Archive for the ‘Foreign Service Life’ Category
When you don’t like being touched by strangers, but you also kind of want to meet the President. Pudding did an awesome job!
One of the great things about the expat life, is you get to reinvent yourself every time you move. And by great, I mean necessary, for me at least. Moving to a new country is a surreal, hyper-real experience, even when you have it done it several times before. I find reinvention to be my coping mechanism.
I’ve been walking a lot lately, which is good for me. In Argentina, I’ve reinvented myself as a walker. Walking is good for thinking, which is good for writing. I have many blog posts in my head, I just need to convert them to type in between walking.
I need to tell you about how South Africa said goodbye to us, and what we did in between here and there, and many, many tales of my kids’ resilience, but this is my blog, so first I’ll talk about my reinvention(s).
I showed an early flair for languages, and some twenty years ago I learned Spanish. But then I was sent to the Lowood Institution where my best friend died in my arms of consumption, and French was the only language I developed. Wait, I’m confusing myself with Jane Eyre again. But for some reason I learned more French, and it covered over my Spanish until it was quite buried.
That French was quite handy in Luxembourg, but not at all useful here, when I try and communicate and this whole other language keeps popping out instead. It is at times like these, I marvel at my girl’s ability to express herself. I know it doesn’t come easily, and it takes a strength I don’t have, but she does.
Though I don’t have that strength, I do need to communicate our needs. Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say. I like to pretend that I’m in some kind of reality TV show. It is of course, absurd that I know so little of the language, so I act like it is a challenge: what can my very basic abilities achieve for me today?
In my first week here, it got me wifi installed in my house, which was a necessity, or I wouldn’t be writing to you now. Miming can get you so far, and sometimes words take you further. I needed a Phillips screwdriver, and that is a thing you certainly don’t want to mime (go on, try it), but when you can’t remember the word “screwdriver” or “tool” it becomes a comedic surfeit of words, words, words.
And if I’m confused why I have to pay when my bill reaches 1000 pesos at the supermercado, even though I have more shopping on the conveyer belt, the explanation is more words than I’m able to process. Hold on, give me five or six months to figure out what you are telling me.
Sometimes my reality TV show has a culinary edge. Instead of getting frustrated at the limitations of the welcome kit (essentials provided by the Embassy until our belongings arrive), I’ll instead prepare the most elaborate food I can, as though competing against myself. Sometimes there are unexpected successes, as I find a way to cook spinach in a way that my kids both eat it for the first time. Or we make empanadas together and remember one of the reasons this is all worth it.
The theme to all my reinventions is facing a challenge. It is okay to be tired, but I’ll never win that way. Today, walking to school for a pre-IEP meeting, I felt a little like David against Goliath, if David didn’t have the slingshot of legal rights outside of the US public school system. But dressing myself in leather boots and biker jacket, I felt like this incarnation might show her strength, even when feeling weak. And just as well, because upon finding that a document about Pudding was being sent to her teachers, I needed to be able to demand a copy even if the school doesn’t normally give them to parents. Nothing about us without us.
Perhaps they aren’t really reinventions after all. Maybe it is more about remembering who you are, how you are, even in a world that seems unfamiliar. Sifting through layers of language, understanding cultural norms and making sure our needs are being met.
Deep down I am who I am no matter where we are. Still, if I were being followed by a camera crew these last few days, I’m sure you’d find it to be very entertaining viewing!
We’re now 9 days away from the mega non-stop flight in economy from Johannesburg back to the USA. A flight so long and tortuous, I need a distraction! So instead, I’m thinking about getting to see old friends, and spending time with family. Still, we have two months of no school, and an awful lot of free unstructured time on our hands.
Spectrummy Daddy will be occupied with language training, so we’re looking for things to do. Luckily, there are lots of free museums to get reacquainted with, and I’ve found a park and a library within walking distance of where we’ll be staying.
But what else? My kids have spent most of their lives living on other continents, and as I’m foreign-born myself, we could probably use a tip or two about how to spend our summer. We were lucky enough to be able to take our two R & R trips to the UK this tour, so we got to eat cornish pasties, take tea at Holyrood Palace, visit Stonehenge, and roman baths, and eat fish and chips on the beach. So now we have to even things up and remind them they’re half-American again…just before they get whisked off to South America!
There is one all-American thing I know is at the top of my list: making s’mores. And this time around, I don’t even have to worry about making them from scratch this time around.
So, please, give us some tips on what we need to do, and I’ll add them to the list. Extra points if they are sensory-friendly and accessible to all (July 4th fireworks are probably still a bit of a no-no for us).
