Dushanbe, Tajikistan, isn’t exactly a garden spot: It’s downtrodden, crumbling and struggling to recover from a brutal civil war. Probably not the kind of place John Carleton expected to be working someday when he left John Burroughs School and St. Louis in 1994. After graduating from the University of Richmond, Carleton became a diplomat as the financial management officer of the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe. He still has a few months left on his assignment in Tajikistan, but his next stop will be at the American Embassy in Fiji.
Carleton was back in St. Louis recently as part of the State Department’s Hometown Diplomat Program. He spoke with students about his role representing the United States under circumstances that are often difficult. Although he was a world away, his mind was still focused on his job—a place that is just about as different from home as it can be.
LN: Tell me about Tajikistan.
JC: Tajikistan is on the northern border of Afghanistan, bordered on the west by Uzbekistan and on the east by China. It is one of the former Soviet Central Republics and many people in Tajikistan look back fondly on their Soviet days as a time of order and industry and good things.
LN: It now sounds like a place filled with hardship and adversity. How does that affect your job at the Embassy?
JC: It’s a place that’s difficult to work. The infrastructure is poor and getting poorer. The government is also rather high on the international indexes for corruption and that leads to its own problems. We have severe problems with the water and power, especially during the winter when the power shuts off up to 10 hours a night, so pipes routinely freeze.
LN: What is the role of the Embassy and what exactly do you do?
JC: The role is, of course, to represent America in Tajikistan. I handle all the money and transactions inside the Embassy. I am personally responsible for every transaction to make sure it’s legal, proper and appropriate.
LN: How did you end up in Tajikistan?
JC: The Foreign Service’s worldwide availability is just like the military. In my class of 10 financial managers, the places we could have gone included such beauty spots as Chad, Djibouti and Togo. I selected Tajikistan. I enjoy serving our country and making sure our interests are protected and—especially in my particular area of expertise—making sure our dollars go as far as they can.
LN: Aside from the difficulties, what are the people like?
JC: On the streets, I have no problems. I speak a little bit of Russian, and the Tajiks really do appreciate you trying to speak to them in some language other than English. Just making a basic transaction in either Russian or Tajik goes a long way toward showing them you respect their culture.
LN: Do people you meet engage you and ask about where you are from?
JC: Not the typical person you would meet on the street, but many students want to know about America. They want to know where we come from and why we do things the way we do them.
LN: Have you ever had anyone there ask, Where did you go to high school?
JC: I have not had it happen in Tajikistan, but I ran into someone in the Louvre one year who asked that question so I could tell he was also from St. Louis.
LN: How did your experience at John Burroughs affect your ability to succeed?
JC: The most important thing that Burroughs taught me was critical thinking—that happened through close interaction with the teachers on a day-to-day basis. No matter the subject, they encouraged questioning and seeking of your own understanding of a particular issue. That has really freed me up to question decisions that others have blindly followed.