The Crazy, Awesome, Challenging Lives of Diplo-Teens

In real life, three siblings spending part of the summer in their original hometown would be pretty common. Families often move away from their hometowns. But . . . what if that move was to Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan?  And what if that move happened when someone was two-years-old and now they’re fourteen or fifteen and they have moved every two or three years to one location after another and have no memory of an “American Life” before the initial move. Visits to the United States become sporadic and complicated with long flights and one big suitcase. Ties to home are fleeting and intense, and for many of these expat kids, America becomes the exotic place, not the other way around.

There are thousands of diplo-kids, living in 295 cities that span the world. Everywhere the United States has a U.S. Embassy, Consulate, or Diplomatic Mission, American families set up temporary homes-away-from-home. Kids start at a new school (again!), go to sport practice and join clubs, and create a new community of friends . . . diving right into that new life . . . until the next move.   

After writing But Not Forever, I wanted to shine a spotlight on these exceptional young adults who live like rolling stones. But I’ve only experienced the Foreign Service as an adult, so, I thought . . . why not let a few diplo-teens tell their own stories? In their own words, Emma; 13, Zooey; 15, Emery; almost 14, Angelo; 14, Kip; 14, and Mia; 13, talk about their overseas experiences and how they make their way in a globe-trotting life where there as many “goodbyes” as there are “hellos”, and letting go of people and places they love is a skill they must learn at an early age.

Just one more thing about the interviews. Life imitated art with Emery’s and Mia’s stories of camping and making s’mores – just like a scene in But Not Forever. And, in another interesting coincidence – one of my interview subjects is named Emma, just like the 1895 protagonist in my book. That, right there, is the wonder of fiction . . . and why I love to read and write . . . because even a made-up story full of magic has nuggets of real-life sprinkled in.

How many countries has your family been posted to? Do you have a favorite?  

Emma - Since I’ve been born, my family has lived in 5 countries. The United States (4 different times), Germany (2 times), Moldova, Republic of Georgia, and France! Our stays vary from three months to three years! So far, my favourite country has been France. While Paris is a very chaotic city, there’s a certain culture and sophistication that I yearn for wherever I live. France definitely provides that entity, which is why I must say it’s my favourite location so far.

Zooey - My family has been posted to 5 countries (China, Mexico, Malaysia, America, Hong Kong). Atmosphere-wise, I didn't like China much because of the air pollution, although the culture and the food are things I fell in love with. Mexico had a great culture but I went to an all-Spanish speaking school so it was definitely a weird transition. I only lived in America for a year or two, so it didn't influence me that much. Malaysia was really cool because it was a whole different part of Asia, so the culture was all new to me and the school was great! Hong Kong is definitely one of the nicest places we've gotten posted to. I have so much freedom because of the safe public transportation and can go pretty much anywhere I want to. That being said, Hong Kongers are a whole new level of wealthy which was definitely a hard thing to adjust to initially.

Emery - My family has been posted to 3 different countries, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and we are now currently in Egypt. Even though we only got here in Egypt around 6 months ago, Egypt is by far my favorite post, the school is nice, the country is nice, and the opportunity is just amazing.

Angelo - We have been posted to 5 countries, I’m stuck between Russia and Albania as my favorite country. Albania because I had lots of friends there, it was fun and we would go to the beach and Russia for the same reasons except the beach part.

Mia - My family and I have been sent to 5 countries overseas, and we are living in our 6th. So far, we have been posted to Egypt, Senegal, El Salvador, Qatar, and we are living in Morocco for the time being. I would say my favorite country would be El Salvador, because it was located in Central America, in the jungle part of the world, and Salvadorans have many different foods, and cultures from other countries, such as a pupusa, which is a type of soft taco with re-fried beans and cheese inside.

Starting over in a new city every few years can be hard. What’s your strategy for fitting in and finding friends?

Emma - Interestingly enough, I’m quite shy and reserved, so it takes me some time to make new friends. Especially when you’re the only new girl in your grade/class, walking up to someone and saying “Hello, I’d like to be your friend!” can be a bit intimidating. Getting over that, the best way to find new friends is to join clubs. Sports, arts, music, and any other kind of circle can lead you to find someone with similar interests as you. Instead of finding some random person on the playground, you’ll start off with both playing soccer, or both playing the clarinet!

