Thursday, August 30, 2012

I have BEEN to the warehouse!

When we got packed out, they took basically everything we own (except for what we could carry in a few suitcases), packed it into a truck, and drove away with it. Some of that was stuff that we would want here in D.C., like clothes and such, but a lot of it was sent to deep storage. We don't need our furniture here, for example, so they kept that in a huge storage facility in an undisclosed location (a.k.a Hagerstown, Maryland).

Today we went to sort through what of the stored items we want shipped to us in Kazakhstan, and due to our circumstances, we took some of the stuff out of storage to be air shipped to us, instead of ground shipped super-slowly (taking upwards to three months, and possibly more).

Here's what the warehouse looked like:

For reference, since there isn't one, those crates are at least 9 feet tall. When opened, you could easily walk inside without crouching. It took two to hold every thing that Susie and I own, except for our couch and easy chair. One of our friends had three crates. Another of our friends had at least 8, somewhere in the range of 14,000 pounds. The warehouse guy was a little overwhelmed by that one.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Susie and I went on a night-time trolley tour of the larger D.C. monuments last weekend. That's the best way to do it, in my opinion, especially in the summer. Walking around to try and see them all makes you hot, sweaty, tired, and irritable, even if you are wearing some sort of moisture wicking under-layer. I grabbed some pictures while we were near the National Mall and on the tour.

The most patriotic of Washington Monuments:

View from the Trolley:

The Legislative Branch:


Washington, reflecting in what is currently, due to construction, the Reflecting Drainage Ditch:

Big Lincoln:

Vietnam Memorial:

Korean War Memorial:

Civil War Memorial:

The only non-president/non-military memorial (and gosh is it a big one):

You know, these guys:

We haven't done a lot of sightseeing in Washington because it's such a pain to get to the tourist parts of the area without a car. We sometimes get out to the town on weekends, but most of the time we have to stay around here by necessity. During the day, the shuttle to the nearest metro stops running from 9:00 until 3:00, so if I want to get anywhere, I have to walk. But we have finally been able to get some good photos and interesting trivia. If you come to Washington, you should definitely do a trolley tour. They do all of the difficult stuff for you: drive you around, explain everything you see, and point out where the trustworthy bathrooms and refreshment stands are.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Language Learning, Part 2: Curse of the Mummy's Granodiorite Stele

In the last post, I talked about some of my experience with learning languages outside of the State Department. I thought I would break my thoughts up into do posts, because this one will be more interesting to the people who don't care about what I've done in the past. Here's what we can do now:

The State Department has access to the full complement of Rosetta Stone, and from the Rosetta Stone company, you will never here the end of it. "The U.S. State Department uses our product!" It's a little deceptive, though. When the State Department wants to train someone in a language, they use a classroom with an amazing teacher to student ratio (something like 1:5). The students spend six or more hours each day practicing in class with native speakers, and supplement with homework assignments, projects, and presentations. This training goes on for months, and never during that period does Rosetta Stone get used. They can't always offer that kind of training to their employees, but when they do, it is as ideal as it can get.

If they can't offer you that (and, based on Susie's job and other various issues, they can't offer us classroom Russian training), they have tutoring and distance learning classes, and sometimes classes are available at the consulate or embassy post. Again, these don't use Rosetta Stone. From what I can tell, these involve studying your way through a text book, working on assignments through the internet, and a periodic phone tutoring session. Plus, because the students are (or soon will be) living in a country where the language is spoken, you have the perfect degree of language immersion to dramatically improve your skills.

So, where is Rosetta Stone in all of this? Well, I have access to it online, to do with what I want. I can run through all the levels of Rosetta Stone Russian in whatever way I see fit. But it is entirely separate from what the State Department wants and makes available. Why? Because Rosetta Stone is uniformly, undeniably, and laughably bad for learning a language. If any of you have tried to learn through Rosetta Stone, I'm sorry. It's awful and won't be much help (if any) when you have to actually speak to someone in the target language.

Most people can't afford $300 or more dollars for a computer program, so here's the rundown as I have experienced it. Rosetta Stone tries to teach everyone like a child who is learning their first language, which is, linguistically speaking, absolutely nuts. No one who uses Rosetta Stone is using it to learn their first language, which means that, unlike babies, we have access to a never ending supply of life examples, vocabulary, minute distinctions, and logical understanding. We do not learn like children, and it's absurd to think we should. The program is language independent, so it relies on repetition of pictures and the target language to try and imprint the language on you. This could be alright... but if you have a question or don't understand what is happening, you are out of luck. The things you are "taught" are piecemeal and random, starting with things like "boy" and "run" (anyone ever see a "Dick and Jane" book?), and wholly irrelevant to what stuff I will need to be able to say when I get to Kazakhstan. I need to be able to direct a taxi, order food in restaurants, understand prices and products in a grocery store, and any number of other things that have nothing to do with me explaining in broken Russian that a boy runs or a girl eats or a man reads. My experiences, and yours, are greater than those of a child, and adults need to be able to speak differently than children do.

