Friday, July 27, 2012

Since We Arrived

Susie and I have moved a lot in the past few years. We've gone from Athens to Japan, Japan to Bloomington, once while in Bloomington, Bloomington to Atlanta, and once while in Atlanta. All of that has happened since 2005, and certainly part of why we are excited about the Foreign Service is because you get to move to new places every two or three years. We just tend to get bored and want to see new things, be in a new place. The difficulty is that the longer we have been married, the more stuff we have accumulated, and thus, the harder it is to move. But here we have the first perk of being in the Foreign Service: they pack and move your things for you. In fact, you aren't allowed to pack or move anything yourself. Over the course of a few hours, the professional movers paid for by your precious tax dollars took everything in our apartment, wrapped it in packing paper, packed it into boxes, and carried it away.

Well, not everything. We would still need some clothes long before any of the stuff was able to get to Washington, D.C. And we definitely weren't going to leave our computers to get crushed or mangled or hacked, so we carried those with us as well. We ended up bringing quite a lot of stuff with us. Luckily, travel orders from the U.S. government make most airlines excited to show their patriotism by comping extra baggage fees, so we were able to get our 5 suitcases worth of clothes, shoes, important files, and, of course, my tempurpedic pillow here without having to dig deep into our relatively shallow savings.

The first thing we did upon arriving in D.C. was meet some of the other new specialists coming in. Susie had planned ahead with several of the folks who would be living in the same temporary housing that we were placed in, and with everyone buzzing with excitement about the life changes that were soon to happen, it was clearly a welcome release to sit down with other people in the same situation and just talk about it. It was interesting.

On a side note, I tend not to like to use the word interesting to describe things, because it is a word that doesn't really mean much of anything. If you ask a high schooler (and often, a college student) to write a description of a movie or a book, it is inevitable that they will use the word "interesting" because it doesn't require a commitment to a particular stance on the movie or book. I hated teaching the word おもしろい in my Japanese classes, because without fail, any time you ask a Japanese language student to describe something, the first word that will sputter from their mealy mouths is おもしろい. Most of the time, it's simply a way to cop-out from describing things.

That being said, it was interesting to meet the other new people. We are all different ages, with different backgrounds and experiences, some married, some with kids, some with no family at all. Everyone had a different outlook on becoming a specialist in the Foreign Service, and everyone had a different place they wanted to go to. There was a lot of discussion about where people wanted to go to. A bit too much, really. At this point, there was no way to know what posts would be available. But living overseas is such a big draw for people who join this sub-branch of a sub-branch of the government, it is inevitably going to be brought up.

What was really "interesting," though, was the meta-level of interaction. I know that sounds a bit goofy to say, like I'm some sort of xeno-sociologist trying to figure out why alien birds build their nests with one kind of moon straw and not another, but bear with me. Every single one of the people in the room managed to explain how great and suited for the job they were without actually coming out and saying "I'm great for this job." They would slip bits into the conversation about how they lived in some country in Africa, or how their bosses always praised them, or how they had really found their calling in alphabetizing things, bolstering their appearance in front of their peers. I don't think anyone was doing it on purpose, exactly, but I think everyone had been in "job interview" mode for the foreign service for so long that it was simply the first thing that came to anyone's mind. The process to become a specialist takes no less than 8 months, and that's quick. It can take multiple years of  tests, interviews, assessments, background checks, and waiting. It's rough, and it consumes you. Every moment in your life ends up feeling like a potential test of your suitability, including meeting other people who have been hired into the same position.

The next day was a far too large meet-and-greet at a nearby brewery/restaurant that was organized by someone from the previous class. They crammed the officers, specialists, generalists and their families into a small bar in the back of the place, and it was basically a mess. I ended up talking to several people I will probably never see again, and that's when I learned the first of several hundred three letter acronyms that are used in the Foreign Service: EFM. I think it means "eligible family member," but I'm remarkably bad at remembering what any of the acronyms are... there isn't really any pattern or structure to them, and sometimes it's just three letters that just don't mean anything at all. It basically means "spouse or child." So, I'm an EFM; I am on Susie's travel orders, and I go with her to basically any post (even dangerous ones). 

Some of the specialists felt out of place at the brewery. The previous class of officers and specialists were there, and they had already spent months training and becoming accustomed to the entire situation, but the new specialists (and I suppose to some degree the new generalists) were uninformed and unknown. There were so many people that it was hard to really talk to anyone for more than two or three minutes, and most of the conversations consisted of shouting "What?" and turning your ear towards the person who was trying to explain that they didn't want to talk to you because they have a friend over there. Oh yeah, cool. By the end, the same half dozen or so specialists from the previous night were sitting outside on the patio to escape the overly loud and studiously inattentive individuals inside the bar.

