We caught a glimpse of civilization

In a lot of ways, Shenyang represents (I’m told), the “old China”.  Less influence from the West, more “authentic”.  I guess so, but along with that come a lot of stuff that’s not very pleasant.  People here spit a lot.  The drivers are reckless, honk all the time, and ignore crosswalks.   Public drunkenness is not uncommon.  Gross odors are the norm outside.  I thought I was getting used to this place, then we took a weekend trip out of town.

Memorial Day weekend coincided with Dragonboat Festival this year, so we had 4-day weekend on our hands.  Shenyang is only 4-5 hours from Beijing, so we headed down for a stay in the capital.  One of Diplowife’s friends offered us her apartment, near the Embassy, so we could see how the FSO’s down there live.  Pretty well, as it turned out.

The train down to Beijing was surprisingly nice.  The Shenyang train station is fairly new and modern, not too crowded the day we left.  The train itself was OK, not too fast, but we opted to not pay for the extra-fast train.  Scenery between Shenyang and Beijing was mostly nondescript at first, but eventually the flat plains gave way to pretty mountains in the distance.  Mountains were an everyday part of the scenery back in Seattle, and it’s funny how their absence in Shenyang (and Maryland) bothers me.

We arrived in Beijing and made our way to Diplowife’s friend’s place.  She lives about a block from the US Embassy, in an apartment about the same size as ours, but much more modern and well-appointed.  She has two balconies and a sun room, with just a single neighbor on her floor.  Her couch is really uncomfortable, so we’ve got the advantage there.

Within a three block radius of the Embassy and the apartment are a really nice bakery, the Kempinsky Hotel (with its amazing German brunch), a big array of nice restaurants (including a respectable BBQ joint), a luxury supermarket and who knows what else.  The sidewalks are wide and hole-free, for the most part.  There’s a subway station near the bakery that connects to a highly developed transit system.  Our first impression of the US Embassy’s neighborhood of Beijing was very good, in other words.

It gets better.  We took the subway to the middle of town and walked around some of the old “hutong” houses, many of which have been converted into shops and restaurants.  Within moments, we find a craft brewery full of expats.  There was an ice cream stand (it was closed, but bear with me).  There was a beautiful Tibetan temple that we explored.  Lots of expats were walking around and nobody was spitting or honking.  We went on a terrific tour of several restaurants in the area.  The next day, we saw the Forbidden City and parts surrounding it.  Then we saw more hutongs and explored a big shopping district.

You get the idea.  Beijing is a world-class city, and it makes Shenyang look like a provincial collection of tarpaper-roofed shacks.  Anything we wanted was available in Beijing, even pretty-good beer.  We got back to Shenyang on the fourth day, and it was immediately clear where we were.  Sidewalks, if they existed, were a mess of holes and cars.  Bad smells galore.  Honking, so much honking.  It felt a little bad to come home after seeing how Diplowife’s colleagues live.  On the other hand, if we can make it in Shenyang, a second Chinese tour will be easy.

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What’s in your consumables?

Shenyang is a “consumables” post, so Diplowife and I are allowed two shipments of consumables over the next two years.  The first was done as part of our pack-out, and arrived at the same time as our HHE.  We’ll probably do the second one about a year into her tour, like next March.  (Consumables are anything that gets used up, like food, alcohol, grooming products, cleaning products, etc.)

Shenyang is a consumables post, for various reasons.  Presumably it’s because certain products are more difficult to obtain here than in other, more developed places.  For example, the next city over, Beijing, is not a consumables post.  Beijing, as I found out when I visited recently, a world-class city unlike Shenyang which is a bit of a backwater.  However, all posts have access to Amazon.com and other Internet/mail-order retailers.  I’ve ordered a lot from Amazon and others over the last few months.  Some of which could have been shipped with our consumables, if I had thought to include them at the time, other stuff were things we needed that just aren’t for sale here.  Point is, your consumables don’t have to only be things that you can’t buy locally, they should be things that can’t be bought locally OR sent through the diplomatic pouch/DPO mail.

Here’s the list of restrictions for DPO.  For a lot of posts, and people, the really important restriction is for alcohol.  From what I’ve seen, Shenyang has plenty of booze for sale, in grocery stores and liquor stores.  The selection is not all that great usually, but if you’re not picky, you can get by with the local stores.  Diplowife and I were advised to load up our consumables shipment with alcohol, and we did, but we probably didn’t really need to, given the local stores.  It helps that we aren’t big drinkers.

