Disney for the Holidays, Shanghai Style

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Shanghai Disneyland begins decorating for Christmas

I am a convert.

As a child I liked Disney well enough.  I liked the movies, the songs,  the Happy Meal tie-in toys.  But it was not until I had my child, and really since we moved to Shanghai knowing the newest park would open here, that I came to love Disney.  Since moving to Shanghai we have visited Disney parks in Florida, Hong Kong, California, and Shanghai.  I am already planning to visit Disney World again on my next home leave, and I know at some point we will get to Tokyo and Paris.  We move next to Malawi, which is a long way from any Disney park and yet…Paris is the R&R point for Malawi and my daughter already talks of Paris–two of her favorite Disney movies, The Aristocats and Ratatouille, are set there.

Right now my daughter is at an age where Disney is particularly magical and I am so grateful to be in Shanghai at this time and to be able to give her these experiences.  I do not acknowledge it enough, but we are extraordinarily blessed to live this lifestyle.  And here we are living someplace we can reach a Disney park within 75 minutes of leaving our apartment.  Just over an hour door to door.

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Part of the Shanghai Disneytown Halloween decorations

Back in June we had our first two experiences with Shanghai Disney during the trial opening period.  We had a really fun time.  I had been plotting our return for some time.

The next chance came – Disneytown, the free retail and dining area outside of the park, held a Halloween Carnival the last weekends of the month.  Things were pretty busy in October for me and the weather left so much to be desired (wet and overcast); however, on October 29 the weather cooperated — cool and overcast but not raining–we would make the trip.

We would be there too early for the parade and trick or treating would only happen on the 31st (a work day), but we enjoyed the decorations, the photo booth, and the shopping.  C just likes any excuse to go into the World of Disney or LEGO store.  Me, I like just about any excuse to eat at the Cheesecake Factory.  It is the first location of the popular chain in Asia.  Since it’s opening in Disneytown I have eaten there 5 times (on every visit to Shanghai Disney)–I think that is more times than I have ever eaten at the restaurant in the US!   At 4 pm C and I caught a Disney Halloween stage show complete with appearances by Mickey and Minnie.  I saw very little of the show due to the size of the crowd, but C on my shoulders claims to have seen it and pronounced it “great!”

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The Lion King in Mandarin is riveting

A few weeks after Halloween a friend suggested a mommy/daughter date to see the Lion King.  The first ever Mandarin-language production of the stage musical is currently shown exclusively at the Shanghai Disneyland resort theater located in Disneytown and in November tickets were discounted 30% to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the Broadway show.  C and I met ST and her daughter M outside the theater.  C had not seen the movie (it is currently in the Disney vault and I am not willing to shell out the $104 the DVD is currently selling for on Amazon) but I had explained the plot line.  Well as much as I could  explain such a thing to a 4 year old, especially since I too had not seen the production in over 10 years.  And it would be in Chinese.  Though C takes Chinese at her preschool and talks daily in the language with her nanny, I am never quite sure how much she understands.  I should not have worried.  The show transcends language and C seemed to understand enough, asking me a few pointed questions during the performance, but loved it enough to clap loudly, cheer, and be found humming the songs since.  We finished up our day with, no surprise here, a late lunch at the Cheesecake Factory.

For Thanksgiving we, along with several of my colleagues, made our way out to Disney to enjoy the holiday.  We arrived on the Wednesday evening so we could enjoy two nights at the Toy Story Hotel.  I bought only a single day park ticket for C and I while the others bought two day passes.

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Left: The entrance to the hotel.  Center: Woody and Bullseye great us on the seventh, and top, floor.  Right: A view of our comfy and fun room.

I loved the hotel.  All the little accents like the giant marbles used to decorate the front of the front and concierge desks, the Slinky Dog drawing on the ceiling light in the room, the Toy Story character inspired carpets, and the giant ABC blocks that served as pillars outside the main entrance.  It was whimsy and fun, just as Disney should be.  I also had the best sleep I had had in over a week.

