Behind the Scenes at the Foreign Service Oral Examination

I just took the Foreign Service oral exam yesterday. I thought I'd tell you about it, even though I can' t say that much. The State Department people said they would make us cry if we divulge specifics. Only girls and artists cry. And Abu Halen is neither a girl nor an artist. Nor is he a lobotomist. Or a phlebotomist. Or robot o' mist.

Hurricane Irene unleashes her fury on DC. Aaargh!! Noooo!! Not rain!!
There are a lot of blogs out there devoted solely to the Foreign Service hiring process. But Abu Halen will take you behind the scenes and show you the exam's gritty underbelly. Like a reality TV show, except without the swearing and the bimbos, and also without very much detail. So, what I'm saying is you should stop reading now, because this will probably be boring.

Here's how it goes:

Test day, 5:00 a.m. I wake up after just a few hours of fitful sleep. I kept dreaming I was sleeping through my alarm, so naturally I wake up a half hour before my alarm goes off. I decide to get up and offer a prayer to the adrenaline gods that they will send me extra juice to get me through the day. I briefly consider taking matters into my own hands and asking the seedy looking dude down by the Metro stop if he's got any speed, but I decide against it because that's illegal and also I have little veins and it's hard to find them with a needle. So I tell all that to the adrenaline gods. They don't really listen though, because they're busy not existing.

5:10 a.m. I glance in the mirror before easing into the shower. Huge zit right on my lip line. Niiiice. I try to pop it, but it's one of those zits that doesn't pop. It just gets bigger and redder, and in your mind's eye it's so big that it blocks a nostril and you start having trouble breathing through your nose. But today I'm going to be optimistic, so I convince myself that the examiners will feel sorry for me and give me bonus points for being butt ugly.

5:45 a.m. I eat two NutriGrain breakfast bars. They're healthy, but they're really dry. I have cotton mouth after feeding myself, so I drink some water from the bathroom tap. The water may or may not be potable, but I don't have any rashes from my shower last night, so I risk it. Water that does not cause skin rashes = water that is potable. I think what I just did is called metalogic. It might also be called Alzheimer's. I'm not totally sure.

6:15 a.m. Strolling through the nearly-empty Crystal City Metro stop, I notice that the doo-wop foursome that was serenading evening commuters last night when I passed through on my way to my ghetto hotel isn't there this morning. Their subpar work ethic disturbs me; I make a mental note to walk up and take my quarter back out of their collection jar next time I see them.

6:45-6:50 a.m. I get two mosquito bites while walking the single block from the Metro stop to the testing building. One is in the middle of my forehead, the other along my jawline. Niiiiice. Because I'm being optimistic today, I think how lucky I am that it wasn't 10 blocks from the Metro to the testing building, because then I would have 20 mosquito bites, and my face would be the color, size, and consistency of a whoopie cushion. I doubt test-takers get bonus points for looking like a whoopie cushion, but maybe they do for sitting on a whoopie cushion?

6:50-7:00 a.m. A fellow test-taker I just met spends 10 minutes convincing me my mosquito bites aren't noticeable. (Me: "No, seriously, these huge red itchy bumps on my face? You can't see them?" Her [looking at the floor]: "You really have to be looking for them to see them." Me: "They're not zits. I'm just saying." Her: "Oh I know. Zits aren't rounded like that." Me: "See! You CAN see them!!")

[Test stuff I can' t talk about.]

12:00-12:30 p.m. We all get a lunch break. I go to Quiznos with a tall American dude who flew in from China for the test. He cut off his butt-length dreadlocks for this exam, and partially shaved. He helps run a language school in [insert name of any Chinese city -- they all sound exactly the same to me.] I get a Baja chicken sandwich and a Pepsi. Pigeons waddle up to the table and beg for food scraps. Weird! How would they like it if I waddled up to their nests and begged for spare regurgitated bird food?

[Test stuff I can't talk about.]

1:45-2:00 p.m. I exit from the final test portion and find only one fellow test-taker in the waiting room. The proctor just escorted the rest outside for a break. I sit down for a visit and ask in jest if the examiners made her cry. She says they almost did, because she's pregnant. I get all excited, because I think it's cool when people besides Mormons and Muslims have kids. She's from Chicago, so I ask if she's going to raise her kid to like the Cubs or the White Sox. She says the White Sox, so I leave.

2:00-3:15 p.m. Super long break while the examiners calculate our scores. I walk a block or two to Potbelly's because I think maybe they'll have bottled root beer, which they do. Stuff in bottles just tastes better. Including human brains. I'm told. I sit by myself in the corner and nurse my bottle while a dude playing live music on a tiny stage kills it on the guitar. He somehow manages to turn "Separate Ways" by Journey into a rollicking, bluesy number, and he also plays some oldies. I think about tipping him, 'cause he's pretty good, but all I have is a credit card and my passport. To earn my credit card, you have to play something by Cake. To earn my passport, you have to play something by Cake while jump roping over your own tongue.

3:15 p.m. We all get seated in a big room where we wait for examiners to open the door, call out our names, lead us into a small room, and deliver our respective fates. A few test-takers attempt small talk, but it's strained. It's like sitting blindfolded in front of the firing squad and striking up a conversation with the guy next to you about the Country Music Awards. Well, not quite like that, because getting shot and not passing the Foreign Service oral exam represent different degrees of disappointment, with getting shot of course being more disappointing than not passing the Foreign Service oral test.

3:30 p.m. They tell me I passed. It's the first time all day that any of the examiners don't read off a script. They smile. They're not robots! Or, if they are, they are robots who can smile!

There. Now you've seen the test's gritty underbelly. Happy birthday. Don't say I never got you anything.