The Final Stretch: PCS Preparations and Making the Most of America

Preparing to Leave Again

Sigh. I really and truly just let out a big sigh as I began to type. Here we are about to move yet again. Sigh. There is another one.  You might think we would get used to it – the constant moving – in this career. However, I think it is only getting harder the older I become. And as my daughter gets older too.

When we arrived in Arlington, Virginia last September for my training, we met another single parent Foreign Service Officer. Her older son and C became fast friends. They walked to and from the bus stop together, rode the bus together, and had hours and hours of playdates, and even more hours online chatting and playing Roblox. He and his family moved to the Dominican Republic a month ago. It was the beginning of the end.

This happens every year. Even when we are not moving, there is always someone in our Foreign Service Community who is leaving. Unfortunately, the frequency of people coming into and out of our lives does not make the goodbyes any easier.

We too are focused on our own approaching departure. I am always saying that in the last few months before our PCS (permanent change of station) that it’s like picking up a part time job with terrible, unpredictable hours. While trying to keep doing one’s day job, whether that is serving as a political officer or a French language student, you must also take care of other things related to the move. These tasks include enrolling your child in school in the next country, applying for visas, preparing to move your pet, having final medical appointments, hiring childcare in the new country, and purchasing a vehicle for the next Post. These tasks require leg work, internet research, emails and/or calls, filling out forms, and so on.

We have received our housing assignment for Guinea.  C and I are very excited about our new place and have been working on decoration planning.  But it is not easy working out what all to buy now and have shipped as the global supply chain slowdowns mean what might normally take three months could take up to six months (or longer) to reach us.  There is our HHE (Household Effects) shipment from the U.S. but also the HHE shipment from Europe, where most of our things from Malawi have been sitting in storage for nearly a year.  Will what we had in a three-bedroom house in Lilongwe fit into a two-bedroom apartment in Conakry?  The moving company that packed us out from Malawi left me a cryptic list of our belongings, and my own memory of everything I own is most definitely flawed.

There are also the “consumables.”  Guinea, like Malawi, is a consumables post. The definition is: “a post at which conditions make it difficult to obtain locally the consumables required by employees and their eligible family members.  Consumables are referred to as expendable personal property because they are used up as opposed to wearing out.” Working with a list of provided by the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) of consumables families typically bring to Guinea, I am making purchases and creating piles of stuff in our current apartment.  These include jars of Vlasic dill pickles, containers of lite pancake syrup, and bottles of shampoo and conditioner that work best on my daughter’s hard-to-tame hair.  And like in Malawi, I will be buying four brand new tires for our Conakry-based car because it is reportedly difficult and costly to find quality replacements. 

Perhaps this does not seem like a lot?  Even as I write it, I note that the words completely belie the amount of time and effort and cost that goes into preparing to move internationally.  I am, frankly, exhausted by the effort, but keep trying to rally myself because I don’t want to forget something important.  I do not know how married couples manage the division of labor, but in my case, it is just me managing the move. 

I feel at odds; I am being pulled in two directions.  I am here, still in the US, but also very much focused on getting to Guinea.  I am in the final weeks of a long, exhausting language program, but I also must obtain plane tickets and apply for visas and manage the logistics of moving.  There is a lot of excitement, but also a lot of anxiety.    

 Making the Most of Our Time in America

I have found it difficult to balance the pandemic and my language study with activities, but all in all I think I did a pretty good job giving both my daughter and our young nanny a wide range of experiences in the United States. Since my halfway post, we have managed to squeeze in a good number of events. After trying for months to score tickets, we were finally able to visit the National Museum of African History and Culture in early February. I however had completely underestimated the time it takes to see a good portion of the exhibits and after 3.5 hours we left having only scratched the surface. In February, we headed to iFLY to give indoor skydiving a go. I had initially reserved for January for C’s birthday, but a snowstorm had forced me to reschedule.

We drove up to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and when my good friend CZ and her son Little CZ came into town, we all visited the International Spy Museum and strolled around the tidal basin to see the cherry blossoms. Both our nanny JMC and I served as chaperone’s for C’s school field trip to Jamestown and we stayed an extra night so we could visit Williamsburg and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary. We caught one of the season opening weekend games at Nationals stadium, visited Luray Caverns, and also met up with my aunt out at Harper’s Ferry.

But now here we are closing in on the last month and a half of our U.S. sojourn sandwiched between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I do not know what else is in store for our time here, though I have some ideas much depends on the results of my French exam. There is an incredible amount of stress placed on U.S. diplomats to pass the exam on the first go, but it is by no means guaranteed. Here’s to hoping for the best outcome, whatever that may be. And then, on to Guinea.

