Archive for the ‘The World at Work’ Category

Why Penelope Trunk is really, really wrong

Friday, November 6th, 2009

When she gives her four reasons why traveling is a waste of time. Where do I even begin…

It was shocking to both me and my friend Joanne at Rogue Stampede (who first alerted me to this article and at whose blog this has been cross-posted) that a prominent Gen-Y career coach was pontificating such an insular opinion, especially in light of the U.S.’ strengthened push for soft power in the Obama era. I’m also astounded that Ms. Trunk, as a professional career guide, so discounts (or just fails to recognize) travel, international and intercultural competency, and linguistic skills as important 21st century career competencies. ALL careers these days (not just those I blog about) are international to some degree, and the sooner her readers understand this and equip themselves with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a global economy, the better off they’ll be. I’m afraid Ms. Trunk might eventually get left behind if she isn’t able to shake this insular outlook and apparent fear of that which isn’t right beside her.

But let’s pump the brakes for just a second. As Joanne mentioned in our discussion about this, other people’s lives and decisions are not for us to judge. If someone wishes not to travel and to remain close to home, that is their decision and there is nothing wrong with this. In the same way, those who do love to travel should be permitted to do so judgment-free, yet also have no right to view themselves as better or superior to those who don’t travel (everyone who’s traveled has been at some point at least a bit guilty of feeling better than the bumpkins who haven’t been where they’ve been).

Cut to a scene from last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men: When discussing the pompous, I’m-so-cultured opinions of someone who had done a lot traveling, one character commented: “Just because she’s been to India doesn’t mean she’s not stupid.” Beautifully said and that sums it up: Just because you’ve been on an airplane a few times and eaten some weird food doesn’t give you permission to act like a know-it-all jackass.

That said, I fervently believe the benefits of travel to an individual, both personally and professionally, are far too great and real for Ms. Trunk to so casually dismiss to her readers. Let’s start with her gross generalizations about culture. She says that you don’t need to leave the U.S. to find cultures different than your own. This is certainly true, but you do need to travel to fully engage and understand them. It is true that I can experience something about, say, the black culture of Baltimore by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates or having a beer with someone who grew up in West Baltimore. It is also true that I can experience something about Ethiopian and Eritrean culture by going to the 9th and U, NW, area in DC, known as “Little Ethiopia,” and eating a meal or talking to a cabbie. But these experiences cannot possibly be as powerful, formative, or true as actually traveling to those places. Is meeting someone from West Baltimore near your home and talking about black culture the same experience as actually walking the streets where he grew up and visiting his family? Is eating tibs and injera in downtown DC the same as eating them in downtown Addis Ababa? While the vicarious experiences we may have with other cultures near our home will be informative to some degree, to pretend that this is the same as actually going to a place and immersing ourselves in that culture is lazy and disengenous.

I was also intrigued by Ms. Trunk’s thought that it’s not culture that separates us, it’s economics. Jews, South Africans, French—as long as we’re from the same economic status, we’re the same, she intimates. She didn’t get along with those pesky farm kids in France, but the city kids were “just like” her. This argument strikes me as shallow and completely unthought-out. While the city kids in France may have been more socio-economically in line with her, did she really believe that this made them just like her? That there were no cultural differences between them? Did the notion that she was speaking French or (more likely) they were speaking English ever strike her as an obvious and smacking (cultural) difference between them? What about the cheek kisses in lieu of handshakes? The small coffees instead of the big Americanos? Long lunches and late, even longer dinners? I would imagine these were more annoyances to Ms. Trunk than cultural differences worthy of particpating in and trying to understand.