The other big problem is for liquids in general.  Our post office in Shenyang only accepts liquids in quantities of 16 oz. or less, per box.  So when I order food from Amazon pantry and want a 12 oz. jar of peanut butter, and a 8 oz. bottle of molasses, those two items have to be in separate boxes.  Which means separate orders made a couple days apart, because Amazon likes to stick orders in the same box if they can.  So you can order liquids, but it’s kind of a pain.  And some liquids can’t be shipped at all, like vanilla extract (I think it’s because it contains alcohol), and some of my art supplies.

Aerosols weren’t allowed in our pack-out, and they can’t be shipped, so I’m still trying to figure out how we’re supposed to get them here.  Some people hide their aerosols in their HHE, but I don’t advise that.  Hopefully you’ll be lucky and get a shipping company that allows aerosols.  If you do, pack enough for your entire tour!  The local stores don’t carry the brands I like for aerosol art supplies, so I think I’m out of luck.

So, given all that we’ve learned, I would have included some things in the consumables shipment, and left other things out.  Here are some items that I can’t find in Shenyang, or are imported and therefore expensive:

  • chicken stock
  • maple syrup
  • peanut butter
  • corn syrup
  • molasses
  • vanilla extract
  • canned fruits and vegetables
  • nuts, other than peanuts
  • rye flour
  • Dijon mustard
  • breakfast cereal
  • cheese, other than pre-sliced sandwich cheese
  • tortillas
  • gluten-free pasta
  • quality paper goods of any kind (napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, you name it)
  • arborio rice
  • lots of spices, too many to list here
  • cornmeal
  • ranch dressing
  • bread crumbs

The list goes on and on.  On the other hand, here are some items I was surprised to find were available here:

  • familiar grooming products like Head & Shoulders shampoo, Cetaphil cleanser, Dove soap, etc.
  • AP flour, cake flour, bread flour
  • yeast
  • powdered sugar
  • milk and cream (albeit UHT)
  • butter (mostly from New Zealand, and kind of pricey)
  • potato/tortilla chips (mostly in strange flavors, but I’m having fun trying them)

So plan accordingly.  Every post has its own idiosyncrasies, so what’s common in one place is unknown in another.  But one thing is constant: liquids are a pain to ship, so put a lot in your consumables, if you can.  Good luck!

 

 

Ingratiate yourself by baking

I’m not really that cynical, but baking does wonders for my social life.  Since discovering the baking shop (see previous blog entry) I’ve brought baked goods to a couple social events, sent Diplowife to work with cookies a couple times, given baked goods as going-away presents to departing friends (catching the eye of the Consul General in the process, I might add), and greeted new arrivals with homemade bread.

I was pretty stressed out when we got to post, partly because the consulate Easter potluck was right around the corner and I volunteered to bring a carrot cake.  I forgot the fact that A) I didn’t have any cake tins, B) I didn’t have any baking spices or leavening ingredients, C) I had no cream cheese and carrot cake without cream cheese frosting is a sad thing indeed.  I picked up most of those things at the baking shop and made a terrific carrot cake, if I do say so myself, for the Easter party.  Crisis averted!  Plus, the cake impressed the Consul General’s wife, which is basically like being friends with Wonder Woman.

I like making cookies, but having them in the house doesn’t help us stay in shape, so I usually send about half the batch to the Consulate via Diplowife.  That’s a sneaky way for her to make friends at work, because people tend to assume the wife does the baking in the family.  That’s OK with me, she’s almost as introverted as I am, so I’m happy to help.  But then people will eventually find out it was me, and my reputation as a competent baker (haha) will continue to develop.  That reputation pays off in a big way.  Once people found out I’m into baking, free ingredients started showing up at my door, mostly from people leaving post.  I’ve acquired bags of spices, flour, sugar, even a giant bottle of homemade vanilla extract!

Another strategy occurred to me when a friend mentioned she loves cheesecake and can’t find it here.  She was due to transfer back to DC in a few weeks, so I made her a cheesecake, which she brought to the office to share.  One of the people she shared it with was the CG himself, who told his wife about it (further cementing my reputation) and she now wants me to come to their home to teach their chef how to bake.  Since then, I’ve made a couple other treats for friends on their way out of Shenyang.  I haven’t experienced moving away from a foreign post, so I can only assume it’s very stressful, and having a favorite pie or batch of cookies around must be nice.

