I am either 5% happier or 5% less unhappy

Not all places are easy to live in, and U.S. diplomats are expected to serve in places that are very difficult to live in. The State Department has a complicated formula that evaluates the level of difficulty, and gives diplomats a corresponding bonus. This bonus is called the “hardship differential,” and is shown as a percentage. You can see the complete list online here. Afghanistan has a 35% differential, for example. That’s easy to imagine: there aren’t many good hospitals, electricity is unreliable, and there aren’t many Starbuck’s. Iceland has a 5% differential, probably because it’s cold and remote there. Singapore has a 0% differential because it’s a wonderfully modern city with easy access to amenities.

Recently, the Department sent a team to Shenyang to review conditions here and update the differential. The result of their visit is that the hardship differential has been reduced from 30% to 25%. That’s good news in some sense, because it means that it is not as hard to live here. It’s bad news in another, because it means less money in my paycheck. Personally, I feel that although there are more grocery stores here that carry salsa, Internet access is probably worse than it was last year, the air is just as bad as it has been, and all of the other inconveniences are still bothersome.

I’m not complaining, I still get a hardship differential, but it doesn’t seem like daily life in Shenyang is 5% less hard than it was a year ago. This is also the second time that my pay has been cut since I entered the Foreign Service.

Still, it’s better than flipping burgers.

Today is my Chinaversary

One year ago today I “arrived at post,” as we say. It was a Friday evening. My sponsors met me at the airport,  helped me to check in to my apartment, and showed me how to acclimate to my new living situation. Thanks, R and M!

What a year it has been! I have applied what I learned in training, re-learned what I forgot, and learned what I didn’t learn but should have. My work and life here in China has been tiring, funny, exasperating, rewarding, inspiring, and humbling.

One thing it has never been is boring. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have never been bored since arriving in China.

At the end of the initial orientation in DC, our instructors read to us the classic Dr. Seuss book Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Several lines in that book stuck with me, and still resonate, because they capture some truths about being a diplomat:

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because sometimes you won’t.

And this one:

Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.

One year in, I still think that this job is perfect for me. I can’t really describe the pride that I feel when I represent my country abroad.

Thanks to my friends and family for your support, thanks to my great coworkers for your hard work and inspiration, and thanks to the taxpayers for paying my salary. (side note: travel and tourism is one of America’s biggest exports; foreign tourism supports 1.1 million U.S. jobs. In that light, the taxpayers are getting a good return on the investment that the government makes in embassies and consulates abroad).

I am now at the halfway point in my two-year “tour.” There’s so much more that I want to do, to see, to experience while I’m in China. I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. So I’m going to stop writing and go outside now. As the good Dr. Seuss wrote:

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

This story is no bull

During the recent hike in the mountains of Taiwan, we happened on a farm. The setting was absolutely gorgeous.


Being a traditional farm, there were some buffalo that are used to help plow the fields. They were relaxing in a mud wallow.

Minding their own business.

Minding their own business.

Because we were with Taiwanese people, who love to take their picture with fun things, everyone thought that it would be a good idea to have our picture taken in front of the buffalo.

No one asked the buffalo their opinion.

That was our first mistake.


The buffalo seem to be getting a little uneasy at this point.

We managed to get a good group shot with the buffalo without any drama. The buffalo snorted a little at us, but we figured that everything would be all right.

That was our second mistake.

Then someone had the brilliant idea to take a jumping shot. Let’s all jump into the air at the same time, someone suggested. It would be really cool.

Get ready, get set...

Get ready, get set…

That was our third mistake.

The sound of ten people with full backpacks all jumping into the air at the same time startled the buffalo. The buffalo were behind us, we couldn’t see them, but we heard the splashing sound of three heavy buffalo jumping out of their mud wallow.

All that I could think of was the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, and how someone always gets skewered in the buttocks. I did not want to get skewed in the buttocks, and apparently neither did any of my hiking companions, because we all screamed like little girls and ran away as fast as we could.

See how there are no people anywhere near the buffalo in this shot?

See how there are no people anywhere near the buffalo in this shot?


Don’t mess with Taiwanese water buffalo.

The farmer showed up a few minutes later, and laughed at us when we told him our story. Then he told us to have a nice day, and went back to work.

We all swore never to speak of the incident again.

Mountain climbing in Taiwan

On my recent trip to Taiwan, I met up with a group of people who go on outings together. They let me and my travel companion join them on a hike through a mountain trail in the outskirts of Taipei. The weather was terrific, the nature was beautiful. Getting out of the big city and breathing the fresh mountain air was just what I needed.

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Egg Psyche

Everyone who has eaten a box lunch 便當 on a Taiwan train knows this evil trick. Now the Chinese airlines are playing the same cruel joke!

Mmm, a stewed egg. How wonderful! How generous of them to give me a whole egg!

Mmm, a stewed egg. How wonderful! How generous of them to give me a whole egg!

Trickery! Trickery!

Trickery! Trickery!