through this journey?
BLASER: I would say keep a sense of humor, cultivate a sense of adventure, enjoy crazy problems, which in the moment feel terrible, but in retrospect will be your favorite family stories. I remember being on a self-driving safari where we had to hire a guard to go with us. It was at night, and he decided he wanted to get on the roof to look for animals, and my kids climbed up on the roof of our vehicle. And he turned to hand me his gun, and I said, “I can’t hold the gun, I’m holding the baby.” So, to us, that seems like a very safari Africa story. The adventures that you have in this life will be the stories that maybe your friends back home won’t understand, but they will be part of your family history and story and texture and culture that you, as your nuclear family, will share, and your kids will share with each other the rest of your days.
Q: Absolutely. Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you want to add??
BLASER; Being a Foreign Service parent is patience, getting the information you need yourself and being confident in it. And, for me, it was including my kids in the decisions that affected their lives, to the degree that I possibly could. Transparency, honesty, recognizing we all make mistakes. Whether you’re a Foreign Service parent or parent of a Third Country Kid or not, raising kids can be hard. Raising four kids can be hard, and none of us is perfect. So, a little patience for yourself and for your spouse and partner.
Then the other thing I say is, please, as we have colleagues joining the Foreign Service with or without kids, look out for each other, care about each other. Think about how you would feel if you were in their shoes and go out of your way to be kind. Our service needs more kindness in it than it has today. So, I would just beg everybody who reads this to absorb that and embody kindness to others in our service. We need to look out for each other more and better and more proactive. So that’s what I would ask for. Be kind.
Q: Great words of wisdom. I think it’ll be very informative for other parents of Third Culture Children.
End of Transcript
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