Conversely, arriving at post is a big pile of stress, especially if your social sponsor isn’t any good at their job.  That’s what happened to some friends of ours who arrived here a month after we did.  Their social sponsor did next to nothing for them (and their two little kids) and Diplowife and I were appalled.  I figured a fresh loaf of bread would be a nice thing to have when you arrive at a new post, so I’ve been baking bread for new people since then.  It’s a good excuse to come by their home and introduce myself, and let them know they’re free to ask me about the area, places to shop, etc.  We had good social sponsors, but clearly not everybody is so lucky, so hopefully I can help out in those situations.

Shenyang is a relatively small post, so I doubt I can make treats for every new officer and every departing officer when we get posted to a big embassy.  But those posts (I’m told) aren’t very closely-knit anyway, and I doubt I’ll have much impact there.  But in Shenyang, everybody is in everybody’s business, and it’s totally doable to welcome people and say goodbye properly.  Maybe it’ll catch on at other posts, but adapted to whatever is lacking there.  China’s baked goods are pretty bad, so my work here is cut out for me.  But what’s hard to find in Africa or South America?  We shall see.

pie

Pack like an EFM

Related to the last post, I wanted to share my strategy when packing to move to China with Diplowife and our cat.  Also, how we arranged to have certain necessary items at post, waiting for us when we arrived.  FSO’s and EFM’s get to take two pieces of checked luggage apiece.  The weight limit for our checked bags was 50 pounds each, but your airline may be different.  Also, our carry-on bags had to be under 25 pounds each.  So add it all up and the plan was for 200 pounds of checked luggage, and another 50+ for carry-on bags and “personal items”.  Not to mention the cat carrier, but that’s another topic.

A few weeks before moving, I ordered a bunch of prescription cat food (our cat has kidney problems) and shipped it to our social sponsor.  Diplowife mailed some bedding and other cat stuff, too. Theoretically, we could have mailed it to our own DPO or pouch address and the mailroom would have held it for us, but that’s not a certainty by any stretch.

Before you ask, our social sponsor was fine with all of this, but check with yours first.  Also, I mailed a few things to our new DPO address, that I knew would arrive after we did, so there was no need to involve our sponsor.  These packages took a lot of pressure off us, since it was all stuff we would have had to carry in our luggage otherwise.

Speaking of luggage, we bought several of these duffle bags from LL Bean.  The large size is good as airline luggage.  Keep an eye on them before you need to buy, they go on sale from time to time.  They don’t stand up straight like stiff-sided bags, but they take up almost no space when you’re not using them.

There were a few special items I had to have in our new apartment, I wasn’t going to wait until our UAB or take the chance on shipping them.  One item was our new Internet router, with built-in VPN.  That’s a necessary thing in China.  Another was my bag of knives, as I’d heard the welcome kit knives were not very good quality.  And I packed my instant-read thermometer, a good surge protector, electrical plug converters, and a multi-tool.  And my laptop bag, which I hope I never have to check.

But being an EFM, I had little need for a full wardrobe since I don’t have a job.  Maybe that’ll change someday, but for now, I’m a stay-at-home cat father.  And when I go out to the grocery store it’s not like I need to impress anyone.  So I packed a week’s worth of underwear and t-shirts, some pajama pants, a few button-up shirts, a pair of chinos, jeans and a couple pairs of sneakers.  And I brought my navy suit, a couple ties, a white dress shirt and a pair of dress shoes.  Just in case some kind of unexpected formal event cropped up (it didn’t, but better safe than sorry).  This way, our luggage had room for Diplowife’s work clothes.

So, try to plan out what you’ll need at post for that first month or so before your UAB arrives.  Try not to take up much room in the luggage, your spouse has more need for clothes than you do, if you’re a non-working EFM like me.  If what you need won’t fit in the luggage, see if your social sponsor will let you mail stuff to them, or send it to yourself if you can be sure you’ll get to post before the package does.  Good luck, and remember you can always buy stuff online and ship it to post when you arrive and need something that can’t be found on the local market.

Moving Day

This was it, the big day.  The one we were dreading for months.  The day we did this insane thing, actually getting on an airplane bound for China, of all places.  We knew it was coming for almost a year, and I think it turned out pretty well.  Hopefully if you’re like me and not looking forward to this, I can help you get through it in one piece.

