Sunday, December 22, 2013

On the road again . . .

After wrapping up my stint at FSI with a successful language exam (hooray!), I'm now en route to my next post in Mexico.  I'm a little nervous, a little excited, and a little hopeful.  This is one of the reasons I joined the Foreign Service - I always found that I got easily bored at my old jobs after a couple of years, and this is a way to keep things fresh.  Plus, the travel.  For me, that's a huge bonus.  However, I had an interesting conversation with a relative a few days ago.  I was encouraging him to take the FS entrance exam, and he said, "Your international move on Wednesday hinged on the outcome of a language exam on Friday.  I just can't live with that level of uncertainty in my life."

It struck me that many people couldn't live with it.  And I won't pretend I wasn't just a wee bit stressed out on Friday.  But if I had failed the exam, I would have made arrangements to stay longer in D.C., and I would have moved a few weeks later.  And it would have been fine.  I wasn't THAT stressed.  And maybe that's really the key thing that determines success in this career for us all - the ability to deal with that level of uncertainty.  Everyone in the Service is reasonably smart, articulate, and traveled (usually).  But not everyone deals with stress and uncertainty well.  Right now, I do.  I even thrive on it a little.  Fifteen years from now?  We'll see.

As an aside, the regulations were changed in the last couple of years to lower the maximum mileage one must drive while relocating to an average of 360 miles per day.  At first, that seemed laughably low.  Now, I get it.  If you're making the drive solo, you can drive for 8-10 hours a day, with the window down and a hot cup of coffee and the radio turned up high.  That can even be fun.  However, I'm traveling with my Mom, who has an aching back and can't stand loud music.  The dog paces and whines in the backseat after a couple of hours, and the cat starts protesting from the moment she is shoved back in her travel bag until the moment she arrives in a new hotel room.  After 5-6 hours of this, I cannot WAIT to get out of the car and let everyone rest a while. 

Happy Holidays - see you on the flip side.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Moving on - home leave and training

Home leave is a mandatory period of time that Foreign Service employees must spend in the United States between tours.  It's intended to re-acclimate you to your home country, and now that I've completed my first assignment and home leave period, I finally understand why it's such an important provision.  Even though I was living in a first world country, the culture was very different than the culture in the U.S.  Everything works differently - the bus, the post office, the grocery store.  Similar, but different.  I've been  home now for three months, and I'm just now feeling like I fit here.  I'm grateful that I had a few weeks to reconnect with my family and manage my reverse culture shock before starting Spanish classes.

I've been in training for a few weeks, and it's a nice interlude before the start of my next adventure.  I will be in language training until December, and while there are small frustrations, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to learn Spanish.  The best part?  Spanish speaking people, in their collective wisdom, have a word for y'all.  It's a weakness in the Queen's English that has long been corrected with this Southern slang, but it's nice to have "more than one you" codified and legitimized in the language.  There does not appear to be an equivalent for "all y'all" (meaning, of course, more than one group of youse guys) but I can live with that. 

Hasta luego, y'all.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Goodbye Asia

I said my bittersweet goodbyes to Singapore - there are so many wonderful things and people there that I will miss - and I reluctantly packed my stuff and shuffled out of the country.  My last few weeks were filled with "one more times" for favorite restaurants and places.  I sincerely hope to be posted there again someday.

Also, before I left, I had time for a few last forays into Southeast Asia.  Quick trips to Bali, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  A wonderful trip to mystical Bhutan, which will get a post of its own one day. My final trip, however, was a two week cruise through China, Japan and South Korea.  I had not thought to go to China again on this tour, as I was less than impressed by an earlier visit to Beijing (although it was marvelous to see my friends there).  However, I very much wanted to see South Korea and Japan, and I was hesitant to travel on my own due to the language barrier.  I'm so glad I went back!  My China experience was different this time around.

The first day was so clear!
Older market area

First, I toured frenetic Shanghai. I have friends posted here, so it was nice to see them and have a quick visit.

Skyline on Day 2 - smoggier today

Then, instead of returning to Beijing, I went to the Great Wall.  Although it had the worst bathroom I have ever experienced anywhere in the world (by a significant margin), I was floored by the sheer enormity of the thing.

A market in which I could read nothing, understand nothing, and recognize nothing.  It was awesome.

I only had a short time in South Korea, but it was a wonderful experience and I hope to go back.  I had one of the best street-vendor snacks EVER.  They fry these little pancake-type things with a small amount of a sweet paste in the middle, and then slice open the hot pastry with scissors and

spoon in a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, seeds and nuts.  For a dollar.  I waited fifteen minutes in a line that curved around the cart to buy one, and I wish I'd bought two.  Or maybe three.  It was divine.