Here we go…
1. Make s’mores
2. Kinetic Sand, suggested by Lisa S. on the Spectrummy Mummy Facebook Page
3. What To Do With Kids In Washington D.C., huge list linked by Emily.
4. Mom in Two Cultures has some great ideas for sensory boxes: How To Survive Winter Vacation.
5. Buzzfeed has great list of 33 Activities Under $10 to Keep Your Kids Busy All Summer.
6. American History in a box from After School Plans.
7. America: The History of US DVD set.
8. Pudding would definitely add another meal at the American Girl bistro.
9. Drink a malt in a diner.
10. Veggie chili-cheese fries from Ben’s Chili Bowl
11. Watch the Nats play baseball, and constantly remind Spectrummy Daddy that it is just like rounders.
12. Ride the carousel after checking out the Smithsonian museums.
13. Take in a county fair or town festival.
14. Enjoy a movie at a drive-in – I still can’t believe I have never done this!
15. Disney! Our home leave point is Florida, and the grandparents have already promised Pudding a repeat breakfast with the princesses, and pirates for Cubby. Disney has changes its policies for guests with disabilities since we were last there, so I’ll be sure to report back on our experiences.
I love a good storm. The fizz and boom in the air. The sense of awe in the power of a lightning strike. It makes perfect sense to me that our ancestors would venerate this energy, make idols of nature’s strength.
I love the feeling after the storm has passed; the air now lighter and purer. It smells fresher. The mind feels less fuzzy. Everything is calm and rejuvenated.
What I don’t like, is the feeling before a storm. The chaotic, swirling build-up. The stifling, oppressive air. The darkness.
Bring it on, I think. Rage as you will. We’ll breathe easier when you’ve finished raging.
Cubby is now terrified of storms. Always sensitive to sound, he cannot take the claps of thunder here, more powerful than any other place we’ve lived. And when his anxiety is up, when he can’t tolerate another assault, that is when the chime of nearby burglar alarms ring out in unison as houses are struck, foundations shaken.
We are just at the beginning of the stormy season here in Johannesburg, the lightning strike capital of the world. It is going to be a rough few months for our sensitive son.
His anxiety has swollen now that to the extent that it isn’t just experiencing a storm that scares him, like me, he can no longer stand the build-up. He’ll perseverate on the darkening skies, the thick clouds, that heavy air that he can’t describe but he feels all too much. But he doesn’t will on the inevitable, he just wants to escape from something that is everywhere.
It isn’t just storm season, we’re also raging through bidding season. We have no idea where we’ll be living next year, and trying to match up jobs with the schooling and therapeutic needs of our children is stifling. This time around it feels harder than ever before. Instead of excitement at the build-up to another transformation, I feel anxious about the inevitable life-altering changes that are coming our way. Like Cubby, I want to block it all out.
“It won’t hurt us, ” I tell us both, one stormy afternoon earlier this week.
I have no such need to comfort Pudding. Incredible, indomitable Pudding. She cavorts in circles as the storm rages outside, perhaps feeling the buzz in an entirely different way. Though her ears cannot tolerate mechanical and low-frequency noises, she seems to find natural sounds invigorating. She doesn’t tell me she enjoys the thunder, but her happy hum indicates it is an entirely welcome sensation.
I pick up Cubby, and copy Pudding’s patterns. At first she stops, curious as to the game. Then she carries on, and soon we are all laughing, as we dance around the room, forgetting all about what is happening outside our walls.
Bring on the storm. Let it rage as it will. My girl shows us how to frolic and laugh as though the sun is always shining through crashing changes, and remember the excitement of a fresh calm that will be ours soon.
Tuesday was a really hard day. We haven’t had a break in a while, and I was itching to escape. I booked a night away at the weekend, but it has been a relentless run of a couple of months without stopping, and one night away seems like too little, too late.
After another draining day at work, I collected the kids from school, and got ready to head back out- Tuesday evening was the back-to-school open evening for parents at Pudding’s school. No time for dinner.
To say I didn’t feel like going out there would be understatement. The school is a 45 minute drive at the best of times, and after dark in Johannesburg? Not so much the best of times. I try my best to avoid ever driving alone at night. But Spectrummy Daddy was staying with the kids, and I felt like I couldn’t not go.
Traffic was even worse than usual. I left at 5:10 to be there in plenty of time for a 6:30 start, but I soon realized it wasn’t going to be enough. All in all, seven (7!) traffic lights were out on the busy route, and not one of them policed. I turned on the radio only to hear that the alternative route by motorway was in the same condition. As day turned to night, and gridlocked in traffic, I felt a growing sense of unease. My frustrations darkened my mood further, and I let myself go…there.