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We pay homage to Woody and Bullseye at the hotel before heading to the park for a rootin’ tootin’ time

A cold random Thursday in November meant the park was not at capacity.  We lucked out that the fierce wind, overcast skies, and occasional rain of the day before gave way to blue skies and sun.  It was still a chilly 38 degrees in the morning, but it warmed to 50 for most of the daylight hours.  C and I met our friends at the park entrance and headed together to ride Soaring Over the Horizon, only a 30 minute wait.  I have heard the video in Shanghai has now become the gold standard and is now in all the parks with this ride (Epcot and Disney California Adventure).  C was now tall to ride and she quickly declared it her favorite (“Mom, let’s go ride it again next week!)  After Soarin’ my friends sans children (i.e. everyone but me) headed off to Tron and Pirates and other adult favorites while C and I headed to Fantasyland to ride the Hunny Pot Spin and Peter Pan’s Flight, with only a 5 minute and 20 minute wait respectfully.

We had lunch at our usual spot in Tomorrowland.  Unfortunately for me the park does not sell Diet Coke but rather Pepsi Max and the only place to buy it is in the Stargazer Grill.  Yet it was warm.  Why?  Because Chinese people do not like to drink cold beverages in the cold.  Sigh.  I asked how many Chinese people even buy diet soda and was told almost none.  They tried to accommodate me and brought my Pepsi Max bottle to the table in a fancy metal ice bucket! That was my lost in translation moment when the Chinese characteristics took over.  (I think it would not be Shanghai Disneyland without one)

We rode  Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue and C really enjoyed it this time.  There was just a 10 minute wait!  Such a difference from last time when we waited over 45 minutes and C hid under the game console for the first minute of the ride.  We were first in line for a photo with Stitch.  We visited Marvel Universe and had only a short wait to take photos with both Spiderman and Captain America (the first C was very enthusiastic about, the second, well it looked like she was headed to the gallows while in line, but she agreed to the photo anyway).  There was a 20 minute wait for C to Become Iron Man.  We stood front row along the parade route and also had an unobstructed view of the Golden Fairytale Fanfare review in front of the castle.  Oh the things I had missed on earlier visits!

C only made it to 5 pm, which in my book is pretty good for a 4 year old.  Because honestly the 4 year old’s mom was not sure how much longer she would make it.  We topped off our visit with C selecting a Thanksgiving Day gift (um, what?) and Cheesecake Factory (of course!).  Back in the hotel C could not decide between Ratatouille or Mulan of the free Disney movies on offer and so watched a little of both.

On  Friday morning we took a “yes, we were all here” photo with friends in front of the Toy Story hotel tree, which looked as if it had been made with Tinker Toys and ABC blocks.  Then we headed off on the shuttle to the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel, the fancier and more pricey of the two. While the Toy Story Hotel has only food court and convenience dining options, the sit down and character meals are at the other hotel.  There, at Lumiere’s Kitchen, one has the chance to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy and dine on beautifully displayed Chinese and Western food options.  C only wanted the character pancakes, fruit, and time with the characters.  Again, the dining room was not at capacity and we had lots of opportunities to mingle with our Disney friends.

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C has a chance for some quality time with Goofy in the lovely Lumiere’s Kitchen

After breakfast it was back to the hotel and then a walk to the Disney Resort metro station.  I love that we are so close to the magic of a Disney park but almost as soon as we head through security at the metro station I begin to miss the park and even sort of dread returning to the real world.  I guess that sounds melodramatic, but I felt something like that all the same.  The magic lasted just a bit longer though as we lucked out boarding one of the few Disney inspired metro trains in service.

Later in the weekend we went to see the just released Moana. (That sounds easy enough, but seeing a US movie in China is not so straightforward.  The Chinese government allows only 34 foreign films to be shown in theaters each year.  That is 34 foreign films, not just US films.  Though most animated Disney films destined to be blockbusters are usually given screen time, sometimes it can be weeks after the US release.)  It was a wonderful movie and a great way to top off our holiday weekend of Disney.

