Me: Blathering on, for a good five minutes, about my favorite pen. It’s a great pen, it’s a perfect pen, I used to import them from Japan because I couldn’t find them in America, and I’m so bummed that they’re not making them anymore, and I’ve been looking for a new favorite kind of pen, but I can’t find one, so I’m really bummed about that…￼
Co-worker: Were you ever a teacher at some point in your life?￼￼
Americans in general have an egalitarian mindset. I definitely do, myself. We don’t like the idea of social classes, or even social positions. I think part of our fascination with TV shows like “Downton Abbey” is the strangeness of a clear line between the nobility and the servile class. As a matter of pride, we don’t like hierarchy. For example, I have never called a boss by anything other than their first name (except the Ambassador, of course, but that’s different).
I sometimes wonder if that’s why we in the foreign service call our servants “household help.”
In my first tour, I hired an “auntie” to come to my apartment once a week to do my laundry and mop my floors. I was pretty low-maintenance then, and my apartment was quite small. I didn’t need more than a once-a-week cleaning lady. In my second tour, we lived in a serviced apartment. The building’s cleaning staff came in almost every day to clean the apartment. We did our own laundry and cooking, but again, I’m low maintenance, and in addition, it was easy in that country to go grocery shopping for my own food.
This tour, though, the situation is quite different. Security restrictions limit where we can go. Also, for the first time, I don’t speak the local language. That, and the fact that I don’t understand the local culture, complicates my life quite a bit. But the biggest difference for me is that for the first time in the foreign service, I live in a huge house. I don’t know exactly how big it is, but it has to be at least 2,500 square feet. It wouldn’t be practical for me to do all the work that’s necessary to maintain this house (plus, I don’t want to).
It seems to be common here in Bangladesh to employ servants household help. Even the locally-engaged staff in the Embassy have housekeepers. Many of them have drivers, too. Part of it is because life here is pretty complicated. Another reason is because labor is very cheap in this country.
My housekeeper has been working for Embassy employees for years. I “inherited” her from an officer who left post right after I arrived. She was able to start working for me with only a few weeks of unemployment. Her English is good enough to communicate, she knows all about Americans’ strange lifestyles, and she has been taking great care of me and the house.
She cooks for me whenever I ask her to. Her first day, I asked her to make me something Bangladeshi. I didn’t care what, I told her, but I wanted some vegetables. This is what I came home to:
Plus all of the dishes were washed, plus she set the table for me.
No idea what I ate. There was yellow goop, red goop, and brown goop! And it was delicious!
It’s been working out really great so far. I ask her to buy fruit, and when I come home at night, she’s cut up my fruit and put it in the refrigerator. I suspect she’s started to feel the need to take care of me. Today was the second day in a row that I didn’t ask her to cook anything. Tonight, I came home to see a cooked meal on the stove, and a dozen chocolate cupcakes on my counter. No complaints!
A coworker here told me that Americans pay more for our household help than employees of other Embassies. That might be why so many people want to work for us. Right after I moved in, people were hanging out on the street outside my house, with their CVs in hand, asking if I wanted to hire a driver or a cleaner or a “bearer” (still not sure what that job category means).
My housekeeper seems to have enough work for now. But she only takes care of the inside of the house. I also have a yard. My house came with a gardener. For almost ten years, he’s been working for families that live in this house. So I was expected to hire him too. It’s like he came with the house. I don’t know that I need a full-time gardener, but if I didn’t hire him, the poor guy would be unemployed. He has a wife and kids back home in the village, and Lord knows that with the poverty in this country, they need the money that he sends home. So even though it seems like something I don’t need, I also feel an obligation to provide employment to the guy. So I’ve been keeping him busy planting flowers and vegetables. My yard has a big coconut tree, a banana tree, mango tree, and a jackfruit tree. I actually like jackfruit quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I actually get a harvest.
