Once two cups of tea and a plate of biscuits have arrived on the table, His Excellency Christian Rehren, the Chilean Ambassador, turns off his handphone, closes his office door and settles down in his seat. “Now,” he says, “let us talk.” What follows is nearly 90 minutes of oration from a man who is an ambassador to his core. His adoration of his homeland retains a healthy dose of pragmatism, and his passion for people of all nations extends to a love of sharing and acquiring knowledge. Arriving in a new country (he has been in KL just seven months) offers ample opportunity for new faces to become acquaintances, and he has lost no time in making himself sociable.
“It’s been very busy because I have attended everything I can,” he admits with a cheerful smile. “It is the best way to meet people! Sometimes I don’t get to my bed until 2am, but that is no complaint – I am tired in a good way!”
Rehren has been delighted with Malaysia thus far, and is buoyant at the warm welcome from people eager for information about his home. “People are anxious to hear about Chile,” he explains happily, “which is wonderful. I have a lot of work to do though, as Chile has been geographically isolated for a long time.”
The difficult years of political struggle in Chile once kept its contact with the wider world to a minimum, but times have changed. While Chilean wine is most people’s introduction to the country, Rehren and his team at the embassy are ensuring that Malaysia knows just how much more the country has to offer, and indeed are aware of the similarities between this Southeast Asian country and his South American one.
“We are both middle class countries with wonderful, open people and a distinct influence from the British,” he explains. “Geographically, we are also similar: both coastal countries with numerous islands, and both countries of biological diversity and extremes.”
His notice of the biological similarities as much as the social and political ones betrays a life-long passion for the natural world. “I was one of those kids who had samples of flies, of insects. I am fascinated by evolution.” Biological interests were pursued at university, and the move into the diplomatic service was led, again, by his preoccupation with the natural world. At the time he spotted the advert in a newspaper for the diplomatic service in the early 1980s, he was “working on a research project about the economic implications of fisheries. I spotted the advert I thought there might be a way to use my biology to make a difference.”
While his first posting took him to Ecuador to become involved with fisheries, his areas of expertise have widened over time, and his subsequent postings gave him opportunity to immerse himself in social issues. “Poverty, women, disability, indigenous people, human rights” he lists, “I also did some work for the UN while I was posted in America. It was an interest I developed when I was a child – I used to volunteer for social care programmes and I just loved it.”
Rehren has, it seems, all manner of passions and enthusiasms jostling for space beneath his jolly, approachable exterior. History is one – “I love learning about the past,” he declares, “any country, not just Chile” – while music has been part of his make-up since before he was born. “My mother was an opera singer,” he explains, “and I began playing the piano at the age of five.”
He still loves to play, although spare time for personal pursuits is in short supply. Any time that he does find is spent, well, disappearing. “My favourite thing to do,” he says, secretively, “is to go someplace where I can be no one. I went to Melaka recently and I was just like everyone else; walking the streets, buying food. I wasn’t the man who met with the King last week, I was just anybody.”
That is not to say he doesn’t greatly enjoy his position as a diplomat – “I know how privileged I am” he says firmly – but he sees value in rubbing shoulders with reality. “I am different, I think,” he muses thoughtfully. “I go to libraries, markets, cemeteries… not popular places, but places where you can understand people. I want to engage with the real person’s worries.”
Rehren’s balanced, sensitive approach to diplomatic relations surely promises a worthwhile posting, and after the years of relative isolation for his troubled country, Rehren feels that things are, at last, getting better.
“The Pacific Ocean used to be a huge gap,” he admits, “but the gap is closing all the time. Chile has a lot of concerns, but we are trying, and in that there is strength.”
Source: The Expat August 2012
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