I also toured the Busan fish market.  I've been to Pike in Seattle, so I thought I knew fish markets.  Nope.  THIS was a FISH MARKET.  And despite my fears, the air was fresh, not choked with a briny fishy smell.  I'm not a big seafood fan, but I enjoyed gaping at the aquatic novelties.

Multiple seaweed choices
Reminds me forcibly of Nemo
You can buy them roasted, too

Although I didn't see Tokyo on this trip, I loved, loved, loved Japan.  I started in Nagasaki, and visited the Peace Park.  It's hard to imagine what it must have been like there when the bomb dropped, and I pray we never go through anything like that in my time.  Luckily, I was in the country while the cherry blossoms were in full swing.

Also, I'm wildly curious why the Japanese toilets haven't caught on worldwide.  Heated seats, front and back bidets, warm air dryers - these things are wonderful!!  I never really thought too much about toilets on my travels, but having experienced the world's worst and the world's best in the space of ten days, one cannot help but reflect a bit on the whole bathroom experience.

Goodbye, Asia!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thoughts on entering the twilight of my tour

I love Singapore.  I believe that I was incredibly lucky to get come here for my first post, and I've had great opportunities that not all first tour officers enjoy.  I've been on TDY a few times, I've traveled all over Asia, and I got the chance to work a Secretary visit.  People told me when I first arrived that I'd get tired of Singapore, and that I would get bored because it's so small.  I can happily report that has not been the case for me.  There are restaurants I haven't tried, neighborhoods I haven't visited, and small islands to the south I haven't explored.  However, I have traveled out of the country quite a bit (and I have a few trips on deck in the coming weeks) and I only have six months left at post.  Once you back out the weekends I'll be away, I really only have 15 weekends or so remaining to enjoy Singapore.  That doesn't seem like quite enough time to fully finish exploring, and I just can't figure out where all the time went.

Speaking of exploring, one of our foreign national coworkers took us through the temporary night market set up during Ramadan this year.  This photo is tiny quail, fried crispy.  Another popular item was handmade punch-like mixtures in dozens of flavors.

The only member of my household that will miss Singapore more than me is Millie the Wonder Corgi.  Specifically, Millie is very attached to our domestic helper, who spends all day with her and treats the dog like royalty.  The helper just went back to the Philippines for a vacation, and the dog moped for the entire two weeks (I might have moped a little too - it's amazing how quickly you can grow accustomed to household help).  However, Millie won't miss the rainy season in Southeast Asia.  She's afraid of thunder, and for two-three months every year, it rains and thunders A LOT.  As a matter of fact, it's thundering right now, and Millie is barking her head off, punctuated with little hops in which all four paws leave the ground at once.  Our neighbors will probably throw a party when we leave.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is wrapping up, and that's another thing that I'll miss - Singapore is a blend of cultures, and holidays from four major religions are celebrated.  During this Festival (also called the Lantern Festival), you light lanterns and eat mooncakes and pomelos.  This comes on the heels of the "Hungry Ghost" Festival, when you burn offerings and leave out food for the ghosts wandering about while the Gates of Hell are open.  The lanterns in this picture are more elaborate than most, and were erected along the Singapore River during the Festival.

There's a lantern for each year of the Chinese zodiac, and each one is telling a fable.  I recognized the animals of the zodiacs, but the only fable I knew was the one of the Lovers, who only see each other once a year.  The rest were a mystery to me, but the lanterns were elaborate and beautiful.  Among  the zodiac lanterns were other, more elaborate scenes.  Most of these were floating on barges in the water, and all of them had moving parts.

So, the bittersweet countdown of my final months is in full swing.  I will miss Singapore for the rest of my life, but I'm also ready to go home for a while.  I'm ready to shop in familiar places and eat a decent burger for less than $20.00.  I'm ready to see my friends and family, and to spend a few months in D.C. learning Spanish.  I'm even starting to look forward to Mexico.  But now I have to go - there's a few things I haven't seen, and there's not much time left.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Kuala Lumpur: The most exotic place I could think of at the time

Joining the Foreign Service is not the easiest endeavor.  After taking a rather challenging written exam, you go through a review panel process.  The panel examines some short essays you've created, along with your resume, and ranks the potential candidates.  If you exceed the cut-off point for your career track, you'll be invited to participate in the oral assessment, which is a grueling day long evaluation split into several exercises.  If you pass that, you still have to get your security clearance, medical clearance, and pass a final review panel.  After all THAT, you'll go on the register, rank-ordered by your performance score on oral assessment day, and then you MIGHT get an offer, if your score is high enough and they're hiring enough people in your career track.  Once you get on the register, the clock starts ticking.  Eighteen months later you drop off, and have to start the whole thing over again from scratch.  For that matter, fail at any step, and you have to go back to the beginning, and you're only permitted to take the written exam once every twelve months.

Not a simple process.

Worth it, but not simple.

