I have to try a new approach

It was 11:10 pm. I was worn out. I had been “on” for more than 2 1/2 hours. I felt drained. They say that the language test isn’t supposed to feel fun. In fact, you’re supposed to feel stressed. The examiners are supposed to push you. They did their job. My brain was as tired as my body.

My language score had expired ten days before I got to post. No valid language score means no language incentive pay, which is a difference of hundreds of dollars a month. Testing again to re-establish language proficiency isn’t just a matter of personal pride, there’s a financial incentive as well.

When you’re in DC for training, you can test at the testing center in the Foreign Service Institute. The tester and examiner are both in the room with you, you can interact with them naturally during the test, it’s more like a real interaction. When you test from post, you have to do it via Digital Video Conferencing. That used to be a significant thing back in the pre-plague years. It used to feel strange having a meeting over videoconference. Now, of course, we’re all used to interacting on Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Skype, FaceTime, etc.

At 7:30 am Monday morning Washington, D.C. time, I signed in to WebEx for my language test. That’s 8:30 pm China time. After a full day of work. The test finished after 11:00 pm.

This was my fifth Foreign Service language test, and the second time testing remotely from post. It was also my third Chinese language test. I tested in Vietnamese after my language training was done and I was ready to go to post. Then I tried again after almost two years of in-country work, during which time I studied with a private tutor four hours a week. Both times, I hit a wall. I improved, but not enough.

I’m clearly doing something wrong. I’m not making the progress that I want to. The last two times I tested in Chinese, I “only” got to a 3+/3+. This was the same score that I got in 2016, after two years in China. I put “only” in quotes, because a 3+/3+ is objectively a good score. I know many people who struggle to get to a 3/3. The “+” after the number means that my performance was somewhere between a 3 and a 4. The testers witnessed me wandering into the range of a 4 at times, but not consistently. So for me, the 4 isn’t an impossible goal. But exactly what am I doing wrong?

As someone who’s been a speaker of Chinese for 30+ years, and who’s put in a lot of hours of study, I was really hoping to break through to a 4. The highest score is a 5, which equates to the language ability of a college-educated native speaker. The folks in the Foreign Service Institute call that a “unicorn,” almost no one ever gets to a 5 in a language that isn’t their native tongue. But I know people who have achieved a 4 in Chinese. Why can’t I?

I have such mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the external validation of getting to a 4 isn’t my main goal. They say that you are only really competing with yourself. As long as you can look back and see that your current performance is better than your past performance, you’re doing well. From that point of view, I’m making progress. I feel that my Chinese is getting better and better. But the external validation isn’t nothing, either.

One of my friends, a native speaker of Chinese, tested in Chinese (I’m still not sure why she did it, but whatever), and tested at the same level that I did. If my score is the same as that of a native speaker, then clearly what’s wrong isn’t my raw language ability. It must be my test-taking strategy.

Time to take stock, and re-examine how I’m preparing for the test. This isn’t over. I can test every six months. I still have more than 19 months left in this tour. There are still three more shots at the brass ring. And I’m going to take every single one of those opportunities to show myself that I can do it.

Diplomatting in Chinese Again

Foreign Service officers have different “portfolios” during specific tours. During my last tour of duty in Bangladesh, I was a visa chief, so most of the time, I was in the office. The few conversations that I had outside the office were about visa policies.

This time around, though, I have a more public-facing position in China. I meet with people outside the office several times a week. Which is great, because I get to diplomat in Chinese. My job during this tour requires me (among other things) to promote education in the United States to Chinese students. This week I went on a road trip to four cities in our consular district. We partnered with several U.S. universities, and set up information booths at our education fair.

Travel by high-speed train in China is convenient, but it’s still travel. Business travel is different from vacation travel. It’s work, not play.

A mix of parents and students come to our booths to ask about studying in the United States. I haven’t felt this useful in a long time. In Bangladesh, I didn’t have any of the local language, so I was limited to talking with people who already spoke English. I could muddle by in Vietnamese when I was in Vietnam, but I never felt as comfortable with Vietnamese as I do in Chinese.

With my background in academia, experience as a parent of college students, and pretty good Chinese, I felt useful. I felt like I really communicated with anxious parents and curious students, and connected with people this week.

The week was capped off by an education fair back in Shanghai. At our booth in the exhibition hall, I spent the day talking, dispelling myths, and clearing up some misunderstandings. I hope that straight answers from an American officer, delivered directly in Chinese, was convincing enough to the people I talked with.

My big takeaway from this week is that although there is still strong interest in studying in the United States, there is a real dearth of information about how to do it right. My team and I are already brainstorming ideas to overcome this information gap, such as online seminars for parents. We have a lot of work to do, and our resources are limited. But I love to connect with people, and I believe strongly in the value of an American education.

I’m Diplomatting Again (Finally)

After the longest home leave ever, I finally got to post. But then I had to sit in a hotel room for two weeks for the mandated quarantine period. Then a few days after we got out of quarantine, there was a week-long national holiday. I was itching to get to work and start to earn my paycheck!

My job during this tour is to lead the public engagement for the Consulate. This “consular district” (the area of China that we interface with) has over 200 million people. That’s a lot of public to engage with.

Last week I visited the city of Ningbo 寧波, which is in our consular district, but is two hours away from Shanghai by high-speed train.

Shanghai train stations are big, modern, and clean, but just as crowded as any other train station that I’ve been to in China.

Travel in China is back to routine, but there’s always a risk of getting “caught out.” The pandemic is still ongoing, and the Chinese government is sticking to the “zero-tolerance” control mechanism. If there’s a local outbreak, the locality is shut down, and no one gets in our out. Diplomatic immunity doesn’t apply! I had to update the social tracking application on my phone to include the city of Ningbo. In the train station someone took my temperature at least three times. Luckily I haven’t heard from the local health authorities that I was exposed to COVID-19. Knock on wood.

I can confirm that the countryside in my consular district is stunningly beautiful.

In Ningo, I got to visit two art museums, one public and one private.

Getting a personal tour of the art museum, led by none other than the museum director. She’s an artist herself. I learned a lot, and tried not to make it too obvious how little I know about art.

I also visited a special-education school that we are working with. One of the teachers is actually a parent of a student at the school. Her child has Down’s Syndrome. She told me that she quit her job to start working at the school, so that she could know how to best help her son maximize his potential. Her story was moving. Like many parents of special-needs children, she struggles to acceptance for her son, not only in general society, but from even her own extended family. Her love and dedication to her child were obvious. I confess that I choked up at one point.

It was a long day: I left the house at 6:30am, and didn’t get home until almost 8:00pm. But it was a great trip. I think we will be able to expand our engagement, and to promote American values. For me personally, I felt like I was doing real people-to-people diplomacy for the first time in a long time. I speak pretty good Chinese, so I can really connect with people. As long as we keep talking with each other, we can narrow gaps in understanding. That’s the idea, anyway.

Plugged into the Matrix

During the dark days of the pandemic lockdown, Americans got comfortable with doing more things online: working, communicating, shopping, ordering groceries, etc. Chinese people had already been living that life for years.

So much of daily life in China requires a deep integration into the Chinese digital ecosystem, and once you’re part of that biosphere, your life gets convenient in many ways. Once you’re plugged in, your cell phone becomes your most important accessory, more important than your wallet, your ID, your cash. Your cell phone replaces all of those things. Someone told me the other day that he has stopped carrying a wallet, because everything that he needs on a daily basis, he can do with his phone.

Getting plugged into this matrix takes some work, though. It’s a multi-step process that has to occur in the correct sequence: first get a WeChat account. Then get a local cellphone SIM card. Then get a bank account. Then get a digital payment account. Then link all of them together. It takes most of a day to complete all of these steps. It’s a complicated process for a foreign newcomer. The other day someone told me that she did these things in the wrong order, and she’s still trying to straighten it all out.

And simply being able to speak Chinese isn’t quite enough. You have to know the correct words to use. The local bank, for example, didn’t understand us when we said we wanted to open an account. They were confused: why would you want a bank account? We were confused that they were confused. We need to be able to deposit money into the online payment system! Oh, the bank employee said. You need to open a bank CARD. Not a bank ACCOUNT.


Then we had to link the bank card (not account) to the online payment system. That required a phone call, because the account was frozen. We said that we couldn’t register our account. What do you mean, you can’t register? the customer service rep asked, mystified. You have an account already. We were mystified, too. The app says we’re frozen. Oh, was the reply, you mean you can’t LOG IN.


Then we couldn’t link the online payment system to the online shopping platform. Another phone call to customer service. What’s your account number? What do you mean, account number? We just got here, we don’t have an account yet! Yes you do, when you create an account with the online payment system, you automatically get an account in the shopping platform. So what’s your member number? How the hell do I know what my member number is, I didn’t even know that I had an account!!

And so on.

Eventually, we got everything sorted out. I learned some new terminology, and feel a bit more humble about my language skills. The upside is that we can use our cell phones to buy stuff, to take the subway, order food, pay for the food, rent a bicycle, call a cab, etc. China’s cybereconomy system makes the material aspects of city life much easier.

All of this convenience comes at a tremendous cost to personal data privacy, though. China has been a surveillance state for a long time, and technology makes following individuals easier and more invasive. That the government is monitoring our text messages and movement is not a secret. It’s a feature, not a bug. We had to register for a “health code” so that we can get into buildings. The Chinese government has implemented a complex social tracing network to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We are being actively tracked. The upside is convenience and safety. Petty crime is pretty low, largely due to the ubiquitous security cameras and cellphone tracking. The downside is that the authorities can and do get into individuals’ business at an Orwellian level.

The Matrix has us.

Equal Opportunity Superstition

The building that I live in goes up to floor 35, but there aren’t 35 floors in the building. Why? Superstition.

You might have experienced this in hotels or office buildings in the United States: there often is no floor 13. That is because 13 is an unlucky number in western culture. In China, the unlucky number is four, because “four” in Chinese (四) rhymes with the word for “death” (死).

This is the bank of buttons in the elevators in my building. What’s missing?

Not only is there no floor 13, nut there is also no floor 4. Or 14. Or 24. Or 34.

So, even though in theory there are 35 floors in this building, in reality, there are only 30. Thanks, superstition!

I Put a Poopoo Pellet in the Potty

It’s been pretty well established that COVID-19 spreads through droplets of moisture suspended in the air. Apparently, a very cautious person wants to be sure that we don’t spread the virus through the sewage system. Or maybe someone’s worried that people will be smelling stuff that normal people would avoid smelling.

When we “checked in” to the quarantine hotel, we were given a bottle of chlorine tablets, and written instructions for how to use them. We are supposed to put a tablet in the toilet before we flush down our business. This makes our poop nice and clean before it hits the sewage system.

The written instructions were to put ten pellets in the toilet, wait 30 minutes, then flush. A friend had shared the written instructions with me in advance, so the Poopoo Pellet thing wasn’t a surprise. What the hotel staff told us was different, though. The hotel staff told me to put in ONE pellet, and to flush it right away. I asked for confirmation that she said one pellet, not ten, and that we didn’t have to wait 30 minutes. She confirmed yes, one pellet, and don’t let it mellow, just flush it down.

Because it was so important to get it right, we were given written and oral instructions. I believe that this is a arbitrary bureaucratic policy informed by pseudo-science, and so the fact that two sets of instructions were contradictory does not bother me in the slightest. I think that waiting 30 minutes for the poopoo pills to do their magic, and flushing the pills down with the poop right away, are equally effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. That is to say, not at all.

