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Foreign Service

What I do changes lives

Today, I talked with 87 different people who wanted to go to America.  To some of them, I had to say: “no,” and to some, I could say: “yes.”  This story from NPR, about a visa interview 25 years ago, and where the applicant ended up, is a reminder that my decisions can have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Christopher Francis prayed in earnest before arriving at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1973.

It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the course of his life depended on this moment. He needed to make a case to a man named David C. Harr about why he deserved a visa to the United States.

About a half-hour later, with his visa stamped and signed, Francis and Harr shook hands. Harr wished him the best. It was July 20, 1973.

A month later Francis traveled to the U.S. to train as a nurse. As years passed, he climbed the ladder to become director of inpatient and outpatient services of his hospital department. Today, he’s a U.S. citizen with a wife and two daughters.

The rest of the story is amazing. It’s worth a read:

https://www.npr.org/2018/04/29/606859276/how-a-half-hour-in-a-u-s-embassy-changed-a-life

Talking to high school kids

Instead of a bell or a buzzer to signal the start and end of classes at this school, someone beats this drum. No, really, I swear to God that’s what happens.

On a recent trip to a city in Vietnam, I got to talk with some high school students about studying in America.  The focus of my talk was the wide range of choices that American colleges offer.  I told them that they should really think about what they want out of life, and then decide if studying in America is the best choice for them.

When I talk with high school kids in another country, who don’t really have a strong concept of the American college experience, I like to show the number of majors that a typical college offers.  One of the most popular majors that Vietnamese students choose is business administration.  That isn’t surprising, given the focus on economic development in modern Vietnamese society.  But I like to choose a medium-sized American college, and then list all of the majors that the college offers.  It usually blows their minds.  Which is the point.

I managed to hold the attention of a room full of really smart kids for at least 33% of the time.

During the Q&A, their questions focused on the three topics that people usually ask: safety, cost, and the Trump Administration’s policies. I wore my diplomat hat and answered the questions truthfully and tactfully.

I really like talking with students, especially students at this kind of high school.  This is what they call a “gifted” high school.  Students here are on the fast track to the best universities in Vietnam.  They are smart, advantaged, and are clearly the upper echelon of Vietnamese society.  They will be the leaders of their generation.  I’m proud to have shared with them some American values and what our educational system has to offer.

Business travel is not a vacation

Even though I really like visiting other places, and I enjoy meeting up with colleagues from different posts, and it’s fun to be in a new environment, business travel is a different experience from leisure travel.

I my previous career in academia, I traveled a lot for work. Academic conferences are held in different places around the country, so I went to a lot of big and small cities around America (and a couple of times in Canada). But when I was there, I usually saw the inside of hotel conference rooms more than the local sites. I’ve been to most US states, but have probably missed out on what each state has to offer. Business travel is for business, not pleasure.

My recent trip to Thailand was an eye-opener. I spent four days in Bangkok, and this was about all of the city that I saw:

Hi, Bangkok. You look interesting. Wish I could have gotten to know you better.

Don’t misunderstand: the trip was valuable. I learned a lot. The government got very good value for the cost of sending me in the trip. The trip was great for me, professionally. In addition to exchanges with colleagues about our respective experiences and activities at posts, we got some valuable guidance from higher up the hierarchy.

Extra credit if you know what “IO” stands for.

Personally, though, it was disappointing. We spent a lot of time in a dark conference room looking at a screen:

Not only did I not have time to enjoy the city, but I had to leave a little early in order to get back to Vietnam and prepare for my next trip.

This is not the right way to live. If I’m going to have to put up with the nonsense and inconvenience of travel, I should take some time on one side or the other of the trip, and do some touristy stuff.

In case you were wondering, the answer is yes, Vietnamese feet can be just as stinky as American feet can be. Thanks for demonstrating that for me, inconsiderate fellow traveler.

