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Crossing Continents: life as a diplomatic family

Star2 logo Star2 22/3/2019 ANN MARIE CHANDY

“Was it my dream to join the Foreign Service?” John K. Samuel, the former Undersecretary of the Human Rights and Humanities Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Malaysia, asks and answers: “Yes, it was right up there along with being an artist and a pilot!”

John has a distinctive wit about him and jokes about how he has gone from growing up in the birthplace of “Kluang Man” all the way to now being the Ambassador to Finland (Latvia and Estonia, too!).

“One can accuse me of being naïve and idealistic because I wanted to join Wisma Putra to place Malaysia on the international map!” he laughed as he shared his lofty dreams as a teenager.

“Joining the PTD service (Pegawai Tadbir dan Diplomatik) was my first and only choice. I knew exactly where I could contribute most with my interest and passion.”

After finishing his secondary education at Kluang High School, John went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Law (LLB) from the University of London. Soon after, he joined the PTD and began a diplomat’s life across many nations.

In 2017 John completed his tour of duty at the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, China, where he served as the Deputy Head of Mission. He was also the Consul General in Frankfurt, Germany, for three and a half years. And prior to that, he served as Second Secretary (Political) at the Malaysian Embassy in Moscow, Russia.

In between his overseas postings, John  earned a Master in Diplomacy and Strategic Studies from the National University of Malaysia. To date, he has served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 22 years with his first internal posting being the desk officer for the Africa and South Sahara Desk.

“To be appointed as an Ambassador, and to represent King and Country, that is the epitome of being in the Foreign Service,” John shared with pride, earlier this year before flying off to Helsinki in February (with his son in tow).

“You are now the spokesperson of the country. The responsibility has changed drastically as compared to when I was a junior officer at post.”

According to the ambassador, each country has its own charms, charisma and idiosyncrasies.

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Enjoying the sights and culture of the countries they go to is enriching.

He said: “We are not there for them to adapt to our needs and wants, but rather for us to learn a new culture, assimilate with the local community, eat from the same dish, establish networking and be merry when we need to be, while flying the country’s flag with integrity and dignity!”

Interestingly, throughout his “nomadic” career, John has managed to raise a beautiful family with his wife Karen George Abraham (who also works with PTD). The couple has three children – Danielle (18), Nathaniel (15) and Izabelle (8). And the family gutsily relocates each time dad is posted to a foreign country.

John admits that leading the life of a diplomat is a heavy responsibility to shoulder, but it is made lighter with the help of those around – especially family members (siblings and parents) and colleagues.

“I am very grateful to Karen – who is not just my wife, friend and confidante but a good cook as well! No worries when it comes to making rendang, kuih, biryani or being able to hold a conversation with the ladies in her circle!”

The cook’s tour

Karen, a PTD officer, is happy to support her husband and has many feathers in her hat, including being an excellent cook.

“I have even learnt recipes of my family’s favourite dishes from each of the countries we have lived in, such as borsch soup and beetroot salad from Russia, carrot and cheese cakes from Germany, and mian bao and dumplings from Beijing.

“Each country has something that we love when it comes to food. I try and learn these recipes and cook them at home whenever we feel like having these dishes,” she says.

Food is something that brings people together, and Karen reminisces about the happy memories she has been blessed with: “Cooking rendang for four hours in a kawah brought from Malaysia to Frankfurt … making dodol for Hari Raya with our family abroad … once we had a Bollywood night themed dinner.

“Surprisingly, Malaysian and foreigners alike went out of their way to get dressed. What a night that was!”

Karen shared that two decades ago where there was no Internet, she would learn recipes from colleagues from the Malaysian Embassy, as well as diplomats from different countries. “I learnt how to bake my first simple butter cake from Lalitha, who became a close family friend in Moscow; Laksam (coming from Kelantan, it’s one of my favourite Kelantanese dishes, besides nasi dagang) from Datin Fairos and Datin Nik the ambassadors’ wives, and all types of kuih from the Malaysian ladies who make the effort to learn when they are overseas,” Karen said.

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At the Hanau Castle in Frankfurt, Germany.

As part of their travel kit, Samuel’s family carries with them a few staples wherever they go. “We have flags of all sizes, traditional costumes (Malay, Chinese and Indian) for the whole family, bunga manggar and bunga telur, tikar, congkak, ang pow and sampul duit raya, teh tarik and kopi, syrup ….” Karen happily shared.

Bringing up the family

John and Karen are strict about how they bring up their children.

