After almost 24 years of moving around with my husband, I didn’t think any new assignment would faze me. Then the Air Force sent us to Quito, Ecuador, an assignment without a military base. And we’re not alone—many military families live in cities around the world without the kind of support we’re used to seeing. No commissary, no base exchange, no military hospital, or community center.
Assignments like these are most common in the Army, where junior officers start off as Foreign Area Officers (FAO) and eventually end up as attachés at many US Embassies around the world. But more senior officers in other services are offered opportunities as well. And where would any good Defense Attaché Office be without support staff? Jobs for both junior and senior enlisted exist in all services in just about every location.
If you’ve only been to large bases where there are strict rules about socializing between officers and enlisted, an Embassy assignment might come as a bit of a shock. The military is only a small portion of the Embassy whole, and part of our job is to blend with the State Department culture.
Survival tip #1. Be prepared to leave your military etiquette at the door (but don’t throw it away completely).
State Department employees and their families don’t have strict delineations between staff, so everyone socializes with everyone else. In fact, on many Friday nights, the Marine House is the go-to spot to meet everyone. And because many spouses end up employed at the Embassy, the combinations of who works in which office, and who works for whom can be rather overwhelming. But it’s also how everyone knows how to support everyone else. It may seem a little incestuous at first, but if you aren’t in the loop, support can seem lacking.
Survival tip #2: Find a way to belong to the Embassy community, whether it’s as a valued employee, volunteer, or an often seen participant in community functions.
With these two tips, you’re going to survive. But we want more than that. We want you to thrive! That sometimes means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Living overseas most often means dealing with a new language. It always means dealing with a new culture. It is possible to make a life that revolves simply around the Embassy community. In fact, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the trips offered by the Community Liaison Office (CLO), and joining the group language classes offered by the Embassy community, especially when you first arrive.
But to thrive, you’re going to need a comfort level with the local language so you can leave that safe place and enter the world around you. You’ll want to purchase food at the local markets, speak to your neighbors in their native tongue, and have the mechanic fix your car. Waving hands and smiling can only get you so far, and after a year in country, it will be downright depressing not to be able to ask for a ripe avocado instead of the unripe ones offered.
My tips for immersing in the local culture include getting to know other foreign spouses. If the United States has an Embassy at your location, so do many other nations. Here in South America, the majority comes from Latin American countries, and the common language is Spanish. That doesn’t mean I won’t find English speakers. But in order to thrive, I’ve forced myself to speak Spanish beyond my comfort level. I make mistakes and laugh at myself when others point them out. And by doing so, I’ve learned that Spanish-speakers make mistakes, too. A common word in most of Latin America is a swear word in Argentina. It’s funny to watch the face of an Argentine when someone from Venezuela is saying the equivalent of the “F word” in the middle of a pretty mundane conversation. Moments like that happen all the time, but unless you understand what is going on, you miss out. And when you miss out, you feel like you don’t belong.
My final tip for thriving is to make friends with the locals. Many already work at the US Embassy, so they’re easy to find, and are often very willing to share their favorite restaurant recommendations, or the best place to spend a weekend away. Your spouse will know more than a few local military because of his or her job. Getting to know those folks can be very rewarding. We found an acting coach for my son through a retired Ecuadorian officer’s wife, who also happens to be an actress. That simple introduction has made my son’s Ecuadorian experience much richer.
My example of thriving comes from friending the wife of a local military officer on Facebook. She noticed my love of photography and my love-affair with her country. This opened a new door for me – she and her husband have introduced me to people and places I would never find in a guide book. They’ve opened their hearts and minds and in return, I offer them friendship. At the end of the day, and at the end of any military tour, it’s the friendships that help us thrive.
Posted by Angie Drake, Air Force spouse, and blogger at Not Your Average American, Quito, Ecuador