Friday, September 18, 2020

54 Weeks of Korean, and I'm Free!

I did it! I finally graduated from Korean class at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute)! My training was supposed to be about 36 weeks, and instead I was there for 54. I'm not sure how much more I could have handled. It's depressing to admit this, but I'm not sure I made much progress in the past six months or so. All I can say is that I think Zoom and self-study really helped me maintain what I learned, but I am so ready to hit the ground running in South Korea and actually put these language skills to work in a proper immersion environment.

For those who missed my previous posts, I passed my language test back in May, but I was delayed from moving on for months due to the pandemic. Now I'm finally allowed to graduate (albeit four months late)! Oh well, it could be worse: I'm hoping for a speedy resolution for all of my friends and colleagues still stuck in training limbo, too.

Although I don't think I improved quite as much one-on-one with a teacher over Zoom than I would have with in-person classes, I must leave a glowing review of the Korean department at FSI. The teachers are outstanding and helped me learn so much. The photo of this post is actually of a full-length Korean novel I am reading (largely as a result of their hard work and patience). As any foreign language learner can attest, reading a novel in another language is not easy, but I'm surprised at how much I can understand and the fact that it's even possible for me to get through the book. I thought these lines I selected were particularly gripping. (Bonus points if you can translate it into English and extra bonus points if you can guess the name of this extremely popular book. The name is actually mostly in the picture.)

Besides reading, I'll be attempting to keep my Korean skills up by watching Korean dramas (kdramas) on Netflix. I already watched Crash Landing on You, Designated Survivor (yes, there's a Korean version and it's awesome), My ID is Gangnam, and Itaewon Class. I'm currently working my way through It's Okay to Not Be Okay, and I've got Romance is a Bonus Book, Sky Castle, and Kingdom still on my list. Let me know if you have any other recommendations for me in the comments!

For any other Korean learners who might be reading, I'll end on this poem by Kim Sowol, a celebrated Korean poet who died tragically young. It's beautiful and accessible, but difficult to translate perfectly into English. It's called 진달래꽃 (Azaleas).


나 보기가 역겨워
가실 때에는
말없이 고이 보내 드리오리다

영변에 약산
아름 따다 가실 길에 뿌리오리다

가시는 걸음 걸음
놓인 그 꽃을
사뿐히 즈려밟고 가시옵소서

나 보기가 역겨워
가실 때에는
죽어도 아니 눈물 흘리오리다

Friday, September 4, 2020

Making Money in the Foreign Service

We have really enjoyed taking the past few months and years to think about our long-term financial goals and make plans for how to get there. You can find the full spectrum of financial security among U.S. Foreign Service members: those who live paycheck to paycheck, those who were doing fine until a devstating illness or unforeseen circumstance changed everything, those who are comfortable, and those who are very well off. I thought I would take some of the most general guidelines we've learned and share them for those looking for information on where to begin. This is especially relevant if you're starting out in the Foreign Service but to some extent probably applies to most everyone.

The most important thing we've learned through introspection and research is that everyone's financial goals are a little bit different. Some people want to increase their net income as much as possible as soon as possible. Others want to build wealth in the long-term for future generations. It's crucial that each person as an individual or household decide what your goals are first. Then you can figure out the best way to achieve those goals.

No matter how young you are or how early in your career you are, it's important to think about retirement. In fact, the sooner you start, the better! I've heard generic advice like "save 10-15% of what you earn as retirement" before, but that may or may not be the most effective for you. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (like me) or others who tithe 10% of their gross income and have other expenses like union dues, health insurance, and more, putting away an additional 15% may not work. Other expenses like eldercare or chronic illness treatment may make it less feasible, too. Moreover, shorter-term goals like saving up for a down payment on a home might mean those contributions change over time. Regardless, it's worth thinking about retirement strategically and revisiting retirement preparations regularly.

In the U.S. Department of State, we have access to what's called a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), where the government will match our contributions up to a certain percentage each year. Everyone agrees maximizing your TSP's matching is a good idea and that you should diversify your investment, but there are a lot of differing opinions about how best to do that given the fact that you can choose how your savings are allocated between fund types. Read up on different philosophies, compare the pros and cons (e.g., how much time and energy you need to spend monitoring financial markets to sustain that strategy, what the growth rates are for fund types, and how much risk you want to take), and then choose what's right for you. The free TSP allocation guide is a great place to start.

If you lack knowledge and experience in this area, a financial advisor (or two or three) can be a huge help. We had the best experience talking to experts who could understand our unique situation: people who are current or former Foreign Service members or who worked with our community frequently. One excellent resource is The Purpose of Money; on their website you can sign up to get a financial tips newsletter, enjoy a financial literacy podcast, or set up a free consultation. We also talked to mentors we knew had successfully invested in real estate and other areas we were interested in so we could benefit from their wisdom and experience. Most people are happy to pay it forward.

I hope this post was helpful to other folks on their own financial journeys. If you have your own advice or recommended resources to share, please leave them in the comments below!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Best Board Games for a Pandemic

If you're like us, you're spending a lot more time at home during this pandemic. We've seen a lot of recommendations for things to binge on Netflix, read on Kindle, and order online. But what about if you want to have some wholesome fun with your family or roommates while giving your eyes a rest from the screen you're probably staring at most of the day and night? Well, then this post is for you.

I thought I'd put together a list of some of our top board games that we can recommend for folks who are social distancing. After all, the games you want to play as a household can be quite different from the ones that fit better at a larger party. (And it's no secret in the Foreign Service community that many U.S. diplomats are full-on board game geeks.) Here are some of our favorites:

  • Pandemic (2-4 players): Of course this had to top the list! Besides being the perfect ironic game for our time, it's the first co-op game Marwan and I enjoyed playing over and over again. This is a great introductory game for people who are more used to playing games where all the players compete against each other, and it doesn't take too long to learn.
  • Forbidden Island/Forbidden Desert (2-4 players/2-5 players): These two are made by the same folks who created Pandemic. The mechanics are different, but both are still cooperative games. These are great ones to turn to when you get tired of playing Pandemic (or if you keep winning on Heroic mode).
  • Fluxx (2-6 players): This is usually M's favorite. This is by far the easiest one to start. The rules are simple (or at least start that way), the cards explain most of everything you need to know, and it doesn't take long to set up or play.
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill/Betrayal at Baldur's Gate (3-6 players): These games are almost exactly the same, but the former is set at a haunted house and the latter is based on Dungeons and Dragons. For the first part of the game, you work together to explore the area. At some point, your exploration will trigger a shift to the second part of the game with a variety of scenarios and rules that will apply depending on chance. Sometimes it's every man for himself, others you work together against the game, and sometimes one of you will become a traitor. The diversity of scenarios, all extremely well done by professional game writers, gives these great replay value.
  • Codenames (2-∞ players): This one is known more as a party game, but did you know you can play it with just two people? Check the instructions for fun variations on the rules that allow you to play it with a group of any size. This one is simple, fast, and doesn't require a lot of explanation. (Also, for those in language class: Codenames is available in some non-English languages, as well!)
  • Terraforming Mars (1-5 players): My wonderful sister shipped this game to us as a surprise, and we love it! The best way I can think of to describe it is a cross between Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. I would recommend this more for people who already like board games and want to add a new one to their collection. And yes, you can even play this game by yourself (though we haven't tried that version ourselves).

We hope you enjoyed this list. Feel free to let us know any of your favorite #quarantinelife board games below in the comments so we can expand our collection, too!