The day started with Diplowife, myself and our cat in the hotel near our old apartment building.  We had already cleaned the apartment and turned over the keys and signed the paperwork.  We gave away a few more things to friends and the local charity drop-off, so all that was left was to get ourselves to China.  We had two big suitcases apiece, plus the cat carrier.  I also had my laptop backpack, and Diplowife had her small carry-on suitcase.  Diplowife had trouble fitting all our stuff into our suitcases and we realized we would need to check her carry-on suitcase and use a tote bag full of stuff as her carry-on.  It cost a little extra, but it beat mailing our stuff or leaving it behind.

We hired a car service, well van service I should say to pick us up at the hotel and take us to Reagan National.  Amazingly, the driver fit all of our luggage in the van.  He also did us a huge favor by encouraging us to get the skycaps to help with the luggage.  He recommended a $5 tip each time one of them carted our stuff.  We didn’t go far, just from the curb to the check-in desk, and from there to the luggage drop-off area, but it’s money well-spent.

The check-in desk was an ordeal.  The lady working there wasn’t very familiar with special provisions for government employees traveling for work like we were.  Specifically, she refused to take our cat’s carrier, saying we needed to drive (with what car?) to the cargo area (where?) and drop her off there.  Diplowife activated her newly honed diplomatic/bureaucratic superpowers and went toe-to-toe with the ticket lady for well over an hour, but she was successful, and we got to send our kitty on her way.  Not without having to take her out of her carrier briefly, but it was OK.

By then, we were running late to reach our first flight, to JFK.  We got held up at the security check-in, the TSA were intrigued by my laptop, and gave Diplowife some trouble for her jewelry.  After that, we boarded and sat on the runway for nearly an hour.  But we got to JFK eventually, and that’s when the serious waiting began.  We had a six hour layover there (well, five hour because of the delay in DC), and unfortunately, for reasons I’m not clear on, we had to claim all of our luggage and our cat, and hang onto it all until about 90 minutes before our departure.  Then we had to go through the check-in process again, and go through security again.

While we waited, I figured we could take advantage of the “pet relief” areas at the airport, that I had read about.  Well, turns out they aren’t so useful.  For one thing, all but one of them are beyond the security gate, so unless your pet is flying in-cabin, it’s useless.  And the other one is outdoors, basically a wide section of the sidewalk.  Uh, it’s 25 degrees out there, and I’m not setting my cat free to scamper away in the dark, and it’s not like she’ll pee without privacy or a litter box anyway.  Ugh, good thing she has the absorbent pad in the carrier.  Speaking of the cat, make sure when you board your flight, ask a flight attendant to confirm the pet carrier has been brought on board.  They can check, and will let you know.

One nice part of this was we were now flying Korean Air, going from JFK to Seoul, and they were far more helpful and capable than the airline that we took from DC.  So, again, we said goodbye to our kitty, then headed to the gate.  The flight to Seoul was delayed (of course) another 45 minutes or so, but the actual flight was very nice.  I got to ride a 747 for the first time, and our seats were towards the back where we found an abundance of legroom.  I tried sleeping, but wasn’t very successful.  Thankfully, the in-flight entertainment worked great, I had power for my phone and I could watch our progress on the map (we flew around North Korea).

We reached Seoul’s airport around 6am, before almost anything was open for business.  I always thought it was strange that airport businesses close down when flights are coming and going 24 hours a day.  Anyway, after killing some time, we took advantage of a business lounge’s hospitality, thanks to a new credit card Diplowife signed us up for (did I mention she’s a keeper?).  Free breakfast in comfy chairs did us a world of good, but we were worried about our cat the whole time.  We knew she was here in Seoul, but couldn’t get anyone to feed or water her.

After a few hour layover there, we took the final flight to Shenyang.  Nothing much happened here, we flew around North Korea again, and landed safe and sound.  Once I got off the plane, the first thing I noticed was the smell.  It was like a coal furnace was burning away inside the airport.  The air was hazy and stinky, and I knew this was for real.  This was my first time in China, and the pollution is no joke.

We collected our luggage, and oddly enough, our cat’s carrier also came through the luggage conveyor.  She was safe and sound, just like us, and was happy to see us.  What a relief.  Our social sponsor and a couple local workers from the consulate were here to help.  They got us through customs (we skipped the big lines, since we have diplomatic passports!) and got the cat’s paperwork squared away.  And took us to our new home.

Our apartment is huge, but strange.  We’re definitely living in a hotel, with oddly-shaped rooms that connect in… “creative” ways.  The furniture is OK, but I can see how picky people would be disappointed.  I set the kitty free to explore and use her new litter box and gave her some food.  Our bed was fully made with pillows, sheets and all, so it was ready for nap time.  I was excited to explore a new city, but that could wait until tomorrow.

