The CIA and I

The phone call came in my last semester of graduate school.   I had several housemates, but the voicemail was addressed to me.   A mysterious voice asking if I’d be interested in “an international opportunity”.     The voice of the fellow sounded somewhat middle aged, but not too old. 

I was rather anxiously looking for a job at that time.  So upon hearing the voicemail again, I called the number given to me.

The same fellow answered and promptly told me the vaguely described job would be with the CIA.  In a matter of seconds he described the job as a “NOC” position.  I asked him what that was.  He explained to me that NOC stood for “non official cover”.     I still didn’t get it.   He further explained that I would be “stationed in China, preferably for at least 20 years, the longer the better”.   He told me he was a retired former CIA man himself, living in Washington.  He bemoaned the price of housing, but counted himself lucky for having bought his house decades ago.
I was of course intrigued, so I listened further.  

“Would you be willing to fill out an applicaton?”, he asked.

I would.  I considered the CIA a backup.  A slamdunk should I find myself unemployed within a few months upon graduation.

“Could I ask what this job pays?”

“You would be starting out at around $44,000”, he replied.

I internally rejected the job.   There was no fucking way I was working for pay that low upon graduation with a Masters in International Business.   I had a wife who wanted to start a family.   I was making $36000 before grad school.   Why on earth the CIA thought I would take such low pay is beyond me.   Only the desperate or blindly patriotic would accept such an offer, I thought to myself. 

Still…..the tone of the conversation led me to believe I’d be accepted once I filled out the prerequisite application form, and then took a lie detector test up in DC.    So I felt it prudent to have a backup plan.

My wife was a Senior to be in University.   It was 1989, a year before I first arrived.   She had gone back home to Hangzhou to be with her parents during the Summer.   As she was a member of China’s elite, and her dad a rather high ranking official, she was an easy mark.

One day they had a knock on the door and a few men were welcomed inside.  To this day I’m not sure if her father had advanced knowledge of their visit or not.   They didn’t stay long.

Uncertainty and tension were in the air that summer of 1989.   All over China, not just Beijing, student campuses were erupting in protest.    Beijing of course was the most violent.   ( One notable exception was Shanghai, which was run by Jiang Zemin.  His ability to minimize disruption is widely considered to have won him the top job in Beijing.)

Guangzhou did have a symbolic protest however.  There were banners written and many students attended, but in the words of my wife it was “a fun event”.  

In short, the two gentlemen wanted my wife to be an informer.  They even mentioned names.   One of the names mentioned was a classmate of hers, a fellow from Hangzhou, and very outspoken about the need for reform.   In 1989 he stood out like a sore thumb.   (Upon graduation he eventually moved to Singapore)

The phrase my wife hasn’t forgotten is 我们为你好。

Akin to “for the safety of the state”, or “for public security and order”, the above was another blanket phrase used by the government to pretty much do whatever it saw fit.

Her father was opposed to her becoming an informer for the State, and told her so after they left.  She readily agreed however to cooperate.   It would not be the last time her father and her disagreed on things. 

Her Senior Year in University she applied to the Communist Party behind her father’s back and was accepted.   (She also won the University Dance Competition.  I tried to gain entry to watch but foreign students were banned.)   Nobody knew my little Lei Feng was an informer.   Or was she?
Afterwards she claimed she was never approached for information by the State.  I believe her.  As for her acceptance into the CCP(probationary of course),  her father, (himself a high ranking CCP member right?), was incensed.   He apparently opposed her becoming a member of the Party.
It was a moot point.  Once she married me she was expelled anyway.

I checked a book out about the CIA from the University Library.  It was 400 pages long and I devoured it, skimming here and there, in about 3 days.

A NOC is “non official cover”, as opposed to “official cover”.    He is in country under a different guise, ie an engineer, or a student, or what have you.  He does not have protection from the US Government.   Should he be arrested, he’s on his own.   For instance, China notoriously held two CIA captives in prison for 20 years before releasing them.  Simply because the US government would not acknowledge them as CIA operatives.