Maybe there is time for one more Shanghai Disneyland visit before we leave?

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Left: Our amenities from the Toy Story Hotel (the toothbrush tin is so fabulous).  Center: Our tickets to the park issued at the hotel.  Right: A view of the Disney metro train blissfully free of crowds!

 

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Chiang Mai Times

Way, way back in June I was thinking about vacations.  Well, daydreaming mad hard about vacations actually.  I had returned from my R&R a month before and I knew there was the long, busy summer of Shanghai-style visa adjudications and the G-20 timeframe ahead of me.  I would need something to sustain me.  Planning vacations makes people happy.  Studies have shown that even planning vacations can have longer term happiness benefits than the vacation itself.    I certainly wholeheartedly embrace this.

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Thailand: worth visiting just for the food (pineapple curry chicken rice served at a riverside restaurant)

I looked at November.  Thailand came to mind.  My daughter likes elephants; although she tells me that “all animals” are her favorite animal she definitely has a top three: horses, cats, and elephants.  I recalled my friends JK1 and JK2, who had served with us in Ciudad Juarez, were in Chiang Mai.  I sent a quick message to JK1 and she confirmed they would be in town and would love us to visit.   I booked the tickets.

I first visited Thailand the winter of 1995/1996.  (Holy moly I am getting old) I was participating in a student/volunteer program at Trinity College of Quezon City and I traveled to Thailand to meet up with friends I had previously taught English with in Korea.  We hung out together in Bangkok and then went our separate ways.  I traveled north to Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, and then south to Koh Pha Ngan and Khao Sok National Park, and then west to Kanchanaburi.  Over the years I traveled several more times to vacation around the country.  A week in conjunction with a week in Malaysia, another week combined with a trip to Cambodia, and a week along with a trip to Laos.  I also had several short trips to Bangkok–long layovers between Japan and Europe, a few days stopover to get a visa for Burma or to head to Brunei, and on my last trip several days for a counter-terrorism conference.   As I thought about it, I found it surprising that although I have a Masters degree in Southeast Asian Studies and used to spend quite a lot of time in the region and in Thailand, I had not been to Southeast Asia since joining the State Department over five years ago.

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Signs like this – in remembrance of the king – were all over the city

Less than a month prior to our trip the beloved Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had reigned over the country for over 70 years, passed away.  The people of Thailand were overcome with grief and the government announced a one year period of mourning.  For the first 30 days people were to avoid celebrations and bright colors and this would include some and perhaps all of the activities associated with the Loi Krathong Festival to be held around the time of our visit. Packing my suitcase full of somber colored clothing felt odd.

When we arrived it was raining.  It seemed fitting.  All around people were dressed predominantly in black and white.   And yet…although the clothing was subdued there was still a lightness in the air.  As we walked out of the terminal to see my friend JK2 and Little JK, I too could feel myself lighten.

We headed to a late lunch to meet JK1 who had finished up work at the Consulate.  The lunch was fresh and delicious.  The conversation and company more than worth the trip.  Afterwards we headed to a mall near their home and C and Little JK enjoyed some time crawling through a giant kids jungle gym while JK1 and I tried in vain to keep up.  Then we headed back to the JK homestead, a beautiful two story home with two car garage surrounded by a yard full of lush green tropical foliage.  They put us up in a cute little guest cottage connected to the main house by a wooden deck.  It did occur to me that I might have made a mistake not bidding on my friend’s job.