While one benefit of traveling and interacting with those from a different place is precisely that we do get to break down the walls of difference and see the similarities we have, it’s just silly to say that we don’t have cultural differences, only economic ones. Seems to me that this view is completely ignoring the fact that a whole host of factors contribute to our individual identities: national culture and socio-economic are two, but there are many more—and the mix for each person is unique and impossible to quantify. As Joanne recently wrote so eloquently on her own blog, “I am Singaporean, but I am also my own person, not a mere reproduction of my cultural background.” I think “cultural” here could be replaced with any number of other words (”racial,” “economic,” “religious”) and the statement would apply to all of us, no matter where we’re from.

Next point. Ms. Trunk writes: “People who love their lives don’t leave.” Are we supposed to take this as a serious thought?  Does she really believe all travel is about abandonment and running away? What if people love a life of visiting new places and meeting new people and experiencing new things? That’s exactly why I got into the business I’m in. I remember my dad saying, right before I left to live in China: “I’d feel a lot better if you just stayed here.” But for me, that wasn’t the case. He wanted me to stay in what he viewed as a comfortable place: my hometown, Cincinnati, working for a corporate real estate office. To me, this was the exact opposite of comfortable or a life I would love. For me, the comfortable thing to do—the thing that made me love my life far more than I did before—was to go to China, was to travel. We all have our preferences—some of us want to wander, some of us don’t. As I said before, no shame in either one. But for Ms. Trunk to say that one can only fashion a life they love by remaining in the exact same place and doing the exact same things over and over and never leaving it? I believe this to be a little silly at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. I love my girlfriend and my cat and my job, and I enjoy a good downward facing dog as much as the next person. But I also love to get on a plane and end up in New Delhi—because that is excitement to me. That is living. That is creating a life I love.

Ms. Trunk also believes it’s more “effective” to revel in the sameness of your daily existence than travel some place new to experience the vibrancy of a wholly unique place, culture, people, and life. I won’t argue that staying at home and fully realizing the beauty and complexity of the place in which you live is a bad thing. In fact, this is probably something more of us should take the time to do. But in no way will travel not help you see the world differently than before. In fact, it’s by traveling, by taking ourselves outside of those places we live and come to know so well (and often take for granted) that we are able to fully realize their beauty and complexity. It’s the same way that one only truly realizes what it means to be an American (or a Singaporean or an Ethiopian) when they travel outside of their homeland and are able to view their home country, culture, and people from a completely and totally different perspective.

Travel is not about running away. People don’t plan trips only when their lives are shit and changes need to be made, but instead of facing those changes and challenges, they flee (I wonder how much the Eat Pray Love mentality is affecting Ms. Trunk’s view here).  Travel for many is about the vitality of the experience. It’s about the newness of the place and the people and the food. It’s about the anticipation of the trip—the planning, the reading, the preparation for what you may encounter. It’s about the experience in the moment—the new sights, the new sounds, the new scents, the new flavors. It’s about doing those things you always wanted to do—and going with the flow when you’re pulled along on adventures that you couldn’t possibly plan. It’s about returning to the comforting embrace of home, sharing your photos and stories with friends, reliving the best moments, telling the horror stories of the worst, all the while teaching those around you a little bit about a place you’ve just been.

This is the beauty of travel to me, and if Ms. Trunk’s grown this sour on it, then I feel bad for her. I encourage her to plan a trip abroad to somewhere she’s always wanted to go (I know there’s at least one place) and when she returns, I’d be interested to know if she feels any different.

This made me laugh

Friday, November 6th, 2009

From the U. of Arizona Daily Wildcat, ten reasons “not” to study abroad. A few gems:

4. The legal drinking age is lower in almost every other country in the world and you’ll end up spending all your money on alcohol and exploring the night-life. You may also find it difficult to come back to the US and have these liberties again removed from you. Best to avoid the opportunity altogether.

5. Many universities have comprehensive orientation programs for international students and you’ll meet many people from all over the world who will tell you all these great things about their home countries and make you want to travel there. You don’t need the extra expense.

6. There’s no point in exposing yourself to any cultural diversity. Who needs more variety than what you’ve got right here?

