Me: Blathering on, for a good five minutes, about my favorite pen. It’s a great pen, it’s a perfect pen, I used to import them from Japan because I couldn’t find them in America, and I’m so bummed that they’re not making them anymore, and I’ve been looking for a new favorite kind of pen, but I can’t find one, so I’m really bummed about that…￼
Co-worker: Were you ever a teacher at some point in your life?￼￼
As the Accountable Officer, I’m responsible for locking up our unused visas and passports at the end of every day. We keep them in a very secure, very heavy safe. We keep all of our visas in one safe (big mistake). The safe is kept secure (too secure) by a special kind of electronic/mechanical combination lock. The Department is very clear that we have to use this special kind of lock, because of how secure they are. In fact, the locks are made by the same company that secures the US gold reserves at Fort Knox.
We found out just how secure they are last week, when the lock malfunctioned and we were locked out of the safe.
The security guy at post said that he knew a few tricks to try to get the lock working again. He suggested tipping it on its side. My boss and I exchanged a glance that said: “I’m middle-aged, you’re middle-aged, and he wants us to do what, now?” Already heavy even when it’s empty, when it’s full of visa foils, the darn thing weighs a ton, literally. But the security guy (a much, much younger guy than us) said that gravity can help the lock mechanism engage. Piece of cake, he said.
Tipping that damn thing on it side was most definitely not a piece of cake, and it also did not work.
Then he handed me a ball-peen hammer and said: “OK, I’m going to spin the wheel. When I tell you to, hit it as hard as you can, right here (three millimeters from his hand), but don’t hit my fingers.”
That didn’t work either (no surprise there), but I didn’t hit his fingers (big surprise there). At least there was no screaming that afternoon.
My boss thought that we’d have to get the facilities guys to come over and cut it open with a welding torch or something. When we asked them about that idea, the facilities guys sort of laughed at us, then hung up the phone.
In the end, they had to use a special diamond-tipped saw blade to cut open the safe. I took some pictures of the process, but the security guy forbade me from posting them online. He didn’t want this blog post to turn into a how-to guide on breaking into a State Department safe in 700 easy steps. Ask me next time we meet up, though, I’ll show you. They’re pretty funny.
So now we have one less safe to store our stuff in. We had to reshuffle our stuff around in our other safes to make room. Even though the security guy told me that this happens occasionally, and the the locks give out after years of use, I feel bad about having had to destroy a piece of equipment.
But at the same time, I have a satisfying feeling of revenge. That drawer that we cut open was the same drawer that ka-chunked my finger a few months ago.
Americans in general have an egalitarian mindset. I definitely do, myself. We don’t like the idea of social classes, or even social positions. I think part of our fascination with TV shows like “Downton Abbey” is the strangeness of a clear line between the nobility and the servile class. As a matter of pride, we don’t like hierarchy. For example, I have never called a boss by anything other than their first name (except the Ambassador, of course, but that’s different).
I sometimes wonder if that’s why we in the foreign service call our servants “household help.”
In my first tour, I hired an “auntie” to come to my apartment once a week to do my laundry and mop my floors. I was pretty low-maintenance then, and my apartment was quite small. I didn’t need more than a once-a-week cleaning lady. In my second tour, we lived in a serviced apartment. The building’s cleaning staff came in almost every day to clean the apartment. We did our own laundry and cooking, but again, I’m low maintenance, and in addition, it was easy in that country to go grocery shopping for my own food.
This tour, though, the situation is quite different. Security restrictions limit where we can go. Also, for the first time, I don’t speak the local language. That, and the fact that I don’t understand the local culture, complicates my life quite a bit. But the biggest difference for me is that for the first time in the foreign service, I live in a huge house. I don’t know exactly how big it is, but it has to be at least 2,500 square feet. It wouldn’t be practical for me to do all the work that’s necessary to maintain this house (plus, I don’t want to).
It seems to be common here in Bangladesh to employ servants household help. Even the locally-engaged staff in the Embassy have housekeepers. Many of them have drivers, too. Part of it is because life here is pretty complicated. Another reason is because labor is very cheap in this country.
