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“Going local”: risk or benefit?

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the concept of “going local”. It’s like, when a diplomat (or other expat) decides to quit the job and live in the new country permanently. There is also a less literal type of going local, like when diplomats appear to abandon some of their American-ness in favor of local customs and ideas. The fear is that such diplomats forget about the main purpose of their job, which is to advance American interests.

It has always fascinated me that some diplomats/expats totally get into the culture they live in, while others cling on to their own cultural practices even more when living abroad. Personally, I go back and forth between the two. But overall, I think I might get into local customs a little bit more than others.

When I first moved to Nigeria as a student, I had no choice but to “go local”. I didn’t have enough money to buy imported products or eat in Western-style restaurants. I ate cheap Nigerian food (spicy!), avoided western supermarkets (5 bucks for an orange anyone?) and even dressed the Nigerian way.

Dressing the Nigerian way was cheap, but when I see the pictures now I can’t help but cringe. I wore long skirts and dresses with bright patterns in all colors of the rainbow. I thought the clothes looked so beautiful on Nigerian women, but I should probably have realized that it’s not for everybody. Still, I think my Nigerian colleagues appreciated my enthusiasm.

So one reason to “go local” is being broke. Another reason is that it is a lot of fun to eat – and especially dress – in a totally new way. Nigerian clothes are beautiful and very different. I mean, who wouldn’t want to wear a giant head wrap sometimes?

When I moved to Pakistan, I wasn’t so sure if it was going to be fun to adopt the local dress code. Pakistani women wear a shapeless shalwar kameez with a matching scarf to cover their hair and hide their curves. I was always taught that covering your head is a sign of female repression, so I felt weird about it.

It didn’t take long for me to change my mind, however. Seeing Pakistani women walk around in those comfortable, lightweight fabrics made me want to wear it too.

It wasn’t just that I liked the look and the feel of the shalwar kameez though. Wearing the local dress helped in other ways. I felt that Pakistani men were staring at me a lot because my pants and tops were all fitted and revealed too much skin. It made me feel uncomfortable, and at times, I was worried that my clothes were inappropriate. When I wore the local dress, those problems were solved! And when men still stared at me, I assumed it was more out of amusement.

Of course, there are more ways to “go local” than eating things and dressing funny, like making local friends, obsessing over local sports and politics, and of course: marrying a local. The latter is all too common in the Foreign Service by the way. Divorce rates among diplomats are high so many diplomats end up single and find love abroad.

However, it looks like the US government doesn’t really want their diplomats to go local. To prevent American diplomats from losing touch, the State Department requires diplomats to spend a certain amount of time in the US between tours abroad, which is called “home leave”. The Foreign Service Manual (FAM 3430) states:

“The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.”

Now the question is: what does “reorientation and re-exposure” mean? Don’t worry; there are no weird reintegration camps. Basically, you can do it however you like as long as you are on US soil. Apparently, eating a couple of hamburgers and seeing your family is enough.

Between tours, diplomats are required to spend at least 20 working days in the US. Some people might think that this is a huge benefit (paid time off!), but I speak from experience when I say that is not really a vacation.

First of all, there is a LOT to do when you get back home. Visiting friends and family all over the place, doctor’s appointments, license renewals, taking care of property, shopping, etc. Also, it’s expensive! Diplomats either don’t own a house in the US or if they do, have renters in it. This means that we have to either pay for a hotel or stay with family the entire time.

In other words, it’s nice to have the option to see family between postings overseas, but you may want to check out some of these tips on how to survive home leave without major stress, debt, or weight-gain.

I’m still fascinated by the fact that the State Department tries to prevent diplomats from going local though. I mean, “cultural adaptability” is one of the 13 qualifications applicants need to become a diplomat.

Often, diplomats have little choice but to adapt to local food (supermarkets, work dinners) and dress codes (like in Saudi Arabia). You could even argue that single diplomats have no choice but to marry a foreigner, since they are rarely home! I guess there is a fine line between necessary “cultural adaptability” and the “risk of going local”.

Personally, I enjoy going local. At this point, I can afford to eat in western-style restaurants, but I prefer to enjoy the local cuisine and eating habits. I could buy a big SUV and push through traffic, but I’d rather go on walks and bike rides to get to know the neighborhood. I could do most of my shopping on Amazon, but I make a point out of buying locally. I could spend long weekends in Vienna or Paris, but I prefer to visit local sites instead.

Why? Because I think it makes my experience with living abroad 100 times better. On a professional level, it’s also easy to see the benefit of a certain level of local involvement. It helps enormously to have local contacts, and the way to build your network is to be out and about. It also helps to understand what a variety of people do and think, and how to best approach them. After all, isn’t that why we are abroad, and not sitting behind a desk in Washington DC?


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