Distance Learning Begins

My Distance Learning class started this week.  This is a language course (Mandarin, naturally) that’s all online, no classroom.  FSI’s website has everything you need: course materials, several ways to interact with your fellow students, and a mentor that guides you through the class.  I couldn’t sign up for the class myself, Diplowife had to take care of that, so ask your spouse about signing up if you’re interested.  The class goes for 14 weeks, so I should finish in mid-December.

Right off the bat, I was skeptical about the class.  You’re supposed to schedule time to talk with your mentor once a week for 45 minutes, and my mentor has a calendar on the course’s website.  Problem is, the times she’s available are when I’m at work.  I asked her if she’s available evenings or weekends, and she was kind enough to accommodate me. So don’t be afraid to ask, you never know.  My other issue was I assumed this class was redundant since I’ve already been using Mango for a while now.

As it turns out the course has complemented Mango Languages pretty well so far.  The first week’s study material focus on how to pronounce Chinese properly (it’s not easy) and how written Chinese works.  The class barely touches on written Chinese, but at least they provide a brief introduction to it.  Mango doesn’t really cover this, so right off the bat I’m learning new stuff.  I’ll need to be able to read street signs, price tags and who knows what else in Shenyang, so this is important.

I did my first mentor session a couple days ago, and it was interesting. We met up on Skype in video chat.  She had me pronounce various Chinese sounds and let me know what I was doing wrong.  I had been speaking Mandarin with Mango for a couple months now, but it seems my pronunciation needs work.  Good to know!  Some of the sounds are so similar to each other that I can barely hear any difference at this point, but I’m told it gets easier with practice.

Anyway, I recommend taking the Distance Learning course, if you have the time.  Ideally, before shipping out to your new home, but better late than never.

Speaking of China, happy Mid-Autumn Festival!  Diplowife brought me some moon cakes yesterday.  Not very good, but maybe they’re better in China.

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The Doldrums

Not much going on these days, Foreign Service-wise, for yours truly.  I’m still studying Mandarin with Mango Languages, and about to start Distance Learning with a mentor from FSI.  At this rate, I should have some decent beginners-level Mandarin skills, which was my goal all along.  Diplowife is likewise busy with her own Mandarin training, way beyond my level of course.  Still, it’s fun to occasionally surprise her with a bit of vocabulary that she didn’t know.

It’s been four months since Flag Day, and there’s six more to go, at least, until we head to China.  The last couple months we’re here should be more interesting, I’ll have a lot of work to do around the house, getting rid of stuff we don’t need and inventorying the rest.  Plus, I have several short classes lined up in February and March at FSI and elsewhere.  But I’ve run out of things to research online about Shenyang, so it’s been pushed to the back of my mind.

For the time being, we’re trying to socialize with Diplowife’s colleagues as much as we can, but as introverts it’s not easy.  I prefer to ingratiate myself with them by sending Diplowife to work with baked goods that I made.  Summertime isn’t my favorite time to bake, but it’s a good skill to have at post.  Who wouldn’t invite the couple to a party that always brings a homemade pie or cake?  If my EFM corridor reputation is solely “Diplowife’s husband, he always brings a pie to parties”, I can live with that.

So, it’s my least-favorite time of year (summer), not-so-great job, and several months until much of anything changes.  I’m trying to make the most of it, but not always succeeding.  It’s a good time for lots of distractions and hobbies.  I’m kind of glad our election coming up is such a dumpster fire, it’s definitely distracting, if not exactly good for the country.  Anyways, that’s where things stand, hopefully something more meaningful will come up soon to write about.

 

Don’t be a burden, Part 1

Once we get to post in Shenyang, Diplowife will be working at the Consulate, and I’ll be on my own for 40+ hours a week.  In China.  Where people speak Chinese.  This is a problem.  I don’t intend to stay home all day, waiting for Diplowife to get home from work, so I can then go out to run errands, dragging her along to translate for me.  Diplomacy is a full-time job for her, she doesn’t need a second job as an EFM hand-holder.

So, my first step is to learn Chinese.  Mandarin, to be specific.  FSI is way ahead of me here.  Of course, they offer classes in every language imaginable, and EFMs can attend, provided the class has space.  But I’m working full-time and need options that don’t involve going to FSI every day.

With help from Diplowife, I got signed up with an account in Mango Languages which is a terrific system.  You can access the lessons on the web, or via apps that work on my smartphone and tablet.  I’ve learned a lot already, like greetings & introductions, how to talk to shopkeepers, give directions, ordering food at restaurants.  It’s pretty much all verbal, so don’t expect to learn how to read & write.  They show you the Chinese characters, but there’s little emphasis on reading.

