The Foreign Service has a requirement, mandated by the act of Congress, that any employee assigned abroad for any extended period of time—more than 18 months as defined in legislation—must return to the United States for no less than two weeks per year abroad for Home Leave. For some officers between tours, this is the only time they’ll spend in the US between a few years on some corner of the world and some other. As they tell us, it’s to keep us from “going native”—every once in a while, a diplomat needs to remember who they work for and come home. It’s a benefit I certainly don’t complain about receiving but always felt ever so slightly anachronistic.
Every FSO I know spends an inordinate amount of energy seeking out the best American-style restaurants, bars, and grocery stores they can in their city, and spends most of their free time seeking out and spending time with Americans or like-minded people. This may have something to do with China being a particularly difficult environment in which US diplomats find themselves as far as diving into local culture goes, but that same impulse, I imagine, happens worldwide—we’re all here to see the world, but when you see the world for a living, a taste of home from time to time (or every other day) is all that sweeter.
Given how many American haunts there are in Beijing, it’s very possible to live a nearly-American existence here (nearly). One can forget why something like Home Leave would be something considered so vital to maintaining a diplomatic corps that it’s literally the law that we take it.
I saw the other day another black American was shot. His killing was particularly startling, particularly brutal in how it happened. And I shook my head and went about my day.
I spent a lot of my day today discussing the issues the United States and China face in the future with 70 American students and teachers. It was a great talk. We were talking about issues like the South China Sea, like trade relations, like censorship, like political liberties. And, yes, often, how America represented a lot of positive things that China doesn’t.
A few hours later a friend of mine texted me about the events in Dallas. Killings particularly startling. I hadn’t heard. I gasped a bit over lunch. And I shook my head and went about my day.
Many hours later, I boot up the VPN and check my Facebook feed—for the inglorious place in our lives most of us ascribe Facebook to, it’s the only realistic way to keep up with lots of friends and family who are oceans away—and see the outrage. The sadness. The loss of hope. The fear, and the disgust, and the yearning for better.
A considerable portion of my dinner conversation was about how simply wonderful America is. And if there’s anything I’ve learned being abroad this long, it’s that America is an incredible place in many ways. But I never truly felt out of touch until scrolling through a Facebook feed full of nothing but blunt, raw emotion and realizing that I would only feel later.
I now understand why we need Home Leave, even if it is only a stopgap. We need to check in occasionally with life in America, with its trials, its turbulence, its ever-more-distant familiarity and its occasional unflappable comforts. At this moment, I feel like I don’t know America all that well.
K and I were assigned to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti for our next tour. We are happy. It is a place unlike any place I have ever been (K has a few experiences that may serve as good parallels). I am excited for the challenge. But what we are most excited about is being on East Coast Time and being a 90 minute flight from Miami.We’ll have tiny pockets of “Home Leave” for long weekends.
Me and K spent the past two and a half weeks in America. We’ve been back for two days, and it already feels like a dream.
I had a conversation with a friend about how excited we were to be back. I called the USA the greatest country in the world—a superlative statement but not one I’ve been convinced is wrong yet—and she just sort of looked at me cockeyed and said: “I dunno…”
It’s a wacky relationship you build with the United States when you’re in charge of deciding who gets to go there every day. When you interview 150 people every single day that want to go there (and have to say no to some of them), it leads to putting the homeland on a bit of a pedestal. And I read news stories every day, just like most Americans, about the “unusual” state of electoral politics this year, about gridlock over the Supreme Court, about lead in Flint and hostile takeovers of public lands in Washington State, and yet—and I think this feeling is nearly universal amongst American diplomats in Beijing—there’s just no beating it. There’s just no feeling better than eating your favorite American (and Mexican…) foods, than sharing a beer with your friends at your old hangout, than hugging your mom.