“The principles and values practised at home with the children apply at all times irrespective of which continent we are posted to,” John  said. This is something he is very serious about and the couple has set clear boundaries and limitations for the children.

“We may have to tweak some things here and there based on the surrounding culture and tradition of a country, but certain values and teachings – such as respect and faith – are very important elements in our family, and they don’t change.”

All three of John and Karen’s children were born in Malaysia, but have spent most of their lives out of the country – John explained that this is the case with most of his colleagues as well.

“Hence, the reason why it is important for them to be aware of their culture and tradition. Malayalam (my mother tongue) and Hokkien (Karen’s mother tongue) should not be alien to them. At least they should be able to say ‘how wonderful daddy is’ in both dialects!” he quipped.

Karen added how it is also top-most on her list that the family never loses its culture and heritage.

“It is very important that the children know they are Malaysian and have that sense of identity,” she said, giving simple day to day examples of what she means.

“We make them eat using their hands at home or chopsticks when eating noodles … we highlight and correct them when we hear a certain word being accented wrongly as they speak … or if the children speak in a way that they should not… if they answer back. All nipped in the bud, as best we can.”

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All three of John and Karen’s children were born in Malaysia, but have spent most of their lives out of the country.

The couple take the time and effort to explain what is right in another culture may not necessarily be right in Malaysia.
“Many things can so easily erode when you live and are raised and brought up overseas,” Karen emphasised.

The kids all know that as children of a diplomat there are certain rules they have to adhere to.

Eldest daughter Danielle said: “I needed to understand from a young age that my father represented Malaysia in the work environment he was placed in. And because of that, I represent the cultural, educational and ethical values that my parents have instilled in me, which is a reflection of them as people.

“If I behave a certain way or dress in a certain manner that is deemed inappropriate, it is a direct reflection of how parents raise their children in Malaysia.” Samuel said that his own strict upbringing has prepared him well.

“My parents, who came from Kerala in India, had very strict and simple values for their three boys – faith, education and discipline,” he explained adding that growing up in Kluang was perfect for such an upbringing.

“Everyone knew everyone. Your school teachers were either your neighbours, or went to the same market, mechanic or church as your parents! Either way, your parents knew all your teachers. So technically, my parents had a very good monitoring system in place!”

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Christmas time in Germany. Their children have been able to adjust to their new environments easily.

No kidding around

Although challenging, Karen shared that living the diplomat’s life has its merits. “Our children – who are often labelled third culture children – have turned out to be part of a flexible generation, who are ‘borderless’ to certain extent.

They adapt to changes easily, albeit each in their own time as each child is different,” the 47-year-old mum who grew up in Kelantan said, adding: “I also am able to contribute better in my work, as I am able to see the bigger picture, from different viewpoints having experienced different places and things in life.”

Their children appear able to adjust to new environments easily, although youngest sibling Izabelle does concede that she misses her extended family “very, very much” when they are away from home. Danielle, who has lived in Russia, Germany and China and can speak fluent English, German and Mandarin, says that finding friends has never been a problem each time they relocate.

“The difficulty is maintaining those friendships. People say that it’s easy nowadays with Skype and Whatsapp, but I think that’s what makes it harder. At first the conversation lasts for hours at a time, but eventually it is reduced to a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Birthday”,” she shared, adding that her closest friends are those who have found a way to rise above their differences, including time!

“We accumulate questions and information from throughout our week so that, because of the time difference, when we wake up we are able to read all our questions and stories in one go! It’s more efficient than talking daily, and I know that regardless of how long our conversation has been stagnant, I can ask them something and expect a reply the next day.

“Those are the friendships I treasure.”

While the children love the excitement of going somewhere new and different, they don’t have much love for the two months before and after packing and shifting! Danielle admitted: “It’s really tiring to have to keep your life in boxes and never be able to fully settle down in one place. For the first year or so everything is new. You need to adapt to your environment. In the second year, you get into the groove of things, you become comfortable in school. In the third year, you have your routine and you have made investments with your time and effort into the people closest to you. And then you need to move and the whole process starts again!”

Danielle, who has been to five schools in four countries thus far, said that she doesn’t really know any other way of living, and appreciates the opportunities and experiences that she and her siblings have been given because of their parents’ line of work. The individual members of the family all seem to have their own challenges and joys when it comes to living the life of a travelling diplomat family.

But they hold steadfastly to each other in their life’s journey. It’s like Danielle said when asked where “home” really is for her. Without skipping a beat, she said: “Wherever mummy and daddy are.”

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