The Countdown Begins: 100 Days Left in Malawi

100 days. Oh my goodness. It does not seem like anywhere near enough time, but it is all the time we have left in Malawi. After nearly four years, it is time for us to wind down this tour and prepare for the next part in this grand adventure.

There is SO much to do to prepare! I have been able to already obtain my travel orders, which is the document that lays out all of the employee’s and family member’s costs in moving from Point A to Point B. For me, my travel orders begin with our departure from Lilongwe, time and location of our Home Leave (congressionally mandated time spent in the U.S. reorienting ourselves to our homeland between overseas assignments), training, per diem, the movement and storage of our household goods and personal effects, and finish with our arrival date in Conakry, Guinea. Having my travel orders lets me move forward in obtaining our plane tickets and reserving housing in an apartment that allows for direct billing with the State Department. I have made my requests for both.

This might seem pretty straightforward, but its anything but, especially given so much of the work falls on the employee themselves and much is still mucked up by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, it is about 100 days from departure. I had a particular date in mind and in the before times, when Ethiopian Airlines flew daily it would not be an issue. But at present Ethiopian Airlines flies in and out of Lilongwe only four times a week. This could change in the next 100 days…or not. Hard to say. Therefore I have requested flights to depart on the closest day available to my preferred date. If schedules change, I can change our flights, but if it goes on too long I would just leave it as is because there are other things riding on our flight, such as reserving a spot on the plane for my cat. Organizing international pet travel is expensive, complicated, and involves some tight timelines. I would rather not make it any harder than it already is. (See here for some examples of past pet travel torture, I mean, experiences)

Additionally, right now I have some gaps in my training schedule as our Foreign Service Institute, where U.S. diplomats take the bulk of their training, is taking a conservative approach to scheduling courses. I am eager to fill in those gaps so I do not end up paying out of pocket at DC-level hotel rates, but thus far have not found suitable classes. In one of those weeks there are only three classes available: a State Department familiarization course for locally-employed staff, Iraq familiarization, and an Overseas Building Organization Project Management course. Not of these are remotely related to my current or future work as a political officer in Africa. I still have 100 days for hopefully an appropriate course to present itself, but the time feels short.

That fifth question already has me stumped. #foreignserviceproblems

I need to register my daughter for school for the first time in the U.S. Seems like that ought to be rather straightforward, right? Except I do not have an address in the U.S. I first need one to figure out which school she will attend, and then they are also considered necessary for the registration process. The school district requires an additional two forms of ID with the address on it as secondary residential proofs. As I am not a Virginia resident, I am unlikely to obtain those at all in the course of the 10-11 months I am in the U.S. I am most surely not the first U.S. Foreign Service Officer to move to northern Virginia with a school-aged child, but that does not mean that I won’t be made to feel like I am.

And then there is the preparations for packing up all our things. With a year largely teleworking, I have had a lot more time to look around the house at all the things we have acquired. We have over the past year said goodbye to a few things here and there, but there are many more still in our possession. With what we have remaining, I must determine what to get rid of (to throw away, to donate to the refugee camp or give to staff or others, or to sell) and what to take (either in our suitcase so we have on Home Leave, or place in our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB), which we will then have shipped via mail to our training address, or pack up and send to storage where it will remain for about a year before we receive it in Guinea.

Every day in my house, everywhere I look, there are so many material things. When I open my closet to dress for the day, I see what I need to parse through — what stays, what goes, what was I thinking? In the cabinets, I see sunscreen and vitamins and toothpaste that all need to be used up, trying to work out the delicate dance of having not too much or too little, but just enough to stretch the next 100 days. Every time I step into my pantry I am greeted with foodstuffs that must be consumed in the next three-and-a-half months. Every room of my house is fraught with decisions staring me down. My Amazon purchases are declining, taking away one of the great pandemic joys of both “revenge bedtime procrastination” shopping and the giddy feeling of receiving our once a week mail delivery.

I am trying to get a head start on this process. I recently thought back to my pack-out from Shanghai and shudder to think of repeating that mess. As the movers packed up C’s room, the living room, and the kitchen, I was madly trying to finish up in my bedroom, including going through a big pile of papers. After many hours the movers declared they were done — except I opened up drawers in both my room and the living room and cabinets in the kitchen only to find items yet to be packed and one of my cats was missing… I feared she had either been packed (it has been known to happen) or had fallen out of one of our 19th floor windows (as I found the window in the guest bedroom where she liked to sit open). Luckily, after lots of searching, I found her wedged between the master bed headboard and the wall; she was not fond of strangers.

