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Consular Life

Brooke Dean’s expertise involves helping people and solving problems creatively, a skill set that has been invaluable in her role as a U.S. diplomat in Asia.

Interview by Emily Nelson
Photography by Keith at Flytographer

Brooke Dean is a Foreign Service Officer currently serving as the Nonimmigrant Visa Chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong. She specializes in consular work. Her previous posts include China, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as the Consular Training Division at the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia, where she trained newly hired officers. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in International Development in 2004 and from George Washington University with a master’s degree in Asian Studies in 2008. Prior to her employment with the Foreign Service, she worked for three years for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. as a Chinese-language research analyst. She is married and has three children ages seven, eleven, and thirteen.

Where are you currently posted in Hong Kong?

It’s actually a consulate because there’s only one embassy per country, and Hong Kong isn’t technically its own country. It’s different, though, because the consulates in China all report to Beijing; they’re within China, so Beijing’s in charge of all the consulates. But Hong Kong is unusual—we don’t really report to Beijing, but we’re also not our own embassy, so we have sort of a different chain of command. We don’t have an ambassador, but the Beijing ambassador won’t come and visit us; he or she would do that in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day work?

Obviously, when there are COVID surges, we have to cancel visa appointments and take care of emergencies only. That creates a lot of work with people saying, “I have an emergency,” and then we have to evaluate it and say, “Okay, your daughter’s giving birth; does she really need her mom to be there?” It’s really hard to decide where the line is.

So we have less work because we don’t have the applicants coming in; they’ll have to come in later. But then we have additional work where we have to say yes or no to these expedites. Then, once the COVID wave goes down, we have long wait times because we had to cancel all those appointments.

Every country has handled COVID differently. In some places, they barely closed; in some places, they closed for a year, and now it takes another two years to get an appointment. Consular work has been really thrown for a loop with the COVID pandemic. Some people have a mountain of work. COVID also hits at different times in different places. In Hong Kong, we were shut down in March of 2022, while almost everywhere else, they were getting back to normal. It hit later here because they had a zero COVID policy that worked for a long time—until Omicron. Omicron was too contagious to contain in the quarantine hotels; it slipped out of the quarantine hotels, and that led to that actual first-ever outbreak of COVID in Hong Kong.

How did you get into consular work? What helped you make the decision to steer that way?

I have always been fascinated with people’s immigration identity and cultural identity. I did a field study to South Africa, and we each had to work on our own research project. Mine was the emigration of white people out of South Africa. This was in 2000 or 2001, and I was just so fascinated with people’s stories. It wasn’t that long after apartheid, so I was talking to them about their experiences: now that there’s not apartheid, is there a place for them in this country, and where would they go? I just couldn’t get enough of that.

So it’s not surprising that I ended up in a field where I’m dealing with immigrants. I’m doing nonimmigrant visas at the moment, but I’m still really fascinated with people that change their entire life and work somewhere else. That and wanting to live overseas just combined to this career path where I get to work with something that really fascinates me.

As I understand it, you had a background in Asian Studies.

Yes, I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan, so when I came back, I added a Chinese Studies minor, which included Chinese language. I did that at BYU my last year, since I only had one year left, and then I went to Beijing for a year of more Chinese study. Then I did grad school at George Washington University, where I did Asian Studies. My mission definitely influenced my interest in Asia; before my mission, I was interested in everywhere, but I hadn’t really focused on a particular place. But, obviously, speaking that language changed that.

It’s actually not normal that my Foreign Service career has been only in Asia. Almost everyone will go to different parts of the world. I can’t even explain it; I have just ended up only in Asia. It’s actually a bad career move, and people have advised me against it. My mentors say, “You really need to diversify and go somewhere else; you’re kind of turning into a one-trick pony.”

But I really enjoy living in Asia, and there are still so many places I would like to be. I’m not trying to follow the cookie-cutter pathway to becoming an ambassador. I just want to enjoy each tour and do whatever’s the best for my family at that moment. And that has led me over and over again to Asia. I would be open to going to other places, but it’s also not completely in my control because when we submit our bid list, ultimately the decision of where to send us is the department’s.

Also, I speak Mandarin and there’s such a huge consular demand in China, so that’s probably why I’ve been to China twice, and now I’m in Hong Kong; I’ve also been in Singapore. The department says, “We really care about your career development, but we also really need someone in China right now. So we’re sending you back to China. And you’re willing to go, so . . .” So that’s a factor too.

Did you have any experiences at BYU or in your grad studies that helped prepare you for your career?

People ask me, “Did you always want to be a diplomat?” And the answer is no. The first time I can remember considering it as a career was at the Kennedy Center. One of the speakers there was a diplomat. I don’t remember his name, but he was either retired or far into his career, and I remember him talking about how great the lifestyle was for his family—the housing, the job—and I thought, “I would like to do that!”

But then he said how you get in, which is taking a standardized test, and I immediately thought, “I can’t pass that test. It must be really hard; I know the pass rate is low, so I won’t even bother.” I don’t know why I thought that!

