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Christmas in China: Another holiday away in a longForeign Service trek
This is the 13th Christmas away for aForeign Service family
By Joe Davidson Columnist December 21


Lycia and Chris Sibilla at the Great Wall in China. Lycia joined the Foreign Service about thesame time Chris retired from it. They are posted in Beijing. (Family photo)


BEIJING — Every Christmas season, we arereminded, and rightly so, of U.S. troops stationed overseas. Televisionstations broadcast shots of them sending greetings to loved ones. Prayers arelifted for those in harm’s way. Pinterest.com hasa page of poster ideas with messages like “Merry Christmas to soldierseverywhere who can’t be with their families.”


There’s another set of Americans who alsoare stationed far away guarding the nation’s interests, sometimes in dangeroussituations. Understandably, the armed forces get more attention, but ForeignService officers, other civilian government employees and their families alsosacrifice for their country. The State Department alone has almost 9,500employees abroad. That doesn’t include Agency for International Development,intelligence and other civilian employees stationed abroad.


This will be Chris Sibilla’s 13th Christmasoverseas. Now he’s in China,a place where Christmas isn’t much of a religious holiday. That’s not to saythe Chinese don’t celebrate, at least in a capitalistic way. Christmasdecorations lured customers when I visited China earlier this month on a trip organized bythe National Association of Black Journalists.


Sibilla was a Foreign Service officer (FSO)from 1986 until he retired nearly three decades later. His last posting was ondetail to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. He was chosen asADST president after retiring from State in 2015, having served as executivedirector. About the time he was leaving the Foreign Service, his wife, Lycia,joined, so they remain a Foreign Service family. Their other postings includeCopenhagen, Costa Rica, Havana, Moscow and Vienna.

克里斯是从1986年起当起外交官的,从业30后退休。他最后一次公职是去外交研究培训协会进行讲座。2015年从公务员职位退休后,他被选为ADST总裁(注:ADST 美国一家机床公司),并担任执行董事。他离开外交部的同时,他的妻子莱西亚就加入了进来,所以他们仍算是个外交官家庭。他们的工作范围仍包括哥本哈根、哥斯达黎加、哈瓦那、莫斯科和维也纳。

Now they live in Beijing’s Chaoyangdistrict, about two blocks from the U.S. Embassy. From their 17th floorapartment in a 25-story building, they have a nice view, when it’s not thwartedby Beijing’s thick pollution. It can leave their balcony too sooty to use.Their Northern California loyalties are evident by the big Golden StateWarriors sticker on the refrigerator and the Stanford University blanket on thecouch.


Except for Copenhagen before their two sonswere born, this is the first posting without their now-grown children.


I spoke with Chris Sibilla, who turns 59the day after Christmas, about life abroad as a Foreign Service family in acountry many don’t understand. The embassy nixed my request to speak withLycia. This is an edited transcript of my conversations with Chris.


Federal Insider: How will you spendChristmas this year?


Sibilla: We will be going to Christmas Evemass at the Swedish embassy, celebrated by our regular Catholic priest, andthen to a traditional Christmas buffet called a julebord hosted by a SwedishCatholic couple at their home in the Swedish compound. Most of our friends willbe traveling out of the country, so we won’t be able to see them until January.


How much language training did you havebefore going to China?


Even though this time I was only a spouse,I was able to get the eight months of training that Lycia had. [Chinese is oneof the] “super hard languages.” That’s the actual term they use at the StateDepartment. I sort of gave up on the reading after a couple of months becauseit was so difficult.


Do you have any issues on day-to-day things such as shopping?


They do have supermarkets like in theUnited States, but they are few and far between, so most of the time, we go toa little market downstairs in the apartment building and the one down thestreet. You can get just about everything delivered to your door, especiallyfood. You can even have (hot) coffee delivered to your door. You can actuallyhave McDonald’s delivered to your door. You see the guys on the little scootersgoing around with yellow jackets and the golden arches on their back.


How are your relationships with thelocals?


It’s difficult, because China is one of thoseplaces in the world where if we sort of bump into somebody who’s Chinese, wehave to make a contact report to our diplomatic security because they areconcerned about espionage.


How do youpractice your religion in a country with very few Catholics or otherChristians?


The government hasn’t wanted to encouragethe Catholic Church at all. When we go to church on Sunday, we go to the Canadianembassy. We have mass at the auditorium at the embassy. And a lot of people arethere. You have people from Africa, France, Germany and other places.


Do relations between the United Statesand China affectyour daily life? If there’s an increase in tension, does it get more difficultfor you in any way?


We haven’t really had any problem on aday-to-day basis. Once in a while, there are demonstrations in front of theembassy, but that luckily hasn’t been a real problem.


What is the best thing about living in China, and what is theworst thing?


Well, the best thing is that it really is afascinating country. It’s really amazing to see how far the economy has come in20 or 30 years. The history is really very impressive. The worst thing — the pollutionis probably No. 1. Just two or three days ago, it was code red. And it’sunfortunately going to be code red again in a day or two. You know that reallyis tough, especially if you have asthma like I do. It’s not exactly inviting toget outside and walk.


What do you do for entertainment?


A variety of things. Luckily, we do havecable TV, which is nice. There’s a really nice movie theater in a very niceshopping center a half a mile from where we are. We were interested in seeing“Crazy Rich Asians,” but that was delayed because some people on the Chinesecensor board thought that it may have been too critical of Chinese people. Thenit didn’t do very well, and it closed very quickly. We can often get NBA games(on TV), like about four times a week, so we can watch the Golden StateWarriors the next morning. It’s a live feed, so that’s kind of fun.


One otherthing I wanted to mention is sort of a cultural thing. We talked with a few ofour black colleagues about people coming up to them and wanting to touch theirhair. We’ve seen blond children, where people would just start taking picturesof them without even asking the parents. One time, a Chinese woman grabbed achild in the restaurant and took him off into another room without sayinganything, just to show this little blond child off to her friends.


The other thing I want to add, it’s that wedo feel very distant being here sometimes, because of the difference of time.When I was talking with my mom in California, it was a 15-hour or 16-hourdifference. I think this is a problem any time you’re living overseas. Any timeyou have a family crisis or even when you’re celebrating something joyous, youfeel more distant from them, and that can be also pretty difficult.