Sunday, February 22, 2015

Needs of the Service: Exhibit A

After basking in the light of my French exam success for a couple of days, the clouds of the future started rolling in.

I received an email from my career development officer that given how early I had finished French training, she was going to have the rest of my training schedule moved up and move my departure date up by two months.

Wait... WHAT?

I didn't even know that was possible! After getting over my initial shock, I tried to decide if I was pleased or not. On one hand, I was now going to get to be at post for the presidential election and be present for some pretty significant Burundian history. Also, I've been in this job for about seven months without actually doing the real job yet - I'm eager to start doing some diplomacy. On the other hand, I have a pretty great thing going with a lovely lady here in DC, I had plans to visit family and friends in California, and moving to Africa two months early can trash the best-laid plans.


Talking it over with my career development officer clarified things. My training is really expensive and keeping me around in DC unnecessarily doesn't look like a great use of taxpayer money. That's right taxpayers, you have bureaucrats on your side! In addition, the person I'm replacing was leaving in mid-May and it would be really good if I could overlap with her at post for a bit to not have any gaps. In summary, the needs of the service trumps convenience on my part, and to tell you the truth, I am more than ok with that because that's what I signed up for and that's part of the allure and adventure of the job.

What does that mean for friends and family? I'm probably still going to get out to California before I leave, but adjust your calendars because Bryan begins a new adventure in the Great Rift Valley in early May!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Nick Burns On: Everything

This week, the former Undersecretary for Political Affairs (usually the top non-political appointee in the State Department) and diplomatic hot shot Nicholas Burns stopped by FSI, where I'm doing my training. He spoke to the Foreign Service Officers, including me, on a variety of topics including the future of US diplomacy, great power competition, our relationship with Iran and much more. The talk was moderated by Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, the Director of FSI, who at this point in my career is one of my favorite diplomats.

A few interesting topics Ambassador Burns tackled, now that he works for Harvard and can speak as a private citizen:

On the US relationship with Iran.  Burns supports the current negotiations with Iran and believes that US diplomats could be back in Tehran within three years.

On the Foreign Service's past. Burns talked about growing diversity in the department, but how the present status is not enough. He referenced days not too long ago when the service was dominated by East Coast, Ivy League, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, "no offense to anyone here from that background," he joked.

On Foreign Service Generalists and the importance of Public Diplomacy. He repeatedly highlighted the importance of public diplomacy, especially in the context of the propaganda offensive undertaken by Russia on the topic of eastern Ukraine. He also thought that the idea of "cones" or "tracks" (Economic, Political, Public Diplomacy, Consular and Management) should be taken out of the Foreign Service and that all FSO Generalists should truly be generalists.

As an Economic-coned officer with a degree in international politics, a professional background in public relations, an interest in management and currently taking consular training, I find myself agreeing with that last point.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On French and Fluency

On Tuesday I took my French interim test. I'm about five months into my seven month French training and given that I'm on schedule, I planned on hitting the 2+/2+ mark on the ILR scale used by the Department.

I went in, took he test, which was pretty pleasant. I felt I did very well on the speaking portion, but bombed the reading portion. However, when I got home that evening, I was surprised to find an email with this:

Hmm? A mistake? I went in to talk to my language supervisor the next day and he confirmed it was not. I had received a 3/3 in French and had completed my language training almost two months early!

Now, I have mixed feelings on this. Am I confident in my French? Absolutely! I feel like I could speak to anyone on any topic and express myself well. Is my French perfect? Not by a long shot. I wouldn't consider myself fluent. I still struggle to remember vocabulary words and sometimes require weird workarounds to express what I'm trying to say.

In addition, I had also needed a 3/3 on my Spanish phone test before joining the Foreign Service, something I so infamously struggled with and failed to achieve after working and living in a Spanish-speaking environment and studying in Spanish for ten years.

Is my French better than my Spanish? Doubtful. However, I think the difference in results is a testament to the great language instruction I've had here at FSI, which has really prepared me to tackle difficult topics and express myself in a subtle way that maybe Spanish Bryan still lacks. Also, it helps to make immersive language learning your full-time job eight hours a day, five days a week!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Richness of Language

"The richness of every European language is a richness in ability to describe its own culture, represent its own world. When it ventures to do the same for another culture, however, it betrays its limitations, underdevelopment, semantic weakness."
- Ryszard Kapuscinski, "The Shadow of the Sun"

At this point I'm about five months (two-thirds) through French language training. It's a lot of fun and we've reached the level where we sit in class and just talk about issues most of the day. The role of religion in wedding ceremonies, abortion, perceptions of race, scientific breakthroughs, free speech, you name it.

I'm learning French, but also about francophone culture. We read opinion articles and listen to news stories and especially recently, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, I feel I'm getting to appreciate the cultural angst, hopes and fears of the French speaking world.

It's difficult to talk about the nuances of immigrant integration in France without using French words and French meanings. I imagine it's even harder to discuss the lasting impact and legacy of colonialism in French Africa in the language of the colonizer.

And this got me to thinking. I'm learning French, which is spoken as a second language by the educated minority in Burundi, but only 8% of Burundians in total speak French. How will I be able to understand what's happening in Burundi if I can't speak Kirundi, the actual language of the country? How will I understand the concepts, ideas, the richness of Burundian culture if I don't even share the Burundian way of speech?

I understand that learning French is better for my career, and that French being the, well, lingua franca in this part of the world is the norm, but it does sometimes make you wonder about how we understand each other as human beings speaking and thinking in different languages.
Well, back to the presentations and and philosophizing in la langue fran├žaise!