XiN magazine greatly honored to welcome the U.S. Embassy’s Minister Counselor for Public Affairs, Thomas Hodges, as its special guest. Mr. Hodges’ role is critical to the maintenance and expansion of the U.S. - China educational and cultural exchange programs.
Thomas Hodges took up his post at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in August 2012, having served as a U.S. diplomat since 1987, primarily in public diplomacy positions.
My career as a diplomat (so far) has been bookended by the Netherlands and China. Both countries have had considerable impact on me.
First, my Dutch story: a couple of years before I joined the U.S. Foreign Service, I came to the Netherlands as a backpacking student. I liked it a lot. I could understand just enough of the language to want to learn more. I appreciated the outlook of the Dutch: organized, realistic, and practical, with a sense of humor and aesthetics that resonated with me. So, when I saw The Hague on the list of cities where there were openings for my entry-level diplomat class, I leapt at the chance. I joined the Foreign Service with a group of individuals who were eager to experience the Third World, so, much to my surprise, no one competed with me for the privilege of going to Holland. After six months in a Dutch language class in Northern Virginia, I headed off to work at the U.S. Embassy in The Hague. As was the custom in our service in those days, the first assignment was a short one, so I only spent 15 months total in the Netherlands. Looking back on it now, it feels like it was a much longer time – probably because it was such a vivid and memorable experience.
After I left the Netherlands, I took advantage of the opportunity that the
Foreign Service had given me to see the world, so I did tours of duty in India and in Senegal. Both were really interesting experiences. Still, Foreign Service officers say that your first tour is like your first love – it always keeps a special hold on you that subsequent tours do not, necessarily.
I was in the middle of tour number four, living in Washington, and - after a year - already getting wanderlust again. I had done well in my study of Dutch and later in French for Senegal, and I thought that I should push myself to take on something linguistically more challenging. In the mid-1990’s, many Americans, including myself, were convinced that Japanese was going to be the most useful language to know in the future. There was a long wait and a lot of competition to study Japanese in our service in those days, but they were having a hard time finding diplomats willing to take on the relative hardships of work at our Consulate in Shenyang, China. They told me if I agreed to go to China, they could start me in my Chinese class “next Monday” – a year earlier than I otherwise would have gone back to the language school. I told them to sign me up.
18 years later, I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life in Shenyang, Taipei, and Beijing. China became more important to American diplomacy than most of us (including me) foresaw. I just had the dumb luck to get in on the ground floor of the operation at the very time that China’s importance began to skyrocket in global terms. I found that the more of my life I invested in understanding China, the more I wanted to amortize that investment by continuing to work here.