Part One: Once Upon a Time
Part Two: Cramming PKOs, a Mad Dash, a New York Cabbie and Writer's Cramp
Part Three: The Long Silence and the Scramble
Part Four: A Letter, Another Long Silence, and Yet Another Scramble
Part Five: UN RedTapeZilla (with apologies to Peach Sweeny)
Post Script #1: February, 2000
Post Script #2: May, 2002
My mother called me about a short piece she read in Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based Japanese language newspaper my parents subscribe to and read regularly. It was about a National Competitive Examination (NCE) to qualify for employment at the United Nations, and that one of the categories in which they would conduct the examination was library science. The deadline was approaching fast, and that if I wanted to apply, I should get myself an application and send it forthwith.
That chance communication was really not by chance. There were many things that came together in that moment. I was born in Japan, but I grew up in the United States, attending regular American school during the week and Japanese school on Saturdays (and missing countless birthday parties of childhood chums). I grew up with each foot firmly planted in two different languages and cultures. When I was in sixth grade and presented my graduation speech -- nothing extraordinary, I went to a minuscule private school with a graduating class that consisted of a grand total of ten students -- I expressed my wish to become an interpreter for the United Nations, as I was already bilingual. I abandoned that wish two years later when I found out that many interpreters become burned out after two years, and I saw no need to put myself under that kind of stress. (I mean, who wants to start a war?) Even as I pursued other interests, theatre and English literature being the main, I continued to have some subconscious call to the United Nations. My visit to Europe, during my junior year aboard in the United Kingdom, started out as a Joan of Arc pilgrimage yet included a visit to Geneva to visit the Palais des Nations, the old League of Nations headquarters and currently the Geneva office of the United Nations.
And, my mother had been surreptitiously looking out for these notices without telling either my sister or me, and had taken the first opportunity for one of her kids to work on an international level.
In any case, after quick consultations with the library director and my supervisor, I decided that this chance would probably never come again (especially because the NCE has an upper age limit, not to mention that library science hardly ever showed up), that whether I think I'll pass or fail, if I don't try I'll never know and I'll regret for the rest of my life, and that this in a sense a way to test my professional knowledge against an international standard.
My mother visited the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles, where she collected the application for me (under the skeptical look of consulate staff), and I wrote to the indicated address in New York and received an application as well. I ended up with two copies of the application, one of which I began to fill out diligently. I suffered through the Japanese version (for the use of the Permanent Mission), amazed at the coincidence -- that my mother had bought me several library science textbooks in Japanese. Otherwise, I would never have been able to figure out how in the world I would say 'reference work' and 'bibliographic instruction' in Japanese.
I sent out the application in time, and waited without much hope of getting anything back. I had a job I was happy with, and was in no real hurry to leave. Whatever happened, it would be icing on my professional career cake.
In due course, I received a communication from the United Nations, informing
me that I was 'convoked' to sit the written examination in January, 1997.
I'd never seen the word 'convoked' used for anything outside of college
graduation. I was giddily impressed, and quite excited I had passed
hurdle number one. Who knew it was only the beginning....
I had no real worries about the specialized paper. I would be tested on material that concerned my daily duties of my current position; unless they posed question on some esoteric point in cataloging, I did not think I would have too big of a problem. Nevertheless, I did review my theory by going through my old library school texts, and reading the parts in my cataloging textbook that dealt with international bibliography.
My real worry was the general paper. The analytical section and the summation section did not really frighten me, but the international affairs section sent shivers of panic up and down my spine. To my great chagrin, I had little general knowledge of international affairs, let alone the work of the United Nations. This would not do!
So I began reading the newspaper more regularly, and read the material I collected on the work of the UN via their web page. I happily learned that there was a Japanese woman heading one of the larger organs, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I read about Rwanda and Somalia, and a bit about Yugoslavia. I knew I was in over my head. Who could keep everything straight?
