A change of careers is a good thing to add some spice to life, so I decided to take the tests qualifying for a position with the State Department. It is not an easy process, since approx. 10% of those taking the initial written test pass, and then at most 10% pass the oral part at an assessment center. I met a lot of highly intelligent people at the assessment center, people I would have hired on the spot, but most did not succeed. You also have to commit yourself to supporting US American policy, but Clinton was president at the time, so I did not see a problem with that.
I passed the written test three of four times when I first tried (you can retake the tests as many times as you want; rumor has it that there is one man who took them 26 times until he finally succeeded). There were initially three sections to the written test: English, general knowledge and a psychology section, which you had to pass to qualify for the next stage, which was essay writing (or was that before the written test? They did change the procedure over the years). The one time I did not pass the written test was due to the psychology section, since I thought the answers to questions were so obvious that they had to be trick questions. Everyone is required to sign a no-disclosure agreement, so I cannot disclose any details of any questions. However, I really enjoyed taking those tests: it was a lot of fun testing my knowledge and English skills!
Expensive flights to Washington, D.C. to participate in the oral assessment part, but I failed. However, I believe that the process was quite fair, and perhaps I was really not qualified for the job. If you are hired, you have to move to a different country every couple of years, and my wife and daughter said that they did not want to have such a life, so I stopped trying.
Years later when my daughter was in college and I a widower, I decided to try again. Obama was president, and I would have loved to have him as boss. Two more trips to Washington and two more failures, and although I thought that I should have passed, I decided they knew something that I did not, so time to give up.
However, soon afterward there was new position for a consular adjudicator for speakers of Chinese or Spanish. It was a position limited to 18 months, and I thought that might be a nice change of pace. The position involved processing tourist visas for Chinese on the mainland with postings in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.
I passed the Mandarin telephone test and then an oral Chinese exam in Washington. I received grades of 2 both in reading and speaking, although a grade of 1 in reading would have sufficed for the position I was applying for (the scoring on State Department language tests is quite rigid, and quite a few candidates who had failed the Spanish language test for the same position complained bitterly that they had wrongly been failed, since they grew up speaking Spanish and considered themselves fluent in language (though you did need a higher grade to pass in Spanish than in Chinese). I also passed the general exam with a grade of 5.8—5.3 is required to pass and 7 is the highest grade, which practically no one gets, in fact almost no one gets a 6 or higher—passed the medical exam and was on the way to passing the security check (the last time a security officer interviewed me, he said “Have a good time in China”). I was really excited at the prospect, especially the idea of the few months in Washington, D.C., for training. In addition, I looked forward to working with other Americans in a consulate in China, since I had been away from the States for a long time and was gradually losing contact to many Americans I had known. It would have been a kind of “coming home” for me.
However, then I was informed that I was not being given authorization to work in China, apparently since I had lived abroad for such a long time. Quite strange, because such country authorization is normally only not given to candidates who have close relatives or friends in the country, which I do not. I can only assume that they did not trust me and considered me a potential traitor, willing to sell secrets of our country for a few trysts with some nice Chinese ladies and a nice lump sum in an offshore account, or there is something else that they know about me that they disliked (protesting against the Vietnam War years ago), but did not want to disclose. I was devastated at the time, since I thought I was weeks away from becoming a diplomat, albeit a very minor one. This was in addition to the fact that I had spent a lot of time, money and effort getting through the application process, including a self-financed trip to Washington for the final assessment procedure.
My girlfriend was in England at the time, a dream come true for her, but she left and came back to Germany, since we were supposedly leaving for China soon. Probably the only good thing I got out of this was that I cleaned out my basement, since I thought I would have to put all my things in storage while I was I China.
I had probably over-romanticized the position, imagining myself at cocktail parties with high-level politicians and celebrities from around the world, maybe even the chance to shake-President Obama’s hand when he visited China. But the job would most certainly have only entailed bureaucratic drudgery and—if there were any nice cocktail parties—I would have been assigned to work standby in a consulate while the upper echelon, career diplomats were off to the party. In other words, I would have been assigned to handle citizen services and such exciting topics as replacing a stolen passport, visiting a US American in jail, informing relatives of the death in China of a loved one, etc. Still, it sounded like a nice career change, and I think it’s a good thing to change careers a couple of times in one’s life. In retrospect, I rationalize my not being appointed as something positive, similar to the fox who said the grapes were probably sour anyway, since I would have had to spend my work week in a cage interviewing innumerable visa applicants every day, had very little vacation and probably suffered from the terrible air pollution in one of China’s metropolises. The State Department wrote me several times in the following years and said I could reapply, but declined to comment on my chances of getting country authorization. I was tempted and confident that I could pass again, but I just didn’t trust them enough to make another go at it, not to mention the expenses of another trip to Washington perhaps only to fill their quota of applicants.