I've got the Foreign Service blues

Enough with the glamour and intrigue. This diplomat wants to come home

Published July 20, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You have for years drawn me in as a unique and singular source of insightful, brilliant, sympathetic -- often empathetic -- and kind guidance. In life, if we are lucky, we have unexpected mentors. I am writing you now, even after storing and applying your wisdom over the years, for such mentorship/guidance.

I am a 31-year-old woman. I am Foreign Service officer (read: diplomat) with the Department of State posted to my second assignment, in Mexico. I have experienced profound professional development in this unorthodox career, for which I am unequivocally grateful. As a prospective grad student of 25 I agreed to a fellowship that committed me to a minimum of three years of service (I'm now at nearly four years) after grad school as a diplomat.

My priorities at 31 are quite different than they were at 25.

In the past nearly four years, I've exited an engagement (by my choice, months after entering the Foreign Service, to a wonderful man not enthused by the Service and the complications his life would have undergone) and have had a series of at best minor relationships with people of equal transience and of otherwise committed situations. These are dating compromises I would not have otherwise made had my situation not been circumscribed (by regulation and a limited dating pool).

Being a typical, generalist diplomat whose life is dictated by "the needs of the Service," my life is mostly governed by external forces. Admittedly, the work is rewarding. But the personal sacrifices are proving unbearable.

I am quintessentially American. As much as I revel in and love foreign cultures, I identify essentially as American. And in as much, I want an American male companion. I have no interest in having children and am honest enough to not expect -- of myself or a companion -- a lifelong relationship. What I want is a viable, nurturing, fun, loving and intellectual relationship with a like-minded adult. Thus far, this has been somewhat elusive since I entered into this weird, transient world of the Foreign Service. For example, the only meaningful relationship I have had in four years was for five months with a married military representative who recently returned to his wife and son after spending years apart. Dysfunction and awkward compromises abound in government work done abroad. We all need intimacy, will seek it out, and act upon it no matter the violations of integrity.

Anyway, I am somewhat terrified to leave the Foreign Service as it is all I have professionally known (several internships with the Department of State before entering as an officer), but I want a personal life and a career I have more control over than as a generalist with worldwide availability subject to the needs of the Service.

So, my question is: How do I transit into life as a civilian? I have skills (government program coordinator of a $37 million portfolio, grants warrant officer, government contracts representative, diplomat, bilingualist, M.A. in international policy and nonproliferation, etc.), but I do not know the path ahead and it scares me to leave government employment without a strategy.

I do not know what I would be useful at or how to go about marketing myself. Though being gainfully employed is my preoccupying concern, I am motivated to make changes so that I can have a personal life with a companion.

Ideally, I want to be in the San Francisco Bay Area or New York, as those are my formative homes.

So where do I start and how to I make the transition? And how do I start making myself ready for a substantive relationship?

Thank you,

Diplomat Adrift

Dear Diplomat Adrift,

This is not just a question but the beginning of a story. A story begins when somebody decides, I don't want to live this way anymore. I'm going to change my life.

We like to meet a protagonist on the brink of change. We like to enter the story when a character is packing a suitcase. Where are you going in such a hurry? we wonder. What has led up to this point and what comes next?

The beginnings are clear. You made a bargain. You held up your end. But it's been tough. Now it's time for something new.

If this were a thriller, upon your return to the U.S. you would be approached by a stranger with a proposition. You would begin an epic battle. We'd be on your side.

Somewhere in the novelization of your life, there would be a dramatic flashback to the deal you made, the doubts you had, the sacrifices you endured to have your graduate studies subsidized. It would tell us much about your character -- how you think about things, where you come from, what your big dreams are and your big fears, although we get a good sense of you just from the letter.

But this is not a thriller. This is your life. All you want is a job outside the government. We were hoping for a knife fight in an alley with the trusted official with whom you had worked closely for years, whom you always suspected of double-dealing. We were hoping for coded messages and clandestine liaisons; we want torrid affairs and high-tech gizmos.

Well, OK. I'm just saying, it's an interesting letter. If you don't want to write the thriller, let's at least help you get a job outside the government, a decent boyfriend and a flat in the Bay Area or New York.

No problem. What skills does a diplomat have?

Well, for starters, you're very diplomatic.

Seriously. Not everybody can think quickly and act with grace under pressure.

Foreign companies that operate in the U.S. and deal closely with the U.S. government need people with experience like yours. So do U.S. companies that do a lot of business overseas. If you want to stay in the U.S. and just travel on occasion, your knowledge might be essential in the realm of public relations and public policy. There is a whole world of think tanks, policy advocates, lobbying, public relations, journalism and all that, out there. You write clearly and concisely. That's invaluable. You probably also know languages.

As far as straight-ahead business opportunities, well, for starters, the Mexican company Grupo Bimbo is now the biggest baker in the U.S. And any company that names itself Bimbo could use some diplomatic skills, ya think?

There's a whole lot of Mexican companies thriving in the U.S. They might be a good place to start. And if that doesn't pan out, maybe you could become the Special U.S. Advisor on Protocol to "Ask a Mexican."

What else is going on in Mexico? You must know a lot that would help U.S. companies do business in Mexico, and vice versa.

We can expect that as the U.S. government cuts consular services, private companies will fill the gap. Depending on how entrepreneurial you are by nature, you might consider starting a company that does just that.

For the sake of the novel that is in our heads, however, we're really hoping that someone will emerge from the curtains in your hotel room with a packet of information giving you your next assignment, a very important task that must be performed by you alone, in secret, to save the western world.

Come to think of it, maybe it doesn't have to be just a fiction. I mean, we all need some greater purpose to motivate us.

You know things other people don't know. You could help people. Your skills are more valuable than you realize.

Even if you just want a quiet, safe and interesting life in the U.S., I think it's possible. Readers will think so, too.

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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