Friday, December 30, 2005

Holiday Lag Time or The Joys of Federal Employment

Instead of going home for Christmas, I opted to stay in DC. Just much easier, really -- between the time change, arranging flights, and the hassle of taking leave, staying put seemed a much happier and relaxing choice. Hawaii is an awfully long way away, and I have enough travelling ahead of me as it is.

The 'not taking leave' part was interesting. Since I wasn't vacating the DC area, I was allowed to keep receiving my salary just so long as I did work-related study at home ('self-study' as we call it). This consisted of watching Japanese news in the morning, reading the Washington Post everyday in its entirety, and cat-sitting for some fellow FSI classmates. I know, I know... go ahead and say it: your tax dollars at work. Honestly, if there had been work to do, I would have done it. Really.

Really.

In the spirit of self-study, I thought I should get out and see a bit more of D.C. I hadn't really been out in the City since Thanksgiving (when the U.S. Botanical Garden's vaunted Meat Plant was blooming -- very cool, smelled like a dead possum on hot asphalt). I wouldn't say I got very far -- just out to Georgetown, which is right across the Key Bridge. PostSecrets had put up a display of submissions, and my sister and a friend and I went. It turned out to be quite a pleasant way to pass an evening, and the walk to and from the venue was lovely. When it's warmer, I hope to go out there more often. But for now, sitting at home with a crochet project or a book is suiting me just fine... I have a feeling that when Portuguese starts, I won't be enjoying many relaxing moments.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Moral Turpitude and Alphabet Soup

Consular General Training ('ConGen') is the most beautifully efficient, well-run, clear-cut course I've ever had -- certainly at FSI, maybe even ever. After the inherently fuzzy nature of language classes ("you'll be done just as soon as you memorize every Japanese word and grammar rule..."), having well-established guidelines and priorities is a god send. Not to imply that consular rules are simple -- far from it. Citizenship and visa law can do your head in. However, the law exists as a closed set: it's boundaries are readily apparent and attainable. And the goal in ConGen is not memorization of information, but rather memorization of how to find that information. This is a crucial distinction.

The ConGen course is divided into 5 sections over 9 weeks: Citizenship and Passports; Immigration Visas (IV); Nonimmigration Visas (NIV); Interviewing Techniques; and American Citizen Services (ACS). Of these, all but the interviewing section ends with a 25 question, multiple choice, open book / notes / internet test. Sounds easy enough, but recall that the goal here is finding information, not memorizing it. The questions can be complicated and detailed, and it's not at all uncommon to take the full 3 hours allotted to complete each exam. This is also one of the only courses at FSI that one can fail. 80% and above on each exam is considered passing; a failure on any section means that you must repeat it (and pass the test!) before going to post -- hardly an auspicious way to start off your first tour. Similarly, this is also the only course in which absences, for any reason, are not permitted. Any lecture missed must be made up at a later date.

The most fun in ConGen is definitely the role playing. FSI is equipped with mock visa windows (complete with bullet-proof glass and microphones that don't work! I can't wait to conduct interviews in Japanese through the little slot beneath the window...), and we take turns being the officers and the applicants. Towards this end, the ConGen instructors have created an entire fake country with its own history and set of local laws. Most 'applicants' are from this country, and generally we enjoy hamming it up and doing our utmost to make trouble for the officers. The instructors claim that the applicants are based on real cases they themselves have dealt with. It's amazing, the lies you'll hear.

In real life, each visa application -- not issuance! -- costs the applicant a non-refundable $100, and I think our world-wide refusal rate is something like 80%. The time goal for each interview is roughly 2 to 3 minutes, though of course more complicated cases are allowed more time. It's daunting to think that my 2 minute decision will impact someone so greatly. I worry about refusing people who ought to be allowed; or worse yet, allowing people who ought to be refused. As Japan is a part of the visa waiver program, I'll be dealing with a lot of non-Japanese foreigners ('third country nationals' in FS speak). Between language barriers and my own inexperience, I'm bound to make mistakes. The thought is disheartening at times.

But still, you'll be happy to know that so far I've passed all the tests. And I'm even managing to control the ACLU-member part of me that balks everytime I have to take a set of fingerprints... Mine are on file, too, if that's any consolation to anyone.

p.s. - For an explanation of the title, please refer to Section 212(a)(2)(A) and Section 101(a)(15)[inclusive] of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. The INA and I are now on fairly intimate terms...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Language Completion

Reflecting back on the past 9 weeks of Japanese brings to mind all sorts of culinary metaphors, mainly having to do with taking a melon baller to various parts of my brain. That is Japanese study: little balls of gray matter scattered all over the floor. Particularly in the beginning, everyday left me drooling and somehow linguistically incontinent. I would open my mouth to speak, and only little dribbles of English or Japanese would leak out. As my roommate seemed to be experiencing the same in Arabic, it made for some interesting post-work conversations.

However, goal achieved. I'm no longer on language probabtion. Yippee!

Even though the Department is satisfied with my current Japanese ablity, I know that the amount of Japanese I have right now (or at least, what little was left after the interesting language 'valve release' phenomenon that seems to strike everyone post-testing) is not enough to function at post. Or at any rate, not enough to function rapidly and without glaring inconsistencies in grammar, vocab, and honorifics levels during visa interviews. It's frustrating, especially considering I now have 9 weeks of consular training and 9 weeks of Portuguese to look forward to. If I were learning, say, Spanish, this wouldn't be a problem; the same training time would have taken me to a much higher level. But State is not willing to invest the money and time it would take to get me to really smashing Japanese -- at least not until I'm tenured, and they're guaranteed a return on the investment. It makes some sense, but it's still a bitter pill to swallow.