The day I was to leave came all too soon. I rode the train into New York, arriving at my hotel without incident. After a call to my mother to let her know I arrived safely, I let the TV run for a bit before getting into bed.
The next morning, I was up, bright and early, got dressed and took a cab to headquarters. I saw two people standing around, looking as nervous as me. It turned out the two people, from Korea, were also taking the exam, though in different categories. Since we were way early, we crossed the street to get some tea.
As we sipped, one of them pulled out the pink convocation paper we were sent. Then, to my absolute horror, I realized that I had set that aside the night before, and had forgotten it in the hotel room. With barely a minute to spare (calculating going, returning, and going up into my hotel room), I caught a cab, rushed back to the hotel, ran up and got my papers, and caught another cab back to the UN.
The cabbie who took me back could see that I was obviously panicked. He asked what I was doing, and I told him about the exam, and I had forgotten this important document that would let me in, and I needed to get back at a certain time. He calmed me down some, and I managed to return with about a minute to spare. As I got out of the cab, the cabbie said, "Don't worry... you'll pass. You'll be a New Yorker." I still regret not writing his name down, or even just his medallion number. I want to let him know he was right.
I went through the security check, then went to wherever I was directed, collecting my temporary grounds pass. We were herded up and down and around, somehow ending up in the General Assembly Hall. I looked up at the UN seal over the podium in awe. I saw the names of countries written on the signs on the tables, and thought about the debates that went on in this very room. It was awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time.
The four-hour specialization paper was first. As I sat down, and the proctors started to ask who was taking which exam, I peeked around to see who else was taking the Library exam. I only saw two or three other people, at least one of them who looked Asian. I wondered who my competition was.
When indicated, we opened the examination and the answer booklet. I went through all the questions first. There were a few questions that left me scratching my head... who wrote these questions, anyway?... leaving less than the requisite number of questions I was asked to answer. Without much time to spare, I began working through the questions I knew I could answer, slogging away at items about international bibliographic standards, electronic media, and all sorts of other things. I recall looking at a question regarding specialized libraries and online services and writing in reply that the question made incorrect assumptions (well, it did!). I told my mother that night, and she worried. "Are you supposed to do that?" I wasn't worried about the 'suppostas'; I was more interested in being accurate.
The second examination now loomed -- the general paper. I still felt unprepared. I walked around a bit, eventually getting to the big New York Public Library building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue (the one with the two lions in front). In the general reference room, I read more about Rwanda, and Somalia, and Yugoslavia, getting a somewhat better idea of why the Tutsis and Hutus were killing each other. All I could see was the senseless violence and why people couldn't just get along. I went back to the hotel more than a little depressed.
I faced the second exam with a sense of 'ready or not, here I go!'
The 'read this report and write a summary' section went fairly quickly;
I'd always been pretty good with that kind of work. The analysis
section was actually quite interesting: we were presented with a fictional
region, with several countries marked A, B, C, D, and E, along with notes
about the regions various political, social, economic, and other qualities,
and that the country in the middle was about to have an election.
The series of questions dealt with how such-and-such political interest
of Country A would affect Country C, etc. I only wished they had
been a bit more creative and made up names for the countries... but, in
hindsight, I suppose that there would have been a danger of un-fictionalizing
the question. I don't remember enough about the international affairs
section. I think I wrote pretty much blindly everything I could remember,
apparently in all the right spots. I left the examination exhausted,
and went back home to Johnstown.
Quite literally, the United Nations sent me no communication for nine months. Nothing, nada, rien. I grew tired of my mother's unceasing query: "Has the UN said anything yet?"
1997 was an interesting year. I broke up with my boyfriend of five-and-a-half years. I had a job interview in North Carolina, but failed to get the job. I had a friend who lived 900 miles away threaten to commit suicide. A friendship, originally formed on a Usenet-based shared-fiction writing group, was on the verge of turning into something more. I was up for review of my portfolio at UPJ for renewal of my contract. I was beginning to consider going back to school to work on my Ph.D. And my family informed me that my paternal grandfather would not live to see the new year.