Most of what happened for the next couple of weeks is an atonal montage. Susie and her classmates have been going off to train at the Foreign Service Institute (which looks like an absolutely adorable college campus surrounded by military grade security) or to the actual State Department building in downtown D.C. Several days ago we actually got our bid list, which isn't classified, but isn't something that should be randomly posted in someone's blog. Everyone has been tearing their clothes and gnashing their teeth, wearing sack cloth and otherwise having minor stressful moments trying to rank the posts on the list from "I want to go here" to "Please... please, no." Those bid lists are submitted now, and we will find out on Tuesday, Flag Day.

The place we're staying is great for families with cars, but not quite so good for singles or young couples without them, so it's a bit rough to get around. That said, I signed up for a Zipcar account, which lets me rent an onsite vehicle at an hourly rate, so when we do need to get out we can. And there is a shuttle to the metro station, but it runs on a spotty and illogical schedule that I'm sure is entirely defensible by the staff. We've had lots of small gatherings, but also lots of time to sit and decompress. It's weird, though, because all of this is very temporary. Within weeks we could be heading off to [REDACTED] and this time around none of the people we met will be going to the same place. So it's nice that we have been able to find people to hang out with for the time being, but because we're going to have to do this again at post, it feels like a simulation.

Today is Friday, the start of the weekend, and that will give us some time to actually get out to D.C. We went last weekend, found a game store, watched The Dark Knight Rises, and had a nice dinner (with complimentary fried donut holes with caramel for dipping as a dessert). We would like to be able to go to the museums or monuments or restaurants more often, but the location of our temporary housing is, as I mentioned, inconvenient. We're doing what we can!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I know you can't drive to Guam.

I'm sitting in a hotel (of sorts) in Falls Church, Virginia right now. Almost two weeks ago I was in Athens, Georgia, and two weeks before that, Atlanta. In a couple of months, I could be almost anywhere in the world. Almost anywhere. Probably not Guam.

Last year around this time, I was ecstatic (in a relaxed way, which might seem improbable, but truly isn't). I had just finished a year of teaching Japanese language to a bunch of ungrateful middle schoolers, and because I was not able to become certified to teach long-term in the state of Georgia, suddenly a burden was lifted from my shoulders. Many people would be stressed out about suddenly becoming unemployed and not really having any idea what they would be doing. That year was so stressful and tense that I was simply pleased for it to be over. I hope that none of you ever have to go through a year of knowing that success means having to do what you hate for the rest of your life. I would rather live on a substitute teacher's salary than be responsible for a passel of Beiber-loving/hating tweens ever again.

Because things were a bit up in the air, my wife Susan and I began looking for new opportunities. Although we didn't really know what all might be available, we had both lived in Japan for two years and we had been back in the U.S. for long enough that going back abroad seemed like it would be nice. Susie at this time was gainfully employed, and she knew how terrible the preceding year had been on my confidence and love for teaching, so we both began looking for things that we could do to go back to Japan... or really anywhere that wasn't the United States. It's surprising how many options there are, but one we both kept coming back to was the Foreign Service, a section of the U.S. State Department that handles all kinds of international relations.

Throughout the next year, we worked our way through the slow and marvelously in-depth application process to work for the American government. A good friend of ours had joined while I was getting my Master's degree, and we leaned heavily on her during these months, especially while she was back in the U.S. for some R&R and language training. Although neither Susie nor I were able to successfully pass all of the necessary poking and prodding assessments of our intellect, self-confidence, and ability to send emails that is required for Foreign Service Generalist positions, Susie did pass through the equally arduous process that allowed her to become an FS Specialist.

So here I am. Most of what we own is in storage certainly feet from where the Ark of the Covenant is hidden while we wait to find out where the U.S. government will need her specific specialized specificities, and Susie is out daily, learning what not to tell people, what not to write down and what fork not to use on desserts while being hosted at an event. But I am seven stories in the air with little more than a laptop, and when it's not too hot, I am wandering around the truly despicable roads of the Virginia/DC area trying not to get too bored with the tension of a never-ending wait.

Whatever we end up doing, wherever we end up going, I want to try and keep a synchronous record of it. I want family and friends to know what we are doing and how we are doing it, but I don't want to have to answer the same dozen questions every time I see someone online or call them on the phone for $0.10 a minute (thanks 1-800-COLLECT). And lastly, while we were trying to figure out whatever we could about the Foreign Service during the application process, we found a lot through blogs. While we are trying to anticipate all of the things we will face as Susie's career progresses (especially through its beginning phases), we are finding the stories of past State Department employees invaluable. Here is one more that will go on the list, I suppose. I will keep track of our life so anyone who is doing the same thing can know how it worked for us.