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No One is Diplomatting

What a strange way to mark my five-year anniversary of employment as a Foreign Service officer.

The partial government shutdown affects the State Department.  That means that embassies and consulates have to cease “non-essential” operations.  Of course, as with everything else in the real world, what exactly gets shut down is complicated.  What we did not do is to send everyone home, lock the doors, and shut down the consulate.  The Department’s activity is affected by budgets, of course, but national security and the safety of American citizens abroad have to be prioritized.  In addition, different activities of the State Department are funded differently, so some sections can remain operational.  Some people still go to work, and maintain essential operations, like security of the consulate buildings themselves.  Most of us have been sent home, with instructions to monitor the media for news that the government shutdown is over.

I’m…on vacation? unemployed? neither? both?

Regardless of whether we are put on furlough (like me) or we still go to work, none of us are getting paid.  For my dear friends in the Consular section, its business as usual.  Every day, hundreds of Vietnamese people arrive at the Consulate for their visa interviews.  My consular colleagues still conduct the interview and issue the visa or refuse the applications.  The local staff still perform all the administrative processes to print the visas and return applicants’ passports to them.  Everyone is still employed, their work goes on as though nothing is different.

What is different, though, is that none of them are getting paid.

The only thing worse than working and not getting paid is… can’t work, and not getting paid.

According to past practice, after the shutdown is over and the government has funding again, all of us will be paid for the work that we did during the shutdown.  But there is no legal requirement for the government to give us back pay.  What that means is that those “essential” personnel are required to work with no pay.  I’d think, given our nation’s history, that we’d frown on making people work without paying them.

Hyperbole aside, shutdowns are disruptive to government operations.  We have important business with foreign governments that affect American citizens, involving trade, health, and security.  These problems don’t go away when the government stops working on them.  They don’t even slow down.  After we go back to work, we won’t just pick up where we left off.  We will have to recover a lot of lost ground and try to restart the momentum.

My work doesn’t involve national security.  I don’t have nuclear launch codes.  I don’t even know any interesting national secrets.  But because I’m furloughed, I couldn’t do my job, and that has directly affected some Americans.  Last week, I had to cancel several meetings with American students who are in Vietnam for a study trip.  I was going to give them a briefing on U.S.-Vietnam relations, to help them understand this country that they traveled 7,000 miles to visit.  But due to the shutdown, I had to cancel.  I couldn’t even meet with them unofficially in a neutral place.  That would circumvent the rules.  So, sorry, students, I really wanted to talk with you.  I hope that you were still able to get the information you wanted.

I’ve decided that the healthier attitude to have about this situation is to look at it as a staycation.  Sure, there’s no paycheck coming in, so I can’t go away on a vacation, but I can still get some things done.  I can still study Vietnamese (on my own – no budget to pay for language lessons).  I can focus on learning iOS programming (Swift is a much easier language than Objective-C, but it’s still hard).  I can work out and stay healthy (not to get ripped, but just to stave off decrepitude and hopefully live a few months longer with lower medical bills).  And I can make treats to bring to my poor coworkers who have to work, often doing extra work, with no guarantee that they will ever get paid for it (Consular section, you’re getting coffee cake tomorrow).

My sock drawer has never been more organized.

We had a very interesting (but worrying) all-hands meeting last week.  The management officer, who has to try to find money for practical things like paying the rent and electricity bill, delivered some sobering news.  The shutdown means no money.  Things that we take for granted, like our housing, is currently paid up, but at some point, there will be no more leftover money.  Eventually, posts will be looking for loose change under the sofa cushions just to keep the infrastructure of diplomacy running.  This is now the longest shutdown in U.S. history.  So we don’t have any experience to draw on from this point on, there are no more lessons learned from past shutdowns.  We are now navigating uncharted waters.  And no one knows how much longer it will last.  The smart people are spending a lot of time and effort making long-term plans to deal with an unknown and unclear future.

And aside from a few exceptions, no one is diplomatting.

No thanks

Seafood pizza is already a hard sell for me. Seafood pizza-flavored instant noodles is a hard “no.”

Why I like to put things away

This story in the New York Times today focused on the negative, So I’d like to focus on the positive. The article reinforced my enjoyment of putting things away. Let me explain:

The article highlighted the stress that household clutter creates. We have too much stuff in our houses and in our lives. All that stuff creates stress. We hate our life because we have too much crap in it. As an aside, the article centered on physical stuff, possessions, and the pressure that stuff creates. But it’s also probably true that emotional “stuff” creates a great deal of stress, too. I haven’t found an effective way to put away emotional stuff. Maybe that can be a future project for me.