On to ConGen!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Long Weekend

This past weekend, we had the most glorious weather. Everything was crisply lit by the pre-Autumnal sunlight, and the sky glowed a deep blue. I've never been so glad to be in D.C. The end of Summer sings here.

Perhaps it has something to do with the seasonal change, but I've found myself to be more outgoing as of late. A Friday lunch to a Saturday brunch to a Saturday party, but back to my old self as of Sunday and Monday (with a slight lapse in the form of a canoe outing on the Potomac with a Korea-bound FS friend). Going outside, I feel as if I could walk forever. Monday I tried to do just that, starting from Tenlytown Station (site of a metro-accessible bed store, where I gratefully bought a futon) and heading down Wisconsin Avenue to the National Cathedral. It sounds trite, but sitting in the garden watching a blue-winged butterfly lick minerals off the soil, I was taken by a joy in the Creation in a way I haven't been in a long time. My heart was so full, and no one to share it with! It didn't even matter that they'd blocked off access to my favorite chapel; I'd already had my religious experience outside. It was so very beautiful.

After continuing on to Rosslyn, then back up to Georgetown, then a short walk through Dupont Circle, I came back via Rock Creek Park. In Japanese there is the phrase battan neru: to crash to sleep. I didn't even manage to get my shoes off before I fell into bed. Today I'm sore, but luckily language class orientation didn't require a lot of physical strenuousness.

I do want to mention briefly the purpose of the Saturday party. A friend organized it with the goal of raising money for hurricane relief, the idea being that we would just meet at his apartment, and donate the money we would have spent had we gone out. It's nice to have friends who think about things like this. And it was even pleasant to be on the last metro home at 3 in the morning, chatting in an amicable, slightly tipsy fashion with a different friend about the week to come.

Japanese lessons start tomorrow at 7:40am. Wish me luck.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Area Studies

My current coursework concerns regional studies: specifically, China, Korea, and Japan. Lately we've spent a great deal of time discussing Korea, and particularly North Korea. I feel incredibly disturbed by what I've heard. None of the offered solutions seem likely to solve the problem, but somehow that does not seem to be an adequate defense for lack of action. I fear that, in the future, we will all be held accountable for what's going on there. It makes my heart hurt. It frustrates me.

Tomorrow we're taking a field trip to a museum, in order to view some East Asian artwork. They do a good job of varying the course content, balancing out what are (generally very good) lectures with documentary videos, movies, and the afore-mentioned field trip. I feel that I'm learning quite a bit. This is the most I could ask for out of any training course.

Getting to know better the other FS Officers who will be in the region is another boon. We have a good group. I don't know how much chance there'll be for travel between the various countries, but I hope we'll be able to visit one another.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Swearing-in and Casual Dress

Our official swearing-in ceremony (not to be confused with the swearing-in which occurred our first day of orientation) took place on the 12th. My parents were able to attend, which meant more to me than I had realized it would. There was something very satisfying about escorting them down to the gift shop afterwards and buying them State Department t-shirts. I felt very... employed. A very adult feeling.

In the ceremony, they call out each person's name in turn and where she or he is being sent. As your name is called, you stand, and remain standing until the end. There is a strange sort of pride associated with seeing your classmates-cum-colleagues standing at attention in front of their families. It's a bit like high school graduation; you feel you've been given instruction to head out and make a mark on the world. There's a true sense of promise and mission involved.

But of course, before any mark-making takes place, there is more training to be considered. A few of us are leaving for post as early as late September; some will be in language training for almost a year. My departure is set for mid-winter, which is a bit earlier than most. I don't at all mind the extra training (the language and job-specific training I'm particularly looking forward to), but by far the best part of the whole affair is the new dress code: casual. After my suits return from the dry-cleaners, I plan to hang them in my closet and never look at them again until I reach Japan. Bliss!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Capitol Hill

In brief: today we had the chance to go to Capitol Hill and talk to some congressional staffers who work for the Foreign Relations committee. A class member asked what efforts Congress makes to encourage the american public to be more engaged in foreign policy issues. The response was, "Well, we discourage it, really. We prefer to focus on the domestic stuff."

No wonder Congress considers State to be 'elitist' -- apparently, average Americans aren't supposed to think beyond their borders. It was a frustrating visit.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Flag Day or 日本に戻ることになります。

The atmosphere on Flag Day is a strange one. After a morning of fidgetting through lectures and presentations, it is suddenly revealed to you where and how you will be spending the next couple years of your life. There's a funny sort of melodramatic tension to the day; even for those who have felt certain of their destination since the orientation class began, suddenly no potential posting seems too remote or far-fetched. And the fact that all this tension takes place in the training school's field house -- complete with orange and blue padded gym walls and exposed basketball goals -- makes everyone's panicky feelings seem that much more ridiculous. If they had given me my lowest low, all I could picture doing in response was attempting a lay-up.

The Flag Day ceremony itself is open to guests and family members, and the orientation staff does its best to make things as exciting as possible. For each post, a small flag is held up, and the class is asked to call out the name of the country it represents. Once the country is determined, the name of the person to be stationed there is called, and she or he comes forward to claim the flag, pose for a brief photo, shake hands with the staff, and receive a folder with orders enclosed. There's a lot of cheering and picture taking, and on the whole everyone is very excited and pleased with their postings. Those people who are not pleased do a good job of hiding their feelings, though occasional surprise or dismay did seep through.