There are lots of incredible places in the world. I’ve had wonderful opportunities so far to see a few of them, and will see many more. But if there’s one thing thing I’ve been made sure of during my time overseas so far, it’s that there is amazing value in being home. Because home is, well, home.
It doesn’t hurt when this is home, though—all taken on this trip:
In Chinese, the name for America translates to “beautiful country.” Till next time, 美国.
Play this song while you read (potentially several times):
I’ve have had a lot of travel opportunities since moving to China. In addition to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Guilin, I’ve made use of that sweet, sweet State Department deal in which you get both local and American holidays off to go to:
I don’t want it to sound like my life here has revolved entirely around food (although it mostly has—but I still don’t want it to sound like it). So in discussing Tokyo, our next trip that we just got back from mere hours ago, let’s start elsewhere. Don’t worry, the food will come.
The First Impression
Capitalized. Have you noticed I haven’t done a straight-up travel post since I wrote about camping on the Great Wall of China? I’ve been struck plenty of times by the places I’ve been since coming to Asia, for all sorts of reasons. But not once have I felt compelled to write about it for public consumption the second I got home. I haven’t had a bad travel experience yet (save for the horrendous stomach parasite I caught in Malaysia—don’t worry, it was worth it), and I’d go so far as to say some of them were revelatory, but if Hong Kong was fantastic, Tokyo might just hit life-changing for me.
A bit of it, of course, is about perspective.
Beijing, where I live, has grown from a population of two million in 1950 to a population of over 20 million today. It’s not like all those 1950s Beijingers had a ton of babies—as we all know, it was one child per household until very recently here—those 19 million new residents came from elsewhere in China. Mostly from places where there isn’t (or wasn’t until recently) electricity, indoor plumbing, much in the way of paved roads, many job prospects, opportunities for higher education, or any of the other trappings of a developed society. So if you imagine any given backwater town in America, took those people and multiplied them by, say, a few million or so, and put them in the second-largest city in the world—well, that’s Beijing (and all of the enormous cities on the eastern seaboard of China). As a result, the Communist Party puts up huge banners everywhere reminding people to “act civilized” hoping a friendly reminder might instill some order in these places. Just to give you an idea of the general state of affairs.
I landed in Tokyo—written in both Japanese and Chinese as 東京 (in Chinese, pronounced Dong Jing: Eastern Capital), the counterpart to my familiar 北京 (Bei Jing: Northern Capital)—and the difference presented itself starkly within minutes. People were bowing to me left and right (people bow to me at the visa window, but that’s entirely different). Cars yielded to pedestrians instead of doing their best to make every street-crossing a roll of the dice just to make it out alive. People waited in line. They didn’t hock loogies on the street. Cabbies actually stopped for foreigners.
I knew quickly this was the promised land.
The connection between Japan and China is ancient—hence Japan’s extensive use of Chinese characters in their written language. They say a Chinese speaker could get around in Japan by passing written messages to people. The languages are utterly different when spoken, but, as I’ve been told, this would be akin to a French person with no English trying to communicate with you by writing down French words that they (somehow) knew had English cognates—in that admittedly far-fetched scenario, you’d probably get the gist of what they needed from you. My ability to write Chinese characters is virtually nil, thanks to pinyin input and my own laziness, so that’s not an option, but we could read streetsigns with some proficiency. And I did have success in writing the Chinese for “paperclip” on my phone and showing it to an attendant at the airport when I needed the aforementioned tool to change my SIM card.
I describe the historical connection between the two places because the relationship between the languages fascinates me. Japanese has three syllabaries (which is how pretentious linguists say “alphabets” as I learned reading a lot on Wikipedia): kanji (Chinese characters), katakana (an alphabet based on symbols from Chinese characters), and hiragana (an alphabet much more loosely based on symbols in Chinese characters, that is generally more squiggly). So us Chinese “speakers” (I still hesitate to call myself that even though I interview 150 Chinese people a day in Chinese as part of my job) are 1-for-3 on the Japanese alphabets, although katakana looks pretty darn familiar. That was, surprisingly, enough to feel a certain level of familiarity.