Then I had different experiences in my life, particularly when I was studying Chinese in Beijing after I graduated. Many members of the branch there were in the Foreign Service, and one of them encouraged me to do an internship at the embassy. I applied through the State Department and did the internship, and the more I got to know officers there, the more I realized, “Hey, I feel like we’re sort of on the same level; maybe I could pass the test. Maybe I am smart enough.”

So I only took the exam after I did the internship and saw that Foreign Service officers were normal people with normal intellect. I would love to encourage people to just take the test and see what happens. You can take it once a year, and I think it’s actually even sort of fun to take. I wish I could go back—I mean, it all ended up fine, but I wish I could go back to myself at the Kennedy Center and say “Take the test!” because I’m just disappointed that I immediately discounted it.

But still, the fact that I was part of the Kennedy Center and saw people coming through talking about the Foreign Service did plant the seed and make me think, “This would be amazing if I could only make it happen! I would love to do this. This would be perfect!”

So it took some time to get here, but I really love that memory of sitting there at that event at the Kennedy Center and thinking, “If only I could do this, it would be so cool.”

What do you enjoy about serving as a consular officer? If you were going to recommend it to someone who was considering it, what would you say?

I do love consular work; I think it’s the best kind of job in the Foreign Service, because every day is different. You never know what you’re going to face. It’s a lot of problem solving, and you’re actually helping people. It’s not an abstract, long-term thing; every day, you have people coming in that need your help.

I also love the energy and the hum of a consular section. We have about a hundred and seventy appointments today, and I love having a packed waiting room and walking past the windows and hearing all the different interviews. I think it’s such an interesting job because I had a previous job where I sat at a computer all day and did research, and now I have a job that’s live.

Currently I’m doing visas, but when I did American Citizens Services—I mean, it’s wild what Americans get into overseas. You just never know where you’re going to be: in a hospital or in a prison or at a nursing home or at a shelter. It takes you out of the office. The last time I did an American Citizens Services job, I was in Thailand, and I had to travel. If someone got arrested in Phuket, I had to go to Phuket. We were always excited when someone got arrested in a really beautiful island location. “Who wants to go?” Everyone! Everyone wants that prison visit. It’s just such a diverse and varied job; no two days are the same.

What would tell you that a person isn’t suited for this kind of work?

People who have a hard time with consular work are those who have a really hard time saying no, who are very openhearted and just want to help everyone. You can’t solve all the problems. Especially with Americans—some of their problems are problems they’ve created, and you can’t fix them, so you have to be okay with that.

With visas, you do have to say no to some people, and it might feel like the wrong thing sometimes. But you’re not adjudicating based on your personal feelings; it’s based on U.S. law. And people who have a hard time with it will not easily accept that. They’ll let it weigh on them.

I think what’s served me is that I’ve always been a little bit less of an intensely feeling person; it’s easier for me to shake off those sad or negative feelings. But I’ve seen people struggle where they just keep going over it: “Oh, that mother that couldn’t help her daughter deliver the baby!” “They can’t go to their dad’s funeral!” Just because the person’s family member died doesn’t mean that we change the requirements that they must meet to travel to the United States. It’s not on you; it’s on the U.S. government. So people that really personalize it will struggle.

Other than that, I think that because it is so dynamic, people who can’t juggle a lot of things might not be able to do it. People who like things to be very quiet, and also very black and white, will find it tough because there’s a lot of ambiguity in consular work. It’s creative problem solving, so you’re going to have to be able to figure things out.

I’ll give you an example. In Thailand, there are a lot of Americans who retire there but don’t have family; maybe they don’t have enough money. So in the end stages of their lives, they’re reliant on people around them who probably aren’t their family, especially if they run out of money. People would literally pull up to the embassy and off-load an invalid elderly American in a wheelchair and drive away. Whether the person’s out of money—they’re usually out of money— or need medical care, how do we solve that problem, that there’s an American on the curb and they need their diaper changed?

So if you don’t thrive on those sorts of things, then you might hate this job.

How do you manage career postings with your children and husband, especially when you don’t have complete control over where your postings are?

Each tour, I get the bid list, and I cross off all the options where, say, you need to speak Spanish and they don’t have time for language training. I cross off everything where the timing doesn’t work. Then I hand the bid list to my husband, who’s a trailing spouse, and I say, “Where do you want to go? Where are you willing to go?” Sometimes he doesn’t circle very many places, and I try my hardest to get those jobs.

Because he has sacrificed everything to support this lifestyle and my career—I mean, think of everything that could have been, right? The least I can do is try to land in a place that he wants to be. So my philosophy is, first, to keep my husband’s preferences as my top priority. And then, of course, since we’re both parents of our kids, we’re trying to find a place with decent schools. My kids are entering second and sixth grade. Can they have some recreation? Are they going to be safe?

But for me, no matter where I go, the job is the job. I just want to be in a place that’s good for my family. Everybody has different priorities. Other people are trying to land in the right place that will put them on the right trajectory to make it to the top. For me, this career is so hard to navigate with a family and with keeping everybody happy. It’s the very least I can do to try to get to places where my husband wants to be.

What would you say is the ratio of people who are there with children versus people who are not?

