Monday, August 26, 2013

How I Lived in Bangladesh

Let us be honest – this was NOT a love at first sight. And frankly, definitely not at second glance either. It was, however, a love affair after all, and one to remember for life. As many of you know, I have just left Bangladesh after a brief 2-year stint and after some reflection, am ready to pontificate and extrapolate on my life there.

Bangladesh is not an easy place to live but it has probably some of the best people in the world. The country hits you at the airport – by smell, at first; then by color; by everyone staring at you while you are at the passport control line and later on, at the luggage belt, which typically takes about an hour before a single bag appears (yours comes last, for sure). But if you smile wearily at the border police officer who reviews your passport and wish him a good day, he will immediately bust out in an enormous smile and wish you the same. This is how the entire country is – Bangladeshis are the friendliest, most welcoming and helpful people I have ever met in my life. If you need help on the street, everyone in plain sight (and their multiple relatives 5 minutes after he calls them) will come immediately to help you. They will help even if they do not know how or have the slightest clue what they are doing. The point is – they are ready and willing. If you meet a new person and chat him or her up, within less than 5 minutes they will get your phone number and within less than a week will invite you over their house. There, you will meet their good friends, each of whom will talk to you, truly interested in what you have to say; they will listen to you, ask you a million questions about you, your family, your job, your life and in return, share the same. Then, they will invite you to their own, and before you know it, you will know half of Dhaka. And these will not be casual, one-time visits or acquaintances. These turn into beautiful friendships with people on whom you can rely for everything. Everything.

I miss Bangladesh viscerally. I miss it every single day. Naturally, above all, I miss my many friends there. But I also miss so many other things. I miss the simplicity of life. I miss the mess on the streets. I miss the restaurants that are so few that I know all of them and I know I am guaranteed to meet a friend wherever I end up for dinner. I miss my colleagues. I miss playing tennis at the clubs (I do NOT miss the clubs though). I miss speaking Bangla. I miss dohi fushka. I miss wearing sarees. I miss the fashion shows and the garish makeup I’d wear. I miss everyone smiling. I miss the staring! I miss the heat!! I simply miss Bangladesh.

Yes, I had a love affair with Bangladesh and just like any other relationships, ours had many ups and downs. That means simply that our affair is enduring and will continue evolving. I know I will be back there again, it is simply a matter of time. For the time being, all our lovely friends must come over and visit me. As of a week ago, I have now officially returned home. It is good to be back for I have missed you too, my lovely United State of America!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are You Too Old For The Foreign Service?

I have been asked this question so many times now, that I thought it deserved its own carefully thought out post. Here it goes:

Q: Are you over 58.5?
A: No.

You are Ok. Go apply.

Phew. That took a load off.

What? It's not thoughtful enough for you? Sheesh...Ok, fine, here it goes in unnecessary detail.

According to the State Department, "Career candidate appointments to the Foreign Service shall be made before the candidate's 60th birthday. The maximum age for appointment is based on the requirement that all career candidates shall be able to: (a) complete at least two full tours of duty abroad, exclusive of orientation and training; (b) complete the requisite eligibility period for tenure consideration, and (c) complete the requisite eligibility period to receive retirement benefits before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. (Note: one needs a minimum of 5 years of service in order to have retirement benefits.) Thus, new hires must be no older than 59 years and 364 days on the day of entry into service." Now, we all know how long it takes to get into the Foreign Service (if you don't, go to my particularly poignant posts on the application process here) - let's say conservatively it is about 1.5 years, assuming you get in from the first try and your security clearance process lasts about 6 months, and you get off the waiting list pretty much right away. That is a LOT of "if" and "but." But let's say that you are awesome and the administration is feeling perky and benevolent. So, drink some vodka, do some math, blow your nose and come to the conclusion that if you are over 58.5 when you first down and stare at the antiquated computers in the FSOT testing room, chances that you will make it are rather minimal. Not because you are not awesome and could not go from a junior officer to Ambassador in 5 years. I bet you could with bells on. The problem is that we get pensioned at 65. I think it is nice. It gives me a good excuse to stop working, jump on a seniors' cruise in the Caribbean and dance fragile and contained salsa till 11 pm with equally fragile folk, to the singular consternation of a less nimble, sedentary Diplomat. Some complain. I guess they are not into senior salsa.

I suppose the real question is what is realistically an upper age to enter the service. I think that the entrance process is sufficiently emotionally grueling and physiologically damaging to your liver that if you are ready to torture yourself with it, that you need to ask yourself how many tours you want out of it. As the regulation states, you need to be able to serve at least two tours. Each of your first 2 entry tours should last 2 years (unless you decide that the best way to entertain yourself at this precious age is to go to Afghanistan or, say, Yemen, which are 1 year tours). For at least one of them, you will need to learn language, which will be anywhere from 6 to 12 months in general. You will also go through the rather fascinating A-100 training, which is another useful 6 weeks of your life. So, that means - 4 years of in-country service, plus 8 mos of language and professional training, plus another 2 months of other training, plus 2-3 months of home leave, random classes and not knowing what is happening to you. Ok, I have had some wine now, so I am too confused to count. I hope for your sake you do that. If you want to serve longer...figure it out.

Besides the practical consideration of the Department regulations, I honestly do not know how much your age plays in during the exams. It sure brings in a lot of varied experience (unless, of course, you have been herding cows all of your life in Montana, which is not all THAT varied, I suppose; but then again, I have never herded anything but Son and the Diplomat at the airport, so what do I know), which is valued highly, I think. For your own sake, it might help if you are sprightly. At least in spirit. Or mind. Or in something. I always feel sprightly is a great thing to be.

I have known people in the Service who have entered at the gentle and impressionable ages of 22 and of 57. In fact, I have had several of them in my own class (huge shout-out to my man in Manila!). They are all loving it. At least they have said so. I trust them. So go on, my dear middle-aged, nervous reader - apply! The Foreign Service wants you!