Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Difference in Cultures

Every time we move, we become part of a different culture.

No, we don’t become a part of our host culture; that’s not what I’m talking about. We adapt to some degree; that’s just a part of showing respect, and it is necessary. But the host culture isn’t the only new culture to which we are exposed.

Each embassy also has a different culture. Sure, they all fit under the umbrella of “American,” but there are nuances.

The U. S. Mission to Egypt was so large—it was the largest permanently staffed embassy in the world during our time there—that much of it felt impersonal. There were people there who cared, but overall it felt institutional. Although most employees who worked within the embassy compound at least recognized each other, it was not expected that everyone would know everyone else, especially with mission personnel divided among at least three large compounds. Subgroups and cliques formed; my primary social group became non-mission expats, though it included a few embassy wives whom I met through non-embassy activities such as Maadi Community Church or the Maadi Women’s Guild. Overall, my impression of the embassy was that it was a large, professional institution, with a professional culture that encouraged individuals to be friendly.

The U. S. Mission to Cambodia was much smaller and more personal. The employees, for the most part, worked on one mid-sized compound; most of them knew each other, or at least could provide a name and section (office) to go with each face. From what I recall, the Community Liaison Office was more active, and there were more “everyone’s invited” parties and gatherings hosted by individual mission members than there were in Cairo. Again, however, my primary social group became non-mission expats, once I was able to find them. My impression of the embassy was that it was a professional, but friendly, institution.

The U. S. Mission to Kosovo, from what I can tell, is even smaller and more personal than the Mission to Cambodia. Currently there are two compounds, but they’re within walking distance of each other, and most mission personnel live near each other, though there’s beginning to be more of a separation into two distinct residential areas. Everyone knows everyone else—they can tell you name, section, spouse, kids, pets, home state if not hometown, often previous posts, of just about everyone else. Everyone knows who’s departing—and who’s arriving—this summer. I lost count of how many people, upon being told that we were new to post, said, “Oh, you must be the Smiths*! Good to meet you!” I haven’t had the opportunity yet to meet any non-embassy people, but I have attended six social events (only two of them semi-official) organized by embassy personnel in the four weeks that we’ve been here, and we’re going to another one tomorrow. From what I’ve seen so far, the CLO is trying to be active and provide social events and outings, though I’m not sure how many people participate in those activities (we haven’t been able to participate in any of those yet, though I’m hoping to in future). Overall, my impression of the embassy is that it is a very friendly, yet still professional when it needs to be, community.

Part of any culture is the prevailing attitude toward children, and this aspect of culture also differs among embassies.

I didn’t really notice Embassy Cairo’s professional attitude toward children, as Alexa was born after I’d already begun spending most of my time with people unaffiliated with the embassy. I have no idea what, if any, official events occurred for children. Many embassy families hired nannies for the kids, but other families included a stay-at-home parent. Those stay-at-home moms were the mission members whom I tended to meet and socialize with, and most of them had school-age children, so they were free and clear during the school day. I can’t really characterize the embassy culture’s attitude toward children one way or the other.

Embassy Phnom Penh seemed a bit conflicted about embassy kids. On the one hand, there was a playground right there on the compound, and when I arrived there were kids’ story hours every month—or maybe every week?—in one of the conference rooms, and there were children’s Christmas and Easter parties at the ambassador’s residence, and the CLO occasionally organized weekend playgroups at Monkey Business. On the other hand, I never saw any children using the playground except when the embassy hosted a local orphanage, and the story hours were discontinued soon after our arrival—I think the person who organized them rotated out and no one else volunteered to organize them—and the weekend playgroups were rare and always on Sunday mornings, so we never went to them because we went to church. I think most embassy spouses worked, so most hired nannies for the kids. I went to a few of the monthly social gatherings for spouses who didn’t work, but I left Alexa with our housekeeper during those events, as that seemed to be the norm. So there was an official effort to be a child-friendly embassy, which I appreciated, though it seemed to me that children were an afterthought rather than a feature of embassy social life.

Then we arrived here.

If Embassy Phnom Penh was conflicted about embassy kids, Embassy Pristina is determined not to be.

This embassy is in transition. Children were not allowed to accompany their parents to post for a long time—I’m not sure how long—because of the potential for violence here. Not too long ago, it was deemed safe enough for children, and two years ago, the first children arrived at post. The first school-age children are scheduled to arrive this summer; apparently educational options had to be evaluated before the post could be opened completely.

As with any transition, opportunities co-exist with problems. Most parents here tell us that things are improving. Only one has made clear just how bad it was for children at post when he brought his family here two years ago. His words, as near as I can recall, were, “They cared more about pets than they did about kids.” I had assumed that a post where adult dependents were allowed but child dependents were not would consist of two types of families: those who were young and either single or married but childless for now, and those who were older and whose children were grown and gone. Apparently I was wrong; most families consisted of married couples who had chosen not to have children in favor of making it easier for both spouses to pursue their careers. Understandably, given the circumstances, the embassy culture was unsympathetic to children and their parents; I don’t know that it was hostile, though at least the one father thinks so, but children just didn’t enter into the thinking of most mission members.

That child-free culture has changed. Those who have been here for a year or more—we’re the first arrivals of the summer, so everyone else has been here significantly longer than we have—may not recognize how child-friendly this embassy is now, as they remember growing pains to which we were not exposed. My experience, however, as a recently-arrived mom, is that this embassy is incredibly focused on children, and this focus is a direct result of the problems experienced by the first wave of parents and their children. Not only does this embassy have a playground—and an indoor playroom as well—but it hosts weekly playgroups there. When the CLO sends emails about the events and outings they sponsor, they almost invariably specify that “Children are welcome!” When I declined an invitation to a social event hosted by the Deputy Chief of Mission because I didn’t have anyone to care for Alexa, I received a reply to bring her; childcare would be provided—and when Alexa refused to stay with the other children and the caregiver, she was welcomed to the adult gathering. Children have been present at almost every social event I’ve attended (one was a ladies’ night out; most attendees were moms, but the kids stayed home with Dad), and one was planned specifically to introduce us to the other parents and children at post. Alexa even was welcomed into all the offices we visited during our newcomers’ orientation briefing.

I’m certain the growing pains are not over. With older children arriving for the first time this summer, education will be a concern, and the activities that welcome new preschoolers won’t be appropriate for teens, tweens, or grade-schoolers. And stay-at-home mothers aren’t particularly common here yet—the response when it was discovered that I don’t have a paying job was “Oh, we can fix that!”—but there are a few of us, and maybe there will be a few more after this summer. The culture is still changing and probably will continue to change throughout our stay here. It will be a fascinating experience to watch and participate in this shaping of a culture that will impact families for years to come.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying an embassy culture that truly welcomes our entire family.

*Our last name isn’t really Smith, but we’d rather not put the real one on here.

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