So another weird part of this strange life of mine, is that I now have a household staff. I recently acquired a car. Even though most people hire a driver, I am resisting that for now. I just can’t imagine adding a third person to my payroll, it seems like it would be too much. Actually, it already feels like too much.
I choose to look at this practice of hiring household help as a way to help the local economy. We are paying people more than they could get on the local labor market. Most of these folks are poorly educated and don’t have marketable job skills. We are treating them fairly and honestly. In fact, an Embassy policy requires us to give every household helper a labor contract, pay them a yearly bonus, and give severance pay when we leave post. For a reasonable amount of money, I get time to write blog posts, rather than mop my floors, and pick up coconuts from my lawn. Everyone wins.
Continuing my proud tradition in the Foreign Service, I managed to reset the Days Without Injuries sign in the office to zero.
One of my new responsibilities is “Accountable Items Officer.” I have to keep our important documents secure. When they are not being used, they have to be locked in a safe. Before you start thinking that I have access to top-secret spy information, I should explain what the items are. I do not have access to nuclear launch codes (people who know me should be very relieved to know that. The world is a much safer place with that information NOT in my hands), or the keys to Fort Knox.
Rather, the important documents are things like blank visa sheets and the seal that we use to notarize documents. Not exciting material, true, but in the wrong hands, they could do some damage to national (and personal) security. So we have to keep track of those items. That’s my job. My ultra-glamorous task is to open the safe every morning, and hand the visa “foils” to the LE staff to print. Then in the evening, I collect the unused sheets, and lock them up in the safe.
Not 007-level excitement. No one will ever make a spy movie about this task. But it’s important, and I take it seriously. Because I don’t want to get fired, and I want to stay out of jail.
A few days ago, I was doing the morning start-up procedures, and I attempted to open what I am now ironically calling the “safe.” To open the safe, you have to pull a big, heavy ka-chump lever. One morning, in my haste to get the door open, I ka-chumped my finger between the handle and the safe. Hence the ironic usage of the word “safe.” Blood and naughty words leaked out.
If I were smart, I would have gone to the med unit at post. But it’s across the street. In order to get there, you have to leave the Embassy, risk your life crossing the street, and enter the annex compound. I figured it wasn’t worth bothering the nice people there, I could patch myself up right in the office. Being an OSHA-compliant work place, the Consular section does have a first-aid kit. That dates from World War I, from the looks of it. And the contents seem to date to the Civil War. The kit contains a pair of scissors, some gauze, rubbing alcohol, and tape.
No infection so far. I’d cross my fingers, but I can’t at the moment.
This “home leave” is over. Today I leave for my “onward post” in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I left Vietnam in July, more than two months ago. After a few good training courses in DC, and some quality time with family, I feel re-energized and ready for the next challenge.
The Department requires us to stay in America at least 20 days between posts, so that we can get re-acquainted with America. I suspect that this requirement was more meaningful before the Internet allowed us to keep in touch with the news and with family back home so easily. Home leave is a real hardship for officers who don’t have a permanent house in the U.S., especially for people with big families. Either they have to impose on relatives, or else spend a fortune on a short-term rental. “Hemorrhaging money” is a common phrase on our Facebook group.
I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted this time, unfortunately, but we did get to do some traveling. A cross-country train trip on Amtrak showed us some really beautiful parts of the country.
And of course we really enjoyed Michigan’s summer weather.
All good things must come to a end. Today I’m on an airplane to my next post. This time, I’m really putting myself out of my comfort zone. I know almost nothing about Bangladesh, I don’t speak Bengali, and I’m going to be in a supervisory position for the first time in my State Department career. All of that means that I will make a fool out of myself and get myself into ridiculous situations even more than in my previous tours.
I worked hard to learn Vietnamese. I never got as good as I wanted to get, but I got pretty good. My wife and I were at the Foreign Service Institute for almost a year, most of that time in Vietnamese class. For five hours a day we were in small-group classes. Then, hours of homework and self-study after that. I didn’t have to take it quite as seriously. But I’m an overachiever. I filled up four (FOUR!) notebooks with vocabulary words. I made dozens of flash card stacks with Quizlet (highly recommended for language learning, BTW). I did my best.