By fall, 1997, I was making plans to apply to apply to the University of Kentucky, where my mentor at UCLA now taught. University of Kentucky's College of Communication and Information Studies housed both Library and Information Science and Communication, and the Ph.D. program was in Communication. I knew the limitation of the MLIS, and thought that a degree in Communication would broaden my professional possibilities in the future. I was also making plans to meet my storywriting friend for the first time, as well as a one-week trip to Japan to see my grandfather for the last time.
I was in the midst of all of that in early October when I got a call from seemingly out of the blue, in the middle of a consultation among a geology professor and a librarian colleague. It was the United Nations, and they kindly informed me that I had passed the written examination, and that they wanted to schedule the oral examination and interview. I had enough presence of mind to negotiate the date of the examination, as I already had bought tickets to go to Japan at the beginning of November. The examination was scheduled for October 24.
I made the same arrangements, careful to keep every receipt as this second trip would eventually be reimbursed by the UN. In the meantime, I reviewed the booklet that had the information on the examination process. I was immediately hit by panic again:
"The oral examination will consist of a short oral presentation to be made by each candidate to a Board of Examiners on a topic of a general nature, broadly related to the occupation [in my case, Library]. The topic of the oral presentation will be drawn by the candidate on the day of the examination. The oral presentation will be followed by questions and a structured interview."
In essence, I would have absolutely no idea what I was to speak on until I walked into the examination that day. How much more scary can this be? I immediately went back to my library school textbooks, telling myself that my luck has been good so far... they couldn't ask me an impossible cataloging question, could they...?
I took the train up again, although for a day or so I thought I would have to take the Greyhound because Amtrak was threatening to go on strike. Thankfully, there was no strike, and I was able to arrive safely (though the train was delayed for a few hours).
The next day, I dressed, grabbed breakfast at the deli across the street, and got to the UN at the appointed time. I was escorted to one of the upper floors of the Secretariat -- my guess is the 25th floor, where Examinations and Tests Section is, I believe -- for the first part of the examination. I recall looking up, and seeing not ceiling but piping -- painted, but piping nonetheless -- and thinking, "I can't believe there are parts of the UN that look like this...."
My escort led me into a small room, and presented me with ten envelopes. She instructed me to choose two, then to open them. I chose 5 (my lucky number), and 8 (a good luck number in Japanese). She then asked me to open the two envelopes, and to choose one of the topics on which I would do the presentation... in fifteen minutes. She gave me a few pens, several pieces of paper, and left.
I chose the question about the differences between a library and an information centre; the other question was something in cataloging, and there was no other choice. As soon as my escort left, I was busily dividing the question up into differences in clientele, collection, and services. I was putting last minute touches on my notes when she came back in to call me into the examination room.
I walked into a small conference room with a white board, a table, and four women seated behind it. My heart was beating loud and fast, but at least, they all seemed friendly. I was introduced to each one, but to this day I can't remember who was on my Board of Examiners. (Rather embarrassing, isn't it? I can't remember names or faces when I'm nervous... or any other time, for that matter. But that's another story.)
I began my presentation, writing my main points on the board, making sure to make eye contact, trying to convey confidence, and referring to my notes as I made each point so as to not get sidetracked (I do that very easily, and I had limited time). I slid in right under, and the format changed to that of question-and-answer.
The questions were thought-provoking but not threatening. I remember replying to one question by saying that I had defined 'information centre' rather narrowly, and that broadening that definition would allow me to address that question more effectively. Luckily, I've always been pretty good at thinking on my feet, and none of the questions really threw me off.
