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No One is Diplomatting

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.

I’m…on vacation? unemployed? neither? both?

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 paid.

The only thing worse than working and not getting paid is… can’t work, and not getting paid.

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.

Why I like to put things away

This story in the New York Times today focused on the negative, So I’d like to focus on the positive. The article reinforced my enjoyment of putting things away. Let me explain:

The article highlighted the stress that household clutter creates. We have too much stuff in our houses and in our lives. All that stuff creates stress. We hate our life because we have too much crap in it. As an aside, the article centered on physical stuff, possessions, and the pressure that stuff creates. But it’s also probably true that emotional “stuff” creates a great deal of stress, too. I haven’t found an effective way to put away emotional stuff. Maybe that can be a future project for me.

Anyway, the article really resonated with me, because I find clutter to be not only stressful, but also paralyzing. Especially in the kitchen and in my office. Every time I look at a big mess in my kitchen, or when my desk is so crowded that I can barely see any empty table space, my mind freezes. Maybe some people can work around the mess, but I can’t. Chaos is not a productivity booster for me. In fact, the exact opposite is true. It’s a productivity killer. It’s impossible for me to focus when I’m working in a mess. But interestingly, the opposite is also true, and this where I wish the article had gone. The author recommended reducing clutter as a way of reducing stress. But the article could have gone an extra step by showing how a tidy environment can unleash productivity.

Like many Americans, I have a lot of stuff. The reality of living overseas means that I have to move every few years. The exercise of packing and unpacking the huge piles of unused and half-forgotten things is a motivator to reduce the quantity of my possessions (but it doesn’t stop me from acquiring more all the time).

In contrast to clutter, I find that a clean kitchen and an empty desk is inspiring. It’s as if the space is saying to me: “let’s get to work!” Unlike a messy room, which repels me, a clutter-free environment is an invitation to do something. That’s why I like to put things away: it opens up a space, both physical and mental, to be productive and creative. A tidy work environment is like a blank canvas, waiting for the artist’s first brush stroke. Not that I’m an artist or a particularly good cook. But you get the idea. I can FEEL like an artist, or experience the inspiration that an artist feels, when I have a tidy work environment.

There’s probably a psychological principal at work here. I can’t claim to have invented some new productivity hack. There is no insight from a zen master here. My realization is probably more like the happy accident when a caveman accidentally dropped his raw giraffe haunch into his fire and discovered that cooking food makes it taste better. Regardless of the psychology, tidying up my space allows me to focus on the task at hand, and helps me think clearly.

I’m not trying to deliver an allegorical lesson here. Just sharing some insight from my strange little mind, and rounding out the NYT article with a personal anecdote. Thanks for reading. Now it’s time for me to go clean my office so I can get some work done.

My favorite thing this week

From an email exchange with a dear friend currently serving in Pakistan, commenting on my happiness in getting posted to Bangladesh:

“We’re not the kind of officers who bid on cushy places. We like grit & interesting places.”

So true.

My latest obsession

We’ve all been here. You’re in Starbucks, and you hear a song that really catches your ear, so you open the Shazam app in order to identify the song, then you get the name of the song, then you open Prime Music to see if Amazon offers it for free, then you see that no, Amazon doesn’t offer it for free, so you go to the iTunes Store and buy the song, then you listen to that song for the next several days. We’ve all been there, right? Please say yes. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one who obsesses over songs.

It turns out that the song in question came out a few years ago. It’s called “Summer Sun” by the Ruen Brothers. I highly recommend it.

The song is the epitome of “low key.” Literally. The opening vocal sounds like a Roy Orbison song. Then the instruments join in, all at a low pitch, to match the singer’s baritone vocal range. Even the guitar solo sounds like it was played on the lowest two strings.

The money shot is the climbing vocal climax, that’s reminiscent of the goosebump-rising vocal in “When your mind’s made up” by Glen Hasard (a previous obsession).

Every time the song ends, I think to myself: “What?! Over already? You just got started!” So I have to listen to it again.

This all started on Friday. It’s now Monday, and the song is still in my head. Songs won’t give you cancer or make you fat, so if I have to binge on something, at least there isn’t any physical harm. So I’ll feed my obsession.

Sure-fire diet plan

If you’d like to lose 5-10 pounds in only one week, then pay attention, because I have stumbled on a method to drop weight fast.  For the cost of one low-priced meal, you can watch the weight melt away.  It’s as effortless as sitting down.  And sometimes, kneeling.