Aside from Mango, there are some other options for learning at home, or “distance learning” as FSI calls it.  Ask your spouse about FSI’s Distance Learning options, they probably already have an email about it in their DoS inbox.  The “Express” option caught my eye, it’s available in Mandarin and is two 14-week courses taken at home, about 6-8 hours per week, plus an hour of one-on-one time with a mentor, via Skype or something similar.  So I’m signed up for the first Express Mandarin course, starting next month, so I’ll be sure to post about it once I start.

Also, some posts have language training that EFMs can participate in, so ask the CLO if that’s an option.  Ideally, you shouldn’t wait until you get to post to start learning, but it’s good to have the option, not everybody has free time like I do.  Learning some Mandarin should go a long way to preparing me for a semi-independent life in Shenyang.

I have some other concerns about burdening Diplowife, but they’ll have to wait for another blog post.

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.

How to find work as an EFM in China*

* I don’t actually know how to find work as an EFM in China

Finding a job is on my mind today, you’ll see why later.  But let me back up a bit.  Normally, EFMs are allowed to work in their host countries without a work visa, and likewise, other countries’ EFMs are allowed to do the same when posted here in the US. In China, that is not the case, for reasons as yet unexplained to me.  I think it’s basically assumed that China does what it wants for its own reasons, and don’t bother asking why.  So I can’t work for a Chinese company, or as a part of the Chinese economy (I can’t open a hot dog stand in Shenyang).

But is that a big problem really?  I mean, what job could I do, working for the Chinese?  I don’t speak Mandarin, so maybe I could get a job as an ESL teacher, that’s a popular expat job. I work in IT, so I was hoping I could find something in that field in Shenyang.  During the Spouse Orientation, they encouraged us to reach out to various DoS resources to find work.  So I emailed the Shenyang CLO, along with the FLO here in DC. You can find contact info for FLO here: http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/ and your FSO spouse should be able to put you in touch with the post’s CLO.

After some back-and-forth with the CLO and FLO, I got back the Shenyang Consulate’s FAMER.  That’s FAmily Member Employment Report.  This has listings for all the open positions in the Consulate for EFMs.  Most of the jobs weren’t too exciting, things like HR Assistant, and Escort.  The pay is about what you would expect for entry-level jobs.  And most of the jobs are part-time, so you’re making half of entry-level.  But wait, there’s an “IM Assistant” job, which is sort of IT-related.  Only it’s really a mail room job with some computer stuff thrown in.

But there’s another resource, the Global Employment Advisors, or GEAs.  They’re scattered around the globe, each assigned a region of the world and they help people like me find jobs.  I talked to the one in charge of the Shenyang area, and she didn’t know of any jobs for me, but she helped clarify the rules for working in China.  For instance, it’s OK for me to telework for an American company.  And self-employment is OK, as long as I’m buying/selling from non-Chinese people.  So maybe my dream of becoming a YouTube star can come true (probably not).

So it seemed like the IM Assistant was my best option.  So I wrote to the HR Officer in the Consulate, and he suggested I apply to a different job, that wasn’t in the FAMER.  It’s a systems assistant, which means supporting the Consular software system.  It’s pretty good pay, but only part time.  But better than the mail room!  So I applied, and interviewed and they were all set to hire me. Great!  I’ll need to go through security clearance, which can take a while, but I’m on the way to working for Uncle Sam.

Until this morning, when I found out the job wasn’t available after all, and they shouldn’t have let me apply in the first place.  So I’m back to square one.  Yay, bureaucracy.  But along the way, I made contacts at the Consulate, among them the CLO, HR Officer and the IT boss. And I met somebody at the FLO, and learned about the GEA system.  And learned about Foreign Service Specialists, which deserves it’s own blog post.

And I discovered a potential wrinkle in this whole system: Diplowife is in the Management cone, and part of Management’s job is supervising the IT guys at post.  Which would include me, if I ever found a job.  And people are not allowed to supervise their spouses.  So maybe this isn’t the best idea in the world.  She’s working in the Consular section for this tour, so it doesn’t matter in Shenyang, but it could come up at future posts.

So anyway, I’m in a good position in case another IT job opens up.  Meanwhile, I need to figure out what to with myself once I get to Shenyang if I can’t find a job.

Where are we going?

Oh right, Shenyang China.  Let’s be honest, I knew virtually nothing about this place when we were putting our bid list together.  It’s in northeast China, up in Manchuria near the North Korea border. Near Russia, too.  Wasn’t it on that one episode of No Reservations?  No, that was Harbin.  So it’s cold, lots of factories and pollution?  Got it.

