Arrested overseas? This might come to a shock to you,…

…but when you go to another country, you are subject to the laws of that country. Apparently, consular officers often have to break that news to U.S. citizens abroad. The breaking of this news often happens when the U.S. citizen is sitting in a foreign jail cell.

“Get me out of here,” they often say to the visiting consular officer. That isn’t going to happen.

This week is the final week of my consular training. This week’s topic is the “special services” that we will perform for U.S. citizens abroad. Unfortunately, the times when U.S. citizens are most likely to interact with their embassies abroad is when they get into trouble. The U.S. embassy is sort of like the diplomatic emergency room for U.S. citizens.

Today in class we learned about prison visits. The instructor told us that when incarcerated U.S. citizens see a consular officer from the embassy visit them in jail, their first request is commonly “get me out of here.” Of course, remembering the first sentence of this blog post, you know that this does not happen. Regardless of what some people might think, diplomats really don’t have the power to spring people from foreign jails.

FSI jail

Believe it or not, this was our classroom today. The bars are real, the rat is fake.

What we can do is to make sure that they are healthy, safe, fed, that any medical issues are being addressed, and that their rights are respected. We are also conduits for communication with their family. We can tell prisoners about the local legal system, and give them names of lawyers, but of course we are not lawyers ourselves, and can’t give legal advise.

I have some experience in trying to help incarcerated people. My experience was as an interpreter for Chinese nationals in the U.S. The prisoners were often disoriented, confused, and didn’t have a clear understanding of their situation. Jails smell like despair. People who have been arrested and who are sitting in a jail cell are living in a nightmare.

I can remember talking with one Chinese guy right after he was arrested, when he was in court for his initial hearing of the charges in front of a judge. Before the judge entered the courtroom, I tried to build some rapport with him, and show some human kindness. His first question to me was: “where am I?” He had been arrested in one city, spent the previous night in a jail in another city, was appearing in a third city, and was going to be bussed to yet another city to spend that night in another jail.

He wanted me to call his sister in New York and let her know where he was. I cleared it with the D.A. and his court-appointed lawyer, and then made the call. I didn’t have any obligation to do it, but I could do it, and it seemed like the human thing to do, so I made the call. The fact that I thought he was guilty didn’t mean he wasn’t entitled to some human decency.

Even when working with people who were clearly guilty, I always sympathized with their circumstances.  Regardless of the bad decisions that people make that get them arrested, being in jail is a scary experience. If I do prison visits when posted abroad, I’m sure that I will feel the same sympathy for the people in jail, and will try to do what I can to help them.

But I can’t get them out of jail, so if you’re ever arrested when abroad, don’t even ask.


Got more shots: I am no longer a wimp

Went back for more inoculations yesterday. I got two shots, and did not even feel lightheaded. I think the secret is compartmentalization. I managed to distract myself long enough not to freak myself out about having a needle stuck in my arm.

A different person gave me the shots this time, but Elaine stuck her head in the office to say hi, and to see how I was doing. More reason to ask for Elaine if you ever need to go to that clinic. She’s a gem.

I guess the upshot of my needle aversion is that it will be very difficult for me to ever become a heroin addict.

Immunizations, or “I am a big wimp”

So they have these things in other countries called “diseases,” and if you want to avoid them, you have to get immunized. Mostly that means getting shot in the arm.

All you parents out there, here is a bit of advice: don’t lose your kids’ little yellow books of immunization records. Why, you ask? Well, when Junior grows up and joins the Foreign Service, the happy people in the State Department Health Unit will want to see it to be sure that Junior is all caught up with his shots. If Junior doesn’t have his little yellow book, well, that’s Junior’s unlucky day, because it means that he will have to get re-immunized.

Today, my arms are decorated with four little band-aids from some make-up shots. You will all be happy to know that I am now immune from measles and polio, as well as the more exotic ones like Japanese encephalitis.

I would have had five band-aids, except that I fainted after the fourth shot. So we called that one a “do-over” and rescheduled it for next week.

