Duck and Cover

It’s a part of life in the Foreign Service.

Every week the Marine Security Guards test the emergency notification system in the Embassy, to make sure that the various alarms are working and that we know what they sound like. Most of the time we don’t have to do anything during the test, just be aware of it. As long as the MSGs announce ahead of time that it’s a test, we don’t have to react.

But sometimes the security officers want to ensure that we can react if there is a real emergency. So when the alarm goes off unannounced, we have to assume that it’s the real thing and respond appropriately.

A Duckin and a Coverin. It’s a Foreign Service thing.

Which is why I found myself sitting under my desk in the middle of the morning.

Luckily I had a fresh cup of coffee with me at the time, so I used the time productively.

How was your day?

I have proof that this was not my fault

Security is a real thing when you’re posted overseas, especially in so-called “high threat” areas. Where we’re living now is a high threat area. Besides garden-variety crime, terrorism is a real concern. That’s why my house has a high wall around it, and why there are guards on duty on the grounds 24/7.

In this scenario, getting locked out of one’s house is a big deal. An obvious corollary is that losing one’s house keys is also a pretty big deal.

When a certain member of my household first arrived at post, she wasn’t quite clear on the whole “lock the doors and carry your keys with you” arrangement. We were on our way home after work one day, and she suddenly realized that she didn’t have the house keys. When she left the house that morning, the housekeeper was still home, so she didn’t think to bring our keys with her. Waiting in our driveway while the post’s security folks drove over with an emergency key, swatting the mosquitos, will not make my Top Ten Highlights of this tour.

This week it was my turn. I felt pretty stupid when I couldn’t find my keys. Luckily, by this time, we each had a set, so we weren’t locked out of our house (THIS TIME). Still, I lost the moral high ground when I had to admit that I couldn’t find my keys. She was pretty cool about it, didn’t lord it over me (too badly). But I was mad at myself for being so irresponsible.

The regional security office wasn’t impressed, either. “Time to change the locks” was the official declaration. So the facilities folks had to come over and change the locks. I got charged for the core change. I suspect that I was also branded as “one of those irresponsible State Department fools.” But at least we each had a set of house keys, and The Bad Guys wouldn’t be able to enter our house.

They say that washing your car is the best way to make it rain. By the same logic, maybe changing the locks is the best way to find your keys.

But this time it wasn’t my fault. She found the keys in the pocket of her pants. Not my pants. Hers. I have proof. And even better, she admits that it wasn’t my fault. Of course she doesn’t quite admit that it’s her fault, but I’ll still count that as a win.

Folk Dance in Bangladesh

Last weekend the locally-engaged staff organized a group outing. We went to a resort outside of Dhaka. It was nice to get away from the traffic of the city and spend time with my coworkers in a social setting.

Another group was also using the resort. They put on some performances. I shamelessly eavesdropped on them. Also they were really loud so it was hard to ignore them. The singing didn’t do anything for me, but I was struck by the folk dances.

Busted

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?

I’m almost sure this wasn’t my fault

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.

Take that, you evil safe.

Household Help

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.

So long for now, America!

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.

Look closely. See the deer? Bonus points if you see more than one.

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.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

What am I supposed to do with this Vietnamese language in my head?

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.

“Arguing” with my language teacher twice a week was a highlight of my time in Vietnam.

 

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 worked with some of the sweetest and nicest people. My favorite quote from one of my Vietnamese coworkers: “Hey, I just realized, I haven’t gotten mad at you yet!”

 

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?

I have to confess that I gave these quotes in English and the reporter translated them into Vietnamese. But I can easily read it and verify that she quoted me accurately.

 

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.

Jazz in the Park

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).

I think this was two glasses of wine into the event.

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.

I wasn’t there and then. I was thirty years ago, in a different country, dancing with a different person.

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.

I ‘Scaped

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.

But life goes on.