We no longer have that cat; we lost her to cancer a year ago, in the midst of the early pandemic. Now, I just have to move one cat, which may or may not be easier. Also, an upside is that we have longer in the U.S. that right now I really only need to work on getting us from Lilongwe, to Home Leave, and then training. Amazing to think that the approximately 11 month we spend in the U.S. will be the longest C has spent continuously in her home country. Our previous stints were mid-April to mid-August 2017 between Shanghai and Malawi and July 2014 to January 2015 between Juarez and Shanghai. This coming fall will be the first we spend in the U.S. since 2014, seven years ago, and spring 2022 will be the first full spring since C was born in 2012. Guinea is on the more distant back end, leaving me a little breathing room before taking up the U.S. to Guinea move.

And I feel I need all the breathing room I can get. Already I can feel the emotional roller coaster of leaving the only place I have lived for four consecutive years since I lived with my parents before college. My almost 9 1/2-year-old daughter has spent nearly half her life in Malawi — she does not remember our time in Mexico, she still talks about our time in Shanghai though it has faded, and the time she has spent in the U.S. is associated with all-fun all-the-time Home Leaves and vacations involving Disney, best friends, and her cousins. Malawi is very much our home.

In recent weeks and months, I have felt a sense of nostalgia wash over me as I drive in Lilongwe or around the country or walk in my neighborhood or around my yard, already feeling a sense of loss for those things I will miss. We have been able to travel a lot around the country, even with the pandemic, and there are many beautiful locations to visit, but even within Lilongwe, one can come across pretty views in all kinds of places.

Left: The entrance to my road, Tobacco Loop, when the flame trees are in full bloom; Right: Light of late afternoon across a maize field in my residential neighborhood while on a recent walk

I will find myself thinking how much I might miss my commute, a particular road or landmark, even if it’s not particularly lovely, but because it has become familiar. The empty fountain at the roundabout on Presidential Way (I think I once saw it with water) that the protestors following the 2019 election spray-painted with graffiti. The guy who sells bananas from a makeshift stone table at the corner of Chayamba and Dunduzu roads. The view of a rock formation jutting out to the east of the city when I hit a certain rise on the road as I head toward the cotton candy pink Golden Peacock shopping complex on my home from the Embassy. I will feel a tug, as I try to commit it to memory for when I am no longer here to experience it first hand. And then some driver will do something ridiculous — like drive 20 kilometers under the speed limit or abandon his/her car in the middle of the road — or I fail to swerve for one of the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t potholes and I will let loose a choice word or two that one should not use in polite company and then I’ll mutter “100 days to go…” and think about what next I need to do to make that happen.

The Face Mask: So Fashion Forward

Every so often I write about something a wee bit different. Not about my travels or life abroad. And this particular topic has been worming its way into my brain for a few weeks. First as a few throw away thoughts, jokes to friends and acquaintances, until it filled out, and surprisingly, or maybe predictably, turns out it is sort of about my living overseas.

The author contemplating the past and future of face masks

The Face mask: finally, an accessory I can embrace. I have, at times in my life, hoped I could carry off a particular accessory to accentuate my personality. Well, not really, but I read that on a rather silly website that this is something accessories do, in addition to defining an occasion or defining one’s style. I do have jewelry, mostly necklaces and pendants, including some very interesting and much loved pieces I picked up in my travels. And for a time I was quite into shoes. I wear spectacles, but that’s so I do not bump into things and, you know, be unable to do my job. My prescription makes them expensive and I am unwilling to buy more than one pair.

I have tried to hats — cute baseball caps, a floppy straw beach hat, comfy beanies — but my head must be oddly shaped because they never look quite right. There are also those really simple but colorful fabric headbands that seem to render certain women who exercise to also look effortlessly chic. In case you are wondering, no I am not one of those women. Those bands will not stay on my head, but instead steadily, stealthily slide across my crown until they slump listlessly to the ground. I also, briefly, tried to up my game with neck scarves. I have a few I purchased in Nepal and Southeast Asia, some I bought at a fancy shop at the mall in the building where the Consulate was housed in Shanghai, a really beautiful one brought back from Pakistan by a former boyfriend. Sigh. I tried, I really did. But those did not amplify my style either.

But face masks. Whew, its like I have finally found the accoutrement for me. They fit my face. And they cover up my slightly bulbous, fleshy nose, with its high bony bridge I wanted, in high school, to reshape, and they play up my blue gray eyes and my quite flattering forehead. Oh yes, I have found the accessory for me.

The thing is, I realized after some introspection, face masks are not a new thing for me. I have actually been sporting them for some time, or at least at different phases in my life. And, I thought, how about that? For once I might just have been fashion forward.

