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Foreign Service

I got to diplomat in Chinese

The U.S. Consulate recently held a small reception for the diplomats who work in the Chinese consulate.  Several officers at post speak Chinese, and we were recruited to be part of the reception team. The evening was definitely work, not play. It was what we call a “representational event,” meaning that it was a party, but our job was to be the host, not a guest.

Still, it was a fun evening.  I like to schmooze. Plus, my Chinese is much better than my Vietnamese, and diplomatting in a language that I’m comfortable in felt great.  Plus we had a nice meal, al fresco, overlooking the beautiful Ho Chi Minh City skyline.

My job usually isn’t elegant and glamorous,. but sometimes I get a small perk.


So, this happened.

Fifty years ago, Vietnam was a very different place from what it is now. In 1968, there were a half-million American military personnel in Vietnam. The central part of the country was a war zone, literally. And in the middle of the lunar new year holiday, on January 31, 1968, the communist government in the north began a military offensive. They carried out a series of coordinated attacks all over the central and south. A lot of people died. One of the most surprising and shocking actions was an attack on the American Embassy in Saigon. A dozen or so commandos used satchel bombs to blow a hole in the wall surrounding the Embassy, and entered the grounds.

Five American servicemen were killed in action while defending the Embassy. One of those killed was a Marine Security Guard. We have a detachment of MSGs at our Consulate now. They provide security for the Consulate. They’re good people. They hold an annual birthday ball and invite us to attend. It’s a lot of fun. I like the MSGs. Anyway, in 1968, an MSG named James was on duty, and he was killed while fighting off the attackers. In the almost 20 years of having MSGs at our Embassies, James was the first one killed in the action of defending an Embassy. In addition to James, four Military Policemen also lost their lives in the fighting.

Eventually, all of the attackers were killed (one was wounded and captured). The Embassy grounds had been briefly occupied, but the Chancery building was secured throughout the attack. The attack was militarily meaningless. But symbolically it was huge. The American public had been told that we were winning the war. To see enemy soldiers shooting on the grounds of our Embassy was shocking. Some have called this attack the beginning of the end of public support for the U.S. engagement in Vietnam.

The site of our Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City is the exact same spot as the U.S. Embassy when the city was called Saigon. It’s literally on the same plot of land. There are still some old building from the old Embassy on the compound that we are still using today.  That means that every day, when I go to work, I walk through the location of that historic and horrible event. There is a plaque on the grounds of the Consulate, listing the names of the five fallen servicemen.  It’s hard to describe the combination of feelings that I have every morning after I walk through the security checkpoint and onto the Consulate grounds.  Pride, humility, patriotism, respect, joy, thankfulness.  But never apathy.  Ever.

On Wednesday this week, the 50th anniversary of the attack, we held a small, solemn event on the grounds to honor those five men. It was a military-civilian ceremony, representing the cooperation between the U.S. military and the State Department. Many people who work in the Consulate attended. From the perspective of U.S. personnel, it was a dignified tribute to those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. For some of the locally-engaged staff, who had family living here during the war, this isn’t just history. It’s memory.

I was proud to have helped to coordinate the commemoration event. I’m glad that we had the ceremony. And I hope that we can spread the message that while we honor those who have died for us in armed conflict, peace is always the path to a brighter future.

A week of constrasts

It feels like I’m doing more work out of the office during this tour.  Being able to do work in addition to visa interviews is rewarding.  I like talking to visa applicants, and I think I’m good at it.  But doing that all day, every day, for weeks on end, can become tiring.

For three days last week, I went on an investigation trip into the outer provinces.  This is a different kind of diplomatting.  We sometimes have to check the relationships between U.S. citizens who are married to Vietnamese citizens, and are applying for immigrant status for the spouses.  Most of these cases are legitimate, but there is a lot of fraud as well.  By visiting the homes of the applicants, and interviewing them there, we can determine whether the marriages are real or not.

We were a small team of three: me, a locally-engaged staff member, and a driver.  We drove a LOT over bad country roads.  We typically had to drive from one to two hours between appointments.  By the end of each day, my butt was sore from hitting all of the bumps in the road.  One of the managers told me that we really earn our hardship differential when we go out on these trips.  I agree.

The trip took us west, toward the Cambodian border.  That area is very rural, and is home to some of Vietnam’s 50-odd ethnic minorities.  Most people in this part of the country work in agriculture.

Farm workers

Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside.  Here’s the local store:

A busy shopping center.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:

Desperation makes one do things that one would not do under ordinary circumstances.

Not only is the countryside spread out and sparsely populated, but the roads are not well marked. Compared to well-organized urban areas, addresses in the provinces seem arbitrary.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.  One time, we asked directions from an old guy who was cooking outside his house.  He started to tell us how to get to the house we were looking for, then he stopped and thought for a moment.  He seemed to figure that it would be more efficient for his to show us himself.  So he walked away from his pot, but kept his spoon in his hand, as he led us down the street to the applicant’s house.

My Impressive Spoon of Direction will lead us to the correct destination.


Houses are constructed of wood and brick.  We saw several places in different stages of construction.

Very basic brick construction.

After seeing the low standard of living in the countryside, it isn’t hard to understand why some people would want to leave.  Some people move to the city for work, some people choose to emigrate.

Among the farms and poverty, though, we got to see some interesting regional culture.  A local religion called Cao Dai started in the 1920s in one of the provinces that we visited.  The religion combines characteristics of traditional Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  I don’t pretend to understand much about the religion, but their temple is beautiful.  We were allowed inside for a brief visit before the evening service started at 6:00 pm.

Cao Dai temple at twilight


Inside the Cao Dai temple

On Friday, we finished our investigations, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday evening.  The next day was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Many Embassies and Consulates have a detachment of Marine Security Guards.  Their official role is to provide security to the grounds and guard the classified information inside post.  Every year, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday (November 10).  MSGs at posts abroad hold a ball to celebrate, and invite all the diplomats and their families.  It’s like prom for grownups.  People have a “day of beauty” to do their makeup and hair.  The Marine Ball is about the only opportunity that I have to wear my tuxedo.

We went to prom in order to learn how to do this.

I had the privilege of writing the speech for our guest of honor this year.  This was my second speechwriting experience for this tour.  Like most skills, speechwriting takes practice, and like most tasks in the Foreign Service, there are structures and rules.  I forgot some key elements in a standard State Department speech, like acknowledging the guest dignitaries (oops), but the speaker was experienced, and she filled in the parts that I left out.  The speech was well-received (whew!).

This was an interesting week.  My job took me out to the dust and poverty of remote provincial countryside, then back to a night of glitz and dancing in the city, all in a few short days.  This wasn’t a typical week.   My schedule for next week should be business as usual.  It will be nice to calm down and relax by doing some routine work.  Even so, the meaning of “routine” while living abroad is different from in the U.S.

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.