How did I even get here? And other questions I often ask myself
“This fork is for your salad course, this one’s for dessert,” I found myself telling a woman not much younger than I was at one of Kuala Lumpur’s swanky restaurants. We were invited to have afternoon tea and the waitstaff were kind enough to bring out more cutlery than necessary when we asked for them. Their sole purpose was to enrich our discussion. It was 2016 and I’d been abroad for two years as a diplomat’s wife. My companion, a fellow freelance journalist, was interested in things that I should know for my said role. It’s how our conversation on proper dining started. She looked at me inquisitively. “How do you know all these? Do you eat like this at home? Do they teach you these in school?”
I admitted that I merely picked them up along the way, that I only brought out all manner of cutlery when we would host people at home and that no–they didn’t teach you these things in journ school.
While protocol and etiquette have always been interesting, they’re things you have to either learn extensively or pick up along the way. Goodness knows I only learned the difference between wine glasses three years prior to that conversation. I studied to be a journalist and while learning the difference between writing for print and broadcast, cutlery for formal dinners was never mentioned. Not all students end up in the diplomatic beat, after all.
I grew up middle class and attended university to become a journalist. It’s all I ever wanted to be while growing up, watching TV with a hairbrush in my hand as my microphone, imitating Christiane Amanpour. “I’ll be her but with better hair,” eight-year-old me once said. I wasn’t brought up to be overly polite, you see. I was brought up to be competitive and do well in the career I would eventually choose. Classic Asian-tiger parenting.
A year after graduating, I found myself covering foreign affairs for a local English news channel. I’d interview diplomats about their time and work here as well as senior foreign ministry officials, usually about our country’s maritime and territorial disputes—hot topics during that time. At night, I attended diplomatic events with my fellow reporters where I learned through observation. Things like the difference between appetizers and hors d’oeuvres, why I shouldn’t have offered my hand to the Iranian ambassador, and the acceptable volume of one’s laugh. Spoiler alert: Mine went way over than what was pleasant to the ears.
A former foreign minister loved to tell me to take the Foreign Service Officers’ (FSO) exam and his deputies often echoed his sentiments. I did toy with the idea but never got around to it, knowing that leaving journalism would be rather heartbreaking for me. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t. Goodness knows how much trouble I’d cause as I had this terrible habit of not knowing when to stop talking. Thank goodness that’s under control now.
I’ve been lucky to meet people from all walks of life and learn from them as a journalist, as a diplomat’s wife, and even as just a woman with her dog, waiting for the train from Charlottenburg to Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.
I still ended up in the diplomatic circle yet in an unexpected way. I met a junior FSO at the DFA whom I fell in love with and we ended up getting married. It’s a cute little love story but I’ll spare you the details. I continued my journalism on a freelance basis, started a blog for expats and diplomats, and have gotten pretty good at shunning the term “trailing” spouse. In both Kuala Lumpur and Berlin, I met so many diplomatic spouses who had also carved out something of their own in this nomadic life. It seems glamorous on the outside, but it doesn’t come without responsibilities and challenges.
Three moves, two countries, and almost a decade later, I’m still trying to learn about what I should and should not say or do. Things were much easier when I was just fully in the media.
I’ve been lucky to meet people from all walks of life and learn from them as a journalist, as a diplomat’s wife, and even as just a woman with her dog, waiting for the train from Charlottenburg to Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. I chat up people, quite shamelessly sometimes, because of pure curiosity. It’s a gift despite what it sounds like and I’m thankful for it every day. These meetings and conversations often leave my mind richer and my day more interesting. Oh, and some become writing material!
I’m so excited to share all these learnings here and I’m thrilled to finally see Almost Diplomatic on print. I may have picked up the wrong fork once, had to be told to look someone in the eyes while toasting in Germany, and had a silent panic attack as we prepared for yet another move but one thing’s for sure: All these things and the people I meet make for great stories and lots of life lessons.