The weather forecast for the second day too was rain.  Thailand in general and Chiang Mai in particular is more of a place with outdoor pursuits – traipsing over historic temples, lying on tropical beaches, hiking through jungles and/or mountains in search of hill tribes or waterfalls or breathtaking vistas or all of the above.  JK1 suggested we check out Art in Paradise, a 3D art museum where visitors can, through a bit of illusion and creativity, place themselves into the artwork.  I had no other ideas and a quick online search suggested it was or had once been the world’s largest 3D museum and enough visitors gave it a thumbs up.  So off we went.  I could hardly imagine that we would spend more than 2 hours there laughing and shooting photos that seemed to place us in some fairly outrageous scenarios.

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Just two of the fun photos taken in the Art of Paradise 3D museum

Our museum experience was followed by yet another amazing lunch in a simple but attractive riverside restaurant.  We then headed to the mall.  Because the JKs needed to get some items for Little JK and I, in my pursuit of clinching the Mother of the Year Award before the year ended, needed to purchase C some underwear having forgotten to pack a single pair except for those she was wearing.

Before I was a mother I rarely forgot to pack items nor did I lose things.  Alas now I am very adept at both.  Soon after our successful clothing acquisition disaster struck:  We lost White Cat. You may recall from our trip to Hong Kong in January we lost beloved Black Cat, C’s most precious stuffie.  White Cat became the new favorite and accompanied C everywhere – to dance class and preschool, out to eat, to Disneyland, and on every single vacation.   If you look carefully, White Cat is in each of the photos above, clutched in C’s hand.  But we went into an arcade and the sights and sounds and games were enticing.  C put her down to play a game.  Less than five minutes later and I was uttering “Where is White Cat?” (easily the sentence I have said more often than any other since January).  I looked down the aisle we had just walked.  I looked at each of the three game locations we had been before.  I crawled on my hands and knees (in a kids’ arcade!) looking under each and every machine.  I knew she was gone.  I had little doubt that some other child had snatched her up.  Despite her once white but now grey and matted coat, her scratched eyes, her lost whiskers and the small hole in the back of her head, she was still a very cute stuffed animal.  I looked for 20 minutes at least and JK1 and JK2 looked as well, inquiring with staff and arcade management.  We did not find her.  And for the next hour or so we were all treated to C’s forlorn and gut-wrenching wails as we walked to the car and drove back to JKs’ home.

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Lanna fabrics at the traditional market

The next morning I woke up in the cottage to absolute silence.  I looked around and C was gone.  I found the sliding doors open but saw her shoes were sitting neatly side by side in front of the doors to the main house.  I thought of going in after her but there was something peaceful and not ominous about the quiet (and anyone who has a small child will know what I am talking about) so I slipped back into the cottage and enjoyed the peaceful solitude another 30 minutes.

Little JK and C were playing companionably together — Little JK had won C’s heart when he offered up two of his own favorite stuffies for her to hug the previous night as she slept.  After breakfast JK1 took a call from a colleague and our day’s plan began to form.

We met JK1’s local colleague, his wife, and 5 year old daughter at a traditional Lanna market.  Apparently this market occurs only once a year and we were lucky not only to be in town but also for the glorious weather.  C immediately took to 5 year old Witta and the two ran off together with Witta’s mother in tow.  The market was lovely — makeshift bamboo and straw stalls or tables set up on both sides of a narrow road, in green grass yards to the side of people’s homes.  For sale were traditional fabrics, handmade dolls, clothing, foodstuffs and beverages like the very refreshing and eye-poppingly purple colored Butterfly Pea iced tea.   Then the JKs and C and I headed to lunch.  We ate at yet another fantastic restaurant – set in an idyllic green location near the Chiang Mai Night Safari.  Besides delicious food, the restaurant had a grassy picnic like area and a children’s play area.  As JK1, JK2 and I sat in pleasant conversation at a shaded table by a koi pond complete with small waterfall and bridge, C and Little JK made friends with the Thai and Thai-Chinese children at the playground.  At that particular moment I could not imagine ever returning to Shanghai.

