Life has been a blur since I started my new job as an Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy a month ago. I remember sitting in the dark, open-air lobby of a hotel in Bali at 5 a.m., staring at the bright screen of my laptop, making final changes to the electronic 50-page personal information form I had to update to begin the investigation to go from the “Secret” clearance I already had to the “Top Secret” one I’d need for the new job. A mosquito bit me and I slapped it when it landed on the table, smearing my own blood on my paperwork. While in Bali I found out I’d received a provisional clearance so I could start the day after I returned.
Although I attended the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, I’d never taken the Foreign Service test. I graduated after a decade of Republican presidents, and had qualms about representing a government when I disagreed with its policies. I always wondered whether I had what it takes to be a Foreign Service Officer, though, so when a special Expanded Professional position for family members opened up in the Economic Section, I applied and got the job, doing what other Foreign Service Officers do when they work their first tour as an Economic Officer.
At my new job, I get to write more, which I like, but it also requires longer hours, which I've had to adjust to. I'd been leading an active life outside of work, and had to cut back. Fortunately, someone else has agreed to take over the job of being Vice President of Membership at the Toastmasters club. Because the club’s growing so quickly, that takes up a lot of time.
In a sense I feel like a baby again, learning so much that is new. How to write a Decision Memo; How to write a Briefing Memo; How to write a Scenesetter. I’ve written and released my first Cable and I’m pretty darned proud of that! I’m learning to write like a diplomat, to say things more diplomatically. I tend to be more direct and fact-oriented, so this is a new skill set for me.
The early fall is just before the federal fiscal year ends, when offices spend any leftover, alotted money. Not coincidentally, our Embassy is receiving a slew of U.S. government VIP visitors, and each visiting delegation is handled by a Control Officer, who is solely responsible for making sure the visit goes smoothly, although she has a lot of help. I’m backing up the Economic Officer who does Transportation issues, who’s been on a lengthy, well-deserved vacation. The problem is that we’ve had three Transportation-related VIP visits in a row, and I’ve gotten to handle all three of them.
The first thing a Control Officer does is create a “notional schedule” of the visit. This schedule can and does change almost every day until the visitor arrives. Next, she coordinates: with the Embassy team in charge of logistics, who help arrange drivers, interpreters, and hotels; with the ECON secretarial staff; with the Ambassador’s staff; with the visitors’ staff in Washington; and with Korean counterparts in Korean government and industry
When the VIP visitor has a wish, the Control Officer’s job is to fulfill it. The VIPs I’ve handled so far have been reasonable and gracious, but this isn’t always the case. One VIP canceled the dinner that had been arranged for him with Korean officials, and instead wanted to eat at “that Korean restaurant that President Park Chung-hee used to like.” President Park Chung-hee died in 1979, and how was the Control Officer to know which restaurant the VIP had in mind, since he didn’t know the name of it, and President Park ate at hundreds of Korean restaurants? The VIP finally agreed that he would let the Ambassador choose a restaurant. But that meant the Control Officer had the unenviable task of calling the Ambassador at home on a Sunday morning and asking him to pick out a restaurant! Luckily, Ambassador Sung Kim is an unflappable career Foreign Service Officer who's had lots of experience with VIP visitors, and he gracefully came up with a suggestion.
I know my job will get easier as I gain experience. And it certainly has its perks. I got to spend time in a special airport VIP lounge decorated with Louis XVI-style furniture and a grandfather clock, where we were the only occupants, far from the madding crowd. I received a folding umbrella that will certainly come in handy in South Korea (but you can accept gifts only if they cost $25 or less). And I test-drove a fully electric car and rode in a fuel-cell car at a Hyundai-Kia research facility. My biggest challenge will probably be one I've always had: not to eat too much when I’m representing my country!