Rosetta Stone does not teach you how to speak. It centers around flashing words, pictures, and sounds and having the user match them in a multiple choice fashion. You do not learn to communicate and you do not learn how to create or expand you knowledge. You learn to match words to things that can be pictured and vice versa. There is next to no feedback about your abilities with matching words and pictures, and you never get to practice in context, just repetition, repetition, repetition. It's a glorified and very expensive set of flash cards.

I spent about an hour using Rosetta Stone before I became so frustrated that I stopped, and I will not be picking it up again. Should you ever think about learning a language, let me recommend against it. This is coming from a linguist, a language educator, and someone who has studied four foreign languages and who will study many more in his lifetime: Rosetta Stone is bad, and the people who promote it should feel bad. I am an expert in this! If you have ever used Rosetta Stone software, or are currently using it to try to learn a language, I would strongly recommend trying other things. Rosetta Stone is useless and possibly worse than useless.

If you want to learn a language, of course the best way is to immerse yourself. For people in the Foreign Service, this is forced upon you. For people who aren't, hopefully there is a way. Eventually, I would recommend it to anyone who is learning any language. If you learn Spanish in a classroom, from a tutor, or just by studying by yourself, take an extended trip to Spain or Mexico. Find a way to spend several weeks or months surrounded by the sounds of the language, having to use it for anything you want to do. Put the television on in the background whenever you are doing anything. It's amazing the difference even a little bit of time makes. I know it's not possible for everyone, and let me be completely clear that immersion is not, in and of itself, a way to learn a language. You will still have to study and practice, it's just that being in an environment where you must study and practice to do even the most basic of things is better than sitting at home or in a classroom.

I've been tracking down websites and books for learning Russian, finding online message boards and groups that I might be able to practice with, downloading apps to practice vocabulary and spelling. The best part about these resources is that they are free, or next to it. I understand that software like Rosetta Stone is a major undertaking, especially with new features like voice recognition, but it is massively expensive for what users get out of it. So many people want to provide language learning tools and assistance without breaking your bank, and we have the internet to thank for their ability to do so easily.

Learning a language is a major effort, but the only way to get the most out of it is to prepare and get a solid footing before we begin. With the internet connecting so many people all over the world, there are more resources available than five years ago. More available than even one year ago. I'm hoping that these resources will make it work for Susie and me (and you). You just have to track some down. Luckily, there are even people who have already done that for us!

Language Learning, Part 1

We're moving to Kazakhstan, where the official language used for business and most interaction is Russian. There is a Kazakh language, but when Soviet Russia took over, that got mashed down and everyone had to speak Russian. Most everyone does now, and my impression from the little bit of info on the internet is that the younger folks in Kazakhstan prefer it while the older folks prefer Kazakh.

I took a half-semester of Russian in college. I was majoring in linguistics, and studying Japanese at the time. There was a bizarre requirement for linguistics majors for which I had to have four semesters of a main language (which could be anything) and two semesters of a non-Indo-European language, i.e. a language that was not really related to English ancestrally. The point of that requirement was to open the horizons of people studying languages. If you only studied Spanish or French, which have a lot of phonetics, vocabulary, and syntactic structures in common with English, then you would never really understand how much variety there is in human language. I applaud that aspect of the requirement, and to be honest, I think it should probably be a requirement of everyone...

The point, however, the reason why I call the requirement bizarre, is that I was already taking Japanese as my main language. Japanese is as non-English as you can get. The basic sentence order is different, the writing system is entirely unlike English, there are very few words in common, and the ones that are in common have been new additions in the past 60 years or so. Japanese is a perfect example of the kind of non-Indo-European language that the requirement was supposed to force people to learn about. But the fact that it was my main language meant that it didn't meet the requirement for the two semesters of a non-IE language. The requirement should have been four semesters of one language, two semesters of another, and at least one should be non-IE. Instead, I ended up going for Korean, which is as similar to Japanese as any two languages can be.