Here’s how it works: you eat lunch at a restaurant that looks clean, but really isn’t.  Within hours, you will feel the process begin.  An unmistakable feeling of impending loss of matter from your body will start to percolate in your gut.  Before you know it, your body will begin to relieve itself of parts of you that you no longer need.  You will lose 2-3 pounds instantly. And that’s just the start!

As the days go by, you will not be hungry.  Think of the money you’re saving on food, as you lose that weight!  And when you force yourself to eat or drink something, your body will auto-correct for you, reversing your actions as fast as you can say: “Get out of my way! She’s about to blow!”

I’ve gone through this process three times since I’ve been at post, and each time, I’ve been super impressed by the results.  Sure, some people call me “sick,” or “pasty,” or “at death’s door,” but I think they’re just jealous of my slimness. Even the nice nurse at our med unit was so envious that she wanted me to take drugs to counteract my diet plan.  Just to humor her, I took the medicine, but we both knew that it wasn’t really necessary.

Added benefit: drugs!

In short, if you need to take a few days off work, and catch up on your sitting around not wanting to move, then I can recommend this method. I promise that in one short week, you will be thinner.  You will also have a new appreciation for the simple things in life, like not spending half your day in the bathroom.  The benefits of this plan are almost endless.

One word of caution: while you’re on this diet plan, you can’t trust your own farts. ‘Nuff said.

I’m homeless

I really loved this house.

Some people join the Foreign Service right out of grad school.  For them, living abroad is the norm, and they don’t have a permanent house in America.  My situation is a bit different, though.  For me, the State Department is a second (or fourth, depending on how you count) career.  Which means that I already had a family, a home, roots in my community, etc.  Because I had a house in America, home leave and vacations were easy.  I had a place to stay when I was in the U.S.  For some of my colleagues, it isn’t as easy.  Because they don’t have a permanent house in America, they have to stay in hotels or with family when they’re in the States.  For my friends with big families, home leave is a big hassle.  They have to find someplace to stay for a month while they are between assignments.

While my kids were still in school and staying in my house, it was a good situation.  As long as someone was still in my house, I could maintain a residence in America, and have somewhere to stay when I returned for vacations and visits.  I didn’t want to leave the house unoccupied.  Houses shouldn’t be left empty, for maintenance and security concerns.

A blazing fire in this cozy fireplace at Christmastime is a happy memory.

However, change happened, as it always does.  My son moved out, leaving no one to take care of the house.  It doesn’t make sense to try to keep up an empty house, so the logical choice was to sell the house.

I lived in Asia long enough to have absorbed the idea that everyone needs a house.  One of my Taiwanese roommates once told me that he didn’t feel like a grownup while he was still renting a house.  He felt that it wasn’t responsible to get married and start a family until he had a house of his own.  To some extent, I share that feeling.  Everyone should have a roof over their heads.  So this process spurred a big battle inside my tiny head.  The logical half of my peanut brain pushed the rational reasons to sell, but the emotional side screamed that we need a place to store our stuff, goddammit.

The logical side won the battle.  We sold the house.  The emotional side, while licking its wounds, maintains that we will eventually win the war.

My wonderful wife, who is a better person than I am, was in America, and did all the legwork and handled the in-person work of selling.  As it turns out, selling a house is at least as complicated as buying a house.  She did everything, while I was still working overseas at post.

We made this built-in bookcase.  I loved having a “library” in my house.

We closed on Friday.  So now I don’t have a permanent address.  For the time being, my “home leave address” will be my parents’ house.  I am still declared as a Michigan resident, which means that I will continue to pay Michigan income tax.  But I don’t have a property tax bill any more.

Silver lining: I won’t have to mow this anymore.

The plan for now is to buy another place after we retire.  Maybe somewhere near the kids.  Maybe somewhere by a lake (my dream).  For now, we’ll use hotels, Air B&B, and the graciousness of family when we visit America.

This is for the best, the logical half of my brain reminds me.  But my fireplace! My books! My stuff!, sobs the emotional side.

Reason #736 why I love my job

The Indian consulate in Ho Chi Minh City sponsored a performance of Indian classical dance last night.  The consulate invited the consuls general of the various consulates in the city.  Our Consul General had a time conflict, and so another officer got to accept the invitation.  I was the fastest to hit the “reply” button on the email, so I got the honor of representing America.

I know nothing about Indian classical dance (and after seeing the performance, I still don’t), but it doesn’t take expert knowledge of art in order to appreciate it.  I was absolutely stunned by the performance.  The dancing was athletic, but with very intricate and strictly controlled movements and gestures as well.  The dancers used their eyes to express emotions, it was like their eyes were speaking. The costumes were gorgeous, and I was seated close enough to the stage to see everything in detail.

