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Looking for the best of the best

My own Fulbright experience several years ago led me to my current job in the State Department. The Foreign Service officers who I worked with when I was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan impressed me, and got me thinking that the Foreign Service could be a career for me, too.

Now I’m in the Foreign Service, and involved in the Fulbright program from the other side. Every year we select a few bright graduate students from Vietnam to get a Master’s degree in the United States. I’m on the selection committee that interviews the finalists for the scholarship program.

We reviewed the paper applications, and are now interviewing the final round of candidates. It’s been an inspiring experience so far. The people that we’ve talked to are bright, have done some amazing things already in their lives, and look to the United States as the place that can help them go to the next level.

In my work in Vietnam, I have interacted with many people who have benefited from the Fulbright scholarship. After they earned their graduate degrees in the United States, they returned to Vietnam, and are now helping to build their country. They brought back skills and knowledge in various fields, ranging from journalism to public policy. The Fulbright program is a tremendously effective foreign policy tool. We are educating and training the future leaders of countries all over the world, sharing our values, and helping countries develop so that they can become contributing members of the international community.

I am proud to be involved in the process that will select the next group of international students to the United States. I’m also inspired by their enthusiasm, energy, and dreams for their future. Even though I have 100 unread emails waiting for me back in the office every day after interviewing, I’m happy to put in the extra time to catch up with my regular work, knowing that I have been doing something so worthwhile.

Drinking for my Country

During A-100 (the 6-week diplomatic bootcamp in DC) they told us about the concept of “eating for your country.” Sometimes, they told us, we would be thrown into situations where we would be invited to partake of some local delicacy that, to put it mildly, would not be our first choice at a dinner buffet. Nevertheless, they said, it was necessary to put on a smile and pretend to enjoy it. This is what they called: “eating for your country. “

The other day, I was helping out at a reception that the Consulate was hosting, and I was asked to help out with some questionable wine. I work for the State Department, not a five-star restaurant. We do not have a wine cellar. We serve wine that has been donated to us from importers, and not all of it is very fresh. Apparently, some of our selections of wine that we have on-hand for receptions was getting a little old. Now, I’m no expert on wine, but I do know a thing or two about it. One of the things that I know about wine is that it comes in white and red (impressed yet?). One of the other things that I know is that if the cork crumbles into powder as you pull it out of the bottle, that’s a sign that the wine is past its prime.

I drank this for my country.

As the staff was laying out the wine, one of my coworkers asked: “does anyone know anything about wine?”

Why, yes, I volunteered. I fancy myself a bit of an expert on wine. For example, I offered, some of it is white, and some of it is red. You can imagine my great surprise that this bit of information was not the information that my coworker needed. I apparently was not being helpful. What they needed to know was how to tell if a bottle of wine had turned or not. That problem stumped me. The only way that we could think of was to taste-test it. Since I was the smarty pants who volunteered his expert help, I got the honor of tasting the wine for freshness. My coworker, being a smart person, found that action to be more helpful. And I, not willing to back down from my bold claim of being some sort of wine expert, found myself hoisted by my own petard.

The next 15 minutes or so was spent with me tasting samples from several bottles of wine. My biggest takeaway from the experience was that it does not take a great expert in wine to tell if a bottle of wine has turned. You can pretty much tell with a tiny sip. Here’s the secret: if it tastes like wine, it’s probably OK. But if it tastes bad, not at all wine-like, but rather tastes something like a rotting log that someone picked up off the ground in a forest, then it’s not likely to be very good. And unlucky for me, more than one bottle in our selection for the evening fit into the latter category. To make my work even more unpleasant, none of the serving staff had taken sommelier training, and did not prepare a little silver bowl for me to spit out the wine after I had tasted it, so I had to swallow it.

When wine turns, it doesn’t taste very good, but the alcohol content does not dissipate. So yesh, I got drunk on bad wine. It felt like college all over again.

Once again, I made an idiot of myself. Just in time for the guests to arrive. That was one more victory in my stellar diplomatic career.

