Embassy Kid: Preface

I am completing a memoir about my childhood, which I spent in Latin America, Europe, and Washington DC during my father’s career in the Foreign Service. Here is the preface from Embassy Kid: A Memoir, which I hope to publish within the year.

Jane Kelly Amerson López

Alone in America

I watched the tail lights of the rental car vanish down the elm-lined street on that August afternoon in 1973, taking my parents and my sister back into the Foreign Service landscape without me. I should have been in that backseat, eyes forward, hands folded, as America vanished behind us, the self-contained, four-person unit jetting back into our Real World.  Instead, here I was, stranded alone in America, astonished to find myself broken apart from the family unit with which I’d negotiated 18 years in Latin America, Europe, and the even stranger land of the Washington DC suburbs. 

Most American kids leave home to go to college. My home had just left me. I was an Embassy kid. 

Finding My Way

It would take me the better part of a decade to sort myself out. While my family completed my father’s Foreign Service career abroad, I switched to my middle name and wandered through the United States, accumulating college credits at five institutions, working a series of hourly jobs, and training as a modern dancer, a trajectory that eventually landed me in New York City. There, in the city that felt like all the places in the Real World at once, the nicest man I know called me by my Spanish name and something clicked in my heart. We’ve been married for forty years, during which we’ve created our own real world rich in rewards, the greatest of which is our daughter. We’ve traveled, but America is home.

Third Culture Kid

 It wasn’t always. When I was younger, I struggled to answer the most American of questions: “Where are you from?”  I lived in eight places in six countries on three continents before I was 18, but none of them was home. I was born in Minnesota and my Norwegian ancestry shows in my fair coloring, but I grew up in Latin countries. I was an American kid with the mystique of a diplomatic passport overseas, but I felt like a foreigner in the United States. I sink my roots fast and make friends quickly, but I up-root easily and don’t ever look back. I’m never from here, but I’m also not from there. Neither a true-blue American like my parents, nor a member of any other nation, I’m a Third Culture Kid. 

Archeological Exploration

When I was in second grade in the magical ancient city of Rome, I was sure I’d be an archeologist. Although that idea evaporated when we moved to another part of the world, I realize now that I’ve spent the better part of my adult life sifting like an archeologist through the detritus of my childhood, looking for the evidence of where I was from. 

I wove childhood memories and family anecdotes into stories about my parents, Robert and Nancy Amerson, my sister, Susie, and me. I dove into the journals, letters, and interviews my parents left behind containing their personal observations about a quarter-century with the United States Information Agency. My father’s book about Venezuela, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, and the oral histories of other Foreign Service officers who served alongside my father during the Cold War, have allowed me to breathe life into historical events and to recover personal experiences that would otherwise have been lost to time. Finding a way to share these stories has been a thrill, a comfort, and an honor. And reflecting on the impression of these experiences on the Embassy kid that I was and the adult I have become has been a rewarding journey. 

An Homage to My Parents

This book is an homage to my parents, two patriots in the firmament of Embassy people, men and women who, then and now, serve as America’s emissaries abroad, raising their children in foreign lands far from family and friends in order that the world get to know us.

These are the stories of an ordinary American family living through extraordinary times in the service of their country. 

This is where I am from. I am an Embassy kid.

American Democracy, Warts and All

USIA showcased democracy

My father, Robert C. Amerson, spent his Foreign Service career in the United States Information Agency, the Cold War organization that communicated US policy abroad and carried out international information and cultural programs. Among the American traditions showcased by Dad’s office every four years were Election Day in November, the announcement of the winner and the concession of the loser, and the inauguration in January of the newly elected president of the United States.

Diplomats represent democracy

Foreign Service officers in US Embassies around the globe have, for four years, faced the challenge of representing a country led by a self-centered, America-first media personality. Instead of drawing on alliances built up over years of diplomacy, President Trump has openly admired the trappings of power exhibited by democracy-squelching strongmen. His failure to address the coronavirus pandemic and his conspiracy theory laden presidential campaign contributed to a negative narrative of an America on the decline. His failure to concede his loss when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election and his continuing assertion that the election was stolen despite the courts’ finding no evidence of fraud, only added fuel to the fire.

Democracy warts and all

And then came January 6. The world watched aghast as a mob overran the US Capitol during Congress’s affirmation of Joe Biden as President Elect. The images of Americans pillaging the temple of democracy shocked our allies, and our enemies expressed satisfaction at the dying of our democracy. It seemed as if the American story was descending into irreparable chaos.