I have to give a big shout-out to the nurses at the Travel Health and Immunization Clinic at the Foreign Service Institute. They are professional and compassionate, and didn’t laugh at or tease a grown man who fainted just because some puny but live diseases were injected into his perfectly healthy body. If you have to go there for any reason, ask for Elaine, she’s the best.

In the meantime, they gave me a typhus vaccine in the form of capsules to take over seven days. You have to be careful with that. If it isn’t swallowed right away, it will cause my mouth to break out in blisters, and other Bad Things will happen. These pills are so volatile that they must be kept in the refrigerator.

Next week I go back for more, then four weeks after that for the last one. This has not been my favorite week in the Foreign Service.

I keep reminding myself that I volunteered for this, no one forced me to join the Foreign Service, so I have no right or reason to complain.

If a Lakota tribe of Native Americans adopted me, they could name me: “Diplomat With Ouchy Arms.”

Yet another snow day

Good morning, Washington, D.C.!


This is, I think, the fourth snow day since I started with the Foreign Service.

Snow days cause considerable interruption to the training schedule. There is no flexibility built into the schedule. There are classes scheduled to begin immediately after us, and there are other classes that are just a few weeks in front of us in the training program. If we had to delay classes, it would cause a cascading effect on all the training schedules.

After the previous snow day a few weeks ago, the course coordinators compressed the content so that it would fit into the same time period. That meant longer days, more homework, and shorter breaks. It was stressful for everyone.

Last week, I was just feeling that we were getting back on track, and then this storm hit us. I’m afraid that we are back to a more compressed and stressful schedule. 🙁


Dream Fail

Even in my own dreams, I manage to humiliate myself.

I dreamed that at while at dinner with a friend, I performed Steve Martin’s famous “Excuuuuuse me” routine. My dinner companion kept interupting me to correct my performance, but I plowed through it anyway, ignoring him. Finally, just as I finished, I looked across the table, and realized that my dinner companion was Steve Martin himself.

Our eyes met, he raised one eyebrow and he gave me a stare that said: “now you realize that you’re an idiot, right?”

I think that late-night snacking causes my stomach and brain to collude on the production of confidence-crushing dreams.


Determining Nationality

U.S. embassies represent the US government to their host country governments. The ambassador is the personal representative of the President of the United States to the foreign government. There certainly is some amount of representational activities that embassies participate in. The stereotypical cocktail party where people dress in tuxedos and hobnob with leaders of foreign governments.

That certainly happens in the diplomatic world, but I am not going to be part of it. At least, not for several years. I am going to be a consular officer for two years at least. No striped pants and platters of cookies for me. I am going to do blue-collar diplomacy. I am going to earn my paycheck through seriously hard work.

Most of the people who work in embassies spend their days providing services to U.S. citizens and to people who want to travel to the United States. That is what I am learning about now. I am in a six week course during which I learn how to help Americans who have gotten into trouble overseas, and to do something called “adjudicate” a visa application.

The American Citizen Services portion of this concert at work is very interesting. I am learning a lot about U.S. law regarding citizenship and nationality. For example, there is a common perception that if your parent was a US citizen, that you automatically are a U.S. citizen by birth. While this is true in certain circumstances, it is not always true. The law is quite complex. Part of our job is to apply the citizenship laws of the United States went we determined that child who was born abroad acquired citizenship at birth.

For example, if a woman who was born in the United States gives birth to a child outside the United States, her child is that U.S. citizen automatically. But what about a woman who is not a U.S. citizen, but who is married to a U.S. citizen and gives birth outside the United States? Is her child U.S. citizen by birth? The answer, but the answer to most questions regarding the law, is: “it depends.” The truth is that U.S. citizenship is not as simple as a lot of people assume. The law is complicated, and so the process to determine if someone is a U.S. citizen is complicated as well.

