Thursday, May 6, 2021

Clearance for Personal Media Interviews

I recently did two interviews talking about my Foreign Service career on my own outside of work time: an audio interview on the Employed podcast and a written interview for a newsletter called Our Women in the World. Even personal interviews done on my own time, if in U.S. Department of State interest, require what we call "clearance" from the Department.

When a government employee hears the word "clearance", they may barely be able to suppress a groan. Clearance is simply our name for the process of approval by everyone with a stake in the product or the event or the thing getting cleared. Sometimes, that can stretch to a very large number of offices and individuals, some of whom will take a long time or have minor, seemingly unnecessary changes (what is often referred to as "happy to glad" changes because they're more likely to swap a synonym that make any substantive edits).

If you're a Foreign Service Officer assigned overseas who wants to do an interview or any kind of media engagement on your own time, you need to get that cleared with your supervisors, the local Public Diplomacy (PD) section, and the Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA) in Washington, DC.

If you've never done this before, I recommend talking to your post's assigned Press Attaché or your Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and they can send you the clearance form we use in the Department with all the information you need to send about the interview. Thankfully, even though we call it a "form" it's really just a list of things that can go in the body of an email instead of any formal memo. You'll need to gather information about the interview format, context on the requesting journalist, and most importantly make the case (just a sentence or two is sufficient) of why your participation is in the Department's interest. In this case, I wanted to talk in both of these interviews about diversity and inclusion at the Department of State and share information about this exciting career with others who might not be aware of it, especially women, people of color, and people from areas other than the East and West coasts.

I recommend requesting clearances as soon as possible regardless of the actual interview date, as it can take a while to get them all. In my case, each of these interviews took weeks to clear. Once my bosses approved, I sent the request to PD, who cleared it internally and with GPA for me. Once I received the clearance, I was free to go and do the actual interviews.

Do you want to listen to the final product of all these clearance efforts? You can read my written interview with Jennifer Koons in Our Women in the World here. And you can listen to me in the season finale of the Employed podcast wherever you get your podcasts or on Ali's website here (just scroll down to "Listen Here" and click on the episode labelled "Diplomat (Foreign Service Officer)". As intimidating as the clearance process can be, my advice is not to let it hold you back from talking about things that are important to you. There's a reason we have the process, and the more you know it and use it, the easier it gets to navigate.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Stunning Korea in Spring: Road Trip to Seosan and Taean

My heart is so full! We rented a car again and got away from Seoul for a long weekend--this time to Seosan and Taean. Spring has arrived in South Korea, and it is absolutely gorgeous! These photos are just a small slice of the beautiful things we saw on our trip, but they were a sight for sore eyes especially after a cold and dark pandemic winter.

Our first stop was the AMI Art Museum in Dangjin, which is on the way to Seosan and Taean if you're driving from Seoul. I almost didn't stop here because we don't like art galleries and I was concerned about COVID-19 safety if exhibitions were indoors, but I'm so glad we went. The exhibitions were largely open air and there weren't many people at all. (It probably helped that we went on a random weekday instead of a weekend.) Although it wasn't a particularly large building, the spaces were thoughtfully decorated with all kinds of art. The variety and number of pieces you could walk through and interact with were a big plus for me.

AMI Art Museum used to be a school, but once the school shut down it was repurposed into a space celebrating art. I thought it was such a cool way to use the building, and there were little signs like this board (pictured below) and the school bells still there that paid homage to the building's history.

On the art museum grounds there was also an adorable, quirky cafe called Cafe Giverny with more art inside. They didn't have food or baked goods, but they did have a great selection of coffee, tea, herbal tea, and fruity drinks. M got a sparkling strawberry drink and I got a yuzu herbal tea (something that has quickly become my go-to Korean coffee shop drink).

After that, we went to Yugibang Gaok (유기방 가옥), a residence and hillside famous for its daffodils. The first patches of daffodils we saw were in pretty rough shape, but we're glad we kept going: the daffodils on the side of the property were awesome! I've never seen so many daffodils in my life, and I was again grateful that we came in the middle of a random weekday because it seemed like the kind of place that would be packed on a holiday or weekend.

Before heading to our Airbnb in Seosan, we wanted to grab a bite to eat. At this point, it was about 3pm and we still hadn't had lunch because we were too busy sightseeing. Unfortunately for us, we had so many fails back to back trying to get some food! Some places were closed, another was open but said the employees were taking a break between lunch and dinner service soon, another had the door unlocked but there was nobody inside and no answer to our cries for help, and the list goes on. Eventually we had to drive into the city to try and find some place that was open, and I was so hungry I just insisted we go to the first place I saw there even though it had no reviews online.

I don't know how that place, called The Zone Galbi (더조은갈비), had no reviews, because that late lunch (really more early dinner at that point) was one of the best meals I've ever had. We ordered two servings of grilled pork and they brought out what seemed like four servings' worth. There was unlimited banchan (반찬, side dishes), rice, and soda that you could self-serve and decide what you wanted (the photo above shows the "self-bar" (셀프바). M said it was the best Korean barbecue he's had in his entire life. The best part was, for the all-you-can-eat sides and drinks as well as the massive amount of grilled meat we got, it only cost $24 for the two of us! We learned they have another location closer to Seoul, so I expect we're going to become frequent customers.