My housekeeper has been working for Embassy employees for years. I “inherited” her from an officer who left post right after I arrived. She was able to start working for me with only a few weeks of unemployment. Her English is good enough to communicate, she knows all about Americans’ strange lifestyles, and she has been taking great care of me and the house.
She cooks for me whenever I ask her to. Her first day, I asked her to make me something Bangladeshi. I didn’t care what, I told her, but I wanted some vegetables. This is what I came home to:
Plus all of the dishes were washed, plus she set the table for me.
No idea what I ate. There was yellow goop, red goop, and brown goop! And it was delicious!
It’s been working out really great so far. I ask her to buy fruit, and when I come home at night, she’s cut up my fruit and put it in the refrigerator. I suspect she’s started to feel the need to take care of me. Today was the second day in a row that I didn’t ask her to cook anything. Tonight, I came home to see a cooked meal on the stove, and a dozen chocolate cupcakes on my counter. No complaints!
A coworker here told me that Americans pay more for our household help than employees of other Embassies. That might be why so many people want to work for us. Right after I moved in, people were hanging out on the street outside my house, with their CVs in hand, asking if I wanted to hire a driver or a cleaner or a “bearer” (still not sure what that job category means).
My housekeeper seems to have enough work for now. But she only takes care of the inside of the house. I also have a yard. My house came with a gardener. For almost ten years, he’s been working for families that live in this house. So I was expected to hire him too. It’s like he came with the house. I don’t know that I need a full-time gardener, but if I didn’t hire him, the poor guy would be unemployed. He has a wife and kids back home in the village, and Lord knows that with the poverty in this country, they need the money that he sends home. So even though it seems like something I don’t need, I also feel an obligation to provide employment to the guy. So I’ve been keeping him busy planting flowers and vegetables. My yard has a big coconut tree, a banana tree, mango tree, and a jackfruit tree. I actually like jackfruit quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I actually get a harvest.
So another weird part of this strange life of mine, is that I now have a household staff. I recently acquired a car. Even though most people hire a driver, I am resisting that for now. I just can’t imagine adding a third person to my payroll, it seems like it would be too much. Actually, it already feels like too much.
I choose to look at this practice of hiring household help as a way to help the local economy. We are paying people more than they could get on the local labor market. Most of these folks are poorly educated and don’t have marketable job skills. We are treating them fairly and honestly. In fact, an Embassy policy requires us to give every household helper a labor contract, pay them a yearly bonus, and give severance pay when we leave post. For a reasonable amount of money, I get time to write blog posts, rather than mop my floors, and pick up coconuts from my lawn. Everyone wins.
This “home leave” is over. Today I leave for my “onward post” in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I left Vietnam in July, more than two months ago. After a few good training courses in DC, and some quality time with family, I feel re-energized and ready for the next challenge.
The Department requires us to stay in America at least 20 days between posts, so that we can get re-acquainted with America. I suspect that this requirement was more meaningful before the Internet allowed us to keep in touch with the news and with family back home so easily. Home leave is a real hardship for officers who don’t have a permanent house in the U.S., especially for people with big families. Either they have to impose on relatives, or else spend a fortune on a short-term rental. “Hemorrhaging money” is a common phrase on our Facebook group.
I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted this time, unfortunately, but we did get to do some traveling. A cross-country train trip on Amtrak showed us some really beautiful parts of the country.
And of course we really enjoyed Michigan’s summer weather.
All good things must come to a end. Today I’m on an airplane to my next post. This time, I’m really putting myself out of my comfort zone. I know almost nothing about Bangladesh, I don’t speak Bengali, and I’m going to be in a supervisory position for the first time in my State Department career. All of that means that I will make a fool out of myself and get myself into ridiculous situations even more than in my previous tours.
I worked hard to learn Vietnamese. I never got as good as I wanted to get, but I got pretty good. My wife and I were at the Foreign Service Institute for almost a year, most of that time in Vietnamese class. For five hours a day we were in small-group classes. Then, hours of homework and self-study after that. I didn’t have to take it quite as seriously. But I’m an overachiever. I filled up four (FOUR!) notebooks with vocabulary words. I made dozens of flash card stacks with Quizlet (highly recommended for language learning, BTW). I did my best.