After arriving at post, I continued to study, four hours a week with a private tutor (thank you, Post Language Program! Xin chào Cô Tươi!). She patiently endured my over-analyzing her language, poor her.
I tested again in March, late in the evening over the Department’s video conference system (after getting an MRI that morning, but that’s a different story). Again, I didn’t score as high as I wanted, but I improved.
I asked the local staff in the office to help me practice Vietnamese. They were good sports, including me in their banter (the Vietnamese people are very good at banter, by the way). I followed most of it, and it got easier as I practiced.
I invested a lot of sweat and effort in learning the language. I read several books, hundreds of newspaper articles, struggled though countless hours of television (television news in Vietnamese is really, really hard). I started talking to myself in Vietnamese, dreamed in Vietnamese, even accidentally used Vietnamese instead of Chinese with my wife. The language finally got a firm foothold in my brain. But now that my tour is over and I’ve left Vietnam, what am I supposed to do with this language?
Of course, we can try to go back to Vietnam for another tour of duty. My wife and I have talked about it, and we both agree that another tour in Vietnam would be great. Hanoi would be an interesting place to live and work. So that would give me another chance to use Vietnamese professionally. But that is at least two years in the future. In the meantime, I have this head full of Vietnamese, some of it correct and accurate. It might fade in two years, but it’s so firmly entrenched in my brain now that it won’t go away.
It’s a different situation from Chinese. Not being in a Chinese-speaking work environment isn’t weird for me. I’ve been a Chinese speaker for more than half my life, and it’s our home language. But I only spoke Vietnamese in the office and on the street. Now that I’m out of a Vietnamese environment, I feel like I’m neglecting my language proficiency. I don’t regret the investment that it took to learn Vietnamese. But not using it anymore seems like a waste.
Don’t be me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn another language. It’s just a little frustrating that I won’t be able to use it professionally for several years. After putting so much work into learning, I don’t want it to fade away.
I can finally share this Vietnam memory now. Enough time has passed that I can reflect on this particular evening without getting too emotional. But first, some context:
Taipei in the late 1980s was a lot less modern than it is today. Traffic was terrible, and public transportation was a network of busses that competed with cars and motorcycles. I lived pretty far from work at the time, and so my daily commute was boring.
Thank heavens for my Sony Walkman. I listened to a lot of radio on the bus.
The morning guy on Taiwan’s English-language radio station, ICRT, was entertaining. If I timed my commute right, his morning show typically wrapped up around the time I got to work. Lan Roberts always ended his show with Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.”
Being a twenty-something snot-nosed philistine, of course I didn’t know the name of the song. But I quickly associated the music with a formative period of my life. I have sweet memories my early career in Taipei. I met my wife during this time, so it was a romantic time for me as well. Needless to say, that song triggers nostalgia and powerful emotions for me.
But what does that have to do with Vietnam?
Every U.S. Embassy and Consulate around the world marks July 4 with a big party, or as we call it in diplomat-speak, a “representational event.” This is the day that we recognize our counterparts in the local government, and our contacts in the business community and civil society organizations. It’s a party for them, and a big work event for us. We call it an “all hands” event: everyone is expected to contribute.
The theme of our Consulate’s July 4th party this year was: “Jazz in the Park.”
The Consul General knows that I love jazz, so I was “voluntold” to coordinate the “program.” My job was to plan the ceremony, find someone to write the speeches, and arrange the entertainment. Last year’s theme was “State Fair,” and the entertainment part could be a lot simpler, because we had games and activities on the floor to keep the guests entertained during the event. This year the focus was different. Since the theme was jazz, the music was the main thing. I had to find enough jazz to fill the program.
The planning committee got excited when we started talking about the program, and thanks especially to inspiration from J in the Econ section, “we” (I) decided to go big. “We” (I) might have gotten a little carried away. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” turned into: “How can we make that happen?”