That part of the exam was soon over, and eventually we segued into the structured interview. I was brutally honest about the fact that I knew less about the United Nations than I should, and that my French was getting poorer because I had little opportunity to practice it (which, since I told them en Francais, made a few of them giggle). They asked me about the idea of Japan becoming a permanent member of the Security Council, and I said I was all for it... but then again, I was biased, which produced a few more smiles. They told me about the fact that I would have to give up my U.S. permanent residency (see my statement on International Civil Servants), and I said that I would give that due consideration when the situation warranted it.
The examination was soon over, and they asked me if I had any further questions. I asked whether I would be able to see the Library, and one of the examiners said she could show me around really quickly. I basically followed her through the different areas blindly -- thinking back, I can vaguely recall what I had been shown.
But the very pleasant surprise came when she and I was alone in the
elevator at one point. She said something to the effect of, 'I shouldn't
be saying this, but I think you left a very positive impression on the
board, and you should feel happy about how you did.' I left the UN
that day feeling very positive about the entire experience. Regardless
of the result, I thought I had given it my best shot, and that whatever
happened, I felt I had learned from my experience.
I saw both of them as many times as I could, sleeping over in the hospital one night when it was my father's turn to stay. We took the one-hour train ride to my grandmother's care facility, fed her, talked to her, and just spent some time sitting with her, even the night before I was to return. My father said that I don't have to, but I told him I wasn't in Japan all that often, and I wanted to do this as many times as I could while I was still there.
I returned to Johnstown on a Sunday, with an overnight stay in Los Angeles. My grandfather died on the following Monday. I was not able to return for the funeral, but as I kept telling myself, I was there when it counted... when he was alive.
Life continued. I went to the traditional Buddhist ceremony that takes place on the 49th day after death -- 'shiju-ku-nichi' -- and spent some time travelling around my country, visiting friends, and Kyoto and Nara. My sister gave me her cold, though, and I spent New Years in bed.
I came back to Johnstown in January, 1998, and found a letter from the United Nations among the letters held at the post office. I opened it with shaking hands.
I had passed.
A flurry of phone calls followed, accompanied with some healthy amount of jumping up and down and crying. I had proven to myself that I had what it takes to perform on an international stage. Some time later, I found I had passed my review, and my contract was renewed. I felt like I had done what I needed to do as a librarian, at least, as far as I was concerned. And who knew when the UN would actually call with a real job offer?
Yes, passing the examination didn't mean I had a job. It meant that I was qualified for a job. I was put on a list of qualified candidates from which they can pick when they had a vacant position. It was a long stretch of waiting, an extremely uncertain prospect. My mother told me that the person at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the UN charged with personnel matters was quoted in an interview that waiting for three years was not uncommon.
Despite my mother's misgivings, I decided that my life would continue. I applied to the University of Kentucky, which was another ordeal in itself. However, I was admitted into the Ph.D. program in Communication, and I moved to Kentucky in August, 1998, moving in with my now boyfriend, who moved to Lexington from London (KY) to live with me. I tried to contact the appropriate person at the UN about my new address; it turned out I was not successful in that.
The first semester went without incident. I met new people, learned a lot (especially about a German sociologist/philosopher named Habermas), and got to know some really good professors. I managed to design a part time student position into a student position with better pay working as a reference and instruction librarian at the main campus library. The UN hadn't forgotten me, though... I got a call from the Office of Human Resources and Management (OHRM) saying that they had been trying to track me down, and to please send them my current email, mailing address, etc.
The second semester began inauspiciously, though I was having a lot of fun in mass communication. I was also taking statistics *and* quantitative methods, which was really rather crazy. I was slogging through my course work when The Email came.
I was in a rush to get to school for work that day, but I had decided to check my email really quickly. A lot was going on in the shared-writing group where I was then a part of the senior administration, and I wanted to know what I was in for when I came home that evening. The mail that was waiting for me was both exciting and distressing at the same time.
It was an email from the 'Officer-in-Charge' of the User Services Section. She said that there was an opening at the General Reference Desk, and that I seemed to fit the bill.