Pack-out!

We moved several months ago, but I wanted to talk about the process just before we left for Shenyang.  Pack-out consisted of three days of movers coming to our apartment.  First was the HHE/UAB movers.  That’s everything we’re taking to post, divided into two piles.  The first pile (UAB, or Un-Accompanied Baggage) consists of 250 pounds of stuff for the officer, plus another 200 for each EFM.  So that’s 450 pounds for Diplowife and me (the cat doesn’t count).  The other pile (HHE, or HouseHold Effects) is everything else we want to have at post, minus our luggage and “consumables” (more on that later).  UAB is also known as “air freight”, which means it should get to your post a month or so after your arrival.  HHE is surface/sea freight, so it takes longer.  Ours still hasn’t arrived and we’ve been at post for over three months.

Anyway, the first moving day was UAB/HHE day.  It was mostly my job to get the house ready for this.  I bought gaffers tape in an assortment of colors, and stuck tape all over our stuff, to make sure the movers knew which items were UAB, which were HHE and so on.  I moved stuff that we weren’t taking into closets and the spare bathroom and put big signs on them to shoo the movers away.  So the day of the pack-out, five movers showed up first thing in the morning, and got working…FAST.  I worked with their leader to make sure the UAB pile got packed first, and we were under weight.

The UAB stuff was a source of stress all along.  What things should we put in the UAB, versus the HHE?  Let alone carry in our luggage?  And would we go over our weight limit?  Turns out we were way too conservative with our UAB pile.  I set aside a bunch of kitchen items, the mixer, food processor, silverware and various pans and utensils.  And Diplowife and I put a bunch of clothes on the UAB pile, too.  But the movers packed it up and we had maybe half our weight limit.  So we frantically ran around throwing stuff into the UAB box, and we should have been more considerate.

For example, I packed lots of winter clothes in the UAB, stuff that was too warm to wear a week or so after we got here.  Meanwhile, I didn’t pack any baking stuff, and I love to bake.  Whoops!  Meanwhile, Diplowife threw a bunch of extra blankets and pillows into the boxes.  Turns out there’s no need for that, the stuff here in Shenyang is fine for now.  So to sum up, put a lot of thought into setting aside stuff for your UAB, and weigh it beforehand!

The rest of the pack-out went well, it only took a few hours.  We brought in doughnuts and a jug of coffee from Starbucks, and ordered pizza for lunch.  It pays to keep your movers happy.  One annoyance about this pack-out was we had to take all the clothes off the hangers and basically make a giant pile.  Not exactly how I like to treat my good suits and jackets.  I think next time I’ll try packing them neatly in garment bags.

The second pack-out day was for storage items.  This is mostly furniture that we won’t need in our furnished apartment in Shenyang, and items too valuable to risk damaging there.  Also, we didn’t take any small appliances with heat elements, they don’t work well with transformers in non-110v countries (coffee machine, toaster, etc.).  And, we sent all of our photo albums and some other paper goods into storage, stuff that I meant to scan, but didn’t get to (next time!).

This move went a lot less smoothly than the previous one.  These movers could barely speak English, so there were communications issues.  For example, they kept misspelling Diplowife’s name on the boxes.  And they were SLOW.  They were supposed to take half a day, and by 11am it was clear they were never going to make it.  Diplowife called the moving company and the moving coordinator at the State Department, and got the movers to go somewhat faster, but it was still a mess dealing with the loading dock downstairs (neighbors had reserved it for the afternoon).  We’re still pretty nervous about the safety of our belongings, as that moving company didn’t instill a lot of confidence.

The third and final pack-out day was for our consumables shipment.  Shenyang is a “consumables post”, because it lacks Western-style supermarkets to some extent, and getting food and other items here can be a pain.  So we’re allowed to transport a big shipment of consumables to post twice during the next two years.  We went to the Costco in DC, because they sell booze, not just wine and beer.  We bought a lot of booze, wine AND beer, along with lots of other edibles, toilet paper, shampoo and the like.  That pack-out went very well, just took a few hours.

Our consumables haven’t arrived yet, as I write this, so I don’t know how successful the movers were at protecting our vast collection of wine, but I’m optimistic.

