WASHINGTON -- A Japanese diplomat's wife, confused by English, practiced having a conversation in front of her TV set. A Bangladeshi official's wife, unable to drive or work, spent her days inside her home singing to herself. A South Korean attache's spouse, believing she had prophetic dreams, couldn't find anyone in her suburban neighborhood to believe her.
Washington is a city sometimes overwhelmed by international newcomers -- and they, in turn, are sometimes overwhelmed by Washington. The streets are confusing, the language difficult, the routines unfamiliar. No one knows this better than the spouses of diplomats, arriving here at the rate of about 100 a month and leaving just as regularly.
"When I got here at first, I thought our neighborhood is so beautiful, but if I look down from the window I don't see anyone," says Masako Takahashi, a Japanese diplomat's wife who recently moved to McLean, Va. "I thought, 'Oh, it's really a lonely place.' "
For a diplomat, Washington is a plum posting. But for a spouse, the assignment can bring problems. Spouses complain of feeling isolated (such as the Turkish wife unable to continue work as an architect), confused (the Korean wife who could not figure out four-way STOP signs) and homesick.
Some local residents offer help. Through programs and support groups for diplomats' spouses, Washingtonians offer lessons on everything from English conversation to supermarket shopping, while in exchange gaining entree to diplomatic life.
The Hospitality and Information Service (THIS) is the largest of several private organizations intended to help the area's 3,000 diplomatic households. Hundreds of other foreign residents seek help through programs at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other multinational organizations.
Of course, the spouses of diplomats are hardly an unsophisticated crew. Many have already lived in several countries and are en route to several more. Often, the spouses already speak English, are enrolled in university classes and do volunteer work. But the spouses -- most of them women -- can still feel at a loss. They cannot pursue the careers they left behind, because most lack U.S. work permits, and in some cases cannot drive, or don't have a car until their husbands come home from work. They cannot stop by a neighbor's house because their American neighbors are working or have their shades drawn.
And these wives are largely locked into a role of helpmate and lead supporter for their husband-the-diplomat. It is a sometimes-stressful, semi-public relationship in which the demands of their mate's foreign service job come before their own personal needs.
Even a family's private time often comes second. Wives of diplomats are expected to spend evenings out, or entertain at home. The routine is not quite work, not quite play.
"Some people look at it as social, but to me it's work," says Dahlia Jamaluddin, a Malaysian diplomat's wife. "The embassy parties are not really parties."
But the orientation programs held by American volunteers are more relaxed. On a recent morning, diplomats' wives and local hostesses socialized over plates of salmon and Grand Marnier-dipped dates at a Persian rug shop in suburban Virginia.
If the social clubs are popular for foreign spouses, they are in even greater demand with locals. More than 700 Washington area women volunteer in private groups to help the diplomats. Many of the volunteers are wives of U.S. foreign service workers, eager to return the kindness they received abroad. Other volunteers want to become fast friends and cultural advisers.
The social clubs have allure for another reason, too: They allow the regular Washington woman who isn't a diplomat to embassy-hop with princes and ambassadors.
Carole Erlich, a THIS volunteer for the past 20 years, adores the whirl. She drives diplomats' wives to shopping malls, helps them pick out clothes and becomes an all-purpose friend and adviser. Meanwhile, invitations pour in to her.
"The Turks and the Egyptians entertained us in their homes -- they would make whole lambs and we would wait there until 11 at night, because you know they eat late there, and we would stand there with our stomachs growling until we ate," Erlich says. "I've been to lots of embassies -- to teas and parties. They're just beautiful."
Erlich has danced to an Uzbek folk band and dined on pumpkin-stuffed pastries and nut-filled cakes while chatting with diplomats' wives at the Uzbekistan Embassy. She has been outdone, however, by another volunteer, Judy Liss, who went on a trip to Uzbekistan two years ago to visit the wife of that country's ambassador.
Actually, too much party-going by the locals can become a problem. At Welcome to Washington, volunteers are allowed to attend only three embassy events per year.
"We sort of resent some of these people who say, 'I want to join Welcome to Washington' because they want to go to the embassies," says Winifred Howard, a member and past president of the group, organized in 1959 for international residents. "The purpose of the group is to help get people acclimated and introduce them to Americans."
Indeed, almost every aspect of life can be confusing here. Judy Priven, a THIS volunteer who wrote a handbook for international residents, gets questions all the time: What is call-waiting? How do you hang up on telephone solicitors when they won't stop talking? How do you pay rent? Why do they ask "paper or plastic?" in a supermarket line?
But for diplomats' spouses, the biggest desire is not for cultural guidance but simply for someone to talk to. At English conversation groups sponsored by THIS, women say they discovered a network of support they would not have found otherwise.
Takahashi, the Japanese diplomat's wife, has found other women trying to perfect their English, so she doesn't need to spend as many hours in front of her television set, practicing the language by reading the closed-caption words.
Jung Sun Chung, the wife of the Korean attache, has discovered other Korean friends who understand what they believe are her prophetic dreams of dogs and cats barking at her -- signs, they say, that a small accident or illness will befall her.
And Anju Begum, the Bangladeshi diplomat's wife who sang to herself all day to keep from feeling lonely, now gets extra advice, car rides and listening ears.
"I am OK now," she says. "Little bit by little bit, I am getting used to this country."
Pub Date: 5/05/97