After arriving at post, I continued to study, four hours a week with a private tutor (thank you, Post Language Program! Xin chào Cô Tươi!). She patiently endured my over-analyzing her language, poor her.
I tested again in March, late in the evening over the Department’s video conference system (after getting an MRI that morning, but that’s a different story). Again, I didn’t score as high as I wanted, but I improved.
I asked the local staff in the office to help me practice Vietnamese. They were good sports, including me in their banter (the Vietnamese people are very good at banter, by the way). I followed most of it, and it got easier as I practiced.
I invested a lot of sweat and effort in learning the language. I read several books, hundreds of newspaper articles, struggled though countless hours of television (television news in Vietnamese is really, really hard). I started talking to myself in Vietnamese, dreamed in Vietnamese, even accidentally used Vietnamese instead of Chinese with my wife. The language finally got a firm foothold in my brain. But now that my tour is over and I’ve left Vietnam, what am I supposed to do with this language?
Of course, we can try to go back to Vietnam for another tour of duty. My wife and I have talked about it, and we both agree that another tour in Vietnam would be great. Hanoi would be an interesting place to live and work. So that would give me another chance to use Vietnamese professionally. But that is at least two years in the future. In the meantime, I have this head full of Vietnamese, some of it correct and accurate. It might fade in two years, but it’s so firmly entrenched in my brain now that it won’t go away.
It’s a different situation from Chinese. Not being in a Chinese-speaking work environment isn’t weird for me. I’ve been a Chinese speaker for more than half my life, and it’s our home language. But I only spoke Vietnamese in the office and on the street. Now that I’m out of a Vietnamese environment, I feel like I’m neglecting my language proficiency. I don’t regret the investment that it took to learn Vietnamese. But not using it anymore seems like a waste.
Don’t be me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn another language. It’s just a little frustrating that I won’t be able to use it professionally for several years. After putting so much work into learning, I don’t want it to fade away.
I can finally share this Vietnam memory now. Enough time has passed that I can reflect on this particular evening without getting too emotional. But first, some context:
Taipei in the late 1980s was a lot less modern than it is today. Traffic was terrible, and public transportation was a network of busses that competed with cars and motorcycles. I lived pretty far from work at the time, and so my daily commute was boring.
Thank heavens for my Sony Walkman. I listened to a lot of radio on the bus.
The morning guy on Taiwan’s English-language radio station, ICRT, was entertaining. If I timed my commute right, his morning show typically wrapped up around the time I got to work. Lan Roberts always ended his show with Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.”
Being a twenty-something snot-nosed philistine, of course I didn’t know the name of the song. But I quickly associated the music with a formative period of my life. I have sweet memories my early career in Taipei. I met my wife during this time, so it was a romantic time for me as well. Needless to say, that song triggers nostalgia and powerful emotions for me.
But what does that have to do with Vietnam?
Every U.S. Embassy and Consulate around the world marks July 4 with a big party, or as we call it in diplomat-speak, a “representational event.” This is the day that we recognize our counterparts in the local government, and our contacts in the business community and civil society organizations. It’s a party for them, and a big work event for us. We call it an “all hands” event: everyone is expected to contribute.
The theme of our Consulate’s July 4th party this year was: “Jazz in the Park.”
The Consul General knows that I love jazz, so I was “voluntold” to coordinate the “program.” My job was to plan the ceremony, find someone to write the speeches, and arrange the entertainment. Last year’s theme was “State Fair,” and the entertainment part could be a lot simpler, because we had games and activities on the floor to keep the guests entertained during the event. This year the focus was different. Since the theme was jazz, the music was the main thing. I had to find enough jazz to fill the program.
The planning committee got excited when we started talking about the program, and thanks especially to inspiration from J in the Econ section, “we” (I) decided to go big. “We” (I) might have gotten a little carried away. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” turned into: “How can we make that happen?”
“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a small acoustic trio playing near the registration desk, to give people a taste of jazz?”
“And have a small trio in the ballroom to provide atmosphere before the ceremony starts?”
The Consulate’s medical doctor is a musician on the side, and he plays in the only big band jazz band in Vietnam. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get an eighteen-piece band to play for us?”
“There’s a swing dance group in town. Wouldn’t it be cool if they performed?”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get the biggest jazz musician in Vietnam to play one big number right before the ceremony started? And get his daughter to play with him? And have wireless microphones so they could walk down around the audience?”