9. You might end up somewhere where they don’t speak English and probably won’t be able to avoid learning the language. Even incidental language acquisition is a waste of your precious mental resources.

I love sarcasm. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Etiquette of the email request

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

David Comp vents about some rather rude emails he received from a random reader asking for assistance. David’s certainly not against helping out readers when they email with questions—all he asks is that they respect the fact that he is a busy person and may not respond to them as quickly as they might like. The offending emails went like this:

–Start October 31st message—






–End October 31st message–

No response from me other than my automated reply which I mention above.

–Start November 4th message–




–End November 4th message—

My first reaction is to wonder why this person is typing in all caps, the online equivalent of shouting. My second reaction is that I feel David’s pain. I receive a fair number of random email requests too and, like David, I’m generally happy to get them and respond. But also like David, sometimes life and work obligations get in the way and I don’t respond in as timely a manner as I or the writer might like. When this happens, I often appreciate a gentle follow-up/reminder from the writer. What I never appreciate is a pushy, entitled follow up like David got.

David wonders how much of the above two emails is intercultural miscommunication. Seems like there certainly could be some in there—the writer doesn’t appear to be a native English speaker and the awkward phrasing, caps fetish, and weird pushiness might be a result of tenuous English skills and limited understanding of American cultural “norms.”

Even so, I can’t fault David for feeling annoyed. I’d react the same way—and did recently when I received an email from someone I don’t know requesting career information. I was taken aback by how terse and impersonal—and demanding—the email was. Rather than using a gentle and conciliatory tone (”I know I’m imposing here, but might I trouble you for some assistance…”), this email took a rather demanding and impolite tactic, simply saying, “I am having trouble finding an international job and I need your help.  Please answer the following questions…” And then (I’m not making this up) there was a list of ten questions for me to respond to. And these weren’t easy-to-answer questions—they were asking for essays. I was astounded that this person thought this tactic was a good way to get my attention and advice. Rather than wanting to help them out, I was put off and wanted to delete the email with extreme prejudice.

If you’re emailing someone for an informational interview, for career advice, or for help with an academic or professional project (especially someone you don’t know or have no connection to), be very conscious of how you approach them, especially via email, and how much you’re asking of them. My main two recommendations when writing someone to ask for assistance, whether you know them or not, are: 1) Keep your requests (especially your first one) short and manageable (you’re much more likely to get a response if the person feels like they can accomplish the task reasonably fast) and 2) Always give the person an out (as in, “I know you are busy and may not have time for this…”). This allows the person to beg out if they are indeed too busy (and you should recognize that they may be) and is also the respectful thing to do.

One final thought: Just because email allows us to fire out quick messages asking for things doesn’t necessarily mean this is a good practice, no matter our culture.

Age discrimination in the Foreign Service?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 mandates retirement at 65, having raised it from 60, and the policy based on the rigors of overseas service. But it does not apply to political appointees — among them, high-profile diplomatic envoys such as Richard C. Holbrooke, 68, or George Mitchell, 76, or, for that matter Clinton, who will be 65 in October 2012.

The Federal Diary at WaPo uncovers the case of a Foreign Service officer forced to forgo a new position she was offered in Algiers because she will turn 65 before that assignment is over. She’s suing, alleging age discrimination.

“Imagine if someone told Hillary Clinton she couldn’t be secretary of state because she would turn 65 before her term is up,” said Thomas R. Bundy III, a lawyer representing Colton.

Hillary: “We’re hiring”

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

We’re hiring.  That’s right.  We are actually hiring.  We’re increasing — all things hopefully coming through in our budget — we’re increasing the numbers of foreign service and civil service personnel, because the — the need is so great.

So said Hillary in a conversation with Secretary of Defenense Robert Gates at GW on Monday to
“Discuss American Power and Persuasion.”

[Sorry for the dearth of posts. Back from Mexico and it's a slog catching up.]

