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The joys of US Foreign Service



Paul Simon points out that non-US citizens would be very much on their own if they had a mishap on the roof of the world. Margaret Mackenzie is a New Zealander, and I assumed that there would be no consulate in Chengdu, but I wrongly thought there would be a German one, given the number of German tourists. Paul says:

"Actually, neither Germany nor New Zealand has diplomatic facilities anywhere remotely close to Tibet. Their embassies in Beijing would handle all consular matters for their citizens. Consulates in the region are:
USA-Chengdu
Canada, UK, and Japan--Chongqing
Thailand, Burma, Vietnam (and soon Malaysia)--Kunming

[I am confused and puzzled. Confused because my sources give different spellings of the places Paul mentions, and the Gazetteer of Conventional Names does not list them. The names are approved by the US Board of Geographic Names, while the research is done by the Defense Mapping Agency Topographic Center in Washington, DC. I wonder if there is an online list of these spellings. Does the State Department follow the Defense Department's choices? Puzzled because the three cities Paul names form a cluster. The first two are both in the province of Sichuan, while Kunming is in the neighboring province of Yunnan, a logical choice since it is the closest to the countries listed. But what about Laos, which borders on Yunnan? RH]

Different countries provide different levels of service to their citizens abroad. The USA keeps track of Americans who die, notifies relatives, helps secure property, and issues death certificates. If the deceased has no next of kin in the area, we may make arrangements to ship property, prepare and ship remains, etc.--but only if the family pays the costs.

When I was a vice-consul I had to visit the autopsy room, morgue and unclaimed body room at DC General Hospital as part of my training. When stationed in Seoul, I had to find a new mortician who could embalm better. I also once had to help a mortician extract a gold tooth that the deceased's son wanted. The American Vice-Consul in Kathmandu actually supervises embalmings. One of my colleagues who is just now retiring had to deal with ALL the bodies from the Jonestown, Guyana "kool-aid" suicides.

This is just for anyone who thinks diplomats are "striped pants cookie pushers". Needless to say, this is not all, or even a big part of our jobs, but citizen services is a TOP priority at the State Department--we are limited by the laws and customs of host countries, not to mention our own limited resources--but we do what we can.

You recently asked how many folks we had to cover our territory here. Our district run from Consulate Chengdu is all Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Chongqing. almost 300 million people, over a thousand resident Americans, plus the tourists. The region is about the size of the USA east of the Mississippi. My section does ALL the visa work and citizen services. Last fiscal year we processed 25,000 visa applications and registered a thousand citizens. My section is myself and ONE vice-consul plus 4 PRC-national assistants!"

My comment: I am happy to post this to make people realize the demands on foreign service officers. In U.S. News and World Report (12/3/01) David Gergen laments "Penny pinchers in Congress have dismantled some of the few assets we had. Our embassies overseas no longer have libraries, once popular gathering places for foreign nationals. We have also wiped out the United States Information Agency, canceled Arab-language magazines, and cut back on cultural tours that helped in building bridges". Paul, I think this is slightly exaggerated. And talking about the gold tooth which the deceased's son wanted, was he obeying the Olympic Games injunction of going for the gold, or did he just want a gruesome souvenir?

Ronald Hilton - 1/11/02


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