As for myself, I have been posted to a consulate in Japan. Even though I had expected this, and had bid the post as 'high', I must admit to feeling a bit disappointed in some sense. My earlier vacillation aside, I would love to be going to some new and exciting place, with lots of hardship and danger; it feels like a defeat to be returning to a place I already know so intimately. However, I know that I can do the most good with this posting, and I'm sure there will be time for danger and difficulty later in my career. Japan will be an excellent place to get my feet wet. And I'm definitely excited to be revamping my language skills and reconnecting with Japanese friends.

Going to Japan is a good thing.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Maintaining Composure

The second week of smaller group activities has included sessions on public speaking and question answering. They've been able to fit a surprisingly large amount of advice and example scenarios into a relatively short period of time, and I have truly found it helpful. I'm more impressed now watching people answer questions on TV than I was prior to this week -- there's definitely a skill to public performance which goes beyond simply knowing the material. Trying to envision myself deftly deflecting questions and discussing policy isn't the easiest of tasks, but surely not even the most adept of public speakers started out that way.

My own particular practice speech went fairly well... right up until the point I became overwhelmed with emotion, burst into tears, and couldn't continue. In retrospect this has become more amusing than embarrassing -- definitely a lesson on knowing which topics to avoid. For sure, I'll never talk about steel tariffs again.

(No, no; just kidding -- I was actually talking about the need for cultural exchange, and got tripped up when I tried to address the value I placed on the relationships I formed in Japan. The combination of nerves and strong memories was just a little more than I could handle. But I did -- no joke -- manage to sing the first verse and chorus of the Japanese version of "Suwannee River" during my intro, and I think I ought to get bonus points for that. The nerve-induced excessive voice wavering just made it sound more like enka.)

Practicing answering tough questions in a public forum was a little more interesting than just sweating out making it through (in my case, half) a speech. We were given a scenario the night before the practice (you're speaking to students in China, you're talking to American expats in Columbia, etc.), went home and did a bit of research on the region's policy issues, and then the next day our groups fired questions at us in an attempt to recreate the sort of atmosphere American representatives often encounter. Most people were in press room scenarios, but mine happened to be a cocktail party in India. I had researched the recent meeting between Prime Minister Singh and President Bush, but still I wasn't quite as on top of my answers as I could have been. The thing is, people hardly ever ask about the 'issues' -- question topics ranged from racism to terrorism. It was pretty true to what I had encountered as a private citizen during my time overseas. I would imagine that as an official US representative, things get even more heated.

One part of all this which I am looking forward to is actually having the answers to the 'tough questions'. Sometimes in London, or even in Japan, I found myself caught off guard and floundering -- such as when a South African girl at a dorm birthday party demanded to know why the US had supported apartheid, or when a priest from Northern Africa verbally attacked me on a train for US agricultural policy. It seems like everyone always knows a little bit about America, and is insulted when the little bit you know about their country doesn't exactly coincide with their particular concern. Every person's concerns are always different; it's hard for even the most well-read American to be familiar with everything.

In that vein, for those of you going to foreign cocktail parties, you can always find official American goverment postions on the Department of State International Issues website. You don't have to agree with the US position, but it's always helpful to know what it is.

Next week, we find out where our first postings will be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Gaining Insight

Last week we split up into three smaller groups, which has made class discussion and organization considerably easier. Parallelling the move to smaller group size, we've also begun looking at particular issues in a more fine-grained way. This has been enlightening on several fronts.

Most importantly, I had no idea that the State Department handled so many different issues. Of course, I had anticipated that the diplomatic scene would be different from country to country, but it's truly amazing what all we are involved in. Combatting drug use, stopping trafficking in persons, dealing with border disputes, aiding in the detection of money laundering groups... The list goes on and on and on. Even if we're not direct participants in a matter, we often act as mediator or contact point for groups that are. The variety of foreign and domestic agencies we deal with is sometimes surprising (for example, who knew that State and the Coast Guard were so intimately involved?). Being a Foreign Service Officer is not just about diplomacy; it really is about furthering broader democratic values, such as human rights and the rule of law. This thought is both comforting and daunting.

The end result is that, for such a small organization, we have a lot of bases to cover. The sheer depth of knowledge each issue requires is mind boggling, and I wonder if I'll be able to keep up with it all. My father told me once that many doctors go into specialties because restricting your claim of knowledge to a very small area is a safe way to avoid criticism and self-doubt. I definitely understand that temptation. If I learn something, I like to understand it completely inside and out before I take on any single portion of it. But as a Generalist*, I have to be able to step into any job at any post at any time. I think a lot of us are wondering how successful we'll be at these constant transitions.

Despite these slight misgivings, I am more proud now of being involved with this Department than I have been at any time since my hiring. Administrations come and go, policies change, but the commitment State has to overarching ideals of basic human freedoms and values has remained consistently high. The "Service" side of Foreign Service is becoming more meaningful for me.