Tran Manh Tuan, the most famous jazz musician in Vietnam, has wanted to work with the Consulate for years. U.S. medical care saved his life several years ago, he was educated in the U.S., and his daughter will go to study there this fall. So he feels a special connection to the United States, and graciously agreed to share his music with us.
After they were done, the Ambassador led a standing ovation.
I sweet-talked a lot of people to perform for us for the insultingly low amount of money that the Consulate could perform for us. I called in some favors, too. But in the end, the event turned out great. The committees for decorations, food, traffic control, all came together.
My part of the evening was front-loaded with the various parts of the ceremony and program. The performances went off smoothly, the singers didn’t forget the words to the national anthems (that happened last year – embarrassing!!), the speeches wee well-received. Once the Big Band started playing, and the socialization/networking part of the evening started, I could relax a bit and enjoy the rest of the program.
Then the band played “Moonlight Serenade.” I was talking with the swing dance band at the time (OK, to be honest, I was taking silly selfies with them).
When the song started, I got excited and exclaimed that I loved that song. One of the dancers asked if I wanted to dance. Of course I said yes. Being a Hoopingarner man, I can’t dance well AT ALL, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dance to a song that was so meaningful to me.
Having actual dancing skills, she led. That was more than fine with me. I think I might have talked with her during the song. But to be honest, during the whole time, I was carried back to my younger days.
Everyone agreed that this year’s event was the best ever. Even the Ambassador said so.
A lot of people worked hard on this event, and we all had to work together. For me, it was more than a successful representational event. We showcased a quintessentially American art form, and had a lot of fun. And of course the evening was especially great because this year I got to spend time with this wonderful person, too!
This was the best July 4 event I’ve ever done. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the program flow and to integrate the performances in with the rest of the event. The venue was glorious, the decorations were beautiful. I made new memories, and relived old memories. And I got to share my love for jazz with old and new friends. It was an emotional evening for me, and I will never forget it.
So now I know how to survive. At every post around the world, we are issued “‘scape masks” when we arrive at post. They are for escaping a fire or other scary scenarios where the air might become dangerous. It’s a plastic mask that fits tightly over your head, and has its own oxygen supply. We put them in a desk drawer and forget about them.
Yesterday the security office at post conducted an evacuation drill. We were told to put on our old masks and evacuate the building.
I guess it’s nice to know that we have equipment that will keep us alive in the event of a nerve gas attack or whatever. But it’s disconcerting to be reminded that I work a job where I might be attacked with nerve gas or whatever.
It’s been a stressful couple of weeks. We hosted the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, who visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My team organized a press conference for the Admiral. I’ve been working with many of the journalists for nearly a year now. I encourage them to be more assertive and ask follow-up questions. To my delight, many of them did so.
The next day we hosted a CODEL (Congressional Delegation). Nine senior senators came to Vietnam for several days. They were mainly discussion “war legacy” issues like dioxin (“agent orange”) remediation. Again I was the press officer. There was a big ceremony to mark a cleanup project at a nearby air base.
The Bien Hoa airbase is the biggest remaining “hotspot” of dioxin contamination. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time for us to clean up our mess. But I’m proud that our country is fulfilling our moral responsibility.
This isn’t my first trip to the airbase, but I hope it’s my last. I later heard that just being there is dangerous exposure to Agent Orange.
When we were planning the events, I pushed for as much press access as possible. The local reporters really stepped during the interviews. The lead question was about the next generation of U.S. advocates for Vietnam war legacies. After the death of John McCain, we don’t have any more Vietnam vets in Congress. However, there is a Vietnamese-American congreswoman. Could that be the new direction in U.S.-Vietnam relations? From war legacies to people-to-people? The Ambassador and Senator Leahy were great on camera, and had a good rapport with the reporters. During the interviews, I had a nice chat with Mrs. Leahy, she is sharp-minded, strong, and pleasant.
There was a short unstructured time period when reporters could do pull-aside interviews. I advised reporters about which Senators are on which committees, and told them to go hunting. Many of them got good one-on-one interviews, and they were thrilled. Vietnamese politicians don’t like to talk to reporters, whereas American politicians love it. So the reporters had a nice cultural experience as well as getting good stories.