My mask from my Korea days

From September 1995 to October 1996, I lived in Seoul, South Korea, where I worked six days a week as an English teacher in one of those institutions of after school cram instruction, called a hagwon. Between teaching, working out at the gym, and studying Tae Kwon Do (and weirdly, all three locations resided in one single building in Il-won-dong, Kangnam-ku, yes, the district in Seoul made famous by the Gangnam Style song), I had little free time, but when I did I often went clubbing with my friends. And there, I was on the ground floor of K-pop, before it was really known as K-pop. I bought cassette tapes (yes, it was that long ago) of my favorite Korean bands, and the favorite of my favorites was just about everyone else’s favorite: Seo Taiji and the Boys. And on a Sunday, my only day off, in the fall of 1995, I bought myself a knock-off Boy London face mask from a street vendor in Itaewon. I could probably write a short novella at least of my time in Itaewon, just up from the Yongsan Garrison of the United States Forces Korea, where by day I could find American goodies snuck off base and sold in hole-in-the-wall stores and by night could dance away with my friends and soldiers. But the point is I bought that mask, which because I had no clue about the British Boy London clothing brand, thought it referred to Seo Taiji and the Boys, forever associating it with my first, brief love for a band that sang lyrics I could not understand. I loved that mask. And I still have it!! I fished it out of a box just yesterday as I searched for something else.

Generic — until I made it special with a sharpie

Fast forward seven plus years. Boy London has been in a box for a long time and the Seo Taiji and the Boys cassette long ago lost. Now, I am in Singapore for graduate school. I have roommates again and there might have been a wee bit of clubbing on occasion, though more often small parties usually hosted by Indian friends and roommates, with Bollywood-infused dancing. A little more than halfway through my year, the SARS pandemic made its Singapore debut. It would be dramatic to say things changed overnight, because they didn’t, but things did change. And lo and behold, the face mask came back into my life. Though this time it was, of course, not about wanting to keep half my face warm during a cold Korean winter or temporarily brand my visage in cottony pop culture fabric. This time, I had to wear the mask for public health purposes. And I had no special mask, just generic single-use ones. But I still found it, not fun, but, me?

Jump ahead to the fall of 2014 as C and I are preparing for our move to Shanghai. Now, I am told, I’ll need a mask again, this time for the poor air quality days of Chinese cities. Though this time I also get to inculcate my daughter into the wonderful world of face masks from a young and impressionable age. I go for the top-of-the-line N95 masks in fetching plain colors for me—including a wonderful pale grey/blue that really accentuates my eyes—and a snazzy oriental print for C. So enthralled am I with this purchase that I schedule a photo shoot for C and I with my photographer sister, to truly capture this momentous moment when I bequeath my fetish for fetching face fixtures to my offspring.

For the love of face masks

I discovered though that getting a 3-year-old to wear and keep on a face mask is no mean feat. The photo shoot had not quite instilled the fun factor I had hoped. I also wear glasses and in the winter months, when the pollution levels tended to be higher and the masks were more often needed, I had to choose between wearing the mask and seeing where I was going. My warm exhalations steaming from the mask’s ventilation valves would fog up my glasses and though Chinese cities had come a long way since my first days in the country in 1994, there was still a chance a manhole or drain cover might be left off and I would plunge to my death (or just injury and pride as what happened when I fell into such in Japan of all places), so I needed full vision to navigate the sidewalks. My affection for face masks might have slipped a bit then, just a bit.

And now, here we are in 2020, and everyone (well most everyone, I guess not the anti-maskers who just are not getting into the spirit of it all) is getting in on the face mask action. But C and I, we are old hats at this. In fact, I would like to note that in 2016 I wrote, on this very site, a blog post about the growing face mask fad in China. Seriously, I kid you not, you can go back and look, but here is my prophetic prose: “Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?” And yes, I not only covet more face masks, but Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture and many more brands and designer houses are now in on the action (and huge kudos to Louis Vuitton for repurposing studios across Europe to produce and donate non-surgical protective masks to frontline healthcare workers).

Malawi during COVID: Sunshine and chic chitenje face coverings

C and I, like most people in the world, wear our masks much more often now and have traded in, or at least swap our, out heavier N95 Shanghai masks with the colorful, lightweight, and simpler masks made from the traditional Malawian chitenje fabric (much of which is actually made in Indonesia as the higher quality, more expensive fabric is known at the markets as Java). But unlike many others, C and I are not newbies to the face mask scene, and eased into our mask wear with greater ease than most. Alas, my face modeling days are mostly behind me, though maybe C has a bright future in this no-doubt growth industry.

I would be remiss if I did not also point out that my cat too was way ahead of the face mask for pets curve. While I see photos and articles on the trend in China nowadays, I would like to just post here again a photo I posted four years ago of my cat, Kucing (pronounced “Ku-ching;” it means “cat” in Bahasa Indonesian) temporarily sporting my daughter’s face mask, which she wore without resistance.

It is amazing to recognize that for once, I was on the forefront of a trend. Me, who still had an 8-track player in the eighth grade (when everyone else was on to cassette tapes) and still had a cassette player in 2006 (and someone at the gym mocked me for it). Finally, my time has come.