The power of the interwebs

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Back in June I posted, a bit randomly for a blog on international careers, about a Craigslist housing scam I’d come across while looking for apartments in DC. Though I managed to give the topic a career slant, I wrote about it mainly because I was short on actual career topics at the time, plus I thought my brush with the scam was interesting/funny/a bit scary that someone might actually get sucked by it (I knew it was a scam right away, but even so, I still tried to convince myself it wasn’t, the apartment being advertised looked so amazing). So I posted and didn’t think much more about it after that.

Then, in early August, a reader commented on the post, saying she’d come across the same scam, just with some details changed, which she provided. Then another commenter did the same, then another and then another. And it’s still going—another comment came in this morning—with each person relaying their own brush with the scam and posting the relevant details to help others avoid it. Clearly each commenter Googled the fake name of the scammer and the details given to find out if the Craigslist offer was too good to be true. Commenters may have been disappointed when coming across my post and its thread to find it was indeed a scam, but they were also relieved that they’d been able to verify it was too good to be true and they hadn’t gotten sucked in.

No larger point here, other than that I’m happy that a throwaway post for me has turned into something of a public service for those out there apartment hunting on Craigslist and trying to avoid the scams that seem more prevalent everyday. Though I’m not really sure how to feel about the fact that an item completely unrelated to the subject I usually write about has become the single most commented-upon Working World post ever. I guess I’ll take my audience any way I can get ‘em.

I’ve said I don’t believe in mentors…

Friday, September 25th, 2009

…and now I’m officially one myself. At least according to American University.

As of last week’s kick-off ceremony, I’m now an alumni participant in the AU School of International Service mentoring program, and thus a mentor to one lucky young senior in SIS—which is a bit ironic given that I wrote in Working World about my hefty ambivalence toward the concept of mentors. One reviewer of the book took this ambivalence to mean that I don’t believe in mentors at all—that I completely reject the concept—which I think overstates things. It’s more accurate to say that I’ve never been completely comfortable with the concept, nor have I actively sought out any mentors, or ever imagined myself as one.

But here I am. Not only as an official mentor myself, but also pointing out in events we do for Working World how my view of the concept seems to be evolving over time. While I still don’t love the “mentor-protege” terminology, I’ve at least come to see that I do in fact have mentors in my life and that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone you seek out to give that title and fulfill that “role.” Rather mentors can and should be those to whom you naturally gravitate—relationships that form organically on the basis of mutual interest and respect, nothing that is forced or artificial.

Which I realize is a little bit contradictory to my participation in a formal mentoring program, which are by nature a bit forced and artificial. But I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. In our initial meeting, my AU senior, as I’ll call her (I refuse to call her my protege), and I seemed to be on the same page. We both admitted we’re “not really sure how this works” and that we’d just play it by ear, keep it fast and loose, and see how things went. We’d be natural and not force anything. I think that’s the right way to go.

More updates from my trials and tribulations as an AU mentor as things evolve…

Goals v. gut — Dean’s Lunch Seminar at Georgetown

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

I had the privilege yesterday of heading back to my former employer, Georgetown University, to participate as a speaker in a College Dean’s Lunch Seminar, a project I actually worked on during its inception a few years ago. The purpose of the seminars is to get Georgetown grads, as well as other folks working in DC (like me), to sit down in an informal setting with students and talk careers—and generally reiterate that your college major in no way defines your career path and, besides, career paths are never straight anyway. In giving a snapshot of my own career, I felt as though I was able to convey this message quite clearly. One participant, a junior about to head off to study abroad, wrote me later and confirmed this impression: “Your talk today really reassured me about having an open mind concerning my future,” which I think is a nice way of saying, “It’s nice to hear from someone else who had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do and didn’t end up in a gutter.”

During the course of our discussion, this same young woman, the junior, worried about her lack of focus and her lack of goals. She spoke of how she was incredibly laid back about her career path, preferring instead to experience things and see where they take here, but was feeling constant pressure to “get it together.” She felt like maybe she should set some goals, impose some direction on herself.

