Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Diplomatic Laugh

About four months ago in a meeting with others in the State department, it dawned on me that most of the meetings I have been in always generated laughter. Yes, there were some extremely clever people making very witty remarks, but the laughter seemed to reflect a group culture that was different than the business world I had been a part of.

Then I ran into a piece of news on current laughter research that made sense of my observation. Laughter may be a large part in creating diplomatic ties.
"People are about 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than alone, reinforcing the idea that laughter is a social phenomenon. And though we associate laughter with humor, a large proportion of laughs aren't in response to anything remotely funny. Rather, they are often just affirmations, communications, or expressions of joy. We laugh "to kind of grease the social wheels," Hudenko said.

Laughter mainly comes in two types, researchers think: voiced, and unvoiced. 'We need more research to be done to understand the function of voiced versus unvoiced laughter, but our best hypothesis is that unvoiced laughs are probably used more to negotiate social interactions, and voiced might be more linked to a positive internal state,' Hudenko said.

So voiced laughter — the prototypical, belly-laugh type, that sounds more like sing-song — is usually spontaneous. We create the sound with our vocal chords (hence the name), and usually laugh this way naturally and spontaneously. Unvoiced laughter, however, is more of a conscious expression. We make these panting, grunting, snorting noises when we are trying on purpose to laugh, usually for a social purpose, such as to ease conversation or make friends.

For adults, each type of laughter represents about 50 percent of the total. Young children may express more voiced than unvoiced laughter, as they haven't yet learned to purposely laugh. But strikingly, Hudenko and team found that autistic children almost never produce unvoiced laughs."
More at MSNBC News
Image of a Mumbai Laughing Club from National Geographic

Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Resources Available for Trailing Partners at FSI Transition Center

There are a few new online resources for trailing partners in the FSI Transition Center that look to be just as helpful for people considering this career as those who have started training. Since this blog has received several comments from trailing spouses in the process of joining the foreign service, I thought they were interesting to share.

Spouse and Partner Guide to the Foreign Service
Acronyms and Jargon
Thriving as a Foreign Service Spouse article
Spouse/Partner Orientation: agenda and now an online option if you cannot be there in person

The Spouse and Partner Guide to the Foreign Service has a Self Test: What Did You Know or Think Was True When You Signed Up?

Choose "Fact" or "Fiction:"

1. The Embassy/Consulate will find you (the trailing partner) a job which matches your qualifications.

2. Your housing will be paid for overseas.

3. The U.S. Government gives you an allowance to choose your own house overseas.

4. The house comes with a maid, paid for by the U.S. government.

5. Your partner, fiancé, or parent can go with you to post and have the same benefits as a spouse and children. (in the document is the old answer, but recently this has changed somewhat! See post Specific Benefits for Same-Sex Domestic Partners of Foreign Service Employees Serving Overseas)

6. American schools overseas will have the same curriculum as U.S. public schools.

7. Since you are with the Embassy, your children are guaranteed a place at the U.S. government sponsored school.

8. If you have a special needs child, you will be sent only to where there is an adequate educational program.

9. You will be included in the same language and area studies programs as the employee so you are adequately prepared.

10. If the situation is unstable at post, the U.S. government will always evacuate you right away.

11. The U.S. Government pays to transport your pets to/from post, regardless of the number or type.

12. You are entitled to Rest and Recuperation (R&R) and Home Leave trips.

13. R&R and Home Leave include both travel and per diem.

14. The Embassy or Consulate provides a concierge/tour director who will take care of your needs and wishes.

Answers in Spouse and Partner Guide to the Foreign Service.

Let me know if you found any big surprises!

Previous posts on other resources:
Diving into Informational Resources
Learning New Languages

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The City with the Highest Quality of Living is...Vienna, Austria

Mercer recently released its annual Worldwide Quality of Living survey results and Vienna topped the list, ahead of Zurich, last year's top city. Mercer is an international HR firm that produces reports for companies with employees on international assignments. The top 10 are:

1 Vienna
2 Zurich
3 Geneva
4 Vancouver (tied)
4 Auckland (tied)
6 Dusseldorf
7 Munich
8 Frankfurt
9 Bern
10 Sydney

Since bidding season has begun, this is another interesting fact to consider, as well as the Cost of Living report I posted last month.

Singapore tops the Asian cities, although it was only the 10th most expensive Asian city in the Cost of Living report.

In Central and South America, San Juan, Puerto Rico tops the list with Montevideo as runner up. At the bottom of the list in the region is Port au Prince. Santiago has the best infrastructure in the region, and the report emphasizes how much infrastructure affects the quality of living in a city:

“Infrastructure has a significant effect on the quality of living experienced by expatriates. Whilst often taken for granted when functioning to a high standard, a city’s infrastructure can generate severe hardship when it is lacking.”

The top 10 cities for infrastructure are:

1 Singapore
2 Munich
3 Copenhagen
4 Tsukuba
5 Yokohama
6 Dusseldorf (tied)
6 Vancouver (tied)
8 Frankfurt (tied)
8 Hong Kong (tied)
8 London (tied)

The top two cities in the U.S. on the infrastructure list were Atlanta at number 15 and then Washington D.C. and number 24. The top U.S. cities for quality of living were: Honolulu (29), San Francisco (30) and Boston (35).