So as should be clear by me bringing you down this rabbit hole, not only was I impressed by these people’s manners, I was fascinated by their language. Both of those feelings kicked off within an hour of arrival.
Maybe I just liked Japan because I spent most of my British Airways miles on a business-class flight there and spent a whole ton of Hilton points on a stay at the Conrad Tokyo, and thus we had a very comfortable stay more-or-less for free.
Much to my girlfriend’s chagrin, I really hate taking cabs if I can help it. Especially abroad. I don’t know what landmarks to direct you to! Or even, sometimes, how to speak your language! K’s ability to show somebody her phone and make noises until they understand will always impress me.
But as far as I’m concerned, mass transit is a challenge and a blessing. Especially when it looks like this:
Yeah, I know showing you a map like that doesn’t reinforce the idea of manageable. But just like I will always hold that New York City is vastly more livable than, say, Los Angeles (or any other car-based town), I strongly believe mass transit is what makes the urban experience. Tokyo’s system reinforces that. Like New York, Tokyo is a city of neighborhoods, of individual places with individual identities, each just a quick, cheap metro ride away from each other (or a $7 minimum-fare cab ride. Don’t take cabs here if you can help it; they’re the most expensive I’ve ever seen. The drivers all wear black suits and white gloves, though, which is fun).
What really reinforces the idea of neighborhoods in Tokyo is an idea I see repeated in Beijing city blocks: big buildings on the outside, small buildings on the inside. But the implementation is quite different. In Beijing this leads to restaurants and bars being hidden in nooks and crannies everything being hard to find (which does, admittedly, add to an air of mystery, especially in the hutongs). In Tokyo, this leads to people having quiet, secluded places to live in the midst of the biggest city in the world.
I could go on for ages on each of the neighborhoods and highlights we visited, but here’s a few highlight photos instead, all of which I think probably speak for themselves:
The Lasting Impression
And so, as you’ve probably gotten by now, I loved Tokyo. I can’t stop talking about the Japanese language and bidding on Japan and going back to visit. I’ve never really had a “list” of cities I loved—New York was always my one and only. But I think Tokyo needs to be lodged snuggly beneath number one.
As I so often begin these entries: long time no blog.
The art of blogging in the Foreign Service is much harder than I anticipated. In the weeks before I started A-100, I posted several times a week. In A-100, once every week or two. In language training, every month. Now—Well, it’s been since November since I updated. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Training is about preparing for something, getting ready to go, and there’s a palpable sense of excitement. Once you get there… Yeah, it’s still exciting, but it’s just a lot harder to talk about it. A good friend of mine—honestly, my only good friend outside the Embassy community here—cannot stand us Embassy folk talking about work, which we do. Constantly. We’re really pretty boring, and I would hate to subject the internet to that.
But a palpable sense of excitement for what’s to come has been creeping in these past few months. It all starts tomorrow.
Flying there tomorrow. K is already there sending me photos and eating curry. Cannot wait to join her and explore the city that in many ways feels like an ideal for somebody like me: enormous, food-centric, transport-equipped, bustling.
Heading there in less than two weeks for a 2.5-week reunion with everything I never knew I needed till I left. This has been my longest time overseas (8 months!) and I’m ready for a brief fantasy interlude in the land of Chipotle, clothes that fit guys taller than 5’7″, and exuberant, beautiful diversity. Home to California with my parents, Illinois to see K’s family. Then New York, the city I think of as “my town” and most people who know me know I will not stop talking about. Ever. We’re going to check off some very serious boxes here. And yes, in keeping with the photo, we’ll be road tripping a (brief) part of the way!
Bidding is around the corner. Two months (or so) till the list comes out. Then the excited, nervous cycle of looking forward really begins again. K and I spend a lot of time fantasizing: Mexico City, or maybe Sao Paulo? What if London is on the list? How do we feel about learning Vietnamese? The pay is awfully good in Ukraine… There were two Copenhagens on last cycle’s list! … Etcetera, etcetera.
