Sunday, July 18, 2021

What 6 Months of Adjudicating Visas Taught Me

I've been at U.S. Embassy Seoul for months and have yet to blog much about my actual work here. As longtime readers may recall, my last tour was in Public Diplomacy, which happens to be my cone/track. But here in South Korea, I'm doing a completely different job: Consular (CONS) work. For the first six months of my tour, I focused on non-immigrant visa (NIV) interviews, and now I'm rotating to another unit called American Citizen Services.

What are non-immigrant visas? They're the visas you need when you travel temporarily to a foreign country. They are different from immigrant visas, which you apply for when you plan to immigrate to another country permanently. As a non-immigrant visa adjudicator, it was my job to interview dozens of applicants a day and determine whether they met the qualifications for a non-immigrant visa. These requirements are set by U.S. immigration law (as well as Presidential Proclamations, court interpretations of law, and other policies).

So in no particular order, and with the surety that I'm forgetting some key things I should add, enjoy the list of things I found interesting enough to share that I learned from six months of visa work:

  • Visa interviews are a lot of fun. I know not everyone feels this way, but I love the chance to meet so many different people from all walks of life. Everyone applying to go to the United States has their own story, and I love learning more about them.
  • Most U.S. non-immigrant visa interviews are shorter than people expect. (I can do a straightforward one in about a minute.) But each one of those interviews is an opportunity to be a Public Diplomacy representative. Regardless of the visa decision, we can give people a positive impression of our country by treating them with kindness, professionalism, and respect.
  • Visa work varies wildly from post to post. Countries with more or less fraud, lower or higher issuance rates, and other factors will have very different applicant pools and post policies. For example, South Korea is part of the visa waiver program with the United States. As a result, many tourists and business travelers can go back and forth between our countries without a visa. That is not the case for the vast majority of countries.
  • Sometimes, people will lie to your face. You can't take it personally.
  • Once you become a Consular Officer, tons of people come out of the woodwork to try and ask you for visa advice. They often don't realize they're putting you in an awkward position, because you have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. You don't want to give people the impression that knowing a Consular official or Embassy employee will give them a leg up in the visa application process. (It doesn't. If a friend comes in for a visa appointment, someone else has to interview them.) When someone asks me for visa or immigration advice, I always suggest they ask a lawyer.
  • There is a real camaraderie that comes with serving "on the line" with other entry-level officers. This was something I missed out on in my first post, where I was the only junior officer in my section. But now, I'm glad I got to enjoy the experience of sharing window hours with my colleagues, being part of a team of peers, and laughing over so many stories where you just had to be there.
  • Language skills can really help you out in a Consular job. Almost every day, I did a few interviews in Korean. It helped me maintain some of my language skills, but it also helped me save time during interviews.
  • In the digital age, people will leave reviews about you online. My colleagues and I read a few reviews of ourselves together for fun the other day. Someone referred to me as 백인 브루넷 (white brunette) and another called me "the lady who's always smiling and laughing" or something like that... I'll take it!

I'm glad Consular work is a requirement for entry-level Foreign Service Generalists. From my time in PD, I know that visa-related sections of Embassy websites (and posts on social media) usually get by far the most engagement. And any Foreign Service member can tell you that regardless of your position a contact will eventually mention something about a visa, and it's good to have some idea what they're talking about. I also think it gives new officers a common shared experience to draw from and connect with, while providing an opportunity for us to build our networks and meet a crucial overseas service need. What's not to love? I'm thankful for my time in NIV, and it may not be my last.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Independence Weekend Getaway in Gangneung

We decided to take another road trip to the east coast of Korea for the long weekend around the Fourth of July. This time, we left right after work on Friday and that rush hour Seoul traffic is no joke! Things improved dramatically once we got out of the capital area, but it's probably best to leave earlier or later if you're traveling to the coast for the weekend. We arrived in Gangneung and checked into St. John's Hotel, an enormous place right by the beach. They have accommodations for every traveler in Gangneung, from small "pensions" to motels to campsites to resorts to Airbnbs. Places tend to book up months in advance, though, so it's best to lock in your reservations early.

Once we reached our destination, we swung by an adorable little French cafe called C'est la vie and I fell in love with it. It was so small and quirky from the location to the decor, and the little chocolate terrine I had was delicious. If that wasn't enough, they had little guestbooks and stationery there for you to leave messages for other customers. It was a delightful experience, and as we were leaving the woman working there called out and ran to give us little sachets of purple flowers she bundled up for us. It was obvious we were foreigners, and she said it was a little thank-you gift for visiting. I cannot recommend this cafe highly enough! Definitely stop by if you find yourself in Gangneung.

