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…

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.

Flag Day!

Getting closer to present day…

The big screens welcome us to the 186th A-100 class’ Flag Day

It’s here, it’s finally here!  The day we’ve been waiting for, the day we find out where on Earth we’ll spend our first tour.  My parents, Diplowife’s sister and her husband all came to DC for the big event, so even if the news was bad, we would be in good company.

It was early May, and uncharacteristically cool and wet for this time of year.  The rain was an unwelcome reminder that I don’t own a raincoat the fits over a suit.  My little umbrella would have to do.  I met my parents downtown, and we took the Metro and FSI shuttle to the big event at FSI in Arlington.  Diplowife’s sister, her husband and a friend came too.  It takes time to get through security at FSI, it’s like going to the airport and the Vistors’ Center’s entrance got crowded.  The rain didn’t help, there’s not much room in the security area, and there’s no covered porch or anything outside.

We eventually made our way to a big auditorium, with FSO’s sitting in the front rows and the audience in the rear. There were a few speeches and introductions at the start, but I was a nervous wreck and barely heard any of it.  Then, one by one, they projected a country’s flag on the big screens, called out an FSO’s name and the city they were going to.  The FSO stood up to receive a handshake, tiny flag and their orders.  They were told to smile and act happy NO MATTER WHAT.  They’re supposed to be diplomatic about this, even if they have to go someplace they hate.  It’s good practice for their new jobs.

The FSO’s were called out in no discernible order, so it was extra nerve-wracking not knowing when Diplowife’s name would come up.  I was convinced we were going to Mexico, it’s a very popular place to send rookies.  So every time the Mexican flag showed up, my blood pressure spiked.  Not to mention all the times the flag of certain countries appeared, countries that won’t let us take our cats, were full of religious fanatics, or had horrible weather.  One guy got New Zealand, a plum assignment (for non-cat owners), another got Paris.  Drinks are on them.

About halfway through the list, the flag of China flashed on the screen.  Diplowife’s name was read aloud (mispronounced).  SHENYANG, CHINA.  My dad gave me a high five and my mom and Diplowife’s sister both grabbed my attention and congratulated me.  I assume Diplowife got up and received her flag and orders, but I was in a fog.  Shenyang?  Well, China wasn’t my first pick, but Diplowife lived there and can guide me through it.  The language may as well be Martian, but I’m sure I can learn enough to get by.

My dad asked me if I was happy with the post.  I said I didn’t know.  I barely knew anything about it, just the general area (Northeast China, near the North Korean border), and it’s supposed to be very cold.  I looked up its Wikipedia entry and my dad and I read it together.  Seems like a bleak place, little culture to speak of, and bad Internet access.  Western food is hard to come by, and expensive.  It’s a “hardship” post, because of the cold weather and pollution.  But wait, it gets really hot and humid there in the summer, worse than Washington DC even.  I wasn’t feeling all that great about this turn of events.

After all the flags were distributed, I got up and congratulated Diplowife in person.  She was crying tears of happiness, and had been crying ever since her name was called.  I realized then, that no matter how I felt, I would make this work.  Her dream had come true.  China it was and China it will be.

They have cookies in China, right?

The bidding process

Yes, still recapping…

Soon after starting the A-100 class, new officers get a copy of the bid list.  In this case, it’s a list of about 60 cities around the world where the Department of State has an embassy or consulate that needs one or more entry-level officers.  The officers are supposed to group the list into three categories: low, medium & high.  Low posts are places you don’t want to go, and State usually obliges unless there’s a dire need that nobody else can reasonably fill.  High posts are for places you really want to go. Medium are the rest.

We got to put 15 posts in the low category, and 15 in the high category, rest are medium.  For us, we had to immediately weed out any posts that either don’t allow our cats, or make it too difficult, with quarantines and/or fees.  For example, Jamaica doesn’t allow any pets, unless they’re from the UK.  And New Zealand would put our cats in quarantine for weeks and charge thousands of dollars of fees.  So, places like that pretty much filled our “Low” group.