*The Foreign Service hires both 'Generalists'; i.e., your typical FS Officer; and 'Specialists', people who focus on either administration, construction engineering, IT, international information/english language programs, medical services, office management, or security. The security specialists in particular are interesting, in that some of them have the power to make arrests.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

MBTI

As an addendum to the Offsite post, I think it might be prudent to mention the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). One's Myers-Briggs type is based on Jungian psychological type models; most people nowadays seem very familiar with it, so I won't go into it here in great detail. If you are unfamiliar with it and would like to know more, here is a link you can use:

Brief Explanation of Myers-Briggs

FSI uses Myers-Briggs as part of training; in fact, at offsite it played a part in determining group structure. If you're coming to FSI, you will be administered the MBTI test during the first couple of weeks. The type break-down of the orientation group is made known to the class (though no one's individual type is made known without permission).

My own Myers-Briggs type is INTJ. Some sources I've read estimate that this type is less than 1% of the general population; the highest estimate I've ever read is 3%. Thus, I was rather surprised to see that there were 7 of us in a group of about 86 people. In fact, the girl who sits next to me is also an INTJ. This is the first time I can recall in which I've been able to observe someone with the same type as myself. (Though naturally, we hardly talk to each other...) It's been an interesting part of my experience here.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Offsite Team Building

This is rather a tricky post, as I've been expressly told not to talk about specifics of the offsite. But I think if I stick to my usual path of generalities, all will be well. It certainly marked a departure from the other training days, and as such deserves some discussion.

Offsite teambuilding is a three day affair. All of us go out to 'the woods' to get to understand a little more about our own particular leadership styles, as well as our comforts and discomforts involving working in groups. I believe there is also some intent of having us 'get to know one another' better, but I must admit to this having been a secondary activity for me. One thing I've learned over the years -- and reinforced at this offsite course -- is that I'm very task driven. Mingling and 'getting to know one another' is a process with no set closure, and a difficult one for me to undertake. It's not that I don't care about you, where you come from, or why you're here; it's just that that information might not be particularly relevant to the whatever task or goal I happen to have at the time. Thus, what occurred at the party:

As part of our FS training, we are asked to volunteer to work on any one of various planning committees for extracurricular course events. There are committees for the swearing-in ceremony, general social events, finances (i.e., dues gathering), and so forth. The committee I ended up with was "Offsite Representational Events," something I gravitated to out of all of the choices because it seemed to promise spending time in the woods communing with nature. What it was, of course, was planning two parties, one for each night of offsite attendance. They are called 'events' mainly for quasi-legal reasons (something I discovered when I phoned the offsite location to ask where the nearest keg distributor might be; no one likes a 90+ person 'party' being held at their resort).

I volunteered to be committee chair because no one else seemed to want to, and because, by gum, I came here to be challenged and stretch myself! The coordination went fine. Each of our parties had a theme ("Survivor: FSI" and "Tacky American Tourist"), and decorations, food, music were all in line. All the committee members really pitched in and took responsibility and initiative. I can honestly say that it went truly swimmingly, and I think everyone enjoyed it.

During the parties, however, I found myself doing something that seemed to make others uncomfortable: party maintenance. I made sure the CD got changed in the player, and that it didn't rain on the expensive donated stereo. I replaced the empty chip bag with a full one, and picked up dirty cups and bottles to recycle. When the light started to wane, I moved the food and drink tables closer to the tiki torches. I made sure there were always enough mixers, and brought food items over to whatever small groups started to form. Besides sending out encouraging email messages to my committee members ("Hey, thanks for going to buy the wine. Who's on top of getting napkins?"), I think this was probably all the work I actually did for the parties.

Throughout all this, I kept getting comments like, "Katie, relax! Stop cleaning and have a drink...," "You can't possibly be enjoying yourself," and (my personal favorite) "Are you sure you don't want any help?" I didn't actually need any help, but if I'm crawling around your feet picking up cigarette butts, do you really need direction as to how you can assist me? But I digress...

At any rate, people kept telling me how guilty my supposed 'selflessness' was making them feel. When actually, I was just performing a coping mechanism which would allow me to avoid any semblance of small talk. At various points people did manage to corner me and converse, but all I could think about during those times was whether or not the keg might be running out, and if I shouldn't be getting the back-up beer out of the fridge. That sort of inattention to others makes me feel guilty. I feel like I ought to care more about what's being said than about possible empty salsa bowls. But there you go. For better or for worse, I'm more of a Martha than a Mary.

If you're still reading after that long detour, then let me apologize for not talking more about offsite specifics. Really, I'm not allowed to tell you exactly what went on. But I think the party scenarios were pretty good examples of the sorts of things you learn during the offsite training. The teambuilding activities weren't physicaly strenuous, but they did help me to understand more about how groups can work together, which group role works best for me, and how groups relate to one another within the State Department. I went in rather dubious as to how beneficial it would be, and was pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

My Bid List (The Personal Stuff)

Today I met with my CDO -- the guy who will represent me in the meeting that determines where we'll all be going. I really like him and am glad to have him as an advocate. It's also helpful that he is very forthright, and didn't hesitate to tell me that my strategy of bidding based on acquiring a 'world' (i.e., widely used) language probably wouldn't work out. There are just too many Spanish and French speakers within the Department for them to spend time training me to go to Columbia or Togo at this point. Not to say it couldn't happen. Just that it's not likely.

Now Arabic, on the other hand... Chinese... Apparently if I bid high on posts with these sorts of languages, the Department would be delighted to accommodate me.

And it makes sense. My MLAT score (a rough quantification of language learning ability) was higher than average, and I already have experience with one difficult language. I wouldn't really mind learning another. But now that my whole bidding strategy based on world languages has been rebuffed, I'm faced with a question I realize I've been avoiding: Where do I want to go?

