“Itâ€™s probably too much to hope that my next tour will be as memorable as this one.” I wrote that at the end of my first tour in China. I really thought that a tour couldn’t be as eventful as that one. Boy, was I ever wrong. Not to discount my adventures in China, but my two years in Vietnam were so much more action-packed than my time in China. By a huge margin.
I didn’t write as much while I was in country, mainly because of the nature of the job. A lot happened, and it all happened so fast. I still have a lot to say about my tour in Vietnam. But I need some time to process it first. Like I wrote more than two years ago, I’m still not sure what the hell happened, and how to understand it all. But there I know some things already:
You can never really prepare.
I spent a year in D.C., learning job skills and Vietnamese language. Even after so much time in training, I didn’t feel prepared for Vietnam. I was right. I wasn’t ready. Toward the end of my tour, I mentioned to my boss that I felt incompetent and useless. He smiled. “How many years until you retire?” he asked. I told him I was planning to stay in the job until mandatory retirement at age 65. “You’ll feel that way until then,” he predicted.
We work in a country for two or three years, then move on. The Department doesn’t allow us to stay in the same country for a long time. That means that we are always investing time to learn about the country we serve in. There’s a ramp-up time before we hit our stride and get efficient. Then it’s time to move on to the next country. There are good reasons for this system. We should keep our perspective and always advocate for the United States. I’ve personally seen the loss of perspective in officers who stay in country too long. The huge investment in time and resources to train us can seem inefficient. But it’s like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst form of government except for all the rest. Maybe our system has problems, but it does work. We just have to get comfortable with some inefficiency and feelings of inadequacy.
Loneliness is built in to the job.
Because of some family issues, I was at post by myself for a year. It sucked. It’s hard enough being separated from your family, being alone in a foreign country is harder. They warned us about this. It still sucked.
Friends help with the loneliness.
The locally-engaged staff at post are great. They are dedicated, professional, kind, good people. I will never forget them.
Unlike my last tour, when I felt uneasy about making friends with the local people, this tour I made some life-changing friendships with Vietnamese people. One friend introduced me to the writings of a quiet Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. I have a complicated relationship with religion, and don’t agree with everything about his religion, but his writings about mindfulness touched me deeply.
Maybe the purpose of life is the good that you leave behind.
Not to get too philosophical, but this job is like human life: we arrive at a place that was there before we got there. We’re there for a short time, do some things, meet some people, live, love, then leave. After we go, the world goes on. What’s important is to leave the world a little better than how we found it.
I wrote before about Mr. Phi, who works in my apartment building. He once told me that he wanted to work in the Consulate, and has applied several times unsuccessfully. The next time the Consulate posted a job opening for a local staff, some other officers and I helped him polish his resume, and helped him with his application. Just a few weeks ago, he received a job offer to work in the Consulate. When he told me the news, I might have been as happy as he was.
My tour is over, I’ve left Vietnam. My replacement has arrived and will take over for me. The work in Vietnam will go on. The Vietnamese people will live their lives. I will miss my dear friends. I hope that I did some good.
So nice and touching and Den! I feel like I am reading a Den book, each line like a page, revealing more about you – a you that is covered at work.
Man, did the time go by quickly, Dennie. Seems like you were just arriving at this new and exciting post. Regarding loneliness, it seems like it would mitigated by technology these days. I remember being in Germany in 1966 when you still had to go to the local post office to call home @$3/minute and wait three weeks for an answer to your last letter.
Also used to think the two-year limit in a State Dept assignment was crazy, but now see the virtue in it. Rather than being concerned with the inefficiency I find it praiseworthy that the Dept still invests all that language training and prep time for that time period.
All those people with the happy faces in your photos were lucky to have gotten to know you!
What’s your next post? Do tell.