Ten years ago today I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA). The achievement was the last performance-based phase of my candidacy, and paved the way for me to enter our diplomatic corps two years later, once I passed medical and security clearances and once the Department’s hiring was robust enough.
While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.
And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.
Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.
This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.
Monday, November 1 was Handshake Day for the Summer 2022 bid cycle. My handshake email came early in the morning and was not a total surprise to me. The Bureau of Consular Affairs had sent me an email on October 25 to tell me I was the Bureau Leading Candidate, or BLC, for the position and inquire whether it was still a valid bid for me. It was. I was very interested in the work and had interviewed for the position twice, including once from my family vacation at the Iberostar (on my birthday, unbeknownst to the interviewer!). None of my political coned bids had ultimately gone to the final stage, so I wasn’t expecting further BLCs. CA wasn’t going to offer me more than one choice, so it had come down to this. V and I discussed all of the implications and decided, as we had when we’d decided to bid jobs in that area, that we could make it work.
Serving at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez as a Foreign Service posting has had the unique benefit of proximity to the United States: El Paso, Texas is less than five miles away. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in many regards feel like one city. If you read about the history of this area and in particular the resolution of the Chamizal dispute in the 1960s over 600 acres of disputed border territory, you will start to see how the geographical, historical, social, and economic ties in the second-largest U.S. border community (behind San Diego and Tijuana) have been tightly interwoven over hundreds of years. And despite the border closure to non-essential travel between March 21, 2020 and November 8, 2021, those ties remain strong.
However, proximity doesn’t always equal easy or convenient access, even for the most privileged of us. FSOs could be forgiven for being lulled into complacency routinely traveling back and forth between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso when it feels like a run across town, only to be slapped with the reality of it actually technically being diplomatic travel to and from your country of assignment across an international border. This is highlighted only when something goes wrong and you realize, this would have been a lot easier were I only driving across town. Here are 10 examples (plus one bonus) of times going across town was more than I bargained for during the last year and a half.
The last several weeks have been among the most difficult in my Foreign Service career. From my perspective, life has been worse overall these past two months than during the prior 14 months of the pandemic put together. This might be hard to understand and even a little hard to believe, given how many people – at least in the U.S. – seemingly feel their lives are finally returning to some sense of normalcy. But it isn’t hyperbole. As an immunocompromised person who has been living with autoimmune disease since my late 20s, and who is currently slipping into the public policy and social chasm between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, I truly feel left behind and isolated during this stage of the pandemic. Although I continue to be employed, meet my weight loss goals, and heal from back surgery, the rest of my life has become a slow rolling nightmare I never anticipated. I’m surrounded by a society that feels ignorant and selfish at best and eugenicist at worst, and rocketing towards a future where COVID-19 is endemic and those of us with compromised immune function face never getting our normal lives back, as everyone unapologetically eats cake right in front of us that we once talked about eating together.
The United States is opening back up after almost 16 months of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Google, as of today about 152 million (or 46%) of U.S. residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. I have seen other figures that say half the country is vaccinated, and a quarter does not intend to get the vaccine. But for nearly 10 million vaccinated American adults like me with immunocompromised or immunosuppressed conditions, early data is showing vaccine efficacy may provide low or even nonexistent protection against the deadly virus. Medical experts warn immunocompromised people should get vaccinated, but continue maintaining the same masking and social distancing protocols we have the past year. In other words, get vaccinated, but behave as if unvaccinated. For how long, no one can say yet.
For the immunocompromised population, the so-called end of the pandemic feels like a party we have not been invited to but cannot leave. As people unmask around us and celebrate their safety and return to normalcy, public policy – and apparently most everyone we know – has decided the rights of the chronically ill to also be safe and protected from the virus should be sublimated by the convenience and comfort of the healthy, able-bodied majority. Amidst soaring hopes that society will soon be totally back to normal and unreasonable expectations about what activities are safe and medically appropriate for the immunocompromised to participate in, is it any wonder immunocompromised people could use more allies right now?
My last post was a round-up of reader questions to the blog inbox, but in the last several weeks since I’ve written a ‘real’ update, so much has happened. The world’s eagerness to get back to life as we knew it pre-pandemic is progressing quickly. Although only about 41% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated as of May 29, I’m seeing an awful lot of the lower halves of people’s faces.
It has been six months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so in this post, I will share some questions recently asked and answered by the blog’s email box – as always, anonymously and without attribution. In this edition, we discuss the rewards of consular work, being single in the Foreign Service, what I know now that I wish I knew when I’d joined the Foreign Service, financial matters like savings and what expenses Foreign Service Officers should plan to budget for overseas, and the typical Foreign Service “car.” Enjoy!
For the last several weeks, I have been filled with ideas for blog posts, but have been working so many hours that I have deferred them to a future, calmer time. In preparation for a long-awaited spinal fusion surgery this coming week, I have been trying hard to clear the decks at work and at home. I don’t know if I have been succeeding, but one thing has become increasingly clear: I would not have been able to put the recent amount of hours on the clock I have without crashing and burning, were it not for the protective bubble of pandemic-related health and safety protocols around me. For the first time in my adult life, I have now passed 13 consecutive months with zero viral illnesses.
As longtime readers of this blog know, since I launched in April 2014 I have never missed a month. Sure, there were a couple of times where I posted on the last day of the month, but I have never gone a month without posting something. And I was not going to start 2021 by messing that up! I don’t know why it matters to me; it is not as if missing a month means I can never come back. People who know me would not be surprised by me adhering to this all-or-nothing mentality though. I guess it’s just the way I am. Lest you think I need rules to govern me entirely, I actually do still very much enjoy writing for this blog; it’s just that the last two months have passed in a blur of work and one crisis after another that have left me simultaneously exhilarated and wiped out, which are stories for another day. So here I am at the eleventh hour with a short recap of 2020 and blog stats for the year.
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.
Today I mark 15 years of federal service.
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.