I responded maybe, but I also cautioned against setting goals just for the sake of it, only because you feel you have to in order to prove something to someone (parents, professors, others). To me, following your instincts and passions—listening to yourself and going where you are drawn—can be far more effective and rewarding than setting arbitrary goals you’re not even sure you want to reach. I don’t mean to downplay the idea of setting goals and striving for them should you truly know what you want. But when you’re like this young woman, or another young woman with the self-described problem of having “too many interests to narrow down,” it’s far better to listen to what your gut is saying rather than try to live up to what others are telling you. As my former colleague and the organizer of the lunch, Tad Howard, said, at some point you forget about the need to please or impress others and you find you consider yourself “successful” because you’re doing what you want to do.

A great lunch all around and many thanks to my fantastic former boss, College Dean Chet Gillis, for inviting me back.

UPDATE: Tad has admonished me that this post didn’t mention perhaps the best part of the seminar: that he eschewed the normal lunch fare of sandwiches and instead ordered us hot turkey—which was not only tasty, but also classy.

The Metro: where people sometimes extend random acts of kindness and more often say dumb things

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I was on the Metro last night heading home from a dinner at Sherry’s house in honor of Giles Scott-Smith*, a funny and engaging British scholar based at Leiden University in the Netherlands, when I overheard a young man and woman near me talking about studying abroad. The young man said:

“You know, the best thing about study abroad was…”

At this I perked up and listened for what I thought might be a juicy, overheard-on-public-transportation endorsement of study and travel abroad.  He continued:

“The best thing about study abroad was driving my advisor crazy. At least that was the best thing for me.”

Fair enough. At least he got something out of it, I guess. Unfortunately I didn’t hear any more of his trenchant international insights, as the train pulled into my stop. As a pack of us were waiting for the doors to open, a different young man asked a different young woman why she was holding a huge stack of folders in her arms, each one branded with the name of a different university (I saw Yale and Johns Hopkins on top).

“I was just at a graduate school fair,” she replied.

“Oh,” he said. “I’m looking for grad programs in international studies. Who organized it?”

“,” she said. “Here, you can have this.” She handed the young man a flyer of information about the fair. “Go to the website. There’s lots more information about schools.”

“Thanks,” he said. They smiled and we all got off the train.

Ah, the randomness of public transportation, where international careers begin and reflections on international experiences apparently tend to be rather shallow.

*Among other thing, Giles has turned his scholarly attention to the International Visitor Leadership Program.  A few of his articles, on Margaret Thatcher and Nicolas Sarkozy’s experiences in the U.S. as young politicians, are in the NCIV library [scroll down to find them] and here’s his book on the IVLP from 1950-70.

The international in North Dakota, ctd. again

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Sherry pops up again in Minot, this time in a KFYR TV spot covering her visit to North Dakota and giving a nice Working World plug. [No embedding capabilities, so head over to the KFYR website to watch.]

Life after JET—

Thursday, September 17th, 2009, a site for the Japan Exchange and Teaching program alumni “freelance and professional community,” profiles one its members, Shannan Spisak of the Institute of International Education. Shannan describes her career since her teaching abroad experience and how she found her way into interesting international positions:

After I came back from JET, I moved to New York City with a friend and worked at a private Japanese company for 2 years. I decided to switch careers to move into the international arena; the United Nations in particular interested me. I went on a number of informational interviews with fellow former JETs working in the field and they all recommended graduate school. I decided to study Peace Education and International Exchange at Teachers College, Columbia University. In order to finance my education, I took a job working as Assistant to the President of Barnard College while attending classes part-time. During the process of completing my M.A., I realized I had grown more interested in the education component of my degree than its relation to UN work. Consequently, my focus shifted towards seeking a career in international exchange in higher education.