The next day, we went to an herb garden called Farm Kamille. It was so cool to walk around the grounds and buy some fresh, local herbal products. They also had an herbal foot bath section of their cafe where you could sip herbal tea while getting your feet treated. That was definitely not M's scene, but I'd love to come back with friends at some point and give that a try!

After that, we visited the Taean Tulip Festival. It was one of the many places we've seen in South Korea where you could tell it's normally packed but was nearly empty due to COVID-19. The flowers were in full bloom, and I saw more kinds of tulips than I ever knew existed. The gardens were gorgeous and I was really impressed with some of the flower designs you could only see from higher viewpoints.

We finished the day with what I thought would be a romantic stroll but was more of a hike along Noeulgil. We did a two-hour loop but the trail connects up and down the coast of Taean and can take up to eight hours if you do the whole thing. We ended by watching the sunset at Kkotji Beach (꽃지해수욕장). There are two famous rocks where people watch the sunset, known as grandmother and grandfather rocks. Legend has it that the grandmother rock (the one on the left) was a woman who turned into stone waiting for her husband to return to her and then one day the grandfather rock (the one on the right) appeared to accompany her. Is it her deceased husband, finally back? Who knows...

For food, our most notable bites that day were a feast of gegukji (게국지, spicy crab stew, a signature dish of the region) and a seasonal strawberry bingsoo (빙수, shaved ice dessert).

M was not a big fan of the first but loved the second. I loved both, but I will admit the first is extremely messy! I wondered why the table was covered in plastic when we arrived but it quickly became apparent that it was much needed.

Our last full day, we went strawberry picking at Anmyeondo Strawberry Farm (안면도 딸기농장 딸구네). It's so easy to do a visit like this here: I just called in advance and let them know when we'd be coming. They gave us half an hour to eat as many strawberries as we wanted and to fill a box of strawberries each. The lady who managed the farm was so sweet and friendly, and the strawberries were the best I've ever had. M and I ate more of them in that half hour than at any other time in our lives, I'm sure.

Once we left the strawberry farm, we were pleasantly surprised to find the weather was not the pouring rain that had been predicted. So we squeezed in a quick visit to Anmyeondo Recreational Forest, where we walked along beautiful paths between 100-year-old Korean red pine trees. The wood from these trees is so sturdy and beautiful, they used to use it to build palaces.

In addition to the forest itself, there was a sprawling array of gardens connected to it you could visit visa a foot path underneath the main road. Both were delightful, and although we heard thunder in the distance we managed to explore plenty without any rain.

For our last big meal of the trip, we swung by Kang Mee Roo (강미루) Chinese restaurant in Seosan. We enjoyed sweet and sour pork and jajangmyeon (짜장면, noodles with black bean sauce), and I had a great conversation with one of the owners. He is the son in the mother-son pair that runs the restaurant, and he provided great service and delicious food. The ambiance of the place was also fantastic, so if you find yourself in Seosan or need to stop for food on the way to Taean, I highly recommend Kang Mee Roo!

Lately we've been returning from trips on Saturday, and it's been so nice to be able to have the rest of the weekend to unpack and rest before work on Monday. We even treated ourselves to some amazing baos in Itaewon when we got back. I'm not planning on taking much leave this summer, so this long weekend getaway was our last for a while. I so appreciate living in such a road-trippable country with so much nature and places to have adventures away from crowds (especially if you go in the middle of a random week like we did). We can't wait to see more and eventually when the pandemic is over to start hosting our loved ones.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

He Is Risen!

Happy Easter to all who celebrate! (And yes, Mormons celebrate Easter! A few people actually asked me...) Did anyone else feel that the message of the Resurrected Christ just hit a little different this year, over a year into an unprecedented pandemic? In a time of so much pain and suffering around the world, I've felt more hungry for messages of hope and peace. I've looked forward to this weekend immensely, and I really needed it. It helped that springtime in Seoul is already so beautiful: I've been watching cherry blossoms and magnolias, pansies and flowering shrubs, and plenty of plants with names and shapes I don't even recognize bloom.

I talked with my family and a number of friends via video chat and then M and I went to our neighbors' house for an Easter lunch. We had a wonderful afternoon filled with great food and plenty of laughter. I also even bought some gorgeous, huge Belgian chocolate Easter eggs from a friend down the street (yes, that is one milk chocolate, one dark chocolate, and one ruby chocolate). After that, we joined other members of the Embassy Seoul community for a socially distanced vigil and solidarity walk in memory of the victims of the Atlanta-area shootings. It was a very healing experience for me, and I was heartened by the show of support from the community in the face of anti-Asian racism.

Then, we came home and watched a local church broadcast. Because of COVID-19, we still couldn't go to in-person worship services today. Thanks to modern technology, though, I was able to tune into special talks and musical performances live on YouTube (including in a mix of Korean and English). I was struck by the story of Arland D. Williams, Jr., which I hadn't heard before. He was one of many passengers in a horrific plane crash into the freezing Potomac River in 1982. When a rescue helicopter came, he kept handing the line to other passengers, saving many lives. By the time the helicopter came back for him, he had drowned beneath the waves. You can read more about his story here. The speaker mentioned how many might see this man's death as a waste, but "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

This year, Easter happened to coincide with General Conference, a weekend of gathering and spiritual messages from the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to members everywhere. Unfortunately, the time zone difference is so great that I couldn't watch the broadcast live as I usually do. I'll have to watch the videos later, but I'm so excited to have those to look forward to when I need a little uplifting.