Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cairo and Benghazi

Here is a statement delivered by Secretary Clinton on the events of yesterday. I urge you to watch the whole thing:

Her expressions of anger, loss, and resolve reflected my own feelings very well.

It was a subdued day today at work, as you might imagine. Lots of people during breaks gathered around the televisions, watching cable news for the latest information on yesterday's events. Being all of eight weeks into my new career, I obviously didn't know the diplomats killed in Libya. But after hearing their biographies and listening to some veteran officers today, I know the type. Peace Corps or military service volunteer, posted to an area on a first assignment and continuing to invest a life to become an expert in a part of the world. From language, to history, to culture and politics, the time and training combine with care and motivation to turn an officer into a "hand," someone who can be called on to accurately give context and advice, and take action when things go sideways on the other side of the world. 

Ambassador Stevens was just such a person. From his Peace Corps work in Morocco through his career, he became our go-to diplomat in Libya. What a friend the Libyan people lost yesterday. I think about him, and FSO Sean Smith. Assigned to The Hague, and on a TDY (temporary duty assignment) to Libya, leaving behind a wife and two kids. They will never get their husband and father back. Two others were also lost, but their names and stories are not yet released.

And then I think about the members of my A-100 class. People who came into the Foreign Service with Peace Corps and language skills, that are being posted soon around the world. Some of us will move from region to region and bureau to bureau. Some of us will find "home" bureaus, and end up becoming Asia hands, or Africa hands. Some of us are going places that we already know are trouble, and are HAPPY to go. Others of us will be in places that right now seem safe, but could explode tomorrow. Ask anyone who was mildly disappointed with a two-year tour in "boring" Egypt in 2010. You just never know, and if you are totally risk-averse, you should choose a different career. I said earlier I know the type. I know it because I saw them in my A-100 class. Happy to go to dangerous, unaccompanied posts. People I know will be targets for our enemies now and in the years to come because they will be so damn good at their jobs. I can only hope I will be one of the good ones, too.

It's been a hard day. If you are in my line of work and didn't think about Ambassador Stevens, FSO Smith and the other two officers, then you are in denial. A black flag associated with al-Qaeda was raised over our embassy in Cairo, and a consulate was sacked and an ambassador and three others killed in Benghazi. When I was in the Navy Reserves in the early 90's I knew I could be called to danger but I also knew I would have weapons and training with which to defend myself. Our diplomats get called to dangerous places without those defenses, and still they go. 

Our little family spread across the world has lost four of its members. They will be missed. We will carry on.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Small School, Big Changes

We survived! Our marathon summer of 2012 is officially over and we are now in first week of school stupor.

I'd call it a successful first week-only three or four emotional breakdowns so far, one forgotten lunch (well..sort of), one missed bus, three frantic calls by mom to the school admin and two schedule change requests, tons of homework, and only one serious request to be sent back "home" to Laredo - And that was just the oldest two.

I have got to give them credit- they are trying their best to deal with a mountain of change. Moving during the high school years is very hard to do, but add any exponent to it when it's your Senior year (our oldest). The poor things...we lived in the same town for nine years which translates to "most of their lives". One interesting difference is going from a mega high school (her class size was about 1000 students) to a senior class of 120 kids! Their new high school has around 800 students total (8th- 12th grades).
Add to the big drama of moving the fact they are DEEP in the throes of culture shock. I don't think we realized just how Mexican Laredo really is until we moved away. Wait... I mean I knew it was Mexican in just about every aspect, true! And yes, it is actually Texas, but it is not culturally "American" (USA). It is very Mexican there- and honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. But it is very different from Northern Virginia. Please, I invite you to click on the link below to hear a live feed of the local Laredo radio station that my kids listened to every morning as the bus drivers blasted it through the speakers. Tejano music sounds like a party even if the guy is singing about his empty corazon (heart)! 
They miss the music, the food, the people, the whole thing... it's really hard right now for the oldest one especially to feel happy about being here. She points out how different "white people" are and how she can't relate and how incredibly odd that makes her- because she is a white person after all...but well- not really. It's tough right now. More posts to come on culture shock in the future.

Okay, this is not really their old bus, but the folks on this bus are listening to similar music that my kids heard each day on the school bus.

                     And now the bus is like this (but more diverse) get the idea.