One thing I recommend is moving yourself and your luggage out of your house before the movers show up.  We spent the last week or so at a nearby cat-friendly hotel and it was paid for by Diplowife’s expense account somehow (I don’t have the details on that).  Our cat appreciated being elsewhere when the movers were lugging heavy stuff around her house, I can assure you.  Plus, we didn’t have to worry about the movers taking our luggage.

One more thing: your moving company could do things very differently than ours.  Some movers do the HHE, UAB, storage and consumables all at the same time, so it’s even more critical to mark your belongings clearly and/or group them together in different rooms.  And always keep your luggage and pets somewhere else entirely, even if it’s your car or a neighbor’s house.  You can’t be in every room at once to watch the movers, so mark stuff clearly.  Better yet, have some friends come over, so each room has somebody to keep an eye on things.

 

Getting your cat into China

Right off the bat: this post isn’t about the paperwork, it’s about the equipment you need.  If you have questions about the paperwork, FSI has semi-regular seminars about pet issues, and you can learn all you need at one of those.  Just be sure to double-check everything, because they like to change the rules and not everybody hears about the new rules right away.  For example, Diplowife was going to send our paperwork to the people in Virginia who are supposed to approve our cat, and it turns out we were supposed to send it to a similar office in New York.  Good thing she’s so diligent, so please follow her example.

Anyway, transporting our cat was the source of much stress in the weeks and months leading up to our move, and hopefully this post can help somebody out there.  First thing’s first: China doesn’t allow pets in the airplane cabin, so your cat will need to ride with the luggage (aka “accompanied baggage”) or in the cargo hold (not as nice, but it can still work).  So you’ll need a proper crate.  Here’s the one we got: Petmate Sky Kennel.

This kennel is hard-sided, which makes it suitable for transport in the luggage or cargo areas.  It’s too big for the cabin, so if you’re planning to transport your pet in the cabin at some point, you’ll need a second (smaller) carrier.  This kennel is the one you want for several reasons:

  1. It comes in several sizes, so I’m sure you can find one for your cat.  Our cat weighs about 8 pounds, so we went with the smallest size (21″ x 16″ x 15″, for pets up to 15 lbs.).
  2. It comes with lots of stickers that you’ll want to apply before you leave for the airport.  Stickers that point “up” so the baggage handlers will (hopefully) keep the crate right-side-up, and others that say “live animals” in large print.
  3. It has holes in the proper places so you can zip-tie the door closed.  Some airlines require this, and it’s a good idea to do it either way.
  4. The crate has ventilation on four sides, ’nuff said.
  5. It has a sturdy, comfortable handle on top.
  6. The door is on the front side, not the top.  Again, some airlines don’t allow top-loading carriers, so best to be on the safe side.

The carrier isn’t perfect without a couple modifications.  First, you’ll want to buy Pet Carrier Metal Fasteners.  These replace the plastic fasteners the carrier comes with, the ones that hold the top half and bottom half together.  Some carriers require metal fasteners, and (you guessed it) better safe than sorry.

Also, you want some zip ties to hold the door shut, and attach things to the carrier.  These are reusable, which comes in super-handy when you have to open the carrier door at the airport to show your cat to the security people and then put it back in and lock the door.  All without tools of any kind, but the zip-tie release tab may dig itself under your fingernail if you’re not careful.  This lifestyle is not for the timid.

And, just because I over-prepared and you might also want to, get this Travel Kit and these Carrier Pads.  Lots more warning stickers, fasteners and ID tags for your carrier, plus more pads to put under your cat…just in case.  Our cat needed one, as it took us over 30 hours from hotel to our new home in China with no bathroom breaks.  And the travel kit has superior food and water dishes, even though we couldn’t use ours.  More on that later.

One drawback the carrier had is the baggage stickers and other things that the airline people tried to attach would not stick.  The carrier and that kind of adhesive are just not compatible for some reason.  But, we had a roll of clear packing tape with us, so we used that to keep everything where it belonged.

We were advised by people at FSI and elsewhere to pack a bag of dry cat food for the journey, which we did, but the airline we used (Korean Air) didn’t feed our cat at any point.  Their English wasn’t great, and our Korean was non-existent, so I’m not sure why they wouldn’t feed her.  But some other airlines will feed pets in between flight legs, so come prepared.  We attached a food bowl and a water bowl to our cat’s carrier, but the airline didn’t give her water, either, as far as we could tell.  Our cat made it to China OK, but I can see this being a problem if you’re flying someplace hot.

