Hello American View readers! Eleven years ago, I had the pleasure of working on this magazine while interning at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Now, here I am back in Japan. Not as a student, nor an intern, but as a U.S. diplomat. As we say in the United States, I have come full circle—back to the place where I began.
Just five days after finishing my internship and leaving Japan in the summer of 2010, I started my new job as a diplomat at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. As a recent student, I was honored to be a member of a new hire orientation class that included engineers, teachers, chefs, actors, and Americans of all backgrounds and ages, both born in the United States and naturalized as citizens. Our diversity partially stemmed from the Thomas R. Pickering and Charles B. Rangel Fellowships. These fellowships welcome groups historically underrepresented in the State Department, such as women, Asian Americans, Black Americans, and Hispanic Americans. As a Pickering Fellow myself, I not only had to successfully pass State Department entry requirements such as the Foreign Service Officer Test, but also earn a master’s degree and commit to work three years for the Department. In return, the Department funded my graduate studies and provided opportunities for internships during my summer breaks, including my amazing time in Tokyo! Regardless of how we joined or what background we came from, as new hires, we were all excited to be serving our country.
Over the past 11 years, I have explained U.S. policy, advocated for human rights and religious freedom, helped U.S. citizens in trouble, issued visas to students and other travelers, supported nuclear non-proliferation, promoted U.S. industry, and so much more than I imagined as an intern. Especially in the beginning of my career, my experiences studying abroad and attending a liberal arts college helped me a great deal because I had already learned to adapt to new cultures and lifestyles, communicate in foreign languages, live far away from family and friends, and think outside the box to overcome challenges.
As an American of Taiwan descent, one of the most common challenges has been people’s misperception of American diplomats. Often, people I meet overseas cannot believe that I am a “real” American and are even more surprised to learn I am an American diplomat. Having joined straight out of school, my youth was another factor people were surprised with. Even today, some people assume that I am an intern. In places where age often equaled rank, it was hard for people to comprehend that I was a section chief and supervised employees twice my age. Perhaps the most noticeable challenge has been working in a profession that is often still male-dominated. On many occasions, I have been one of only a few women—and sometimes, the only woman—at a meeting, conference, or other event.
Despite these challenges, I have been lucky enough to work under some great leaders, including very accomplished and truly excellent female, Asian American, and other minority diplomats. Their advice helped me overcome the challenges I encountered and become the diplomat I am today. In particular, they taught me to utilize difficult moments as opportunities to teach people a little about the United States—that a young woman like me with a face and heritage from Taiwan (or anywhere else in the world) can be a proud American diplomat.
Returning to Japan has been like a second homecoming. Throughout my career, I have managed to visit Japan and contribute to the U.S.-Japan relationship whenever I could. For example, when the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake happened, I was stationed in Brunei, but volunteered virtually to support the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in providing reliable information to the public, conducting research, and producing health and emergency-relief content for the Embassy’s social media accounts and website. In 2016, I was delighted to begin an assignment in Washington, D.C. as a political officer in the Office of Japanese Affairs for two years. Then, my dream came true in 2018 when I moved to Yokohama to attend the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute to brush up my very rusty Japanese before starting as a political-military officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo the following year.
During my time in Yokohama, I traveled and participated in many activities around Japan to immerse myself in the language and culture. A pilgrimage in Shikoku, the practice of Japanese archery, and an internship as a miko (shrine maiden) gave me insight into the Japanese spirit and culture. While visiting some of the 88 temples in Shikoku, I followed in the footsteps of the 9th century Japanese monk Kukai. Along the way, I stopped at Dogo Onsen in Ehime, explored Ritsurin Garden in Kagawa, and took a ferry out to the whirlpools in the Tokushima Naruto Straits. On the weekends, practicing archery with the kind teachers and students at the Motomachi Kyudojo helped me clear my mind, learn patience, and occasionally hit the target. One of my best experiences, though, was at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto shrine in Kamakura. I had the opportunity to participate in daily worship and practices, including learning the miko dances, cleaning the grounds, helping with fortunes and omamori (protective charms), and even meeting with the chief priest and his deputy.
From a field trip to Tohoku, I heard firsthand about the Great East Japan Earthquake, the resiliency of the Japanese people, and the steadfast friendship between the U.S. and Japan. I will always remember the conversations with Yamagata residents who talked about their village and efforts to revitalize their area, the grandmother in Miyagi who hosted us overnight in her house where volunteers stayed after the disasters, and survivors of the tsunami who told us their stories when we visited the rebuilt areas along the coast.
These were all amazing experiences I will never forget.
Banner image: Christin Ho standing with the scarecrows while exploring UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakawago in Gifu in November 2018.