Highs were for posts with agreeable weather (Diplowife and I both loathe hot and humid places), and reasonably good Internet (for me to either telecommute, or stay entertained if I’m unemployed the whole time).  Diplowife wants to build a career on focusing on places like Eastern Europe and the former USSR, so we put posts like Warsaw, Bucharest, Belgrade, Moscow and Modova in the high group.  Also, Shenyang China, because she knows Chinese and it’s pretty cold there.  And Paris was high, because, well, Paris.

Information about all these places, some of which I had never heard of, can be found at FSI’s Overseas Briefing Center (OBC) that I mentioned last post.  Don’t miss out on this resource!  There is a lot of information here, but you can focus on what really matters (in our case, the pet situation), and figure out how to bid in not much time at all.

Before turning in the list, Diplowife and I had a short meeting with her Career Development Officer (CDO), to talk about our bidding strategy.  The CDO’s then all get together and hash out who goes where, and they really do the best they can to make as many officers happy as possible.  Unhappy officers wind up quitting after a few tours, and nobody wants that.  Anyway, don’t miss this meeting!  This is your time to speak up for yourself as an EFM and make sure your needs are not ignored.

Personally, I was not at all sure (I’m still not, by the way) what I will do at post.  Will I work at the embassy?  Work at home?  Volunteer?  Study and pick up some new skills? Play video games in my pajamas?  I figured having reliable Internet would make telecommuting possible, and if I decided to learn new skills that would also be helpful.  And let’s face it, I’m pretty unhappy when the Internet’s not there for me.  Diplowife and I are in agreement about the weather, we think we can fill a valuable niche in the Foreign Service: the couple that doesn’t mind going to cold, desolate places.

So, we turned in our bid list, and the waiting began for Flag Day, when everybody finds out where they’re going.  My job isn’t exactly stimulating these days, so I have a lot of time on my hands, time to get nervous about being sent to some humid inferno with no Internet that doesn’t allow cats.  On the other hand, Flag Day isn’t that far off, and our families are coming for the event, so we have that to look forward to!  But I may have an ulcer by then.



A-100 began, and I had something to do already

(Still in recap mode)

Diplowife started her A-100 class a couple of months ago, which was very exciting for both of us.  But more exciting for me was Spouse Orientation, on the Thursday of her first week at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).  Spouse Orientation was a day-long event where spouses of the officers-in-training come to FSI to learn all about our role in the foreign service, and how this new lifestyle works.

We drove to FSI together, even though there’s a free shuttle from the nearby Metro station.  I recommend not driving there, as traffic in Arlington is really bad, especially at rush hour.  Your spouse basically walks right in, but the spouses have to go through security like at the airport, and get a flimsy visitor’s badge.  Once in, you have the run of the place, but there’s not much time to wander.  FSI resembles a small college campus, park-like with brick buildings dotting the landscape.  It’s easy to get lost.

Once inside FSI with my visitor’s badge, I went to the orientation classroom and joined about 25 or so spouses there.  Surprisingly small group, given Diplowife’s A-100 class had nearly a 100 people, but I think a lot of spouses were still living back home, wherever that may be.  I forget sometimes that “local hires” like ourselves are the exception, not the norm.  We spent an hour or so getting to know each other and breaking the ice.  There were a large number of foreign-born spouses in the group, which is apparently pretty common in the foreign service.  There were more husbands than wives in my class, and most of us were child-free.  I expected a lot more wives, and more people with kids, but again, they might be too busy to come to orientation.

The day consisted of  a series of talks given by various foreign service officers, FSI employees, EFM’s and foreign service specialists. They covered a lot of interesting and important topics.  We learned about how to research where we’re going, how to get there, how to find work (or not), and how to go to the doctor once there. We got to visit the Overseas Briefing Center, kind of a mini library where officers and EFM’s can research different posts they might be assigned to.  I read up on Chinese and Mexican posts, because those were the most likely places we would go.

Orientation exposed us to a lot of important info, so I’m glad I went. It was good to meet the other EFM’s, we have our own community, alongside the officers’, and it’s a good idea to get started early.  The orientation was run by some terrific people, EFM’s mostly, and it helped ease my anxiety about joining the foreign service.

Plus, it was fun to see the place Diplowife spends most of her waking hours, and the people she works with.