During his Senate confirmation hearings to be President Kennedy’s USIA director, famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow was asked if he intended to tell the bad about America along with the good. He replied, “If the bad is significant, it is going to be reported anyway. We must report it honestly, otherwise it will be distorted.” President John F. Kennedy echoed these words in a speech at the Voice of America, the United States’ international radio broadcaster: “You are obliged to tell our story in a truthful way, to tell it, as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait, ‘Paint us with all our blemishes and warts.” 

Our warts were on full display on January 6.

Democracy withstood assault

However, Congress reconvened that same day amidst the terrorist debris and affirmed Joe Biden as President Elect, completing an election that truly tested America. Despite the pandemic and orchestrated decisiveness, more Americans than ever before voted in a process that has withstood legal scrutiny. The people have spoken. The courts have ruled. The states have certified. The Congress has affirmed. On January 20, President Joe Biden will take office. 


In America, it is the institution of democracy itself that wields the power when things go wrong. The world is watching as we get back on track. 

How Darkest of Days Give Way to Hope

Before we retired to the South Florida tropics seven years ago, we lived in the Northeast, where shorter days meant colder days from the fall right into midwinter. My head doesn’t quite understand how the temperature stays mild here as twilight takes over before we’re quite ready for it.

We shine a light on the darkest days of the year

Nonetheless, this week marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. We light up the dark with Christmas lights, with blazing fires, with candles in the windows and LEDs in the palm trees.

The shortest day of the year ushers in the winter, but it also marks the beginning of the sun’s return from its northern-most latitude. The days will gradually lengthen even as the cold grips the north, just as, in summer, they shorten as summer heat rises. There’s a certain beauty to the balance in nature.

We have voted out the dark trump administration

It seems fitting that the final weeks of the Trump administration should be the darkest of this awful year as the self-absorbed loser spins his web of lies in a dim corner of the White House. The election of Joe Biden was the promise of relief, and his presence on the national stage these past seven weeks has been a salve of leadership for our ravaged country.

brighter days are around the corner

As winter arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, the devastation is interwoven with a promise that darkness may not last forever: The day the death toll in the United States passed 300,000 was also the day the country began inoculating healthcare workers.

Elisabeth Dias, writing in The New York Times

The darkest day is behind us. The sun has begun its return. It will have marched toward the equator for thirty days by the time of the Biden inauguration, giving the new administration a few extra minutes of daylight in which to work for us. The rays will shine longer and stronger as the coronavirus vaccine makes its way across the country. Eventually, we will all be in shirtsleeves and flip flops. With our masks.

Here is one of my favorite Christmas carols, In the Bleak Midwinter. The lyrics were composed by the English poet Christina Rossetti in the late 1800’s for Scribner’s Monthly, and the melody was added by Gustav Holt.

America is back

Together, these public servants will restore America globally, its global leadership and its moral leadership. It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.

President-Elect Joe Biden, in announcing his foreign policy team

The President-Elect’s national security nominees are smart, ethical, and experienced government professionals committed to returning America to its position as a global leader.

experience is back

Three are distinguished US State Department veterans — John Kerry, former Secretary of State (and Foreign Service kid); Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career Foreign Service officer. National Security Advisor nominees Jake Sullivan is an Obama White House alumnus. Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines is a former deputy director of the CIA. Alejandro Mayorcas, Homeland Security nominee, a Cuban refugee brought to America at age 1, was Homeland Security deputy secretary.

Diplomacy is back

Here are the words I will remember when Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you, ‘America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.’

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, UN Ambassador nominee

My father and mother brought me to this country to escape communism [in Cuba]. They cherished our democracy, and were intensely proud to become United States citizens, as was I.

Alejandro Mayorcas, Homeland Security nominee

[My stepfather, the only one of 900 children in his Polish school to survive WWII] got down on his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him before the war. God bless America.

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State nominee

Public service is back

In his remarks, Kerry did homage to President Kennedy, gunned down 57 years ago. I’ve written about being in Washington that day.

57 years ago this week, Joe Biden and I were college kids when we lost the president who inspired us both to make a difference, a president who reminded us that, here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own. Joe Biden will trust in God, and he will also trust in science to guide our work on Earth to protect God’s creation.

