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Second Nature

Tales from Commercial Service officers, who live, work overseas


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Aliza Totayo

Aliza Totayo’s job is to be proactive and to dig up leads for her U.S. clients.

While attending the International Franchise Association’s convention to promote the U.S. Commercial Service’s offerings, Aliza Totayo and Heather Byrnes, both champions of franchising in their varied posts, took some time out of their jam-packed schedules to talk about life and business in developing countries.

When Aliza Totayo moved to Syria in 1999 to study Arabic at the University of Damascus, everything the Syrians knew about Americans was from watching “Baywatch.” She didn’t fit their expectations of what an American should look like, Totayo says, laughing, because she didn’t look like Pamela Anderson, the blonde, busty lifeguard who starred in the TV show.

Making her way in foreign countries is second nature to Totayo, who lived all over the world for her father’s work as a physicist for the Navy. “I’ve been to more countries than states in the U.S.,” she says. 

After graduating from college with a degree in international business, Totayo helped establish the U.S. office of the American-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce in D.C. But her wanderlust returned, prompting her to move half way around the world to a country where you could count on one hand the number of Americans living there. 

This was pre-cellphone, pre-Internet, pre-cable TV. “Syria was cut off,” the U.S. Commercial Service officer explained—except for those Baywatch episodes. Totayo saw breaking down the barriers between the two cultures as a challenge—“it’s fun,” she adds.

In Syria, she lived with the family of a friend she had worked with in the states. Every time she left the house, she noticed the same man following her. On days when she spotted him standing outside in the cold, she’d feel sorry for him and bring him coffee. She finally confronted him, thinking he was from the government spying on her. “I have a boring life,” she says she told him. Why bother? His answer surprised her. He was following her to ensure nothing happened to her. “They didn’t want an ‘incident’ involving an American,” she says of their government. 

But there was also a sense of community—neighbor watching out for neighbor—which extended to her, even though she was a foreigner. “Women have a lot more rights there than the media lets us believe,” she says.

Totayo met her husband, a native of Lebanon, through her adoptive family. The couple moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where she worked on a USAID-funded program focused on electoral and business registration processes. 

Taking the comprehensive and intensive foreign service exam was a natural progression in her career, because she already had experience helping foreign companies do business with U.S. companies She convinced her husband to move with her to the U.S., where “people were open and friendly,” she reassured him. They arrived two months before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Her assurances of American acceptance didn’t materialize. “I knew my husband would be a target because of the way he looked,” she says. 

Four years later, Totayo was assigned to Cairo, Egypt, for a two-year tour. The foreign service rotates its officers after two to four years in a country so they stay “Americanized.”

 “I love Cairo,” she says. “It’s the definition of utter chaos that’s charming.” She describes it as a melting pot of history and culture where the odors of cooking and old buildings compete for the olfactory senses, and hordes of people compete for space on the sidewalks and roads. “Egyptians live hard lives and survive,” Totayo says. As education increases, “society is on the edge of tradition.” Traditional male/female roles are changing, and with that comes turmoil as men, no longer the sole economic support of the family, are expected to give up some power and women discover making their own money leads to choices.

From Egypt, Totayo was assigned to Mexico. She’s just completed a year of domestic service in Nashville, Tennessee, and is preparing for her next assignment in the Philippines. Her job—helping U.S. companies export their services and businesses to the country she’s serving in—is not a 9-to-5 job. And championing franchising means officers not only increase their workload, but also have to juggle the rest of their assignments so their numbers match their goals. “Franchise deals take longer and may come to fruition after we leave (a post),” she explains.

But it’s also rewarding because of the value to developing countries of matching a proven system with training and resources to local entrepreneurs, some of whom have more money than experience. Her advice to U.S. franchisors seeking assistance in their overseas expansion plans is to actually have a plan. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t,” she says.

Story Two: From Africa to Utah

Like Totayo, Heather Byrnes grew up in an internationally minded family, however, Byrnes’ parents served in the domestic Peace Corp and she was raised in Alaska. Her parents spoke the local dialect when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were talking about, she remembers.