Zooey - I try and join things that allow me to meet as many people as possible (sports, choir, musicals, etc.) My brother and I both agree that the first year is definitely the hardest, but it gets better from then on.

Emery - Fitting in and finding friends can be hard the first few days of school, but usually I just focus on getting into my school routine, and I make sure I talk to everyone I can. Eventually I start getting invited to lunch tables, and I slowly start to make friends.

Mia - Often before we move, my family and I try to find other families on social media, that live in that specific country to try to get to know them so when we do arrive, we know some friends already. When it comes to going to a new school, or meeting neighbors, I try to just be myself and show people who I am, because I believe that if you show the people the real you, they are more likely to want to be friendly with you.

Kip - Generally, I have never needed to have a strategy for finding friends because all of my classmates have been very kind and welcoming, and I have felt at home right away.

Tell us about your summers. Do you have cousins and friends in your U.S. hometown? Are you a rock star when you show up every summer because no one has seen you for a year – or are you just one of the crowd?

Emma - Typically, once my family moves away from one city, we don’t go back. I don’t have a ‘home town’ anywhere in the world, not even in the United States! I make friends wherever I go, but never good enough to travel back and visit. My extended family members are the only people we ever go back to see, and while it’s a very small group of people, they’re all spread out over the US. During our summers, my parents and I usually stay where we are and let family come to us because we move so often, it might be their only chance to visit the crazy places we live! Sometimes my immediate family then visits a new country like Croatia, Greece, or Finland!

Zooey - I absolutely love going home for summers because it's my one chance to see all my family and American friends.  I definitely get a lot of questions regarding my family's lifestyle, but I wouldn't say I'm a "rock star". They've all got pretty cool lives (my uncle runs a hop farm, my aunts and uncles teach, my grandparents are really good golfers, and my grandma volunteers for the forest service)

Emery - When I go back to the United States over the summers, things can be super busy. We have doctor appointments, dentists, orthodontics, clothes shopping, individual activities, and the hardest part, finding time to visit friends and family. All of my family is in the US and most of my friends are too. Family reunions are usually done every summer, and it can be difficult because our summers are so busy, and we have family in other states. We always have old friends that want to visit us, and it’s hard to find time to visit them all. It’s really cool over the summers because everyone asks questions about living overseas, and I get to tell them about all of my cool experiences.

Angelo - We don’t go back to the States in the summer since we go back for Christmas. Instead we travel nearby to where we are posted. The three years I lived in Albania my friends and I attended this summer camp in Croatia but I would say it’s mostly my friends back home who get hyped up and ask a lot of questions.

Kip - We often go back to California most summers to visit our relatives. Everyone is always very excited to see us and we have lots of large family gatherings.

What has been your all-time favorite summer adventure – anywhere in the world…

 Emma - A few years ago, my parents and I moved from Kaiserslautern, Germany to the United States (Washington D.C.). To get back to the United States, we didn’t fly- we took a trans-Atlantic cruise! The Queen Mary 2 was the name of the ship we rode, taking the same path as the infamous Titanic of 1912. In fact, before we left the dock in Southampton, I went to the Titanic museum! Seeing icebergs in the middle of the ocean suddenly became a lot scarier! The cruise was about ten days, and it was simply fantastic! It was the best way I could think of to travel without making a summer-break-overseas-move boring. There were dining rooms and soft-serve ice cream machines and more swimming pools than you can imagine! It was as if we were living on a floating city for over a week!

Emery - For me, every summer gets better than the last. Every summer we go to Utah, and we always take time for ourselves, have a nice break, visit friends and family and just have a nice vacation. My favorite adventure would have to be Girls Camp. It was just a bunch of girls going camping, staying in a cabin, making s’mores, singing songs, going on a hike, etc. I also really loved when we had a big family reunion with second cousins, great grandma and great uncle from my mom’s side. It was a week of activities, we did a talent show, and we got to know a lot of our extended family.

Angelo – I don’t have a favorite but last summer I went to Albania and Turkey with a friend to visit another friend from Albania then we went to Turkey to visit my other friend’s family in Istanbul and Bodrum.

