PICTURE THIS: it is early evening in a formal house somewhere overseas. Outside an official car pulls up. You can tell it is official because it is dragon black with a gold eagle hatched on the driver's door. An unofficial-looking couple are helped from the car by a chauffeur in dark blue uniform. The wife has freezedried gray hair and a wrinkled wash-and-wear blue print dress. The husband looks as tired as his gray seersucker suit. They link arms, set their faces in identical expectant smiles and walk energetically into the house toward the dining room. They have heard voices from there and are anxious to see their children, ages 6, 8, 11. It has been two weeks since the State Department sent the husband and wife on official business to Cairo. They enter the dining room to find each of the three children seated at the formal dining table with a servant stationed at his side. With one hand each servant is holding a comic. With the other he is spoon-feeding a child.

Servants. Official residences. Chauffeurs. Exotic lands. Jet set parents. Spoiled, pampered, imperious children. Just about what you'd expect - right? Everybody knows about these diplomates' children.

Well, as diplomats are wont to remind us, nothing is so simple.

Over thirty-six years, first with surprise, then dismay, finally with a certain grim satisfaction, I had come to believe that I belonged nowhere, being the child of everywhere. So it is with mixed emotions that I have the honor to report - as they say in official diplomatic dispatches - that I do belong. The mixed emotions are chagrin and relief. The belonging - and the word has a repellent fascination even now - is to that invisible multitude of misfits, the Foreign Service Brats.

No one seems to know how many of us there are - tens of thousands, anyway - partly because unless we got in serious trouble no one seems to have taken much notice. We look like other Americans most of the time. Though our passports are black, stamped "Diplomatic," instead of green like yours, and though we have spent out early lives in a gallimaufry of foreign countries, even the keenest native American xenophobe has trouble selecting us out at first glance.

For the most part we don't have home towns in America. We don't have attics, high schools, swimming holes, summer camps. Except for that avuncular fellow in striped top hat, we have no relatives here, really, that we know of. Funny thing, though: the whole of our lives abroad we have been asked to represent America, to be, as it were, professional Americans. Skillful at it as we have been - and I think we did good work if it took the rest of the world till the Sixties to understand that America is not perfect, after all - when we return to America the charade ends. "Here," as it used to say on the uncharted parts of ancient maps, "be dragons."

"I don't remember anything from my early childhood," says one seasoned Brat in her mid-twenties, "except the maids and servants. My deepest love was the cook. Oh, I loved her. Her name was Ohma. I have no picture in my mind of my mother or my father but I can remember the governess's face, the gardener's face, the cook's face. Ohma. I can remember the color of her apron."

Invariably, it turns out, when I ask other Brats about their earliest memories, they speak of their servants. "Well," said one, "you don't have your parents. Your parents are too busy."

I was six when I first went abroad. I have random mental slides of the journey. Amniotic sun deck days in mid-Atlantic. Rough, power-paint blue ocean. The watery quiet of the aquarium at Naples. Vesuvius polluting the night sky with sparks. Seasickness. But mostly after that I remember servants. Servants are a counterpoint for Foreign Service life - to keep things from becoming too rarefied. They are a kind of id to your diplomatic superego.

I knew better than to share my lurid world of servants with my parents. Occasionally I would slip up: some gargantuan horror would hop out like a toad and they would stare at me appalled. Usually those were guttersnipe terms I hadn't perfected it. I think now of my life with the servants as a kind of bawdy fairy tale, full of significant violences and forbidden delights.

During the civil war in Greece, I had daily object lessons in anti-communism from the gardener. He told me how Communists crucified priests and skinned them alive with pruning knives like the one he used on the roses. I learned how little boys like me were kidnapped from the villages, their trigger fingers amputated if they rufused to join the Andartes, as the other side was called.

From the maids I learned everything I didn't know to ask about sex. I remember show-and-tell exercises with 17-year-old Maria, wild giggles and moments of furious seriousness as I was shown what men and women do - and why. And once when Anna was sick and had to have daily injections, Maria would spirit me around back to the window, Anna knowing, and whisper lush fantasies about Anna's voluptuous exposed buttocks.