Anyway, once I'd passed the oral exam, I was pretty sure I'd be offered a position in the FS.  My score was high enough to get me in, and I knew I'd probably pass the security clearance process.  Then I had my medical clearance, and I was waiting to hear about security, and it was really just a matter of time.  And, like every other budding diplomat who has come before me, I started dreaming about my first post.  I had a couple of co-conspirators at work (I was waiting to give notice until I actually had an offer), and we'd sequester ourselves in an office and talk in hushed tones about the Service and where I might be going.  Every week I'd focus on a new place, and dream about exotic travels.  I had international travel experience, but not much outside of South America and Europe - the farthest I'd traveled was Australia and the most interesting place I'd seen was Turkey.  I had never been to Asia at all.

I dreamed of going to Burma, Borneo, Timbuktu, Kathmandu - all far away places with interesting names that sounded so daring.  On the top of that list was Kuala Lumpur.  I have no idea why I was so fascinated - I think I really just liked the sound of the name.  I'm not sure I could have pointed to it on a map. When I received my first assignment in Singapore, and started examining the environs, I was surprised and delighted to find I would only be a stone's throw from one of my exotic "dream post" locales.  Kuala Lumpur was one of my first trips in the region.

The famous "twin towers" at night

Although it is not nearly as remote or daring as I'd first imagined (and as its unusual name might suggest), I still find the city interesting, and I list it as one of the places I'd be happy to live if I come back to the region.  I've been there a couple of times, and there's good shopping, good people-watching, and good prices, especially compared to Singapore.

Now I just need to plan a trip to Timbuktu!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Reading through some of my old posts this evening, I am remembering how I felt when I was on the outside looking in, and wanting so desperately to get "the call" and join the Foreign Service.  There's just no arguing that it's a dream job, and it's even better than I thought it would be.  If any of you out there are still "looking in," keep trying - it's worth it.

I am even starting to get excited about my next tour.  I really, really wanted a management position, since that's my cone.  However, they were few and far between for the entry level bidders on my cycle.  I need language training, and the timing requirements are pretty strict.  Plus, I'm coming from a garden spot with very little equity.  So, not surprisingly at all, my next post is in:


I'm glad I get to learn Spanish.  I want to spend some time in South America later on in my career, and Spanish opens that up for me.  I am not thrilled that I'm doing another consular tour, but I've enjoyed my consular tour in Singapore, so I think I'll be OK.  Plus, I'll be a quick plane trip from home, versus the current 24 hour epic journey it takes to get home now.  And did I mention the tacos?  Singapore does many things very well, but Mexican food is not one of them.  I'm looking forward to the tacos.  Oh, and the guacamole.  This tour is probably worth it for the food! 

Also, the hardship pay will help me put a bigger dent in my student loans.  I've been traveling all over Asia because I don't know when I'm coming back to the area.  I'll admit I don't have that same urge to travel through Mexico, and I know I'll have plenty of time to explore South America in the future.  My next tour is going to be one of fiscal responsibility!  (Wouldn't fiscal responsibility be a truly terrible name for a band?  Just sayin'.)  And there's more good news.  I get to drive my car, currently aging in storage in D.C., to my next post.  This means the cat and the corgi won't have to fly again after I get them home next spring.  Now that the government's minimum average mileage-per-day requirement (when traveling by car to relocate) has been lowered to a more reasonable goal, I'll have adequate time to safely make my way across the country with a wailing feline and nervous corgi in tow.  (The wailing felines would be a much better name for a band.  Not great, but better).

I can't believe I have less than a year left at post.  The time is speeding by!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mixed feelings about Beijing

Last fall, I had the chance to spend a long weekend in Beijing.  It was my first time in China, and I didn't have time to even scratch the surface.  My time here in Asia is so short, and there's so much to see and do, it's unlikely that I'll go back during this tour.  However, I was fascinated and saddened at the same time by my trip.

China has amazing temples.  Such intricate architecture!  Such a long, colorful history!  I liked the forbidden city, but it was very crowded.  I enjoyed the smaller, more out-of-the-way temples better.

Although people were friendly, I found they weren't exactly PC.  Chinese citizens were very blunt in our interactions.  Also, over and over I was pushed, shoved, and line jumped.  Add the grey pollution haze that hung over everything constantly, and I can see how living here might get you down.

But visiting the temples made me feel peaceful, and I loved the intricacy of the carvings and decorative details draped over everything.  I watched women roasting yams over an open fire on what looked like a giant tin can.  The monks smiled and bowed at me when I asked if I could take photos.  There was joy here.

I didn't get to see the Great Wall, among many other things.  I will probably be back.  But I have to admit it's not on the top of my list.  I like breathing.  And I value not getting an elbow in the gut when someone else decides they need to be in the space I happen to be occupying.  When determining where to spend my tourist dollars when surrounding by a plethora of choices, those things count.