There is where I imagine an easier life. Where we live close to family and friends, and I can count on them to give us a break when we need one. There is my kids going to a local school and growing up with the same community. There is building a life for us, and living it- not having to do the same thing over, and over, in far away lands. There is easy. Here is hard.
My legs were cramping from riding the clutch for so long that I almost missed driving an automatic. I did my best to avert my curious gaze from the casual prostitution happening at a particular traffic light where I idled for too long. I wanted to call my husband and tell him I was done with here, with this whole Foreign Service life, but I know better than to use a Smartphone here while driving alone in the dark.
Finally, finally, at just after 7 pm, I arrived at the school.
The Director saw me first, and gave me a friendly greeting on first name terms. Next I saw the mother of a child who was in Pudding’s class last year. We hugged, and I started to feel better. Next I got to check out her new classroom, where she’d left me a note asking to check out her “portit.”
I left her a note in return, then got to check out her new classroom, taking note of the many accommodations. As Ms. A, her new teacher had previously let me know- these supports are actually beneficial for all kids, and having them available to all ensured that Pudding isn’t singled out. I felt all my tensions slip away. My girl, she is right where she needs to be.
Next I got to meet Pudding’s art, music, and PE teachers. I had to smile as the new teachers shifted from polite interest to excitement as they found out I was Pudding’s mother. That kid really is a rock star, and I loved hearing all the anecdotes: such as Pudding turning on the music in class- the music teacher convinced it only happens when she talks for too long! Yes, that absolutely sounds like her.
Though it was getting late after a long day, I couldn’t resist popping in to see Pudding’s kindergarten teacher, who was in the middle of reassuring a new parent that her child (who had some differences of their own, but not like Pudding’s) was in the right place.
I couldn’t agree more.
The drive home was just about the complete opposite- I practically flew. What was I even thinking on the ride out there? Of course this isn’t easy, but she is where she belongs, and when we move again, we’ll start up a whole new village.
Here or there, it doesn’t matter. We are always right where we need to be.
Sometimes my life seems to have very separate compartments, and you can divide them up quite neatly. There is my life in the foreign service: as an employee of the State Department, and the wife of a diplomat. Then there is my home life: as a wife to my husband, and mother to my children. Then I suppose there is the side where I write and advocate. Most often I wrote about my children. Sometimes I write about autism and special needs. Other times life in the foreign service. But this is wrong, because I’m always writing about all of those things at the same time. If they are my experiences, they are a unique blend of my past and my present, personal history and present geography. In moments of clarity, I understand that the world isn’t black and white, but several shades of grey (not fifty though- get your minds out of the gutter)!
On R&R in England, foreign service life seemed far away. We visited Durham Cathedral on September 11th, and I showed the kids how we light a candle for those who can’t be with us. Our children are too young to understand much, but I told them that when things are dark, we have to light the way.
That same day, four of our colleagues were murdered in Libya. Over the next few days there were violent protests directed at other US embassies and consulates. It was a strange disconnect, being away from our foreign service community at that time, but seeing images, and reading friends’ status updates on Facebook as the action took place around them.
My brain wants things to be black and white. It makes things easier to understand if there are sides and good guys and bad guys. This is how Cubby likes things to be. He needs to know who is good and bad, who is right and wrong. But it is more complicated than that. It is wrong to make provocative movies, deliberately dubbed to offend religions and communities, to destroy the peaceful efforts and relationship-building that Ambassador Stevens and others lived for; then died for. And yet without freedom of speech, what do we have? Every time I post a blog, I exercise a right that many in this world don’t have, may never have.
So too, do those who are hurt or offended have a right to protest. It isn’t wrong to protest- it is a democratic right. Another kind of freedom of speech. But violence against innocents is wrong, even if done in protest against abuses. When protests came last week to our consulate, I thought more about the fear and potential threat- the dark- than the light of living in a society that permits and encourages the right to protest.
Freedom of speech is an interesting concept to me. Words come easily to me, and I’m safe to express them. What then, about my daughter, whose speech does not flow so freely? How do I protect her rights? One way, is respecting her expressions of protest. Pudding can refuse, or dissent, or stay quiet, or walk away. I’ve explained to her therapists before that her needs should always be respected, rather than corrected. At times she can articulate those needs quite clearly, when she is overloaded, she cannot.
I’m mindful that this right I have is actually a privilege. A power not extended to all. And so, if I abuse that power, intentionally or not, others have a right to protest. The grey area gets murkier, because words, particularly from those in power, can have unforeseen consequences. Every time I write about Pudding, her autism, and our lives, I’m mindful of the fact that I’m balancing my freedom of speech with hers. We’re all Ambassadors, all the time. When things get dark, we have to light the way.