Update on Chinese, Tenure, and Life

So, a few weeks ago I finished Chinese training.  Since I’m going to an Entry-Level Officer position with a “super-hard” language, my requirements weren’t as high as they usually are in State.  I needed a “2/1″, meaning limited professional proficiency in speaking and conversational reading.  (Normally, a 3/3, or professional proficiency, is needed.)  Due in large part to my past experience and the wonderful teachers at the Foreign Service Institute, I actually got a 2+/2!  This means extra money!  I’m ecstatic on that front.

A week or two before testing, the “tenure list” came out.  This is a list of all the people the State Department officially recommends to Congress for tenure.  While theoretically Congress could ignore it or change it, it never happens.  So, I have tenure!  What does that mean?  A few things:

1) They like me, they really like me!

2) I’m eligible for a promotion to FSO-3.

3) I won’t get fired after my fifth year.  (This can and does happen, though not often.  You have three chances at tenure, and if you don’t get it, you have to leave.)

All of that is exciting enough, but now we’re also preparing for our move.  Lots of shopping, lots of everything really.  Tomorrow we have our going away party (we don’t leave for another two weeks, though–but in that time we’re planning a quick trip to WV to see my wife’s family.)  I’m both sad and excited–We’ve known we were going to Guangzhou for over 3 years now, and it’s finally happening!  But, at the same time, there are so many friends here in DC and around the country that I haven’t seen enough of (or just haven’t seen!  The Cleveland crew in particular is sadly missed.)  This is the biggest paradox with this life–I love moving and seeing new places, but I constantly miss those left behind.  C’est la vie.

So, that’s what’s up.  I’ll try to remember to post more once we’re safely in China!

Boston!

So, President’s Day Weekend, the Teacher and I went to Boston!  We have a friend who lives there, and it’s our last long weekend before China.  Of course, that’s the same weekend a blizzard blew in.  Que sera. 

We didn’t have a whole lot planned, anyway.  Trip to the aquarium, eat some seafood, hang out with our friend.  That’s about what we did.  Neither I nor the Teacher had ever been to an aquarium, so while it was smaller than I expected, it was a lot of fun.  (Also, due to our friend’s membership it was pretty cheap too!)  For a Valentine’s Day gift, the Teacher asked for a salt lamp, which is really pretty but also odd.  (As she said, she will not buck the tradition of women asking for large minerals.)  I also got her two stuffed animals, an octopus and a humpback whale.  They’re adorable.  (She’s been sick recently, and she’s taken to napping with one or the other.)

The seafood was good.  At Legal Seafood, our friend and I split some oysters, while the Teacher had some baked fish.  We all shared some exquisite calamari. I also tried raw clams for the first time, and quite possibly the last.  (They weren’t bad; they just were really, really oceany.)  At that point, the snow had begun, so we made one more stop at Flour Bakery, to pick up the surprise Boston Creme Pie our friend had ordered us.  We wanted to try a few other things too, and so I got some bread pudding.  I never knew bread pudding could be light and airy, but this was.  It was wonderfully subtle, something I’m not used to from bread pudding.

Aside from that, we just pretty much hung out at our friend’s and watched the snow pile up.  He braved the cold and brought back a few pounds of lobster meat, which was the first time for the Teacher.  I usually find lobster horribly overpriced, but this was really good and fresh.

Fortunately, the snow stopped early enough on Sunday that we had no problems with the airport Monday morning.  Unfortunately, I learned an important lesson–I’m too old/sick to do 6AM flights, esp. when the snow means it takes an hour to get to the airport.  We ended up getting in on time, but I needed the next snow day for my body to recover.  Lesson learned.

Overall, I like Boston, and could see visiting more often, but our friend is moving out (probably) in August, and so who knows when we will get back.

Chronic Illness and the Foreign Service

So, I’ve been diagnosed with (at least!) mild Sjogren’s and hypermobility. Also, obvious to those who see me, I also suffer from obesity.  Throw in some depression, random joint/muscle pain (likely caused by the hypermobility, but possibly having other causes), and general fatigue, and I think I count as a full-on Spoonie (sufferer of chronic illness).

This honestly doesn’t work well with the Foreign Service culture.  I’m trying, but it’s hard.  Foreign Service Officers tend to be extremely active, constantly on the go, work-hard-play-hard types.  I do not have the energy for that shit.  Networking and hobnobbing are hard.  Many of them are runners, while I remember when I tried to become a runner and the horrible torture that it was.  They want to go out for happy hours, bar crawls, etc., when I want to curl up at home on my couch.  (Yes, the FS also has a TON of extroverts, but that’s probably obvious.)  I like seeing people and hanging out, but I can only do so much of it before all my spoons are gone.

That’s not even talking about the travel that is (of course) expected.  I mean, a vacation in a hotel with my wife, where I actually get to rest, etc., is easy.  But I had friends who were constantly taking short, overnight trips up-country (aka away form the capital and decent bedding), and wondering why I didn’t do more of those.  (Now, the constant moving I can deal with, as long as I get a couple of days to decompress upon arrival.)