I wasn't getting much experience outside of that realm, though, which missed the entire point of the requirements while fitting snugly in the bureaucratic "letter of the law" side of things. The grammar was remarkably similar, lots of similar words (both languages having lots of imported words from Chinese), and even pronunciation was similar. I did enjoy learning both, but I felt like there was more I could do. I had a couple of friends who were taking Russian at the time, and I (foolishly) thought, "That sounds interesting." I got in touch with the professor and asked if I could be a late add to the class. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, having subconsciously absorbed it by working with so many transliterated newspapers in the library periodicals department, so I figured starting a week or so late wouldn't be too much trouble. He said it would be fine.

It turns out that it wasn't much trouble at first. By this time I had a pretty solid technique to memorize words, verb forms, noun forms, and the like. But as time went on, I had more and more trouble. I was in my third year of Japanese, so things were beginning to become fairly complicated and daunting, and with Korean in there as well, I was having to work in three different writing systems, memorize three different words for everything, and avoid trying to jumble it all up on tests. I clearly had taken on too much, and it was unpleasant. Some people might say "That's obvious, studying three languages at once is dumb." My only response is that studying three languages at once like that is entirely possible although difficult, and I just didn't want to work that hard for something that I didn't need to do. It's not a lack of ability that did me in, but a lack of dedication. I wore down and eventually dropped the class.

Now, having lived in Japan, the Japanese paid off somewhat. You never realize how much of a language you can't use until you are dropped off in the country and have to make you way around. The Japanese I was able to use got me around, and the two years living there ramped up my fluency in ways that years of studying both before and after did not. I never did go to Korea, though, and I doubt that I ever will, although with Susie's job, you never know. I have forgotten basically everything I learned about Korean, too (Go, go, university requirements!). The same goes for Russian, which I studied less than any language I have ever studied. Forgotten!

I wish I had been able to do more, especially now that I am headed to a Russian speaking country. I'm re-familiarizing myself with the alphabet and getting some basic vocabulary going. I've ordered a couple of books from Amazon that should help, and Susie is finding what options the Foreign Service can offer. We're hoping to get a general grasp of some useful stuff before we go, and get some training in the language when we get to Kazakhstan. We'll be there for two years, and lots of other places use Russian. If Susie can pass a proficiency test with the right level, it makes her more likely to get those posts, and raises her pay when she gets them.

Learning Russian will be an enjoyable experience, I'm sure. Learning languages in general is one of the most exciting parts of the Foreign Service for me. I'm already having anxious dreams about getting out into Astana and having to interact with people and use what little language I have to get along. But it's not just that it will be an adventure, it will also give me a new skill. If I don't come back from Kazakhstan speaking Russian, I will have no one to blame but myself. And if I do come back speaking Russian, how awesome will that be? Where will we be going next, and what will I learn to speak there?

In the next post, I explain what our options for learning languages are, both good and bad.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Am I Doing?

Every morning, Susie gets up and heads off to her professional training where she learns all about her job, living overseas, maintaining security and whatever other double-secret information the State Department deems is necessary, whereas I have no professional responsibilities and no real schedule. Susie zips back and forth between the Foreign Services Institute, which is more or less a very well guarded college campus, and Main State, the official government headquarters of the State Department, sitting through seminars, preparing for her job in Kazakhstan, emailing important people and making lengthy lists of what we have to do in the next six weeks. And yesterday, I didn't leave the apartment.

I don't always stay inside the entire day, so that was meant more as an extreme contrast rather than an accurate summary of what my life has become since moving to Washington, but the fact remains that I do not have nearly as much to do as she does, and what things I do have don't carry nearly as much weight, difficulty, or stress as hers. This isn't likely to change much when we get out to Kazakhstan (or any other country that we will be going to in the future). I may be able to find work, especially with my background in language learning and education, but I may also not be able to. I'm perfectly fine with this, although I know that there are a lot of other spouse/family members who aren't, and other people out there in the world who even thinking about not having a job makes them crazy.

I've been told that there is some opportunity for American teachers in Kazakhstan, but being able to get and hold jobs is reliant upon being able to speak Russian, which, of course, I cannot do (yet). There might be a way to tutor English or do some odd work at the consulate, but those are both reliant upon being at the post and happening upon the jobs. It may end up that I don't have anything to do in terms of work, but worry not! Susie's salary is plenty for the both of us, and who knows what opportunities we might encounter.

Because of this unsure state of being, I've been thinking a lot about how to fill my time. This isn't the first time where I've had months to sit at home while Susie is off working. When I was at Indiana University and when I was teaching, Summer meant not working, filling my time with studying, practicing guitar/ukulele, working on long term projects like my Master's thesis, or goofing off online. I tried to make sure I had a reason every day to leave the apartment, especially as time went on, because it can become grating to sit around all day. Those experiences showed me that it is important to hold yourself to a schedule and try to be productive. That's not to say that I did or do hold myself to a schedule, nor is it to say that I try to be productive... just that I do feel like it is important to do so.