We were out in the heat all morning, and my the time I got home, I was beat. I wanted to take a shower and go to bed. But that wasn’t the end of my day. I decontaminated my clothes as best as I could, then I had to go on a field trip. But this field trip was not just work, it was a pleasure, too.
I’m on the program and entertainment committee for this year’s July 4 event. The theme is “Jazz in the Park.” My job is to find suitable jazz entertainment. Lucky for us, we have a connection with the best jazz musician in Vietnam. I went to his club to meet with him, and ask him to perform for us.
As luck would have it, I recently helped his daughter with some student visa advice, so we already had a good relationship. We came up with a great idea to have an interactive jazz performance. I was so excited that I got goosebumps. It’s going to be a really great event.
This job is never the same two days in a row. It’s usually exhausting, sometimes exasperating, occasionally baffling, but never, ever, boring. I can’t believe that I have to leave this country in only a few months. Just when I’m starting to feel like I’m not completely incompetent, that I understand more about the culture and society, I have to prepare to pack up and say good-bye.
That’s the name every Season One finale episode of every Aaron Sorkin television show.
Just now, at the evening “snack” event at my hotel, which was relocated from the lounge level to the first-floor restaurant that seems to have gone out of business, at least temporarily, a hotel employee asked me: “how was your day?”
I really had to think about that question for a minute.
At that point, I was on my third glass of wine. Wine is very expensive in Vietnam, import duties raise the price. So when I get to enjoy a glass of wine that I don’t have to pay for, I take advantage of the chance. In addition, my day had been stressful enough that I really enjoyed taking advantage of the open bottle of wine.
How was my day?
When I was eating breakfast this morning, I was about to leave and go to work. A hotel employee told me that if I didn’t leave right now, I would have to wait another 30 minutes, because of a “security event.” They were going to lock down the restaurant, and prevent anybody from walking into the hotel lobby. The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, happens to be staying in the same hotel as I am. I have been reminded of that fact every time I enter the hotel, when I have to pass through security.
I get a second reminder of that when I return to the hotel every evening, and passed by the armed guards.
I was hoping to surreptitiously film Mr. Kim as he walked through the lobby, so I decided to wait in the restaurant. I even got a nice point of view from the hotel’s restaurant’s entrance. I very stealthily put my cell phone in my suit jacket front pocket, facing out, sort of stealth cam like. I thought I was being pretty clever, but apparently not clever enough for the North Korean security services. I was not stealthy enough. The security guys were on to me, and so they posted a person to stand right in my line of sight, effectively blocking my view. So I got a view of exactly nothing. Oh well.
So after of the drama of waiting around and looking at nothing, I was finally able to leave the hotel, go to the embassy, and start working. During this “VVIP visit,” my job has been to monitor the media coverage of the summit, and compile a daily press summary.
As you can imagine, the press coverage has been pretty chaotic.
How was my day?
I finished my report early this evening, and I emailed it out to people who had already taken off in Air Force One three hours before, meaning that they would not be able to even receive my email until they land in Washington DC in about 12 hours’ time. Nevertheless, it was necessary that I get this report out as soon as possible. To people who will not be able to read that email for 12 hours. If you’re confused by that requirement, welcome to my world.
I was not able to go directly to the hotel after work, because the hotel is still fenced off due to the very special guest who is still checked into the hotel, apparently. All I could say to the taxi driver was: “get as close as you can get.” I walked the rest of the way.
How was my day?
I had to show the guards my hotel room key before they would let me through the gate and into the hotel. Walked past the very heavily armed guards, who looked at me with an expression that told me they would be very happy to shoot me, given half a chance.
So after I had managed to get into the hotel, and was past my second glass of wine, well into my third, when the hotel employee asked me: “how was your day?,” it was hard to encapsulate my feelings into a very simple answer. How was my day, indeed? Good question.
So I answered in what I thought was the most direct and honest way. “Strange,” I replied.
