From left: mandatory intern picture with banner and the flag flying at half-mast for the marines killed in Chattanooga.
I grew up moving around and attending different international schools overseas, which meant I grew up surrounded by diplomat children. So when I became interested in international politics and started thinking about joining the U.S. State Department, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join because I actually thought the work was a good fit, or because it felt familiar. Now, I can confirm that it’s the former. This summer, I was able to work in the Economic Section of the American Institute of Taiwan through the State Department’s Student Internship program. The process was a long application, an even longer interview, a longer yet security clearance, followed by a waiting period that seemed to last forever.
Although I’d done several internships before, I haven’t felt a connection to the work like I did this summer. The work was a mixture of what you’d expect from the State Department (meeting with high-level government officials, writing cables to send back to Washington, appearances) and less-expected tasks, like attending a robot show. I can’t comment on classified material, but here are some State Department Secrets I can share:
1. Everything takes so long
I blame movies for the idea that diplomacy is solving immediate crisis. In reality a lot of the work is a part of a slow moving bureaucracy, so there’s a lot of waiting involved – for superiors to sign off, for approval from Washington, for officials to e-mail back, for a gap in schedules to get a meeting.
2. The technology sucks
I also blame movies for the perception that high-level government means holograms and super-fast processors. In reality, I was typing away on a computer with Windows 2008 that crashed regularly and couldn’t handle more than 2 internet explorer (the only available browser) tabs at a time.
3. Contrary to popular belief, diplomacy is NOT telling someone to go to hell in a way that they look forward to the trip
I don’t know who or where this quote originated, but I do know that they’re wrong. Diplomats don’t try to change the culture; they try to understand it.
4. The State Department is not a career
Working for the State Department affects every single aspect of your life. Family relations are strained. You can’t talk about most of your work. Your office mates will change often, and your community will be small and isolated. It is much more than a career — it’s a lifestyle.
The (non) Country:
From left: Chiang Kai-Shek park, a metro station in Taipei city.
The U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as a country. The State Department post in Taiwan is not an embassy, but an “institution”, but it is structured the same way embassies are, does the same work embassies do, and, for all intents and purposes, is an embassy.
Taiwan has to tread lightly to, essentially, not tick off the Mainland (China) and heighten cross-Strait tensions. Taiwan is still officially the Republic of China but has its own democratic government that upholds liberal values such as democracy, essential freedoms, and rule of law. There are beautiful (buddhist) temples, memorials, parks, and beaches, and the people are friendly and open. It’s a great place, and within the State Department, one of the most popular and favorite posts.
Taiwan is also known for it’s amazing food (CNN named Taiwan a top 10 food destinations). I could go on about the cheap (1 GBP) meat buns, sweet potato balls, spring onion pancakes and mango shaved ice, but I’m already over the word count.
Featured: mango shaved ice with fresh fruit (2 GBP).
Huge thanks to the GoAbroad fund that helped me fund this awesome summer, and I would highly recommend every student to take on an internship and travel abroad. It’s a cliche, but travel and working abroad really does widen your perspective and give you a completely different experience than what you get in university.