The Long, Not-so-long, Expat

On an extension, bidding prep, and the challenge of being at a post with too much to do

So the big news is that I have extended here in Shanghai. Or rather, my request to extend has been approved, because nothing like that happens without getting approval from DC.

Why in the world would I want to do even MORE visas? Especially when colleagues around me are applying for onward assignments that allow them to curtail. Many of the younger and/or single folks heading on to third tours opted to bid on and accept handshakes for positions in one-year unaccompanied posts, or the Priority Staffing Posts (PSP) like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Yemen. Of course married folks too opt for these posts. But me, the single mom of a toddler? No. No, I extend.

I requested the extension so that I might move from the winter bidding cycle on to the summer cycle, because A. there are more bidding options on the summer cycle and B. because soon enough school will become an issue for us and it would be nice not to have to pull my daughter out in the middle of a school year (though summer cycle does not guarantee that – nothing in the Foreign Service is ever really 100% a sure thing).

It helped my case that Chinese is a super hard language that generally takes 36 to 44 weeks at the Foreign Service Institute to reach the required level and China is experiencing a huge boost in visa applications and we are short staffed to meet demand (though making a super valiant effort anyway). Here I was, already in China, with the requisite Chinese level, asking to stay longer. So it was granted.

A three month extension brings my tour to April 2017, which makes me eligible for the summer cycle.

Bidding. It is bidding season now, though not mine, but there is that whiff of excitement and anxiety in the air. Colleagues who are in the midst of the cycle huddle together, whispering about “handshakes” and jobs “slipping off the list” and follow-up phone calls and emails, about interviews and “lobbying packets.” There is a whole vernacular devoted to mid-level bidding.

I will not start until next summer, yet it has not stopped me from already daydreaming about the possibilities. Alright, truth be told, I am doing far more than dreaming. I am researching potential posts. I am thinking through the ramifications of another stint at language learning at the Foreign Service Institute (something I swore up and down that I would NOT do before my third tour). I am imagining us in Post X in Central America or Post Y in Africa or Post Z in Asia. Do I want myself and my daughter to take anti-malarials the whole tour? Would friends and family visit? How difficult is it to import pets? Is the tour straight up Political or is it a Pol-Econ or jack of all trades? Is it an Embassy or Consulate, large post or small? How are the schools? Each and every one with positives and negatives to ponder.

However, although it is fun to research and ruminate over the options of where we might find ourselves living next, it is also a bit odd to already be thinking about the follow-on post. I liken it to running for the House of Representatives. No sooner have you been voted in when you begin to prepare and campaign for the next election.

Every month a farmer’s market of sorts is held in the atrium of the apartment complex where I live. There one can find fruits and vegetables from organic farms but also homemade chocolates and baked goods and other products. Many of the sellers are foreigners who have lived in Shanghai for awhile, they have set up businesses. Last month I stopped at a table where a woman, about my age, was selling specialty soaps and home tonics. I ended up talking with her for about 30 minutes and found out that it is a company she founded and operates with her husband – an Australian/New Zealand couple with seven and fourteen years living in Shanghai respectively.

I have spent the past few weeks thinking on that. My three month extension means that we still have approximately 22 months left here in Shanghai. [“Approximately” because an ETD is still always rather fluid as one could leave April 1 or April 30 or even March 1 or May 31 and still be within the general departure guidelines.] But Foreign Service Officers are generally less permanent and more nomadic than many other expatriates. We arrive in country knowing we are here for only a certain period of time. Sometimes you will hear us say such things as “I can live anywhere for two years.” So even if we have to put up with a less than ideal assignment, with less than ideal housing, with less than ideal local conditions, we know it is temporary.

And as a result I feel quite eager to see and do as much as I can in and around Shanghai before we move on to the next tour, wherever that may be. Yet there is just WAY too much to do in Shanghai. As I noted in my post the 5 Pros and Cons on Being Posted to Shanghai there are some 70 museums alone in the city and they keep opening them faster than you can visit. In the last few years alone several world class museums have opened. Add in the restaurants and special events (Cavalia, a sort of Cirque du Soleil with horses, is coming this month as is Linkin Park in concert) and the cultural and historical sights like the Bund, Yu Gardens, the temples, the French Concession… Next year brings the opening of both Shanghai Disneyland and Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center. What’s a history/museum/travel-loving mom to do?

Reading a “Real Post Report” for one small southern African post I am considering bidding for my next tour the author wrote that the biggest quandary on a Sunday would be whether to go to one hotel for brunch or another hotel to swim. I wonder how I would deal with that. Part of me thinks it sound wonderfully simple and another part of me worries I would be bored. Would I feel more like an expat and less like a long-term tourist?

For the time being it is a moot point. We still have time here. My biggest dilemmas are often should I rest after that exhausting week of visa interviews or should I pound the pavement and ride the metro to yet another incredible sight?

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