So after my plane leaves tomorrow morning, I’ll spend four full days in China in the next month. Not that that’s unusual this time of year—it’s 春节, Chinese New Year (新年快乐!), and most of China is traveling, whether to some exotic locale or back to their hometowns—the flow of people from the big coastal cities of China back to the rural west for Chinese New Year is the single largest migration of people on the planet, and it happens every single year.
After we get back, I anticipate a blur: spring will be upon us, and summer soon after. I’m excited to say in October I’m rotating up to a new position in the head of consular affairs for the entirety of China’s office which will certainly bring new challenges and a lot of fantastic opportunities.
By then, though, I’ll know where the next step is, and we’ll be counting the days!
It’s been a wonderful, yearning sort of month, internet. Full of smiling and breathing deeply and sighing long, drawn-out sighs.
It’s winter in northern China. It comes early. It hasn’t broken freezing in days, and the belching coal fires heating shacks and skyscrapers alike means choking pollution most of the time. You grab your hat, scarf, and face mask on your way out of the house. Luckily Beijing remains a fun city with a lot to do and see, and it’s weird what people can adjust to—the intense traffic, the ebbs and flows of monumental volumes of people at every corner, the air quality, the bitter cold, the language and cultural barriers—it’s all always present and it bears down on you, but for me, it’s become a situation where I feel intense relief and a surge of happiness every time a quarter-mile cab ride only takes 15 minutes, or when my VPN connects the first time with no trouble. Rather than give in to constant frustration, I’ve been happy to find my natural impulse is to celebrate the little victories.
But I have been having reactions to life in China, at this point a story almost six months old. In the past couple of months I’ve found myself experiencing a throbbing, if not exactly intense, feeling of homesickness. This is the longest I’ve ever been overseas (a statement many of my State Department colleagues probably find laughable), and nothing I’ve experienced has made me appreciate my home country more. It’s the little things—familiar restaurant etiquette, familiar brands in stores, familiar traffic patterns—that I find myself dreaming about and that are truly unobtainable in China. It leaves you thinking constantly about home and a future when you’ll be back.
It’s not just the living here that’s fueling these feelings. State Department life has a way of constantly forcing you to look forward rather than invest in the present—I bid on my next assignment in just a few months, and the rumination on what I want in my next post is already starting. Flag Day way back in August 2014 felt like an enormous moment, and it was in its way, but the true nature of this career as an endless march of change and transplantation is starting to really dawn on me with Assignment Number Two around the corner.
But the career is not the only thing taking my attention away from late November in Beijing. I’ve managed to stumble my way into a new relationship with a really amazing woman, the catch being that she lives in Guangzhou, a city in southern China a three-hour flight away. We’re seeing each other every weekend, meaning one or both of us is on a plane every single Friday. I’ve found myself leading an important part of the jetsetter consultant lifestyle I thought I might end up in before joining State, racking up airline miles left and right and really exercising my Priority Pass membership.
But the nature of a long-distance relationship complements the nature of the State Department nicely—it’s about looking forward. To the next trip, to the next long weekend, to the time when you both can hang up the long-distance hat and just be regular people. For us, that would happen in America.
And so, forward and homeward I stare ever, ever so intently. Luckily, I’ll have the opportunity to put the dreaming on pause in February when we’re taking a trip home for two and a half weeks. “I can’t wait” has become a rallying cry for me lately, and it will be positively incredible to go back to the future in America, if only for a little while.
My life right now, in virtually every capacity, revolves around travel. At work, my job is (put very simply) to get folks from point A (China) to point B (America). On the weekends, more often than not I’m on a plane or a train somewhere. I’ve logged more hours on a plane in the past few months than any other time in my life, save for maybe my 2010 semester abroad in Prague. And with every passing day lately, I’m finding more and more reasons to head to the airport one more time.