Update: Also read the post on ECA International's Most Expensive Places in World for Expats report and The Economist's 2010 World's Most Livable Cities.

Photo of Vienna from

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Enjoying a -Fringe- Benefit

Another great benefit of the foreign service is the ability to purchase bulky items overseas without the worry of how to get them back to the U.S. (when you do return and if it is within your weight limit).

Basharat John from Cheap John in New Delhi graciously came to Kolkata with 50 of his carpets and it was hard not to want to take all of the carpets home. Basharat's family has been collecting and manufacturing carpets for over three generations. He still has carpets that his grandfather collected for sale.

We saw wool, silk and tribal carpets. One interesting fact that I learned was that some tribal carpets like the popular ones from Afghanistan do not have straight edges, mainly because of the nomadic lifestyles lived by the weavers - they roll the carpets in progress and start again at the next settlement.

At the top left of the photo above, is a carpet woven by one man in his 80s. It took the man 2 years to make only this 2'x3' carpet. Most often families stick to one design, improving and refining the design over the years. Basharat has had the ability to watch the designs evolve over time.

A big thank you to Basharat for visiting us. And if you are ever in New Delhi, stop by and visit him in the American Embassy's shops or at 1-10, Jangpura-B, Mathura Road, New Delhi, 110014. You will be "Spoilt for choice!"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

One Year in Kolkata

Today is our one year anniversary in Kolkata.

Two images come to mind today, a photo I took of our daughter in transit from D.C. to Kolkata. She has this look that says, "where are we going, and why are you taking me?"

The other photo is of course of our daughter. A Sunday morning walk through the flower market near Howrah bridge, with Sicily in a backpack and a lotus flower given to her by a vendor tucked in behind her.

To me it symbolizes the friendly people in Kolkata, that you can find amazing experiences here, and that it has been a great first post for us. We look forward to the next year - and are already feeling that exciting but excruciating anticipation for the bid list's arrival in the next few months.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Understanding Local Ingredients at Post

When we first arrived at post and went to the local markets, we quickly realized that although English is spoken widely in Kolkata, some items were called by their British names (lady fingers instead of okra); and there were things we had never had before, like the fruit called chickoo.

I went to a local bookshop and bought some children's books that illustrated fruits and vegetables so that we could understand the common names and use the pictures to point at if needed. They serve double duty as a book for our two year old, and hopefully they will be an interesting memento when she grows up and can't remember that she actually used to love lady fingers (sounds so much more appetizing than okra).

An even better resource is a series of books recommended to me by our very experienced and knowledgeable management officer, Linda Bladhom's guides to ethnic markets. Even though they are written to navigate ethic stores in the US, they are a great introduction to local foods. The series includes:

*The Indian Grocery Store Demystified
*The Asian Grocery Store Demystified
*Latin & Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified

The The Indian Grocery Store Demystifiedhas sections on the different types of rice, dals, flours, spices, vegetables, fruits, snacks, sweets, teas and more. I found it interesting that parboiled rice is not the same as American minute rice. Parboiled rice is boiled and then steamed before it is hulled. The nutrients from the hull is absorbed by the rice kernel before it is removed, so it is a more nutritious rice.

You also see a lot of spice mixes in stores here. The book explains some of these mixes, for example, Kadhai Masala. "A kadhai is an Indian wok and this is a chunky spice blend for chicken or vegetable dishes...contains crushed coriander, fennel, mustard, fenugreek seeds, ground red chilies, cumin, black pepper, ginger, dry mango, cassia bark, and star anise." Whew! Now I am hungry again.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday USA!

This is our first 4th of July in the Foreign Service, which was different than our previous ones. Instead of just being a day to celebrate the nation, living outside the country really makes one focus on how the US compares to your host country and how others perceive the US.

At many posts, there is an official 4th of July event with government officials, community leaders, etc., and a separate event for post's employees and their families. This year our post decided to not have a community event, since we are so small and the enticement of a full three day weekend off was so strong.

Our Consulate celebrated its official 4th of July on July 2nd, with a large event at a very nice hotel. All American employees, with FSNs and other local employees, worked the event. It was a great showcase of team work at the Consulate - employees from different sections working together to make sure that the event went well and that all guests were having a great time.

As the official 4th of July event is typically the biggest event of the year at US embassies and consulates, it will be interesting to compare this experience to July 4th events at future posts, which will have a high bar to cross in comparison.

Some tips we picked up for working the 4th of July event:

*Pick your shoes carefully, by the end of the night your feet are guaranteed to hurt. One officer had the brilliant idea to switch shoes several times during the night to minimize the aching.
*Eat a snack before the event. Since guests should come first for the food lines, having something in your stomach will prevent you from staring at some one's plate instead of them when chatting.
*Study the guest list ahead of time, so that you get an idea of who may be invited from other sections.
*If you are drinking stick to clear beverages, like white wine. This tip came to us by a very smart officer who was bumped into in the past and had to wear her drink for the rest of the night.
*People standing by themselves typically appreciate someone talking to them.
*Think of a few general questions to ask guests prior to the event.
*Enjoy yourself!

Image from