Sunday, January 5, 2014

Foreign Service Life: Part 2014

Welcome to 2014 and all that comes with turning the page into a new year: new goals, changes, fresh starts, broad horizons and changing the color scheme from red and green to light blue - ah, I love a new year.

Now that it's January, my husband, the Tabbies and I have officially put one foot (paw) into every month of the year here in Mexico. This stirs up notions of reflection, how far we've come, what we've learned here etc... but also the feeling that we only have a short time left in which to accomplish the goals we sketched out for our time here.

There are the personal goals, mainly centered on learning as much as we can about Mexican life and people, regional travel, improving our Spanish (to include infusing it with "borderisms" like parquear - the verb to park your car, chequear - the verb to check something, and troca - the large vehicle that Ford  and Chevy make),  eating local food, watching local nightly news, shopping at S-Mart, navigating Juarez' potholed streets, and generally having an idea of what a day in the life of a Juarense is like.  We will take all these images with us as we move on, and soon we'll add to that collage what a Romanian spring feels like, how bad their traffic really is or isn't, what their favorite pastimes are, and what is considered spicy in their food.

There are also the professional goals: learning as much as possible about being a Consular Officer and how to run an efficient, productive and strong-morale Consular Section.    Coming to Juarez has been teaching me all that, and continues to do so every day. This is something I hope to carry with me to all our future postings.  According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers," - to become truly proficient, verging on awesome, in something one must spend 10,000 hours doing it. I worked that out to mean three back-to-back tours here before I could call myself an expert, which I think the State Department frowns on, so I'm left to just absorb as much as possible in the remaining 13 months.

Once again, I truly wish I could share some of the stories I've heard while interviewing, on both the tourist visa and immigrant visa side of the house - but of course I can't. I can speak generally, however, that not a day goes by without experiencing the whole range of emotions: frustration, when immigration law allows convicted spousal abusers to be approved for visas while young people whose parents took them to the US as little kids have to apply for waivers; satisfaction, when I know I've made accurate decisions and have helped good people join the ranks of legal residents in our country; joy, such as when an applicant reaches his fingers through the document-passing slot in the window to squeeze my fingers in gratitude;  and pride, when I see how many people are still so eager to move to our country.

My husband and I have found that there are two general types of people in the Foreign Service: those who are in it for the career and those who are in it for the lifestyle. Naturally, nothing is ever completely black and white and most people fall somewhere between the ends of this spectrum.  We chose the FS for the lifestyle, and I chose Consular for the career. All FS Officers (FSOs) must serve a minimum of one year as a Consular Officer, even when their chosen professional track is to work in Management, Public Diplomacy, Political or Economic sections. While only one year is the requirement, many FSOs from these other tracks end up doing two consecutive tours, or four years, on the visa line. Again, some take this well and even choose to switch tracks to become Consular Officers, and some grit their teeth as they head for the interview window instead of to a meeting with a foreign official to discuss something-or-other in politics or policy.  Personally, I prefer the micro view of the world from my window to the 50,000 foot overview of the big picture. 

I never tire of hearing what my applicants have to tell me about their lives. Yes, it can be exasperating when I know they're lying to hide facts they fear will make them ineligible for the visa they want. But I also get to hear about their jobs, their families, their hopes, their arrests, their health concerns, their addictions, their children, the times they crossed through the desert with smugglers, and the times that they received visas to study in US universities.  Perhaps it's my intrinsic interest in the lives of others that brings me here, and as you're reading this, perhaps you share this interest or why else would you be here? 

Either way, being on the threshold of a new year lets me savor what has come before and look forward to what's ahead. I find that's what life is all about.

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