In Chinese, there’s a lot of options when you want to wish someone a nice trip (which I typically do after every positive visa interview, so we’re talking 100+ times a day here). There’s the ever-popular 一路平安—”a safe and even road”—to the extremely straightforward 祝你好好玩儿！—”have fun!”. But my favorite that gets said around the section by enthusiastic officers to happy applicants is 祝你玩儿地开心！—very literally, “have fun till your heart is open!”. It’s an expression I really love.
So I’ve had a lot of people wishing me pleasant journeys, lately—I’ve covered quite a few thousand miles in the past six weeks.
The biggest trip by far was my 国庆节 holiday trip—China celebrates its National Day holiday the first week of October, where many Chinese take off a full two weeks and travel either back to their hometowns or somewhere far afield. I followed suit, and booked a European tour.
It was a fantastic two weeks. But after coming back, I was home (to an angry, lonely cat) for all of five days before it was off to another corner of the world. Columbus Day weekend, many of my coworkers from all over Mission China converged in Taipei.
Taipei was utterly fantastic. A truly vibrant Chinese city, a food Mecca—it was fascinating to see China under a different governmental system. But apart from the cultural experience, the weekend also touched off something else. Something of a 开心—an opening of the heart. I just had such an incredible time. And so with this fantastic time outside the mainland in my pocket, two weeks later I took on a different part of China, heading to Guangzhou, the center of Cantonese culture.
Guangzhou is a really neat city (also with fantastic food). I had a really wonderful time.
My next couple of weekends are in Beijing, but I’m planning on another trip to Shanghai soon. From there? Kunming? Xian? Hong Kong? Tokyo? Seoul? All of the above?
There’s something in the air right now. It’s getting me off the couch and into an aisle seat. It’s really fantastic. 我心真开了！
So despite the doom and gloom described two posts ago, I am happy to report that not only was my HHE not destroyed in a terrible explosion, but it in fact was misdirected to Korea in what is the luckiest error I’ve ever experienced. And not only that—it’s here!
The craziest part about this is that while some of this stuff I packed out from Washington and have been away from for three months, a lot of it is stuff I packed out from New York that has been sitting in storage for over a year. Most of this is stuff I totally forgot I had, or stuff that seems to have resurfaced from ancient history. We have items ranging from those purchased when I was 14 and had very, very different ideas about what I would be doing in my mid-twenties:
To those that date back even farther, to when I was four years old:
To those that are utterly insignificant:
To those that remind me of my best friends:
To the cherished:
Fitz had a pretty good time too.
Between all that, there’s the more practical stuff—my winter coats, my cookware, my books—and the less—my trinkets from everywhere I’ve ever been, my wall hangings, my Flag Day flag—that make you feel better prepared for being a regular person and make home feel like home. When I was under the impression my stuff exploded, I was annoyed to be sure, but was pretty OK with shrugging my shoulders and moving on. But now that it’s all here, it’s making me a lot happier than I would have thought. Stuff is nice!
So as most of you probably know, the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army (separate entities, technically—the army works for the Communist Party, not the government of China) held an enormous military parade yesterday. While I’ve heard from friends elsewhere in China that yesterday was just another day for them, the parade’s impact on Beijing was unmistakeable. In fact, for the past few days the city was almost unrecognizable.
The steps the government took to ensure a perfect performance yesterday were myriad. The most starkly obvious, however, were the measures taken to ensure picture-perfect air quality. For the past few weeks, factories for hundreds of miles were shuttered, traffic was reduced by 50% or more throughout the city by means of license plate restrictions, and rain was perfectly timed to clear out any stray smog the day before the parade, thanks to the good old Beijing Weather Modification Office. What we in America say is up to God or nature, the Communist Party handles here in China. For two weeks now, air quality has been crystal-clear, bottoming out at an Air Quality Index of 8 the day before the parade—meaning that the giant metropolis of Beijing handily beat Yellowstone National Park’s measly 22 AQI the same day.