We spent over a week learning about the various conditions under which a child born abroad acquires or doesn’t acquire U.S. citizenship. Reflecting back on my own life, in retrospect, I am really glad that my children were born in the United States. Otherwise, because their mother was not a U.S. citizen when they were born, I would have had to jump through some hoops in order to ensure that our kids were U.S. citizens. I know now that because they were born after 1986, that I am a U.S. citizen, and that I lived in the United States for five years, two years of which were after my 14th birthday, that my children, even if born abroad, would be U.S. citizens by birth. However, we would have had to establish those facts with the U.S. Embassy before they could be issued a Consular Record of Birth Abroad (CRBA, pronounced “criba”), which would be evidence that they were U.S. citizens at birth.

I was going to write about immigrant visas, but after all of that information about nationality, my brain is tired, and after reading all of that, yours probably is, too. More later.

To “have “a language

The foreign service has been a cross-cultural experience for me in many ways. I am interacting with people from many different backgrounds: military, government, and private sector. I had expected that, and I enjoy working and interacting with my new colleagues. But one culture that I had expected to be familiar has instead turned out to be another cross-cultural experience: the language departments.

In the academic area that I come from, we talk about language acquisition and language proficiency. A theoretical term for classroom foreign-language learning is “instructed language acquisition.” At the Foreign Service Institute, it is quite different. We have many language departments, teaching many world languages. And overall, they do a really good job. The terminology, though, is quite different. So are the opinions and assumptions of the students in the language programs.

The most commonly used verb to describe language proficiency is “have.” In the foreign service, one does not “speak” the language, one “has” a language. We also use the word “train” instead of “learn”. We are in “language training,” or we don’t have to go to language training, because we already “have” the language.

One of the aspects of the foreign service that attracted me to the job was the fact that diplomats are expected, even required, to have foreign language proficiency, to be able to do complex tasks in foreign languages. We are expected to conduct interviews with the intention of not only extracting information, but also detecting fraud. We are expected to participate in meetings, and not only convey information, but also to grasp underlying or hidden meanings from our interlocutors. These tasks require high levels of language proficiency.

The standards are high, and the service invests a lot in language training. It is not uncommon for a diplomat to spend 10 months in intensive language training, during which several hours a day are spent in the classroom, the language lab, and in doing homework after class. Several of my classmates are in this language training right now. The length of the training depends on the difficulty of the language. But generally speaking, when learning a new language, we can expect to spend between six and 12 months just to get to working proficiency level.

Compared to the academic world, of course, this is incredibly fast. It’s not uncommon for someone to leave the university with a four year degree in a language, and still not have professional working capacity in that language. However, the situations are really quite different. University students spend one hour a day in the language classroom, in addition to all of the other academic classes that they take. In our case, learning a language is our full-time job. It’s all we are expected to do, and we do a lot of work to get there in a short period of time.

But that leads to the next cultural difference with regards to language. In my academic career, I rarely thought about language attrition. The understanding was that if you had language proficiency, you would have it forever. Of course, there are cases, such as immigrants who become immersed in a new language and lose aspects of their first language. But it is almost heresy in academia to state that someone who had language proficiency would somehow lose it. This was implicit in academic policies such as language proficiency tests that did not expire.

In the foreign service, the assumption is that if you have not used the language for a period of time, that you will need a “top off” course to brush up your language skills. If you take a language test to prove proficiency, your score has a five year time limit. The assumption here is that language ability, like any other skill, has to be used actively, or it will decay.

One area of commonality is how language departments communicate to students the difficulty of learning a language. Language learning strategies is also an area that can use improvement. I don’t know very much about the professional training background of the instructors, but it seems that the students have not been instructed in strategies to help them learn the language, other than “work hard”. To be honest, academia needs to improve in this area as well. We know a lot about language acquisition, especially second-language acquisition, but we have not done a very good job in communicating strategies or suggestions to language learners on how they can best make use of classroom time, interaction, and leverage their first language ability to learn a second.

I haven’t been in the foreign service long enough to make any judgment as to which position on language proficiency, language attrition, and language acquisition that I think is more accurate. But it has been interesting observing the cultural differences.