Diplomacy Begins at Home

Diplomacy Begins at Home

I don’t talk about it that much, but my mother was in the Foreign Service when I was a kid. Since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I’ve been incredibly depressed. The blog has languished unto death, but I wanted to take a little time and write something about how I am feeling. I don’t promise that this is coherent, though.

Romania in the eighties was a hard place. There was so little reliably available on the local market that before we left the U.S., we put in a huge order at a warehouse. At least two years’ supply of the basics—of toothpaste and shampoo. Soap and laundry detergent. Toilet paper. Sugar and flour. Canned goods, enough to stock a nuclear shelter. Even so, every two months brought in a support flight from one of the U.S. bases in Germany. Unloading the car one day, a carton of eggs in our hand, a well-dressed woman in furs came up—“Where did you get the eggs,” she asked anxiously. “What store is selling them?”

In many ways, we lived with a lot of privilege. Our house was a giant rambling villa; we had the top two floors. This was after the Embassy moved us all from a gray monolithic apartment complex, where all we foreigners were jammed into a few blocks, presumably for better surveillance, because the heating situation became so unreliable. Romanians just lived with heat that came on for a few hours in the middle of the night. Bucharest in the winter is a cold place; I don’t know how people did it. Life was very hard for so many.

But the privilege that I had as an embassy kid wasn’t just about the material things—the oranges in midwinter, eggs whenever we wanted, the heating oil the embassy had shipped up from Vienna. It was also the privilege that I had been born with, simply by dint of being an American. The only difference between me and the boy three houses down was that he was born in Romania and I was born … well, technically, in India, to an American mother.

We were from the greatest democracy in the world, a place that held the promise that you could be anything, do anything. America was the envy of the world, then, with freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and the unutterable luxury of having a say in our self-governance. (Although maybe not so much culture.) It was an odd experience knowing this, yet being surround by a sea of Socialism. My piano teacher was a member of the Securitate; there, clear as day, was a bug in the dining room chandelier. Our phones were tapped; so were our cars. Romanian kids could only attend the American School up to the fifth grade, and after that, we were systematically kept apart from each other. Years later, I wrote my college application essay on how the constant presence of the Other—of, in fact, being the Other—changes one self-definition as an American.

I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Sometime in the four-year stretch we lived in Bucharest, we were invited to a Russian family’s apartment. That sounds completely unremarkable now—but remember, this was in the middle of the Cold War. It was a huge deal. I don’t even remember how it came about, but I think it was because my mother was the Director of the American Library, and our host was the Soviet counterpart. They had a son about my age. The mother had spent days cooking; but what I remember most was the giant bowl of caviar and the lace doily it was served on, and the stiff wood chairs we sat on. My mother translated English to Romania; the father translated to Romanian to Russian—and back and forth, back and forth, a slow rusty seesaw. The boy and I sat there, creaking smiles at each other.

Because even at that age, we knew. This visit wasn’t about us. It was about something much bigger.

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So to get to the point: I was one of the people who was shocked at the election of Donald Trump.

And please understand. I do understand the frustration. The political system is corrupt. Campaign financing silences our voices. Big business and Wall Street win every time. I get that we all have fears and challenges, some more than others. But I was shocked to my core because this man is not a leader. He is a blustering bully.

A president does not get to call his opponent “a nasty woman” and threaten her with imprisonment, routinely insult people of different faiths and nationalities, treat women with such contempt, control what journalists can say or do, and stomp all over the constitution. A president does not get to do or say all the outrageous things Mr. Trump has said during the course of this campaign. We needn’t go through the list. They are embedded into our collective consciousness. (Also, YouTube.)

It is an affront to the office of the presidency, to everyone who works for the government, and to every single citizen–regardless of whether or not that person voted for him. It is an affront–no, a horror–to the world.

Yet—here he is. President-Elect Trump.

And we voted him in.

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The days of being an embassy brat are long gone. I’m a lot older now; the world has changed. It’s more immediate, for one. Remember how slow the Diplomatic Pouch used to be, a letter took at least three weeks one way. I remember asking about letters, packages, days on end. Once a week, my father would call, always on a Sunday night. I remember breathing into the receiver of the rotary phone—“Hello? Hello?—the buzziness of the transatlantic call crackling through the tan earpiece. We all used to live more slowly; I wonder sometimes how the speed of communications makes us more reactive. Words have less weight when they’re flung through Twitter.

But the thing is, I was raised—all us Embassy kids were raised—knowing that we were not just representing ourselves our or even our families. We were representing our country. I’m not saying we weren’t just kids, we were. But this was never far from our minds. There was a sense of obligation, and part of that obligation was observing the form. The form matters. Because it is the form itself that enables people to observe and respect different, but to find common ground.

The truth is, I don’t know how much of my memory of basic civility is accurate. I remember being coached on proper forms of address, how to proceed through a receiving line, how to navigate formal table settings, how to converse. I am sure the dreaded elitist word will come up; somehow, that has become its own derogatory word, implying that one is out of touch. And though I hate kowtowing to it, let me say: my purpose in saying all this is not to show off—it’s to underscore how much the form mattered. We all have our own stories and journeys, all of which are valid. This is just mine.

And perhaps it is the normal course of things, to mourn the loss of the civility one remembers as one gets older. But I am not that old, only 43, and the level of incivility, of outright rudeness, of contempt for our citizens, of lack of common human decency and our allies during this campaign has had no age limit. People may differ violently on policy, on ideas. People may have heated debates that veer into rudeness. But where do we go when hatred and contempt replace ideas and intellectual thought? Where do we go when a president is elected despite the obvious contempt he feels for 240 years of the world’s greatest experiment in democracy? How can we call ourselves Americans when in the 21st century, we elect politicians based on xenophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric?

And given my upbringing, how can I say “my president, Donald Trump” without a deep sense of shame?

The truth is, I can’t.

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