Mia - My all-time favorite summer is tied between last year, and the year before. Last year when me and my family went to South Carolina for a few days, where we woke up with a crocodile in front of our door and stayed at the beach and had the best ice cream. Then we went down to Florida for 1 week, and stayed at a friend’s house, and went to Universal Studios. We rode a lot of rides, and if you’re like me, where you get motion sickness easily, DO NOT RIDE THE HULK. I was green for the rest of the day after that, but it was still fun. Then me and my sisters left for our sleepaway camp for 1 week, and that is still one of the best moments of my life. Or the year before when me and my family went to Thailand where we went around absorbing the colors and food and moved south to around the beachy part of Thailand where we stayed in a resort where I learned to Trapeze, held many fun concerts, and had a beautiful beach. They also had the best food ever! Then we went to Cambodia to visit the ancient ruins of Ankerwat and toured around for a few days. This was also a very memorable time.

Kip - My favorite summer trips have definitely been in Hawaii, it is an incredible place with amazing food, weather, and very welcoming and relaxed people.

If you could time-travel, what year would you like to go back or forward to and where in the world would it be? Why?

Emma - If I could time-travel, I would probably go back to the late 1500s and early 1600s in Stanford upon Avon. This is when and where William Shakespeare wrote dozens of plays. He is one of my favourite writers, and it would be an honour to meet him. Also, assuming I get to choose a profession in this fantasy of time-traveling, I'd love to rewrite his plays! Since there were no computers and printers for sharing works, people would have to hand-write the scripts over and over. I think it would be incredibly cool to be part of the production like that! 

Zooey – I’d choose to go back in time and go to some small island in Southeast Asia so I could see the beaches, coral reefs, and mangroves before many became polluted. 

Angelo - I would like to go back to around 2008 to see what I was like as a 5-year-old kid in Texas.

Mia - I would go back in time to summer of 2014 where me and my family went of a road trip from California to Washington DC because I would like to relive some of the funniest moments of my life, and was also a year when we saw friends, kept stopping at the most exotic places. We celebrated the world cup with my Belgian cousins in Modesto, and it was funny because we were in an American pub and the game was USA vs Belgium and my 3 cousins and my sisters and I were the only ones rooting for Belgium, and everyone was staring at us like we were crazy. Then we started moving south to the bay area. We passed by Yosemite, and went camping, made s’mores, and washed dishes in a river. Monterrey, Santa Barbara, went by, and soon we were in the Hoover dam. On to Zion Park, and then the Grand Canyon (If you are ever looking for the best milkshake/cookie/food in general place try Jacob Lake Inn), and Four Corners. St Louis, Springfield, Batesville, Charlottesville, and finally North Potomac and DC for family and friends.

Kip - I would want to go forward to my college years where I hope to be studying in California or Hawaii because I have always just felt very comfortable in those places and the schools also look quite promising.

What is the one thing you would like non-foreign service teens to know about your life?

Zooey - I want them to know that it's important to go and explore the world as much as possible, as it changes your perception of cultures or people that are different than you or yours. 

Emery - Life living overseas is hard, but it’s very interesting. You never really get bored of a place. When you move every few years, you get to explore new places, meet new people, see new sites. It also gives you a better chance to see more places like the Maldives or Germany, places I would have never seen if I still lived in the states. The hard thing though, is friends. It’s hard to make such good friends then move, not knowing if you will ever see them again. But living overseas makes summers, and maybe even winters more special. When you only get to see family once or maybe twice a year, it makes it seem more special.

Angelo - We get to meet and become friends with people of different cultures and nationalities.

Mia - Even tho foreign service kids have their positives, they also have negatives. One of the biggest negatives is that they say goodbye to often to friends, and family, because it’s hard to say goodbye to loved ones. I remember I had a hard time leaving my last post Qatar, because I accomplished many great things while I lived there and made a lot of good friendships.

Kip - Many kids in the United States have never even left the country and that sort of experience leads people to develop very closed minds who are afraid of new things, I would like those people to know that there is a whole world outside the United States with so many different people and experiences and that opening yourself up to those experiences really allows you to grow as a person.

Last, but not least – your very favorite book?

Emma Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Zooey The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling (Lord of the Flies and Into the Wild, 2nd and 3rd)

Emery – Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins and Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Angelo – The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

Mia The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

Kip – Thinking . . .


Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash