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Foreign Service

America’s soft power is strong

Traveling on a survey trip in the countryside is rewarding in many ways. When you live in a big city, it’s easy to forget that most people in the country don’t enjoy a high standard of living.

Yesterday I had two heartwarming interactions with Vietnamese people. The first was in a very small town in the Mekong Delta. We got a little lost, and were trying to figure out what to do. While we were standing on the side of the road, a young man walked up to me and struck up a conversation in English.

As a matter of principle, I like to engage with people, especially with students. You never know who kids will grow up to be. I’d love to be the American that a future leader remembers talking to, way back when. It’s also good for America when people have a favorable impression of us.

Anyway, this young man said he was 16, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from America, his face lit up. He was clearly delighted to be talking with an American. His English wasn’t very good, but we managed a brief conversation. I admired his courage to approach a foreigner and try using a language that he was just starting to learn. I don’t think I am that brave.

The other interaction happened later that night, in town. We were on he street, when a small child, about 3 years old, walked by with his mom. With the encouragement of his mother, he smiled, waved, and called out “Hello!” to me. He didn’t speak any English, but he wasn’t self-conscious or shy, he trotted over to me and gave me a high-five.

I’ve had interactions like that in other countries. But Americans seem to enjoy especially high favorability among the Vietnamese people, even (or maybe especially) in rural parts of the country. In the eyes of many people here, America never wasn’t “great.”

I am an historian

The site of the current U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City was the site of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam from 1968-1975. As a result, the site is of considerable historical significance.

I won’t go into the details, but if you’re interested, Wikipedia’s article has a pretty good summary of the events that happened on the compound.

Many of the officers that are posted here have an interest in history, so a “consulate historian” group has formed. When high-level visitors (government officials) come on an official visit, they often want a tour of the grounds, to understand how the events that happened here played out. An officer will lead a tour and explain what happened. It’s sort of like being a docent in a museum.

Shortly before coming to post, I joined the historian team. I’ve given a couple of tours so far. The group has a collection of documents and photos that we can use as visual aids when we give talks, but we also tailor our talks to the particular interests of the visitors.

Last week I gave a tour to a cabinet secretary who was visiting Vietnam on an official visit. Because the Secretary was born in Michigan, then later represented Georgia in Congress, I took the time to find both Michigan and Georgia connections to the events at the Embassy. I managed to find people from those respective states who played significant roles in the events at the Embassy.

At first, I thought I would be giving a tour to only the Secretary and his wife, but it turned out that a large group of his staff and other departmental personnel tagged along as well. There were about 20 people in the group. The Ambassador was also there, and provided some additional details as I gave my talk (he has extensive knowledge about the recent history of the Consulate, because he was here when the U.S. was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s).

When I joined the Foreign Service, I didn’t picture myself giving historical tours, but it certainly fits in with our job description. Talking about the history of a U.S. Embassy is definitely one of the roles of a diplomat.

The fool valve is a real thing

In his entertaining book “Japanese in Action!,” author Jack Seward describes something that he calls the “fool valve.” The phenomenon is that some Japanese people see a white face, and assume that the person can’t speak Japanese. Even if the white person speaks very fluent Japanese, the preconceived notion in the Japanese person’s mind prevents him from hearing the Japanese coming from the white person’s mouth.


There’s also a hilarious YouTube video that illustrates the point:

I never really experienced this when I was working in China. Sometimes people were surprised to hear me speaking in Chinese, but they always seemed to adjust very quickly.

Today, however, I interviewed a visa applicant who apparently had his fool valve stuck. I finished interviewing the person before him in line in Vietnamese. When this guy came up to my window, I asked (in Vietnamese) to see his passport. He said in Vietnamese: “Vietnamese, please.” I responded in Vietnamese: “No problem, I speak Vietnamese. Please give me your passport.”

I want to add at this point that although my Vietnamese isn’t as good as my Chinese, I can still hold my own in a visa interview. Several of the local staff have complemented my language skills. I’m comfortably sure that a reasonable person would understand me if I walked up to them on the street and asked to see their passport. They would definitely think that I was a strange little man, but they would understand me nonetheless.

However, this guy was stuck. I think he saw my white face, and assumed that anything out of my mouth would be English. He stared at me with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, and said again in Vietnamese: “Vietnamese, please.”

I repeated myself slowly and loudly, enunciating every word like I was talking to a child. “Please. Show. Me. Your. Passport. ” That seemed to help. It took about four back-and-forth turns before the valve in his mind got unstuck, and he realized that I was speaking to him in Vietnamese. I worked my way up, gradually speaking more quickly and naturally. By the end of the interview, we were chatting at normal speed in Vietnamese.

So, Mr. Seward, I apologize for ever doubting you or thinking that you were exaggerating. The fool valve is definitely a thing. I think it’s an unfortunate term, but it’s definitely a thing in Vietnam.

My favorite kind of diplomatting

I am a firm believer in American education.  I’m a product of the American educational system myself, of course, and in addition to that, I worked in the system for 20+ years. I got interested in the Foreign Service through my experience as a Fulbright scholar. One of the reasons that I wanted to join the Foreign Service is because of all that we do with promoting U.S. educational opportunities for students from other countries.

There’s a constant stream of students from other countries to learn in America. Our educational system, like our culture, is very attractive to foreign students. Even though it isn’t perfect (what is, after all?), America’s educational system enjoys a strong reputation internationally. The huge influx of international students to American high schools, colleges and universities is impressive and inspiring.

So when I was asked to represent the U.S. Consulate at a graduation ceremony of a U.S. university’s program in Vietnam, I jumped at the chance.

Before the event began, I got to schmooze with some people.

Exchanging business cards in the digital age, using our smartphones.

The ceremony got off to an impressive start. A troupe of local dancers opened the ceremony with an eye-popping performance. This video is just a little snippet:

I got to say a few words on behalf of the Consulate in congratulating the graduates and the graduate program.

Unfortunately for the attendees, the big screen showed everyone exactly what I look like close up.

Someone once said that America is its own best advertisement. This morning I met some really excellent people who are ambitious and optimistic about the future of their country. They chose to invest in their future by pursuing an education at an American university. I’m proud that they benefited from an American graduate education.

Happy 4th of July

Big flower wreaths like this have been showing up at the Consulate all week. They’re from local government and business organizations, congratulating the U.S.A. on its national day. They are being displayed all over the Consulate.

Diplomatting while jet lagged

On literally my third day in the country, I had the opportunity to diplomat. The consulate was invited to attend an anniversary event for a local large corporation. Because most of the senior people at the consulate are on leave or otherwise busy, I was given the opportunity to represent the consulate (and by extension, the U.S. government) at the event.

Luckily for me, the event was in the morning. I was still getting over jet lag, which means that I was waking up at 5:00 am. If it had been an event event, I might have fallen asleep halfway through.

Although Vietnam is not China, there are still some common cultural practices between the two countries. The level of formality when holding an official event reminds me of a royal ceremony from a few hundred years ago in Europe. They literally rolled out the red carpet for attendees.

Terrible quality pictures, because I was taking them surreptitiously with my phone, trying not to be obnoxious.

The event was largely a song and dance (literally at times) congratulations and retrospective on the history and accomplishments of the company. I was there to affirm the U.S. government’s moral support for economic development in the region.

The company literally has a theme song. It was performed with enthusiasm.

I enjoy these things. They give us a chance to build and maintain connections with the local government and businesses. There is little pressure on us, other than to “wave the flag” and show our faces. I met a few people, learned more about the local economy, experienced some more aspects of Vietnamese culture. The extrovert part of me really likes schmoozing.

It was unusual  for me to be able to attend this event, because of the lack of senior people at the moment. But I hope that I continue to have opportunities to represent America at events like this.

Goooooood Morning Vietnam!

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City late last night. Our sponsor met us at the airport, and brought us to our new apartment. Here’s what it looks like out our front window.

That’s a park across the street. Traffic is starting to pick up already this morning.

This morning we will start our check-in process at the consulate. Everything is going very well so far. Life is good.

Learning a language as a job requirement, part 2.

One of the “World’s Dudes” series of cigarette cards from Allen & Ginter, late 1800s: “British Diplomat.” So glad that I don’t have to dress like this.

As I wrote in my last post, foreign service officers are required to achieve professional working proficiency in the language that we’re studying. Officially, the Foreign Service Institute uses the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale to assess language proficiency. In my professional opinion, the testing unit at FSI does a pretty good job of adhering to the standards for proficiency. And in my experience as a language learner, FSI language departments do a pretty good job of preparing us to be assessed by the ILR standards.

But the situation more nuanced than you’d think.

I’ve had this conversation with many of my classmates over the last several months, as we’ve struggled with the task of language learning. We all have the sense that something’s not completely right with the language curriculum. The problem came into focus for me when we went on the language immersion trip in March.

I also saw symptoms of this problem in some colleagues who I served with in China. Being married to a native speaker of Chinese, I have plenty of opportunity to practice daily life language. But my colleagues who only learned Chinese in the classroom had a different experience. They had good work-related language skills, but their skill in talking about daily life, using language that local people used, was weaker. Several people joked that they could negotiate a trade treaty in Chinese, but they couldn’t order a pizza. Language for daily life doesn’t seem to be a high priority for the language programs at FSI. And although it can be frustrating for us once we land in country, it isn’t hard to understand why the language programs do it that way.

Generally speaking, we can think about the goals of language learning in different ways. On the one hand, we needs to be able to navigate daily life: ask for the bathroom, or talk about the weather. Answering the telephone has got to be the hardest everyday task in a foreign language. Every language learner is afraid of a ringing telephone. Don’t take my word for it, ask any language learner how stressful it is to talk on the telephone in a foreign language. This kind of language use is the highest-frequency language use. It’s how people use language on a day-to-day basis. However, this is de-emphasized at FSI. It seems that there is a deliberate choice not to focus on that. Why? Keep reading.

Another kind of language is professional use. This is the language that we use in the office: when we are interacting with our locally-engaged staff (LES), when we interview visa applicants, when we meet with local government officials and businesspeople. The language is pretty predictable and structured, and it’s at a more formal register. More importantly, this kind of language contains words and structures that are very different from daily life language. Although language for daily life and professional use is the same language, the functions are very different. And significantly for a language program, if you have to teach both daily-life language and formal job-related language, then you have to teach two different units. If you could encapsulate the language functions into zones, it might look something like this:

Areas of focus when I’m learning a language.

There’s another area of focus in that chart, which I’ll come back to later.

If you run a language program, and your instructional time is limited (whose time isn’t limited? Mine sure is!), then you have to prioritize.

If you have to prioritize between teaching daily-life language and work-related language, which should you teach?

I look at the question of priorities in two ways. First is the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The (in)famous hierarchy of needs

The most basic level is physiological. A person needs to eat.  If you want a person to be able to live in foreign country, that person needs to be able to get around in society. From that perspective, it makes sense to focus on daily life language, right?

But there’s another way to look at the problem. Let’s look at it from the perspective of why we are sending diplomats abroad in the first place. Although it will be a struggle to get around in daily life without great skills in basic language use, the real reason that we’re sent abroad is to conduct foreign affairs. Our personal comfort and convenience should take a back seat to our job performance. From that perspective, we should focus on work-related language. It’s much more important for the U.S. government that we are able to talk about banking regulations or the humane treatment of prisoners, than it is to be able to pick up our dry-cleaning, for example.

But even that isn’t the end of the debate. We can’t ignore another, competing force. The third area of the chart above is the “Language that I need to pass the test.” The only way that our language skill will be formally assessed is during the End of Training (EOT) test. The stakes are very high for that test. There are consequences for testing well or poorly. So as a language student, it makes a lot of sense, even though it’s more than a little mercenary, for me to focus on what I have to do in order to score well on the test.

Of course, in an ideal world, there would be enormous overlap between these three areas. I’d love to draw a chart like this:

An ideal Venn diagram of the three competing priorities.

However, it often seems that the situation should be charted more like this:

Reality sucks

In my language program, the instructors are very cognizant of the competing priorities. I often fear that they feel that they are caught in the middle of this struggle. They want to help us met our goals, but sometimes our mercenary mindset clashes with their ideals of teaching us the language with a well-rounded approach.

In an ideal world, language learners would focus  solely on their work-related needs, so that they can succeed in their job after they arrive at post. They would hope that they could get around with the language in daily life, and ignore the test. A test score is just a number. It’s more important that they actually are able to do their job. Right? Well,…

These are the competing forces that we interact with during language training. Like I wrote above, it’s more nuanced than a simple test score. There is a lot of room for interpretation in a statement of proficiency like: “Can typically discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease.”

Life is messy. Definitions are fuzzy, and clear-cut examples are hard to find. Language learning as a professional task is complex and hard to predict. Like the car commercials used to say: “Your mileage may vary.”

Learning a language as a job requirement, part 1.

It’s an old joke: a person who speaks three languages is trilingual. A person who speaks two languages is bilingual. What do you call a person who only speaks one language? American.

I can’t speak for American society as a whole, but I can say that that saying is definitely not true of foreign service officers. We are polyglots. It’s literally in our job description. When we are posted to a foreign country, we are required to speak the language at a certain professional level before departing for post. We are have to be able to diplomat in the language that is spoken in the country.

That is why the Foreign Service Institute teaches so many different languages. I’s be willing to bet that there are some languages that are taught nowhere else in the US other than at FSI. Icelandic is taught in only three colleges in America, for example. And I don’t think that any college offers a course in Estonian. That is completely understandable, of course. There isn’t a high demand for those languages. However, the US has strong diplomatic relations with Iceland and Estonia, and our diplomats have to speak those languages. So the government has to train our diplomats to speak Estonian and Icelandic, as well as Kazakh, Uzbek, Khmer, Pashto, and a bunch of languages in addition to French, German and Spanish.

We have diplomatic relations with 192 of the 195 countries in the world. That doesn’t mean that we have to teach 192 different languages. Many countries speak the same language. For example, French is the official language for 29 countries, and there are ten “Lusophone” countries (I’ll let you look that word up). I heard a colleague once say that if you speak Spanish, then you would meet the language requirement to work in 25% of our embassies and consulates.

Then there are the “boutique” languages, which are spoken only in one country. Some friends of mine have spent nine months learning Thai, Cambodian, or (in my case) Vietnamese. It’s necessary to learn the language in order to do our jobs, but it’s a tremendous investment in time, energy and money. And after we complete our tours in those countries, we aren’t easily able to use the language skill in another tour.

Chinese is only spoken in one country, of course, but it isn’t really a boutique language.  In addition to our embassy in Beijing, we have five consulates in various parts of China, and they all have to be staffed by hundreds of officers. In addition, there are many Chinese-language designated posts outside of China, in places like Toronto, where we have to process a lot of Chinese visa applicants.

And we aren’t just learning conversational language. We have to reach a “professional” proficiency level before we can go abroad. We have to be able to talk about health epidemics, human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, and the details of American foreign policy. If we can’t do that, if we fail the language test, then we continue studying until we do pass. I personally know several people who have had to extend their language training because they haven’t achieved the required proficiency.

The government gets a good return on its investment. A colleague of mine likes to say that he made $5 million for the government in two years while working in a consulate in Brazil. He was a consular officer, and he interviewed people who applied for a U.S. visa. Just the visa fee alone brought in a tremendous amount of money (foreigners who want a U.S. visa much pay $160 for an application fee, whether or not they are granted a visa), not counting the amount of money the people would have spent in the U.S. on tourism (I have heard that on average, a foreign tourist spends $5,000 per person when visiting the U.S.). For us to be able to facilitate travel to the U.S. is a great economic benefit to the American economy.

Through the course of a career in the foreign service, an officer may learn up to a half-dozen different languages. I was in language class with a colleague who was learning his fourth language for his fourth tour. It’s a pretty amazing experience, to have language learning be a core part of our job description.

Which also brings up the issue of language probation. Remember that language proficiency is a requirement in the foreign service, and that requirement is enforced. New officers are hired on language probation. We have five years to reach advanced proficiency in at least one language. Or else we get fired. As the famous FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual) puts it: “Candidates who fail to satisfy language probation requirements by the end of their five-year limited appointment will be separated from the Service” (emphasis added).

Yes, it’s great to “get paid to learn a foreign language,” as a lot of people put it. I want emphasize that point. For one’s job to be a student is a rare benefit. I remind myself of that fact every day. But there’s a negative side to this as well. It isn’t always like Christmas morning. The government is paying for my tuition, and paying my salary as I learn, because the government expects a return on its investment. The government is paying for my language study because it expects that I learn the language. If an officer spends months in a FSI language course, and doesn’t achieve language proficiency, then he has some explaining to do.

There is some real pressure on us to learn, and to learn well. The State Department needs its foreign service officers to have solid language skills. The U.S. needs its diplomats to be able to conduct foreign affairs without allowing language differences to get in the way. Foreign service officers need to successfully learn foreign languages. That’s my job right now, and that’s what I am getting paid to do.

Another milestone: I finished language training!

After over 11 months at the Foreign Service Institute, I am finally done with my training, and am ready to go on to post. Cue the Dance Of Joy!

Most of the training was language training: just over 9 months of full-time instruction in Vietnamese. It was a positive experience overall, but the old saying of “too much of a good thing” is really true. Any activity gets tiresome after too long, and I was ready to be done with language training.

I’m done with training! I can go to post now!

The last part of language training is the infamous “EOT” (“end of training”) test. It’s a language proficiency test, a multi-hour ordeal consisting of reading and speaking sections. If you want more details about the test itself, this link has some general information.

I took the Vietnamese language test on Wednesday. This was the third time I took a language test at FSI (the first two were for Chinese). The format is the same for all languages. There is literally no other way to prepare for this test other than conscientiously learning the language. You can not fake your way through this test. They start out pretty gently, with small talk and chit-chat, and very quickly go into very complicated subjects. You can start out by talking about the weather, and within seconds find yourself having to defend the administration’s policy on addressing climate change. Or ask someone how he’s feeling, then in the very next sentence debate the merits of single-payer health insurance. It gets that intense, that fast.

TL;DR: it’s a very intense language proficiency test.

I felt prepared for the test, but I was still very nervous because I had set a very high goal for myself, and I didn’t know if my language skills were good enough. I walked out of the test feeling the same way that I felt after the first time I took the test: exhausted and drained. They say you should feel that way after a language test, because the testers’ job is to push you to your limits. Their task is to see exactly what your highest level is, and they can only do that by pushing you. It’s sort of like when your dentist has to see if you have a cavity, and the only way he can do that is by digging into your tooth with that curly pointy probe thing. Imagine the linguistic equivalent of that curvy pointy probe, poking into your mind.

How’d you like one of these in your brain? Me, neither.

Long story short (too late)…

…I passed with my desired language score. No cavities, no blood, no tears. Just sweet, sweet relief.

In a future post, I will share my thoughts on long-term language training at FSI. When I have the strength. For now, I am basking in the feeling of being done. Even more, I’m looking forward to getting to post and actually using this language.