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February, 2013:

Birthday Pie

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My wife totally gets me.

Blood tests are getting easier

As part of the very thorough medical clearance, I need a lot of tests done. Yesterday two vials of my blood were drawn, and this morning I had to go back and lose another vial.

I have a history of breaking out in a cold sweat around needles, but this time I was able to get through it without any problems.

Even though the experience wasn’t traumatic, it wasn’t any fun getting stuck with a needle on my birthday. After it was over, I treated myself to a doughnut.

Nice sunrise this morning

Nice one today. 7:36 am.

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The Security Check begins

I was notified by email that Diplomatic Security now has a “complete security package” on me and will start to process my security application. I guess this marks the point at which my background check actually begins.

The additional information that they needed was on my foreign spouse. Stacy has relatives in Taiwan and in China, and we needed to supply the State Department with birth dates, addresses and occupation data for her aunts and uncles. This was tough; her relatives in China live in rural areas, and they don’t have “addresses” in the sense of an American mailing address. It isn’t as vague as “village by the mountain,” but it isn’t much more than that.

We decided to give as much information as we could, and added a footnote that she has never even met the Mainland Chinese relatives, and crossed our fingers. Luckily, State seems to be satisfied with what we gave them.

Official word from the State Department is that security clearances take between six and eight months. Other candidates are reporting on the online discussion group that their clearances are taking as little as three months, and the more typical time period seems to be four months.

I still think that, with my complicated background, my clearance will take closer to the longer end of the official time range. I would be very surprised if they were done with me in only three or four months.

The next step should be a face-to-face interview with an officer who will be in charge of my case. Then interviews with my employers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, etc. From what other people have written about the process, it’s pretty thorough. Although I’ve read several accounts about the security clearance process, I will reserve judgement. Experience has taught me not to believe everything that I read.

Language Points

I need language points. My score on the Oral Assessment was high enough to qualify me for a job, but not high enough to ensure that I will actually receive an offer of employment. The process of selecting Foreign Service officers is a pure meritocracy: at this point in the process, only those candidates who have a high enough score will get a job.

Although I can’t do anything about my OA score, I can supplement it by showing a high proficiency in a foreign language. By taking a proficiency test, candidates can supplement their score, and thus win a higher place on the registry. In addition, not all languages are equally valuable to the FS. There is a list of “Super Critical Languages.” Not surprisingly, languages on that list are those that are spoken in strategically important countries. Chinese is on that list.

Being a speaker of Chinese, I am in the position to get extra language points if I can demonstrate high enough proficiency in Chinese.

But I’m worried. My Chinese is pretty good, especially speaking and listening. However, I have never been formally assessed.

I am fortunate that in the modern world, there is no shortage of what language teachers call “realia;” artifacts of real language that can be useful for language teaching and learning. Thanks to YouTube and other websites, there are many sources of real Chinese that I can use to improve my language skills.

The Chinese that is spoken in China is probably 90-95% the same as the Chinese spoken in Taiwan, but there are some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Think of British English and American English. Mostly the same, but still different.

Lately I have been watching Voice of America’s Chinese news, and the evening news from Taiwan’s Public Television Service. Both are freely available on the web.

The Taiwanese news is broadcast in an accent that is familiar to me, and I since I lived in Taiwan so long, I can relate to the topics and cultural references. But that isn’t going to be enough. It’s likely that I would be posted in China, so I need to be familiar with the accent and phraseology that is used in China. More importantly and practically, the person administering the test will likely be a Mainland Chinese person, not Taiwanese Chinese, so I have to get used to the accent. Voice of America’s Chinese programming is dominated by native speakers from China, and it seems that the intended audience of its programming is people in China. So it’s a good resource.

Security Check: step 1

The background check is off to an inauspicious start. I just got an email from Diplomatic Security, asking for more information about my foreign-born spouse. They need a “biographical sketch” of each of her family members. This will be tough: some of her relatives are in Taiwan, some are in China. Hooha.

Starting a new path

A lot has happened since I stopped blogging over two years ago. After my position was eliminated at Michigan State, I started a new career at a credit union, and simultaneously began applying to the US Foreign Service.

Through this blog, I will track my progress toward becoming a diplomat. Key milestones will be documented for the benefit of others who may be curious about my path.

Stay tuned…