So here’s my resolution: from now on, I’m going to carve out some time for myself every time I travel for business. I’ll pay for my own hotel room, pay the additional air fare as needed. Since I’ve endured the journey, I might as well get some enjoyment out of it. Life’s too short. It’s time to mix in some pleasure to the business. I did that a few times in the past. My wife and I enjoyed a great afternoon scootering around British Columbia while there for a conference several years ago. I’m going to try to do something like that on every trip from now on.

Stay tuned.

It’s student season again

Over 150 people came to hear me blather on.

 

Vietnamese version of my talk

 

I love to talk.  And I love talking with students.  They’re idealistic and full of dreams and their futures are full of promise.  I love hearing about their big plans for their future.  So I love student season.  That’s the time of year students decide on which school to attend in America, and to prepare to apply for their student visas.  To prepare for the upcoming rush, we do a lot of outreach.

This weekend I had two opportunities to diplomat about applying for a student visa. There are a lot of misunderstandings and myths about getting a visa.  A lot of students think that the visa interview is the hardest part of studying abroad.  Our outreach is intended to give them accurate information.  I try to tell them that this should be the easiest step in the process.  They usually don’t believe me, though.

On Friday night, I helped to staff the Consulate’s booth at a big study abroad fair in a downtown hotel.  I was scheduled to be there for an hour.  I stayed almost two hours.  I had a lot of great conversations, and heard about a lot students’ plans.  Afterwards, I had to go back to the office, and I wound up working there for another two hours, before the energy wore down enough to go home.

On Saturday I returned to give a formal presentation to students and parents.  There were over 150 people in the audience.  They asked really good questions that showed that they are already knowledgeable about the process and the regulations.

Talking with people about America, especially about studying in America, is one of my favorite parts of this job.

Trying to dispel the myths about getting a visa.

Happy women’s Day!

March 8 is the international women’s day. Vietnam has jumped on the bandwagon.

However, there’s a little problem with the wording. That sign actually says “happy day of the international woman.”

So, for all of the international women out there, this is your day! Make the best of it.

I got to diplomat in Chinese

The U.S. Consulate recently held a small reception for the diplomats who work in the Chinese consulate.  Several officers at post speak Chinese, and we were recruited to be part of the reception team. The evening was definitely work, not play. It was what we call a “representational event,” meaning that it was a party, but our job was to be the host, not a guest.

Still, it was a fun evening.  I like to schmooze. Plus, my Chinese is much better than my Vietnamese, and diplomatting in a language that I’m comfortable in felt great.  Plus we had a nice meal, al fresco, overlooking the beautiful Ho Chi Minh City skyline.

My job usually isn’t elegant and glamorous,. but sometimes I get a small perk.

 

So, this happened.

Fifty years ago, Vietnam was a very different place from what it is now. In 1968, there were a half-million American military personnel in Vietnam. The central part of the country was a war zone, literally. And in the middle of the lunar new year holiday, on January 31, 1968, the communist government in the north began a military offensive. They carried out a series of coordinated attacks all over the central and south. A lot of people died. One of the most surprising and shocking actions was an attack on the American Embassy in Saigon. A dozen or so commandos used satchel bombs to blow a hole in the wall surrounding the Embassy, and entered the grounds.

Five American servicemen were killed in action while defending the Embassy. One of those killed was a Marine Security Guard. We have a detachment of MSGs at our Consulate now. They provide security for the Consulate. They’re good people. They hold an annual birthday ball and invite us to attend. It’s a lot of fun. I like the MSGs. Anyway, in 1968, an MSG named James was on duty, and he was killed while fighting off the attackers. In the almost 20 years of having MSGs at our Embassies, James was the first one killed in the action of defending an Embassy. In addition to James, four Military Policemen also lost their lives in the fighting.

Eventually, all of the attackers were killed (one was wounded and captured). The Embassy grounds had been briefly occupied, but the Chancery building was secured throughout the attack. The attack was militarily meaningless. But symbolically it was huge. The American public had been told that we were winning the war. To see enemy soldiers shooting on the grounds of our Embassy was shocking. Some have called this attack the beginning of the end of public support for the U.S. engagement in Vietnam.

