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What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

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U.S. State Department Flickr

The unfortunate and untimely death of a young Foreign Service Officer in a suicide bombing on April 6 in Afghanistan’s Zabul province has drawn attention to the careers of U.S. diplomats, a topic already on the consciousness of much of the U.S. population following the success of the critically acclaimed foreign service flick Argo.

Twenty-five year old U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff was on assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan since July, a post for which she had volunteered following a tour in Caracas, Venezuela. When her convoy was attacked, she was en route to deliver books to a school. "I wish everyone in our country could see first-hand the devotion, loyalty and amazingly hard and hazardous work our diplomats do on the front lines in the world's most dangerous places," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement following the attack.

The work of U.S. diplomats, a term interchangeable with Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), can range from an assignment like Smedinghoff’s—promoting literacy—to issuing new passports to U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad. FSOs are stationed at any one of 265 embassies, consulates, and mission stations around the world, and are living and working in both hostile, war-torn nations and amicable, peaceful countries. Broadly defined, all of the work falls under a mission statement that the official Department of State literature defines thusly: “The mission of a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.”

Diplomats select one of five different career paths—consular affairs, economic affairs, management affairs, political affairs, and political diplomacy—that inform their day-to-day work. Consular work includes facilitating adoptions; economic officers tackle subjects like environmental issues; management officers head up real estate and budget, for example; political affairs focuses on the host country; and political diplomacy officers interact with locals, particularly leaders and officials, to promote U.S. policies. More information on each is available here. New FSOs are Junior Officers, and their first couple assignments are considered entry-level. In other words, Junior Officers are likely to be the ones interviewing hopeful travelers planning a trip to New York City for their visas.

While diplomats place preferences for their career tracks and bid for location assignments, they must be willing to work wherever they are placed regarding both job role and destination. Posts vary in length, from about 6 months in certain places, such as war zones, to up to a few years in other places. The Department of State arranges for FSO's housing and coordinates transitions with the goal of making moves as seamless and comfortable as possible. Still, prospective officers are warned that the standard of living in different posts varies widely, and based on the country, can be cushier or rougher than what they are accustomed to in the U.S.

Certain agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service and Commercial Service, individually hire and employ FSOs, as well. The careers, assignments, and work are specific to those agencies. The vast majority of FSOs, however, work for the Department of State.

Foreign Service Officers, also referred to as diplomat “generalists,” are one professional pillar of the U.S. Foreign Service. Ambassadors, Foreign Service Specialists—such as doctors and human resource specialists—and Foreign Service Nationals that include citizens of the country where the embassy or consulate is located, are among the others.

The application process to become a Foreign Service Officer is exhaustive, and as is to be expected for a government position, includes an extensive background check. The first hurdle in the process is sitting for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Test results determine whether candidates advance to the following rounds, which include submitting a personal narrative and taking an oral assessment. More information about the application process is available here.

For those considering a career as a Foreign Service Officer, there’s also an app for that, official and provided by the U.S Department of State, where candidates can tap around to, for example, review general information about the Foreign Service, try practice test questions, and locate diplomats.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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