Healthcare is a special worry as someone with chronic illness.  I learned in Togo that the med units don’t often fully understand what I’m talking about, though having a med unit in the work office was extremely helpful.  It also meant that I tended to be the most frequent visitor.  “My stomach is upset; is it normal upset or do I have dysentery again?”  “I’m extremely weak and tired; is it a normal flare up, or malaria?”  Etc.

That’s not to say I can’t do my job.  As a political officer, it was my job to go to some of these events, including cocktail parties and boring conferences.  (I am slightly afraid that there might be footage of me falling asleep at a conference–that’s the general fatigue thing kicking in.)  Analysis and reporting, I can do.  I’m also good at languages and one-on-one meeting with people.  In fact, I LOVE those part of my job.  (We’ll soon see how I handle hours at a visa line.  Cross your fingers for me.)

I wouldn’t change jobs for anything.  This was my dream since I left college, 11 years ago.  It still is.  The work is interesting, it’s not too physically demanding, and I get to experience more than I ever could have any other way.  (I also have great health insurance, which I am using to the utmost!)

I really just want to 1) help other spoonies (including possible future FSOs) know about what life in the FS is like and 2) hopefully open my colleagues eyes to the extra struggles of spoonies.

So, I’ll end this with a call for questions.  Comments are open.

Chinese!

To take a break from the family woes, let’s talk about what I’ve been up to since I got to DC back in September: Chinese language classes!

Many of you know that Chinese was my major in college and that I’ve been a couple of times.  So, I know a bit about studying the language already.

Here’s the main thing about Chinese:  When you start, it’s really, really hard.  Nothing, other than the basic grammar, makes a lick of sense.  Wait, how does this (羊) mean sheep?  And why does putting that with big (大) like so (美) suddenly mean beautiful?  (And America, for crying out loud.)  There are no cognates, except for some food items (tofu=doufu, coffee=kafei).  And, of course, tones.  The way I pronounce the sound ma can mean mother, marijuana, horse, to scold, or just turn a statement into a question.

But, unlike some languages (French, Russian, etc.), the more you learn the more manageable it gets.  There are no crazy tenses, no “politeness” levels, no declensions.  Subordinate phrases in a sentence can be tricky, mostly due to a lack of punctuation, but no worse than any other language.  Some even just get turned into modifying phrases (instead of “the ball that hit the car” you’d just have “the hit-the-car ball”).

So, in short, I feel like I’m getting somewhere.  (Your tax dollars aren’t being completely wasted here!) Part of it is the sheer amount of class time  I have 3-6 hours of Chinese class a day, depending on the day.  A typical day is two hours of reading class in the morning, with three hours of speaking in the afternoon.  (Short days cut out two hours of speaking; long days throw in an extra hour of “consular Chinese” class.)  The program is good; it’s intense, but it never feels overly stressful.  The Chinese I used to know came back VERY quickly, and for the last several months I’ve been learning almost all new words.  I feel confident that I’ll pass my test, and maybe even score high enough to earn a bonus.  (Most people in my program do.)

This is just one more way I’m a lucky, lucky man.  I’m getting paid to learn a language, before being sent for two years to use it.  Despite other problems in my life, I’m going to continue counting my blessings.

Foreign Service as Family

In my last post, I explained why the last few weeks have been the worst of my life.

One silver lining–all of my friends, family, and colleagues have been amazing.  I have had more support than I ever would have assumed possible.  In particular, one of my A-100 colleagues took up a collection, and we came home to a bouquet of daisies, a houseplant, food in the fridge, relaxation creams and such, and a clean kitchen.  (She’d also done some of our laundry!)  That my whole class came together to do this for us means the world to me.

The Ambassador at my last post also took up a collection to give to charity in my mother’s name, and I received all kinds of supportive emails, phone calls, etc.

You all made me feel loved and a part of something bigger.  Thank you.

Mom

One of my biggest worries, being in the Foreign Service, was that something would happen and my mom would die while I was out of the country.

That’s not something I have to worry about anymore.

(A bit of gallows humor, because fuck, this is going to be hard to write.)

So, to back up.  My little brother recently got married, and on Jan. 13th he became a daddy.  The weekend after being Martin Luther King Day, the Teacher and I decided to drive home and see them, if only briefly.  We left on Saturday, the 17th.  Two hours into our trip, we received a phone call from mom’s phone.  As I was driving, the Teacher answered the phone, but she quickly waved me to pull over.  She couldn’t tell what was wrong, just that something was.

I pulled over on the interstate, and it was my mom’s roommate/partner on the phone.  I’ll probably always remember her exact words: “David, your mom’s dead.”  (For any who would critique her bluntness, it should be noted that she was utterly hysterical as she said it.  She barely managed to get it out at all.)  She passed the phone to the detective, who explained that mom had an accident on her way to work, and died shortly thereafter at the hospital.

I could write about the events that followed, the funeral, the speeches, the other ceremonies, but that’s not what this is for.  This is just to talk about my mom.

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Mom at a belly dancing party.

Those who know me well know that my father passed away when I was four years old.  I also moved around a ton as a kid, and my mom was the only stability in my life.  She was both mom and dad to me, both the caregiver and the disciplinarian.  She was often at work, leading me to have to care for my brother, but I knew that even that was a sacrifice she made to keep food on our table.  (Often pizza, because free food from work is often the best food.)

