In the May issue of the Foreign Service Journal (FS Voice, see page 9), Donna Scaramastra Gorman, a freelance writer and FS spouse in Beijing pens “Thanks for Your Service ..Now, Here’s Your Pay Cut,” in response to the hardship pay reduction in Beijing. The FSJ editors’ note appended to the article states that a letter signed by a majority of Foreign Service members at Embassy Beijing — 98 employees — was also sent to the Director General to express concern about the decrease in the differential.
Ms. Gorman’s Foreign Service family was described as “second worlders,” in her words, they go to “middle-of-the-road places: hard, but not to the point that we can’t take the kids. Our current post, Beijing, is our fourth hardship post (15-25 percent) in a row.” This was after their assignments in Moscow (15), Yerevan (25) and Almaty (25). You can find the long list of Post Hardship Differential here. But before FS critics jump up and down on this, and accuse FS folks of “whining,” again, I’d like to highlight a couple of significant health consequences of this specific hardship assignment for the Gormans:
“In October, my previously healthy husband developed severe breathing troubles. A lifelong runner, he began wheezing as he climbed the stairs; at night, it sounded like he was drowning in his sleep. He was initially diagnosed with reactive airway disease and then a severe sinus infection. After an inhaler, steroid and some four to five courses of antibiotics, his condition improved. But only after a trip to Hong Kong, where the air is cleaner, did his symptoms subside.
“[…] I caught a mysterious virus that caused me to go deaf in one ear. The doctors in Beijing weren’t equipped to handle the emergency, so I was medevaced to Hong Kong. There, doctors tried to restore my hearing, though warned that the odds were against me, given how much time had elapsed. Back home in the States, or at a post that was more medically advanced, I would have been able to get treatment at the ER within hours, improving my odds. Here, not so. I’m now permanently deaf in one ear. Then again, as a colleague pointed out, “I suppose that’s one of the reasons you get hardship pay over there.”
We pick hardship assignments (at least, I think most of us do) not to toughen our kids or to test if our spouses and partners love us enough to put up with the highs and lows of life overseas. We pick hardship assignments fully expecting, well, hardships, and the additional compensation of 5-35 percent over basic compensation to make up for those hardships. Why? Because like you and your neighbors, we are regular people with mortgage and bills to pay, kids to send to college, and retirements to plan for life after the Service. Perhaps the independently wealthy would not be too concerned with things like these, but there is not a whole lot of them in this Foreign Service.
We knock on wood, and we keep fingers crossed because we realized that picking a hardship assignment is always a roll of a dice. Dr. John Kellogg says that “health is wealth is a trite maxim, the truth of which everyone (only) appreciates best after having suffered a disease.” After contracting various illnesses and collecting worldwide available parasites, I think we all certainly learn to appreciate the "health is wealth" maxim but we also often bet that we’d come out at least even, with all our loved ones’ appendages and parts still working, as we survive another hardship assignment. Would anyone of us willingly go to a place if we know that we’re going to get permanent deafness in exchange for it? How much does an ear cost, that is, if you still have it but it's no longer functional? I don't think there is a "numerical weight" for this, most especially for the unemployed trailing partner. Environment conditions overseas can differ substantially from conditions of environment in the United States. These conditions can include lack of comparable medical facilities, high crime rates and/or political violence – some bad things, we can avoid by becoming mindful of where we go when we are in our host countries, but some, like environmental conditions and lack of medical facilities become part of the whole shebang. We can’t stop breathing just because the air is bad, can we?
The reasons cited for the reduction of the Beijing post hardship differential apparently were 1) improved quality of locally provided health care, and 2) improved air quality. Ms. Gorman writes: “I could relate numerous examples why this simply doesn’t ring true, and so could many other family members here in Beijing. Many of us have a story of some health problem we’ve developed since arriving at post. As to the air quality, she writes: “We spouses all had a good laugh at that one. At the time, our kids were having an indoor playdate, because the air that day was so bad that they couldn’t go outside. In fact, two days after Christmas the air pollution index was 433 in downtown Beijing, 500 in the suburbs where we live. To put things into perspective, on an unhealthy pollution day in a major U.S. city the API is between 40 and 60.”
Here is one blog that's dedicated to Beijing air and is worth reading. It asks: "How wise is it to live in Beijing, if you have other options? Can you raise your kids in this city without affecting their chances of a healthy life? China doesn’t have a good reputation for its environment, but as far as I can see, Beijing has the worst air pollution index of all 84 reported cities nearly every day according to the official agency SEPA, so there is reason to worry. Is the situation improving or is it actually getting worse with the 1000-1200 new cars that hit the Beijing roads every day?"
You can also click here to see a view of Redlands, California and of Beijing, China from Atlantic’s James Fallows’ "My Two Home Towns." Or you can flip below my Beijing Blues, put together to commiserate with our friends there.