The Reality Of Being A Foreign Service Spouse

10/26/2017 05:28 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2017

He got a dreamy look in his eyes when I told him I'd spent the last 18 years of my life following my husband around the world as a Foreign Service spouse. We’d been posted to some of the same faraway countries, he and I, but he’d gone alone as an Army officer, and I’d taken my entire family, including the dog, to some of those same countries at the behest of the U.S. Department of State.

“Those people,” he said to me, seeming not to understand that I myself was one of “those” people. “Those people live like kings overseas. Have you seen their houses?”

I was confused. Of course I've seen their houses. In 18 years overseas, I've lived in a few of those houses. But—living like a king? No, sir, I wanted to say. I've never done that overseas. But how could I make him understand what it’s really like, to give up everything you know, to get on a plane with your small children and land somewhere else a day later, somewhere where you don’t speak the language and don’t know a soul? How could I make a guy like him understand what it’s really like for these diplomat families who choose to serve our country overseas alongside our diplomat spouses?

Some of the houses, truth be told, are pretty nice. We had a lovely house in Armenia when we were posted there. It was solidly built, with parquet floors, funky chandeliers and a balcony covered with grapevines. Of course, the kitchen was an afterthought. It was so tiny that the refrigerator sat in the entry hall, and there was just one small countertop on which to prepare meals—okay when it was only my small family of three I needed to cook for; not so great when we had to host events in our home, as diplomats are frequently required to do. The front yard was mostly cement, with a huge generator right in the center of the yard, so we would have power whenever the city grid when down, which happened pretty frequently.

Still, the parquet floor was beautiful. I remember watching the baby push his bright yellow Tonka truck around on that floor as I held the phone to my ear, listening to the local doctor tell me, half in Russian and half in English, that she had no idea what the huge growth was that she'd found on my son's eye, but she felt certain it could be cured by a combination of "beef broth and ultraviolet light."

(In case you're wondering: No, we didn't try that cure. We elected instead to fly home to the States and find a doctor who could fix the baby there. At our expense, because the State Department wouldn't pay for it unless it was a life-threatening emergency.)

We also had a nice house in Almaty, Kazakhstan, when we were posted there. The kitchen window looked out on the snow-capped Alatau mountains. I spent many hours in that kitchen, gazing out at the mountains while I washed dishes by hand (no dishwashers in Almaty). The only thing impeding the view was the burning trash heap directly across the street. Construction workers tossed all sorts of trash onto that pile every day of the week—wood, metal, empty paint cans—and the chemical smell of smoke was my constant companion. The house looked nice, from a distance—it was designed by the Kazakh who owned it to look like something you might find in a suburban neighborhood in the U.S.—but it was somewhat shoddily put together. Once, my husband was taking a shower and the water leaked into the walls, working its way downward until it hit the fuse box, which blew up with a spectacular bang, knocking out power for the day.

The house in Almaty was the one I came back to after my miscarriage, just a few short weeks after we’d arrived at post. When I lost the baby, I lost enough blood that no regular airline would let me on a plane to go get surgery and a possible blood transfusion. I had to wait for an air ambulance to take me. When I got back “home” to Almaty, there was nobody there waiting for me. No family. No friends. It was really, really hard. Also, did you know you can clean large amounts of blood off a carpet with hydrogen peroxide? There’s a little Foreign Service tip for you.

Beijing, China. We had an "American-style" two-story house. They'd forgotten to build a hallway upstairs, so to get to one bedroom you had to pass through another. Still, it's not as if we had an expectation of privacy as U.S. diplomats in China. That was the house we were living in when I went suddenly deaf one night. One minute, I could hear. The next, there was a popping feeling inside my head and my right ear started buzzing and screeching. By the next morning, I was so disoriented I was vomiting and walking into walls.

Nobody ever figured out what happened to me. I flew to Hong Kong in search of a doctor who could get my hearing back. But nobody could help. You probably contracted a virus, they said. Maybe someday they’ll find a cure, they said. So I flew back to my house in Beijing and continued living my life.

I’m still deaf in that ear, ten years later.

That wasn’t the only serious illness we contracted while in that house in Beijing. You’ve probably heard about the pollution. The pollution was so bad that your eyes would burn when you walked out the door. One child developed an odd muscular twitch that wouldn’t go away.

“It’s probably Tourette’s,” the Chinese neurologist told me cheerfully. “Lots of kids in Beijing have it. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Maybe it’s stress,” the American psychiatrist told me. “Lots of Foreign Service kids are stressed out.”

Like my sudden deafness, nobody could tell us what caused the twitches. But they didn’t disappear until we left China for Jordan.

Jordan. I loved my house in Jordan.

It was actually an apartment. We had a ground floor apartment in an 8-unit structure that we shared with seven Jordanian families. We had a small fenced-in front yard, but we couldn’t let the dog out there because the neighborhood kids would throw rocks and trash at him. They weren’t too fond of dogs.

But the neighbors themselves were lovely. Whenever a protest started up at the Red Cross building down the street, someone would come warn me to bring the children in. There were a lot of protests during the years we lived in Jordan. We moved there right at the start of the Arab Spring, and while I felt safe in my neighborhood, I was aware that the Syrian border was just an hour’s drive away. In fact, I made the drive in that direction plenty of times, for work. Sometimes, you’d be out driving with the kids in the car and you’d run right into a protest: men in cars and trucks, shouting, waving banners and guns and swords. All you could do was lock the car door and keep driving straight through it, eyes focused on the road ahead.

That apartment, though. I really did like it. I could walk to the grocery store, the pharmacy. When it rained, the back room would fill up with water, and there wasn’t much I could do about it except soak up the water with towels and wring the towels into a bucket, over and over until my fingertips puckered. Luckily it didn’t rain all that often.

I spent four years in that apartment, listening to the call to prayer every morning from the mosque across the street. The last year there, I was alone with the kids. My husband had been assigned to Iraq, so we stayed behind while he went there for a year. That was a hard year. I spent a lot of time in the bedroom that my daughters shared, snuggling and letting them cry about how much they missed their daddy. I remember the bars on the bedroom windows. I had to show them all how to kick out the bars so they could escape in an emergency. I had to show them how to call Post One at the Embassy, too, because there’s no 911 overseas.

I looked at him that day, listened as he told me how spoiled Foreign Service families are, with our big houses in exotic places. I thought about all the things I’ve personally given up for this career: my hearing, my access to dependable medical care, vegetables I don’t have to bleach before I can eat them. I’ve missed—we’ve all missed—weddings and funerals and time with grandparents. We’ve given our health and our wealth and our stability, and we’ve given these things freely, by choice, because we believe in our mission and we believe in our country and we believe we have a responsibility to make the world a better place, even if it sometimes means making great sacrifices.

I thought about trying to explain all of these things that day, but instead, I just shrugged and said, yeah, some of the houses are really nice, I guess. And then I turned my deaf ear toward him, the ear I lost back in that house in China, and I went on with my life.

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