Where to next?

Pretty much as soon as you arrive and settle in at your new home, you’ll start to daydream about what your next post will be.  Especially if you’re posted someplace that’s less than ideal like, for example, Shenyang.  Diplowife’s colleagues from her A100 class that arrived at their posts months before us went through the bidding process around the time we got to Shenyang last spring, so we got a preview of the process before we had to experience it.  People seemed happy with their assignments, or maybe the unhappy people just kept it to themselves.

Our turn came a couple months ago, when the summer bid list came out, and Diplowife was in the group of officers to bid for them.  This was when living in Shenyang is supposed to pay off, since it’s a high differential/hardship post and a hand-to-fill post.  Specifically, Shenyang is (as of 2017) a 25% differential, which is added to 5% for being a hard-to-fill post, giving Diplowife 30% “equity”.  Officers going into the bidding process with more than 10% equity are in “tranche A”, the ones that get to bid first.  In theory, officers in crummy posts are supposed to be rewarded with a better post in their second tour.  It doesn’t always work out like that, and one officer’s ideal post is another one’s nightmare, so it gets a bit muddy.  But overall, based on what I’ve seen so far, the CDO’s do a good job.

Diplowife sent me a copy of the bid list spreadsheet, and the FSI training schedule and I got to work.  Timing is critical, more than any other factor.  If you want to serve in a post, you need to have the timing work out, or come very close.   That means the end of your current tour, plus home leave, plus training (if any) need to equal the start date at your new post.  If you can make that happen within a week or so, that bid is “valid”.  There is some wiggle room, like leaving your old post a month early/late, or arriving at the new post early/late, which results in an “imperfect” bid.  Also, there are limits on how many weeks you can spend at FSI during your first couple tours, so if you go over the limit, that also means the bid is imperfect.  If you have to be early one place, and late in another, that bid is “invalid” and you should probably just forget about it.

Diplowife is Management-coned, so she was able to bid on Management posts, along with Consular posts (there always seems to be a shortage of Consular officers), but it was made clear that she should emphasize her cone on her bid list, because she’s already serving a consular tour, and the CDO’s really want officers to serve in their own cone, if possible.   There weren’t a lot of valid options for Diplowife, as it turned out.  I found four of them, including a dream location, two iffy places, and one of the worst posts on Earth.  Also, I scrounged up a few imperfect posts, and a bunch of valid Consular posts.   As I mentioned, the timing was the hardest part.  FSI doesn’t offer the job-specific training more than  a few times a year, so it’s difficult to get the timing right, especially if you also need language training.  All of our four valid Management posts had no language requirements.

Another difficulty was the bid list kept changing.  Every couple days a new list was released, with no indication of what the changes were.  Every time, I’d go through the new spreadsheet and mark any new posts, and determine if it was possible for Diplowife to bid on it.  Also, the FSI training schedule was inconsistent, some languages took 24 weeks in one year, and 30 weeks in another, with no clear indication of how long they’d be in 2019.  As you might guess, the 24 week classes were short enough for Diplowife to squeak under the limit, but 30 were too long.  I had to assume the higher number was correct, to avoid going over the limit.

Eventually, we reached the deadline, and turned in Diplowife’s bid list.  We had to include all four valid Management posts, even the ones we really didn’t want.  Also, we included numerous imperfect posts and even an invalid one, just to include the minimum number of in-cone bids.  The rest of the list were Consular posts in nice places, Europe mostly.

Diplowife’s bid list contained many amazing places we’d like to live, like London, Dublin, Brussels, Oslo and Milan.  On the other hand, there were posts in Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia that were less-than-ideal.  We did our best to leave out posts that we wouldn’t be able to bring our cat, but it wasn’t always possible.  On the bright side, we wouldn’t have to wait very long to get the results, the CDO’s typically only take a couple weeks to decide.  Plus, this all happened while we had Thanksgiving preparations, a trip to Hong Kong and mailing our Christmas presents home to distract us, so it could have been a lot worse.  We survived the process, and so will you.

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Sponsor Somebody; It Makes a Big Difference

When an officer and family arrive at their new post, another officer that’s been at post for a while is assigned to be the new officer’s “social sponsor”.  (There’s also a work sponsor, but I know little about that)  The social sponsor is responsible for several things, including meeting the new officer at the airport, showing them around their new home and neighborhood, setting up their new home’s welcome kit, and corresponding before the new officer’s arrival, to answer any questions they might have.

Recently, Diplowife and I volunteered to be a new family’s social sponsors.  We had already met the new officer, back at FSI before we moved to Shenyang, but his family was new to us.  We sent some emails back and forth with him before they arrived at post, he had some questions about using VPNs in China, arranging to buy some IKEA furniture and having it delivered, and scheduling us picking up the family at the airport.

Our correspondence was similar to Diplowife’s and my emails to our own sponsors last winter.  I had questions about VPN/Internet stuff, what to put in our consumables, and using a Roku in China.  Diplowife wanted pics of our new apartment, mainly.  And, of course, arranging for our airport pickup.  Even if there’s nothing important to discuss, I found it helpful to talk with somebody already at post, it helped with my anxieties about moving someplace so unfamiliar.

Before you head to post, you fill out a checklist of groceries that your sponsor will buy and have in your home.  Nothing unusual for an American kitchen, stuff like milk, bread, eggs, etc.  So basically you can get home and have something to eat without going back outside again.  Plus you have the option for your sponsor to take you and your family out to dinner and/or leave a ready-to-eat meal in your refrigerator.  I’ve done this several times now; I like to make a one-pot chicken and rice dish that makes enough for the new family and enough leftovers for Diplowife and me.

Sometimes there’s the “welcome kit” to deal with too.  This consists of an assortment of silverware, coffee maker, toaster, dishes and stuff like that.  It might include a vacuum cleaner, bed linens, towels, it depends on where you live.  The family we sponsored is in a hotel that supplies all these things, so there was nothing for me to do.  But our home is in a different building that doesn’t supply it, so our sponsor had the welcome kit to unpack for us.

The day you arrive at post, your sponsor should meet you at the airport, along with transportation to your new home.  Our sponsor also brought along a local staffer from the Consulate, who helped us get our cat into China.  Make sure your let your sponsor know how much luggage you have, we needed two big vans to get all of our sponsee’s family and their stuff home.

After arriving home, and getting everybody settled, (and after sleeping a while, probably) you’ll want to take your sponsee and family around the neighborhood and show them around.  Let them know the important nearby streets and landmarks (important when telling your taxi driver where to go!), where the good grocery stores are, and anything else they’re curious about.  Don’t rush them, let them ask questions, or not.  You may need to leave them a map afterwards if they had trouble getting their bearings.

It’s a good system, overall.  I was very nervous about moving to China, and having somebody there to meet us and guide us through the first couple days helped a lot.  I hope we helped our sponsee and his family in the same way.  Please pay it forward and sponsor somebody else when you’ve been at post for a few months and feel comfortable with it.