The truth is, I don't know. I honest to goodness don't know. I was really hoping to look at the bid list -- this huge bid list, with a good sampling of posts from all over the world -- and think, "Yes! That's it! All this time, I've been wishing I were in Bamako!" But that didn't happen. I look at it and feel very little sentiment at all. Maybe I just feel a little tired. I think I am overwhelmed by a choice I don't feel educated enough to make.

So, what to do? My final bid list is due by Monday morning. I guess at this point I'm just trying to decide if I really want to be in D.C. for another year for language training before I head out. My gut reaction is no, I want to get out and actually start doing something. But perhaps that's too hasty. Really, I'm just hoping I get sent to Japan for my first post so I'll have more time to think about all this.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bid Lists (The Technical Stuff)

Probably the first question asked by every person who joins the Foreign Service is, where am I going? The answer to this question lies in your class' bid list. Roughly speaking, the bid list is simply the list of all available open positions. It includes the region & name of each post, the type of position open at that post, when it opens, which (if any) language the job requires, and the difficulty and danger (each rated out of a highest possible 25 points) associated with the post. It is delivered in table format, and looks something like this:

BUREAU
POST
POSITION
TED
LANGUAGE
DIFDGR
WHABOGOTA(2)
CON
10/05
QB 3/3
515
NEADAMASCUS
ECON
08/06
AD 2/0
155
SANEW DELHI
PD
XXX
HJ
20 
EAPMANILA
CON
12/05
TA 2/2
20 
EURPARIS
CON
NOW
FR 3/3
  
WHAVANCOUVER
POL
NOW
   

(Please note that this table is strictly fictional, and has no bearing on any actual bid list...)

For the most part these lists are pretty self explanatory, with the exception of a few of the language codes (for instance, you may have noted that 'QB' is the code for Spanish). The numbers next to the languages indicate the speaking/reading level of language achievement required from a scale of 0 to 5 (5 being native fluency). If there are no numbers, it means the language would be helpful, but isn't strictly required. For TED (Time of Estimated Departure), the dates are mainly important when considering one's language fluency in relation to post requirements. For example, learning Arabic for the Damascus post might be do-able since it's over a year away; the Paris post requires an immediate departure, making French training impossible. People with already established language competency will be sent to these 'NOW' posts -- regardless of their bidding requests -- if there is no one else to fill the position. So if you're fluent in Tagalog but don't particularly want to go to Manila, just remember that the needs of the State Department will trump your own desires (assuming there are no extenuating circumstances which absolutely prevent you from going).

And for those of you thinking, "Then I just wouldn't test in Tagalog," keep in mind that the Foreign Service requires all officers to become competent in at least one language before being tenured (i.e., within 3 to 5 years). Until you prove competency, you are on 'Language Probation'. If you already know a language, especially a difficult one, it is in your longterm interest to declare it.

The 'XXX' TED indicates that the job has been newly created at that post, so there is more leeway in determining when you will be sent.

Difficulty and danger ratings (generally lumped together and termed 'hardship') affect whether or not one can bring Extended Family Members (EFMs) to post. Some hardship posts allow adult EFMs, and some allow none; for those officers with families, this is often a large consideration when bidding. If you have a family and do not wish to be separated, the Department is very good about keeping people together whenever humanly possible. Hardship ratings may also have some positive affect on pay, as one is compensated monetarily for the hardship. Serving at a hardship post increases your chance of getting your top pick from the bid list for your next tour of duty, and may also be good for promotions.

Positions available at the junior level are most often consular (CON) positions, which means one would be handling visas and assisting travelling Americans. There are five career 'cones' to choose from (Consular, Public Diplomacy, Economics, Management, and Politics), but officers are considered generalists, and as such must be willing to take on any job as needed. Within the first two posts, the Department requires that an officer serve at least one Consular tour.

Numbers next to the post names, such as the (2) next to Bogota, indicate that there are two openings for that job at the post.

The regional bureau tells you which office the posting is under. These regional offices are grouped together based mainly on geography, but also on Departmental areas of emphasis. Thus you have WHA (Western Hemisphere), EAP (East Asia Pacific), SA (South Asia), NEA (Near East Asia), EUR (Europe), and AF (Africa). Some people attempt to manuever their bidding so that they can stay only in one region, effectively 'majoring' in that area. Personally, I'm bidding based on the desire for broader language training, hoping to see as much of the available world as possible!

In my own class of 80+ people, there is a post for every person. For bidding, the department asks that we list each available position as either 'High', 'Medium', or 'Low', depending on the level of our desire to go there. This has been somewhat difficult, less due to the number of posts (the State Department provides ample research materials on each location), but more because I'm not sure really what my priorities should be. Today we turned in our draft bid lists, and later this week we have one-on-one meetings with our CDOs (equivalent to military 'detailers') to help us make final decisions. I think I'm doing the right thing.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Week in Review

One week down, and my overall feeling is a good one. As the jetlag has worn off and I've reached a state of greater equilibrium, things are much easier to take in and digest. Still, I am grateful for the current long weekend.

Much of what we learn the first week pertains to broad matters of protocol, presented in what the instructors have termed "the firehose method" -- blasting us with as much information as possible, presumably with the notion that something is bound to stick. Generally speaking, this has resulted in long lectures, often with little content directly applicable to one's own situation. These can be a struggle to sit through. However, given the great number of us in the orientation and the even greater variety of programs, departments, agencies, positions, and peoples involved in the Foreign Service, I can't honestly come up with a better orientation method. A lot of what we're hearing seems only tangentially important now, but might be crucial a post or two down the road.

