Leaving the Foreign Service

By Andrea McCarley

Separating from service? It’s time for your 12-month State Department recovery program. Below is an overview of your emotional journey over the next year.

Month 1: Sober Up and Head Home

For the last month at post you were partying every night and getting no sleep. Now your clothes don’t fit and your liver is blinking red. It’s time to get back to the gym. As you enter the U.S. on your diplomatic passport for the last time, a Customs official greets you with,”What was the purpose of your trip?” Your luggage is searched.

Month 2: Where Will I Live?

Friends and familywho haven’t seen you in years were initially happy to see you. But now it’s time to get off their couches and find yourself and your excess baggage (spouse, children, family pet) a home. If you already own a place, there is at least a month’s worth of work to be done once your tenants vacate.

Rediscover driving for pleasure. Cars are on the road and people are on the sidewalk, instead of the other way around. The vast majority of cars are registered, inspected, insured, emission-controlled vehicles, driven by licensed drivers wearing seat belts. And there are actually family cars,with children in car seats-rather than rusting, filth-spewing metal boxes full of underage projectiles.

Month 3: Where the Heck Is My Stuff?

Make many phone calls to trace household effects. Although Miami is a three-hour flight from Panama, only the State Department can turn this into an eight-week journey. Items arrive but apparently endured 1,000-degree heat in warehouse storage. Buttons on some clothing melted. Make a vow never to move again.

Rediscover actual customer service. This and people waiting in orderly lines bring tears to your eyes. Shake head at temper tantrum by impatient lady at Starbuck’s complaining about her latte. She wouldn’t last an hour in theThird World.

Month 4: Eek! I Need a Job

Last paychecks, allowances, refunds have come and gone. Apply your cable-writing skills to your resumé and your representational-event skills to networking and professional forums. Rediscover meeting new people and going to new places without filling out a form. You no longer have to explain to the Regional Security Officer whom you woke up with this morning.

Month 5: Show Me the Money

New job! Many new passwords and logons to learn. People not only return your calls and e-mails, they do so the same day! What is that constant ringing in your ears? It’s your cell phone,which is no longer outside in a box but sitting next to you.

Rediscover infrastructure. Take the train to work each day. Public transport is no longer subject to frequent blowups and/or catching fire.

Months 6-7: Social Adjustments

Adapt your “water cooler” conversation skills, because no one can relate to your experiences. Your knowledge of the nuances of U.S. immigration law is, surprisingly, not a crowd-pleaser. And your intimate acquaintance with foreign prison conditions is just plain weird. You can’t relax at a July 4 beach party, but find yourself waiting until the last guest leaves and then asking permission to go home. You miss the fact that no one stops by your desk on a Wednesday afternoon and invites you to Colombia for the weekend.

Few of your new colleagues travel. You unintentionally ruin it for those who do by suggesting they read the State Department travel advisory on their country of destination. They imagine beautiful beaches, shopping and exotic food. You think of corruption, poverty, untreated sewage, money laundering and drug trafficking.

Month 8: Barely Keeping Up with World Events

You display only passing interest in international news, but when you do watch television, segments involving summits or other travel by world leaders have you doing a mental calculation of the number of control officers needed. Haiti still needs aid and Pakistan is still a mess. (Hey, you tried.) World peace is crowded off your to-do list. You are too busy learning new skills: how to fix a leaky faucet and make other home repairs previously known as “put in a work order.”

You may have maintained your primarily liberal bias, but are now an arch-conservative on the issue of illegal immigration. Of course, whether we deport or legalize, there are apparently at least 11 million people involved. After doing the math based on actual experience with a processing rate of a few dozen cases a year, you conclude that the problem will never be solved.

Months 9-10: In the Routine

You’re settled into your new job, know your stuff, and have a new ability to sit patiently through meetings where bad decisions are discussed and/or no decisions are made. On the other hand, promotion decisions are made by people who actually know you and your work.

Months 11-12: There’s No Place Like Home

Friends/family complain about bad government, but you’ve lived with bad government and the U.S. is doing just fine. Welcome home! It was a privilege to serve.

Former FSO Andrea McCarley served in Nuevo Laredo and Panama City from 2003 to 2007. She is now at ING Australia. She thanks former FSO Manny Rubio for inspiring this piece, which was originally published in the April issue of AFSA‘s Foreign Service Journal.

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