Marion Naifeh starts her memoir with "I never really belonged anywhere," and then goes on to disprove that statement by showing how well she seems to fit in everywhere. Her mother died a few days after she was born in China, and Marion was brought up mainly by household staff until she was three, speaking only Chinese. The book shows her shunted from place to place — relatives, boarding school, college — as her father focuses his missionary activity on supporting young Chinese students through school and into productive adult lives. Marion grows up with these "brothers" until she is sent to learn English and manners with relatives in the United States. Later she attends boarding school, then eventually Wheaton, and ultimately the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where she is only one of three female students out of 60. Her PhD is eventually put on hold and then abandoned when she meets another student at SAIS, George Naifeh, and they marry. So begins their life abroad in the Foreign Service, where they are posted to Iran, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the U.A.E and Jordan, with several years between Iran and Libya when they join the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME) and are assigned to set up an office in Iraq. This is the backbone of the story, without the appealing details of crises they encountered, the awkward moments foreigners can't avoid, and the endless and very tiring need to be always on call as representatives of one's country overseas.
These details of life abroad are interesting in themselves, but the reader has to be impressed with the way Marion carries out each assignment with aplomb, and how she finds in every country a way to become intimately connected with local people. On one level, the book puts to rest the image of the Foreign Service as a pretentious group of people endlessly attending glamourous parties and surrounded by skilled servants who make life easy. In fact, while there can be thrilling moments when one feels at the center of world events, most of the time the responsibilities require long hours, dreary slogs, and anxiety over whether children are receiving an adequate education and proper medical care, house repairs, servant defections and sometimes life-threatening emergencies.
Until the 1970s, spouses (almost always wives) were expected to run orderly households, be ready to entertain at the drop of a hat, be at the beck and call of the ambassador's wife — and for that matter any wife of a diplomat higher in the embassy's rank than her husband. To add insult to injury, she couldn't opt out of this role; Her capabilities in entertaining and representation were judged as part of her husband's annual efficiency report.
As a result of complaints, the situation changed, and diplomatic spouses were no longer required to act as unpaid government employees. Funding was increased for such services as social secretaries and household help to take over the functions wives had performed. In addition, spouses could opt out of the endless rounds of National Days and late-night dinners that were mandatory for diplomats wanting to be current on what was going on in the country where they served. Marion seems not to have modified her life after these new rules came out, but perhaps she felt better about volunteering her services rather than feeling forced to fulfill the expectations of a diplomatic spouse.
All this is good for readers to see, including the different vision that motivated Foreign Service families in those years — they mostly joined because they loved to be in foreign countries, and went with the intention of learning about the people and countries where they were posted. Marion in many ways acts as an icon for this type of Foreign Service spouse who was there because she wanted to represent her country well. She had the advantage from her childhood of having considerable experience knowing what it takes to fit into a country as a foreigner: learning the language, contributing usefully, and taking every extra minute to learn about the people, the historic sites and the geography. This is why her opening statement belies the fact that she already knew the realities of living as a foreigner in another country.
Recently my granddaughter described herself on Instagram as "an intersectional female." The term apparently is well-known to younger generations, but I had to look it up. Intersectional feminism takes seriously differences among women, recognizing that although they all suffer gender disadvantages, there are additional overlays — race, ethnicity, socioeconomic level — that make some more disadvantaged than others. Often the implication is that white women suffer only from a gender disadvantage rather than the multitude of other disadvantages. The point of the term is to make people aware of these gradations so that the feminist movement becomes more inclusive and diverse.
It struck me as I was reading Marion's book that the concept of intersectionality might be expanded by looking at the role of this particular Foreign Service wife and how fluid the advantages and disadvantages become as she moves around the world interacting with different people. The white advantage that trumps others in the United States, doesn't necessarily have the same impact abroad. Depending on context, a person like Marion can be reviled as the "white devil" by the Chinese, restricted to certain spaces in Iran, or seen as inferior to the women of George Naifeh's village. And this is not to speak of the way our own State Department was defining her as a "dependent," secondary in importance to the department and her husband, and to most of those she interacted with. Hers was a glorified servant's role in terms of what was expected of her as a diplomat's spouse. The fact that she and so many women accepted this role without thinking twice and that some even came to see the experience of living abroad worth the disadvantages, is certainly a chapter that needs to be written in the history of feminist experience. Marion's book gives us a glimpse of this bygone era, by a woman who seems to have lived this life without regrets.
The book is written in a simple-to-read style, revealing a genuine human being who, although reflecting on the twists and turns in her life, never dwells negatively on her experiences or the people she meets. She was always able to find interest in the people and environments around her. An intersectional woman, yes, but one who made the most of adversity and came out of the experience a stronger person. The book is never boring, and despite the uniqueness of her experiences, it still holds true for those Foreign Service wives who stalwartly supported their families and country abroad at a time before such courage and patriotism were disparaged. These women have been little written about or acknowledged, and it is well past the time when we should know more about their lives. Marion Naifeh's book constitutes primary material for any such study.