Holy cow that language test was!

I just took the telephone Chinese test. I can’t give too many details about the test, because I am under a Non-Disclosure Agreement. The test was all speaking and listening, which is not surprising, since it was a telephone test. The interviewer was a Mainlander, so it’s a good thing that I’ve been listening to CCTV news from China. The interviewer’s accent didn’t confuse me.

The topic of conversation was at a high level, focusing on current events in the US and China. I think that I held my own in the conversation, asking questions and giving my opinions.

There was also an interview portion, where I had to ask questions in Chinese, then report back the contents of the interview in English. That part was a little easier for me. My court interpreting experience was very valuable in that task.

I think that I did well on the test. I could have done better, but I was a little nervous at first.

The whole thing took less than 20 minutes. The next step is to grade the test. Another rater will listen to the recording of the test. They will then send my score to the Board of Examiners, who will give me the results. How long will that take? If you have to ask, you haven’t learned anything from my experience in applying to the Foreign Service…

P.S. The title of this blog post isn’t a typo, it’s a family joke.

Medical Clearances Completed

Stacy’s medical clearance came through. The boys and I were cleared weeks ago, but Stacy has a more interesting medical history, so she needed some additional tests. We thought that the red flag would be Tuberculosis, but it was Hepatitis that the State Department’s medical clearance office was concerned about.

Stacy reported that she was a carrier of Hepatitis B, based on what someone told her when she tried to donate blood back in college. State wanted her to get a blood test, and asked our doctor to give a report of the “viral load and treatment recommendations” for her hepatitis.

Surprisingly, the test came back negative. She isn’t a Hep B carrier after all.

Within a week of sending that report in, she was granted a world-side clearance. She can accompany my to any post anywhere in the world. Hooray!

All of this testing was not done for free. State’s policy is to have candidates bill their insurance company, and submit bills for anything that isn’t covered by insurance. Not surprisingly, quite a bit of the blood tests were not covered by our regular health insurance. I wanted to wait until all the clearances were granted, and all the charges made, before I submitted the bills to the government. Now that we have all our clearances, I can do that.

My next step is to figure out how to submit the bills. Stacy has done her usual amazing job of keeping track of all the bills and statements from the doctor’s office and insurance company. The State Department seems to be very competent and experienced in handling these medical bills, so I’m confident that they will be able to sort everything out correctly, but dealing with paperwork is always time-consuming.

In Adjudication

The security background check has entered the phase known as “adjudication.” The plethora of investigators has submitted its collective information to the office of Diplomatic Security, and now an adjudicator is evaluating the information that has been gathered about me.

At this point, my case can go in one of three directions. The first possibility, and the outcome that I am hoping for, is that the adjudicator could decide that I am eligible for a top secret security clearance, and will pass my case on to the Final Review Board. The second possibility is that the adjudicator could determine, based on the investigation, that I am a security risk. That would end my candidacy for the Foreign Service.

The third possibility is that the adjudicator could decide that more information is needed, and dispatch investigators to gather it. That would start another loop of investigation and report back to the adjudicator.

The adjudication phase is an infamous black box. Some candidates are in adjudication for 24 hours, some languish for 15 months. The process is opaque. If your adjudication is taking a long time, you can not know the reason. There is a phone number that you can call to ask the status, but all that you will be told is that your application is still in adjudication. This phase is frustrating for a lot of FS candidates, because, I think, many candidates have Type-A personalities, and want to be in control of their lives. While in adjudication, you can’t facilitate the process, and you have zero control over the outcome.

I am choosing to take a more Zen attitude toward the process, and am focusing on things that I can control, like self-mutilation and eating disorders. Just kidding. I’m enjoying the arrival of spring by running outside instead of going to the gym, and am dieting to try to lose a few pounds.

The Department of State takes this background check very seriously because Foreign Service officers need to have a top secret security clearance. It makes sense that the government has to trust the people who have access to sensitive material.

Thanks to everyone who was interviewed by Diplomatic Security. I appreciate you taking time to talk with the investigator and put in some good words for me.

Language test #1 scheduled

My telephone-based language test has been scheduled for May 13. If I pass, I will earn .17 points. That seems like a small payoff, but if I were on the Register, with my “raw” score from the Oral Assessment, I would be in the lower third of the list. People at that position often never receive a job offer. This language bonus would bump me up from the lower third to the upper third of the list, with a better chance of getting an offer.

This test only scores for level 2 of the proficiency scale. If I pass this test, then I will be eligible to go to Washington DC and take an in-person reading and speaking test, which tests for higher levels. If I score at level 3 on that test, then I will get an additional .25 points. That bonus would put me into the top 10 of the Registry list, and would probably ensure that I would get “the call” for the next round of hires.

But I first have to pass this test. I’m not too concerned about performing well on the test, because I’ve been a Mandarin speaker for over half my life. However, I’ve never had my Chinese language skills formally assessed. I don’t have doubts about my language ability, but because the stakes are so high, I have a little test anxiety.

Books shouldn’t make one feel stupid

Even though I freely admit that there are severe gaps in my knowledge, I nevertheless consider myself to be intelligent and well-educated, with a better-than-average vocabulary. However, I have been defeated by a book. “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy is a frustrating read, because every paragraph seems to contain more than one word that I have never seen before, and that I can’t guess the meaning of through the context. The book is on my Kindle, which is helpful, because I can point to words, and the built-in dictionary shows a gloss at the bottom of the screen. But about half of the words that I look up in Blood Meridian are not in the dictionary. I tried skipping over the words, but that didn’t help. McCarthy’s prose links so many phrases together with conjunctions that the sentences in the book are often a paragraph long. It’s hard enough following such a long sentence when I understand the words that I’m reading. When I have to mentally hold place markers for unknown words, reading becomes an unenjoyable task.

My disappointment with the book is aggrevated by the praise that others have given it. I persevered with Blood Meridian much longer than I would normally do, because so many people have said such great things about the book. That disconnect between their appreciation for the book and my own experience only made my difficulty with it more frustrating. Finally, last night, I decided that the benefit wasn’t worth the struggle. I deleted the book from my Kindle. I usually fire books because they are poorly written or don’t hold my interest. With this book, I don’t feel like I’m firing it; I feel like I’m quitting.

I guess that I now have a greater appreciation for the frustration that poor readers have when trying to read. The cost of understanding how other people may struggle with reading is too high, though. Reading should be a pleasurable and/or educational experience. Reading should not make one feel stupid.

If McCarthy’s motivation was to show that his vocabulary is greater than the average person, then he succeeded. If his motivation was to get me to read his book, he failed.

“Plethora” of investigators

I was wondering about the status of my security clearance, so I called the Security Clearance Support Help Desk at the State Department (yes, that is a thing). I got voice mail, so I left a message, and wasn’t expecting to get a return phone call, because, you know, it’s the government. Well, at 7:00 this evening, they called me back, surprise surprise!

The status is that the background investigation is still ongoing. I said that the investigator who interviewed me (for seven hours) had submitted his report. Yes, was the answer, but there is a “plethora of investigators on your case” (direct quote).

His use of the word “plethora” struck me as unusual. Why would he use that word? How many more than “several” is a plethora? Now I am in paranoia mode. I am imagining a dimly-lit, smoky back room crowded with overweight, middle-aged men pouring over my past tax returns, blog posts, love letters, airplane tickets, and hotel receipts, looking for evidence of unpatriotic or suspicious behavior. “A-ha!” one yells triumphantly, waving a receipt from a scooter rental agency in Victoria, British Columbia. “He didn’t rent a helmet! Communist!”

Hiking in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio is a geologically unique environment. Sandstone formations were eroded by ground water to produce interesting rock formations and caves. We spent a few days hiking the trails in the park. It was in early April, so the spring foliage wasn’t out yet, but the scenery was still beautiful.

20130408-110219.jpg Old Man’s Cave is a huge natural amphitheater with a stream and small waterfall at the foot.

20130408-110329.jpg A stone bridge begins the trail from Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls.

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The trail is a little rough. Wear good hiking boots if you want to take the trails.

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We lost count of the number of waterfalls that we saw.

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20130408-111034.jpg I was surprised that it was possible to sit on the edge of a 100-foot cliff in the park. Most public parks have guardrails to prevent you from being stupid like this.

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Small boot malfunction.

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You need strong legs and knees if you want to see everything in the park – there’s lots of climbing!

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We hiked about 14 miles in one day (Stacy thinks it’s closer to 17). The Grandma Gatewood trail is officially 12 miles long, but we got lost at one point and walked about an hour to get back on the trail. The weather was perfect for hiking: sunny and cool (upper 50s). By the end of the day, we were tired and a little sore, but blister-free!

If you’re into nature, geology and hiking, add Hocking Hills State park to your list. It was worth the five-hour drive to get there.