Housing is settled

My housing arrangements for training in DC have been made. During initial training, the State Department pays a per diem to cover housing and meals. The per diem can be split into two parts. The first part is for housing, the second is for meals and other expenses. Trainees are given the choice to take the entire per diem, and make our own housing arrangements, or forego the housing allowance and stay in a long-term residence hotel that the government contacts with.

I decided that dealing with a new career in a new city without my family would be stressful enough, and I shouldn’t take on the additional stress of trying to find a place to live, so I chose the government-sponsored housing option. The housing complex that I chose to live in is called Oakwood Apartments. It’s located in Virginia, in the suburbs of DC, a few miles from the training center where classes are held. My housing per diem will go directly to Oakwood; I don’t have to do any paperwork for my housing.

The process of signing up for housing at Oakwood was easy and pleasant. I had to do some back-and-forth emails with the housing department at State to confirm my eligibility for the program, then I could communicate directly with the staff at Oakwood. The people that I talked with were helpful and friendly. They have a lot of experience in dealing with new hires to the Foreign Service, and anticipated most of my questions. After making my arrangements with Oakwood, I was sure that choosing the government-sponsored housing program was the right decision. There are so many unknowns with this career change, it makes sense to minimize the variables wherever I can. Even though I always try to think for myself and make my own decisions, sometimes it’s better to stay with the herd.

Oakwood assigned me to a one-bedroom “apartment” that has a kitchen. The complex’s website shows pictures that make the apartment look quite comfortable. Of course, you have to be careful with website pictures of hotel rooms. In my previous career, I stayed in a lot of hotel rooms, and looked at a lot of hotel websites. After years of being fooled and disappointed, I have developed a policy to help me evaluate pictures and anticipate the quality of the hotel. My rule is to look at the good parts and reduce them by half, then find all the negative aspects that I can and double them. The place has a fitness center? Great, the pictures look good. But half of the machines are probably broken, and the room probably smells bad. Those cabinets look tacky; they’re probably worn and dirty as well. With this cynical (realistic) aproach, I get a more accurate picture of what the place really will be like. Still, even after applying my rubrik, the apartment looks fine.

The complex also provides a shuttle service between the hotel and the training center, so I don’t have to worry about transportation. The complex is a few blocks from the Metro station. DC has a good subway system, so getting into the city for sightseeing should not be hard. Evan and I are already talking about spring break in DC. That should be “fun.”

Now that I have a place to live once I get there, next is the task of getting there. I can’t make my travel arrangements until I get my travel authorization from State. This authorization is also known as “travel orders.” I have to have my travel orders before the travel agency that State contacts with with purchase my ticket. That will be my next adventure.

What am I getting myself into?

I am in the process of beginning a new life, one in which I will spend most of my working career outside of the US. I’m not worried about living abroad. I lived in Taiwan for several years in my 20s, and I really enjoyed the experience.

The only regret that I felt about living abroad back then was the feeling of being out of touch with the US. I read all the news from the US that I could find, which in those days were the two local English newspapers, the China Post and the China News (at that time, limited to 12 pages), and Time magazine.

Now, of course, with the ubiquity of the Internet, there is a glut of news and information. I no longer have to worry about being in touch with the US when I am abroad.

But there is a bigger problem with me leaving this time.

I’m preparing to leave my home for Washington, D.C. and beyond. I will leave by myself. My family will remain in Michigan. My older son is in college, and my younger son is still in high school. My wife and I decided that rather than pull our younger son out of high school, that he should finish school where he is. So my wife will stay behind while I begin my career in the Foreign Service. I will begin my new career on my own.

This is not optimal. If I could choose, I would have my wife join me. We have always done everything together. I will miss her so much that it already hurts.

Beyond missing my family, I feel guilty for leaving them behind while I have a wonderful adventure.  Looking at my decision objectively, it appears that I am selfishly running away and abandoning my family. Lately, I often feel like a deadbeat dad who neglects his responsibilities as a husband and father.

So why the heck am I doing this? Why am I walking away from a stable job, a wonderful family, a comfortable life? Why am I causing pain in my marriage, and stress on my family by making this radical career change?

Good questions. I don’t have good answers, but the questions deserve some answer. I know that I am capable of doing more with my life than what I am doing now. I think that I can make a positive impact on more people’s lives, and fulfill my potential, through a career in the Foreign Service. I believe that my marriage is strong enough to survive a temporary separation. I hope that in the long run, when my wife can join me, my kids can visit me and we can visit them, we will look back on this time and say that it was worth it.

I recently read an essay by Anna Alardin in which she describes her experiences after moving from one country to another. It’s a good read, I recommend it: https://medium.com/better-humans/4dbca80eeb1d. One sentence in the essay resonated with me: “I’d rather be living in an honest, hands-on way — even when it’s uncomfortable — than let life happen to me.”

I have never done things the easy way. That choice has sometimes caused more stress in my life than is necessary, and more discomfort than if I had chosen the easy path. But we only get one life, one chance to experience what the world has to offer. I wouldn’t want to eat the same meal every day, I wouldn’t want to re-read the same book or re-watch the same movie every time. If you want to really live, maybe you have to push yourself to move outside your comfort zone, and accept some discomfort and uncertainty. When I approach the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and be able to say that I lived my life, that I didn’t let life happen to me.

When I reflect on my past experiences, every safe choice that I have made has led to unremarkable, forgettable experiences, and many “wrong” choices have led to memorable results. Not every unsafe choice has proven to be the best choice, of course. But not every safe choice has, either. There are no guarantees in life. The possibility that a choice might have a bad result should not be the reason not to take a chance.

I guess the answer to those questions is: I’m living my life, I hope that it turns out great, but either way, it won’t be boring.

The paperwork begins

I received the official offer letter from the State Department today, which contained salary information and the first batch of paperwork. I have to sign the offer letter, agreeing to accept the salary, show up for duty on time, not to take any time off during training.

Another packet of information is coming via UPS. I received an mail copy of the mailing form for the packet. It weighs three pounds. How many pieces of paper would you guess is in three pounds? I’m guessing a lot.


I also sign a form agreeing to serve wherever the government sends me. This will be the third time that I have signed this particular form. I signed it before I took the oral assessment, after I passed the oral assessment, and now. They must really mean it.


What I’m waiting for now

The process of joining the Foreign Service involves a lot of waiting. Apply to take the test, wait for an invitation. Take the test, wait for your score. Send in your personal narratives, wait for the results. And so on.

Since accepting the offer last week, there is a new step to wait for: the salary letter. I had to send in an updated resume (so my education and work experience can be calculated) and documentation of my current salary (so that the salary offer can be adjusted as possible to match my current salary). That had to go in ASAP, of course, but now there is more waiting. I’m waiting for the registrar’s office to calculate which of the 126 pay rates I should be awarded, based on my work experience and education. Rumor has it that I will hear back in about two weeks.

I’ve learned, over this 18-month journey, that dwelling on what I’m waiting for is not productive. I have to tell myself that it is out of my hands now, and I have to be patient. Keeping busy with other things helps. Setting small goals helps take my mind off the wait. Jerry Seinfeld’s trick about not breaking the chain is a good trick. The idea is to commit to doing something every day, and see how long you can keep it up. The more days in a row you do it, the longer the chain. Eventually, the chain gets so long that you hate to break it, and that becomes a motivation to keep going. I have chosen two challenges. One is to exercise every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas (so far, on target). The other challenge is to practice writing Chinese every day to improve my reading and writing. That chain gets broken a lot. I will commit to lengthening that chain.

And I will try hard not to think about the wait.