Meet Rebecca Riley, spouse of US Ambassador to ASEAN, David Carden, and an all-round fascinating humanitarian.
How do you like Indonesia, or Jakarta in particular, so far?
I find Jakarta as challenging as anyone else as a place to live, but I look for the many pleasures here and ignore the frustrations. I try to turn daily problems like traffic into a question, “If you were in charge, what would you do?”
A couple of years ago you were VP for the MacArthur Foundation. What are some of the highlights of your involvement in the foundation?
I oversaw grant-making to NGOs working in urban planning, community development, arts and culture, and public education. I miss the work, but honestly have enjoyed having the time to explore new places and learn new things.
Your husband is one of the most important people in the US-ASEAN relationship. Elaborate a little on the US Mission to ASEAN, please.
He is responsible for implementing US foreign policy goals here related to problems and opportunities important to this part of the world. Given the broad range of issues he deals with – from trade and rule of law, to sustainable urban planning, and including wildlife trafficking – and the diverse individuals and institutions with whom and with which he works (diplomats, businesses, government officials, NGOs), our life here always is intellectually challenging and socially very diverse.
Are there any experiences you’re particularly excited about in performing your duties as the spouse of the US Ambassador to ASEAN?
One of the privileges of being a diplomat assigned to ASEAN is the wonderful “family” to which we belong; the representatives of the 10 member countries and the 10 dialogue partners to ASEAN. We annually host a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for our ASEAN friends, and in turn, we celebrate the unique days and events that define the rich traditional cultures throughout ASEAN.
The ASEAN women are well organized through things like the ASEAN Women’s Circle and a lively monthly bowling team. Being part of this community has become the most valued part of my diplomatic life here. I also looked for a project in the ASEAN community and found one within the mission’s commitment to sustainable cities. In partnership with Dr. Thant Myint U and the Yangon Heritage Trust, I am working with colleagues from the Regional Plan Association in New York City to help preserve and redevelop the historic downtown of Yangon.
You’re also active in the Indonesian Heritage Society. What is the Indonesian Heritage Society and what does it stand for?
This wonderful, all-volunteer organization is an open invitation for any curious person to get to know Indonesia in all its diverse splendour.
What are some of the ongoing projects done by the Heritage Society? Any projects you’re particularly very interested in and proud of?
With my Indonesian Co-Chair, Anya Robertson, and a committee of volunteers from both Indonesia and abroad, I help present monthly programs that bring interesting speakers into private homes to share their unique expertise about some aspects of Indonesian culture, history or current affairs. Called Rumahku (my house), these intimate events have created some very special opportunities; the young Indonesian architects from Rumah Ansa shared their work preserving traditional architecture around the archipelago, American scientist Steve Lansing shared the workings of the Balinese subak system (now a UNESCO World Heritage Landscape), and writer Ahmad Tohari and producer Shanty Harmayn-Hoffman discussed the making of their movie The Dancer. These programs are open to all members of IHS, and membership in IHS is open to all those interested in learning more about Indonesia.
Do you often travel around Indonesia or South East Asia as a whole?
I go with David when there are long weekends to take advantage of or when there are fewer meetings to absorb his time. This is one of the world’s most interesting and exciting regions to visit and we remind each other often how lucky we are to have it be our “job” to travel here. I go often to Bandung where I trained for certification in Pilates, and have enjoyed Bali and Jogjakarta. But mostly, my Indonesian travel is in and around Jakarta. I am a passionate photographer and will spend the rest of my lifetime sorting through and organizing the thousands of visual images I have collected here. I have had both my writing and photographs published here and I am hopeful that when I return home I can continue to work productively on both.
Tell us a little about your family and home life in the US.
I have two grown children in the US. My daughter, Meredith, works for a media production company and my son, Dylan, works for a financial analysis firm. Both live in New York City. David and I have a very old house (built in 1724) in rural Rhode Island. When it was built, the Dutch were in control of Indonesia and America was a British colony.
With you and your husband being in Indonesia, how do you keep in touch with the children? Do you visit them often?
We rely on e-mail, Instagram, and a free Vonage phone line to keep in touch, along with regular trips I make back to the States to check on family, girlfriends, and the two dogs I left behind. Being away from your children – even ones who are clearly adults – is a challenge for all of us in the diplomatic community. Fortunately, my children also love travelling and will have seen a lot of Southeast Asia before our assignment here ends.
What will you do when your husband’s assignment in ASEAN comes to a finish?
I will go home and be grateful of the opportunity we had to nurture the US diplomatic mission in ASEAN, even for a brief period of time. And I will place the Chinese blue and white dishes I collected here beside those that came to America years past on different trade routes – and I will marvel on how small the world really is!