Anyway, the article really resonated with me, because I find clutter to be not only stressful, but also paralyzing. Especially in the kitchen and in my office. Every time I look at a big mess in my kitchen, or when my desk is so crowded that I can barely see any empty table space, my mind freezes. Maybe some people can work around the mess, but I can’t. Chaos is not a productivity booster for me. In fact, the exact opposite is true. It’s a productivity killer. It’s impossible for me to focus when I’m working in a mess. But interestingly, the opposite is also true, and this where I wish the article had gone. The author recommended reducing clutter as a way of reducing stress. But the article could have gone an extra step by showing how a tidy environment can unleash productivity.

Like many Americans, I have a lot of stuff. The reality of living overseas means that I have to move every few years. The exercise of packing and unpacking the huge piles of unused and half-forgotten things is a motivator to reduce the quantity of my possessions (but it doesn’t stop me from acquiring more all the time).

In contrast to clutter, I find that a clean kitchen and an empty desk is inspiring. It’s as if the space is saying to me: “let’s get to work!” Unlike a messy room, which repels me, a clutter-free environment is an invitation to do something. That’s why I like to put things away: it opens up a space, both physical and mental, to be productive and creative. A tidy work environment is like a blank canvas, waiting for the artist’s first brush stroke. Not that I’m an artist or a particularly good cook. But you get the idea. I can FEEL like an artist, or experience the inspiration that an artist feels, when I have a tidy work environment.

There’s probably a psychological principal at work here. I can’t claim to have invented some new productivity hack. There is no insight from a zen master here. My realization is probably more like the happy accident when a caveman accidentally dropped his raw giraffe haunch into his fire and discovered that cooking food makes it taste better. Regardless of the psychology, tidying up my space allows me to focus on the task at hand, and helps me think clearly.

I’m not trying to deliver an allegorical lesson here. Just sharing some insight from my strange little mind, and rounding out the NYT article with a personal anecdote. Thanks for reading. Now it’s time for me to go clean my office so I can get some work done.

So grateful:

For two things. One, that this work uniform exists in the world. Thanks, Korea. And two, that I don’t have to wear this work uniform. Thanks, fate!

Freelance diplomatting

Chinese tourists in Vietnam generally speak neither English nor Vietnamese. Which is fine, until they go off script.

I’m traveling today for business, and I’m staying in a pretty nice hotel in Da Nang. During breakfast, a middle-aged Chinese couple just wandered into my hotel’s restaurant. The greeter asked them for their room number, which is how they keep track of who has eaten breakfast from which room. Unfortunately, she was asking in English, and the Chinese couple clearly did not understand her.

It was a complete communication breakdown. I happened to be getting a glass of orange juice at the time, and saw the whole interaction. It was getting increasingly uncomfortable, so I decided I should help out.

I jumped in and helped translate between the two. Turns out, they weren’t staying here, but they wanted just to look around and see the food. (That’s a typically cute Chinese thing to do, my lovely wife loves a good buffet).

The tourism and hospitality industry in Vietnam is facing a new challenge. They invested a lot of effort in aiming their training programs to an international clientele that speaks English. Unfortunately, they are now dealing with a kind of tourist that they didn’t prepare for. As China gets richer, international travel has become more accessible to more people in China, including a large segment that does not speak English at all. Most Chinese tourists travel in groups for that very reason. If they follow the tacit rules, to stick with the group, no problem. But if they try to do something that wasn’t part of the plan, they hit a wall.

The food display was like artwork. I liked to look at it, too!

It was the first time I translated between two foreign languages, which was a challenge for my old and withering brain cells After just a short interaction, my brain was like scrambled eggs. But I managed to pull it off, barely.

And the funniest part was a few minutes later. I returned to my seat and resumed breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the couple finishing their tour and prepare to leave. Before they walked out of the restaurant, one of them turned around and surreptitiously took a photo of me. I suppose that our interaction was as interesting for them as it was for me, and now I will be one of their funny vacation stories for their friends back home: the weird white guy who spoke Chinese and Vietnamese.

Play nice?

Not here, apparently.

“Play dirty worldwide.”

The secret to a successful garage sale

Is to make it catchy!

My favorite thing this week

From an email exchange with a dear friend currently serving in Pakistan, commenting on my happiness in getting posted to Bangladesh:

“We’re not the kind of officers who bid on cushy places. We like grit & interesting places.”

So true.

So much truth here

Is it just me?

Or does it look like that tree is about to poop on that poor tourist’s head?

Can’t un-see it now, right?