There is a term within the State Dept/Foreign Service that helps explain what happens when parents raise their kids outside of the US. I actually learned more about this weekend. The FS kids often become what is called "third culture" kids.
And while such labels do remove some of the fear/frustration that we are alone in the world, it somehow actually adds to my current load of guilt, even though statistically these kids usually do quite well in every aspect of life, I never had to maneuver such an odd dynamic when I was growing up- that is where the guilt floods in. I don't know how it feels to be their age and be American but have so little in common with my American peers that nothing seems the same. All three of our kids are third culture kids. The oldest two were raised in the Mexican culture and our youngest was raised in rural Ethiopia for the first six years of  his life.
So, why is their culture shock a surprise to me? For one, I believe I have minimized the impact their surroundings had on the older two. I completely expect to see these types of things happening with our youngest, he is SOOO Ethiopian and he probably grew up right in the midst of his ancestral roots. But the oldest two? Really??  I did expect them all to have feelings like "it stinks being new", but I did not anticipate how this could/would translate into "I have no idea how to relate to these kids" feelings. It was really THAT different? Seriously?  Well, recently it struck me, even though we all agree that this place is great, it so very different from Laredo, TX. and we miss a lot of things and people we loved there. We were there long enough to feel like we belonged there.

The whole third culture tidbit was a revelation to me. It also explains WHY -even though the schools here are smaller, kind to new kids, better ranked, calm and orderly- my kids feel as if they have been dropped off on another planet instead of a nice, small American high school! I need to learn more and explore all of this when I have time to read and grasp the whole TCK dynamic. From what I gather the whole "Who Am I?" thing can be really hard to answer for kids who were raised in foreign places/cultures.

Our youngest, affectionately called Number 3 at times, thoroughly enjoyed his first week of  "big" school! We knew he would- but it took courage for him to step up on that bus this last week. This was an especially proud moment for us because it was literally his FIRST time to go to school outside our home or the orphanage he had been in. Since he became a McKeating kid back in 2010 he has learned TONS of new stuff. He came to us hardly speaking any English- but nowadays he is pretty close to fluent, he reads, writes, adds/subtracts and pretty much everything you might expect a kid in grade school to do- all thanks to the luxury of being homeschooled for the last two years. We are fans of homeschool but do not believe that it is the best option for every child, every family, or every year of their schooling. He had no desire to go to school, he was very happy learning from mom at home and I loved having the undivided time to give him but I decided that it was time for him to step out and see what big school was like- and well, so far so good! He had a great week and is ready for Monday- bless his little heart!

And last but not least- there is another new student in our family... my sweet Sean, who also started a new school this week. He started language training which has not been as much of a thrill as he had anticipated. It's not bad, but it is a big change. He went from the challenging but with fun all along the way A100 (looking sharp in his suit) class to a week of random but required classes which he said were interesting, but I noticed that he did not come home each evening with the same excitement in his step. And then this week... hello Bahasa Indonesia class (sadly, no more suits required). Since the classes began he has been walking around in a bit of funk. I told him it was as if a cloud or fog had settled just above his shoulders. He explained he was literally grieving the loss of Spanish. He feels like his brain is trying to hold on to it and that in itself was causing a battle for the mental real estate that Spanish so proudly occupied all those year. He talked to a person who had learned several languages in succession and they encouraged him explaining that his Spanish won't be gone forever, it just gets filed away for now. But the battle is not even conscious at this point. He sees a word and automatically starts to pronounce it using the Spanish alphabetic sounds- which isn't too far off but it isn't actually correct, either. Wow... poor guy. It's hard to imagine letting a language go that served as a security blanket and a key to success for so many years, plus we love Spanish- the way it sounds, the poetry/romance, he doesn't really want it to go away- me either.  But, he must, and he must make the mental space to fall in love with Bahasa Indonesia. Easy to say but hard to do. It wasn't that long ago when Spanish was an important part of our getting through our day to day lives. It will take a while before Bahasa Indonesia evokes emotions and wonderful memories the way Spanish does.
I totally get it and feel for him too. Augh! All these people hitting the big emotional walls around me.  I need a break!

"Mr. Bus Driver, please take me someplace where they make mangonadas and play happy songs with an accordion and a polka beat, please!!!!"

         *Oh, wow! I just remembered something that I learned this weekend in my Communication Across Cultures FSI class- that fantasizing about getting out of town is common for someone in the "flight" phase of culture shock. Guess we are just going to have to ride all this out after all, and Lord help us... we are not even in Indonesia yet!