I was born in a tiny town near my grandparents’ village in northern Zhejiang Province, China. With no money to send me to day care or hire anyone, my parents had to send me to my grandma’s home when I was about one year old. My grandma never went to school a day in her life, but learned basic arithmetic, so she could save a penny or two. She was about 4’8”, had bound feet, and had seven children. Despite living in extreme poverty, my grandma never hesitated to help others. She gave food to those in need while her family could barely keep their stomachs full. She also stitched and washed for the sick and weak, and she never asked for payment. Lastly, she worked day and night non-stop. “You can’t become a lazy person,” she always said. My grandma lived with us during her later years until she passed away in 1998.
Growing up with my grandparents around rewarded me with a positive attitude to life, regardless of difficulties and setbacks. After I failed the Chinese college entrance exam twice, my grandparents were there for me and encouraged me to try again. When I finally passed the exam and chose a school in Beijing, my grandma said, “Good. Beijing was where the emperors lived. A big place.” If she had lived 100 years, she would have seen me pass the Foreign Service exam even after several unsuccessful attempts. I learned from her that hard work is a virtue, and being resourceful and creative is a necessity, as I observed her cooking for a family of six or sometimes more — with only five persons’ rationed food. These are qualities that I brought to the Foreign Service, and my grandma would have been happy to see how she taught me.
In 1984, I went to Beijing for my undergraduate studies in international journalism. My dream was to be a reporter, telling the stories of the people. My American professors taught us journalists must tell the truth, while the Chinese professors said journalists were mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party. The conflicting messages from American and Chinese professors on the ethics of journalism did not really sink in until I started working at Beijing Review. Four years into the job, I found myself no longer able to work under censorship. I left Beijing Review and worked at a hotel for six months, then became the information officer at the United Nations Development Program China Field Office. The office also assigned two portfolios to me: poverty alleviation and health. It was there that I became acutely interested in development.
In the summer of 1995, I came to The George Washington University for graduate studies. Regression analysis and Talcott Parsons caused me great distress, and a few times I wanted to give up; however, my grandma’s perseverance reminded me of the importance of never giving up. After my first year of study, I found a summer internship at the World Bank, where I met my future husband, Ted Saeger. Before meeting Ted, never a day as a foreign graduate student did I think of becoming a U.S. citizen and representing the U.S. government overseas as a diplomat. I was planning to follow my parents and brother’s footsteps and be a professor or social science researcher.
Ted and I got married in summer 1999. A year later, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service and was assigned to Seoul. I quit my job at the World Bank and followed him there. With a large group of new foreign service officers and many social activities, I had a lot of opportunities to mingle with Ted’s colleagues and their families and listened to their American Citizen Services (ACS) and visa interview stories. By then, I only had a dissertation left to complete my Ph.D. program, but my research was stalled. Searching for a professional future for myself, I started to think about taking the Foreign Service exam after I became a U.S. citizen in September 2001. In September 2008, I got the call to join the 141st A-100 class, the first mandatory course that trains you to be a Foreign Service Officer (FSO).
After becoming a FSO, I found that my cultural and language background often enhanced my consular assignments. In Indonesia, my supervisor encouraged me to reach out to Taiwan Economic and Trade Office representatives. Working with the Taiwan consular chief, I helped bring them to the Jakarta anti-fraud working group, consisting of officials from embassies of like-minded allies. Their participation in the Jakarta anti-fraud group contributed significantly to the group’s awareness of some fraud trends that they were previously unaware of. In one instance, the Taiwan consular chief shared details with us about a group of Chinese citizens who used genuine Taiwanese passports while traveling to the USA and were intercepted in Bali. With these successes in strengthening anti-fraud work with our Taiwan counterparts, I brought my experience to Singapore and replicated the Jakarta model by including our Taiwan counterparts in the existing anti-fraud working group. Colleagues from the Taipei Representative Office in Singapore often had the best and greatest experiences to share on their investigations on human smuggling, which greatly benefited other missions in identifying similar groups among visa applicants.
In addition to aiding my experiences in Indonesia, my cultural background also helped me to build trust with my colleagues. During my three years’ tour at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) in Taipei, I spent most of my lunchtime with locally employed staff. We watched TV programs, discussed Taiwanese literature, and commented on the rising cost of living. Such trust and barrier-free communications helped my work as a consular officer. For instance, when I asked for suggestions to streamline our ACS work, staff offered their suggestions with no reservations. We tried out those great ideas, refined our processes, and significantly improved our services. Furthermore, local police called me directly many times, reporting on special U.S. citizen incidents. Although almost all of such calls involved unexpected and unfortunate happenings, direct and uninterpreted communications helped expedited our services to U.S. citizens.
Finally, my background aided me while I was serving in Afghanistan from 2014 to 2015. The Cultural Affairs Officer of U.S. Embassy Kabul called me into her office one day and asked if I could reach out to the Chinese Embassy in Kabul. She told me that a U.S.–China–Afghanistan joint program was stalled. The program was sponsored by the U.S. and Chinese governments to train early-career diplomats from Afghanistan to develop their diplomatic skills, one of the Department’s strategic priorities at that time. She explained that the Chinese Embassy would not return any phone calls and emails from the U.S. Embassy staff, and my language skills might help bridge the communication gap. I got the Chinese Embassy’s number from my colleague and called. A man answered my call and said “Wei” (“Hello” in Chinese). In fluent Mandarin and using traditional greetings, I introduced myself and raised the stalled joint program. He said, “It is great that you speak Chinese. We were afraid our English wasn’t good enough to communicate effectively with your colleague. But we are glad now we can communicate with you.” With that, we moved on with specifics about where and when to meet in-person to discuss the selection process of the next round of Afghan diplomats for the training. The Chinese did not want to travel out of their embassy due to similar security concerns as we had. With some persistence, I put them at ease about the meeting and convinced them of coming to the U.S. Embassy. The meeting helped move the planning of the training program forward.
Sometimes I imagine if my grandma were still with us, what she would say about me working for the U.S. government as a diplomat, carrying forward what she gifted me – perseverance and assiduousness.
About the Author: Chunnong Saeger is currently serving as an Area Management Officer at the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations at the U.S. Department of State. Her previous assignments include the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Embassy Singapore, U.S. Embassy Kabul and Consulate Herat, and U.S. Embassy Jakarta.