CHANGING FIELDS: FROM FARMING TO THE FOREIGN SERVICE
LATE spring found our family once again facing drastic change. Two years ago at that time, we were knee-deep in acres of sweet, red strawberries, which sold faster than we could pick. Between the picking schedule, we were feeding cattle, cutting alfalfa, spraying peach trees, and performing the other endless chores of farm life. From barn to roadside fruit stand was about as far as we needed to travel on a typical day, and the fickle whims of nature kept us both captive and enthralled.Last year at this time, we were settling into city life as my husband pursued classes toward a new career. After 10 years in the country, we had to learn how to protect our house from another break-in and how to walk farm dogs politely on a leash. We traveled daily in heavy traffic to the university, the children's school, and the YMCA to get some exercise. We bought our fruits and vegetables at the grocery store and wondered how to teach the baby about farm animals simply from a picture book. This year, with my husband's degree in diplomacy and international commerce in hand and his two grueling Foreign Service exams passed, we find ourselves facing the prospect of traveling great distances by airplane to foreign countries where we will represent the United States government. We will come face to face with scenes we've read about in National Geographic or seen on the nightly news. Our four children are not thrilled to think of leaving their Kentucky home, and the battery of required medical e xams they're going through doesn't ease this transition. As we wait for the mandatory security check to be completed and the call to training in Washington to arrive, I struggle with nostalgic memories of all that's been and ambivalent speculation on what's to come. Implicit in the farming way of life are rhythm and repetition, but now, like a bull who has broken through the pasture fence, we find ourselves racing headlong into an unfamiliar new field. Since leaving our farm, we've gradually been drawn into the wider sphere of world events where briefcases and the world economy replace the tractor and local weather forecast. We've learned that diplomats talk about the drought in the Sahel as intensely as we did about western Kentucky soil conditions. We're learning to trade the small particulars of 200 acres for more global dimensions and to keep endlessly abreast of developments in places like Pakistan and Peru. Little by little, the significance of t he world out there has entered our home. The atlas has gotten smudged with fingerprints and the game of Risk has become a favorite with the older girls. The English classes I have taught for years to foreign students have awakened in me unceasing pleasure in the people from far away. I've learned to eat capsa (lamb stew from Saudi Arabia) with my fingers and thin Chinese noodles with chopsticks. I've heard the sound of Korean poetry and seen colorful batik draped around young Malaysian women. And in endless conversation, we have defined our cultural differences and discovered common threads. In snapshots of the families left behind, I have seen the familiar ties that transcend all boundaries. And during the hayrides and bonfires we arranged to share some American-style fun, we all found laughter and enjoyment to be a universal ingredient that erases language barriers. I have accumulated, through the years, stacks of postcards from my students' homelands, sent as their gifts to me. In them, I have caught the whiff of the exotic and an urge to see it all. It says in our State Department manual that "a Foreign Service career is more than a job. A decision to enter this career must involve unusual motivation and firm dedication to public service." After farming and English teaching, where our home and workplace merged, this idea is not hard for us to comprehend. But further on, it states: "Many overseas posts are in small or remote countries where harsh climates, health hazards, and other discomforts exist, and where American-style amenities frequently are unavailable. Overseas service may also involve security risks to personnel and their families." Here is where our hopeful expectations clash with harsher reality. And so, I find that mingled with excitement is a growing list of worries. It's usually late at night when I start to wonder: Will our children lose the sense of security that comes from living in one place, one's own country? Will they forfeit the deep friendships that come from permanence or will they learn the art of making friends fast and writing lots of letters? Will they feel perpetually homesick or find a deeper sense of belonging where all the world is home and unfamiliar cultures become opportunities for growth? One former State Department intern attempted to give us an idea of what exactly to expect. He looked with pity at us as he summed up our next few years. "You'll be sent to the middle of some unpronounceable country," he began, "where you'll be in charge of wall-papering the embassy or arranging exit visas for long lines of people who mostly can't be approved. There will be nothing fun to do besides looking out at acres of wilderness and wiping the dust from your eyes. It's just a lot of hard labor and un solvable paperwork in primitive conditions for years while you pay your dues." I smiled and said nothing, but I thought how well prepared we were for much of that. It sounded a lot like farming - only with a paycheck! What is still new to us about this new field we are approaching is the sophisticated side of diplomacy, the intricacies of a bureaucracy involved in world affairs. In the farming life, as in teaching too, most decisions are up to the individual. The diplomat discusses. Fortunately, the last two years have given us opportunities to experience the phenomenon of the serious social gathering where ideas are as important as the small talk and hors d'oeuvres. Recently, we were invited to a small gathering with eight others: one university president, three diplomats, two scholars, and two directors of an international-studies program. All were at least 15 years older than we are and had lines of distinction on their faces as well as on their resumes. At the formal table of a faculty club, they bantered among themselves in the language of famous quotes and reminiscenses of past work done in foreign posts. My husband and I, seated at opposite ends of the table, tried to blend in without seeming too naive. At times during that graceful meal, we made comments, but mostly found ourselves asking questions to show we were interested and glad to learn. That evening allowed us to absorb what university classes could not teach: the subtle art of diplomacy - which my dictionary defines as "tact or skill in dealing with others while still imparting and retrieving valuable information. That night, from the architectural scholar involved in updating security in foreign embassies, I learned about lead-embedded walls and impenetrable gates. The Middle East scholar from Princeton explained how an uprising of the Kurds was doomed to fail from the beginning and why, in his opinion, the United States might be partly responsible. The senior diplomat had personal stories about Iran during the revolution and the important people he had known. These and other bits of information shared over entre es and dessert added to our growing cache of knowledge that we may someday need. That evening left us breathless from the stretching we had been forced to do and yet profoundly aware that we are merely at the starting gate of a whole new way of life. The horizon we used to see from our back door was marked by the far-off fences on the boundaries of our land. What we see now is the vast panorama of the whole world which will be our new backyard. The next few weeks of waiting will be marked, no doubt, by more concern and worries as we imagine the unknown. I try to think, though, more positively and feel the excitement of all the satisfactions we'll encounter on the job. In the past, we took pride in the tangible signs of our success, such as the rows of sweet corn growing tall and undamaged by green worms or a field planted before the rain. N the Foreign Service, we will find new sources of satisfaction that may include being able to look into the eyes of people from remote lands and find there some affinity. I like to think it's not naive to hope, despite the ill-will sometimes aimed at Americans, that we'll have the opportunity to bridge some gaps of misunderstanding and make the building of friendship part of our job. I like to think that when we walk upon some distant foreign soil we may retain the sense of respect that our farmland onc e instilled in us. I also like to imagine watching the faces of our children as they discover things they've never seen before. Perhaps they'll learn how a Sherpa makes a prayer wheel turn or taste their first bowl of ground manioc root in Cameroon or gaze upon the huts where Haitian children make their home. The children shared with us on the farm all the pastoral details of our work. In the same way, the Foreign Service will engage all of us together in the journeys we will make. It may be that changing fields, both literally and figuratively, from farming to the Foreign Service requires a leap that only those with faith or foolhardiness can make. We have plenty of both, but, perhaps, the leap is less substantial than we think.