John Kerry, Presidential Envoy on Climate Change

To a person, Biden’s nominees have careers that answer Kennedy’s ringing challenge.

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration address, January 20, 1961.

Sixty years later, on January 20, 2021, we will celebrate the return to public service.

Watch American Democracy!

I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States. And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.

It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.

Tonight, the whole world is watching. I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

American President-Elect Joe Biden

What We Hope on Election Day

Nearly 100 million Americans voted before Election Day this year. Now, we wait, watch, and hope. It is a commodity that’s been in short supply in 2020, as a pandemic, civil rights protests, and raging wildfires piled atop the election’s boiling-hot rhetoric. But, damn it, we must hope.

We are united

We hope that Americans remember that we are States United, not states divided, and that our similarities overshadow our differences.

We hope that high-pitched electioneering gives way to quiet conversation.

… to respecting science, nature, and each other.

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times

We have leadership

We hope that we will treat each other kindly, for we are all Americans, with a president for all Americans.

… that dysfunction gives way to precision, focus, and steady leadership.

By Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey, Yasmeen Abutaleb, The Washington Post

… leaders rise above self-destructive strife to make deliverance from illness and death a unifying national cause.”

Michael Gerson, The Washington Post

[We enter 2021] … with our eyes open, and our mouth and nose covered.

The Editors, The Palm Beach Post

We are the america the world respects

We hope that the world will see us return to our better selves.

[That we have once again] a president with the dignity and largeness of vision to understand that America still means something in the world.

Mona Charen, The Ethics and Public Policy Center

Remember how we felt about each other as the nation — indeed, the world — went into quarantine? How we sang and waved and greeted each other with kindness and compassion?

We are still those people. That’s more than hope.

The True Voice of America

… if you go back and look at the very first transcript of our [Voice of America] broadcast back in 1942 during World War II, the famous quote is “The news may be good, the news may be bad, we shall tell you the truth.” 

Al Pessin, speaking to Catherine Jacobsen, Committee to Protect Journalists
Sandblast, Task Force Epsilon thriller

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ Katherine Jacobsen recently interviewed my friend, former VOA journalist Al Pessin (author of the Task Force Epsilon thriller series). Al is my contemporary, but his words harken back to my father’s Foreign Service career in the US Information Agency.

As I’ve written about before, President Eisenhower created USIA after WWII to tell America’s story to the world, a public affairs operation in tandem with the radio and print journalists of the Voice of America. USIA and the VOA fell under partisan attacks periodically and worked hard to earn the confidence of the Congress during my father’s career. Ultimately, USIA was absorbed into the Department of State, where Dad’s work in public diplomacy carries on in American embassies around the world.

The voa is under attack

Now, the VOA and other news outlets that helped the United States to win the Cold War are under partisan attack.

As Nick Schifrin recently reported on the PBS NewsHour, Michael Pack, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, ignored a congressional subpoena to appear before Congress over concerns he has politicized and mismanaged media outlets that helped the U.S. win the Cold War. One of those outlets is Voice of America.

Al Pessin joined his former VOA colleagues in signing a letter to the Acting Director of the VOA objecting to the wholesale firing of management and removal of boards of directors as a witch hunt reminiscent of the Red Scare of the 1950s. Even more damaging was the summary visa revocation of foreign journalists, many of whom may face persecution at home for having worked for the United States. VOA journalists — going against a reporter’s grain by becoming the news — put their careers on the line to object.

He has ordered the firing of contract journalists, with no valid reason, by cancelling their visas, forcing them back to home countries where the lives of some of them may be in jeopardy.

Voice of America journalists

Journalists are not spies

Most damaging of all is his public statement, on a podcast, that the VOA is great cover for our enemies.

A great place to put a foreign spy.

Michael Pack, CEO, US Agency for Global Media, speaking about the Voice of America

Pack’s tossed off remark was recorded in an interview with conservative and pro-Trump The Federalist.

It takes a long time to build the credibility of a news organization and just a brief moment to destroy it … It just shows a complete lack of understanding or disregard for the job that we have to do and potentially for the personal safety of the people trying to do it. 

Al Pessin, retired Voice of America journalist

Handing our enemies a win

Congressman Tom Malinowski, D- NJ, put it like this at the hearing Pack disregarded.

If China, Russia, North Korea, or any of our adversaries, had in fact infiltrated USAGM, they could have not possibly done more harm to America’s interests than Mr. Pack has in fact done on his own.

