A Day in the Life of a Foreign Service Officer in China

A Day in the Life of a Foreign Service Officer in ChinaOn Tuesday, December 10, 2013, we had the rare opportunity to talk to four active U.S. Foreign Service Officers:

  • Jesse Curtis, Public Diplomacy Officer and Director of the Beijing American Center
  • Ryan Janda, Consular-Public Diplomacy Officer
  • Jason Park, Political Officer
  • Elizabeth (Betsy) Shieh, Commercial Officer, Team Leader for Energy / Environment

Although it was bitterly cold outside, a crowd of over 50 made it to the Golden Bridges Courtyard to hear their personal stories, career advice and even what dating is like in the Foreign Service.

The officers were as courteous and professional as you’d expect seasoned diplomats to be, but they also surprised us with their humor and candor as they talked of their challenges at work (Jesse once helped deliver bags of cash across the DMZ to North Korea to pay expenses for a high-level visit to Pyongyang) and debunked preconceptions (their daily work is rarely affected by changes in administration).

The panelists also offered tips on the infamous Foreign Service Exam.

“If you’re already reading the newspaper, you’ll probably be okay,” Ryan said. “But if you’ve been in China too long, you might have problems with any questions about pop culture.”

“You should be covered if you read the Sunday New York Times and People Magazine,” Jesse joked.

Jason recommended The Economist and recounted how he had tried to make his examiners laugh during the exhausting full day of oral exams.

Betsy explained that Foreign Service Officers in the Foreign Commercial Service work a little differently. With only 250 officers worldwide, they focus on advocacy for American companies and are only stationed in countries with a market for American business and products. She talked about how recently, in the space of only 40 days, she had planned (three separate times) the first-ever trade mission by a U.S. Ambassador to Xinjiang, finally accompanying him for the historic trip on the successful third iteration after the first two attempts were cancelled.

Although the Foreign Service application process is very selective, especially in the current economic environment, the audience perked up when hearing that Mandarin is considered a “Critical Needs Language,” so applicants with Mandarin fluency have a competitive edge if they pass the oral assessment.

In fact, the number of positions in China has increased in recent years as more and more Chinese travel to and study in America. Last year, the U.S. Mission to China issued over 1.5 million visas to Chinese, including to more than 235,000 Chinese students who studied in graduate or undergraduate program at U.S. colleges and universities.

Our guests also touched on the challenges of dating or raising a family as a Foreign Service Officer.

Ryan lamented that they all shared the same difficulties as any expat looking for love in China, but alluded to some unique challenges of dating local citizens as a government official.

Jesse explained that he had been lucky that his three kids have adjusted to every posting well, “but I have colleagues whose kids don’t handle the transition well,” which can affect decisions about whether to stay abroad or remain in Washington, DC.

However, both Jesse and Betsy believe that their job has had the positive effect of giving their children a unique opportunity to see the world.

Audience member and former Senior Foreign Service Officer, John Thomson, joked, “You can usually tell where someone had their first posting because of where their spouse is from!”

After the event, the panelists were kind enough to stick around to talk with our audience and answer their questions about this respected but enigmatic career.

We’d like to thank all of our attendees for coming to this special event, and give a special shout-out to the panelists who offered such great advice to our pengyous.

Check out photos from the event here!


Speaker Bios

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JESSE CURTIS – Public Affairs Section
In August 2012, Jesse Curtis became the first full-time Director of the Beijing American Center (BAC), Embassy Beijing’s primary platform for explaining America to Chinese audiences. Over his fifteen-year Foreign Service career, Jesse Curtis has worked on political, political-military, consular and public affairs issues in South Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Washington, DC and China. During this time he has sailed within sight of Cuba on a US Navy warship, been on the floor of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council chamber, handed cash to North Korean diplomats, been mistaken for the Mexico City police chief by the President of Mexico, denounced as a terrorist by Daniel Ortega, and flown on a plane with the Dalai Lama. Born in Boston, raised in Las Vegas, Jesse has a BA in International Relations from Brigham Young University and a MA in Korean Studies from the University of Washington. He and his wife, who is also a Foreign Service Officer, have three children. Before trying to learn Mandarin, Jesse spoke Spanish and Korean.

RYAN JANDA – Consular Section
Ryan initially joined the Foreign Service in 2002 as a Diplomatic Security Special Agent and returned in 2010 as a Foreign Service Officer. She has served in New York, Lima, Nogales, Buenos Aires, and now Beijing, where she is filling a Consular-Public Diplomacy rotational position. Outside of public service, Ryan previously worked in academia, for a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on promoting good city governance, and for a private information technology company that provided customized solutions for Community Development Financial Institutions under contract with the Department of Treasury. Ryan holds a masters degree in public administration from George Mason University and a bachelors degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania. She speaks Spanish and Mandarin, and volunteers her time to provide community service through organizations like DB Peru, Food & Friends, and the DC Rape Crisis Center.

JASON PARK – Political Section
Jason is a political officer at the United States Embassy in Beijing. His previous Foreign Service posting was as a vice-consul at the Consulate General in Mumbai, India. Prior to joining the Department of State, Jason served as part of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to Cambodia and worked in rural education, health, and community development and interned at the Korean Mission to the United Nations with the Economic and Development Team. He graduated from the Johns Hopkins University with degrees in International and East Asian Studies. His foreign languages are Korean, Mandarin, Hindi, and Khmer.

ELIZABETH (BETSY) SHIEH – Commercial Section
Betsy joined the Foreign Service in 2005 and served in one of the 100 domestic offices of the Department of Commerce before arriving in Beijing at the end of 2006. She is the team leader for the energy/environment team for the Foreign Commercial Service. Prior to joining the Foreign Service Betsy was director of an international trade business association in New York City, director of a World Trade Center, and international trade specialist at the Port Authority of NY and NJ. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and a Bachelor’s Degree in Foreign Language, both from New York University. She is married with 2 children.