I’m a Seoul Man

Got my assignment yesterday, a Consular-Political rotation in Seoul starting June 2014. I’ll get a full course of Korean in DC that is perfectly timed for Miku to get a full year of school in the U.S. This wasn’t even close to my top choices (it was #15 on my list) and I’d really wanted to do a full Political tour instead of a rotation, but I’m not complaining in the least. I know the guy who got the job I really wanted, a Political/Military post in Singapore and I’m very happy for them. I’m stoked to learn Korean and this is going to set me up well for future career work in EAP. Maybe I’ll be able to get Chinese somewhere along the way and really lock things up.

This is still a long way out. I’ve got a year left in Abuja and then 9+ months of training before Korea. The next 4 years are set though. Odd to think that Miku will be 13 when we leave Seoul in 2016.

Also, Happy Birthday, America. Hope we can all take a moment to reflect on what has made our nation and country great. We need to consider how we are failing to live up to that legacy too.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Today was our last band practice before my first gig. They’ve played together for quite a while but its been a race against time to get me up to speed. We could use another couple weeks of practice but I think we’ve got it close enough for people to have fun tomorrow night. We shall see….

I turned in my bidlist today. 30 positions involving a combination of jobs I really want and places the girls really want to go to. I will be happy with anything on the list but there’s definitely a few that I’d much rather have. Just need to temper expectations for a while. I hope I get a response sooner than later…..

I may have ruined my last batch of beer. I’m starting with too much water and last time, the fermenter was too full, leading to a slight explosion when the built up CO2 escaped. In the process of cleaning it up, I exposed it to the air and even lost a small rubber gasket into the wort. I also don’t know the effect of dumping out part of it. If airlock activity is anything to go by, fermentation significantly dropped off. Then again, it usually only vigorously active for a couple days anyway. I’m hoping it turns out okay but I can’t be surprised if not.

’twas the best, worst of times

Woke up quite excited today knowing that I was going to get the list of available positions for my second tour. This enthusiasm was dampened upon arriving at work to discover that the online system for publishing the list was offline for maintenance. Yes, this was the middle of the night in DC so it kind of made sense. I t eventually came back online but to my chagrin, the list was empty. We eventually figured out that this by design and the powers that be don’t release the list until later in the day.

I had plenty of work to do so I plugged away a cleaning out my inbox until about 5:00 pm. I was shutting down and getting ready to leave when I got email announcing the list! Nearly 500 available posts, so much to consider. I’m quite fortunate in that I’ve served my required consular tour and am off language probation, plus I’m serving in a hardship post. Basically this means I’ve got about as much freedom to choose among the available positions as is possible.

The only limitation or restriction is that I (as everyone else) can only bid on positions with the proper timing. We have to factor in our home leave and any language or professional training required for the position with our set departure and expected arrival dates. If they match up, we can put it on our final bid list; if not, we can’t

So it is quite ironic when I realized that the many Japan posts are designed for non-Japanese speakers and have arrivals dates between 10 and 13 months after I’m set to depart Abuja. Because I tested out of Japanese and already have the required language skill level, I don’t need (or get) training, which messes up the timing and moves the Japanese options outside the realm of the possible for me. It boils down to this: beause I speak Japanese at the level required today, I can’t bid on the position. We aren’t allowed to take additional training to fill the space.

I understand why they have the policies they do and wold probably institute similar policies myself if I was in charge. It still is frustrating though, but it is what it is, eh? There are plenty of other fascinating posts on the list. I’m sure we’ll get something that makes us happy

In other news, I has my first homebrew today. It wasnt very good, to be honest, but it’s only been in the bottle for 2 weeks and needs at lest another week to properly settle in. It started with a good head that disappeared quickly.

 

Lagos baptism

I am grateful for many aspects of the job in Nigeria, the least of which is not the quality of management, especially from an ELO perspective. From the top down, there is consistent concern and support for first tour officers (I don’t think we have any second tour). The nature of the post means that we end up getting more opportunities and responsibility than others at larger or better staffed posts might get but there is also a clear and conscious effort to ensure that we are getting as many experiences as possible. It does put pressure on the interview scheduling but I appreciate that we get called off the line occasionally to work as a site officer or do some public outreach.

Right now I’m in Lagos as a beneficiary of an entry leve officer exchange between the embassy and consulate. For me it’s a chance to see how a larger consular section works and for the Lagos folks it’s a chance to see an embassy. I know a few people down here and it’s refreshing to see them and of course I’m happy to finally get to see Lagos.

Undoubtedly it’s a developing megalopolis with “have to see to believe” traffic and roads. But since I’ve been here, I’ve seen an amazing side of the city. I didn’t bring my camera adapter for the iPad and will have to wait till I get home to post pictures, unfortunately. On Saturday an Eminent friend and colleague took me out to this particular beach that is strewn with abandoned ships. We were there at low tide and could walk along the firm clean sand below the tide line instead of among the literally tons of trash at the high tide line. There were massive ships beach and buried that were very impressive to see. Salvagers were dismantling a huge tanker with nothing more than acetylene torches and pickup trucks.

There was also an old lighthouse obviously built by the British. It was only 4 or 5 stories tall but gave a tremendous view of the beach, the huge crowd of ships waiting to load or unload their
petroleum, and the squatters village just off the beach. We walked through the village and saw authentic village life (no electricity, garbage and goats everywhere, corrugated metal shacks, little shops and stores and other enterprises all over). It was pretty neat and got the anthropologist in me all excited again.