It really varies by post. There are some posts that are magnets for families, like Manila—it’s a family-friendly post. And then in other posts that, for example, have terrible schools, people will more likely be single or their kids will be older, or maybe their kids will be at boarding school.

But I would say usually—I’m just totally throwing this out—maybe 50 percent have a family. And then obviously the more junior people tend to be single; many of them pick up spouses in the countries where they’re serving, especially on their first tour.

I will say, especially to the BYU crowd, we have a Facebook group for the Foreign Service Latter-day Saint community, and there are very few families where the females are the officer. In the Latter-day Saint community, it seems like it’s pretty rare. And I would also say

this job has been such a good job as a working mom, because I’ve been able to have a live-in nanny at my posts. We even had one nanny that we brought to three different countries, so there was a lot of continuity; my kids really loved her, and they still talk about her.

It’s much more difficult to navigate childcare in the United States. It varies based on the country, but with the countries where I’ve chosen to go, I was looking for places where I could have that childcare situation—where we had a nanny that was full-time in the home. And I just don’t think I’d be able to afford that on my salary in the United States. So that opportunity is very attractive.

When I come home, I can devote my complete attention to my kids because I have someone doing the housework. I did a two-year tour in Virginia when I was teaching at the Foreign Service Institute without any childcare or anything, and that was the opposite; I would work and come home and do all the housework. So I really appreciate that this type of job has given me the ability to be present at work and be present at home too. I would recommend it, especially to women who want to work.

Do you find, when you’re at a particular posting, that there’s a sense of community among the Foreign Ser vice officers? Are you living near each other? Are your children spending time together? Or do you integrate more with the community that you’re living in?

I would say it’s the exception, more than the rule, that you integrate into the community. I’ve heard that in some places, like maybe Australia or London—English-speaking places—there’s not as much of a consular community because you don’t need each other. I’d say the more hardship in the place—if you’re in Burkina Faso or South Sudan—the more community there is. You work together, you probably live close by on a compound or in the same building, and they’re your social group.

There’s definitely a community, and how much you branch out of the community will depend on where you are and your situation; if you have a family, you won’t be as motivated to go out and meet people.

But obviously, having the Church community is huge because you can connect with people before you get there, and it’s an instant community on top of the Foreign Service community. And when they combine, it’s very helpful.

I wouldn’t say that it’s super typical to be hanging out with locals, especially because, if you have continuing contact with foreign nationals, you have to fill out contact forms and things like that for your security. Obviously, it depends on your job. I don’t have a job where I make contacts in the community like a political officer would.

They’re reporting on the situation in the country, and they need a network of people who know what’s going on in government, with NGOs, and they might have a completely different experience than me because I have customers come to my waiting room. I’m not going out there as much unless I’m dealing with the American Citizens Services, and then I’m dealing with people that work in prisons, the airport, etc.

Have you ever had a posting where there wasn’t a branch or an LDS presence?

There are definitely posts like that. I personally haven’t been to one yet. But that Facebook group is frequently used to ask people, “I would like to bid on Azerbaijan; does anyone know if there’s a branch? Are there any youth? How’s the Primary? Do they have an English-speaking service?” I’d say that’s probably the main purpose of the Facebook group, though, obviously, people ask a lot of other things too.

I would say that in a career, you probably won’t have a ward or a branch at every post. I think that if you talk to more people, they might say, “Yeah, we went to this country and it was just our family, or it was just me.” I’ve definitely heard about it.

In closing: best part of your job, worst part of your job.

I think by far the worst part is moving. Nobody likes it, unless you’re leaving a terrible place that you hated. Packing up your life is so emotionally draining; it’s so physically draining. The emotions of your families—we go through a lot. It’s a roller coaster. And it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it before: you’re going to get on the roller coaster, and you’re going to go up and down. One person’s doing good one day, and the next day they’re not, and round and round. I think you never can get used to moving and not have it affect you emotionally.

When you get to a new place, it might be an awesome place, but it takes time to feel settled and to find your people and to get your bearings. It’s easier for me because I show up for work and I have a purpose and, hopefully, instant friends and people to socialize with. It’s so isolating for a spouse to show up in a new country; they may or may not speak the language, and it may or may not be easy to meet other people. And that weighs on me as the person who’s subjecting my family to that—when they’re struggling, then I struggle. So it is just the biggest challenge: starting over again, and then starting over again, and then starting over again. I would not sugarcoat that to anyone.

The best thing: I actually enjoy going to work every day because so few people can land in a career where it’s work they really enjoy and it’s fulfilling. It means so much that I’m able to do that.

I’m so grateful that my kids get to have this variety of experiences. Even though the moving is hard, they are citizens of the world. I take so much pride in that because I feel like I’m creating these amazing people. I feel like they’ll end up being different people than they would have been if we’d stayed in the same place. So yes, there are challenges, but hopefully, the fact that they’ve had to overcome them will create some character in them.

Interview by Emily Nelson on 27 May 2022 via Zoom. Dean had recently presented an Ask Me Anything on “Diplomacy, Asia, and Consular Careers in the Foreign Service” for students in the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah.