Tuesday, August 20, 2013

$20 on Beijing to place

In the middle of each posting in the Foreign Service, they give you a list of the positions that will be opening, so that you can begin the process of "bidding" for where you will go next. The first two posts are given as directed bids. This means you give the person in the DC office the list in order of preference and explain what you are looking for or why your preferences are the way they are, and they take everyone's bids together and make a decision about where each person will be posted.

After the first couple, you are instead called upon to lobby -- in other words, you have to contact the post and explain why they should take you on in whatever position it is they will have open. They look at performance reviews and recommendations, all kinds of other things, and decide amongst the people lobbying for the position which one will be best. At least, I think that's how it works. That's more or less what I've had explained to me.

Of course, you can't exactly rely upon what has been explained as the "official" process.

We made our second bid a few weeks ago, and on our end, things worked exactly as we expected. They send us a list of about 60 posts that would be opening, we did some research, tracked down some reports of what the actual posts are like, talked to friends or coworkers who had been to them, and set the list in order. They tell you to put about a third as "high," a third as "middle," and a third as "low." Good for us, because there were about 20 places on the list that we really didn't want to go to, for various reasons, and about 20 places that would have been great.

On a side note, that actually resulted in a strange moment, where we realized that no matter where we ended up, even if it was one of our "highly" desired posts, we would still have a period of disappointment... there would be at least 19 places that we also wanted to go. Even if we got the number one on our list, there would still be this twinge of "Damn. We don't get to go to ______."

We also submitted a short narrative description of what we were looking for in our next post. Things like a more moderate environment than our current post (where the temperature swings about 130 degrees between the hottest and coldest day of the year), or an easier language (perhaps one we had already put some time into, like Spanish or Japanese). You might think that no one would say "I want to go to a dangerous, disease-ridden post," but there are people who would relish the chance at adventure, and the +35% or more pay adjustment plus multiple R&R opportunities can really be a good reason to try those places out.

We submitted, and then nearly vibrated out of existence for a couple of weeks while we waited to find out where they would put us. They tell you that your current post matters - if you are in a "high differential" post, i.e. one that is very isolated, dangerous or culturally unfamilar, then you will get your preference, and if you are in a "low differential" post, i.e. one that is well-connected, safe, and familiar, that you absolutely should not bid on another low differential post, because you will just be disappointed when you don't get it.

Now, I know that there are a lot of variables that go into the person or people in DC deciding where each person is going to be assigned, but this experience has me more or less believing that the entire bidding process is basically just for show, and they are really just throwing darts at a map to see where they assign people. 

Here's the initial disillusionment: nothing from the narrative explanation of where we want to go next was taken into account, as far as we can tell. And despite the fact that we are in a place with a comparatively high differential rating, we have been assigned to the post that was 19th on our list. Everyone we've talked to here got their top one or two. Now, I'm not actually disappointed, because we still got assigned to a post that we want to go to, and it's going to be great, but neither we, nor anyone we've discussed it with, can figure out how the decision was made.

It kind of seems like I'm splitting hairs, complaining about getting a post high on the list - maybe they thought it was close, and again, it was a place we told them we want to go...

But we weren't the only people in the process who got assigned inexplicably. And without getting into the personal details of those folks, some people got screwed hard, and some people got handed a second golden platter after the first. It literally makes no sense, if (and that is a doubly emphasized "if") they actually followed the process for assigning people that they had outlined to us. I don't think they did. The results don't match up with the explanation.

All of that is to say that if you end up joining the foreign service, do not count on the systems of bidding and getting post assignments to work exactly like you expect. You go where they tell you, and that's how it is. You could be fortunate, and go from one first world, Western country to another, despite the claim that that would never happen. Or you could be unlucky and somehow be shuffled around from third world hole to third world hole, despite the claim that that would never happen either.

That's the end of that rant, though. As I said, we did get a post we wanted: Beijing. And we have so many friends who have lived in China, who I'm sure are bursting at the seems about us ending up there, so we will have no shortage of help and visitors. My parents actually found out about this while they were hosting some new Chinese graduate students for a week before dorms opened up, and I'm sure that was a mess of excitement. It's going to be good.

I just wish we understood a little better why we ended up with that post. There are some people who have a reason to be upset, or to feel that the process was misrepresented. I feel sorry for their situation.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I drove more in the past month than I did in the preceding eight.

Here's some information about being in the Foreign Service that you might not be aware of:

At each post, State Department employees are provided with something called R&R. This is basically just plane tickets out of the country and back in, and you can either go to a specified R&R point (ours is Rome) or you can go back to the U.S. You have to use vacation days or some other sort of leave to take advantage of R&R, but one of the perks of the job is that they will pay for the trip (within reason - you don't get first class, unfortunately).

The number of R&R breaks you get depend on how terrible the circumstances of life are in your location. Some places get two, maybe three, over the course of the posting, and some places get four (for really horrible, locked-down, dangerous countries) or none (for first world countries that are at least as good as, if not better than, living in the U.S.) We get two in Kazakhstan, which is probably enough, since we can choose to travel, should we want to. Earlier this year, we visited a friend in Turkey, and later this year we are planning a trip to Germany.

We took our R&R a few weeks back, and stayed with my parents (since they have extra, mostly unused rooms). I would imagine that, for people who don't have family that they can stay with, R&R can be an expensive proposition. We were in the U.S. for five weeks; even staying at a hotel with weekly rates, that would be quite a lot of money. Fortunately, we were able to stay in my hometown for next to no cost, and it was close enough to Susie's family, our friends, and places of interest that we were able to do quite a lot without too much hassle.

We have been warned that R&R can be tiring, because you want to see a lot of people, and that often involves running all over the state or country, sticking to tight schedules, and generally stressing yourself out. After all, people only get to see you (and you them) once a year, so you really need to make the trip count. Fortunately for us, most of our friends and family were really busy or unavailable during our five week trip, so we had a lot of time to relax.


That was only a little facetious. Maybe I should try harder.

Living abroad presents you with a tough situation, in terms of being able to hang out with family and long-term friends. We can't always schedule our visits during big holidays (e.g. Christmas), so we will probably tend to show up when other people are working, doing their regular day to day stuff.* And if we do schedule a trip during a holiday, people will likely already have plans, or be traveling themselves. What this means is, unless special effort is made, we don't get to see people, even having made a trip halfway across the globe to do so. I had friends who were out of the country, busy with weird schedules, dealing with massive projects, or simply too far away to feasibly visit. And it kind of sucked.

I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty. My purpose in talking about this is to explain to people who might be interested in the Foreign Service, or otherwise living/working abroad, how tough it can be in terms of your relationships. There were people that I miss that I didn't get to see, and mostly, it was no fault of theirs or ours. Even being available for five weeks didn't help. We were an interruption to the way things normally worked, and there wasn't much to do. Some people could probably have made a better effort, but most were just unable to see us.

That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy myself. We gorged ourselves on food. I may have mentioned in previous posts, but it bears repeating: Astana, Kazakhstan has next to no variety in its cuisine. The native Kazakh dishes are mostly plain meat grilled over fire along with overcooked noodles, and when there are restaurants with a bit more, there isn't much in the way of variety, and it's really, really expensive. Every restaurant has a chicken caesar salad. Every restaurant has some sort of ravioli, a "pepper" steak, and, of course, grilled horse meat. But in the US, the food is much more affordable, and much more international. We had Tex-Mex, Keba Italian, barbecue, sandwiches, authentic Japanese, every kind of fast food known to man, Keba, salads, seafood, fried chicken, and more Keba. We ate at cafes, restaurants, drive-ins... it was glorious. And unsettling to the digestive system.

We were also able to do things that have become uncommon (or impossible) here. We saw a handful of movies in the theater, we drove to Atlanta and Savannah, we played more games than I could count, and... well, as much as I complained that it was hard to hang out with some folks, other people were available, and we spent time with them. I enjoyed being back where I felt comfortable and, since it was vacation, I didn't have any responsibilities.

The next time we do R&R, we won't go for as long. Five weeks is too much, not because I don't want to be outside of Kazakhstan as much as possible, but because that much time off leaves you with very little to do. We don't have a plan exactly for when we will be visiting the next time, but hopefully it goes a bit smoother. I will say that the travel was really good, because we had a layover in Frankfurt for long enough to get into a hotel, shower, and sleep for 8+ hours. Breaking a 15 hour flight in half and getting some rest in the middle is absolutely the way I always want to do it... even though I know we won't always be able to.

*For me, it was a huge trip with all kinds of fun stuff planned. For you, it was Tuesday.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Expect the Unexpected.

At the university, inside the main building, there is a small cafe that serves pastries of the Kazakh sort and coffee in a variety of forms. For whatever reason, it is called “French Cafe.” Normally, I eat lunch in the cafeteria, but sometimes the assortment of ground meat patties and raw vegetable sides don’t quite enchant me, or I’ve come to late and the tiny room they set aside for the faculty is already packed, so I walk across the atrium to French Cafe and order a sandwich.

Sandwiches in Astana are technically sandwiches, in that there are at least two pieces of bread with something between them, but they tend to score relatively poorly on the scale of deliciousness. To pieces of dry, toasted bread, with a mouthful of chicken sprinkled between them, and what sometimes seems like almost an entire tomato of slices mashed into the thing, in no way can compare to the variety of breads, meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces that you can find anywhere there is a proper deli.

That said, the sandwiches at French cafe aren’t terrible. And they are much better than a third helping of beef-chicken-steak in a week. They have two kinds, a “small” sandwich, which is two pieces of toast with cheese, tomato, and either chicken or tuna flecks, and a “club,” which is three pieces of toast with cheese, tomato, meat, and more tomato. I tend to stick with the former, as it has plenty of tomato for my tastes. One day they had slices of cucumber instead of tomato, which, I have to say, was a refreshing alternative to the norm.

Last Thursday, I decided to eat in French Cafe. I ordered a sandwich, as normal, and the cashier, as normal, asked “Small or large?” Here’s where the wheels began to come off. I replied “Small,” worrying that they had run out of bread entirely somehow, which did happen in one of my first experiences with the cafe, and running out of fundamental ingredients is fairly standard for this country. Reticent, she told me “No small.” Damn. “Only large.”

Only large.

You know, sometimes people tell you something, and it is so utterly bizarre, so mind-numbing, that you can’t process exactly what it means. I’ve described the two kinds of sandwiches to you. They have the same ingredients, but the “large” is just... one more piece of bread and one more slice of tomato. Imagine ordering a regular cheeseburger at a restaurant, and the waitress saying “We’re out of regular cheeseburgers. We only have double cheeseburgers.” What response is there? A person who makes such a statement is not in a mental state in which they could process an explanation about how they could simply not put the second patty on the bun.

I had the large sandwich.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Time is money. Or, at least, time is time.

After two months of work, I finally got my first paycheck. I thought I would celebrate by explaining how something like that could take so long.

I think a good place to start is how I was hired. I did a couple of in person interviews, with almost entirely different groups of people, and a few months later I was told that I would be hired. Nowhere in this process was the exact nature of the job explained to me, only that it would have something to do with helping the students write. All of the students here have to study, and be able to perform, in English (i.e. write papers, discuss topics in class, listen to lectures, and read extensively).  When I was finally able to sit down with one of the other "writing tutors," I found that the job was basically reading, editing, and discussing papers with students one-on-one to make sure the single year of immersive English they get doesn't evaporate.

I like the job quite a lot. I'm fairly good at fixing up grammar, but I tend to focus on helping the students organize their arguments, explain themselves better (by asking about a million questions), and annoying the hell out of students who don't actually want to get help, but they have to because their professor assigned it.

The University pays its employees by setting up a bank account, which normally wouldn't be too complicated, but my situation is unusual. Most non-Kazakh employees are hired while in their home countries, and are thus given a number of perks such as paid flights, special vacation options, living accommodations in Astana, and the like. I, on the other hand, was already in Kazakhstan when I was hired, and thus, I was hired as a "local." Basically, that means I get paid next to nothing and I don't have any real benefits. Also, it really screws up their system, because everything says I'm local, which should mean they don't have to hold my hand through everything, but since I'm not actually a local, they have to go through a ton of extra steps to get anything done.

What it boils down to is this: Every time I brought the administrative people something they told me they needed, it was either not quite what they needed, or there was something else they just discovered they would need because of some new, but obscure, law. I had to bring in three separate letters, signed, notarized, and on embassy letterhead, that proved I live where I live. The process was irritating at the best of times, but we're doing well on Susie's salary, so I didn't think much of it. I have a hard time imagining what it would be like if I was reliant upon the university for my living.

When everything was finally gathered and submitted, I was told that it would take up to ten days for the bank to open the account. Something I have discovered, in this land of frosty tundra and horse meat, is if they say it will take up to X days for something to happen, what they mean is that it will take a minimum of X days, probably longer, and you will probably have to remind them several times during the process or the job simply won't get done.

Of course, when I finally did get my debit card and fancy-shmancy PIN-generator key fob, it happened that we were no where near a pay day. So, there was an open account with a balance of 0 KZT. I was told that I could request that the university deposit my back pay immediately, but I was pessimistic at best about whether or not they would, and it turned out my pessimism was well placed. The account sat that way for almost two weeks. I had to email multiple people multiple times (going up the ladder because of a lack of responses) just to find out how much should be in the account. And after suffering through the complicated process of setting up my card and online banking, I finally got a terse email back explaining who I should be talking to... the first person I emailed (of course!), who had, in fact, never gotten back to me.

But the email included an electronic version of my pay stub, so I was finally able to cross check everything and relax.

I don't want to give the idea that everything went wrong and it was horrible all the time. In fact, for the most part, the process worked. It's just that it worked slowly, because there were far too many steps to justify, far too many speed bumps, and far too few people who were actually willing to do the steps that were a part of their job. We've all dealt with bureaucracies from time to time that screw things up and make us frustrated. Now, imagine that the bureaucracy you interacted with was post-Soviet, with all that that entails. Two months to get my first paycheck seems almost... rapid, when you really think about it.

At least I know it's a secure account. HSBC is about as stable as it gets; they can't even be held accountable for massive drug-money laundering. The sky's the limit with these guys.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

*Actual beauty of Astana may not be included.

I have been hired to work at Nazarbayev University in Astana! Named after Glorious Leader Nazarbayev (who graciously doesn't demand everything be given some variant of his moniker) and set on the outside edge of beautiful* Astana (see? When he renamed Akmola, it didn't become Nazar City...), NU is home to literally tens of students. It is the most prestigious Kazakh university, though, and I know this because that's what everyone has to say about it.

Students here do no get a 12th year of school, at least not currently. I think their ministry of education is trying to change that, but the result of not getting a 12th year is that they have an extra year of college that helps serve as a transition. During this year, the students are put through a (presumably) rigorous intensive English program to try and get their skills up to par, but after that year, they are assumed to be functional or self-sufficient enough to manage without classes. When that system fails to get the students to where they need to be, that's where we will come in.

 I will be a writing tutor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, which includes the economics and international relations departments. Of course, I don't have much of a background in any of those things, but I do have a background in academic writing, paper editing, and working with students to improve their skills. It's not a perfect job, but it is a job, and it's something I'm good at.

Most of what I will be doing will be the forty-five minute "tutoring" sessions, in which a student who signed up at least a day in advance will come and we'll talk about their assignment. It's not an editing session, although I'm some will include that. It's going to be focused on improving their arguments, sorting their structure, and helping them take their ideas (which they probably have thought about in non-academic Russian) and translating them into an acceptably written English paper.

We also are going to be doing seminars that are aimed at improving English writing and study skills. They'll cover general topics, like how to create thesis statements, how to organize the argumentation in a paper, or how to cite sources properly. We've got to come up with the topics... it's a very new job in a  very new school in a very new university. Everything is in dire need of being created.

From now until May, I'll be busy with that! I'm excited, and not including the cafeteria food, the temperature, the bleak office, the students, and having to work, it looks like this job will be quite enjoyable.

Here's a blurry photo I took of the place before the sun had officially risen. The entire campus is basically housed indoors, because being outdoors in Kazakhstan is frostbitingly stupid:

Here's the view from where I'm sitting in my office. Computer and phone and the like will be there soon:

And the view from the window:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Three down.

I haven't updated this blog in a few weeks because I'm starting to make myself busy. When I'm not busy, I get restless and I think of things I want to tell people about. When I am busy, I forget that I have a blog at all.

I've been offered a job working with students at the university here, assisting with their English writing and speaking skills. I have several things that I need to acquire, official paperwork and clearances and such, some of which have to be mailed over on the slow boat, but when those come in I'll be able to start work. It won't pay very well, but it will be enough, and it won't be the world's greatest job, but it will be engaging. It will certainly give me an opportunity to hone my editing skills, and another thing to list on my resume that still lacks any sort of teaching certification.

I've been doing a lot of reading and writing of my own. It's much easier to get books here than video games and card games, due to our Kindle account, so I've started tracking down some things that are below the normally high bar I set for what kinds of books I'm willing to read. I knocked out one book in a week, and I've got another ready to go. I may end up reading after I'm done with this post, but I may also catch up with some other blogs I've been following.

I'm beginning to experiment with videos and audio podcasting, which could end up being a lot of fun. I've also been outlining and writing chapters and short-stories that I'm going to piece together in a novel. That's my hope anyway. Even if that doesn't work out, I will have something to keep myself busy. It's surprising to me how productive I can feel without having any responsibilities. Maybe a lack of responsibilities is what I needed.

We've spent a lot of our free time with friends here, mostly just watching movies or eating dinner. Kazakhstan is a remarkably boring place, due to the isolation and weather, so we don't really get out a lot. There isn't much to do. There certainly isn't anywhere to go. I don't really care for what I've seen of it. It will be nice next year when we are able to get out of here for a while and visit people in person. And maybe have some tacos.

That's where I am right now. Winter has fallen heavily on Astana, with a foot or more of snow covering anything they can't reach with a snow-shovel. The snow sucks. It's certainly not an environment conducive to learning to drive a manual transmission car. But we've made it about three months now. That's one eighth of the way through. At some point next year we'll start to find out where Susie will be posted next. That will change things significantly.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't speak Russian? Bring carrots.

Susie and I live in a large and expanding collection of apartments known as Highvill. According to the plans, Highvill will eventually take up somewhere around two blocks of city space, and include restaurants, grocery stores, offices, gyms, and whatever else you can imagine. Right now, though, it's less than half finished, so I would imagine it's pretty tough to get stores to commit. There are a couple of extremely expensive restaurants (although I'm starting to think what I view as "expensive" and what the Kazakhs view as "expensive" in a restaurant is completely different), and currently there is only one small grocery store. There isn't a whole lot else. I think I've seen some offices, but it's pretty empty. A lot of this part of town is.

We live fairly close to Novella, the grocery store, so it's convenient for us. Especially so, since we can actually not have to leave the building to get to it. The apartments are build above and around interior parking decks, because leaving your car out in the intense cold during the winter is asking for problems. And luckily for us, this means that when the weather is inauspicious, we can take the elevator down and walk through the heated, covered, and insulated deck and go into the back entrance of the store. It's open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, so almost any time we realize we need something basic, like milk, eggs, bread, cheese, or drinks, we can run down and get it. They don't have the selection of a full grocery store, and they suffer from the same supply issues that most stores around here do, but they tend to keep most things in stock.

The staff recognizes us at this point and speaks very little Russian with a lot of gestures in case we need something. There are three or four clerks in the store at any given time, running around doing whatever it is people do at a very slow grocery store. There are also people I've come to designate as managers or owners. They do not have the smock-like uniform of the clerks. In fact, they are almost always dressed quite nicely, much nicer than American store managers. It's unsettling, to be honest. They were black or pinstripe suits and stand like guardians over the whole place (when they aren't sequestered in the hole in the wall office that is wedged near the back entrance. They never smile and sometimes have rapid, fierce conversations with the clerks about what they should be doing. Which, it seems, is sometimes nothing at all.