She did everything she could to raise us right, while battling some demons of her own.  She’d been abused as a kid, she was widowed at a very young age (26!), and she was often unsure of what she wanted out of life.  About the same time I moved out, she developed a serious problem with drinking and drugs.

But, no matter what, she loved me and my brother, and did what she could where she could to help.  This is also what, in large part, led her to finally deal with her own issues in the last few years.  As the belly-dancing picture shows, once she had an empty nest, she starting finding her own interests and discovering herself.  She also, at the same time, got clean, and was very proud of how she managed to recover and not fall off the wagon.  She was in therapy, trying to come to terms with her abuse , hoping to be able to reconcile with her own mother, working with her kids (especially my little brother, who still lived with her when her life fell apart) to be close again, and in general trying to improve everything, when she passed away.

She was successful in many of these goals.  She had been present at the birth of her grandchild, and there are pictures of her holding the wee baby.  She’d been across the Atlantic, and stood on the eastern shore.  She’d seen both of her children pick themselves up after some nasty falls (in my case, divorce and a string of bad jobs) to achieve some real success.

And now, I’m sitting here, trying to write about her, and I realize I’m still in shock that she’s gone.  I keep finding myself about to call her, and talk to her about something mundane in my life.  I’ll think about the dread of listening to her give me advice that we both know I won’t take (like, seriously, mom, you know I barely know how to hold a wrench, there is no way I’m going to replace a part on my car myself.  I don’t care how much cheaper it is).  And then I’ll remember she’s not there and I get down all over again.

(Some of you know that I already deal with depression.  Yeah, guess what–this ain’t helping.)

There is one thing she taught me, though, that I’m trying to live by.  When she saw Lion King for the first time, she fell in love with the song and line Hakuna Matata.  She constantly tried to get me to accept life as it was, and keep moving and not to worry.  She once told me about worries (and this is etched forever in my memory):  “Can you do anything about it?  If yes, then do it and stop worrying.  If no, worrying’s not going to do you any good anyway, so quit worrying about it!”  (Her version of the Serenity prayer, I guess.)

So, I sit here and miss that “crazy old redneck” (her words).  I’m particularly sad that my future kids won’t get to know her, because, as crazy as she often was, she would have been able to teach them some very important lessons.  She might have also taught them some bad habits (like my grandma taught me).

Good-bye, mom.  You were, until very recently, the only rock in my crazy, crazy life.  (Don’t worry–the Teacher has taken on that responsibility.)  I loved you even when you were crazy, just as you loved me when I was a shit.  (Which was often, on both counts.)  May the Universe, Deity, God, or whatever hold you close and take away your pains.  I’ll miss you.

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Home Leave

And, now we come to the trip home, and that magical, most-stressful of all vacations, HOME LEAVE.

The trip home was hard enough.  Transporting 4 suitcases (which were starting to fall apart) and 2 cats through four airports was challenging.  It was especially challenging when security kept asking us to pull the cats out of the crates so they could check the crates for drugs or something, and the cats were so terrified they’d already pissed themselves and the carriers.  Needless to say, we didn’t get in smelling so sweet.

My mother had insisted on picking us up at the airport, despite the fact that we had a ton of luggage and just wanted to get a cab.  We got to her car, and found it already half full of all kinds of emergency stuff (and just regular stuff.)  We could only fit one person, the cats, and a bit of luggage.  I still had to go get a cab!

Our first tasks upon getting back to the States:

1) Get my license renewed so we could
2) Get wheels.
3) Get a cell phone up and working.

My wife got the third one taken care of within an hour of being home, by restarting an old flip phone she had through Straight-Talk.  The others had to wait until Monday, when I could get to the DMV.  Thankfully, mom took me to the DMV and then to the car rental place.  That made life MUCH easier.  (A week into being home, we traded the rental for an old, dinged up, ugly minivan, perfect for cheaply getting all of our shit to DC!)

We spent about two weeks in my hometown, both relaxing and seeing friends and family.  We’d had plans to get to some real tourist attractions (Mammoth Cave, etc.) and go to a bunch of new restaurants, but we were WAY too damn tired to do as much as we planned.  There were still some amazing things we got in (Diner Food! Big pizza! 610 Magnolia!).  I also got to meet my little brother’s bride-to-be, who seemed sweet but able to keep him in line.  (An important skill when dealing with my little brother.)

We followed Louisville with Lexington, KY, where we saw yet more friends and both came down kind of sick.  (We think it was the super-anti-malarial we had to take to “flush out our system.”)  More friends! More food!  Still not enough sleep and rest!

And then, the last leg, was West Virginia/Virginia.  I finally got to really meet and get to know more of the Teacher’s friends, especially some of the really important ones from her childhood.  We took her little brother and sister out to dinner as well, and I got to see what they had been up to.

We got into NoVA the day before my Chinese classes started.  It was a long, exhausting trip, and fortunately my classes seemed designed to ease us in, rather than throwing us off the deep end.  While home leave was a whirlwind, it was absolutely necessary, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to take it.