It is no surprise that the United States of America’s Embassy in the Philippines is one of the busiest in the country.
For a start, Americans top the list of foreign residents across the islands with a whopping 29,959 population according to Philippine Statistics Office’s 2010 Census of Population and Housing. Their tourist arrival, according to Department of Tourism “Top 10 Visitor Markets for 2015/2016” survey, totaled 84,506, and ranked as the second highest, after South Korea.
Besides accommodating this influx of Americans, the US Embassy is also hard at work granting visas to qualified Filipino citizens who wish to visit, study, work or live in the proverbial “Land of Opportunity.”
With the embassy practically buried in work, Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Michael Klecheski, who has the added duties of maintaining consular and diplo¬-matic relations, still considers his work “fun.”
Known in the expatriate community as one of the most cheerful diplomats, Klecheski shared both the joys and challenges of his job in a laidback interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, thanks to his warm welcome and relaxed manner.
Embassy’s No. 2
“The DCM is the No. 2 guy and that’s a non-gender guy, man or woman, in every embassy. Normally, the main responsibility of the DCM is to make sure that the embassy as a whole is working smoothly together,” Klecheski began.
He continued, “This embassy is one of the biggest ones we have, so it’s a big job to be a DCM. There’s a lot going on; there are so many different lines of activities that we do here.”
Happily, according to Klecheski, these “different lines of activities” also include hosting receptions at his home in the Philippines. “DCM does a lot of stuff outside the embassy but it’s fun! Having receptions involving all the different spheres of activity in this embassy allows me to meet people in different fields—sometimes from agriculture, from business; sometimes from the law and enforcement world; and sometimes from the cultural world.”
Asked how one gets to become an American Embassy’s No. 2 guy, Klecheski looked back at his career in diplomatic service so far and replied it was no walk in the park.
As the DCM explained, every aspiring diplomat must first finish graduate school, undergo six weeks of training at the state department and experience consular work (approving visas and helping American citizens in other countries, among others), before finally creating their own career path in the diplomatic word.
“My first assignment [to the Philippines]in 1985 was also my first assignment in the state department. Back then, of course I knew some of what was here from reading the newspapers, but I didn’t really have a good sense for it.
“I knew about the history from reading books but I didn’t really understand it that well. So, it was really a learning experience for me in the best sense of the word, to come here,” Klecheski told The Sunday Times Magazine, further describing his first two years of consular work in a word as “interesting.”
His second assignment to the Pearl of the Orient came more than a decade later, in 1996.
“That was for three years. I was a political officer whose main responsibility was to follow domestic Philippine politics. Washington has to understand what’s going on in every country that we have any dealings with. So it was my job mainly to try to know who’s important in the political world, in the NGO world, etc.,” the 60-year-old diplomat continued.
Before returning to the country for the third time, and as the all-important Deputy Head of Mission, Klecheski also served as DCM at the US Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan; as Political Counselor at the US Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and as Team Leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Diwaniyah, Iraq, Poland and Switzerland, among others.
Upon his third posting to the Philippines, however, Klecheski said he immediately noticed major changes in the country, which he left in 1999.
“When I, for instance, think back to when I was here the last time—when Fort Bonifacio really didn’t exist yet—it kind of continues to amaze me that this big city is now standing up there,” Klecheski said of the new Philippines he came to see.
“Even in 1999, things were growing but there’s been a real jump in that respect so that’s a really striking change,” he compared to 17 years ago.
The diplomat added, “I haven’t traveled that much yet in the Philippines this time around, but I know that a lot of cities [besides the capital]have been growing quite quickly and quite briskly.”
An art enthusiast, Klecheski also could not help but happily note the growth in the Philippine art scene since his last posting.
“In the art and cultural world, the Philippines has truly come a long way, and I’m really impressed. When I was here last time, Pinto Gallery [in Antipolo, a favorite of Klecheski’s today]did not even exist. I also think there is more historical consciousness in some ways than there was before.”
Klecheski also lauded the economic growth of the country.
“Of course when Americans and the US government thinks about the Philippines, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘six percent,’ or whatever the statistic is for economic growth in the Philippines over the last several years. So, you know, that’s something to be proud of.”
With so much development going on around the country, Klecheski, whose posting as DCM commenced in August 2015, is looking forward to seeing more good things to come—first hand—with three more years assigned to the US Embassy in Manila.