To my surprise, the employee seemed to be on the same page. Our respective days, indeed, the last several days, were probably equally indescribable by him, and by all of the people who work in the hotel as well. I have heard that they have been subjected to a lot of very unreasonable and outrageous demands by my temporary roommate. So he seem to understand exactly what I meant. He half-smiled, nodded knowingly, and simply said:
That guy totally gets me. Here he is:
My wife commented to me the other day that I was getting exactly what I wanted. I’ve always had a fascination with North Korea. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted my prior post: proximity to North Korea. To my surprise, I’m getting a lot more interaction with North Koreans here in Vietnam than I ever did in China. But now, I think I’m over it. I think I’ve had enough. Beam me up Scotty. This place is weird.
What a strange way to mark my five-year anniversary of employment as a Foreign Service officer.
The partial government shutdown affects the State Department. That means that embassies and consulates have to cease “non-essential” operations. Of course, as with everything else in the real world, what exactly gets shut down is complicated. What we did not do is to send everyone home, lock the doors, and shut down the consulate. The Department’s activity is affected by budgets, of course, but national security and the safety of American citizens abroad have to be prioritized. In addition, different activities of the State Department are funded differently, so some sections can remain operational. Some people still go to work, and maintain essential operations, like security of the consulate buildings themselves. Most of us have been sent home, with instructions to monitor the media for news that the government shutdown is over.
Regardless of whether we are put on furlough (like me) or we
still go to work, none of us are getting paid.
For my dear friends in the Consular section, its business as usual. Every day, hundreds of Vietnamese people
arrive at the Consulate for their visa interviews. My consular colleagues still conduct the
interview and issue the visa or refuse the applications. The local staff still perform all the
administrative processes to print the visas and return applicants’ passports to
them. Everyone is still employed, their
work goes on as though nothing is different.
What is different, though, is that none of them are getting
According to past practice, after the shutdown is over and the government has funding again, all of us will be paid for the work that we did during the shutdown. But there is no legal requirement for the government to give us back pay. What that means is that those “essential” personnel are required to work with no pay. I’d think, given our nation’s history, that we’d frown on making people work without paying them.
Hyperbole aside, shutdowns are disruptive to government operations. We have important business with foreign governments that affect American citizens, involving trade, health, and security. These problems don’t go away when the government stops working on them. They don’t even slow down. After we go back to work, we won’t just pick up where we left off. We will have to recover a lot of lost ground and try to restart the momentum.
My work doesn’t involve national security. I don’t have nuclear launch codes. I don’t even know any interesting national secrets. But because I’m furloughed, I couldn’t do my job, and that has directly affected some Americans. Last week, I had to cancel several meetings with American students who are in Vietnam for a study trip. I was going to give them a briefing on U.S.-Vietnam relations, to help them understand this country that they traveled 7,000 miles to visit. But due to the shutdown, I had to cancel. I couldn’t even meet with them unofficially in a neutral place. That would circumvent the rules. So, sorry, students, I really wanted to talk with you. I hope that you were still able to get the information you wanted.
I’ve decided that the healthier attitude to have about this situation is to look at it as a staycation. Sure, there’s no paycheck coming in, so I can’t go away on a vacation, but I can still get some things done. I can still study Vietnamese (on my own – no budget to pay for language lessons). I can focus on learning iOS programming (Swift is a much easier language than Objective-C, but it’s still hard). I can work out and stay healthy (not to get ripped, but just to stave off decrepitude and hopefully live a few months longer with lower medical bills). And I can make treats to bring to my poor coworkers who have to work, often doing extra work, with no guarantee that they will ever get paid for it (Consular section, you’re getting coffee cake tomorrow).
My sock drawer has never been more organized.
We had a very interesting (but worrying) all-hands meeting last week. The management officer, who has to try to find money for practical things like paying the rent and electricity bill, delivered some sobering news. The shutdown means no money. Things that we take for granted, like our housing, is currently paid up, but at some point, there will be no more leftover money. Eventually, posts will be looking for loose change under the sofa cushions just to keep the infrastructure of diplomacy running. This is now the longest shutdown in U.S. history. So we don’t have any experience to draw on from this point on, there are no more lessons learned from past shutdowns. We are now navigating uncharted waters. And no one knows how much longer it will last. The smart people are spending a lot of time and effort making long-term plans to deal with an unknown and unclear future.
And aside from a few exceptions, no one is diplomatting.