Unlike those previous periods of time where I wasn't working, though, this one is different. The biggest difference for me is that those were temporary, and this one could last a while. Again, I'm not upset by this eventuality, and neither is Susie. But we do both feel like it's important that I find things to do on a regular basis. One of my plans is to blog our experiences, which will be happening here. Hopefully it becomes more interesting. I've also begun working on a novel, something small and punchy, the kind of thing I would want to read. I'm going to go into full on language learning mode with Russian (the business language of Kazakhstan), because there is no better way to learn a language than be immersed. And every time I see someone doing something on television or in a movie (cook, ride a horse, run, play music, etc) I think, "Maybe I could learn to do that."

What would you do, if you had all day to work on it, and no pressure to do anything else?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Loads of Made Up Numbers

When you join the Foreign Service, there are somewhere in the range of a half to three-quarters of a million questions that people want to ask you. The most common question from anyone (friends, family, and even other new hires) is, in my experience, "Do you know where you are going?" and immediately following the negative answer, "Well... where do you want to go?" On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable question. Anyone with even the smallest knowledge of the Foreign Service knows it involves being placed in embassies and consulates around the globe, and it is clear that people who apply to the Foreign Service are excited about living abroad, so without much other information, the impulse is to ask "Where?" However, it is not a particularly good question, and I say that knowing how many of you asked Susie and me that very question when we initially talked about her acceptance into the service. I don't mean a personal insult by saying it's a bad question, but there are only so many times you can be asked the same simple question with a complicated answer before you have to take off  your shoes and your socks and then walk around barefoot and make fists with your toes.

It's not a very good question, because the only real answer is "anywhere," and that much should be obvious. The State Department picks, and that's where you go. There are hundreds of places you might end up as a Foreign Service employee*, so it doesn't even make sense to guess, let alone speculate on which might be your most or least favorites. Going into the process of bidding for posts with a single place that you want to go, a single place that you are excited about, or even one place that you just don't want to end up, will almost always be a frustrating exercise. You have to manage your expectations. They have told us countless times, you have to manage your expectations. You might think a place will be great, but you should keep the drawbacks in mind. You might think a place will be terrible, but you should keep the perks in mind. Every impulse and thought about your potential post has to be tempered toward an unemotional, sludgy middle ground, because it will not serve you well to be excited or disgusted with a place before you know where they put you.

Even if you do keep a mental and emotional balance about the posts that could become available, only a tiny fraction will be available when it becomes your turn to bid. Let's say there are 400 worldwide posts, with embassy and consulate jobs ranging from nurse practitioner to diplomat, from air-conditioner repairman to ambassador. If your specialist class has 2 people, then two posts are open, less than 99.5% of the possibilities stripped away. Susie's OMS class had 20 people, which gives plenty of choice, but the chance of any given place that we want being on our list of 20 open positions was only slightly better than putting all of your money on a single number in roulette. That is to say, if you could guess two of the countries on our list, you should probably make a large withdrawal from your savings account and head to Las Vegas.

Even further narrowing down the playing field are the restrictions and needs of individual posts. Some require that you speak and read a language with moderate proficiency. Some are unaccompanied, so people with families are rarely sent. Some posts have good access to schools, so families are more likely to be sent. There is an array of attributes that each location and job carry with them, and it changes the nature of the list for each person that will be bidding. I would say our list probably shrank from 20 posts to about 15 or 16 that were feasible. A post that required French, for example, was right out. Neither of us has the first clue about French, and other people in the class do. And there are a large variety of family situations that the Foreign Service does take into account when placing people in posts, which meant that we were pretty sure some other places weren't ours to be had, despite being on the list in front of us.

All of that is to say, we had literally no guess as to where we might be sent or where we wanted to go until two weeks ago. And this week, we know where we are going. They move quickly on this process, thankfully, because the tension is rough. As I said, from the very first moment you get accepted into the foreign service, people will ask you "Do you know where you are going?" And there is never a point where you can loosen up until you make it all the way to Flag Day, months if not years after your initial acceptance. But even now, knowing where we are assigned, we haven't reduced our tension much. That's not really the point for us, though. Now that we know, we can at least make plans.