Despite long absences in visiting the Philippines in between assignments, Klecheski always has with him a part of this beautiful country. His life partner, Filipina Eloisa Saranggaya de Leon.
Recalling their love story with a chuckle, Klecheski told The Sunday Times Magazine, “People laugh at our story, and in the family, this is well-known. When I first arrived here, on my first assignment, one of the first visits I took was to Negros, and I met some people who became my friends. They were also here in Manila so within a short time, [I had] I won’t call it an adopted Filipino family, but I became friends with a [Filipino] family.
“They are a large family and we all know that Filipinos are very close, and have this Philippine tradition of Sunday meals together. So I was always invited almost every Sunday [by this family].
“In one of those occasions, this lady came in and after a while of conversing she looked at me and she said, ‘My daughter lives in NY. You meet my daughter; you’ll be my son in law!’
“I got a little bit frightened by this ‘cause I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ so I was little bit hedged for a while.
“But eventually we met and then we were introduced.
“The first time we laid eyes on each other, the introduction was, Michael this is your wife Eloisa, Eloisa this is your husband Michael. And very soon thereafter, I think in three weeks we were engaged,” the diplomat vividly recalled.
Albeit totally different from the size of the clan he grew up with, Klecheski finds joy in belonging to a Filipino family.
“My parents are from Poland and they immigrated to the US, but I had a really, really small family in the States. I think the maximum I can remember as a kid, we’d have maybe 10 relatives all together—which for a Filipino is tiny. It’s really nice to have a big Filipino family here, and it means a lot [to me]actually.”
After 28 years of marriage, has the American diplomat already adopted Filipino traits?
“Well you hear me occasionally throw in some Tagalog; and I am studying to improve my Tagalog, but I understand a lot of it,” Klecheski proudly shared.
Besides language, Klecheski, as mentioned before, long fell in love with Filipino art.
“There’s a lot [of art]out there and I’m very, very impressed. I have to say the last time I was here, I was a lot more focused on the political world so I was like a political junkie, reading about politics. But this time around, for some reason, my wife and I are very much into the arts and culture scene in the Philippines,” Klecheski enthused.
A quick scan of his active social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter will indeed show Klecheski and his wife’s visits to the National Museum and Pinto Gallery, and attendances at concerts at Paco Park, shows at the Philippine Art Fair, and performances at the CCP, among so many others.
“My wife and I are very much into art because you learn a lot and you see all kinds of new perspectives when you follow the art scene. We follow art very enthusiastically here and it’s great. It’s very enjoyable that we get to meet really creative people.”
While his wife is very much into performance arts, Klecheski confessed that he is more inclined to the visual arts, pieces of which he can bring home with him.
“In our house, we always try to buy art from wherever we are so we have Russian art, we have Kazakhs art, and an Iraqi stained glass window. But we do have quite a few Filipino artworks, like Tony Mahilum—all visual pieces. And I have to say that our guests—we have a lot of guests because we have a lot of receptions—always appreciate Filipino art,” the DCM enthusiastically added.
He is also amazed by how those who see his Filipino art collection affected “in a fascinating way.”
“We have taken a lot of Filipino artists’ pieces with us abroad, and for instance, in both Russia and Kazakhstan—extremely cold countries that have long and sometimes very dark winters—Filipino art, at least what we have, tends to be very bright-colored and really striking.
“So we always say, it’s not a joke, that Filipino art kinda makes the places we’ve lived in a little brighter and cheerier in the middle of a very cold, dark winter,’” he explained.
The thriving economy, the active art scene, his Filipino connection, the warm and friendly vibe, and his diplomatic career—these are just some of the things that make Klecheski love the Philippines more.
As such, the question begged to be asked: Would the diplomat consider living here when he reaches the retirement age for diplomats at 65?
“I know that there will come a time when I will have to retire but to tell you the truth, there are two subjects that I really hate to talk about. One is health, and the other is retirement,” he laughed good naturedly.
“For that I would say, sure it is possible that we can retire here, but I prefer not to think about that subject right now because I can’t imagine what I would do if I retire. For now the Philippines is a great place to be and it’s a great place to serve as well. We have fantastic local employees here. This is a very active and a very good embassy and I’m very proud of it,” the very likeable American diplomat ended.