Thus, I find myself trying to take things in wholesale, much as a snake would go about swallowing an elephant. Hopefully when the time comes I'll be able to spit up the bones of something relevant.

Clothing has been more of a problem than I anticipated. Even though I packed out early enough that my UAB is already in D.C., actual delivery is only an option from 8am-5pm. Thus I'm having to wait until next Friday (when instructors have indicated we can leave class if necessary) to receive my stuff. Beside the fact that this leaves my patronizingly bland apartment in its sad, pale state for another week, it also means I have to recycle a lot of clothing.

This wouldn't normally bother me. Those of you who know me know that I'm not adverse to wearing the same pair of shorts / shoes / trousers / underwear etc. all year round (with appropriate washing, of course). The problem is that much of the clothing which seemed very smart and professional in the Ross and Macy's in Hawaii assumes a whole new persona in Washington, D.C. Suddenly I feel as if Stevie Nicks could comfortably pull pieces from my closet to prepare for her next tour. I have inadvertantly arrived ready for a night of clubbing instead of a day of orientation in a town which could only reasonably be termed "fashion-oppressive."

So, if you are coming to D.C., go ahead and stock up on the suit sets. Whatever it is you're wearing, make sure it looks good with a jacket. Cut off those cute little embellishments which seemed so trendy at the time of purchase. Go for structure and a tailored fit over loose and flowy. And remember that, if you're here in the summer, you're going to sweat. You're going to sweat all over that crisp, clean collared shirt and that expensive jacket. Don't expect to comfortably wear the same item in a week more than twice, max. And since it will take at least 2 weeks to receive your UAB, that should give you a pretty good idea of how many suits you're going to need.

Finally, some items you should bring to the first week of orientation:

  • Your passport. Other forms of government id (such as a drivers license) require backup identification, such as a social security card. A passport will be faster and easier to deal with.

  • Copies of your travel orders. This first week I've already needed to turn over one copy; I've been told others might be necessary.

  • Banking information. Specifically, the routing number for the bank account you want the per diem and travel advance to be sent to. I brought this the first day "just in case" and was lucky to have had it on me.

  • If you are like me and filled out all of your forms ahead of time, you might want to bring a book or magazine. Some sessions are nothing but instructions for those people (a lot of people) who did not feel comfortable completing the forms on their own.


This weekend I'll explain the bid list.

Happy (early) Fourth of July.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

First Day

First day of orientation is rather like you probably all have pictured: a lot of people crowded into a small room, wearing dark suits, slowly oozing sweat, and undertaking one hundred conversations all beginning with, "So, where are you from?" while nervously fingering coffee cups. I was no exception, though being rather addled with the timechange made everything a bit more oblique and fuzzy. The timechange excuse will most likely lose validity as the days go on, but I plan to milk it for all it's worth in the interim. 11:00pm and I'm wide wide awake!

Suit wearing on the first day is a (perhaps unofficial) requirement. Stepping out boldly, I opted for dark brown as opposed to the customary black. While not the only one in non-black, I can honestly say I was the only one in brown. And that's out of 86 people. Of course, I think I was also the only one nodding off while standing, and shooing away offers of coffee on the grounds that it was a diuretic and I was wearing pantyhose. I'm not sure whom I made that comment to, but I am sure he and I will be fast friends.

Naturally, they took pictures the first day. I vaguely recall this happening. The photographer and I share the same last name, but with different spellings. This was an issue he felt required some discussion, so that my photo shoot marked the only break in his 'focus - click - "next"' rhythm. It is a picture I look forward to seeing the way one might anticipate a root canal. Which is to say, not at all.

There were some genuinely nice moments. One was the actual swearing in, done very informally and quickly out in the lobby before classes started. Though apparently only a formality needed to qualify us for our paychecks (a more formal swearing in takes place at the end of the orientation), it was nice to hear us all recite our pledge at the same time. You could look around and see people blinking in surprise at the suddenness of it, as if they'd just stepped out into the sun.

Most of the class discussion consisted of various explanations and form signing, which was fine. Having read fairly thoroughly the material we'd already been sent, I felt adequately up to speed on everything -- fortunate, as I was really regretting not taking that coffee somewhere around the second or third talk.

Oh, we also received our bid lists (the list of openings to which we can be posted). More on that later.

And one final note: "fully furnished" in apartment lingo does not mean your apartment will provide a hairdryer. Which is why I'm taking a shower now instead of tomorrow morning.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Departure

Looking for Pele at Kilauea


I returned the day before yesterday from my trip to the Big Island, and leave today for my trip to D.C. I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting, though it seems hardly possible given that my luggage weighs as much as my entire UAB. No one needs this much clothing -- except for me, apparently.

Nene Crossing


I feel calm and tense by turns. Are three books enough for nine hours of flight? This rushed travel seems uncivil. I'd love to be boarding an ocean liner, with the tickertape send-off, and the deck chairs scattered over the white surface of the ship.

Lava found at last


Four hours till take off. I suppose I should take a shower now.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pyromania

Tomorrow is my packout. For the past few days, I've been waking up feeling stressed. Not stressed in an abstract, brow-knitting kind of way, but really physically stressed. I can feel the adrenaline coursing around in my body, as if my blood were searching for an exit. My skin has developed a thrumming pulse all its own.