Yes, I’m pretty skeptical that even if I were carrying the COVID-19 virus, that I could spread it via my poop and pee. And if I could spread it that way, I doubt that a chlorine tablet in the toilet would prevent that. In fact, if this is a danger, then we have a bigger problem to worry about. To be honest, the whole thing sounds like something I’d hear from a certain elected official in the U.S. You know who I mean: the guy who talked about stuffing ultraviolet lightbulbs up our body cavities (or something like that). But I try not to be a jerk, and I admit that I’m not an expert on poop-born COVID, so I’m playing along.

I plop a poopoo pill into the pottie before I begin my business. The chlorine smell that wafts up from the toilet bowl invokes happy memories of frolicking in a swimming pool, during the salad days of my youth. The smell cheers me up as I sit on a Chinese toilet, waiting for this silliness to end.

Chock Full of It

The China Daily claims that Shanghai has over 7,000 coffee shops, compared to New York’s measly 1,591. And since the China Daily printed it, of course it’s true. 100%.

Although there is apparently plenty of coffee for everyone here in Shanghai, it’s unavailable to me while I’m in quarantine. I can’t go out, and they can’t deliver to me.

No coffee is not an option. A co-worker once gave me the nickname “Professor Coffee.”

In addition, bad coffee is a bad option. I’ll drink instant coffee when I’m backpacking in the middle of the wilderness. But I don’t want to live like an animal if I don’t have to.

In a stroke of genius, I set up my own little quarantine coffee shop.

I call my coffee shop “Chock Full of It.” Because I’m getting pretty chock fed up with quarantine.

Chock Full of It serves beans from Dead River Coffee Roasters in Marquette, Michigan. We tried their coffee in July this year. The owner is an interesting character, he loves his craft, and I learned a lot from talking with him about coffee. Just before leaving the U.S., I ordered two pounds of their Brazilian beans to bring to China with me. They do mail order, I highly recommend giving them a try (I receive nothing for this promotion, I really like their product, and want them to succeed).

Beans are hand-ground especially for each cup using the Hario hand grinder. The ceramic burr grinds the beans perfectly, taking about 90 seconds to grind enough for one cup (I have plenty of time on my hands in quarantine, if you haven’t guessed by now). Customers unanimously agree that the flavor of fresh-ground beans is worth the extra time.

Chock Full of It exclusively extracts coffee using the Aeropress coffee maker, one of the best Christmas presents that I ever received. If you haven’t had a cup of coffee made with an Aeropress, you’re missing out (again, not a paid promotion, I just really like the coffee maker).

Presentation is not nothing. Chock Full of It serves its freshly-extracted coffee in souvenir mugs from Isle Royale National Park, which is the happy place of the coffee shop proprietor (me).

Finally, every coffee shop should have a soundtrack. Chock Full of It features playlists from Spotify. Currently playing is “Lazy Chill Afternoon.”

My favorite aspects of Chock Full of It are (A) the coffee is made exactly the way that I like it, and (2), I get to keep all the tips.

I am denied quarantine lunch

I’m sure there’s a story behind my late lunch today, but I’m equally sure that I will never, ever, hear that story. Because China.

Quarantine is going OK so far. The hotel room could use a good scrubbing, but it isn’t as disgustingly filthy as some people had complained about. The room is large, bed is comfortable, the view is nice, the Internet is reasonably fast (by China standards).

The food is a different story. I am not a fan.

Three times a day, the doorbell to my room rings, and when I open the door, I’m greeted by the droppings of the hotel’s kitchen.

Deliveries are left on this stool outside my door.

The food is (mostly) edible, but it isn’t gourmet dining. I’ve had better food on the street. I’ve also had worse food in restaurants. Bottom line: it is neither worth complaining about, nor writing home about.

A typical meal.

The boy scout in me was still working before I left the U.S. I came prepared with my own snacks. Having some comfort food helps, a lot.

A sample of my snack bar. Why yes, those are Taiwanese instant noodles, the best in the world!

I was a little confused, and more than slightly amused, when lunch didn’t appear today. My wife sent me a text message from her room that her lunch was delivered. But when I looked outside my room, the stool was empty.

These things seem to happen to me in China. I learned to roll with it, and see the humor. I had a snack from my stash, and wasn’t too hungry. But I was curious. An hour later, I called the front desk. “I’m not complaining, just curious: no lunch today?” I asked.

“It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming!” the voice from the front desk assured me.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Lunch was served.

I was expecting a piping-hot, fresh-from-the-wok meal. After all, it was an hour late. Maybe they had to make something just for me? So it would be a something special? Silly me. I got a cold box lunch. And it was just as nondescript as all the other meals. So why the delay? Why did it take an hour for the hotel staff to deliver my lunch? I will never know.

Leave it to China to inject some drama in something as simple as lunch.

How I spent my summer vacation

Home leave is a paid vacation that you pay for.

Section 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 states in part:

“(a)The Secretary may order a member of the Service who is a citizen of the United States to take a leave of absence under section 6305 of title 5, United States Code, upon completion by that member of 18 months of continuous service abroad.

(b) Leave ordered under this section may be taken in the United States, its territories and possessions, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

The English translation of that legalese is pretty simple: after a tour of duty abroad, every Foreign Service officer must return to the United States for “home leave.” The length of home leave isn’t specified in the law, but the current policy is that we have to be in the United States for at least 20 days.

The State Department describes the purpose of home leave like this: “Home Leave is provided to employees by order of Congress to ensure that Foreign Service employees maintain close ties to the United States while pursuing careers overseas.” That might seem like an old-fashioned concept. With modern technology, it’s easier to maintain ties than it was in days of old. We have the benefit of the internet, email, social media, and video calls to stay connected and informed with events back home. It’s almost as if we were still in the United States. It’s reasonable to think that technology has largely negated the need to maintain our American identity. A friend once described home leave as: “re-becoming the American that I never wasn’t.” But in my experience, being physically in America is different from watching a YouTube video or Skyping with family. There is value to physically experiencing America.

As much as I like serving overseas, I always look forward to home leave, when I can spend some time back in the United States. After we finished our tour in Bangladesh in June, we planned to take 25 days of home leave, during which time we would apply for visas for our onward tour to China.

It can take a long time to get a China visa.

Home leave is nice if you’re from Michigan. It usually falls during the summertime, and Michigan is lovely in the summer. I dipped my toes in three of the Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario, you’re next, I promise!), and spent a wonderful week on Isle Royale (my happy place).

Who doesn’t love it when Lake Michigan kisses their toes?

And of course during home leave, we applied for our China visas. And it took a long time to get the visas.

Instead of 25 working days, we wound up spending 58 working days (83 calendar days) in the United States, almost 12 weeks. During that time we slept in 12 different beds in nine different cities in four different states, and rented three different cars. Home leave is an example of an “unfunded mandate.” We are required to be in the United States, but we have to cover all of our expenses. We have to budget for housing and in-country transportation. Many Foreign Service families spend most of our time serving overseas, and we don’t have a house or a car in the United States. We have to plan for those home leave expenses. This time around, our home leave extended for a lot longer than we planned, and we hemorrhaged a shocking amount of our own money, and imposed on family for a place to sleep at night. So it was a huge relief when we finally got our visas and could travel to Shanghai yesterday.

Although it was sometimes stressful, because we never knew when our visas would come through, home leave was still great. We traveled around, spent some quality time with friends and family, and ate a lot of food that we had been craving (tacos just aren’t a thing in Asia, for some reason).

Home leave is now over, and we’ve arrived at our next post (Shanghai, China). After a long break, I’m ready get back to work.