Category Archives: Foreign Service Life

Freezer clean out

As you might imagine, we don’t really go out during February – which is why I’m blogging at ten on a Saturday night. After, of course, watching a Chinese movie that was really way too long. They could have cut much of the opening and still had a good movie. I am, however,

Anyway, I’m not sure how long the pierogis that we ate tonight had been living in our freezer. Frankly, I’d rather not think about it. BUT, with some caramelized onions, peas, and parmigiana, they weren’t too bad. A little tough, but not too bad. I’m glad we’re counting food we already have as free, otherwise, I probably would have just thrown them out in July, and I really do hate to waste food like that. Instead, when you count the onions I caramelized (frozen peas and grated parmigiana we already had), it came to a decent $0.50 meal.

Speaking of July and cleaning out, every once and a while I remember that we’re moving to China in July and that I really should get rid of a few things. So today I tackled one of the book shelves in the bedroom. It is now almost completely devoid of books. Some of the books Chad listed for sale on, some will be sent to people via Paperback Swap, and the rest will go either to friends or be donated to the library.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll brave the closet…

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新年好 – 祝大家恭喜发财! Happy Chinese New Year and good fortune to you all!

So on Monday the FSI Chinese department had the New Year Party and food extravaganza. And when I say food extravaganza…

The line starts HERE!
They were very well organized

There were TWO tables like this one, and a small drinks and dessert table. Our teachers put a lot of time and effort in getting the party ready for us – they’re really amazing.

The food was just the first part though, there were also performances by the students and teachers. One class opened with the dragon dance, which was really cool. The class that began last month sang this song, which was pretty amusing to the students, especially the confused looks of the random Chinese people in the video.

The band is called Transition or 前進樂團 and seems to be some British guys based in Taiwan.

There were some other dances that involved fans or scarves or rubber ducks. There were also pretty songs about the moon and raps about learning Chinese. Then there was my class. We had a jeopardy-ish game where we asked two teams of teachers questions about American movies, literature, geography, Presidents, etc. At the end of the day, our coordinator worried that our part was too different for the program. We told her that NEXT year she could make students sing and dance, but that WE were grateful that we didn’t have the extra lunchtime practice that the other groups did… :-)

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Chapter 12: Dining Out

So we did Chapter 12: Dining Out, waaaay back in November. For reference, we start Chapter 18 tomorrow. However, Chapter 12 was definitely my favorite. We learned about different Chinese foods and got some first hand restaurant and grocery store experience. At the grocery store, we bought ingredients to make a dish to bring to a class potluck. Chad made (without any help from me) 干煸四季豆/gānbiān sìjì dòu/dry fried green beans with chili. I made 麻婆豆腐/mápó dòufu/Mapo’s tofu. They both turned out pretty well – see:

Our first attempt at Chinese Cooking!
Our teachers even liked it! 麻麻的,辣辣的,很好吃!

Anyway, the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I meant to waaaaay back in November, but then never got around to it. BUT, I made Mapo Tofu again tonight as part of the meal of the week, and it was super tasty. So I’ve decided to share the recipe here. I just want to point out really quickly that there’s a whole lot of chili oil in this, so the mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorn is oooh so very necessary. This recipe is straight from with NO alterations, and originates from a Sichuanese chef. I highly recommend reading the story first: How The Best Mapo Dofu is Made

The Original Recipe for Real Deal Mapo Dofu
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cold water
1 1/2 pounds medium to firm silken tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 pound ground beef (pork is also commonly used, they both taste great)
3 garlic cloves grated on a microplane grater
1 tablespoon fresh ginger grated on a microplane grater
2 tablespoons fermented chili bean paste
2 tablespoons Xiaoxing wine
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1/4 cup roasted chili oil
1/4 cup finely sliced scallion greens

1. Heat half of sichuan peppercorns in a large wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Transfer to a mortar and pestle. Pound until finely ground and set aside.

2. Add remaining sichuan peppercorns and vegetable oil to wok. Heat over medium high heat until lightly sizzling, about 1 1/2 minutes. Pick up peppercorns with a wire mesh skimmer and discard, leaving oil in pan.

3. Combine corn starch and cold water in a small bowl and mix with a fork until homogenous. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat and add tofu. Cook for 1 minute. Drain in a colander, being careful not to break up the tofu.