Obviously, after Flag Day, my curiosity about Shenyang became somewhat elevated.  Wikipedia had lots to say, but it didn’t really help me.  My concerns were more mundane and personal.  Where would live?  Would there be food that I like?  I’m happy to eat at Chinese restaurants on occasion, but not every day.  How would we get around town; i.e.would we need a car?  Are there other people there that I might become friends with?

As usual, Google saved the day. I created a personal map to keep track of every place in Shenyang I need to know about.  I added a few obvious landmarks like the airport, the two main train stations, the US Consulate.  Then I searched for western-style grocery stores in Shenyang, and it turns out there are several options, including a few Carreforts (European supermarket chain).  I found all the State Department housing options and marked them on my map.  I added the local IMAX theater, bowling alley, IKEA, the main library, that kind of stuff.

But Shenyang expat blogs were a real goldmine for filling out my map, and knowledge of Shenyang. That’s where I found out about the pubs and restaurants that serve decent Western-style food, and cater to expats.  Not to mention bookstores with an English-language section, interesting shopping areas (Shenyang apparently has a street dedicated to baking equipment!), must-see tourist sites, and handy tips for living there.  I know, I know, I should embrace the local cuisine and culture.  And believe me, my wife will ensure that happens.  But I really need to know where to get a good pizza, bread and beer (not necessarily in that order) to feel at ease in a new city.

I’ve looked for any semblance of a local gaming scene, that is tabletop role-playing games, or war games, and have come up dry.  Expat bloggers seem really focused on either raising their kids, or going out to sports bars to watch soccer.  So we’ll see about that.  They say there are no bad posts.  If a post doesn’t have something you need to be happy, find some other way to be happy.  Something will turn up.

Have a look at my Shenyang map here:

After A-100

After swearing-in day was over, my role as an EFM was basically on hold for a while.  I still work full-time, so attending language classes at FSI isn’t possible.  I did request access to Mandarin study materials, and FSI set me up with an account to log into Mango Languages and study in my free time.  It’s a great system, I can study at my own pace, using their website, or their phone/tablet app. But, I had to ask my diplomat wife to help set this all up, along with many other State Department-related tasks.

Speaking of that: I’m new at this EFM job, and I try to be as self-sufficient as possible, but a lot of information I need is on a website that non-employees can’t access.  So I’ll need to ask Diplowife for help, like she isn’t busy enough already.  On the other hand, there’s no rush for anything I need, we’ve got over eight months before we move.  But I’m glad there are people at State like the Family Liaison Office (FLO) and at the Shenyang Consulate like the Community Liaison Office (CLO) who are great at helping EFM’s with our issues.  They are helping me find and apply for work at post, which deserves its own blog entry.

As for Diplowife, she has started Consular training, which lasts another six weeks.  Then she begins several months of language training.  Meanwhile, we’re trying to stay in contact with her classmates and socialize when we can.  An obstacle for us is that people like Diplowife, who was already living in DC when she was hired, are considered “local hires”.  Local hires are not moved to the free housing down near FSI, so there’s little financial incentive to move before we’re shipped off to China.  So most of her classmates live near each other, and we tend to miss out on most social events, living up here in Maryland.

However, Diplowife’s classmates that are also heading to China have formed their own sub-group and we got together for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant a few weeks ago.  As always, it was nice to meet them and make new friends.  I gotta keep developing my EFM corridor reputation, you know.  Hopefully we’ll get together every month or so until everybody is transferred.  Once we’re all in China, we can all travel around the country and crash in each others’ guest rooms.  I hope to order my food in Mandarin next time we meet.  Or at least greet a few people and thank the waiter.

So that’s how things are going these days.  Diplowife is continuing her training at FSI, but the stressful undercurrent has faded now that Flag Day is over and the pressures of the A-100 class are behind her.  My meager obligations as an EFM are in the background now, and I’m focusing on learning Mandarin, and learning about Shenyang and China.  I’m looking for work in Shenyang, and considering my role as an EFM.  Much more to come…

Swearing-in Day

Recapping continues…

The last day of A-100 is Swearing-in Day, which takes place at the main State Department building in Washington.  Like Flag Day, family and friends are able to attend, so I attended.  This time I was on my own, none of our family could attend.  I came down to Washington around noon, so I could have lunch with Diplowife at the State Department’s cafeteria.  Again, getting in the building means going through airport-like security, so be prepared for that. The cafeteria there is extensive, but the food was nothing special.

After that we went to a big auditorium for the ceremony.  The new FSO’s all sat in the front few rows, along with new members of the State Department’s civil service who were being sworn in at the same time.  Much like Flag Day, there were several State Department luminaries in attendance on stage, and several speeches.  They usually try to get the Secretary of State to attend, but he was busy elsewhere.  Just as well, one of the Undersecretaries was there and gave a very inspiring speech. He clearly has a lot of confidence in the State Department’s future, with new officers like my amazing wife running things.

