Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
It has been almost five months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so I thought I’d share some recent Q&A from the blog’s inbox, edited for length and clarity. In this edition, I’ll address how embassies decide which officers get language training (and how much), length of service vs. number of tours, whether officers serving on the U.S.-Mexico border can live on the U.S. side, and what consular officers do as they advance in their careers.
And as always, please remember these are my unofficial answers derived from my own experiences. Your mileage may vary.
Typically when a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) arrives at a new post, they spend much of their first two weeks “checking in.” Check-ins consist of a variety of consultations with people in your section, the leadership of other sections, security and HR briefings, and one-on-one meetings with any people you supervise. There are also the practical matters of getting your badge, receiving your unaccompanied air freight (if you’re lucky), navigating between your house and the consulate or embassy, and generally orienting yourself and finding your way around your new environment. But my first two weeks were spent mostly quarantined at home, in line with Post’s 14-day stay-at-home policy for all new arrivals.
So how does checking in work in the time of COVID-19?
It has been about a year and a half since my last YQA post, so I decided to share a selection of repeat questions the blog has received since then for wider distribution, along with my answers. I have edited both questions and answers for clarity and privacy wherever necessary. In this edition, I tackle questions about candidate experience and qualifications, travel, dual-citizenship, and mail.
These are unofficial opinions and my personal advice, which are worth roughly what you pay for them. (Wink!) These posts remain popular through the years, so I will try to do them more often if the questions keep rolling in.
Go ahead, ask a diplomat! You can email the blog a question at email@example.com.
After waiting on the register for almost a year and five months, it was on this day in 2014 that I received “the call” to join the U.S. Foreign Service. In other words, I was invited to become a diplomat. It was my favorite Cinco de Mayo ever, and one of the most exciting days of my life. Accepting the offer marked the end of my three-year quest for the professional opportunity of a lifetime – my chance to be a part of the 178th Generalist A-100 Class at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington – and the beginning of a whole new career and lifestyle. Finally, my candidacy had been successful and I was in! The last six years haven’t been perfect, but given the chance, I’d do it all again.
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
Last week, I worked from our consulate in Sydney for two days and attended an American Citizen Services (ACS) training for consular officers posted to Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne. Ninety percent of the time, I work in the embassy in Canberra as a political officer, but every once in a while, my particular portfolio allows me to do some consular work too. This is especially important to me because I’m consular-coned, and I’m also the only consular officer in the embassy. From sharpening my skills on working death and arrest cases, to making citizenship determinations, to bonding with my consular colleagues and friends, my whirlwind 48 hour trip to Sydney after an interesting and busy week of political meetings and writing in Canberra was a morale boost and a chance to pivot my focus. How much do you know about ACS?
A few weeks ago, I went on a work-related trip to Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. Nearly thirteen years had elapsed since my prior visit, but it was evident that Melbourne still has a spirit all its own – it is definitely not Sydney, or Brisbane, or Adelaide, or Perth. Melbourne is one of Australia’s most diverse cities; often called Australia’s “cultural capital,” one-third of Melbourne’s 4.9 million residents were born overseas. Visiting the melting pot that is Melbourne to attend the Strong Cities Network conference on preventing violent extremism, amidst this year’s confluence of global politics, the threat of terrorism, and the halfway point of my tour as a political officer in Canberra, made me reflect on the immigrant experience in Australia and Melbourne’s successes in social cohesion.
On a hot, dry night in May 2015, I landed in Tashkent to begin my first diplomatic tour. My iPhone was shuffling through songs and settled on “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News just before the wheels hit the tarmac. My heart was excited and hopeful, and my mind was jumbled full of Russian and consular don’t-forgets. Over 105 weeks later, hours from flying away for good, I’m grateful for the best parts of being here, and even the tough parts. Five figure visa interviews. Eleven new countries…and one old. Road trips. Illnesses and injuries. New friends and colleagues. Probably way too many plates of plov cooked in sheep fat. And an inestimable amount of gratitude and hope for what comes next.
Next month will make two years that I’ve lived in Uzbekistan. In the course of my work here on immigrant and “green card lottery” cases, I’ve looked at literally hundreds of Uzbek wedding photos, submitted to bolster the bona fides of a relationship. I’ve seen the dresses, the festive and colorful tables, and the giant plates of plov. But literally every Uzbek I know is already married. In fact, my Uzbek colleagues who are the same age as I am have children who are now preparing for university. That is probably why I’ve never actually received an invitation to an Uzbek wedding. But a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues A., walked into my office and asked me what I was doing on April 14.
I admit it: 2016 was not my favorite year. It was professionally and personally challenging. It felt like I was battling one problem after another in a difficult environment, in disintegrating health, and with my main support network of family and friends a dozen time zones away. In 2016 many things were lacking in my life: good health, human respect in civil discourse, and tacos. I noticed these deficiencies, got pissed off and disappointed and sad over them, and tried to move on. However, 2016 was awesome for my passport, the blog, and my ability to adapt and learn new skills.
As the month comes to a close, I can say that it has probably been the most bewildering and discouraging month I’ve had here yet. Between increasing work demands, family concerns, and illness, I am being tested, over and over again to the point where it almost seems comical, all while having less reserves than usual.
At the end of April, I unexpectedly spent just under a week in New England. The work-related trip was on my radar for a couple of months, and as it relates to streamlining immigrant visa case processing I knew it was a priority for the Department. In spite of this, for a variety of reasons it looked like it was going to be cancelled or at least postponed up until nearly a week out.
After the last time I posted from poolside in Penang, Malaysia, my husband and I eventually continued on to Kuala Lumpur where we spent a few days sightseeing and shopping. We found nice malls and Mexican food; visited the Petronas Towers, aquarium, and bird park; and learned how to ride the monorail. We saw an…
A colleague and friend of mine who works as a management officer in the embassy recently posted on Facebook about how many different kinds of jobs she performs under the umbrella of “diplomat.” Some of the positions she mentioned were curator, travel agent, pet shipper, motivational speaker, lawyer, property manager, financial manager, party planner, and operations research analyst. As I read the post, I thought, “That’s so true!”