Saturday morning, we walked along the beach and through a pine forest trail by the hotel and took photos with various art installations scattered throughout the area. One thing that's fun about traveling in Korea is the care devoted to Instagrammable setups for photos all over the place. The part of the beach we explored is one of many beaches with a beautiful backdrop and swings or photo frames or other props for visitors.

After that, we popped over to Jumunjin (주문진) to visit the famous bus stop from a BTS album cover. We took a group photo there together with the ocean waves in the background. There was even a picture of the well-known photo of BTS taped to the wall inside the bus stop itself. Do you recognize the place?

Our next stop was Ojukheon (오죽헌), which was really high on my list. For just 3,000 Korean won (less than $3) per person, we could check out the home and grounds of one of Korea's two most famous Confucian scholars: Yulgok Yi I (율곡이이). He and his mother, Shin Saimdang (신사임당), are both immortalized on the Korean 5,000 and 50,000 won banknotes respectively.

Back in those days, scholars did a bit of everything when it came to intellectual arts: painting, poetry, calligraphy, prose, and the list goes on. I had read several summaries of Ojukheon that only described Shin Saimdang as Yulgok's mother, but I learned actually visiting the site that she was an accomplished painter and artist herself. There was a museum highlighting some of the family's works, but the thing that impressed me the most were preserved sesame seeds with calligraphy on them from centuries ago! I can't even imagine the tools that were used at a time without microscopes or lasers to make such intricate art, but I was blown away by the skill and creativity. (Who would even think to do calligraphy on a sesame seed?)

There was also an original book written by Yulgok and the accompanying inkstone he used. I was shocked to see such a priceless national treasure on display without security guards or anything, but there were CCTV cameras and signs everywhere. Those cameras must work well, because everything seemed to be in great shape.

We also got to peek inside some of the rooms of the traditional hanok (한옥) house where Shin Saimdang and Yulgok grew up. The room where Shin Saimdang gave birth to Yulgok is named after a dream she had about a dragon during the birth. This was back in 1536, so I can only imagine what it was like to deliver a baby on that hard wooden floor, so delirious from the pain and the experience that you can't help but dream of dragons. Historical and cultural sites are some of the coolest places to visit!

To round off our Saturday night, we split off from the other N&M because I wanted to drag Marwan to a tofu place for dinner. A lot of the traditional Korean restaurants in the area serve tofu and seafood and not much else, so it may not be appealing to every palate. But I'd heard of how amazing the tofu is at Chodang Tofu Village (초당두부마을), a neighborhood right by the hotel, so I had to try it. M isn't the biggest tofu connoisseur himself, but thankfully we found a place where I could get a tofu stew (순두부) set and he could enjoy a massive, greasy potato pancake (감자전). It was the perfect hot comfort food for a drizzly evening.

On Sunday we slept in and then explored some restaurants and cafes in the area, including at Gangneung Coffee Street. Two restaurants we can recommend for a filling and tasty meal are Long Bread (롱브레드 강릉점) for sandwiches and Western food as well as Rui (루이식당) for Japanese food.

One of the things we love about Korea is the prevalence of dessert cafe culture. A lot of restaurants don't serve dessert, but that gives you the perfect excuse to find a place that specializes in coffee, tea, and cakes or other treats instead. And especially when you only have a few days to see a certain town, it means you can cover a lot more ground with limited meals.

We went for a walk after dinner and stumbled across a walking path called Wolhwa Street (월화거리) that used to be the site of railroad tracks but has since been converted to a romantic pedestrian trail (pictured in the first photo of this post). It had a magical feeling that reminded us of the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away, as if we were crossing over to a fantasy realm. I spent some time reading online afterward what the story was behind the place, but sources kept referencing a love story I'm not familiar with from Korean lore: Hwarang Muwolrang and Yeonhwa. If you know the story, please let me know in the comments below!

Since it was the Fourth of July, we bought some small sparklers and fireworks at a local convenience store called GS25 after dinner. (Turns out, pretty much every convenience store in a beach town in Korea sells these.) We walked out to Anmok Beach (안목해변), launched our little fireworks, lit our sparklers, and paid a modest tribute to America before calling it a night.

We had to head back to Seoul on Monday, but not before we experienced St. John's infinity pool. It was a nice way to spend a morning, but I honestly don't think it was worth the extra cost. We did snap a few memorable photos, though, and the weather was gorgeous.