Congressman Tom Malinowski

With friends like Michael Pack — and presidents like Trump — damaging our democracy from the inside, who needs enemies?

National Voter Registration Day!

If we ever had an election where it counted, it’s this one. It’s our Democratic responsibility.

Karen Wilkerson, past president, Palm Beach County League of Women Voters.

The league of women voters

The Palm Beach County chapter of the League of Women Voters — whose mission is “empowering voters and defending democracy” — is 700 members strong, the largest local league in the country. Its voter education materials will be included in The Palm Beach Post October 4 edition. Janis Fontaine’s recent article about the chapter focuses on longtime member Corrine Miller, whose parents instilled in her a sense of civic duty. It’s an article I’d have shared with my mother, but she’d have clipped it and mailed it to me first.

Civic responsibility

Mom was raised in Winona, Minnesota, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi, where her mother was a housewife and her father ran the ancestral hardware store. The community revolved around the local YWCA, where Mom absorbed experiences in volunteering that molded her character for life.

My mother found a way to use these experiences during my father’s work in Bogotá, Colombia, in the mid-60s. For the first time in our Embassy life, Mom found like-minded women interested in community service. Bogotá had an active community of “señoras de por bien” — well-off women — who considered it their “deber,” their duty, to do something for poor communities. American women from the Embassy and the expat community contributed their shared experiences in volunteering. As Mom struggled to get well-intentioned Colombian women to follow through, she wrote home:

I’d love to have articles from the YW about the responsibilities of members. We’d like to show how cooperation can accomplish so much for clubs, families, and the country. I dunno. How do you train people in loyalty and responsibility?

Nancy Robb Amerson, letter to her parents, 1965

The effort of Mom and her women colleagues was recognized by none other than Ambassador Covey T. Oliver, citing a letter to the editor that has run in El Tiempo, the Bogotá daily newspaper.

The jist of the letter was that our work with the Jardín was real diplomacy. The ambassador send a copy to Washington so the we would have “official recognition.” It is surely a nice extra to have what we try to do recognized as being of some worth to the joint effort.

Nancy Robb Amerson, letter to her parents, 1965

Register and vote

Mom passed away in September, 2012, before she had a chance to vote for Barack Obama. At her memorial, my sister said, “Be sure to vote. Mom would want you to.”

So, today, make sure you are registered. If you want to vote from home, request your paper ballot today. When you get it, read up on the issues and the candidates and mark down your choices. Before you sign it, be sure you have the right ballot — not your house mate’s — and check your listed name before signing. I learned this the hard way when we voted in the Florida primary. I signed my full middle name when the ballot was for Kelly A. Lopez. Probably disqualified. I won’t do that again. You either.

Voter Fraud is a Hoax

My husband and I are voting by mailing in a paper ballot this year. We live in the President’s official county of residence, Palm Beach, the only place in the country, according to him, in which paper ballots will represent legitimate votes in November.

The county is on the up and up, we agree. The Palm Beach County Board of Elections actually mailed out application forms for mail-in ballots over the summer, and we received ours a month before the August primary. We were glad to have the extra time with the ballot to educate ourselves on who we were being asked to elect.

Palm beach county elections

Although I supported Democrat newbie Guido Weiss in the primary, incumbent Lois Frankel won, and supporting her in November is critical — her opponent will be racist, anti-Islam Laura Loomer whose dangerous language has been banned from social media platforms. Please ignore her.

In the other races, it was satisfying to see a Florida Senate race with our Democratic candidate, fellow New Yorker and current Florida Representative Tina Polsky, on the ballot, and we have a Palm Beach County Judge Jaimie Goodman, who’s been blasted for his lack of decorum, in a November run-off with lawyer Adam Myron to retain his seat. Voting matters.

I have covered banana republic dictators who are more subtle than that in attempting to rig the elections or undermine votes for their opponent.

Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

Voting by mail is secure

Hoaxster Trump is selling the lie that mail-in ballots are fraudulent votes. Every county in this country is on the up and up, and — because the Trump Administration has failed to protect us from the Coronavirus— more people than ever before will be voting by paper ballot.

Voting is our civic duty

We’ve been given ample notice to not assume that the US Postal Service will adjust its schedule to accommodate our procrastination. When our November ballots arrive, we will fill them out and send them in. If you are an American, please use this link to find your county election office to request yours today. If you are not an American, pray for us to remember our civic duty.