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Sunset across the lake at the Chiang Mai night safari

Although it was not yet night (in fact only 2 PM) we headed next to the Night Safari.  Outside the gates you can pet and feed deer that wander around the parking lot and area by the entrance, and also feed giraffes.  The 40 baht(US$1.12) I paid for the giraffe food and chance to feed them and take photos was so much more affordable than the AUS$25 (US$18.34) I paid in Sydney.  The park opened at 3:30 and JK1’s friends and daughter once again joined us.  The zoo is in a beautiful setting around a large artificial lake with Doi Suthep (Mt. Suthep) rising in the background.  We rode the two trams and walked the 1.2 km Jaguar Trail around the lake.  I generally avoid zoos in developing countries, but I found the Chiang Mai Night Safari to be pleasant with pretty good enclosures; the animals appeared, to my untrained eye, to be well cared for.

We woke the next morning in our hotel room.  I loved staying with friends but I also try to be really conscious of the toll a guest can take on hosts.  JK1 is one of the hardest working Foreign Service Officers you might meet and I felt she needed a weekend day to relax with her family.  I too needed a break.  The weeks leading up to the vacation — the bidding process and the election — had taken their toll on me as well.  C and I spent the morning at the hotel pool where we met a local Scotsman, 15 years living in Chiang Mai, and his 4 year old son Felix.  They invited C to join in the game of “diving for the tamarind seed” in the pool.  Felix had brought a hard, dark brown burnished tamarindseed about an inch in diameter and the tossed it in the pool and dove effortlessly to retrieve it.  Although C is a pretty good swimmer for 4 she could not out swim the fish-like Felix, yet he still made sure she could play.

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This handsome feline was one of the stars at They Call Me Cat

Afterwards C and I walked about 15 minutes towards the old city.  I pushed the stroller across a two lane traffic bridge over the Ping river, and along some very uneven sidewalks, to the They Call Me Cat Cafe.  I have only anecdotal evidence, but I would guess that the two countries with the most number of cafes where one can dine with cats (or bunnies or other cute animals) would be Japan and Thailand.  I had to give it a try.  They Call Me Cat did not disappoint.  A small cafe with some 10 very fancy felines and some surprisingly delicious fries and smoothies, the place was just what we needed for a light lunch. For the rest of the afternoon we rested at the hotel until 7 PM when we boarded the free hotel shuttle to the Chiang Mai market.  Although it had been over a decade since I had been there last it felt instantly familiar.  I had no agenda, no plan to buy anything.  We browsed a little.  The striking kathoey (ladyboys) passing out flyers to their show fawned over C.  Then we stopped at a restaurant to enjoy yet another amazing Thai meal as we watched the activity in the market and C enjoyed the restaurant singer.  I felt so content.

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Apparently elephants paint better than me

On Monday, our last full day, C and I went out to the Mae Sa Elephant camp.  Our arranged driver picked us up at 8:30 AM for the 50 minute drive.  I know that some people have criticized Mae Sa as a tourist trap with poor treatment of the animals.  I did a lot of reading beforehand reading reviews from both sides and conducting some of my own research.  Looking at the other elephant experiences (and there are so many), there did seem some smaller outfits with higher ratings for fun and compassionate experiences.  Initially I had signed us up for a jungle sanctuary experience with elephants — but the 6:30 AM pick up and 2 PM drop off times, actual mud bath with elephants (bring a change a clothes!) and photos of bikini clad backpackers, made me think this was not the experience for 4 year old C and me.  Mae Sa too had been where I had had my first such elephant experience nearly 21 years before.  There we first watched elephants enjoying a bath in the river.  This was followed by a short show with several elephants kicking a giant soccer ball and then painting pictures.  C and I then took a short 15 minute trek on an elephant.  We went in search of the baby elephant nursery with bananas and sugar cane in hand but ended up handing over the foodstuffs to two other friendly pachyderms.  We were back in Chiang Mai just after noon in time to have lunch with JK2 and Little JK.

