Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Gorgeous Weekend in Georgia

That's right, we're back in the United States (just for a few weeks of vacation)! We had two weddings and a bachelorette party to attend all around the same time, so we decided to make the trip despite the pandemic - especially since we are thankfully both fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We packed tons of masks and hand sanitizer, grabbed our recent negative COVID test results (mandatory for both entering the United States and entering Korea right now), and made our way to Incheon Airport.

When we arrived in Korea, everything was such a blur that we couldn't appreciate just how fantastic the airport is. This time we enjoyed the experience much more. Everything was efficient and comfortable, and we saw some special things, too. For example, there was a Korean cultural center with a woman providing live music on a traditional instrument called the Gayageum (yes, the same one I tried playing before). There was also an adorable robot milling around seeing if it could be helpful to any passengers on their way. It spoke several languages and seemed like it had a lot of AI-driven functions.

After a long plane journey sitting next to someone who blasted her upbeat music so loud through her headphones we could hear every song the whole flight (and a brief bout of intense stress at a possible leaving behind of our suitcases that turned out to be a false alarm), we finally landed in Atlanta. M was determined that our rental car be a Tesla, so we climbed into our Model S for the weekend and got to our hotel in Calhoun, Georgia around midnight. I could probably do a whole blog post on the differences between COVID-19 mitigation in the United States and South Korea, but that was by far the biggest reverse culture shock I experienced. In Korea, not wearing a mask in public - even if you're outside and fully vaccinated - can cost you a hefty fine and a confrontation with public health enforcers. Even at the airport in the United States, many travelers were unmasked (even while not eating or drinking) or did not wear their masks properly. Once we got to Calhoun, some folks gave us the stink eye for wearing masks, but having just gotten off an international flight and crossed three airports we were probably protecting them even more than protecting us. One of our friends told us that the local vaccination rate for even one COVID-19 shot was only 25%, so I'll admit that lack of community protection against the transmission we'd taken for granted in Seoul was a bit stressful.

We took extra precautions as a result, and that included me forgoing the chance to attend one of my favorite attractions in my whole home country: The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Many of my friends and coworkers know my deep love for coke products and The World of Coca-Cola in particular. I went there once as part of a high school trip and fell in love with the place. Years later, I dragged M back to Georgia as part of an American South road trip to experience the magic of The World of Coca-Cola with me, and I am unashamed to admit I shed a few tears of joy that it was just as magical as I'd remembered from my teenage years. This time, though, we made the tough call to skip it: they have no vaccination requirement and the whole attraction is indoors. That was more risk than I was willing to take, so the most "Georgia" thing we did was eat lots and lots of barbecue (pictured above).

The real reason we went to Georgia was for my friend C's wedding. C was the roommate of one of my best friends from high school and college, L. I'd gotten to know C's fiancee (then-girlfriend) B when we were together in the groom's party for L, and they are truly a perfect match. It was wonderful to come to C's hometown and see him and B married on his grandparents' stunning estate (which I confirmed had thankfully not been a slave plantation after one of my colleagues thoughtfully asked). The couple had so many personal touches, from signature cocktails for them and their two cats to a sweet ceremony officiated by a dear friend to a full Southern barbecue dinner in the spirit of the venue.

I think my favorite part, though, was an epic private fireworks show we could all watch from the house's steps. It was a perfectly clear night full of stars above and fireflies below, with the explosions of fireworks lighting up the sky in golds, greens, and reds. Of course, M took the opportunity to play around with my Pixel smartphone camera modes, including Night Sight (for astrophotography that actually captures stars) and Top Shot (a feature that uses AI to determine where during your video the best shots are and suggests them as still frame photos to separate).

The next morning we joined the same friends from the wedding for brunch with a Waffle House Food Truck outside the family home of C's parents. We were so busy stuffing our faces that I forgot to take a photo of the food truck, but I did snap a pic of an awesome room inside the house with wet signatures of all presidents of the United States, collected by my friend's grandfather throughout his life. The older ones were purchased, but many of the more recent presidents had signed personal letters or other documents specifically for my friend's family. (This Barack Obama signature is from a personal letter to the family in 2014.) How cool is that?

Before we left Calhoun, we took some time to visit a few sites safely outdoors. The first stop was a rock garden located behind the local Seventh-day Adventist church. Since 2007, a man named Dewitt Boyd "Old Dog" (and later his wife) assembled beautiful rock and shell replicas of castles, villages, and iconic buildings surrounded by beautiful flowers as a place to celebrate art and facilitate prayer and contemplation. I was blown away by this sculpture of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, complete with stained glass windows!

Then, we visited the historic site and park of New Echota, previous capital of the Cherokee Nation and the place where the infamous Trail of Tears began. It was a particularly meaningful stop this weekend as the first Indigenous Peoples' Day recognized by the President of the United States. At New Echota, we learned about the lives of Cherokees in the 1800s, which encompassed a diverse range of experiences. Some Native Americans resisted colonial expansion and fought to maintain their sovereignty and culture, while others assimilated. The New Echota sites were beautifully maintained, though I was disappointed at some of the euphemisms used in the explanatory texts. For example, the brochure we were given mentioned the New Echota tavern had a takeout window to serve "those whom the Innkeeper did not allow inside." I had to ask a staff member to confirm that included slaves of African descent owned by Native American farmers in New Echota.

