The “Real” Flag Day Wasn’t June 14

When the Ross family Foreign Service adventure started two years ago, I think we both looked it as a long shot.  Thad’s first test was taken on a bit of a whim.  He took it the day before we flew out of Idaho for a six week trip through our old stomping grounds in Gansu, China and then on to a variety of beautiful stops throughout Southeast Asia.  A couple of years and many tests later, we found ourselves facing the biggest event yet: Flag Day!

The build-up to Flag Day actually begins just a few days into class when the new hires are given the bid list.  This list lays out the positions available to the members of the class upon the completion of their training.  There are 94 people in Thad’s class and the initial bid list had 94 positions.  (The list had a few additions and subtractions, but basically, it includes one post for each person.)  Prior to receiving the bid list, I thought I had a pretty decent grasp of world geography, but once it was in-hand, I realized I may have let my 8th grade geography teacher, Mr. Shake, as well as my #1 teaching buddy Jim,  down a bit.  GoogleMaps and I spent a bit of quality time together that first evening!

Flag Day is a tradition for members of each A-100 class. We, along with nearly every other member of the class, spent about two weeks pouring over bid lists, talking endlessly about the pros and cons of each possible position and trying to come up with a strategy that fit both Thad’s career needs and our personal preferences. Bid lists became just about the ONLY topic of conversation when any two or more FSOs or EFMs (that’s State Department jargon for spouses) were within communicating distance!

As a part of this preparation process, I logged numerous hours in the Overseas Briefing Center- a library of resources that gives an endless array of information about each Foreign Service posting around the world.  For every posting, there is a box of information that includes official data from the embassy/consulate, which is nice to read, but the more useful folder of information is the one labeled “Personal Post Insights.”  These are a collection of surveys from officers and their spouses from each of the postings.  While the official information was great and full of statistics and pertinent facts, the PPI’s had what I was looking for- a realistic view of day to day life!  I quickly realized that each one had to be taken with a grain of salt, as the surveys are extremely subjective.  While I loved my time in Peace Corps, I know that if I had been asked to fill in a similar report on a particularly bad day, the results may have been less than positive, even though my overall experience was wonderful.  This was crucial to remember, as I read that in one not-to-be-named post as the responder said that s/he “…would rather stick my hand in a blender than spend another month in this country!”  (Knowing the country, I think it is rather fabulous that a blender was an available option!  Count your blessings buddy!)

Another part of this bid list process includes a meeting with the FSO’s CDO.  There are a handful of CDOs, each one assigned to a group of class members.  The CDO’s job is to get to know the skill-set/desires of their hires and then place them in the positions that are best for both the department and the employee.  Spouses are strongly encouraged to attend the CDO meeting, so off we went to Foggy Bottom to make our wants known.  This is where the process gets a bit crazy/confusing.  In the meeting, the employee is asked about their preferences in everything from language training to focus regions in the world to needs dealing with children and pets.  The whole idea is to let preferences be known, but at the end the CDO bluntly reminded us that Thad needed to be “worldwide available.”  We, of course, were well aware of this and really were open to nearly any placement, but when asked what we liked, we gave our opinions. I walked out of that meeting a little worried that Thad’s CDO thought we were too picky and set in our desire to be in Asia.  I was really concerned that we didn’t make a good impression and that that may impact his placement.  With nothing to do but fret and worry, we headed home to wait out the few weeks until the announcements were to be made.

Finally, Flag Day arrived!  This really was a day we had been talking about for years, so it was great to finally have it upon us.  Josh and Jeremy, two of Thad’s high school friends, were able to fly in for the ceremony and we were lucky enough to catch a ride to FSI with the wife of one of Thad’s classmates.  We met John, a close friend from PC China there, and anxiously waited to hear the Ross family’s fate.

The Flag Day ceremony is fairly informal with lots of young children in attendance and a rather festive atmosphere.  I came prepared with labeled print-offs that included each possible country’s flag and the post assignment city, as well as our finalized bid-list with our rankings so that I could check off each one as it was called.    After handing out the spare copies and a handful of pens/highlighters to our group, it was time to get started.  Just a few posts in, my personal number one choice (Kathmandu, Nepal) was called and given out, but I wasn’t too upset, as it was a long shot option for us.  It wasn’t very many placements after that though that we learned our fate.  The flag of China popped up on the giant screen at the front of the room and the announcer called out “China, Chengdu.”  This was Thad’s number one choice and right at the top of my list too.  After a seemingly endless pause I heard, “Thad Ross.”  I couldn’t believe it!!  I think a small yelp went out from our row and Thad was beaming as he picked up his flag and folder of information and nearly skipped back to his seat!  We couldn’t believe it!  My worry about the CDO meeting was meritless; apparently we made a better impression than I thought!

Thad’s assignment was called within the first third of the flags, so then it was a matter of waiting while the rest of his class got their postings.  I quickly gave up on marking my sheets and spent the rest of the ceremony texting family and friends back in Idaho with the great news!  It was tough not being able to sit with him, as we both wanted to talk about what had just happened and start planning for this next big adventure!

Chengdu, China will be our new home starting in April 2012.  Between now and then, Thad will be in a series of classes that include both language and consular training.  I will spend a lot of time preparing for the move and enjoying the DC area before that time rolls around.  We couldn’t be happier with the results of Flag Day and are thrilled to undertake this new journey together.

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