[Now] I work at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in the Global Scholarships Division. The IIE is a 90 year-old non-profit organization that runs over 200 programs around the world, including the Fulbright. I manage three international scholarship programs through the GE Foundation and the Chubb Insurance Foundation. I organize the review and selection of applications, notify finalists, award grants, and manage special components of the scholarships such as Leadership Development Seminars and Career Workshops. I also coordinate the global communication and program initiatives between our offices in each of the participating countries. Our programs serve undergraduate and Masters students in 14 countries, chiefly studying science and business. Right now, I’m looking into new ways of managing our student alumni network – which aligns with what I’ve been working on for JETAANY as Alumni Database Manager.

Jetwit also has job postings and other career resources for JET alums.

The international in North Dakota, ctd.

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Before I even had a chance to post on Monday about Sherry speaking on international careers in Minot, North Dakota, comments and emails started flooding in from the Minot High students who’d just heard her speak. They ended up in the comments sections of various, random posts, so I wanted to collect them here—not so much to give Sherry a big head (though I’m confident her talk was indeed excellent), but more to highlight the idea that young people all over the country, not just in coastal areas or big cities, can and should aspire to an internationally-oriented career. Now to the comments. First from Sarah:

Hey Sherry Mueller,
My Spanish 4 class just listened to your presentation today at Magic City Campus in Minot, ND. You more than likely would recognize me as the girl who did not look like she was paying attention at all during your presentation, but trust me, I was definitely listening. I really enjoyed the way you presented, it was very uplifting and fresh, and kept the attention of seniors who have a bad case of senioritis. Your story was very uplifting as well. You not knowing what you wanted to do with your life until you were older took a lot of pressure off of me. You see, I think I know what I want to do with my life, but of course I am not so sure right now. Hearing stories of people knowing and deciding what they were going to do with their life when they were in high school and then going on to either pursuit it and not be happy with it or changing their mind about a zillion times and still not finding what they want to do, has been scaring me and putting a lot of pressure on me. But hearing your story and seeing how much joy your profession brings you gave me more confidence and reassured me that it’s okay that I don’t know what to do yet. So thank you very much and from the bottom of my heart for that reassurance and confidence booster; it is much appreciated. And although, I don’t think I want to pursuit language in my future, your speech was very interesting to listen to and an eye opener. Thank you once again, and thank you for coming to little old Minot, ND :)

Then Wyatt:

Hello Sherry and Mark,

My name is Wyatt from Magic City Campus in Minot, North Dakota. I would like to thank you very much for giving your time to speak with my fellow classmates and me about what it takes to work in a foreign country. I was quite intrigued by the wide variety of careers that a person might be able to pursue while working internationally. Although you spoke with our group for nearly an hour, I didn’t believe it was near enough time for all of the questions I still have for you. I would like to say thanks again, and hearing more from you would be great.

Thank You,


And Mercedes:

Hi Sherry Mueller,

I just listened to you today ( 09/14/09) at Magic City Campus. I enjoyed your presentation. It was very enlightening and I wish we would have had more time because there are many questions I wanted to ask and many things I wanted to tell you about my trip to Argentina and how that trip has changed my mind. I have decided that I want to work internationally. It was nice to hear first hand from a person that has experience in working around the world. Thank you so much for coming, you have made me more excited to get into working. I have decided I want to work internationally as a pediatrician so I can help children and use the Spanish I’ve been so diligently learning for the past four years. Thank you again.

Sincerely Yours,


After the jump, a few more.


Odd bits of advertising

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I’ve passed this billboard at the corner of New York and 7th, NW, in Washington many times over the past month, always intending to take a picture of it (I finally had a good camera with me a few days ago) and always puzzled by its intended message:


What exactly are they trying to say here?  My guesses:

—”At the FBI, we’ll help you make that final transition from unsightly native garb to smartly tailored business suit”; or

—”At the FBI, we’re so culturally advanced that we have Ethnic Dress Fridays”; or —and I really hope it’s this one—

—”At the FBI, we want you as an undercover operative who frequently changes disguises, like Fletch.”