With the exception of a few odds and ends (papers to file, old pictures to sort through), all of my belongings are piled in my room. Following protocol, there is a storage pile and an apartment pile. Everything breakable has been photographed and documented; books have been catalogued. Preparations for clothes packing are underway. And I have survived a moment of sheer terror, when I discovered my unbelievably obese cat attempting to gingerly make her way across the glassware and picture frames to inspect some dustmote in the corner.

Still, for all that, I have this intense desire to light a match and throw it in.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Resolution

Things are well: my ticket to D.C. has been arranged, my pack-out date is set, and some very kind people from a past Foreign Service class have been sending me steady "Don't Panic" information via my new email address. No travel orders as of yet, but apparently my letter of hire will serve the same purpose in the interim. Actually, I find that -- with everything 'settled' -- I have very little to do. How pleasant.

Yesterday someone from the moving company came to survey my things. According to the piece of paper he handed me to sign, I officially own 1,940 pounds of belongings. By my figurings, this weight is mostly made up of books and art. In fact, getting everything together reminded me that all I own are books, a queen bed, and tons and tons of framed art. I may not have any dishes, but I'm very cultured. (Okay, that's a lie -- I have a box of dishes in the closet. But isn't it romantic to imagine living with only books and art?)

Of that 1,940 pounds, up to 250 can be shipped as Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) which will go with me to my new apartment. The rest will go into a storage locker in D.C. I'm having some slight difficulty in winnowing out which books to take with me to the apartment, and which to store. In order to assist in this task, I recently purchased the New York Public Library's "Your Home Library" book cataloging software (I realize I could have made my own database with Excel, but this was only $7 at Borders and came with a cool-looking binder). Entering each title, subject, etc. is far more time-consuming than I had originally anticipated, but also far more rewarding. You tend to forget your books over time; it's nice just to hold them and remember the way they made you feel.

The pack-out is on the 16th. I leave for D.C. on the 24th. Dad bought me and my youngest sister (now home for the summer from college) a trip to the Big Island to fill up the time inbetween those two dates. I hope that doesn't make me spoiled.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Packing, Housing, Travel, Turtles

As I type this, I've been on hold with American Express for just over an hour. They have lovely classical music playing on loop into my numb ear. No telling how much longer this may last.

The reason that I'm calling American Express is that they are in charge of arranging my travel from here in Hawaii to D.C. Today is the 1st of June; training starts on the 27th -- I figure I need to arrive in D.C. at least by the 25th. Maybe if I start swimming now, I'll arrive just as American Express is taking my call.

Of course, this isn't really American Express' fault. Apparently, I could have called them at anytime over the past month, despite the fact that the literature the FS sent me explicitly says not to arrange anything until I have travel orders in hand. Turns out this rule is more of a suggestion. I discovered this this morning when I finally got ahold for the first time of the person in charge of arranging travel orders for new hires. She said she's sort of swamped and would call back... eventually. So currently I have no orders, no packout date, no tickets, and enough of American Express' tinny version of Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata to last me a lifetime.

On the bright side, however, I have secured housing in D.C. (Pause for brief trumpet blast and confetti burst). I'll be residing only a block away from the Rosslyn metro station, which means I'll not only have access to the city, but also the free shuttle which will take me to the training facility. The apartment rent is completely covered by per diem* for the first 4 months, half for the next 2 months, and then goes up to a rate I can not afford (i.e., the normal rate) for each month after that. Thus, here's hoping that training only lasts for 6 months, or I'll be having to move...

To find this apartment, I called Nancy Schatz with Interim Housing Solutions. She was very helpful, and I highly recommend her to anyone needing temporary housing in D.C. A group I do not recommend is Bridgestreet. The person I talked with was over-slick and needlessly pushy.

Well, now it's been an hour and a half. With any luck, calling American Express at 3am EST will be more effective.

And on a totally different note, the other day I saw sea turtles at a North Shore beach. Probably one of the best things I've experienced in Hawaii thus far.



*Per diem is a daily allowance the government pays its workers for temporary housing and food. For D.C., the housing rate is $153/day for the first 60 days, with the rate decreasing by half for the next 60 days, and half again for 60 days after that. Housing costs which fall below that rate are not reimbursed, and of course the worker is responsible for anything above the rate. The allowance for food is $48/day (also decreasing over time); unlike housing allowances, the food allowance is awarded even if your actual food costs are less. Per diem is a matter of public record, so (unsurprisingly) most apartments list rental rates for government employees at exactly $153/day.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Paper Trail

My packet of explanatory papers finally arrived, exactly 2 weeks and a day after I faxed my updated resume to the FS. I actually saw the FedEx truck pull up outside, and opened the door just as the deliveryman was raising his hand to knock. It doesn't look like many of the forms have been updated since the last training class -- many of them say 'return by November 30, 2004'. But I've been so eager to receive them, any minor flaws aren't going to bother me.

In addition to information on salary, moving procedures, etc., the packet also included a quarter-inch high stack of forms for me to sign. That might not sound like a lot, but it was enough to take me a day or two to fully go through. Life insurance, healthcare providers, retirement plans, tax forms, beneficiaries... There's a lot to decide. Even though I've been wanting these things, I feel too young to be seriously thinking about them. It's like I'm playing Foreign Service dress-up. Using a crayon to sign my name would have somehow been more honest.