The evening of November 14 was the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festival – a celebration of lights.  Once celebrated separately, the two festivals, one with baskets of flowers, incense and candles (Loi Krathong) set afloat on rivers, and the other with white wax-coated paper hot air lanterns that soar into the sky, are now held together.  As the 30 day ban on festivities ended the day before, the light festival could carry on.  I booked for C and I to join the hotel celebration including a massive buffet dinner, several dance performances, and included a krathong for each guest to place on the river.  I had imagined taking amazing photos of the Yi Peng lanterns but although I could see them in the sky we were far from the launch area.  The dinner was too long for C although I luckily snagged us two seats at the table nearest the stage for the dances, which C really enjoyed.  Once outside we had to wait in a very long line to launch our krathong as only two guests at a time could venture out on the hotel pontoon.  It took over an hour for our turn and by that time C was extremely grump, and admittedly so was I.  Still, although if I were to have the opportunity to experience the festival again I would probably choose another location to participate, I was nonetheless glad to have experienced it even if in such a small way.

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Traditional dances and a lantern

On our last half day the sun shown brightly and the sky was clear.  The view across the city was spectacular–the muddy brown Ping river, the cluster of low-rise homes and businesses, spreading to the base of Doi Suthep, and the sacred temple of Wat Phra That visible on the mountain’s slope.  We both had contracted colds.  The tropical warm weather and cleaner skies not something our bodies were ready to handle.  I wanted to stay longer but it was time to return to Shanghai.

The Joy of Bidding – The Game of “Where Do I Go Next?”

‘Tis the season.  I do not mean the fall season, or entering the holidays.  I mean it is the time of the year when Foreign Service Officers seeking their next assignment begin bidding on potential jobs.

Well, that is not exactly right.  The official bidding season began on Monday, September 19 with the release of the “Bid List” (a database of all available jobs) and was scheduled to end on Monday, October 31, the first day that official offers or “handshakes” can be extended.  Six long weeks.  But that belies how much work actually goes into this process.

I feel as if I have been bidding since I arrived in Shanghai, over 20 months ago.  I feel that way because I sort of have.  A few weeks after my arrival I started looking at the projected vacancy list, a list of the jobs likely to be available for me to bid on.  Only eight jobs appeared to meet my timing and criteria and two of them were on the US-Mexican border.  Ciudad Juarez was a good place for us to be before, but I was not keen to return to the border.

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Will I go here?  Or here? Or maybe there?  That is the question.

Since I arrived in January 2015, my departure date would be approximately two years later in the winter of 2017.  We have two bid cycles a year – one in the summer and one in the winter.  I was a winter bidder.  Additionally, I looked at jobs that were listed as fulfilling a “Political” job.  We have five “cones” or career tracks as a Foreign Service Officer (also called a Foreign Service Generalist; there are also Foreign Service Specialists who have other career tracks:  https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer).  The five cones are: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy.  With the limited list generated from my search of Political-coned jobs available for winter 2017, I decided to look into an extension.  Although unusual for an Entry Level Officer (ELO=an officer in their first or second tour), on May 1, 2015 I had been granted my extension to April 2017, placing me in the summer bid cycle.

And I let that stand for a little less than a year.

Then I revisited the Projected Vacancy List.  I poured over it.  I printed out the capsule descriptions, the single paragraph summary statements about each position.  I made lists.  I researched pet importation restrictions (for the two cats).  I read reviews of many places on Real Post Reports (http://www.talesmag.com/real-post-reports/all), where real people who have lived in the cities and countries highlighted can anonymously respond to a survey answering questions on commutes, housing, whether you need a car and what type to bring, security and health concerns, schools and more.  I made more lists.  Then I whittled my lists of top posts down to about a dozen.

In late April of this year I took the time during my R&R to go into the State Department to meet with the desk officers covering several of the countries from my Shortlist Dozen.