A few of my counterparts from the Indian consulate sat next to me.  After the first act, one leaned over and asked what I thought. For some reason, the dancing made me emotional.  I wanted to jump up and down, and break down and cry, at the same time.  I was literally speechless. “Oh my God,” I managed to squawk out.  I think he smiled.  I hope he knew that that was a good “Oh my God.”  Because it was.

Curtain call. I was so enthralled during the performance that I didn’t even think about taking a photo.

The show was amazing, and it was such a treat to represent my country there.  Before the show started, I met and talked with a number of Indian diplomats, and several members of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam.  It was also fascinating to witness international relations between two other countries.  The protocol was very similar, the structure of the diplomatic part of the event would be familiar to any American diplomat.  Dignitaries from both countries said nice things about each other’s country, and praised the great relationship between the two nations.  But the content of the remarks was very interesting, too, in what they did and didn’t talk about.  They emphasized cultural exchange, but not some areas that the U.S. emphasizes in our diplomatic work, like education and security.  The nature of the relationship between Vietnam and India is just different from the relationship that we have with Vietnam.

So this was another terrific experience.  Next time I see my boss, I’ll have to thank her for being so busy that I could take her place at the event.  And I’m very grateful to the Indian consulate for being so graciously welcoming at the event,  and for sharing some of their culture.

If I get Shingles, there is no justice

There is a new Shingles vaccine, that is recommended for people who are over 50 years old (ahem).  The health unit at post HIGHLY recommended the shot to those of us who have reached that milestone.  So last Wednesday, we were all scheduled for the shot.

My first warning sign should have been when the nurse told me I had to wait in the office for 15 minutes after getting the shot.  Actually there was an earlier warning sign.  Getting the shot HURT.  I’m a wimp when it comes to needles, but I’ve developed some coping strategies.  Still, that stuff was really painful when it went in.  It’s been four days now, and my arm is still sore.

Some people get dizzy right after getting the shot, the nurse said, and some people faint.  That’s why we have to wait in the office after, so the nurse can monitor our condition.  I didn’t feel anything right away, so she let me go back to work.

About 30 minutes later, when I was back in the consular section, interviewing visa applicants, the dizziness hit me hard.  I couldn’t focus, and felt a little fuzzy mentally.  I felt that in that condition, deciding if a person could enter the United States would be counter to our nation’s national security interests, so I took myself off the line and sat down.  About an hour later, I was back to normal.

Later that night, the fever and ache kicked in.  It felt like I was coming down with the flu.  I went to bed as early as I could, hoping to sleep it off.  The next morning, I woke up with a splitting headache, stuffy nose, and aches.  I called in sick (I hate to do that) and rested up.

This was the worst side-effect of an immunization that I’ve ever experienced.  Unfortunately, that was only one of a series of two shots that are required for the vaccine to be effective.  So another round of this torture is waiting for me in two months.

I feel justified in making this demand of the universe: this vaccine had better work!  If after enduring this, I still get Shingles, I will be entitled to a refund for the pain and suffering.  I will demand that the universe refund those two days to me.

At the very least, I will be entitled to a popsicle.

So, this happened

And of course, because it’s me, this happened at the beginning of the work day, not at the end.  A quick trip to the men’s room with a stapler patched me up so I could get through the day.

Good thing I was wearing black underwear today, and not tighty-whities.

I’ve heard a lot about the great tailors in Vietnam.  Maybe this was the universe’s way of suggesting that I visit one of them.

Insert fart joke here.

 

peek-a-boo!

221 pages of pain

I finished reading my second book in Vietnamese today. It was, without a doubt, the hardest book I have ever read.  With the exception of classical Chinese, maybe. It took over four months to get through this skinny little book that only has only 221 pages.

Even the name of the book is confusing.

The book is a collection of essays, social criticism of modern Vietnam. The author has a PhD from a University in Austria, and is clearly very, very educated. He returned to Vietnam after living abroad for many years, and writes essays about his impressions of Vietnamese society.  My teacher says he publishes online.  Probably because the newspapers (they’re all state-owned here, and very un-free) would never publish his stuff.

All of these notes, and I still can barely understand what I’m reading.

As I was reading, I had to look up a lot of words that I didn’t know. It was not unusual for me to have to look up 20 or 30 different words on every page. It would take me about an hour to read one short essay.

We’ve been going over the essays in my one-on-one Vietnamese class. My teacher, who has the patience of a saint, explains the author’s prose, and the events that the author writes about. It’s a great way to learn, and I did learn a lot from the book, but it was also a very humbling experience. If you want to feel stupid, try reading something way above your reading level in a foreign language.