The three most important papers are the FS employment contract, the policy agreement (part of which says I must be professionally supportive of U.S. policy, even if I don't personally agree with it -- this was the hardest thing for me to sign), and the medical history update. These had to be signed and faxed right away. Yet, upon opening the packet, these were not the papers on top of the pile. The form on top was a bright orange pamphlet titled "Achieving a Drug-Free Workplace" (sadly no little plastic cup was enclosed -- you know something's official when you're giving urine).

Salary-wise, I'm pleased that my MA has put me in a higher bracket. I honestly (perhaps stupidly) didn't know that having an MA would do that. The difference in salary between having it and not means that the cost of tuition will effectively be recouped within 3 years.

Now I've just got to figure out where in D.C. to live and what to pack.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Unease

This morning while casually reading through the paper, I came across a brief mention of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya which killed 224 people. And for the first time, I think, I seriously considered the fact that what I'm doing might very well lead to my death. By taking this job, I could die. I could die in a gritty and horrible manner. I felt a real wave of fear which left me with knots in my stomach.

This surprised me. I really can't think of much that I'm afraid of -- certainly some vague, statistically unlikely possibility of death was never high on the list. But maybe it's the very unlikeliness of it which makes it so daunting. Now the probability has been raised just enough to make the chance seem real, yet not enough to justify drastic steps to safeguard against it. I suppose something about that balance is the root of unease.

The faceless, almost banal quality of this sort of death bothers me as well. The paper this morning is full of stories about the military personnel who have died fighting overseas, but mentions of embassy bombings warrant little more than a blurb on the back page. It disturbs me to think that this is how I could end. It disturbs me to think that 224 people died in Kenya, and I have no idea who they are.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Civic Duties

Yesterday I wrote a second set of letters to my Congressmen, voicing a few concerns. And today I sent the Honolulu paper a letter to the editor, hoping to raise some awareness locally, too. It's a bit daunting to think that U.S. policies are now going to directly impact me not just as a citizen, but also as a representative of the government. I have to defend the laws and contracts being passed in our legislature. It's amazing how civic minded that makes one...

I don't know if letters and such really make that big a difference, but if we don't tell our representatives what we think, we don't have much license to complain when they don't do what we want. At any rate, I would certainly encourage people to voice their opinions. For U.S. citizens, it's relatively easy. You can find the addresses (email and post) of all congressional representatives at the following website:

Congress.org

I'm not a big fan of all the reactionary soapbox stuff that gets posted on the above site, but it is very handy to have all the addresses of every official all in one place. You'll need to know the zipcode of where you're actually registered (for me it's Florida, though I'm living in Hawaii); there's not much use in writing people who don't represent you.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Impatient Rambling

Some preliminary research into the sort of training I'll be undergoing has revealed few specifics. This seems to be partly by design (I repeatedly find references to requests from the FS itself that details of the training and application process not be discussed), but due also in part to the broad nature of the work itself. Each posting will have its own unique set of requirements and challenges. This brings to mind all the reserved advice people gave when I was joining the JET Program.

One thing which surprised me was how few people the FS actually employs. According to the 2003 edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy, the FS "is made up of 11,000 Americans, two-thirds of whom staff our 259 embassies and consulates abroad and one-third of whom work in Washington, D.C." Each embassy also employs local staff from within the host country, and these Foreign Service Nationals add about 30,000 people to the FS staff. Of course, both sets of numbers are probably slightly higher now that we've further engaged Iraq and Afghanistan. As of 2005, there are only 25 countries not home to a U.S. embassy or consulate*, and all but a handful of those are under the perview of a U.S. embassy in a neighboring country.
    (You're probably wondering why I'm being so detailed. Truthfully, I'm halfway afraid of being subjected to some sort of popquiz my first day of training.)

    I also now know that my eventual destination won't be fixed until my 6th week of training. I keep assuming that I'll end up in Japan, but it's really not safe to assume anything at this point. Other trainees' typical bid lists are about 25 to 30 countries long, and pretty varied. Wherever it is I go, I most likely won't be staying there more than a year; they tend to move the junior officers around quite frequently.

    As I'm typing this, I'm listening to William Shatner perform a cover of the Pulp song "Common People," and it's disturbingly good.

    *for those of you who care, those countires are: Andorra, Antigua & Barbuda, Bhutan, Comoros, Dominica, Guinea & Bissau, Iran, Kirbati, North Korea, Libya, Liechtenstein, Maldives, Monaco, Nauru, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome & Principe, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

    Monday, May 02, 2005

    The End of Waiting

    It has been approximately one year since I sat down to the Foreign Service written exam. At that time I was living in London in a cramped East End flat, trying to convince myself that the MA I was earning really would lead to some sort of job, and that toiling away in the British Library feeding books to my obsession with concepts of Self and Other was an entirely healthy and natural thing to do. And now, in Hawaii, a million miles away from London and the British Library Cafe's lovely cups of latte, I find myself contemplating a whole new life occupying new and different cramped rooms in far off lands -- this time for the good of my country. And this time, getting paid.

    After all the rigamarole about medical clearances and background checks, the emailed job offer was rather anticlimactic. But as the realities of the situation are slowly dawning on me, I find I'm becoming more excited. Putting in my 2 weeks notice at my current job was blissful -- I will never ever ever ever ever ever ever work retail again as long as I live. Instead, I'll be doing something impactful and meaningful and dashing and brave. And -- not to get too mundane here -- I'll have health benefits! A retirement plan! I had scarcely dared to dream of this before...