Back in Shanghai I started to reach out to some of the incumbents serving in posts on my Shortlist Dozen to find out a day/week in the life of their position, what he/she found were the top reporting issues and top responsibilities, and get the skinny on work/life balance.  By August I had reached out to someone in all of my Shortlist Dozen spots.  In places where the incumbent had recently left and the new one had yet to arrive, I reached out to the heads of political sections.  Before I left for my Australian vacation on September 9 I had identified a firm ten jobs that would make up my bid list (because this year the maximum we could bid was ten).  I felt fairly confident that although each and every place would take me and my daughter in a different direction, they would all meet carefully researched personal and professional goals. I was ready.

Then the official bid list came out.

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And the game is on!  Everyone hopes when the music stops they have a job.

On Monday, September 19, Washington, DC time, the State Department released the Bid List.  Since I essentially live 12 hours in the future, I did not feel concerned returning to Shanghai on Tuesday.  Yet when I nervously checked the list on Wednesday, my first day back in the office, I already felt behind.  Luckily though, having reached out to many offices prior to the official bidding season, I secured three interviews within a week.  The first, with my third choice, went alright.  I think it went better than I had expected, yet at the end of the call I had some doubts this is where I wanted to be.  My other two interviews though went quite well.  Alright.  This might not be so bad.

Then two positions high on my list, both in the same country, were gone from the list.  The incumbent had extended.  Then another slipped off the list for the same reason.  Then another. I searched for replacements, found one, reached out to the office, and then learned it too would no longer be available.

How is it that jobs listed as available become no longer so?  In the case of the jobs I had looked at, they were all two year jobs with one year of training and over 20% post differential.  As I am bidding on Summer 2017 jobs, I would then enter one year of training and arrive to post in Summer 2018, then serve two years in the position.  The incumbents had only arrived at post in late Summer 2016 after their year of training.  Incumbents in countries with 20% or higher differential may extend a third year.  I can imagine it is not easy to arrive to a new position in country and within weeks be expected to decide if you will stay two years or three.  Having now been through the wrenching bidding process, I am not surprised that many opted to extend.  I expect I might do the same.  Still, I will use an un-diplomatic phrase here, it sucked.

Then a fifth job made itself unavailable.  Originally a position with a start date of Summer 2018, that included a year of training (mostly language) became a Summer 2017 position.  The incumbent who had initially agreed to stay a third year under a special “service needs” designation, decided instead to leave after the second year.  Though the language designation remained, the timing would mean no year of training.  It had been the language training that had made it so attractive.  I removed it from my list.

My strong list of ten had quickly been reduced to five, the minimum.

I had two more interviews; I thought they went fairly well.  But I needed more bids to feel comfortable.

My original ten bids had featured four jobs in three countries of the East Asia Pacific (EAP) bureau, three jobs in two countries in the South Central Asia (SCA) bureau, two jobs in two countries in the Africa (AF) bureau, and a single job in the Western Hemisphere (WHA) bureau.  The European (EUR) bureau uses another bidding tool from the other bureaus – too complicated to go into here and make an already complex narrative more so — which is why I then added three Near East (NEA) in two countries into my mix.  I reached out to incumbents.  I had another interview.

I cannot imagine this is very exciting to read for the uninitiated and perhaps too cryptic for those in the know.  For those actually living it though, it is exciting and scary and stressful at the same time.  These bids can begin to feel terribly weighty.  Each bid after all represents a different job in a different city in a different country.  Each place will alter not only my professional and personal trajectory, but also that of my daughter.  If we go to X country in southern Africa I imagine her on the swim team.  She likes swimming.  Swimming seems like the most popular sport referenced on the international school pages.  Yes, there is a swim team with try-outs for five year olds.  Yet if we go to Y country in Central Asia, she will likely not swim.  I cannot find mention of a pool on any of the school websites.  But horseback riding seems a likely possibility.  My daughter likes horses.

