This blog post is dedicated to the people who sent me questions about my life here in Uzbekistan via Facebook, LinkedIn, and email. If you have a question you would like me to answer in an upcoming post, please contact me through one of those mediums or comment this post to let me know! I will tag these posts “Your Questions” in the future.
Question: What do you do every day?
Answer: In the morning, I wake up, make myself some coffee and oatmeal with banana, and start getting ready for work while listening to news podcasts – NPR, CBS, NBC, BBC, and more. I water my grass, feed my tortoise, and then I walk about a mile to the embassy. I am usually there by 08:00 or shortly thereafter.
If it’s a Monday, Wednesday or a Friday, we do non-immigrant visas. This means from about 08:30 until sometimes even 14:00 we conduct brief interviews for applicants seeking to visit the United States for work, tourism, or study. We listen to their stories, review the information we have available to us, and we decide whether we will issue or refuse. If it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday, we do immigrant petition-based visas and the Diversity Visa Program (commonly known as the “green card lottery”).
In the afternoons I eat lunch, do a wide variety of desk work, and sometimes help with an American Citizen Services case (like a notarial request, or a passport renewal). I also study Russian and navigate a complex series of computer systems and immigration law.
Usually by 19:00 or so I start to feel hungry and think about walking home; my car is here but awaiting diplomatic plates, so it’s parked in the embassy lot until I can drive it. It takes me 25 minutes or so to walk home, and I usually eat something, pay bills, catch up on correspondence, listen to more podcasts or read, and then go to bed, so I can get up and do it all over again. I wear a fitness bracelet every day, so if I don’t have my 10,000 steps by the time I’m home, I hit the basement and get my workout on with the fitness club-quality treadmill I had delivered a few weeks ago.
On the weekends, I chill out pretty hard. I read a lot, watch episodes of Dateline on the NBC app (I’m obsessed), go for incredibly long walks in the desert sun, clean my house, hang out with my friends and neighbors, lay in my yard and watch my tortoise trundle around, correspond with friends and family, try new restaurants, and run various errands and sight-seeing missions around Tashkent. I am waiting for my husband to arrive at post soon, by which time I will have the use of my car, so we can visit some of Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
Question: How did your language training prepare you for living in Uzbekistan?
Answer: When I got my diplomatic assignment to U.S. Embassy Tashkent, I knew it was a post where both Uzbek and Russian were spoken. My particular assignment was to learn Russian, so between September 2014 and March 2015 I studied Russian in a class with two other students at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Virginia. Yes, I studied Russian for my full-time job. Russian is a very difficult language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet and a grammatical case system in which the endings of feminine, masculine, neuter and plural nouns and adjectives all change depending on the verbs they are with and their function within a sentence. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then rest assured that it still doesn’t totally make sense to me, either. But it’s no joke, and ending every word with “i” is not acceptable (as I soon learned).
My brave class spent months learning grammar and vocabulary to build a foundation in the language, and I passed a final speaking and reading panel assessment before I was cleared to come to post. Unfortunately, between the end of my Russian class and my arrival here, I spent several weeks in consular and other tradecraft training and didn’t focus so much on my Russian skills. I arrived here speaking a mangled mess of three different Slavic languages, much to my chagrin. The weekend before I had to get on the visa interview window for the first time, I spent days anxiously rehearsing questions about purpose of travel, and memorizing my “your visa is approved” and “your visa is refused” speeches. The first couple of weeks interviewing on the line were hair-raising, to be sure.
Because not everyone studying language at FSI is preparing for the same type of work (other officers do political, public affairs, management or economic work, for example), the majority of the job-specific language study needs to be done on one’s own. Luckily, most embassies have a PLP (Post Language Program) and at least three hours of language tutoring during business hours of each week are expected. Now I can ask questions about past travel, family ties, one’s profession and income, and dozens of other things, but I struggle to tell time, barter with prices, talk on the phone to make appointments, or call a taxi. It’s kind of sad that I am more versed in talking about U.S. immigration law than I am just asking people about their day. To be fair, I am often at work for ten to twelve hours a day (my choice) and when I come home, I don’t have the energy to speak/hear MORE Russian.
It is very fortunate that our consular section has such wonderful locally-employed staff (LES) for translation help, and about a million other things that they do to keep the place running. They are fantastic, and their English is top-notch. I am so proud of all of them. Every day I will have a case that exceeds my level of Russian, or, the person will only speak Uzbek. At that point, typing furiously at my workstation behind the glass, I call over my shoulder, “Translation please!” and a friendly face comes running to my side to help.
From refugee follow-to-join cases to returning permanent resident cases, from complex diversity visa lottery disqualifications to distressed American citizen calls, my Russian has a long way to go before I will be able to fly on my own. I will be grappling with all of that as I learn my incredibly complex and demanding job trial-by-fire, deal with the management of the non-immigrant visa section of which I’ve recently become chief, and fulfill other embassy responsibilities like occasional public outreach and duty officer work.
Bottom line: There’s only so much Russian you can learn from scratch during six months at FSI.
Question: How did your preparation for the Foreign Service differ from your preparation for Peace Corps Volunteer service?
