I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed by writer Zuzanna Fiminska, creator of Project Neighbours, a series of interviews with people from around the world about diversity and a world fit for purpose. This unique initiative is demostrating that there are many ways to see the world, and that they’re all right. Please subscribe to Project Neighbours !
Zuzanna asked open-ended questions: Where are you from? What was it like to be somewhere other than your passport country? What did going “home” mean? I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and collaborating on the resulting essay. While Zuzanna is queueing this in the pipeline to post on the Project Neighbours website, I wanted share to the results of our conversation.
overseas, I was american
Most Americans have roots in another country, and we are inclined to leave the place of our birth for college, for work, for another life. I was born in Minnesota, not far from where my parents met. My roots are there. It was where we visited family every few years. My extended family there is my rock.
Although I grew up mostly in other countries, it’s always been very clear to me that I am from the United States. My father was with the United States Information Agency, the public diplomacy arm of the State Department, from 1955 (when I was 6 months old) to 1979. We lived in Venezuela, where my sister was born; then in Italy (Milan, Bologna, and Rome); and Colombia before moving to the United States (Washington, DC) for junior and most of senior high. I finished high school and began university in Spain, before returning to the US on my own for college.
Being an American Embassy kid is one of the common categories — like business, ex-pat, or military kids — when you’re at an English-speaking school abroad.
in america, i felt like a foreigner
When we moved to the States in the mid 1960s, the identity question became more complicated. I did not have the same generic American suburbs background as the other kids in our new neighborhood outside Washington, and I just wanted to blend in.
Here’s an example: We’d been in Bogotá for nearly three years right before moving to the States. The junior high school guidance counselor had put me in the advanced Spanish class with kids two years older than me. On the first day of class, I took a seat against the wall toward the front of the class, trying to shrink: imagine a skinny little twelve year-old surrounded by all these adult-looking strangers.
When the teacher started the class with buenos dias, I blurted out a loud buenos dias sounding straight-up Colombian. The class laughed and one of the boys said, “Hey, how’d you get so smart?” I wanted to die. The teacher pulled me aside as the bell rang: “You don’t belong in this class.” Yes, I agreed! “You belong in the high school Spanish classes.” Nooooo. I pictured myself walking alone to the high school across the enormous sports fields. No way. I switched to beginning French and never let on that some of the vocabulary was familiar from Spanish. I was careful not to sound too good at the accent either. I just wanted to belong.
By the time I turned 16, I had nailed the whole American suburbs act: I had long blond hair and a tall, blond boyfriend, and I was in line to become the next captain of the popular pompon marching team. I had made it. Of course, it was time to move on. And it felt like we were returning to normal.
let’s go find out
My mother used to say that Dad had itchy feet: like the Norwegian pioneers who were his ancestors, he was always ready to move forward. The next post, the next life. And, like those courageous men and women, he took a leap of faith in leaving home behind for an overseas venture. He was headed out into the world to represent America.[I did a blog post about the similarities between Foreign Service wives of my mother’s era and pioneer women; these were the true heroines.]
We were guests, not occupiers. We plugged into the local character as much as we could. Mom and Dad wanted to understand wherever it was we were living, the people who were around us, their music, their language, their customs. We were aware of the “ugly Americans” clustering together, underdressed, speaking English louder and louder. We were not that. We took trips, read guidebooks, did whatever we could to be part of where we were. Learning the local language was essential.
Dad’s job was to promote American democracy: human rights, open elections, a free press, free speech. Diplomats do their best to carry out directives, whether they agree with them or not. Trump has made representing this country so much more difficult: his attacks — on the media, on his challengers, on NATO, on immigrants — do not represent what our country stands for. We don’t disparage people who are willing to come to our country to work and build a life. We support the media. We don’t buy “alternate facts.” We speak truth to power.
As I said in a recent blog post about diplomacy, those were the very things that my father spent his career supporting.
a special connection
Of all the places we lived, I really connected with Madrid. I was a confident seventeen year-old and there were a million good looking Spanish boys around. I loved the dramatic Spanish character, the late-night lifestyle, wandering from bar to bar savoring tapas, flamenco. What sealed the relationship was being able to spend a year at the Universidad de Madrid. By the time I left for college, a friend said my Castellano was crazy good: “mas papista que el Papa,” more papist that the Pope.
My husband’s mother was from Barcelona. We’ve both felt a special connection when we’ve traveled to Spain.
Telling my story
I began writing about growing up in the Foreign Service many years ago: When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories: Growing Up in the Foreign Service is nearing completion. Excerpts from the book and other essays are on RaisedintheForeignService blog.
The book started as a search for a home, an attempt at understanding what happened and what it all meant. I had lots of memories and family stories to draw on. My sister has added her perspective and reminds me of stories I’ve forgotten. Although our parents are no longer alive, they left behind an extensive archive of the Foreign Service years: letters my mother wrote to her family every Monday for twenty years; my father’s two books and volumes of notes; and boxes of photographs, videotapes, movie reels.
I am very fortunate to have a lot of support in writing the book. My husband, my daughter, and my sister are my first readers, and I get a lot of encouragement from my extended family and my peers in the Florida Writers Association.
The journey to find home is over. I’m from there, wherever I was the past; and I’m at home here, wherever I am now.