I suppose they’re trying to make the point that the FBI is a culturally diverse place to work and that no matter where you’re from (or where your parents are from?), we’re all on the same team, working for the same goal. Fine, I guess. But this ad doesn’t succeed in taking us directly to that point, if that is indeed actually the point. Not only is the text clunky (my girlfriend called it “hideous—can the FBI not afford editors?”), but the duel images of young, attractive, indeterminately South Asian-looking woman in suit and head scarf raise more questions than they answer. Why is she wearing both kinds of clothes? Is she meant to be American, getting in touch with her roots? Is she meant to be foreign, now Westernized by the FBI? Are these actually two people, identical mirror twins like the evil Crimson Guard Commanders, Tomax and Xamot? And as a broader point, should it even matter what style of clothes someone is wearing while working for the FBI, or any other agency or organization for that matter? The FBI ad department could use a few tips from Don Draper and Co.

Now to a less confusing and much funnier ad that I actually saw broadcast during a football game this past weekend. A beautiful riff on the celebrities-with-fists-clenched-for-a-cause sing-alongs of old. For the people, USA.GOV!

An overview of the Foreign Service from an FSO

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Courtesy of Hugo Guevara, a fellow Notre Dame alum and a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, an insider’s overview of what it takes to begin a career in the Foreign Service:

For those interested in international affairs, it’s hard to beat being a Foreign Service officer. You can find all the details at the State Department website, but, in general, know that it is a long process — so start early. I happened to hit all of the gates at the right time and it still took ten months. Very often it takes much longer. 

The U.S. Foreign Service is divided in two parts — Generalists and Specialists. Specialists are hired to perform specific tasks, e.g. maintain an embassy’s computer systems overseas, coordinate embassy security, etc. Generalists are what you typically think of as U.S. diplomats overseas. Generalists are divided into five focus areas called “cones.” You choose your cone when you first sign up and it is VERY VERY difficult to change cones once you join so choose wisely. 

The five cones are: Political, Economic, Public Diplomacy, Management, and Consular. As one would expect, Political Officers deal with political relations between the U.S. and foreign countries. Economic Officers handle economic issues. Both of these cones require lots of reporting on developments in a host country. You basically spend your whole day meeting with counterparts and then reporting back to Washington what you have learned. These officers also convey formal messages from Washington to foreign governments. 

Whereas Political and Economic officers work behind the scenes directly with government officials, Public Diplomacy (PD) Officers interface with the public and media. They are responsible for crafting U.S. policy positions for release to the public. Management Officers run the nuts and bolts of an embassy — facilities, personnel, etc. Consular Officers are the ones who try to help you out when you’ve gotten in trouble overseas. They have the lead on dealing with American citizens overseas — issuing passports, reporting American births, visiting U.S. citizens detained in prisons overseas. These are also responsible for interviewing foreigners who want visas to visit the U.S. 

The traditional route to becoming a Foreign Service Generalist requires you to pass a written test, an oral exam, medical clearance, and then a security screening to allow you to view classified material. Though it may help, there is no requirement to have a background in international relations or languages. I, for one, studied engineering and was a civil engineer before I joined. [My emphasis.] Other colleagues have been nuclear physicists, screen writers, and one was even a classical ballet dancer. The U.S. government just wants smart people who are quick on their feet and can handle any situation thrown at them. Simply put, if you can pass the tests, you can be in the running. 

Personally, I am a Political Officer and have worked in Ecuador, Russia, Washington D.C., and Germany. Most tours are 2-3 years and you can usually take your family — except to war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. (However war zone tours are usually one year long.) My hours are very long and my workload is largely dependent on whatever news happen to break around the world. However, I have found the work to be fascinating. We plug into what is going on behind the scenes and joke that things have gone wrong if our efforts show up in the news — unless you are, of course, a PD officer. Foreign Service officers spend much of their time living overseas so you have to adjust to different languages, cultures, and being away from ND football — unless you are lucky enough to be at a post that has access to the U.S. Armed Forces Television Network.

