One of the most amazing elements of Foreign Service life–and there are many–is the people you meet along your way. These are folks you’d never encounter on a normal life trajectory. Folks with whom you’d never be friends, even if some weird twist of Fate threw you together. Not because you didn’t like them, but because of the brutally convenient way we often have of aligning our friendships along basic divisions of background, perspective, and interest.
But overseas, all Foreign Service members have one instant commonality: we’re all ex-pat Americans. This results in an instant camaraderie uniting you in a fundamental way. (Maybe it’s just a deeply engrained love for barbeque and fireworks on a certain day in early July, but it feels more substantial than that.)
This weekend, some friends and I were scoping out an Italian restaurant in a high-end outdoor mall built around a thousand-year-old temple (a fine example of the New v.s. Old collision that is Modern China). While there, I had the unexpected luck of meeting a Foreign Service member I’ll call Sofija. Though on temporary assignment in China, her current permanent assignment is in Latin America.
Over pasta and limoncello, Sofija and I got to chatting about our respective Posts (this, and where to get good ex-pat food, are staples of Foreign Service small talk). Mostly we compared my posting in China to her more Latino locale across the sea. The whole conversation was great and engaging (Sofija joined the Foreign Service shortly after becoming an American citizen, having first immigrated from Eastern Europe, so how could it not be?) but one thing she said stood out crisp:
I believe you carry your happiness with you.~Sofija
In our long chat about Posts, I’ll confess: I broke down and admitted to some of China’s warts. I aim to stay positive, but amidst all the things that make China a wondrous, fascinating place to live there are some serious frustrations. During the winter, the pollution is downright depressing as it turns everything a shade of grey (and I don’t mean in an E. L. James kind of way). Food sanitation’s not always what you’d hope. And in a country of 1.35 billion, you’re bound to feel a bit claustrophobic at times.
But Sofija’s point was this–attitude is everything. You can get fed up with people taking photos of you (without permission) because they’ve never seen a wài guó rén (foreigner) before, or you can choose a sunnier perspective. No matter where you go in the world, you can elect to make contentment one of the items you bring along.
In the Foreign Service, the load we travel with is simultaneously heavy and light. Every few years, we pack up all our belongings and ship them on to our next assignment–books and furniture, pots, pans and DVDs, clothes and the other flotsam and jetsam of our daily lives. All of it gets boxed up and sent forward to Japan or Israel or Burkina Faso. That’s some pretty serious luggage.
But what we can’t pack is our friends and family, familiarity, or language fluency. That’s the life of the modern nomad. It is at once exhausting and invigorating.
But the idea of packing up my happiness–bundling it tight in bubble wrap and guarding it as preciously as I do the American Indian wedding vase gifted me by my aunt–and carrying that happiness with the same deliberateness of action onto my next Post…. Now that is something to consider. Something to strive for.
The limoncello wasn’t too bad, either.