Of course, that put me in a quandary. I had just moved, just begun my Ph.D. I had just begun developing some ideas about my dissertation. I was even beginning to feel less intimidated by statistics and quantitative methods. And now this!
There was no question I had to go. The opportunity would never come again: one is added to the NCE list with the understanding that an offer will only be made once, and if one turns it down, one will be taken off the list. The question was, how.
After some flurried consultations with my professors, and a telephone interview with the UN Head Librarian, the head of the General Reference Desk, and the Officer-in-Charge of the User Services Section, we negotiated a plan by which I would attempt to finish a master's degree in communication rather than my Ph.D., and would begin work September 1999.
And then, I ran into the....
I had some questions regarding my permanent residency status as well as other things, and after some consulting with the library people, I was sent to contact a person in the Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM). I called the person and left a voice mail. I sent him email. No response. Well, I tried it again. Eventually, the man wrote me back, saying that he'd call me at home at X o'clock in the afternoon. Well, I had quantitative methods, but I emailed my professor about the situation, and that I may very well be late or absent.
The phone call came about thirty minutes later than he said he would, and the phone call was brief. In essence, he said that the offer wasn't official until OHRM sent me an offer, and that they needed some kind of communication from the library that they wanted me to fill the position. As for the permanent residency, there was no budging -- it had to go. He said that the paperwork should be finished and the official offer made in about a week once they receive the note from the library.
So, I sent mail to my contact person at the Dag Hammarksjold Library to let her know that OHRM needed a communication from them to the effect of 'we want this person,' and she said that that would be taken care of as soon as possible. Then she told me that, since I won't be starting until 1 September, they needed something from me, expressing my interest and indicating the date on which I would be able to commence work, so that they can hire someone temporarily. This was all a little overwhelming, but I followed directions and sent the letter off promptly to the Deputy Executive Officer of the Department of Information with a carbon copy to the Chief of the User Services Section.
All this happened near the beginning of March. A week passed. Then two. I called OHRM, they said they were working on it. Yet another week passed. I called again, same thing.
Finally, the fax came on 12 April (though the communication was dated 9 April!). It was a lot of paper: 26 pages. I felt awful using my College's fax machine (since I didn't and still don't own a fax -- I do have a fax modem now, though). It was an offer, with a copy for me to sign, a personal history form to update, as well as a four-page medical history (two of them to be filled out by a physician after a thorough physical), and page after page of a document called "General Information on Conditions of Service Applicable to Appointments of One Year or More in the Professional and Higher Categories." (I get tired just typing the title.)
I pored over the document (being my anal retentive self), and wrote questions down in the margins. I did my physical at the University of Kentucky's University Health Service (thankfully, I had paid my summer health fee) for free, which was really nice, since I spent a good three hours plus a couple of follow-up appointments to get everything in order. I sent my signed letter via fax on 23 April, and confirmed receipt with OHRM the same day, and sent the medical records in early May.
There were three people in OHRM dealing with us NCE people, and one of them was kind enough to allay my fears (mostly). I will be eternally grateful for her unceasing patience and willingness to spend time with me going through all the questions I had, as well as my frustration that things weren't progressing smoothly. My medical clearance seemed to be the biggest hurdle; not that anything was wrong with me, but that because the computers were constantly down, my clearance could not be made official, and until it's official, nothing can move.
It was toward the end of June that I finally began to panic. I had approximately one month to get my thesis done (which will most likely not happen now), travel to New York to look at apartments (that didn't happen), and think about how my miscellaneous non-furniture things will move to New York. The problem was, until the offer became official, OHRM could not hand over things to the Travel Department, and until they got to my file, they could not arrange for the designated mover to contact me, and until they contacted me, I could not do a damned thing.