As I mentioned, we were flying Korean Air most of the way to Shenyang, so we had a friend that speaks Korean type up a note saying to please feed and water the cat (fat lot of good that did, but give it a try) along with our contact information and the cat’s name.  We stuck that on the carrier’s top, along with a big picture of our cat, just in case she got out and it wasn’t clear what carrier was her’s.

Good luck transporting your own furry friends!  With proper equipment and preparation, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.  Not that that will stop us from worrying.

Reconnecting

Sorry I’ve been gone so long, I let real life take priority for a while. Let’s get caught up!

Last time, I was starting Distance Learning, that is, taking Mandarin lessons over Skype.  Overall, it went well, I got to practice my pronunciation with a native speaker, a speaker from Northern China, so I learned to speak like the people in Shenyang (sort of).  But I think I probably would have been better off if I had just stuck with Mango for the last six months.  The lessons were pretty basic, things I’d already learned with Mango, mostly, and I found it hard to do the Distance Learning and Mango at the same time.  If I had the time, it would have been best to take language classes at FSI, but that wasn’t in the cards.

I left my job back in December, so I’ve been officially unemployed for about three months now.  Most of that time has been pretty busy with preparing for our move, but there has been plenty of down time too.  Let’s just say I’m not hurting for free time these days.  It’s nice to have left my old job, no more pretending to work, or working for a pair of crazy people (long story).  I’m now free to find new work at the Consulate or pursue a new career elsewhere.  More on that later.

The first six weeks or so of the new year were occupied by doing a top-to-bottom inventory of everything we own, getting rid of stuff we don’t want, and buying things we need.  I’m glad I decided to quit my job a few weeks early, because this was a big job.  I used a website/app called Homezada to do the inventory, it’s easy to use and free.  Basically, I divided our stuff into categories, and sub-categories, then took hundreds of pictures.  I really should go back and label everything, and assign values, but the hard part is over.

Towards the end of this inventory period, our family suffered a tragedy.  One of our two sweet, lovable cats suddenly became ill and had to be put down.  I had never gone through anything like it before, and I miss her very much.  On the other hand, if it had to happen, it was a good thing that she became sick before we moved.  I’m not sure she would have survived the trip to China, and veterinary care here isn’t at the same level as back in the States.  Our other cat is still alive and well, and seems fine being the only cat in the house.

For three weeks in February and March I accompanied Diplowife to work, and took some classes with her.  These varied in their usefulness, but it was nice to get out of the house every day.  We took two weeks of “Area Studies” courses: basic knowledge about East Asia’s history, culture and current political/military situation.  One week on the big picture, then a second one focusing on China.  Most of the classes were very interesting, taught by professors from nearby universities.  Some were not-so-interesting, but on the whole, the time was well-spent.  The third week was at “FACT”, kind of survival training, a couple hours outside DC.  Really cool stuff, learning about how to handle and escape dangerous situations.  I can’t talk about it here, but if you get the chance to go, I highly recommend it.  Even if your next post is a “safe” one, this training is worthwhile.

That takes me up to the week before our move.  I’ll sign off for now, the move should have its own blog entry.  To sum up: Mango > Distance Learning, set aside more time for your inventory than you think you need, take Area Studies and FACT classes if you can get into them, and give your pets an extra hug from Diplowife and me.

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To FSS or Not?

Continuing the recent work-related theme around here…

Aside from working in the mission as an EFM, working outside, or not working, there’s another option for finding work in my future.  I could work for the Foreign Service too!  OK, I don’t think I’m FSO material.  I’m not good at learning languages, and I’m not particularly personable or diplomatic.  However, there’s the other side of the Foreign Service coin: the Foreign Service Specialist, or FSS.

FSS’s come in eight different varieties, or career tracks. As you can see on the State Department’s website here, they tend to be technical, skills that you don’t pick up accidentally, things like engineering, medical and information technology.  But, I almost qualify for the Information Technology career track. I don’t have the required degree/certifications, but I could pick up one of the certs without too much difficulty.  The thing is, should I?

FSS’s have the same requirements as FSO’s to work anywhere in the world the DoS sends them.  I wouldn’t have to learn the local languages, and job training doesn’t take long, compared to FSO’s, so presumably I would end up serving more tours since I won’t spend months in between jobs in DC at the Foreign Service Institute.  They make good money, and they live in DoS housing, like FSO’s.  Of course, there’s a big downside: I’m married to an FSO and it’s not always possible that we’ll serve in the same place.