Such experiences may unconsciously be part of the reason for a youngster's unnaturally intense investment in his temporary country. And unlike other Americans abroad - the military, for example, who are often cocooned in slavish imitations of home wherever they are - Foreign Service officers and their families are obliged to immerse themselves in their new country. "India was a magic place for me," explains one woman whose father was posted there when she was 11."For kids the place is full of sensory experience. The colors are more vivid - reds, oranges, pink. Much more intense than anything we have in America. Everything is just simply more, in one way or another. Going to Kashmir, for instance, was like every fairy tale I've ever read only it was me. It was real life and . . . I am probably still dealing with it."

I don't know that I even began to deal with it. Or maybe even want to. I am forever pursuing experiences as intense, exotic and elemental as the ones I feel I encountered in my youth abroad. All the overseas veterans I know express similar longings. Most take the form of restlessness of one type or another - with jobs, marriages, philosophies, visions.

Combined with this restlessness - or perhaps because of it - most describe a smug kind of fearlessness, a kind of survivor's euphoria and optimism. One young man now in his late twenties remembers with some exhilaration the time in India he was almost beaten and stoned to death by a mob for calling another child "white monkey."

Apart from a grim kind of pleasure at having cheated the fates, this exinnocent abroad feels the incident contributed to another classic Brat conviction. "It gave me a very strong sense of my alien quality. You can't play be the same rules as everyone else."

Though contemporary American fears of childhood trauma are clearly exaggerated (adults assume children are as fearful and addicted to comfort as they are), few parents at home would voluntarily expose their children to the kinds of adventures Foreign Service kids routinely encounter. Wars, coups d'etat - these days, kidnapping and terrorism - are but the most dramatic manifestations. I don't think I was unusually blessed with trauma and I experienced public executions, sexual outrages, people dying in the street. I routinely saw people being beaten by police long before that was popular here in America. I saw beggars who maim their children so that they will continue the family business. As one friend put it, "I was introduced to a lot of true-life experiences - violence, sex, rape, sodomy, madness, wife-beating, illegitimate children - while my contemporaries in the States were watching Howdy Doody on TV."

Lest Foreign Service Brats develop too impulsive and sanguine an approach to life, however, these effects are counterbalanced by the finely calibrated repressions of official diplomatic nicety. "I have to curtsy to absolutely everybody," remembers one woman. "You had to be on the very best behavior at all times. You can't do anything out of the ordinary. It was pounded into you that you were America's representative. You were an envoy."

The gardener may have been amused at my mock battles with the Andartes in the real-life trenches around our house in Civil War Greece, but the Department of State, I somehow knew, would take serious umbrage. Later, when my local friends were exercising their fledgling machos in the city's red-light district, I'd find myself rendered impotent just at the thought of the headlines ("Envoy's son in flagrante delicto" ).

To add insult to injury, most of us earnest and terrorized little ambassadors remained chronnically unsure of our basic qualifications to represent America at all.

Many of us, for instance, grew up speaking other languages better, or at least first. "My first language," says one American friend whose native tongue now seems to be Greek, "was Dutch. My second language was Serbian." Armenian, I believe, was the language of choice of my younggest brother. I developed ways of thinking in Greek and Turkish that remain today more accessible that Englishh. It is not unusual for a U.S. Foreign Service Brat to find himself pondering his national credentials in some language other than English.

And often he is doing just that in schools that offer generous reinforcement to his national insecurities. It is tricky to be sure you are a card-carrying Norman ROckwell American tyke when you are, say, dressed in short gray pants, high socks, a green blazer with black piping and a matching cricket cap. Such experiences must have contributed to the exquisitely orchestrated agonies most Foreign Service kids remember as they labored for identity in early adolescence.

"It's schizzy," remembers one woman. "But when you are young you don't know it's schizzy. You are both in the middle of India, say, and trying to recreate yourself in the image of America." Any bonafide Brat remembers the feeling, a kind of minor key expatriatism - with all the contradictory oedipal trappings. "Here you have this whole group of Americans," she remembers, "desperate to be American. So we would site around and talk about hamburgers. Really, we would talk about hamburgers and about half of us wouldn't remember what a hamburger tasted like but we pretended we did."

But something critical always happened to undermine the facade. Typical is this incident, all its passion and pain still intact fifteen years later. "By the seventh grade there was a bunch of us girls who hahaad been there more than two years. In the Foreign Service if you have five or six kids who have known each other more than two years, that's gang, that's a clique. Then this new girl came. She was taller than everybody. She had a bosom. The rest of us had just gotten to wondering about wearing bras. She told us that everybody in the States was as big as she was. Everybody. All of us were dead quiet when we heard that, each secretly thinking, 'My God, when I go back I am going to be a freak!'"