Yesterday we went out to a nature preserve and walked through forest, savannah, and wetland (albeit dried out at this point in the dry season). There was a troop of monkeys that was pretty neat to see. I climbed up into a canopy top blind that really made me uncomfortable. It was solidly built (by Chevron, I think) but there we too many people in too small a structure too high off the ground for me to relax. Good experience though.

We ended the day by retiring to a local bar with margaritas, pizza, and jalapeño poppers. We watched a Nollywood video that was pretty good in spite of the low production quality of the sound. I’d been staying at the Eminent Friend’s place over the weekend but checked into my hotel and had my first day of work in Lagos today. It went pretty well but I miss my coffee press.

The only constant…

Every new hire in the Foreign Service has to serve at least 1 year of their first two tours in a consular position, typically doing visas. Usually one of the first two (sometime both) 2-year tours is a consular assignment. Beyond the stereotypical (non-immigrant) visa (NIV) work, there is also work to be done in Immigrant Visas (think green card lottery winners, fiances, family members of US citizens) and American Citizen Services (ACS). ACS covers a range of services from passport renewal to registration of births/deaths abroad and emergency services for citizens who’ve gotten themselves in trouble. The Embassy doesn’t advocate on behalf of people who get themselves arrested but does ensure that they’re treated well and have access to legal counsel and family and friends back home.

Some tours are rotational, meaning that officers serve one year in a consular section and another in a different section, perhaps in a reporting role in the Econ or Political section or maybe even as a staff aide to the Ambassador. I was assigned a two year consular tour here in Abuja. When I arrived, we mapped out my two years with a rough expectation that I’d spend my first year focusing on visas (we don’t do Immigrant Visas here) and then working the ACS portfolio for the last half of my tour. Historically, ACS officers in Abuja also do NIV interviews but then focus on the ACS side the rest of the time. I was looking forward to learning a new skill set and getting the experiences of helping people out in times of trouble.

But then a few weeks ago, I got a call from the Econ section offering me a chance to change my two year consular tour into a Consular/Econ rotational tour. I’m “technically” a Political officer but Political and Economics officers do essentially the same thing, just from a different angle. Both are reporting positions where officers spend their time keeping abreast of the political or economic situation, delivering démarches on issues important to the US administration and policy, and writing cables back to Washington reporting on the prevailing winds. I was pretty stoked at this opportunity to work a reporting assignment and accepted, so now I’ll only be doing visa work until July. I’ll take an R&R this summer so probably won’t physically be present in the new section until late August or September though.

I consider myself pretty lucky. I’ve seen what change can bring in the Foreign Service and it isn’t always an improvement. It’s essential to stay flexible and take advantage of the good opportunities that happen to be within your reach but remain prepared for something you depend on to vanish into thin air. This element of this career is one of the main reasons the State Department seeks a certain type of person for this work. It can be pretty demoralizing at times when the system decides that it isn’t going work like you’d expect it to. The whole “make lemonade when life gives you lemons” approach goes a long way here.

House proposes cutting diplomatic pay

Federal employees living in DC are awarded a 24% “locality pay” increase to offset the costs of living there. This is a pretty significant chunk of change that foreign service officers give up when the serve overseas. Even with the hardship bonuses associated with living in the developing world, diplomats overseas were still making less than their colleagues working in D.C., a huge disincentive for overseas work. The Obama administration implemented a plan to rectify this by way of “Overseas Comparability Pay”. In 2010, an 8% adjustment was introduced, followed by another 8% in 2011, with a third and final 8% set to be introduced in 2012, bring the total of the OCP to 24%, the same as it is when posted in D.C. This is not a salary increase or a pay raise, as the base salaries are not affected (in fact are currently frozen, just as everyone else’s). It offsets the pay cut that diplomats take when they move overseas.

Thomas Reed of New York introduced a bill that passed the House that will cut OCP and as a result, cut diplomatic salaries. This is portrayed as eliminating pay raises for the foreign service. If it passes the Senate, all Foreign Service officers will see an immediate 16% cut to their salaries, unless they get posted to DC where they will still receive the 24% locality pay increase. If this goes through, diplomats working in Libya, for example, are going to be making less than they would if they’d gotten posted in D.C.

This legislation is proposed to save $140,000,000.00 this year and $427,000,000.00 through 2013.

The cancellation of OCP was also proposed by the President’s debt reduction committee, so it isn’t as if this is some Republican agenda being unsheathed here. The Foreign Service is still highly competitive and the OCP increases aren’t seen to be necessary in order to help with recruitment. The problem is that OCP isn’t designed to help with recruitment, its designed to eliminate incentives to work in DC as much as possible. OCP and locality pay factor into pensions as well whereas hardship pay doesn’t, further exacerbating this incentive to serve stateside as much as possible.

I’m not bothered by the elimination of the OCP as much as I am by the rationale of it. Reed has characterized this as if State Department employees are getting raises while the rest of the country is getting pay cuts. All federal employees wages are frozen, include the Foreign Service. Foreign Service officers work either in DC or overseas, but if they work in DC they get a 24% locality pay “bonus”, just like every single other federal employee in DC. The Overseas Compatibility Pay scheme makes sense to me in that it equalizes the income of Foreign Service officers and removes incentives/disincentives regarding posting in this regard. Pretty reasonable to me.

If this was a straight up salary increase, I’d have no problems with its elimination. Foreign Service officers are unique in that they work both overseas and in DC at various points in the careers. OCP isn’t a pay raise for them but this legislation is a pay cut. Not sure it’s the best way to deal with the budget issues, especially considering the value the US diplomatic corp provides. As the changes in Africa, Europe, and Asia that we’ve seen over the last few weeks and months continue to reverberate, any reduction in our diplomatic capacity is a bad thing.