There were many impressively reconstructed buildings and artifacts, including the building and press from the first Native American printed paper (The Cherokee Phoenix) in Cherokee, the first Native American written language. I was pleasantly surprised at how critical of the United States government the historical accounts were, particularly in the small museum portion of the site. It is clear that the United States repeatedly violated Native American sovereignty, even when indigenous peoples acted perfectly in accordance with signed treaties and within U.S. institutions. Two examples that stuck with me were the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court case and the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.

In Worcester v. Georgia, even though the Supreme Court ruled in the Cherokees' favor and affirmed that Native American nations were "distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights", U.S. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling. The 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which relinquished enormous amounts of Cherokee land, was signed by a few Cherokee leaders but was never approved by the council mandated in the nation's governing documents. (The council meetinghouse is pictured below.) In fact, the majority of Cherokees opposed the treaty and the Cherokee signers were eventually assassinated. Although it was legally illegitimate, the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty, which laid the groundwork for the Trail of Tears on which over 4,000 Cherokees died.

We must not forget the darker side of our history for many reasons. We must not repeat the mistakes and betrayals previously committed. But crucially, we must also acknowledge past wrongs and take concrete action to mitigate the harm that continues from the decisions of our ancestors - whether they be biological predecessors or just people whose legacy we personally benefit from today. A good place to start is to learn more about the history of indigenous people wherever you live and then listen to indigenous people today when they advocate for policies or steps we can take to make things better.

With that, our weekend in Georgia went by in a flash. We left with reflective minds, warm hearts, and full bellies - we couldn't have asked for more. Congrats to B and C, and we look forward to returning to the Peach State again someday!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

I Voted Absentee! Did You?

I just sent in my absentee ballot! Just because we live overseas doesn't mean we lack a home. And voting is one way we can advocate for things that matter to us back home: what policies are getting tabled or implemented, how our taxes are being spent, the way local schools are being run, and more. I love exercising my democratic right to vote, one that many around the world wish they had and advocate for every day.

A lot of folks don't vote unless there's a presidential election happening, and plenty of people don't vote at all. But I love voting every year! Votes make a difference, especially in smaller, local elections where fewer people turn out to the polls. As a Foreign Service Officer, I am bound by the Hatch Act - which limits some of my political expression. So although you won't see me out here campaigning for specific parties or candidates, I will make it a point to make my voice heard by voting and by encouraging other people to vote.

I personally find absentee voting so much more convenient than voting in person. That way, I can vote on my own time and don't have to worry about traffic or lines or party reps right outside the polling station trying to hand me pre-filled sample ballots. In my home state of Virginia, they allow people to vote absentee as long as you request the mail-in ballot in advance.

I also know from personal experience that they have safeguards in place to prevent voter fraud. One time, I went to a polling station in person because I never received a ballot. They confirmed at the polling station that I was sent an absentee ballot but it must have gotten lost in the mail. I had to fill out a provisional ballot in person that would be voided if my mail-in ballot were ever found completed and included in the tally. From what I saw, they take election security seriously!

Are you registered to vote? If not, go to vote.gov now and sign up to vote in this year's elections! You can also see if your state allows absentee voting by mail on Ballotpedia, which also lists whether an excuse for absentee voting is required. Regardless of your political leanings or party membership, I hope you take the time to register and vote! The future of our country is up to us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What's Corridor Reputation?

I was surprised when writing my previous blog post on my recent promotion and referencing "corridor reputation" to realize that I hadn't done a blog post explaining it yet. So for those who are unfamiliar with how things work in the Foreign Service (or who are just very new), here's a brief introduction. Corridor reputation is kind of what it sounds like: what people know and say about you and whisper to each other in the literal and metaphorical hallways of the Department of State.

Where corridor reputation comes most into play in the Foreign Service is for bidding, or getting your next job. For decades, hiring managers have used corridor reputation to help determine whom they select for a job (and whom they avoid like the plague). Applicants do the same thing: for example, when I learned I was heading to Seoul for my second tour a friend of mine warned me about a particular manager at the Embassy there who had a terrible corridor reputation. Specifically, this manager was known for making inappropriate comments, picking on their subordinates, and overlooking the forest for the trees. And honestly, I saw for myself that that particular corridor reputation was well earned.

People tend to feel very strongly one way or another about corridor reputation. I've heard multiple experienced Foreign Service Officers say things like, "Promotions and awards are unfair, but bidding and corridor reputation are usually spot-on." At the same time, many officers - especially women and minorities - have pointed out how a process that relies on something as opaque and schmoozy as corridor reputation perpetuates networks of "old boys' clubs" and is rife with unconscious bias. Some argue it is no better than gossip subject to the same whims as any high school popularity contest.

I have conflicted feelings about it. I see the real damage it has caused but I've also seen people dodge bullets thanks to corridor reputation. I'm sure there must be a better way to keep the good parts and mitigate the bad, and there have been several very thoughtful pieces addressing this issue recently. This year, there are also several pilot programs ongoing with Department of State Foreign Service bidding that aim to explore alternatives to the existing, corridor reputation-dependent system.

So what do you think? Does corridor reputation help or hurt? Is there a better way we should be doing things? Let me know in the comments - I love hearing people's thoughts and new ideas about it!