No rite of passage is complete without its journey into the underworld, preferably into hell itself. For the Foreign Service Brat this is known as "re-entry."

Of all the imaginable hazards of a global childhood, re-entry is the least appreciated by uninitiates, the most feared by the rest of us. "When I came back to the States - God! when I came back . . . It was '64 or '65, I guess. I went through three of the most painful years I can imagine in junior high school because I just wasn't American enough for them," recalls one of the walking wounded. "Those little bastards in my neighborhood just refused to accept me. I wasn't a product of their elementary school. I didn't wear American enough clothes. I didn't know about Gant shirts and Weejuns. Boy was I lame. It was really difficult to find anyone to befrienddd me. Junior high school age is always a painful one, of course, but I think most of it is that you have just not been socialized the way the group you are joining has. Your values aren't the same, your clothes aren't the same, you don't know the same things."

Such an experience can be so painfull that the prospect of another re-entry, years later at the end of high school, precipitated a breakdown, one person told me. "It wass directly related to the Foreign Service Brat dilemma. I started smoking incredible amounts of dope to avoid making the decision about coming back to the States to go to college. I just could not face coming back. So for months I smoked roughly three grams of hashish a day. Which is kind of more than people should, but it helped not having to make the decision of becoming an American and having to go to college in America. I wanted to stay abroad. My choices were really rather grim."

Whatever the particular constellations of re-entry, many survivors experienced painful disillusion. The reality of prejudice and poverty in America was very different from the view of life in the Land of Opportunity presented by the USIA films they'd seen abroad.

For me it remained after an entire youth abroad to return to college in the United States an to learn the venneer of America - racismm, sexism, anti-intellectualism and a compulsive need to consume. If I sound bitter, it is because no one warned me about these things and so I had to dance them each through, embracing them more completely than I had embraced other curious customs of other host countries in my youth. But the hitch this time was that this my country, whatever our past differences, and these attitudes slipped me insensibly over the threshold of permanent integration. I became American, in other words, in the worst ways, and I have had to fight my way out of these blind alleys without any of the whole milk and corn-fed antibodies of that boy from Boise who never left home.

When I came back to college, I kept observing and adapting behavior to suit my country, all along feeling something like those transsexuals we hear about who adjust the best they can to the fact that they seem to have been born into the wrong body.What they have is called gender dysphoria syndrome. What I have - what thousands of Foreign Service Brats have - might be called culture dysphoria syndrome.

It makes for a peculiar combination of cynicism and innocence, noted by all Foreign Service Brats I have talked to, which contributes to one universal trait. We find ourselves more observers than participants in life.

Do enough observing and you come, inevitably, to see merit on most sides of most questions.The Department of State is not unaware of this phenomenon, I think, and unless I am rationalizing more than I know, I believe it explains their active lack of enthusiasm for hiring ex-Foreign Service Brats. I know there are no policies on this matter, but, just out of college, after I had passed the written Foreign Service exams, I expected my orals to be a breeze. Instead, they flunked me cold because I wasn't American enough. Or so I gathered. I was angry and said, "What you should want is someone who knows his way around languages and peoples. Who can really understand their needs and how they are going to make their decisions." "No," they said, "that isn't what we want. We want someone who can tell us - as you cannot what train you take to get from St. Louis to Albuquerque. Someone who can name - as you cannot - five good newspapers in the South. We want someone not from Istanbul or Karachi or Ouagadougou. We want someone from Iowa."

Much observed Brat behavior may be but symptoms of one common effect of Foreign Service life: restlessness combined with independence. They go together, obviously, and may point up a major problem in any attempt at characterizing groups of people. It could well be that because only restless and independent Brats survive - the rest may have died of nostalgia, drug overdoses or faded away into America's invisible populations of the disturbed and bewildered - these traits seem characteristic when they are not. It may just be that how a Foreign Service kid turns out depends largely, as one mother put it, "strictly on his luck in life." Or it may be that the world being divided, as it is, into two types of people - those who'll take freedom over order and those who'll take order over freedom - only the free ones to one another. I don't really know.

As a Foreign Service wife of grizzled experience said, it's probably like the research on the American Indian: "All Indians walk single filr - at least the two I saw did."

With me, that makethree.