Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Importance of a Portable Hobby

I'm convinced that one of the keys to Foreign Service happiness is a portable hobby. When you move countries every few years, it can be exhausting to start from scratch with a new pastime every time, especially knowing there's no guarantee you'll ever be able to do it again. Many of the happiest folks we've seen with this lifestyle have a hobby they can take with them (at least almost) anywhere.

For us, having these hobbies no matter where we go helps wherever we are feel like home a little sooner. We have a few fitness-related ones: M plays soccer, the most popular sport in the world, and I can always fall back on Blogilates YouTube videos, which I can do from the comfort of our home even if I don't have access to a gym or any equipment. I've learned the hard way from previous experiences living abroad that fitness is not a universal recreational activity, especially for women. I've lived in places where it was impossible to go running because of weather or crime or cultural sensitivity, or where the gyms were almost completely reserved for men. It can be that much more difficult to adjust to a "normal" life somewhere where you can't find a way to break a sweat.

On top of those, we can count on certain categories of entertainment made possible with modern technology like Netflix, video games, and e-books. (After all, in a lot of countries, just finding recently released print books can be a challenge.) As I type this, I'm watching M work his way through the Kingdom Hearts series on PlayStation (one of my childhood favorites I'm so grateful we can enjoy in Kenya).

In a mobile lifestyle like ours, these hobbies can be the difference between unbearable homesickness and relative comfort. Although it's fun to try new and exotic things, I'm a firm believer in finding the balance between adventure and stability - where we've found that commitment to knitting or board games or photography or whatever it is can really come in handy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Happy Belated Birthday, Relief Society!

Happy belated 177th birthday to the Relief Society, one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world, of which I'm delighted to be a member and a local leader! All adult women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are members of the Relief Society. Our motto is "Charity never faileth", taken from 1 Corinthians 13:8 in the New Testament of the Holy Bible.

In the spirit of celebrating sisterhood, Relief Society members across Nairobi came together to commemorate the birthday and have a friendly competition. We made tons of food and let the young women between 12 and 18 judge our creations on taste, presentation, and more. (There were so many categories, I'm pretty sure everyone won something.) Our ward (i.e., congregation, pictured below) went all out with a mix of homemade desserts that vanished in the blink of an eye. There was a diverse selection at the event. I personally felt drawn to the samosa table pictured above... That ward had made what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of delicious beef samosas to share! They were a great complement to our sweets.

We wrapped up the activity with a cake cutting. Our Stake Relief Society President (i.e., regional leader) did an amazing job organizing the party and procuring such a beautiful cake. I don't even want to think about saying goodbye to these amazing ladies - Kenyan and American - who have been such steadfast and loving friends during my time in Kenya, which is going by way too fast. I love them and the Relief Society that has so warmly welcomed me everywhere around the world I've traveled where it exists!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Unconscious Bias at Work

Most of us suffer from some unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias or learned stereotypes that affect our thoughts and actions beneath the level of conscious thought. It's human nature. (You can learn a little about your own implicit biases and help researchers by taking Harvard's online tests for free here.)

I was recently reminded by a recent experience that this unconscious bias has real effects on people's lives and careers. There is a certain prestigious university in Nairobi that I visit frequently for work - there is a grant that I'm in charge of monitoring there, so I stop by for site visits and meetings. I've been going there for over a year, and every time I get to the main gate there is some type of security issue. Even though my contact at the university calls ahead to alert the guards of my arrival, they always ask me to get out of the car and walk to the pedestrian entrance. Sometimes, I have to walk through a metal detector. Other times, my bag is checked. Every time, they check my ID and fill out a visitor form for me.

Because I have always gone on my own with an Embassy motor pool driver (i.e., an official driver for the Embassy), I assumed this was fairly standard. Last time, I learned from my driver that he has been driving plenty of U.S. diplomats to this university for many years - and he told me not once has he ever seen one receive the treatment I did. None of them have ever had to get out of the car or negotiate with security or call one of the higher-ups at the university to be allowed onto the campus, especially when they arrived (as I always do) in an U.S. Embassy car with diplomatic license plates.

That day, I had this realization as a guard asked me why I was there and was confused by my answer of, "I'm a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy, and I have a meeting with one of your professors." He had to call another guy over who said, "So, you're a student." All of my issues gaining access to the compound over the past year suddenly made sense, assuming security was treating me like a student without an ID card rather than a diplomat with a scheduled meeting.