National Day

Yesterday was Vietnam’s national day. Last night I went to the roof of my apartment building and used my new camera to take a few photos of the fireworks.

Book of Condolences

So there’s a protocol for this, too, I learned this week.

We set up a table in the American Center, where members of the public can sign the book of condolence.

As we received the news of John McCain’s death, we began preparing for condolences.  It’s human nature for people to want to pay their respects, and we were not surprised that so many Vietnamese people were saddened by Senator McCain’s death.  He is remembered here in Vietnam as a soldier turned statesman, who worked hard to normalize relations with the United States.  They are especially impressed by the fact that he was treated so harshly as a POW here, and yet put aside his personal pain in the interest of a greater good.  He was the embodiment of their country’s resolve to overcome the painful past and work toward a better future.

There is a specific State Department protocol for a book of condolences.  We set up a signing station in our American Center, and publicized times for the public to come in and sign.

 

Local government officials also came in to sign, and that was covered by the local press.

The pages of the condolence book will be sent to Washington, D.C. and added to the international collection from our embassies and consulates around the world.

Flowers have been coming in all week.

Flowers are from private citizens as well as the government.

Regardless of whether one agrees with his political party’s policies and agenda, his reputation as a man who put country first is universally admirable.  The Vietnamese people held him in great regard.  All the press coverage here, and social media, wrote moving eulogies.  Even the social media trolls on our Facebook page were silent.  It seems that Vietnam is unified in its respect for John McCain.

Strangely Hypnotic

So this was going on in the taxi yesterday.  I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it.

 

My latest obsession

We’ve all been here. You’re in Starbucks, and you hear a song that really catches your ear, so you open the Shazam app in order to identify the song, then you get the name of the song, then you open Prime Music to see if Amazon offers it for free, then you see that no, Amazon doesn’t offer it for free, so you go to the iTunes Store and buy the song, then you listen to that song for the next several days. We’ve all been there, right? Please say yes. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one who obsesses over songs.

It turns out that the song in question came out a few years ago. It’s called “Summer Sun” by the Ruen Brothers. I highly recommend it.

The song is the epitome of “low key.” Literally. The opening vocal sounds like a Roy Orbison song. Then the instruments join in, all at a low pitch, to match the singer’s baritone vocal range. Even the guitar solo sounds like it was played on the lowest two strings.

The money shot is the climbing vocal climax, that’s reminiscent of the goosebump-rising vocal in “When your mind’s made up” by Glen Hasard (a previous obsession).

Every time the song ends, I think to myself: “What?! Over already? You just got started!” So I have to listen to it again.

This all started on Friday. It’s now Monday, and the song is still in my head. Songs won’t give you cancer or make you fat, so if I have to binge on something, at least there isn’t any physical harm. So I’ll feed my obsession.

Truth in advertising

There must be a more poetic middle ground between “fragile” and “unbreakable.”

“not easily broken.”

Rainy season

The rainy season in Vietnam stretches from about May to about November. Since it’s late August now, it means we’re smack dab in the middle of the rainy season. Which means that it can rain at any time. Yesterday we got three downpours during the day.

Rainy season is a great time to work inside.

A nice musical perk

I went to Hanoi last week for a work trip.  As I’ve said many times, business travel is not vacation travel.  After I returned to Ho Chi Minh City, several people asked me “How was Hanoi?”  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “All I can tell you is how the airport, hotel, and embassy were.  I didn’t get to do anything in Hanoi.”

Although that isn’t totally true.  I had a nice dinner with a co-worker.  And I got a wonderful unexpected benefit.  On Friday evening, in the hotel that I was staying at, a young lady performed on a traditional Vietnamese instrument, and that instrument happens to be almost identical to one of my favorite traditional Chinese instruments.

So I got a little treat.  After several stressful days, it was relaxing to sit and listen to the beautiful music.  It almost felt like a vacation.

Almost.

Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is.

On my way to the airport the other day, I passed this pair of travelers. On the highway.

“Jesus is my seatbelt.”