“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a small acoustic trio playing near the registration desk, to give people a taste of jazz?”
“And have a small trio in the ballroom to provide atmosphere before the ceremony starts?”
The Consulate’s medical doctor is a musician on the side, and he plays in the only big band jazz band in Vietnam. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get an eighteen-piece band to play for us?”
“There’s a swing dance group in town. Wouldn’t it be cool if they performed?”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get the biggest jazz musician in Vietnam to play one big number right before the ceremony started? And get his daughter to play with him? And have wireless microphones so they could walk down around the audience?”
Tran Manh Tuan, the most famous jazz musician in Vietnam, has wanted to work with the Consulate for years. U.S. medical care saved his life several years ago, he was educated in the U.S., and his daughter will go to study there this fall. So he feels a special connection to the United States, and graciously agreed to share his music with us.
After they were done, the Ambassador led a standing ovation.
I sweet-talked a lot of people to perform for us for the insultingly low amount of money that the Consulate could perform for us. I called in some favors, too. But in the end, the event turned out great. The committees for decorations, food, traffic control, all came together.
My part of the evening was front-loaded with the various parts of the ceremony and program. The performances went off smoothly, the singers didn’t forget the words to the national anthems (that happened last year – embarrassing!!), the speeches wee well-received. Once the Big Band started playing, and the socialization/networking part of the evening started, I could relax a bit and enjoy the rest of the program.
Then the band played “Moonlight Serenade.” I was talking with the swing dance band at the time (OK, to be honest, I was taking silly selfies with them).
When the song started, I got excited and exclaimed that I loved that song. One of the dancers asked if I wanted to dance. Of course I said yes. Being a Hoopingarner man, I can’t dance well AT ALL, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dance to a song that was so meaningful to me.
Having actual dancing skills, she led. That was more than fine with me. I think I might have talked with her during the song. But to be honest, during the whole time, I was carried back to my younger days.
Everyone agreed that this year’s event was the best ever. Even the Ambassador said so.
A lot of people worked hard on this event, and we all had to work together. For me, it was more than a successful representational event. We showcased a quintessentially American art form, and had a lot of fun. And of course the evening was especially great because this year I got to spend time with this wonderful person, too!
This was the best July 4 event I’ve ever done. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the program flow and to integrate the performances in with the rest of the event. The venue was glorious, the decorations were beautiful. I made new memories, and relived old memories. And I got to share my love for jazz with old and new friends. It was an emotional evening for me, and I will never forget it.
“The Best We could Do” by Thi Bui is a graphic novel that tells the story of her family’s journey. The story spans four generations, from pre-war Vietnam, though their experience as refugees, and finally as immigrants in America. The book won several awards, and it Bui deserves them all. The book also revived a strange childhood memory for me, of my mother being able to speak Vietnamese.
Bui’s family, like many people from the South, saw that they had no future in the new Vietnam, so they took their chances and left by boat. We will never know how many people drowned when their boats sank, or were killed by pirates, or died of other causes during their flight. The lucky ones made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia or other Southeast Asian country. The very lucky ones had family in the United States, and were sponsored by their relatives to go to America.
My family was on the other side of the Vietnamese refugee crisis. We were the part of American society who helped the refugees to find a new life in America. My church “adopted” a Vietnamese family.
I think their name was Mai (I now know that Mai is a family common Vietnamese family name). They were a married couple with some children, I don’t remember how many. My church rented a house for them, donated clothes for the kids, and tried to help them adjust to life in chilly Michigan. Of course it was hard. Their English wasn’t good at all, and everything was new for them, from the weather to the food to the schools. We tried to communicate, but it was a huge challenge. But to my amazement and confusion, my mother could speak a few words of Vietnamese with them!
One Sunday afternoon we went to their house for a visit. I remember my father was talking with Mr. Mai about gardening. Mr. Mai’s English was better then the rest of the family’s. But they still had trouble communicating. Every once in a while, Dad would call out an English word to Mom, who would tell him in Vietnamese. Dad and Mr. Mai managed to have a conversation, thanks to Mom’s knowledge of Vietnamese(?!).