Sounds sexy….and dangerous.   And impractical, I thought to myself.   Wouldn’t a Chinese-American be a better fit?   Not somebody with a Guangdong accent and blue eyes?

“Oh well….I’m sure they know what their doing”….

The CIA application arrived in a yellow envelope from a front company based in Virginia.  They had recruited my University annually for many years, usually with an HR rep coming to campus to shepherd the application process for each potential recruit.  Not this year, however.
I opened up the envelope and perused the “application”.

The first question immediately garnered my attention:

“Why are you interested in joining the CIA”?

“So that’s how it’s gonna be,” I thought.

“This is me coming to you, eh?”   Fuck that.   “Me knocking on your door? “  I mused.

“I don’t think so”.

I wrote my response. 

“Actually, you contacted me first”, I wrote down.   I felt it was important to establish the proper tone in the relationship right away.   Though interested, I was in no way gonna go out of my way to curry favor with these guys.

(MBA graduates are usually at their worst cum recruitment season and I was no exception.  Like a woman that finally realizes she is beautiful, and yet knows nothing of MEN, I was conceited, obtuse and it showed.   It showed very much.  While in Shanghai during my internship I turned down both Intel and a British firm.)

The CIA was gonna have to compete for my affections, just like everyone else.   And as far as I was concerned, an insulting 40k+ salary was just that….insulting.   (I’ve since made more than that in a month….several times)

They asked me all sorts of things. 

“Tell us the names of every foreign national you’ve known, along with contact information, over X years”.


By that time I’d lived in China 6-7 years and Tokyo around 4.

How would I be able to have all that information handy?

I told them I was married.  

“Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”, the form continued.

“No, but I should tell you my wife has”.

Now…there is no way the CIA could ever have figured out my wife was a former probationary member of the CIA.  Unless they guessed as much during the polygraph I was waiting (so I thought) to fly up for.

I thought my wife being a member of the Party, and being Chinese would make an excellent cover for myself.  In short, I thought myself the ideal candidate.

But I had a question.

I called up my contact. 

“Can I tell my wife about my application?” 

“Yes you can.  But she is the only member of your family that can know”, he replied.

Actually, I had already told her, the week or so after the initial contact.  She lambasted me in her usual lecturing and supportive way.  (She was more and more like her mother.)

You see…my wife knew from being Chinese that government jobs were already losing clout and status.   The Private Sector is where it’s at.  She wanted no part of going back to China to live, and she wanted no part of us living apart.  I had told her of course to keep it secret, but as gossiping is such a part of a Chinese’ DNA, she of course told her mother, who in turn told everyone from Shanghai to Ningbo to Hangzhou to Shaoxing, that I was gonna be a spy.

I’ll be honest, I was put off by the exhausting detail required to answer and fill out the CIA’s application form.   I found it both insulting and a turnoff.   But my thinking was “I needed a backup”. 

During this timeframe I had meanwhile landed two offers.  One from a Chinese company, Haier, and the other from a Taiwan company, Nanbu, as the President’s special assistant.  The salaries were only marginally better than that of the CIA.   (I turned them both down.)

My wife finally joined me from Hong Kong .  She moved to the States’ just in time to attend my graduation ceremony.   Though I had only accumulated a relatively small amount of debt(around $20,000 or so), I was anxious to pay it off quickly.  Upon graduation, to my great dismay I had found myself still jobless.   The CIA thing had been sent out 6 weeks earlier and my wife and I decided to take a tour of the Northeast.   We were leaving the East Coast behind after our trip and I’d decided we would move to Seattle and try our luck there.  (we failed…I failed.  Nobody in Seattle wanted a kid from the Southeast)

We were in Boston’s Logan Airport on our way back to campus, at the end of our 2 week stay through the Northeast when I received an email from my housemate telling me I had a letter from some weird place.

“I can’t believe I know someone who’s gonna be a member of the CIA”, he said. 

