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12 Things for 2012

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Some end-of-year thoughts on Foreign Service life for those looking to join, those already in, and those retired.

1.  Living abroad is no picnic.  Occasionally I hear griping about how it’s not fair that FS employees can retire with full pension benefits after 20 years of service compared to 30 years in the Civil Service.  It’s 100% justified.  Living overseas causes numerous hardships even in the best of posts.  Cultural exposure, raising a family, moving with pets and kids every few years, it’s all simply exhausting.  It’s also exhilarating for those who embrace the always-on, constantly demanding, and rarely forgiving pace.

2.  Western business practices are an exception, not the rule.  In the US you’re used to paying a set price for an agreed-upon service.  Guess what?  Elsewhere in the world things are more… flexible.  Why yes, I’d love to tip the guard holding the AK-47 who lets us into the museum or site of interest.  No, I don’t mind paying a “guide” to take us back to our car after leading us through an hours’ worth of jungle on an elephant.  Sure I’ll pay double for a taxi ride after the meter “broke way bad” (in the words of one enterprising taxi driver).  Especially in the poorer parts of the world, people will milk you for every dinar, lek, takha, rial, baht, or peso they can.

3.  There are really only two Generalists in every embassy that a Specialist (and Generalist) should fear: The Ambassador and The Deputy Chief of Mission.  Do not assume they know who you are, do not assume that your position as staff assistant entitles you to special privileges, and do not ever mistake one for the other.  The consequences of each of these can range from comical to frightening.

4.  There is really only one Specialist in every embassy that a Generalist (and a Specialist) should fear: The Ambassador’s OMS.  Tread lightly.

5.  No matter how hard you think you are working, your Marine Security Guard detachment is working much harder.  Give them the respect and kindness they deserve.  Address them as “sir” or “ma’am” (until you learn their names, of course), invite them to your happy hours (even if it’s just for snacks), and go out of your way to ensure that they are invited to your social functions.

6.  There’s no such thing as a “typical” embassy.  Each has its own character and characters.  Searching for a “relaxing” tour is folly.

7.  Locally Employed Staff run the embassy.

8.  You cannot do everything.  As such, do not alienate your entire local staff by lecturing a 30-year LES on your first overseas tour as I once witnessed.  Some things are unforgivable, and since your EER often depends on how well your local staff members can make you look, you’d better treat them right.

9.  Foreign Service families bear disproportionate hardships when abroad.  Do your significant other a favor and go to the social events she/he wants to go to without complaining; they are making significant sacrifices for you, the least you can do is go to a party once in a while.  Same with children – don’t miss their school plays, no matter how bizarre their role is (for example: first toucan).

10.  The answer to the question “Why is this so different than in America?” is almost always “Because it’s not America.”  It’s obvious, you say – but you’ll hear it every day.  Every. Single. Day.

11.  Your time at post is short.  Make the most of it, no matter how isolated the city, no matter how poor the local  economy is, no matter how much you hate your neighbor with the screeching cat.

12.  Always, always be thankful.  You are the commissioned representative of the best country on Earth.  You have a roof over your head, pay that probably puts you in the 99% of the world’s average income, and a support network that spares very few expenses to keep you happy.  What most of the world would give to be in your situation.

To all Foreign Service employees, Families, Marines, Seabees, Civil Servants, LES, local guards, and contractors in the DOS family, Happy New Year!  Here’s to a great 2012.

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One Response

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  1. Having spent years working as USAID contractors, my husband and I appreciate this post! ALL true, LOL!

    Cynthia Bertelsen

    31/12/2011 at 03:01


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