In the meantime, I had to arrange to get myself to Japan, and to get a place to stay for the first couple of weeks (at least) while I looked for a place to live for my boyfriend and myself. This was yet another nightmare, as the man I spoke to on the phone at the furnished short-term apartment royally p*ssed me off by his condescension and patronizing behavior. My mother smoothed things out, but I'm still pretty annoyed at the guy, and probably won't stay with them again. I also contacted a real estate agent my mother's friend knew, and she added to the conflicting information I was getting from all directions. She basically threatened me by saying that being employed by the UN made things extremely difficult, and that most people won't want to rent to me because I have diplomatic immunity. (If I had any, I'd like to know what they are. The truth is, I have none; I have some advantages as a G4 visa holder, such as paying no US income tax and getting an educational subsidy for my children, but I still get a hefty 'staff assessment' subtracted from my paycheck every month, and I don't have any kids... yet.) My mother was a bit annoyed with her, and I was, too. Just because you're desperate for business....
All this stress finally hit me one weekend, and I broke down crying while on the phone with my mother. She suggested that I lay off my plan to squeeze in a trip to New York before leaving for Japan, and I agreed. This meant dealing with that annoying guy again, but my mother took care of that for me.
Finally, everything came through, barely in time. I was headed out of the country on 12 August via Los Angeles, spending two nights there (rather than the customary one night), and the official handover from OHRM to the Travel Department occurred the week before. The American Express office in the UN contacted me about my ticket from Tokyo to New York, for which the UN would pay as part of my recruitment package (They paid full business class! Can you believe it?! My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw how much they'd paid....).
I was off to Japan, after getting a haircut and some shopping done with my mother in Los Angeles, who had kindly visited the AnnTaylor Loft earlier and picked out a bunch of suits. I spent two weeks in Tokyo with my dad, getting my G-4 visa and fully prepared to surrender my green card.
Well, the person at the window was totally confused when I told him I had a green card, and he had to ask his supervisor about it. He came back after consulting with him/her, and told me that the United States had no problem with my keeping the green card, although if I didn't use it again within a year it would become invalid. I kept thinking, "That's not what I was told...."
I flew to New York on 31 August 1999, after travelling a bit in Japan, visiting Kyoto and Hiroshima. After spending the trip getting in and out of my seat just to get something out of the pocket in front of me (I was in the front row), I decided I never wanted to fly business class again. Economy seats are just the right size... I don't need to get up every time I wanted to get the in-flight magazine.
My mother met me at JFK, to which she had flown in from Los Angeles earlier in the morning. We went straight to the apartment, got ourselves settled, and contacted the real estate agent. She showed us an apartment on Roosevelt Island, which had been on my boyfriend's 'possible places' list. I liked it, signed a one year lease a few days later, and that was that. They needed some paperwork from the UN (like how much I was getting paid and what rental subsidy I was going to receive, etc.), but I took care of that relatively quickly.
On 1 September, after three years, I reported for duty at the United
Nations Headquarters. After a half day of getting my paperwork done
in OHRM, then getting my grounds pass, I finally went to the library to
meet my colleagues. I met my immediate supervisor, a man from Ukraine,
and one of my colleagues, a woman from Germany. The other two librarians
in the unit, another German woman and a Syrian woman, were on vacation,
so I would meet them later. I was still a little confused and more
than a little intimidated by the place, but the people seemed friendly,
and my mother made my lunch every day, walked with me to work, and came
to meet me at the gate several times while she was in the city. (My
late grandmother would walk me to school when I went to a Japanese junior
high for a month. I don't know when my parents will let me walk by
myself to work. I'm 30, for heaven's sake!)
My adventure here has only begun. My contract is probationary,
lasting two years. After two years, I will be evaluated and, if I
am evaluated positively, I will be offered a permanent contract.
From there, there are many possibilities... I can go back to school part
time, if not at Rutgers, then at a university in the City; I can apply
for a secondment (temporary reassignment), maybe to Geneva (that would
be nice....); or, learn more about UN documents and become an expert at
it, and aim for higher ranks in the Secretariat. The first Japanese
female Secretary-General... hey, I kinda like the sound of that.
13 May 2002