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Foreign Service Personnel in L.A. : They Take Their Homeland With Them


He has been in Los Angeles more than two years, far from his homeland, and he holds memories of his country in his mind. He sees them as delicate black and white brush paintings.

At the age of 22, Toshihide Kawasaki left Tokyo for his first job. He was sent to Jordan to work in the foreign service of his country.

Now, at 27, he lives in Alhambra in an apartment with his wife and 18-month-old daughter, who was born here. As an administrative staff member of the Japanese Consulate, Kawasaki is considered to be on call 24 hours a day to help his consul general handle the affairs of Japanese citizens here.

"I was very curious about foreign countries," Kawasaki said, to help explain why he chose this way of life. "Japan is a very closed country. Europeans can see their borders, and the difference between two countries, but we can't."

Isolation Factor

He does not have much interaction with the general public in Los Angeles. "We try not to bother or interrupt the people here," he said quietly. His wife is isolated even more, because she speaks little English. He is thankful, however, for their apartment manager. "She is a very good person, and helps us very much."

Foreign service for staff level employees is often an attractive job package. Though secretaries and aides may not be in the prestigious position of consul general or vice consul, it's a chance to see the world in a way no tourist can.

Many consulates subsidize all or part of the housing for their staff here because the cost of living is high. But the standard of living is high also, and is appreciated by staff who have been posted in dangerous or isolated countries. Working abroad usually pays a higher wage, which is appealing to many.

Zaleha Hamid of Malaysia misses her family, but not the hot and humid climate of her home city of Kuala Lumpur. She's been at her secretarial post here for four months, after having spent two years in Holland. Hamid, 35, chose Los Angeles because her husband is working on his master's degree at USC.

She brought a little bit of her country with her in the form of spices, such as curry powder. Her government will pay for her housing while she is here, and for now they live close to downtown where she can walk to work in the World Trade Center. She has seen little of the city because they have no transportation, but she's found a place to make friends. "We joined this aerobics class," she said, laughing.

Gabriella Martin, also 35, is far from Concepcion, Chile. Fluent in four languages, she was a translator for the minister of foreign affairs in Chile. After five years of marriage ended in divorce, she wanted to do something different with her life.

She joined the Chilean foreign service as a secretary. After a year, Martin is still enthusiastic about her choice.

"I wanted something else," she said. "At my age I wanted to do something before it was too late." She shares an apartment near Redondo Beach with another woman from Chile. They often invite friends to sample their favorite Chilean food, empanadas, a flaky tart with meat filling. Separation from her parents and sisters is difficult, but home leave will return her to Chile soon.

70 Foreign Governments Here

There are more than 70 foreign governments officially represented in Los Angeles, according to Bee Canterbury Lavery, chief of protocol for Mayor Tom Bradley. Many have only diplomat-level positions open here, and hire staff locally from citizens of their home country who are already living in the United States.

This is the first year Norway has posted a staff-level position here. Grethe Knudsen, 30, is from Oslo and is the office manager and accountant for her consulate. She had worked for her foreign ministry in Brussels and Bonn and applied for this post when her other job closed so she could continue living abroad.

"I didn't even consider getting the job," Knudsen said. "Then they called and said, 'How soon can you leave?' I said, 'Yesterday.' " She arrived in September and spent 40 nights in a hotel before she found her West Los Angeles apartment.

Knudsen of Norway is unusual in that she has family support here. She has two aunts who live in the United States, one who is an American citizen. Her tour of duty will be two to five years, which is common. "If I don't stay more than two years I have to pay my trip and furniture back to Norway," she said. She will be sent home on vacation to Norway for medical and dental treatment since she is covered for such costs under Norwegian social security.

Knudsen, who speaks English, French and German, besides the Scandinavian languages, said she feels like she represents Norway while she is here. "If anybody asks about Norway I try to give them the best impression I can. In that way it makes you very, very patriotic," she said.

A Difficult Time

Some consulate staff have had a difficult time meeting ordinary American citizens because their consulate work keeps them somewhat isolated. Knudsen's cousins have helped her to meet people, however.

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