Byrnes’ career with the U.S. Commercial Service has the added adventure of raising her three children in locales as varied as Ghana and Salt Lake City, Utah. Byrnes and her family are presently living in Utah where she works, while preparing for her next assignment in Russia.

Heather Byrnes

Heather Byrnes today and bottom right, with the late President Mills of Ghana. Left, her son George in traditional African dress.

While following around a commercial officer can be hard on husband’s career—not to mention, ego—living in rural West Africa can be even more difficult for a preteen. Byrnes laughs as she tells about the time her family was driving past a sign announcing a Ghana Free Trade Zone, and Byrnes’ daughter begged her parents to stop there, misreading the sign to say: “Ghana-free zone.” 

The worms that burrow under your skin and then peek out through the skin on your legs can be gross when you’re 8, Byrnes agrees, but there was future conversational fodder for her daughter, as well. Such as putting plastic bags on your hands so you can catch giant poisonous frogs at night. Or buying two massive African snails as pets that turn out to be male and female, so you end up with 13 massive African snails as pets. Or having the family’s driver cut notches into the palm tree so you can climb to the top. 

When they left for the U.S., the snails had to stay behind. Byrnes’ staff did promise to take care of them—although Byrnes suspects they may have met their maker in a dish of butter.

Byrnes laughs as she recounts her daughter’s lament once they were back in the states: “It’s so boring here. Every day you know what’s going to happen.”

Byrnes’ older son spent his high school years at boarding school, and their youngest, George, was 6 weeks old when they moved to Ghana. He was raised by a nanny who also had a young child, and came to think of himself as Ghanian. His local name was Nana Kwesi, which means “Prince Sunday Born.” The Ghanians name themselves after the day they were born on, Byrnes explains. George ate his meals sitting on the floor, scooping food out of the dish with his right hand, his left hand tucked behind his back as is the custom there. He spoke in the local dialect and Byrnes had a hard time keeping clothes on him because of the heat. In Utah, she says, every time he saw a dark face, he’d get excited, thinking he was seeing a friend.

Her life in Ghana was incredibly busy. “The last year at the post I had two free weekends,” she says. She was the mother who didn’t make it to the school conferences, because often they conflicted with a project at work. “I could help this company win a $50 million contact or I could go to a school conference,” she says, holding her hands up as if she’s weighing the two. She’d pick the contract: “That’s 2,500 jobs,” she says, justifying her action.

So as to not completely neglect her family, she often would invite visitors from work to her house on weekends or to accompany her to market. Her children joined her for lunch at the embassy.

Posts in the U.S. are seen as the least desirable. Not only is there no foreign magic, but the economics are totally different. In Ghana, the Byrnes had a nanny, housekeeper and driver that they paid for themselves. They also paid for the nanny’s child to go to school and for their housekeeper’s mother’s emergency surgery. “Imagine paying $600 and saving someone’s life,” she marvels.

For a one-year stay in Utah, they had to re-acclimate, buying winter wardrobes for five, a washer and dryer and their own health insurance. The public library was a godsend—a free provider of books, Internet, movies and music. She refers to it as “our Lenten year.” “We’re trying to get the kids into the spirt of it,” she says with a wry smile. Soon, their “season of Lent” will be over and they’ll be heading to their next post in Russia.

“The first six months (of an assignment) is my favorite time,” she says. “The world is so alive and every color vibrant. When you get into your 40s, life isn’t like being an adolescent with that vibrancy.” But experiencing a new culture is that same adolescence experience of firsts. “You make a lot of social mistakes, it’s a learning process,” Byrnes says. She remembers their first day in Ghana. Her husband wanted a six-pack of beer to take home. Their driver stopped five times before finding a beer salesman who would let them buy a six-pack without first returning six bottles. 

We take franchising for granted, Byrnes says, but when an international franchise comes into a developing nation it inspires indigenous competition and creates jobs: “It’s miraculous.” 

 

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