Many thanks to Hugo for allowing me to share this with Working World readers. And he’s right on about Notre Dame football fans: being out of broadcast range come game day is often the most troublesome part of living and working abroad. I hunkered down at 3:30 a.m. in my frozen apartment in the hinterlands of northeast China to “watch” games by refreshing the ESPN gametracker every thirty seconds. Pretty much the most tedious and awful way to take in a game, but true commitment takes sacrifice…

China: career catalyst and character builder, ctd.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

James Fallows questions the NYTimes’s “the Chinese streets are paved with gold” hypothesis:

We have this story last month, which suggested that if young Americans couldn’t find jobs at home, all they had to do was move to China and they’d shortcut into positions of responsibility. I’m here to say: Well, sort of.

Is China exciting enough that people should go there? It sure is. Can young people with no background in China or Chinese find work quickly? Probably so — if they’re willing to teach English. (And can get a visa — whole different topic.) And if they stay and learn the language, lots of other opportunities often do turn up. Really, for Westerners in their 20s it’s hard to think of a better investment of a few years than going to China, learning what it’s like, becoming comfortable with Chinese ways and Chinese people, facing its discouraging realities but also sharing its sense of possibility.

But the idea that many non-trained grads will find “good” jobs — eg, ones where the Chinese employer regularly pays them? Or that it’s realistic to go from zero to “highly proficient” in Chinese language in a short time? Or that young foreigners will be insulated from the, ummm, idiosyncrasies of typical Chinese accounting and business practices? Those all seem a stretch. This kind of “land of gold!” account of today’s China has a touching parallel to the “gold mountain!” accounts of prospects in America that have historically drawn Chinese migrants across the Pacific. Both are accurate in spirit, but potentially misleading on details.

My first reaction to the story was that if you’re young and looking for an international, “character-building experience,” China’s never a bad way to go. My English teaching experience there continues to serve me well, in those non-specific, character-building ways (i.e., not the Chinese language skills I learned but rather the intangible skills that I was forced to develop: adaptability, confidence, resilience, the ability to succeed despite language and cultural barriers, etc. etc. etc.).

But I’d have to agree with Fallows in his assessment: Going to China to teach English or study the language is one thing, but going to find permanent employment is a whole different ball game. How do you even begin? I would have no idea. A great point from one of Fallows’ readers currently working in China:

The NY Times article you mentioned is basically treated as a joke here within expat circles. Laughed at and dismissed. As you mention, you can become an English teacher immediately. Anything else takes luck, work, and contacts. (Your own or others; I know a guy who did get an architecture job here fast: he’s best friends with one of the most well-connected people in Beijing. There may be a connection.) I know [one of the people]  mentioned in the NYT article: She speaks fluent Chinese, has a Yale education, an impressive resume, and works 20 hour days. She’s not some gal who just showed up in China because she couldn’t find a job in the States.

I’ve been here for a year now and am very aware of how my poor Chinese hampers me. Even though I’m a senior-level copywriter and my abilities are much needed, my rudimentary Chinese keeps me from being hired full time (fortunately, I want to be a freelancer). I’ve been told that the whole [major advertising] group requires now that all new hires speak Chinese reasonably well — which means none of my clients could hire me if either of us wanted that…

The other issue is contacts, which seems to be the way work is handled here. Now that the economy is improving, or seems to be, I’m suddenly busy — but it’s taken a year of going to networking events, writing talented designers out of the blue, and being friendly at parties to get to this point. I’m sure people who are more gung-ho and social than me…  could get well-connected faster that I did, but I’m skeptical of a know-nothing recent graduate with no special skills and knowledge to offer being able to connect quickly with the right people and then get a good job.