Foreign Service Flexible: On Housing and HHE

Yesterday I received my supplemental HHE (Household Effects) delivery. Another 800 pounds of stuff from the U.S., eleven weeks after we arrived in China.

The “plan” (and when you are in the Foreign Service “plan” almost always has to be in quotation marks) was for this shipment to arrive approximately 4 to 5 weeks after our arrival. We packed out on January 21 of this year. Boats take about a month and then customs clearance about a week.  If only our shipment had been on the first available boat. It wasn’t.

For whatever reason the shippers reserved my shipment onto a boat departing the U.S. in late February, with an expected arrival at Shanghai port on March 23. It must not have arrived until the following week and the week after I was asked for photocopies of my credentials to send to the port for clearance.

Well no worries, our stuff is here.

At least once (though probably more often) in a Foreign Service Officer’s career, she will ask herself, when opening up the UAB or HHE or supplemental HHE or consumables shipment…”What was I thinking?”

350 pounds of cat litter. 50 pounds of cat food. Two 200 count boxes of Fla-Vor-Ice (C’s favorite snack). One bag 300 count dum-dums (C’s other favorite snack). Four boxes of Fiber One buttermilk pancake mix. Various cans of food stuffs like Campbell’s soup, pumpkin filling (for pumpkin pancakes!), canned chicken breast. Boxes of cat items, toys, and all my Chinese study materials.

350 pounds of kitty litter

This is what 350 pounds of cat litter looks like. I know you were wondering.

Now where to put this stuff?

Moving in the Foreign Service (or other similar endeavors) is always a crapshoot when it comes to housing. The size and style and type of housing vary widely from post to post. On one hand African posts are known for their very generous house sizes. On the other hand Western European posts generally have less-spacious apartments.

I had a large three bedroom apartment in Jakarta with a kitchen the size of some master bedrooms and a large space between the living room and the dining area. I guess it was a hallway, but “hallway” belies its size. I also had more shelving and cabinets than I knew what to do with. In Juarez I had a three-bedroom, 2.5 bath, two story single family home with two car garage. I had some space. Here in Shanghai I have a 2 bedroom with den apartment. Do not get me wrong, it is a very lovely apartment, but it is smaller than previous housing and lacks much storage space. I do not even have a hall closet.


The “Great Hall” at my Jakarta residence. Perfect for wind sprints. And the large area on the right that looks like a doorway? Nope, it is a giant built in shelving unit. Storage and space. The novelty!

No problem. When I received my housing assignment in November, I was informed the apartment came with a 9 x 9 foot storage locker on another floor. Fantastic!

It was because I knew I had this storage space I went out and bought all that cat litter and cat food, a two year supply of feminine hygiene products, children’s shampoo and medicines, and toothpaste and toothbrushes.  Also a two year supply of liquid laundry detergent or pods because an informant told me they were hard to come by and horribly expensive and local products were harsh (true), and six large bottles of olive oil as another informed me these too were scarce (not true).

It is why I bought some 400 packets of sugar substitute and some 800 zip-lock baggies in a variety of sizes (not sure what I will use them for, but they sure seemed important to buy at the time).

It is because of this storage unit that I figured I could easily stow my growing George Foreman Grill and cat carrier collections.

(Yeah. I know. Not your usual collections. It would seem I bought a new GF grill every time I was posted to DC and the cat carriers – you need a different kind for every different kind of travel. Large hard side for cargo shipping. Small hard side for car travel. Small soft side for in cabin plane travel. Sigh.)

Upon arrival in Shanghai I found a welcome letter that again mentioned my storage unit. A few days later I was ready to wheel down some empty suitcases to storage. Unfortunately the small key on my key ring turned out not to be for any storage unit, but for mail. The guards on the storage floor directed me to the apartment complex office. The office referred me to the Consulate. The Consulate informed me that all new contracts did not include a storage unit and mine, it turned out, is a new contract.

Wait. What?!

To become a Foreign Service Officer the State Department looks for individuals who exhibit certain qualities. Although it is not explicitly one of the thirteen dimensions, “flexibility” is a word very often extolled in our line of work. Think of all the times we move.  The different countries and cultures we find ourselves in. The number of times our colleagues and our supervisors change.   You need to be flexible when it takes over nine months to ship and clear your car through customs in a two year tour. You need to be flexible when you spend seven months learning Norwegian and it turns out the Department will instead need you in Japan. You need to be flexible when you do not get any of your top twenty choices for a post and end up where you least expected (and wanted).

And you need to be flexible when post informs you, a week after your arrival, that you do not in fact have the storage unit you had previously been informed you had. Even after you sent 800 pounds of extra stuff to post specifically because you were told you had that storage unit.

You might want to be annoyed. You might want to rail against the unfairness. You might want to pout. But in the end you need to accept, let it go, and be flexible.

To their credit, the folks at the Consulate tried their best to fix the situation, within the confines of what they could do. I now have a storage unit, but on a temporary basis as it belongs to another apartment and when the occupant vacates next summer, I have to move all my remaining belongings back to my guest room.

a full storage space

I am very excited to have the opportunity to move most of this back into my apartment in a little over a year’s time.

So I have a goal to reduce my total HHE I brought to Shanghai by at least 1,000 pounds by departure, and to get rid of most of that before I have to lug it all back into my apartment next July.

Planning and organizing. That is another Foreign Service quality. I have that in spades.

2015-04-18 18.03.33

I am so flexible I will continue to refer to this as my guest room.


2 thoughts on “Foreign Service Flexible: On Housing and HHE

  1. Pingback: Foreign Service Flexible: On Housing and HHE | Unaccompanied Baggage

  2. Pingback: Shanghai: Inside a Year – The Wanderlust Diaries

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