The bidding process itself was, in a way, hilarious. The specialists got their list in the middle of the day, so whatever they were supposed to be learning or focusing on for the rest of the day was ignored. Actually, whatever they were supposed to be learning or focusing on the rest of the week was ignored. This, as much as anything else about the foreign service so far, wrapped it's enticing tendrils around the whole OMS class. It's hard not to swing from manic to terrified about the list. Immediately upon seeing it, there were posts that seemed like they would be amazing paradises... and posts that seemed like they were straight out of your nightmares, except REAL. OoOoOH! What really struck me though, besides the obsessive and endless guessing about how the posts would be matched with the people, was how everyone seemed to think different posts were the paradises/nightmares. Be it location, pay differential, safety, travel options, dengue fever, or having to bleach the "human fertilizer" off your vegetables, everyone had different desires that made each place seem good or bad.

During the week and a half or so that we had the list, our responsibility was to find out as much as possible about the posts on the bid list so that we could make informed decisions about how we ranked them. With 20 places, we were supposed to rank seven "high," seven "medium," and six "low." But, again, we were told to really think about the possibilities, find out everything we could, and keep our emotions tempered about the whole list. The posts would not be assigned randomly, but we could still theoretically end up at any of them. The state department offers plenty of resources to find the good and bad about each post to help in your decision, and the endless chatter between classmates adds an extra layer of consideration to the process. There was even a day where we could go in and talk directly to the people who were going to make the decision about where we would be placed to tell them what we were looking for and what our concerns were. Eventually, though, we had to submit our rankings with a short sentence or two about why we ranked the places what we did... and then more tense waiting while the assignments were put together.

Susie and I were pretty much on the same page for most of the posts. We wanted to go somewhere that we had access to stable internet, a place where I could possibly work, where we could save money, and where we could experience the location without too much restriction. On the other hand, we did not want to go somewhere that we would need to take malaria pills (or some face some other analogous medical danger), be too far out of the way to travel easily, or be highly restricted in what we could do... there was at least one post on our list where you can go to the consulate or your hotel compound by armored car, and that's it. The danger there would be bad enough, but being stuck in an apartment whenever you weren't at work would be extra rough.

Flag Day is what they call the little, semi-informal presentation where everyone is publicly given their assignments. They call it that because everyone is given a tiny flag from the country of their post as a cutesy way to signify true passage into the foreign service. The specialists and their invited guests (mostly family) gathered in a room that was reminiscent of the stadium-style classrooms at my university, complete with tiny desktops that rotated up and folded down over your lap. At the front of the room was a massive screen with "Welcome to Flag Day" projected onto it, later to be replaced by a blown-up replica of the token flag each of the specialists would be given. After a couple of speeches that mostly consisted of wry observations about how everyone in the room was waiting for the speeches to be over so that we could find out where everyone had been assigned, the started calling out the post name and then the name of the person who was going to work there. Each person walked up, took their flag and a folder with info about the position, got their picture taken and then sat down. Some people got exactly the place that they wanted... at least one person got exactly the place that she had wanted since even before the bid list was given to her, probably before she had been hired on. However, some people did not get any of their top seven. Some didn't even get any of their middle seven. We all basically knew everyone else's lists by heart, so that was tough. Susie used the word "Devastating." It was especially difficult because you feel like you are part of the reason; we pleaded so hard not to go there that we don't have to... but someone still does.

There was a little reception at a nearby restaurant with some appetizers so that family and friends could now hound their Foreign Service pal about the post, hassle them about whether it was a place they wanted and tell them how scary it must be. Susie and I got their too late for the appetizers, but not too late to talk to some of her more "devastated" friends about their posts. It turns out, after the initial shock of not getting a place you want, it's not so bad. Now you know where you are going, you can find the good in it, talk to other people who are there or who have been there. Now you have purpose and direction! Everyone will eventually have to go somewhere that will not be their favorite place, but neither Susie nor I have talked to anyone who didn't love wherever they were posted once they had settled into it.

And now that you've read all of that, I'll talk a little about where we were assigned (in case you are one of the people who doesn't know by this point, or you didn't skip ahead just to see). Several of the places on the list were in the Russia/Former Soviet Bloc, and most of those looked like really nice places. We put Astana, Kazakhstan as our second choice and that is where we were assigned. We never would have thought it would be a place we would want to go, but every time we did more research, it looked better and better. You should go find some information about it, because it seems like a very modern, up-and-coming city and country. We are excited about it, and now that one pressure is off in the form waiting to figure out where we are going, a different kind of pressure is on as we get our visas, prep for the trip, purchase pallets of consumables, and get in touch with our post to find out whatever we can. We leave in mid-September. It's going to be a very busy six weeks.