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Growing up in the foreign service

Jane Kelly Amerson López Project Neighbours

It’s always been very clear to me that I am from the United States even though I had not lived there until I was twelve. My father was with the United States Information Agency (USIA, called USIS abroad) so we were, in a way, Professional Americans.

My father’s job – and, by extension, our family’s – was to promote American values: democracy, freedom, choice, liberty, all that constitutional stuff we used to take for granted.

A question of ancestry

To Americans, where are you from, it used to be a question of ancestry. We’re all from somewhere else and few of us have been here long enough not to know where our roots are.

My own family came from Scandinavia and Scotland, some of the many people who took a huge leap of faith that whatever was here was better than all they were leaving behind. Coming here took a tremendous amount of courage; it’s part of the American pioneering spirit.

Contemporary disgrace

What we’re seeing now, with ideas like the wall or attacks on the media, it’s disgraceful. We don’t do that. We don’t disparage people who are willing to come to our country to work and build a life.

Talking about immigrants in an inhumane way, it goes against everything America has ever stood for.

Not to mention, the vilification of the process of news reporting and gathering, the insistence on “alternate” facts instead of reality as is, that’s not who we are as a country.

Americans, we’re better than this

My father joined the Foreign Service just after World War Two when America was easing into a new role of the Leader of the Free World. My father truly believed in what he was doing even if the reality didn’t always align with ideals.

But the world has changed since then, current president aside.

The Cold War is over; it’s no longer clear who is who; connections between countries are different. Information flows differently; things happen and we know right away.

Diplomacy is about people

The job of diplomats has changed a lot in some ways; in other ways it hasn’t changed at all.

Diplomats overseas are still good listeners, good guests, good allies. They don’t create or debate policy. They do their best to carry out directives, whether they agree with them or not, whether the context of their work is straightforward or not.

America was involved in Vietnam for a big chunk of my father’s career. It influenced the conversation; of course it did, as does any military involvement.

But diplomats are not part of the military.

Their job is to represent people – the warm, gracious, open and welcoming citizens of their country – not policy or politics. Diplomacy is about relationships. Relationships are between people.

Move to the US

I was twelve when we moved to Washington and at that point, the answer to the question, where are you from, became more complicated.

Abroad, I said, I’m an American. In the US, it wasn’t as clear. I certainly wasn’t like other kids in my neighborhood. I was the odd one out, and who wants to be that? I avoided any references to the first dozen years, but things came out anyway.

Ninth grade Spanish

When we first moved back, we’d just left Bogota, Venezuela. I arrived at an American school in seventh grade, but they put me in ninth-grade Spanish, which was already awful – imagine a little twelve-year-old surrounded by all the adult-looking fifteen-year-olds.

On the first day of class, the teacher said, Buenos dias, and I replied, Buenos dias, to which someone said, Hey, how did you get to be so smart?

At the end, the teacher suggested I move to a high school class. I pictured myself walking across the football field for a class with a bunch of even bigger kids. No way! I took French instead and getting rid of my “foreignness” became a goal.

At the end of five years, I had climbed the ladder of being a good suburban American girl: I had long blonde hair and a tall, blond boyfriend who played golf. I was a pompon girl marching at football games and in line to be captain of the pompon team. It made me absolutely happy.

Then my father told us we were moving again. It felt like we were going back to our real life, slipping back to our real roles: The four of us onto the next thing.

Let's go and find out

My father loved this idea of, let’s go and find out.

He wanted to understand wherever it was we were living, the people who were around us. We were guests, not occupiers, and we plugged into the local character as much as we could.

My mother instilled in us the graciousness of a good guest, but she also managed to make sure we were home wherever we were. She put tremendous effort into it. It took a toll. She suffered a period of depression every time we moved, but never let it show.

As a family, we were always very aware of the “ugly” Americans clustering together, speaking English louder and louder. We were not that. We took trips, read guidebooks, did whatever we could to be part of where we were.

Learning the local language was essential.

Good looking Spanish boys

Of all the places where we lived, I really connected with Spain and Madrid.

I was a confident sixteen-year-old and there were a million good looking Spanish boys around.

I loved living there, being part of the Spanish character with all the beauty, beaches, flamenco, guitars and restaurants that didn’t serve dinner until ten o’clock at night.

I think Rome and Italy were particularly important to my sister; she turned sixteen riding at the back of a Vespa, and who wouldn’t like that?

I think my parents were very fond of Bogotá despite the violence, the kidnappings and the bombings. Colombian people were fantastic optimists.

Parents' archive

My parents left an extensive archive: letters my mother wrote to her family every Monday for twenty years, my father’s two books and volumes of notes, plus photographs, videotapes, movie reels.

I have had a lot to draw on in writing the story of our experiences. It’s a real pleasure to relive this life through my parents’ records and my own writing.

This book I’ve been working on for forty years, it started as a search for a home, an attempt at understanding what happened and what it all meant.

Having retired six years ago, I'm finally able to do the things that feel right, draw on all the things that are part of me without worrying about fitting in with someone else’s idea of “normal”.

I am very fortunate to have a lot of people on my side – my husband, my daughter and my sister are my most important readers, but I also get a lot of encouragement from extended family and the writers’ network where I live.

With that, the book has turned into this rich collection of adventures of a family living a pioneering kind of life with the Foreign Service. It’s called, When the dictator flew over our house & other true stories, and it starts just there, on that night sixty-four years ago when a then-dictator, Perez Jimenez, fled the country along a flight path that ran just above our heads.

Jane Kelly Amerson López was raised in Latin America, Europe, and Washington DC as the eldest daughter of an American Foreign Service officer. She and her husband live in South Florida, where she writes creative non-fiction, memoir, and poetry, and is a frequent public speaker on topics related to her international upbringing. López is a member of the Florida Writers Association (FWA) and FWA’s West Boynton/Wellington Writers’ Critique Group, and has social media followers in more than 40 countries. You can read her blog, follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.