But how did my mother, born and raised in Michigan, ever learn Vietnamese? I remember being really amazed and confused. I wanted to ask her how the heck she learned Vietnamese. But I got distracted, and then forgot to ask her later.
As I started to learn Vietnamese, and to learn more about Vietnamese history, I learned that through the 1950s, French was the colonial language, so it was the language that a Vietnamese person would be educated in. The Mais, as part of the upper crust of Vietnamese society, would have spoken French. My mother also speaks French. So to my disappointment, I had to accept that my mother wasn’t speaking Vietnamese with Mr. Mai. Rather, they had found a literal “lingua franca” in French.
Mom couldn’t speak Vietnamese after all. Too bad, a little disappointing. She’s still awesome, of course. But man, she really blew my 8-year-old mind that day.
“It’s probably too much to hope that my next tour will be as memorable as this one.” I wrote that at the end of my first tour in China. I really thought that a tour couldn’t be as eventful as that one. Boy, was I ever wrong. Not to discount my adventures in China, but my two years in Vietnam were so much more action-packed than my time in China. By a huge margin.
I didn’t write as much while I was in country, mainly because of the nature of the job. A lot happened, and it all happened so fast. I still have a lot to say about my tour in Vietnam. But I need some time to process it first. Like I wrote more than two years ago, I’m still not sure what the hell happened, and how to understand it all. But there I know some things already:
You can never really prepare.
I spent a year in D.C., learning job skills and Vietnamese language. Even after so much time in training, I didn’t feel prepared for Vietnam. I was right. I wasn’t ready. Toward the end of my tour, I mentioned to my boss that I felt incompetent and useless. He smiled. “How many years until you retire?” he asked. I told him I was planning to stay in the job until mandatory retirement at age 65. “You’ll feel that way until then,” he predicted.
We work in a country for two or three years, then move on. The Department doesn’t allow us to stay in the same country for a long time. That means that we are always investing time to learn about the country we serve in. There’s a ramp-up time before we hit our stride and get efficient. Then it’s time to move on to the next country. There are good reasons for this system. We should keep our perspective and always advocate for the United States. I’ve personally seen the loss of perspective in officers who stay in country too long. The huge investment in time and resources to train us can seem inefficient. But it’s like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst form of government except for all the rest. Maybe our system has problems, but it does work. We just have to get comfortable with some inefficiency and feelings of inadequacy.
Loneliness is built in to the job.
Because of some family issues, I was at post by myself for a year. It sucked. It’s hard enough being separated from your family, being alone in a foreign country is harder. They warned us about this. It still sucked.
Friends help with the loneliness.
The locally-engaged staff at post are great. They are dedicated, professional, kind, good people. I will never forget them.
Unlike my last tour, when I felt uneasy about making friends with the local people, this tour I made some life-changing friendships with Vietnamese people. One friend introduced me to the writings of a quiet Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. I have a complicated relationship with religion, and don’t agree with everything about his religion, but his writings about mindfulness touched me deeply.
Maybe the purpose of life is the good that you leave behind.
Not to get too philosophical, but this job is like human life: we arrive at a place that was there before we got there. We’re there for a short time, do some things, meet some people, live, love, then leave. After we go, the world goes on. What’s important is to leave the world a little better than how we found it.
I wrote before about Mr. Phi, who works in my apartment building. He once told me that he wanted to work in the Consulate, and has applied several times unsuccessfully. The next time the Consulate posted a job opening for a local staff, some other officers and I helped him polish his resume, and helped him with his application. Just a few weeks ago, he received a job offer to work in the Consulate. When he told me the news, I might have been as happy as he was.
My tour is over, I’ve left Vietnam. My replacement has arrived and will take over for me. The work in Vietnam will go on. The Vietnamese people will live their lives. I will miss my dear friends. I hope that I did some good.