I play this game in my head frequently.   Too frequently.  I have to stop when I start to psych myself out of a job.   Many bidders receive a message from their Career Development Officer reminding them to be realistic about their options, to not bid on jobs that are a reach, are too heavily bid (within the bidding tool we can see the number of bidders on any given job), or are above our pay grade.  The email tells us that last year two-thirds of bidders received an offer on or in the days that follow Handshake Day.  The unspoken, but glaringly obvious information is that a full one-third of bidders did not.  I falter.  I feel very unsure again.  I cannot afford to persuade myself now that a job may not be the right path.  If I have an offer, I should take it.  The email says so.

Bidding can be a lonely sport.  Sharing with friends and family who are not in the Foreign Service can be difficult.  People are disappointed and confused to learn I have not bid on a single European post.  When I have mentioned the places on my list I then receive “votes” on a particular place.  “You should go to X because the weather is better” or “My vote is for Y because then I would see you more” or “They all sound nice but I prefer Z because [insert any kind of random fact the person might know about Z].”  I know these are well meaning.  I do.  But unfortunately I do not really get to choose.  I can make a list, but ultimately the choice is on the other side.

So basically in a nut shell: the Bid List is released, bidders pour over the bid list and submit bids (and also their lobbying documents like their resume and references and employee profile) to Posts of interest, *if* post is interested they will contact the bidder for an interview, Posts make their own short lists and send to DC, bidders submit their final bids, i.e. a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 10 bids.  Then bidders wait.  Ten excruciatingly long days til Handshake Day. I try to relax.  I try to focus on my work; I have plenty to keep me busy but I feel a little unmotivated, distracted.  I liken it to when you are working on your computer and a program that you have no control over is running in the background.  For me Bidding 2.0 is constantly running in my brain.

I submitted bids for eight positions in seven countries.  I had interviews with six.  I heard I made the short list, but was not the number one choice, for five places.  I suspected I was on the bid list at a sixth place as I was the only bidder on that job (though as is so many things in the State Department, that is certainly not a guarantee).  By all accounts I was in a good position.  Then Handshake Day arrived…and passed with no handshake for me.

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I bid eight jobs.  I only need one to love me in return.  Just one.

So how to best to describe this process?  It is rather like the dating game.  Imagine you are at a high school and the Homecoming Dance is coming up.  Everyone would like to get asked to the dance.  Cindy likes John.  John likes Cindy but is a bit more into Jessica.  He would like to ask Jessica to the dance, but if Jessica says no then he will ask Cindy.  Rajiv likes Cindy too.  He thinks he will ask her to the dance.  But he heard that John might ask her if Jessica says no.  So Rajiv is also thinking about asking Kaori or Naomi.  Kaori likes Rajiv but also Blake, but does not think she has a shot, but is hopeful anyway.  She heard from a friend who knows someone who knows Blake though that he knows she is interested, so maybe she will wait it out.  Aaron though is the star quarterback of the football team and if he asks Cindy, Kaori, or Naomi, they will say yes.  Claudia is a cheerleader and if she asks Blake, John or Connor they will say yes.

Confused?  So am I.  But picture instead of hormonally charged teenagers these are bidders and cities where positions are available.  A very strong candidate might get two or three handshakes on Handshake Day, but can obviously only take one job.  The candidate though has 24 hours to consider the offers and respond.  When that candidate takes one of those jobs, the two losing Posts must now go down their Shortlist to their number two.  Number two though may have been number one on another list and has already accepted a handshake.  Perhaps number three on the list though is still waiting and will accept Post’s offer.  Yet, this can go on for days.  And as the days pass bidders become increasingly hopeful to get an offer from someplace, any place they bid.  At the end of the day, as everyone and anyone who knows you are bidding but did not receive an offer on Handshake Day will tell you, everyone gets a job.  So after the dust settles there are always jobs that either did not have bidders or for whom their bidders took other jobs.

But on day three of the process I got an offer.  Thank goodness the stress of bidding is over.  I should take a few days to….Oops, too late, now I am freaking out about all I need to prepare to get there…

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Our next post will be Malawi!