The site of our Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City is the exact same spot as the U.S. Embassy when the city was called Saigon. It’s literally on the same plot of land. There are still some old building from the old Embassy on the compound that we are still using today.  That means that every day, when I go to work, I walk through the location of that historic and horrible event. There is a plaque on the grounds of the Consulate, listing the names of the five fallen servicemen.  It’s hard to describe the combination of feelings that I have every morning after I walk through the security checkpoint and onto the Consulate grounds.  Pride, humility, patriotism, respect, joy, thankfulness.  But never apathy.  Ever.

On Wednesday this week, the 50th anniversary of the attack, we held a small, solemn event on the grounds to honor those five men. It was a military-civilian ceremony, representing the cooperation between the U.S. military and the State Department. Many people who work in the Consulate attended. From the perspective of U.S. personnel, it was a dignified tribute to those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. For some of the locally-engaged staff, who had family living here during the war, this isn’t just history. It’s memory.

I was proud to have helped to coordinate the commemoration event. I’m glad that we had the ceremony. And I hope that we can spread the message that while we honor those who have died for us in armed conflict, peace is always the path to a brighter future.

A week of constrasts

It feels like I’m doing more work out of the office during this tour.  Being able to do work in addition to visa interviews is rewarding.  I like talking to visa applicants, and I think I’m good at it.  But doing that all day, every day, for weeks on end, can become tiring.

For three days last week, I went on an investigation trip into the outer provinces.  This is a different kind of diplomatting.  We sometimes have to check the relationships between U.S. citizens who are married to Vietnamese citizens, and are applying for immigrant status for the spouses.  Most of these cases are legitimate, but there is a lot of fraud as well.  By visiting the homes of the applicants, and interviewing them there, we can determine whether the marriages are real or not.

We were a small team of three: me, a locally-engaged staff member, and a driver.  We drove a LOT over bad country roads.  We typically had to drive from one to two hours between appointments.  By the end of each day, my butt was sore from hitting all of the bumps in the road.  One of the managers told me that we really earn our hardship differential when we go out on these trips.  I agree.

The trip took us west, toward the Cambodian border.  That area is very rural, and is home to some of Vietnam’s 50-odd ethnic minorities.  Most people in this part of the country work in agriculture.

Farm workers

Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside.  Here’s the local store:

A busy shopping center.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:

Desperation makes one do things that one would not do under ordinary circumstances.

Not only is the countryside spread out and sparsely populated, but the roads are not well marked. Compared to well-organized urban areas, addresses in the provinces seem arbitrary.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.  One time, we asked directions from an old guy who was cooking outside his house.  He started to tell us how to get to the house we were looking for, then he stopped and thought for a moment.  He seemed to figure that it would be more efficient for his to show us himself.  So he walked away from his pot, but kept his spoon in his hand, as he led us down the street to the applicant’s house.

My Impressive Spoon of Direction will lead us to the correct destination.

 

Houses are constructed of wood and brick.  We saw several places in different stages of construction.

Very basic brick construction.

After seeing the low standard of living in the countryside, it isn’t hard to understand why some people would want to leave.  Some people move to the city for work, some people choose to emigrate.

Among the farms and poverty, though, we got to see some interesting regional culture.  A local religion called Cao Dai started in the 1920s in one of the provinces that we visited.  The religion combines characteristics of traditional Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  I don’t pretend to understand much about the religion, but their temple is beautiful.  We were allowed inside for a brief visit before the evening service started at 6:00 pm.