A week ago, we needed some smaller items, and after I managed to lock myself out of the apartment and walk to the embassy to borrow Susie's key, I made my way (back) to the store. We were planning on having salad, I think, but I wanted to pick up other stuff since you never know what they might have. I had my headphones in, listening to some podcast, since the walk to and from the embassy is boring without something to distract from the featureless, muddy stretch of roadside between Highvill and there. I grabbed a cart with one hand, and headed for the stand of sketchy fresh fruits and vegetables they had. Most of them were dirty; they don't really wash produce here, which is problematic because their local produce is inevitably covered in filthy water and pesticides. We have to take care to wash them with warm water and soap. It's especially bad with carrots, which they pull out of the ground and drop straight on the shelves.

Because of the dire state of the fresh produce whenever we've seen it, we have up to that point in our time here avoided it, sticking to canned and frozen. But a salad calls for fresh! So I was there to get carrots. I was there to try, anyway. I didn't imagine it to be much different from the U.S. Having done it now, it's not much different. But in foreign countries, small differences are amplified. Especially when you do something stupid.

I rounded the corner to the produce aisle, and at the other end of the shelves stood one of the Novella mafia. We made eye contact and we nodded to each other, neither of us caring to try to speak in the other's language. I took one of the plastic bags from the roll that had been unceremoniously dumped on the onions and started eyeballing the carrots to figure out which of them I wanted. My mistake was that my hands were too full, bag in one, and the other hand that should have been available was weighed down by the basket that I had hung at the crook of my elbow. I grabbed for a carrot and got the first one in the bag. It was trickier than I had expected, because of my hand situation, but I managed.

I was highly aware of the guy standing there, watching the foreigner try to juggle carrots. That made what happened next all the more embarrassing. The second carrot I grabbed dislodged one of the ones above it, and it began to fall. Bag, carrot and basket were unwieldy enough that I couldn't grab it, so I did the only logical thing and tried to catch it with my foot. Looking back, of course that wasn't logical. I realized it wasn't as soon as I did it. I can't catch much of anything with my foot, let alone a rogue carrot. So, instead of catching it, I kicked it hard into the shelf and it bounced to the floor.

I looked over at the manager, and he just kept staring, not giving any hint of what he thought I should do. So I picked up the carrot, and seeing that it was dirty anyway, just like the rest of the precarious stack, I put it back. I thought, "It might even be cleaner now."

With the two carrots I intended to buy in my little vegetable bag, I tried to move on to the next section of the store. But I was stopped by the dark-suited man. I felt the panic rising in my soul. I kicked his carrot to the floor and then put it back. I defiled his produce and his store... I'll be banned for life if I'm lucky. He pointing at the carrots I held and in the direction of the rest of the carrots. My headphones were in, but I didn't any of the podcast I had been listening to. I yanked the buds out of my ears, trying as hard as I could to look like I had no idea what was happening. It's unsurprisingly easy to do when you actually have no idea what is happening.

I had no idea what he said, but he took the carrots and walked over to where he had been pointing. And then past it. To the scale that you use to weigh fruits and vegetables and get a price sticker for the clerks to ring up your purchase. He punched a few buttons and it didn't work, so he called over another worker and they put in the appropriate information. Then he handed the carrot bag, complete with price stuck to the outside, and smiled, gesturing that I could be on my way.

Weird experiences are the norm when you aren't in your home country. Well, that's not exactly right. It's more like this: weird experiences are the norm everywhere, but in your hometown, you know what to expect. You've had the experiences and they don't surprise you. Even going to another city can upset your mental sense of balance, and suddenly something that you would be easily able to manage becomes complicated, and your natural impulses just make it worse. At least in this case, I learned something very useful about Astana: if you throw around their root vegetables, they will kindly treat you like an idiot and do things for you. What I need is a sack of carrots to carry around, so that whenever I get lost or need assistance, I can kick one to get someone's attention. That's the lesson, right?