We went back to Long Bread for brunch since there weren't a lot of brunch options in town. I had a delicious eggs benedict, but there was a long wait and a surprisingly large number of customers. I can't say I fully understand why there were so many people out and about on Monday given that it was a U.S. holiday and not a Korean one, but my theory is that a lot of people there were students on school break of some kind.

We queued up some podcast episodes (this time our mix included Maintenance Phase, Reply All, and The Dark Side of Seoul) and made it back to Seoul in a little over three hours. That's another Korean road trip in the books! Gangneung was a great location for a peaceful, relaxing summer weekend trip. We felt like we saw everything we needed to see, rested up, and enjoyed the great food and company. We hope your Independence Day was as good as ours. Happy Fourth of July, wherever you are!

Sunday, June 27, 2021

This Is What North Korea Looks Like

I just got back from a half-day trip somewhere I never imagined I would set foot: the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea. As a Korean American, I definitely knew about the DMZ growing up: that's where the two sides who had an armistice but never truly ended the Korean War would meet and sometimes seem like they made progress and sometimes seem like they took a few steps back. There have also been a number of scary security incidents there, including those that resulted in lives lost on each side of the demarcation line. Thankfully, my group was in good hands visiting under the auspices of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC).

First we stopped at a visitor center in Camp Bonifas with small, museum-style curated displays. There were a lot of details I didn't know. For example, the region around the Joint Security Area (JSA) separating North and South is called Panmunjom (판문점). The 2018 inter-Korean summit between Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un resulted in what is known as the Panmunjom Declaration. What I didn't know is that the name Panmunjom comes from the name of the well-known tavern in the surrounding village.

Camp Bonifas is named after one of two U.S. soldiers killed in what is known as the Axe Murder Incident of 1976. U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett were trimming some trees in the DMZ when a group of DPRK soldiers led by Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul came up to them, observed them for a while, demanded they stop, and then bludgeoned the victims to death with their own axes. The UN Command chose to respond with Operation Paul Bunyan, a demonstration of overwhelming military force to cut down the tree without any additional escalation or loss of life. The photo above is the site where the Axe Murder Incident and Operation Paul Bunyan took place.

Then we went up a hill to get a good vantage point to see North Korea across the border. We could see the infamous Kijong-dong (기정동) in the distance. North Koreans refer to it as Peace Village, but we call it Propaganda Village because several of the buildings are only facades and with binoculars it's obvious that even some of the windows are painted on to give the impression more people live there. Current best estimates are that several hundred people do live in Kijong-dong, but it's much fewer than the DPRK government attempts to present.

After that, we got to check out the site of a famous 2017 defection from the North of a DPRK soldier. The New York Times has a great video explaining the footage from that incident, but it was amazing to stand exactly where the chase happened and see the bullet holes from the incident up close. What the video doesn't say but we learned from our guide is that the defector survived being shot five times and is still living in South Korea today. In the same area, we walked past a building called Freedom House that was designed to host reunification meetings of families separated by the division of North and South. Unfortunately, it has never realized its original purpose due to the DPRK's fear that North Korean families will defect if they are allowed so close to the demarcation line.

One of the coolest stops of the trip was the actual room where negotiations between the two sides happen. We were even allowed to cross the halfway mark and technically set foot in North Korean territory! In normal times, there would have been DPRK soldiers there, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic they have not been as visible. I heard that on the rare occasions they do come out for meetings these days they are wearing head-to-toe orange hazmat suits. It will likely be a while before things are back to normal - at least, as normal as they ever get on the DMZ.

We also got to see the famous view of the large building on the DPRK side that always shows up in news stories about inter-Korean conflict or negotiations. I had the first photo of this post taken where President Trump crossed over to North Korean territory during his official visit in 2019. A short walk away, we saw the blue bridge, also known as the Bridge of No Return. They built an extra section of the bridge in 2018 so that the ROK and DPRK leaders would have somewhere to share tea and cigarettes, but since then that portion of the bridge has begun sinking into the swampy terrain below.

I learned so much on this tour and I would consider a visit to the DMZ a must for anyone visiting South Korea who is able to arrange it in their schedule. This is such an important part of not only world history but world politics and military relationships today, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to see it up close for the first time. And of course I hope that someday the hopes and goals of so many generations of Koreans and allies and friends can be realized and the peninsula can experience peace and reconciliation once again.