Was it my gender? Was it my age? Was it my ethnically ambiguous face? Most likely, it was a combination of all of those factors that made some people doubt my occupation, single me out, and treat me differently. Certainly, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say this was unconscious bias. They didn't intend to make me feel uncomfortable or irritated, but they responded in line with what their brains and instincts told them: I just didn't look like a diplomat.

Now, just because it's subconscious doesn't mean it's okay. I was so frustrated to learn I've been treated differently on the basis of my appearance this whole time that I raised it with my partners at the university to address with their security team. After all diplomats - and especially the U.S. Foreign Service - are more diverse than ever. (The first photo of this post is a perfect example of this that I distinctly remembered from my childhood and scoured the Internet for just for this post. It's an episode from the Kim Possible TV series [Season 2, Episode 8] featuring a diplomat at a career fair... Could they have gotten any more stereotypical?)

One of my biggest hopes is that by representing my country in the Foreign Service, I'm having an impact on how people see the diversity of the United States and its diplomatic corps - a bunch of mini-PD victories! As frustrating as it can be encountering skepticism on the basis of my appearance alone, leveraging that opportunity to transform someone's perception helps make it all worth it. For now, changing one heart and mind at a time is good enough for me.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Watamu Ni Tamu!

The title of this post means "Watamu is sweet" in Kiswahili, and very sweet it was (even if I took my sweet time to blog about it)! Watamu is a city on the Kenyan coast, and S and I traveled there for a few days for a girls' trip before she left. We stayed in a gorgeous, elevated, open-air room with beautiful views like the sunset photo above.

We had an amazing time enjoying the sun, sand, and water. We didn't stay right on the beach, but the ocean was only a few minutes' walk away from our room through this lovely path. Once we got there, we were amazed at how empty the beach was (a rare treat in Kenya) and how clear the water was (yes, those are our feet in the ocean)!

It was a coincidence that our trip was timed with the full moon, so we enjoyed some special activities like drinking smoothies on the beach and watching the sun set and the moon rise at the same time. Our first night even happened to be a supermoon! (Can you believe the photo below is of the moon, not the sun?) We also enjoyed a special nighttime float through a mangrove forest thanks to the powerful pull of the full moon - one of the most amazing travel experiences I've ever had. We were very lucky.

Although Watamu was the perfect getaway for us, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there is a security alert for U.S. citizens in place right now reminding Americans in Kenya to exercise heightened caution, particularly in Nairobi, Naivasha, Nanyuki, and the coast. It's important for every individual and family to inform and prepare themselves as much as possible, but then to make decisions weighing the risks and benefits. This time, we prepared, considered it carefully, and ultimately were so glad we went.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Let's Try This Again: Where We're Going Next!

Sometimes, you make all the plans in the world and they fall apart for reasons outside of your control. This seems to happen with even greater frequency in the Foreign Service, probably because there are more than the average number of opportunities to make plans when your country of residence and job change every few years. We were no strangers to the sometimes fickle treatment of the Department of State, given how my initial job offer was frozen and then unfrozen before I even started and in my first tour I found myself furloughed during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Despite these experiences, M and I were still shocked to receive a call from Washington, DC informing us that our positions in our onward assignment, Baghdad, were being cancelled. In other words, jobs that we had accepted in March 2018 were now no longer options. We had made financial and life plans believing that we would be earning substantially more in Iraq. I've been studying Arabic for more than a year in preparation. M was happy to be getting a security clearance that could help him in future job applications. Both of us had been looking forward to serving in our roles in Baghdad.

The regular bid cycle where we would have normally looked for assignments was long past, so my Career Development Officer (CDO) had to whip up a "special bid list" just for me and my weird situation. People love to complain about CDOs, and there are some true horror stories out there, but mine is consistently amazing. She pulled together an excellent bid list in two days flat full of posts I would have been delighted to call home for my second tour.

Of course, at the end of the day, only one post could be our next destination. We just learned that post is... Seoul, South Korea! It feels surreal to discover a place we were trying to link to from Baghdad will now be our next tour anyway. I'll still be doing my Consular tour, so I'm looking forward to interviewing a lot of people for visas... in Korean! Yep, I even get a year of Korean language training to go with the assignment.

Of course, we were disappointed to lose our assignment in Iraq and our well-crafted plan. Yet, given what happened, we are so happy and grateful for this outcome. We're looking forward to spending some time at home getting to see our families and friends during training and ultimately moving to South Korea!