After that, the new officers were sworn in, and all came up on stage for  a group photo.  Diplowife’s A-100 class was so large they couldn’t all fit, so the photo may not turn out very well.  So Diplowife was now an official Foreign Service Officer!  I took a lot of pictures, mostly of her, then we wandered around the building and took more pics.  There is a big lobby area with flags from around the world, for all the countries that have US embassies and consulates.  They had just reinstalled the flag of Cuba recently, which was nice to see.  There is also a little museum for some of the DoS’s historical artifacts.

Then we went downstairs to see the little shopping area.  They have two gift shops full of State Department and patriotic swag, plus a used book store, hair salon, post office and Starbucks.  I got some State Department cuff links, useful for DoS parties in the future.  That day, a group of Scandinavian diplomats were there meeting with Secretary Kerry and others, so there were a lot of extra security guards around the main entrance.  When we were leaving, they thought I was a Danish diplomat, which I took as a compliment.

After that, we went to a happy hour in Georgetown with Diplowife’s classmates.  I like meeting them, they’re usually very bright and personable, as you might expect. Then we walked around Georgetown a while, and got some early dinner at Martin’s Tavern, a popular place for politicians and journalists. We sat at Madeleine Albright’s favorite table, which we took as a good omen.  Unfortunately, I ruined the mood by getting butter all over my best suit somehow.  I’ll be more careful in the future.

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A-100 Winds Down, and Cookies are Obtained

(Still recapping, nearly caught up)

A couple days after Flag Day is part 2 of Spouse Orientation, aka “Ready to Roll” at FSI.  This day’s events focused less on the bid list, since you already know where you’ll be going.  Instead, I spent the morning in Diplowife’s classroom, watching lectures on several topics, some not really relevant to me.  But it was interesting to see how she spends her time.  As always, I’m very impressed by Diplowife’s classmates.

After lunch, we learned all about passports, and how to get one. I already had one, but we also covered how to get a Diplomatic Passport, and what we’ll do with them.  Basically, they’re for entering and leaving your post country.  But you’ll still need a regular passport for vacations and other trips.

Then, we learned more about getting to post, pack outs, and how mail works.  The Consulate in Shenyang has what’s called “DPO”, or Diplomatic Post Office.  Essentially, our mail will go to an address in the DC area, then it’s forwarded to our post.  Easy!  Except it takes a few weeks each way, and some items aren’t allowed to be sent to DPO.  Not every Consulate and Embassy has DPO, so we’re fortunate.  Other posts have to rely on the diplomatic pouch, which is even more restrictive that DPO, and using the post country’s own mail service.

Then we spend a couple hours with three experienced EFM’s, who shared their experiences with my classmates and me.  One of them is a CLO, or Community Liaison Officer, a person whose job it is to act as a go-between for the State Department and EFM’s.  Lots of good info here.

After that, my day was basically over, but Diplowife was still busy with a mock diplomatic reception her class was putting on.  They invited a bunch of local diplomats to FSI, brought in some leftover food from the Flag Day reception and had a party.  All in the name of practicing how to behave at official functions.  I got to participate as an honorary guest, which was fun, and I got to meet more of Diplowife’s classmates.  And what do I find there, but cookies!  I knew it, I’ve heard people call FSO’s “cookie pushers” and here was the proof.  Sweet, delicious vindication.

Seriously, I’m not sure this day was all that helpful to me, most of the info in the lectures I could have found online.  However, there is an important concept to learn about in the Foreign Service called “corridor reputation”.  That’s what the other diplomats think of you, and you better have a good one if you expect anyone to help you out or stick their neck out for you. The reputation is built up over the diplomat’s career, based on how they handle themselves professionally, how dependable they are, how easy they are to get along with, that sort of thing.  This reputation can make the diplomat’s career much easier, or much harder.

And here’s something I didn’t know at the start of the day: EFM’s have their own corridor reputation to think about.  The Foreign Service is a small community, and words gets around about good and bad EFM’s.  You need to have a good reputation if you want to succeed as an EFM.  Navigating the State Department’s bureaucracy is difficult, and it pays to have friends you can call upon.  So get out there and meet people, be friendly and helpful.  You never know when you’ll be stuck in a post without a job and could use an insider that can get you a job inside the mission.  Or knows the arcane rules about ordering your favorite cereal from the Embassy’s commissary.  Or can watch your cats when you go on a vacation or medical leave for a week.  So coming to FSI for Spouse Orientation, or any other excuse to meet with your fellow EFM’s, is a good idea.

Personally, I’m going to try to have a reputation as that guy who always brings cookies to Consulate parties for some reason.