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.


1 comment:

  1. Chris and Susie, I truly look forward to following your experiences and appreciate the time you took to write all this. Please continue so that those of us who are "homebound" can travel and live vicariously! Good luck with the pending move.

    Brenda Poss