Carly Van Orman:

"Feminism is about having

a choice" 

Even before we met Carly Van Orman, US Diplomat currently serving as an Assistant Public Affairs Officer with the US Consulate in Almaty, we wondered how is it possible to combine diplomacy, law, tap dancing and musical theatre into a single career path, and on top of that to have three kids, travel extensively and love life. Zhanara Rakhmetova discussed wide ranging topics with Carly from Broadway to feminism. 

 You can also read this article in Russian.

Zhanara Rakhmetova

 July 16, 2018

— You have a very diverse career path. Can you tell me more about it?

— I think it all started because I have little hands. When I was small my mother wanted me to take piano lessons, but I could not reach from one key to the other. Instead, I took singing classes. From the time I was a kid I did theatre things. I really love musical theatre and Broadway. I sing, dance, tap dance and all of that. I got to do a lot of theatre and some film and TV. 

I come from a fairly small town. I went to a high school for the performing arts to study theatre. But our head administrator discouraged us from pursuing creative careers saying that it can be very hard to make a living as an artist. In the end, I studied international relations in college. After that I went to law school. 

I think in my life I had been very lucky because I was able to do things at the right time. For example, if I had started law school two years later, the economy would have been worse and it would have been much harder to find a job. I got into the Foreign Service at the time when they were hiring new diplomats.

Carly Van Orman: "Feminism is about having a choice"
Carly Van Orman: "Feminism is about having a choice"

— Who were the biggest influencers in your career?

— I met people at every stage of my life who were both positive and negative influencers. My grandmother grew up at a time when many women did not go to college. She raised four kids and was a stay-at-home mom for most of her life. She had started college when she was young, but when her father passed away she was not able to finish her studies. When she was in her fifties she told my grandfather that it was time and that she wanted to go back to school. My grandmother went back to school and majored in women's studies. I remember as a young kid cheering for her at her graduation. It was really inspirational to see how she chose to do something that was meaningful to her, even though she absolutely did not have to do it. 

When I was working at a law firm, I had a female colleague who had become a lawyer back when there were not as many women practicing law. She was the president of our Bar Association and a really prominent person. But while I was working with her I watched her pass up two family vacations. Not even because there was something urgent that she was doing but because she just felt that she was too busy to take the vacations. Then her husband had a stroke and, all of a sudden, she realized that she did not want to work at all. She wanted to stay with her husband and nurse him back to health. Just the idea that it took something dramatic for her to reassess her priorities made me reassess mine.

— What advice would you give a young woman who has a boring job and wants to change careers but does not know where to start?

— Every job has not interesting moments. There are people who have a job and then do something that is a hobby or passion on the side. I think that if you can balance both that is the best way to do it. Because you still have the security and you also have the creative outlet. For example, I met a guy in Almaty who organizes a low budget film festival. But his regular job is with an insurance company.

— You have managed to have a career whilst also having a three-child family. What has helped you to combine career and family?

— I am not sure if my personal life is a success story because my kids' dad is not here. He lives in the States. Not only do I have three kids but I am doing it by myself. This is probably not the best model for everybody but it is what works for me. I always knew who I was and what I was willing to do in a relationship. I always knew that my career was important. It would never occur to me to stop working even if I won millions of dollars in the lottery tomorrow. This is because I am lucky to do something that I am excited about.
You cannot even imagine how much you are capable of doing until you create a family
I do not have a particularly traditional family. My husband took my last name and he did not view my career successes as a threat, which I find very attractive and masculine. I hear from women here who want to get married but worry about the potential loss of identity if their future husbands expect that the family should come before anything else. I think it is really up to the young men and women to figure it out for themselves. But it is important to discuss everything and know where you stand. For example, my co-worker and I always buy prepared meals to take home, so that our families have something to eat at night. That was the deal that she negotiated with her husband. She is not interested in cooking but she will still take care of buying the meals. It is all about knowing who you are, standing up for what you expect, and setting those expectations as early as possible. 

I would say that you cannot even imagine how much you are capable of doing until you create a family. There are plenty of people who do not plan their families. But life happens and they manage. There is so much possibility out there. You just have to listen to your heart and do what is right for you.

— You travel extensively for work. How challenging is such a lifestyle especially with three young kids?

— First, I think it is really important to keep ties with home. When the kids are travelling with me I like them to have some continuity. I will have our things shipped from place to place. Eventually they will see their stuffed animals, their chair or whatever it is. We all pack a bag that we carry with us. It is important for my kids to have things in it that remind them of home. 

Besides, we are so lucky to live in the world where you have Skype, WhatsApp and other ways to keep in touch. I try to set up WhatsApp playdates for my daughter with her friends who are back home. By keeping those ties with home you do not have too much culture shock or homesickness in a new place. Second is looking forward. When we arrived here, I did not have to work my first week. During this time, we went to Gorky Park, a playground, some restaurants, and museums and just tried to embrace the new city as quickly as possible. Also, I guess here it helped to download all the right apps such as Uber and 2GIS and figure out how to take a bus. I think people choose to go into my lifestyle because they have an interest in embracing new cultures and trying new things. So I do not think that part is particularly challenging.

— How do you define "feminism"?

— Feminism is not about forcing the world to change, so that no woman can stay home, no woman can have a door held open for her, or make tea for her husband. No, feminism is more about having the choice. It is a freedom to choose what you want your life, career, and family to look like. 

I have noticed here people making jokes or asking if I am a feminist in a way that is very discouraging. The term seems a lot more loaded in Kazakhstan and in Russian. I am not sure why the word tends to produce a negative reaction here. During the Soviet times, women were able to build their careers. They became doctors and lawyers and had so many important roles that the women in the States did not have during the same years. Looking at history, I thought that in some ways the countries of the former Soviet Union were more progressive.

— Do you agree that in order to succeed in her career a woman has to work harder than a man?

— Historically that is definitely true. If you talk to mothers and grandmothers in the States about their experiences, they have examples of times when they were not taken seriously. There was a period in the eighties when businesswomen felt that they had to dress like a man and demonstrate their power in their power suits. 

As a child I remember goofing around in my grade school cafeteria and being told that my behaviour was not "ladylike". Even as a child I thought, "Why do I have to be ladylike while the boys sitting next to me are goofing around and are not being told the same thing". When I worked in a law firm I had to be more conscious of my behaviour because in a law firm you are often judged by your toughness. But I work now in a world that is really equal and where all of that is much less true. These days inappropriate behaviour and old attitudes stand out. When someone acts unfairly or expresses something sexist other people will object and those who acted inappropriately feel ashamed and correct their behaviour.

Photography: Vladislav Lyan (reporters_kz)

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