Tandem couples, as married pairs of Foreign Service officers/specialists are known, are generally well-taken care of, from what I’ve seen.  The DoS tries to keep them together as best they can, but there are no guarantees in this business.  So I could very well get assigned a two-year tour in one country, and Diplowife serves on the other side of the planet.  I think I’d rather not work at all than not be in the same country as my wife.  Maybe saying that disqualifies me for this job, since my marriage takes precedence over my career.

There may be a way to make it work, though.  Once Diplowife serves a couple of tours, one of which in her cone, and passes a language test (and maybe does some other stuff I’m forgetting) she will qualify for tenure.  Tenure means (among other things) that she’ll have much more freedom to pick and choose where she serves.  So, the idea is, I should wait until Diplowife gets tenure, sometime around 2021 probably.  After that, I’ll apply to be an FSS, and get sent to wherever I’m needed.  Then, Diplowife uses her new tenure powers to be assigned to same place I’m going.  And we continue that until I get tenure, around 2025.

Then, we’ll both have tenure and we will both have more power to determine where we serve.  Again, no guarantees.  If Diplowife is needed in Zimbabwe tomorrow, that’s where she’s going, tenure or not.  But this strategy (not my idea, by the way, but something the FLO suggested) may be a good way for me to have a career without derailing Diplowife’s.

But even if this all works out, I still don’t even know if I’m cut out to be an FSS.  That’s partially why I wanted that IT job in the Shenyang Consulate, because it would expose me to the world of DoS IT and I could see if I’m a good fit before applying.  And, there’s still the ongoing issue of working in IT with my wife possibly being the supervisor for the mission’s IT department.  So it’s not a perfect plan, but it’s something to consider.  No rush, though.  Maybe I’ll start thinking about it again in 2020.

Crisis

Blogging has been a good thing for me, it helps me sort out my thoughts about becoming an EFM and my wife becoming a diplomat.  Thinking about moving across the planet to a place where most people don’t speak my language for two years, then moving someplace else entirely, repeat for the next twenty years.  Thinking about maybe not working anymore, because it’s not allowed or not possible.  This is sort of like visiting a counselor once a week, only I’m basically talking to myself here.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I realized I was in a very bad mood, upset in general and not really sure why.  It happened to be on a Friday, the day I work on this blog.  And I realized, while talking to Diplowife, that I was really not handling this EFM thing well.  It was after swearing-in day, and my EFM responsibilities were non-existent for a while and I went back to my normal daily routine, working in IT.  But I realized I was feeling a lot of anxiety about my new role as an EFM, and it was starting to really get to me.

At lot of it had to do with my uncertain job prospects in China.  As I’ve mentioned before, I won’t be able to work there, at least not doing anything like I do here in the states (IT consulting).  I’ve switched jobs before, of course, but the uncertainty of this new life was causing stress.  The unofficial motto of the Foreign Service is “It Depends”.  That is, every situation is different, and nobody can give you a simple answer to any question.  Uncertainty abounds in that job.  Several of Diplowife’s colleagues have already switched assignments, just two months after Flag Day.  I’m pretty sure we’ll wind up in Shenyang next spring, but you never know what could happen.

Anyway, I didn’t (and still don’t) know what I’ll do in Shenyang.  Not working at all seems crazy to me, I’m only 43 years old, hardly old enough for retirement.  It’s true that Diplowife’s salary will be plenty to support us, but what does that make me?  It’s not like we have kids to take care of, so I wouldn’t be a respectable stay-at-home parent.  I don’t think anyone would be convinced that staying home to take care of our cats is a worthy occupation.  I suspect Diplowife would be pleased if I stayed home and pursued my interests in baking and charcuterie full-time.

So, should I take a part-time entry-level job at the Shenyang Consulate?  I like the idea of going to work with Diplowife, and getting to know her colleagues.  But the salary would be pretty bad, and the actual work looks pretty uninspiring.  From time to time, I’ve been tempted to quit the IT racket and get into software development of some kind, and two years of home study in Shenyang could get me to the point where I could do it for a living.  Diplowife and I talked this over, and I felt a lot better afterwards.

First world problems, right?  Maybe so, but try to make time for yourself, and be aware that a giant upheaval of your life can really get to you.  Pay attention to how you feel.  Talk to your spouse, they are probably stressed out too, and it feels good to talk about it.  Looking forward, I still feel anxiety about Shenyang, but I know Diplowife will be there with me and she’ll support me as a stay-at-home cat dad, or whatever I wind up doing.