Entire swaths of the city were secreted away first for rehearsals for the parade, and then for the parade itself. An enormous sector of the city was closed entirely, with only residents allowed in to proceed directly home. In an even greater area a vast majority of businesses were closed. Those who lived near the parade route were forbidden to so much as open their windows for days before. Everyone here was told they were welcome to watch the parade on television, but only a hand-selected few were permitted to watch tanks and missiles roll past Tiananmen Square in person.
And so the parade came and went against a clear-clue sky, and it was all very impressive and flawlessly performed. But just after nightfall yesterday, the AQI here leapt back up to 160, a number much more typical for Beijing, and the strange mist-like particles that flit around the city doing whatever they do to us, its residents, had returned.
Beijing was an exceedingly pleasant place the past few weeks—it’s been a running joke amongst expats here that it sure would be nice if the government held military parades every weekend. I sure hope I haven’t been spoiled.
It’s a fact of life that some things are out of our control. The weather, for one: the picnic or hike or 400-guest outdoor banquet you’re planning is, ultimately, at the mercy of the heavens.
Here in Beijing, and indeed to a greater or less extent in most of Asia, the other variable is air quality. It’s no longer just good enough to check the weather forecast, see a beautiful sunny Saturday, make plans and hope it holds. The AQI is a tough number to predict in advance. Here in Beijing, it often swings from crystal-clear skies to nigh-apocolyptic in a few hours.
So when it rains outside, you can head inside—making for a pretty poor picnic—you can set up umbrellas, move under a tree, what have you. When the air goes bad, you can wear a mask, like so:
But as the caption might have given away, the primary adaptation mechanism most people take here is to just suck it up (literally). AQI readings that would have given me pause six weeks ago, where I would never consider sitting outside at a restaurant, for example, no longer bother me in the slightest. 150? No problem. 200? Eh. The day pictured above was about 300—I’d probably throw the mask on again for that. For reference, New York City sits at about 30-50 almost all the time.
I think it’s a good metaphor for the challenges China and life in general have thrown at me lately: being told that the formaldehyde readings in my house are horrendous, and I might have to move while they strip out all the floors? Eh, ok. Being told that the recent explosions in Tianjin, which have killed dozens of people, probably blew up/damaged/contaminated my entire shipment of stuff from the US, which was sitting at the port in Tianjin awaiting customs clearance? Well, some of that stuff was sentimental, but most of it was easily replaceable, and it wasn’t much stuff anyway.
So there’s basically been a lot of weird, bad news lately.
But seriously, if there’s one thing my job has done for me so far, it’s exposed me to the crazy things people go through. At the visa window I hear all kinds of stories: young couples on their honeymoons and parents going to college graduations are common happy stories, but there’s also poor farmers begging to be allowed to visit the US to bury a dead relative there; people with terrible diseases untreatable in China preparing to empty their life savings into last-ditch procedures in the US; people with terminal illnesses being taken by their spouses and parents and children to the US because they’d always dreamed of going and time is short—visa work gives you a window onto all kinds of suffering and all kinds of dreaming. It doesn’t take long for your problems to seem smaller, and your appreciation for the happy coincidences that make life worth living far greater.
Today was a beautiful, sunny, good-air day. I spent it by the pool. In a place like Beijing, that is a beautiful thing.
Not going to go into details here on the internet, but this particular diplomat has hit up against some serious personal problems. So I’m pretty sad, and I think a part of me will be sad for some time, but given my awfully cool job, my awfully cool coworkers, my awfully cool cat, and all the awfully cool people I’ve met here in Beijing… I’m subscribing to the following:
It also amuses me that this post, the service I linked to above, this very blog—all banned in China. I can’t take a position on that. Just food for thought.
A former park ranger goes to Washington and beyond!