Sunday, June 27, 2010

Number Two

One of the things I look forward to the most in my work here in this part of the world, and there aren't a lot, is when I get to meet my counterparts from the different embassies of Asian countries. We have what we refer to as our monthly Asian No. 2s group meeting.

The second highest-ranking officers of the Asian embassies meet up informally to discuss everything from the global to the local, the academic to the mundane. Hosting is on a rotation/ voluntary basis.

Though you would think that we would be very different due to our nationalities, the group is actually the closest thing I have to a peer group here. We all have similar jobs when it comes to our respective offices. We all talk the same diplospeak, and lose said diplospeak when together. We deal with similar pressures, get happy with similar results, and put up with similar b.s. (no job is perfect)

As war veterans would say "You don't know, man! You weren't there!" Talking to someone who "was there" goes a long way. The meetings sometimes end up as catharsis sessions.

Yes, as expected, discussions of diplomatic issues are always there. But that's like the agenda item everybody wants to get over with as soon as possible. Why let work-related stuff get in the way of your job?

Non-work related issues range from things like where we took our latest vacations or where we plan to go next, football (of which I'm a bit lost), Jackie Chan movies (who doesn't love the guy, huh?), and what's a good Ultraman toy for kids (which lead me to explain how different Ultramen shoot their beams).

The meetings also allow us to compare notes on ideas we can borrow from each other, or plans we can do to further enhance bilateral cooperation. The others also take this time to pencil in when their boss can play golf with each other. (My boss is not a golfer.)

Sometimes, wives are invited to the meetings so they can catch up on the latest in diplomatic wife stuff. My wife likes going to these meetings since the host often serves dishes from their country. We're Asian, so imagine being treated to the cuisine of Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia, etc. It goes without saying that I consider the food a major bonus, too.

Admittedly, there is a bit of awkwardness in my position in this group. Let's just say I entered the Foreign Service too early than most people would, which caused me to have what I call the "Doogie Howser syndrome." I've grown used to instances when I receive looks of disbelief when diplomats and government officials see that there's a kid being introduced as their counterpart. "You're the same age as my son" just goes from one ear to the other now. As for our Asian No. 2s group, most of the other members are 10-20 years my senior. But I've learned to not notice it myself.

Diplomats are a fun group to observe. They are well-educated, trained in protocol, have impeccable manners, and are as global and open in thinking as possible. But it's always a learning experience when, from time to time, their words and actions betray their national habits and thoughts. These little tells (like in poker) give you a glimpse of the soul of their nation, good and bad, that either adds to your book learning of international issues or gives it life.

I'd like to add that as simple as these informal meetings may be, they actually provide a great venue for diplomatic work that can create better relations. The people I meet are people who can actually do something and not just talk about it. As the name suggests, these people are No. 2s, a heartbeat away from being No. 1s, meaning Ambassadors. And the setting provides, even for an hour of two, a great opportunity to discuss matters as people, not as bureaucrats. For a few minutes, developed and developing nation statuses can be set aside. Population, per capita, income, and political stability are non-factors. The only border dispute is between our plates. And the only competition is who gets the last piece of cake. After that, we can all go back to "realpolitik."

"So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."- U.S. President John F. Kennedy

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