I don’t care who you vote for. But don’t let this election be stolen by people trying to deliberately engineer it so not everyone can vote – – or so that not every vote will be counted.

Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

Why We Must Support the US Postal Service

When my father was stationed at the American Embassy in Rome, our family mail came to us via the Army Post Office (APO), which routes US Postal Office mail to military bases and diplomatic missions around the globe. [A note here: the Defense Department says that the APO mail service is available to only US Postal Service mail. You’ll understand why I say this in a minute.]

So, back to Rome. The Italian postal system was unreliable, so people living in Rome during my parent’s time at the Embassy (early ‘60s and, again, mid-‘70s) put their mail in post boxes in Vatican City, which has run its own postal system for the past century. I just ran across this informal 2017 poll that shows that Italy continues to be ranked poorly on its handling of the mail, with some 80 percent of the respondents to an informal poll rating it as “poor” or “fair”.

Source: postcrossing.com

the US mail ranks 7th in the world

Look at the bar graph again. In this list of 35 countries, Japan leads in high points for its mail system, followed by South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Austria, and the USA. 7th in a list of 35 countries, a good system.

Americans depend on the US mail

Americans have long relied on our government delivery of the mail to keep in touch with family, order supplies, transport livestock, and even transport children, as my friend Karen Coody Cooper writes in this piece that recently ran in our local newspaper, The Palm Beach Post.

My dad grew up on a South Dakota farm, where the mail linked his mother to family and friends who had found a warmer, easier life out in California. My father’s memoir, From the Hidewood, includes a story about his mother writing her family and making a friend of Dad’s one-room schoolhouse teacher through conversations at the mailbox.

… by the time she’d put the letter and its three pennies inside the roadside mailbox and raised the flag, the familiar slender figure with the book bag in hand had almost arrived.

Robert Amerson, From the Hidewood

Current attempts to hamper service

Elsewhere in the same issue of The Palm Beach Post was an article about the Trump Administration efforts to hamper the US Postal Service’s ability to deliver the mail, — in order to ensure its demise and resurrection as a for-profit enterprise — resulting in the death of chicks in transit to poultry farmers who’ve relied on the mail for their inventory. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) has taken the issue to Washington. Look at her. I would do what she asks. She is one of us persistent, nasty women who wants answers. I don’t think she’s going to be okay with converting the US Postal Service into a private corporation. And, Americans serving our country abroad rely on the USPS to get their mail to the Army Post Office.

Private sector Mail failed me

This week, I had my own postal experience that sheds some light on the issue for me. After a decade of holding onto the written records of my mother’s family — a collection of letters, poetry, and other paper in annotated binders which she created and curated — I decided to finally get them to their proper home, the historical society in her hometown of Winona, Minnesota. Although I felt badly about not having done more with the materials while I had them, I knew that I was doing the right thing in putting these treasures closer to family. The Winona County Historical Society assured me that they’d accept the materials, redirecting any that might better belong in another historical collection — Mankato, in Blue Mound County, was where her mother’s Kelly family was from; other family came from Fountain City, across the Mississippi in Wisconsin.

I packed the binders into two sturdy boxes culled from Amazon deliveries. Given the delicacy of the task, and trying to limit my exposure to people — the Coronavirus has not been tamed here — I chose FedEx to deliver the two boxes to their permanent home.

Here is what happened one week later.

One box was delivered to the Winona County Historical Society. The other box was dumped at my front door, soaking wet, falling apart, and somehow still containing its precious cargo. The FedEx address label with the Minnesota address was gone, and the box made it back via my husband’s name and our home address on a new FedEx label. How this happened is a mystery. When I tracked the box, it shows that it is still enroute to the original destination, with a current address of Countryside, IL. The automated response line would not put a real person on the telephone. Because the box is still in transit. And the FedEx shipping center down the road, which I visited yesterday with the box and cargo in hand, will not issue me a refund and/or re-ship the cargo. I’ll try again today to reach a human being.

So much for the private sector.

The USPS will get my box this time. I’ve been out in the world enough to appreciate that social distancing precautions are in place to protect me, and 95 percent of the people we’ve seen are wearing masks. The Coronavirus numbers are in decline.

Of course, Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Corcoran are demanding that Florida schools re-open in-person. I’m betting we see those COVID-19 numbers shoot back up.