I get paid to talk

I spoke at a symposium that the U.S. Commercial Service put on for the travel industry, promoting travel to the U.S. I spoke about the process of applying for a U.S. visa. The audience was very interested and respectful. I received several nice complements on my language ability.


Q&A is always interesting. So many strange questions!


Believe it or not, in DC I actually received training in how to stand behind a podium.
I thought it was silly at the time, but it is really paying off!


I can’t believe they pay me to do this. I have the coolest job in the universe.


My teacher quit, and all I got was this unbuyable book

My Chinese teacher has decided that she wants to try to get a job teaching in a university. In China, university teachers are civil servants, and so in order to get a job in the university, you have to pass a special civil service exam. She decided that she needs some time to prepare for this test, so she has quit her job in the language school.

Yesterday was my last Chinese lesson with my teacher. She has been amazingly patient with me over the past eight or nine months that I’ve been taking lessons from her. I used to joke that I have been learning Chinese longer than she has, which is actually true, because she is quite young.

Some months ago, we were talking about the unbuyable book that I had unsuccessfully tried to purchase. Yesterday, she presented me with a copy. She said that she was able to find it online. She told me that after I told her about the book, she became intrigued, and wanted to read it. She got a copy for herself, and one for me. I wonder if she got interested in the air pollution problem partly because of the articles about pollution that I chose as reading material for classes.

There is a saying in Chinese that students and teachers learn from each other 教學相長. I certainly learned a lot from her, and I suspect that he learned a thing or two from me as well.

Life goes on.


The unbuyable book!


Bidding for my next job

I’m in the process of choosing where I want to work for two years, beginning two years from now.

As a place to work, the Foreign Service has a lot of quirks. One of the quirks is the paradox of job stability and work instability. Although we enjoy the job security of government employment, we have to change the location of our work, and the content of our jobs, on a regular basis. Every two or three years, we have to find a new job.

We work in U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world. Every one of the 200+ “posts” around the world is staffed by Foreign Service Officers. We have to have expertise in the local language, and political, economic, and cultural situations of the countries in which we work. But we aren’t allowed to stay too long. We work in a post for a set amount of time. A typical “tour” is two or three years. After our tour is over, we move on to another post, usually in another country.

I’ve been in China for almost a year. My tour will end in summer 2016. Not all tours have the same beginning and end date, though. Tours are starting and finishing constantly. In order to prepare for the continual migration of officers from one post to the other, the process begins early. Although there is over a year before my current tour is over, I am already looking at the possibilities for my next tour. Officers typically know where they will next serve well before their current tour is over. I will probably have my next job a year before I leave this job.

The process is simple. We are given a “bid list.” This is a list of the jobs and locations that will be available. There are over 500 jobs on my list, and the jobs are literally all over the world. From places that most people recognize, like London and Tokyo, to places that most of my friends don’t recognize, like Skopje and Vientiane. To my delight, Ouagadougou is even on the list!

My task is to decide from among those 500+ jobs, which 30 I would most like to do. Then I make a case for why I should get those jobs. This is called “bidding” for a job. My Career Development Officer in DC will then place me where I fit. With luck, I will get a job from the top of my list. However, we are worldwide available, and we are expected to go where we are needed. I could be assigned to a job that isn’t even on my list.

Most of the jobs require language training (I don’t speak Spanish, French, Japanese, Swahili, Turkish, Lao, Georgian or Macedonian). Depending on where I am posted next, my job could begin as late as summer 2017, a full year after leaving my current post. Some jobs don’t require language, so I could be back on the job right after this tour is over.

Bidding is exciting, nerve-wracking, and scary. My long-suffering wife, who likes stability, is amazed by this process. I believe that she used the word “crazy” to describe it. I don’t know if this is the most efficient way to place diplomats, but I can’t think of a better way.

I also can’t think of a better word to describe it. But I’ll be diplomatic, and call it “complex.”

Grass-roots diplomacy win

When a visa applicant tries to bribe an officer, State Department policy is to have that officer not have any further contact with the applicant. This policy is designed to protect the officer and Department from any appearance of improper contact.

One of my colleagues had this experience last week. The applicant tried to stuff a “red envelope” (紅包) to him after he refused the applicant a visa. The officer saw the envelope, which in Chinese culture is used to conceal cash used for gifts and bribes, and immediately stopped interaction with the applicant.

Department policy requires that attempted bribery of an officer results in a “permanent ineligibility” for a visa. In other words, that person can never be issued a U.S. visa. Policy also states that the Department notify the applicant personally. But because of the policy that the officer who was involved in the attempted bribery can have no further contact with the applicant, the officer couldn’t notify the applicant himself. And because of my current position in the section, the task fell to me. I had to call the applicant and tell her that she could never go to the U.S.

Giving someone bad news is never easy. Talking on the phone in a second language is never easy. Giving someone bad news over the phone in a second language is really hard. Doing it diplomatically is even harder.

The phone call began badly. The applicant was very upset, almost shouting at me over the phone. She denied that she attempted to bribe the officer, and indignantly demanded a chance to confront the officer in person, demanded to view the survailence tapes showing the incident in question, demanded that she have the opportunity to prove her innocence and remove the record of her ineligibility from our system. Of course, none of those things were possible, but she barely gave me the chance to get a word in.

About five minutes into the phone call, I felt like telling her that I said what I needed to say, and hang up the phone. But then I remembered what I often tell my coworkers here: the times when we have to refuse applicants are the times when we have the opportunity to be diplomats. Saying yes is easy. Saying no is hard. When we issue a visa, the applicant really doesn’t care if we are polite or rude. But when we have to deny someone a visa, the way that we do so matters. Listening to this applicant scold me and vent her frustration and anger (and, I think, embarrassment), I considered hanging up on the applicant. I had that option. The rule is simply that we have to inform the applicant of the ineligibility. I could have shouted to her over her angry tirade, and then hung up the phone. But that would have made me a bureaucrat. A bureaucrat doesn’t have to put up with verbal abuse, and so has the option of not putting up with it. A bureaucrat could simply hang up the phone and go on to the next case.

I don’t want to be a bureaucrat. I want to be a diplomat.

So I decided to be a diplomat.

I listened to the applicant for about 20 minutes. Finally, after her anger was vented, her anger turned into sadness, and she started crying while talking. When she finally stopped talking, I told her that although the ineligibility would always be there, she could apply again, and ask the adjudicating officer to recommend a waiver for her. She asked if that would give her the chance to prove her innocence. No, I replied, the past can’t be changed, so she had to look to the future. I tried to put the situation in a positive light, because that’s what diplomats do, right?

In the end, I think that she understood. More importantly, she wasn’t angry anymore. In fact, at the end of the phone call, she thanked me.

I can’t say that the phone call created a new friend for the U.S. The whole experience could have been a wasted 45 minutes. But at least we don’t have another Chinese person who is mad at the U.S. Sometimes, in diplomacy, that’s a win.