We flew back, walked inside the house.   Since I had sent in the job app my wife to my surprise had experienced a change of heart.   She felt my working for the CIA would bring me a change in status.  The real reason I knew was her anxiety over my still being unemployed.   Meanwhile I had been mentally balancing in my mind how I could both turn down the CIA and prepare for the next step in the process.  The polygraph in DC. 

I opened the letter.  It went something like this:

“Thank you for your interest in the CIA… this time, upon careful consideration of your application(again, my pride rose up a bit here….you contacted me remember?), we are not able to offer you prospective employment at this time…..”

I was shocked.  I mean, I was really surprised.  I had felt with my unique background, wife a member of the CCP, my time spent in China, etc, I would be a perfect fit for that place.  What the hell happened??  I forgot all about the low salary, the NOC status, the naked protection, etc.  ( My arrogance during the process.)  My competitiveness showed through as I read the rejection letter, and I was pissed.

So what happened?

In retrospect, years later, as I would come across this topic, it became crystal clear:  I never had a chance with the CIA from Day One.    The CIA without hesitation errs on the side of caution, time and time again.

I was married.

I had a foreign spouse(automatic disqualification)
She was a past member of the CCP….(same)

I had spent so much time overseas, they had no way of validating who I really was.    That’s why so many former military folks go in.   Their easy to validate.  No, it doesn’t make one bit of sense, does it?

Imagine yourself as a recruiter for the CIA:

“We need someone we can send to China, but if he’s spent too much time there, forget it.  His fluency isn’t important.  Nor is his ability to blend in.  His knowledge of the culture is a liability, not an asset.  In short, we don’t necessarily need someone that knows his way around.”

In sum, they’d rather hire a Chinese American fresh out of college, 23 years old, who probably hasn’t been to China in years, and maybe speaks the language, with a basic knowledge of the culture.   And maybe that’s the right choice.  Single.  And $40,000 a year doesn’t sound so bad.

Fast forward a few years.  Myself now making $65k and my wife with her newly minted American Citizenship soon received a phone call.   It was the FBI. 

They congratulated her on becoming a citizen.  If she was ever interested in possibly speaking with them they would certainly welcome the opportunity…..



  1. If I understood right, you turned CIA's offer down mainly because of the salary.

    Do you know, was it really a full-time job? I mean, you would probably have needed some kind of occupation for cover and if that was e.g. working in China, wouldn't you had got a normal salary from that too besides the CIA's paycheck?

    Would be interesting to know how much PRC pays it's chinese recruits abroad? Or do they just appeal to people on the grounds that it is just their duty because they are chinese?

    Do you have any idea how many chinese have that kind of side assignment when they immigrate abroad to study or work? This is of course very sensitive subject but some articles suggest quite striking figures. I tend to think that some countries consider all their citizens abroad as "sleeping agents", but without any pay. Was it the last Bond movie 007 said, "I'm motivated by my duty", a fictitional British civil servant gentleman may say that in a movie, but that cannot apply to normal people. They need to get well paid or be somehow threatened to be involved in any intelligence activities no matter the nationality.

    I'm still quite patriotic myself but let's not mention the nation.

  2. No, I actually never had a chance with the CIA, because my wife was a foreign national. And, the irony of all ironies I know, they don't like recruiting people who have lived overseas too long. It really hampers their background check. The flaw in this is that by default they have to hire people from the military alot, as does the FBI, who are "safe". Never mind the lack of practical exp said candidate may have. The gov't will take a "safe" candidate over an experienced but "uncomfirmable" candidate everytime. Trust me, I'm a maverick anyway....anyone that went to China in 1990 to learn Mandarin for 2 years is a nutcase anyway. I wouldn't have fit in.

    As for me having a corporate salary, I don't think US companies allow a NOC to come on board anymore. Only the CEO and the Board would have such knowledge of a NOC incountry and that would really hamper their biz activities if an employee was a hired as a NOC. I think the NOC's are usu students or self employed, or whatever.


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