4. Heat oil in wok over high heat until smoking. Add beef and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chili-bean paste, wine, soy sauce, and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Pour in corn starch mixture and cook for 30 seconds until thickened. Add tofu and carefully fold in, being careful not to break it up too much. Stir in chili oil and half of scallions and simmer for 30 seconds longer. Transfer immediately to a serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining scallions and toasted ground Sichuan pepper. Serve immediately with white rice.

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Tut tut Tuttle

We had such ambitions…

When Mandarin Express ended, Chad and I didn’t want to loose any of the progress we’d made over those four months. Since Mandarin Express focused primarily on speaking, and the specter of learning a few thousand Chinese characters loomed before us we decided to do a little study ahead. Looking around a different character books (and reading Amazon reviews) lead us to Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters, Vol. 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters

We could TOTALLY learn 800 characters in four months! That’s 200 characters a month, a mere 50 characters a week, or just 10 characters a day! Only a lazy bum wouldn’t be able to do 10 characters a day! 2/2 in Mandarin in 36 weeks here I come!

Yeah, so we’re lazy bums. We got through the first 80 characters before ignoring the book completely. But that’s no fault of the book. It has amusing stories to help you remember the meaning and pronunciation of each character, and was excellent at teaching stroke order for writing. Oh yes, we wrote. We even bought awesome college ruled with graph paper notebooks to practice writing in. See!

Chinese writing practice...doomed from the start
You can print your own doane pages for free too!

Ah well, it wasn’t all for naught. We started at FSI with more than 50 characters under our belt, which gave us time to work on other things, like our tones, which, as our teachers tell us, we have to focus on/concentrate/pay attention to all. of. the. time.

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Sneaking up on Mandarin (the language)

Ha! I’m back and writing again – a few more weeks of this and it’ll either be a habit, or I won’t write again for another eight months… Anyway, I wanted to share how Chad and I got ready to study Mandarin at FSI. As the reality of moving to Shanghai in 2012 set in, the more anxious we got about our ability to learn the language to some semblance of proficiency. Since we had plenty of time, I started to look into classes we could take before going to FSI.

I looked at NOVA community college, the USDA graduate school, and private language schools. All of these options were either poorly timed for us, too far away, or too expensive. As our goal was just to get some familiarity with the language, we didn’t want to spend too much time or money. So I looked at our options through FSI. Early morning Chinese didn’t appeal to either of us, so one of the online options would be the best. I’d heard some not so great stuff about the software available through FSI, but then I saw a class called Mandarin Express. Continue reading

Consular Leadership at the National Archives

Every year, sometime in the winter, consular offices around the globe organize a Consular Leadership Day and schedule an event that reflects one of the Consular Leadership Tenants. This year the leadership day theme was Resilience, and our office activity was planned around the tenant Learn Constantly. One of my colleagues knows a woman who coordinates educational programs at the primary campus for the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and she helped organize a trip for us (and a few people from a different office in Consular Affairs) to learn a bit more about the archives, and to see some old consular papers and records. Continue reading

Keeping an Inventory

So Linney at Rambles and Ruminations is doing the State Department Blog Round-up this week, and her theme is resolutions/goals/etc for 2011. I don’t normally do New Years resolutions, but I do have one for 2011.

We won’t be moving to China for over a year, but I still want start thinning out some of our stuff and begin making a home inventory. We’ve looked at a few software options, especially the recommendations from lifehacker, but we’re still not sure which way to go.

Does anyone out there have thoughts/recommendations/experiences/methods that they wouldn’t mind sharing with us?

I never knew I’d…

…become the unofficial-official photographer for my office (and sometimes by extension the Consular Affairs Bureau here in Washington). I promise I will finish writing this post I’ve started on the pros and cons of serving a first FSO tour at Main State. In the mean time, I’ve decided to keep within this week’s theme for the Weekly State Department Blog RoundUp.

So here’s a picture from today’s Consular Affairs Cupcake competition and bake-sale fundraiser for the Combined Federal Campaign. I never knew that part of my first tour in the Foreign Service would include cupcake photos!

Year three on the books!

Chad and I celebrated our third anniversary this past Wednesday at Restaurant Eve (again!). I would have posted more sooner, but as this has been one of the busier weeks I’ve had in a while, I’ve only just now found the time. Which is on the Metro, on my way to work, on my phone. So no pictures or hyperlinks today – just straight up text! On to the year three highlights:
Continue reading