Answer: I have been contemplating writing a whole series of posts about how the Foreign Service in general differs from Peace Corps, and also how the experiences dovetail on many levels. There are so many aspects I could discuss, but for now I will just talk about preparation.
One of the things that stands out the most are the entitlements. When I left for my Peace Corps service in November 2002, I left with a blue tourist passport, about a hundred bucks, two suitcases, a backpack and a tote bag. For two years. I knew the Peace Corps would have a medical officer, and that I would be living with a family for three months and then transitioning to a different living situation, but that’s about all I knew.
When I left for diplomatic service a few months ago, I left with a black diplomatic passport that prompted a business class upgrade from zee Germans at Lufthansa, plenty of money in multiple currencies, thousands of pounds of household effects separated and packed with great care (and not by me) to travel by air and sea, a steel fireproof safe, my Volkswagen SUV, a 2,500 pound consumables allowance with free shipping, and an entitlement to two R&R trips to Rome. Not to mention commissary shopping privileges at the embassy and full use of the diplomatic pouch. No more stolen mail living as a regular Joe-shmo in the Balkans! I also knew I was coming to a large fully furnished house, and that I would have diplomatic immunity, whatever the heck that means. Night and day differences, to put it mildly.
Some of those differences are due to my being better established now. When I was left for Peace Corps at the age of 24, I was single and a recent college grad who’d never been abroad. Now I’m married, have traveled in more than a dozen countries and have been working in DC for nearly a decade. Of course, some mid- and senior-level career professionals come into Peace Corps very well-established, and some of my A-100 colleagues were barely out of college, so please take all of this as something that pertains to me rather than as the rule. Your mileage may vary.
The organizing and shopping to come here while working full-time and having family responsibilities was nothing short of exhausting. I feel like maybe when I left for Peace Corps I had less of my life to “take apart”. I didn’t have to sell a home or break a lease, I didn’t have to worry about winding down a busy job, or managing a serious relationship. I didn’t have to forward mail, change my health insurance, organize my own PCS (permanent change of station), pass any assessments, introduce myself to VIPs prior to my arrival, or do much by way of legal or estate planning. All I did was pay off my credit card, have a going-away party, vacuum-pack as many clothes and toiletries as possible (and then watch my mom redo it, and do it better), and sell my Mustang to a high school kid who didn’t deserve it and who I wanted to slap.
Some of the commonalities between my Peace Corps service and my diplomatic service so far are also striking; both two year tours in Slavic-speaking countries, and everything that goes along with feeling that you are a stranger in a strange land. Wanting to communicate certain things, and being unable to. Wondering why people are burning plastic bags at night. Seeing food in the grocery store you can’t identify (why in the name of God does ice cream come in bags!?). Going for a haircut and being terrified your hair will be razor-feathered like it’s 1989 again and you have no clue about the vocabulary you need. Watching people over and over say things better than you can, getting smiles and bonds of friendship in return, while you stand there feeling inept and invalidated.
Uzbekistan is a hardship post, and although Macedonia technically was not relative to other places Peace Corps operates, there were certainly times that it felt so to me. But for what it’s worth, the preparation was worth it. And whatever I’ve forgotten, I can order online, pay shipping to Dulles, and get it safe and sound a couple of weeks later through the diplomatic pouch.
Bottom line: Both experiences contributed incredibly to my life. I doubt anything could change the trajectory of my life as much as Peace Corps did, but I can’t say that one or the other experience is “better”. Each has its upsides and downsides, pros and cons, benefits and drawbacks, and specific characteristics. These are things I hope to compare and contrast more in upcoming posts.
Question: What has been your biggest challenge?
Answer: My biggest challenge has probably been multi-part. I can’t really pick just one, because they do affect me equally and it’s all kind of tied together in my mind.
First and foremost, communication in Russian. It is harder than I thought, and to be honest I haven’t been putting in the time that I need to overcome my current plateau. I notice small improvements every week, and it encourages me to keep trying.
Secondly, the temporary separation from my husband as he attends to personal and professional matters stateside before he comes to begin his own embassy job here next month. We knew this was coming, and it is manageable. But not having your number one person to share daily life with after almost nine years together can be lame and depressing, and there’s no way around it. I know many couples in the Foreign Service who spend a year, a tour or even multiple tours apart to pursue a variety of goals. But in an ideal world, most families (and yes, two people are a family) would probably choose to be happy together in the same place, at the same time, working and sharing their lives, and we certainly fall into that category. In less than a month he will be here and everything will be back to normal, a new normal for us, filled with a world of exciting possibilities. We have both worked so hard to get where we are in our careers, and it is definitely time for both of us to leave the swampy eastern seaboard, where our professional lives have run their courses, for now. I am so grateful for the new opportunities that await our family in the Foreign Service.
And thirdly, although this will probably sound gross, I have been challenged on a weekly – if not daily, if not hourly – basis by the scourge of Tashkent Tummy. Make of that what you will. It’s a real thing here, and it will put you down.
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I hope this has been an interesting post for readers. Please feel free to ask more questions and I will answer them in an upcoming entry.