Cao Dai temple at twilight

 

Inside the Cao Dai temple

On Friday, we finished our investigations, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday evening.  The next day was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Many Embassies and Consulates have a detachment of Marine Security Guards.  Their official role is to provide security to the grounds and guard the classified information inside post.  Every year, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday (November 10).  MSGs at posts abroad hold a ball to celebrate, and invite all the diplomats and their families.  It’s like prom for grownups.  People have a “day of beauty” to do their makeup and hair.  The Marine Ball is about the only opportunity that I have to wear my tuxedo.

We went to prom in order to learn how to do this.

I had the privilege of writing the speech for our guest of honor this year.  This was my second speechwriting experience for this tour.  Like most skills, speechwriting takes practice, and like most tasks in the Foreign Service, there are structures and rules.  I forgot some key elements in a standard State Department speech, like acknowledging the guest dignitaries (oops), but the speaker was experienced, and she filled in the parts that I left out.  The speech was well-received (whew!).

This was an interesting week.  My job took me out to the dust and poverty of remote provincial countryside, then back to a night of glitz and dancing in the city, all in a few short days.  This wasn’t a typical week.   My schedule for next week should be business as usual.  It will be nice to calm down and relax by doing some routine work.  Even so, the meaning of “routine” while living abroad is different from in the U.S.

America’s soft power is strong

Traveling on a survey trip in the countryside is rewarding in many ways. When you live in a big city, it’s easy to forget that most people in the country don’t enjoy a high standard of living.

Yesterday I had two heartwarming interactions with Vietnamese people. The first was in a very small town in the Mekong Delta. We got a little lost, and were trying to figure out what to do. While we were standing on the side of the road, a young man walked up to me and struck up a conversation in English.

As a matter of principle, I like to engage with people, especially with students. You never know who kids will grow up to be. I’d love to be the American that a future leader remembers talking to, way back when. It’s also good for America when people have a favorable impression of us.

Anyway, this young man said he was 16, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from America, his face lit up. He was clearly delighted to be talking with an American. His English wasn’t very good, but we managed a brief conversation. I admired his courage to approach a foreigner and try using a language that he was just starting to learn. I don’t think I am that brave.

The other interaction happened later that night, in town. We were on he street, when a small child, about 3 years old, walked by with his mom. With the encouragement of his mother, he smiled, waved, and called out “Hello!” to me. He didn’t speak any English, but he wasn’t self-conscious or shy, he trotted over to me and gave me a high-five.

I’ve had interactions like that in other countries. But Americans seem to enjoy especially high favorability among the Vietnamese people, even (or maybe especially) in rural parts of the country. In the eyes of many people here, America never wasn’t “great.”

I am an historian

The site of the current U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City was the site of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam from 1968-1975. As a result, the site is of considerable historical significance.

I won’t go into the details, but if you’re interested, Wikipedia’s article has a pretty good summary of the events that happened on the compound.

Many of the officers that are posted here have an interest in history, so a “consulate historian” group has formed. When high-level visitors (government officials) come on an official visit, they often want a tour of the grounds, to understand how the events that happened here played out. An officer will lead a tour and explain what happened. It’s sort of like being a docent in a museum.

Shortly before coming to post, I joined the historian team. I’ve given a couple of tours so far. The group has a collection of documents and photos that we can use as visual aids when we give talks, but we also tailor our talks to the particular interests of the visitors.

Last week I gave a tour to a cabinet secretary who was visiting Vietnam on an official visit. Because the Secretary was born in Michigan, then later represented Georgia in Congress, I took the time to find both Michigan and Georgia connections to the events at the Embassy. I managed to find people from those respective states who played significant roles in the events at the Embassy.

At first, I thought I would be giving a tour to only the Secretary and his wife, but it turned out that a large group of his staff and other departmental personnel tagged along as well. There were about 20 people in the group. The Ambassador was also there, and provided some additional details as I gave my talk (he has extensive knowledge about the recent history of the Consulate, because he was here when the U.S. was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s).

When I joined the Foreign Service, I didn’t picture myself giving historical tours, but it certainly fits in with our job description. Talking about the history of a U.S. Embassy is definitely one of the roles of a diplomat.