Friday, December 27, 2019

For the Whole Week of Christmas, Korean Gave to Me: An Over-the-top "ISP"

We're almost at the end of "winter break"/"holiday break", which means I'm almost done with my ISP. What's an ISP? It's short for Independent Self-study Plan, my golden ticket to avoid taking any leave around the holidays. As a new federal employee, I don't accumulate very much vacation time and I enjoy saving it as much as possible for future trips or emergencies. Moreover, because I'm staying in Department of State-provided temporary housing, I technically need to pay for every single day of leave I take while I am here. (Training leave is, unfortunately, not included in the deal. Estimates I've heard from colleagues of cost per day of taking leave is anything from $150-250 for a one-bedroom apartment for two people. So we take that seriously.)

So that's where the ISP comes in to save the day. Our language classes took a break for the holidays, so the only way to dodge taking leave was to create an ISP and commit to studying full-time on non-holiday days. You could also choose to split the days with no class, so you only need to come up with a study plan for days that you're not taking leave. I decided to go all in and study every single day we didn't have a holiday off, so I especially appreciated the extra holiday the President signed for us on Christmas Eve.

They really do take the ISP seriously. One night, I got home late from seeing a show with my sister and I figured I would just submit that day's log the next morning. I was surprised to get an email that morning, though, calling me and a classmate out for missing the previous day's study log and prompting us to upload it right away. I guess not everyone is on leave for the holidays. (Even with their strictness in adhering to the policy, the title of this post is definitely unfair... I gave myself an over-the-top ISP, so I only have myself to blame.)

I learned later than approved ISPs could take a lot of shapes and forms. I thought we had to be very specific, but I later learned that others had more general guidelines and I wish I'd been more flexible in constructing mine. More than once, self-motivated studying 7-8 hours per day by myself was a complete slog. There were a few moments when I'm sure I looked just like the stock photo I used for this post! (On a related note, I've learned I am definitely not a work-from-home type of employee.) At the end of the day, though, I'm glad I did the ISP because not only did I save leave but I hope I will have lost a little less of the Korean in my brain by the time we roll back into class in January. We'll see if that effort actually paid off after all!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Language Skills Trial Run with WKWS

We've been in Korean class for over three months now, and we recently had a progress assessment to make sure we were on track to reach the proficiency we need by the end of the course. Even more challenging than our progress assessment, though, was the real-world practice we got the following week: an all-day immersion! The Washington Korean Women's Society (WKWS) was kind enough to host all the students and teachers for a day of sharing culture and practicing the language the most intensively we've done yet.

It was really exciting to participate in the special cultural portions of the program. After a few introductory speeches, we started the event off with a delicious Korean lunch that included mandu (dumplings), kimbap (seaweed rolls), bulgogi (marinated barbecue beef), kimchi (pickled spicy cabbage), dried anchovies, kongnamul (beansprouts), and so many other delicious foods. Then, the WKWS members provided hanbok (traditional Korean dress) for the female students to wear. For most of us, the clothes were a bit of a tight fit on our (statistically on average) broader American bodies, but we did our best to make it work. I can't wait to buy my own properly fitted hanbok in South Korea once we get there! I find the dresses so beautiful in their uniqueness and their traditional modesty.

We also enjoyed Korean folk music, including practicing singing the Korean anthem known as Arirang. (This song is absolutely breathtaking, and if you've never heard it before then I highly recommend you listen to this stunning rendition by Song So-hee here.) We also learned about the traditional 12-stringed instrument called the Gayageum (which I've actually mentioned on the blog before in a post about a Korean cultural event in Kenya). There were two of these instruments there, and somehow I got nominated to sit with the instrument on my lap as the instructor gave me a very detailed lesson explaining how to play it properly... exclusively in Korean! Her instructions included everything from appreciating the materials that made up the instrument to how I could adjust my hand placement and movements to improve the sound. I'll be honest: I only understood about 60% of what she said, but sometimes you've gotta fake it 'til you make it when it comes to a foreign language! I loved hearing her play most of all, though. It takes real skill to be able to play an instrument with so many strings, not to mention bridges that you can move along the strings.

To wrap up the day, we did a series of five 15-minute conversation sessions one-on-one with the WKWS members. I felt like this was a true trial run of our language skills because the women did not know exactly what vocabulary and grammar we had studied. As a result, they didn't simplify what they said to us the same way that our teachers would. We weren't allowed to use any English in these conversations unless we asked (in Korean) for the translation of one word only. I definitely had to cash in that exception when a woman explained that she was a professional acupuncturist, a vocabulary term I had certainly never learned before (and admittedly don't recall now). At the end, I gave a mini-speech of thanks on behalf of the students. I'd been very nervous leading up to the speech but my practice paid off and it went without a hitch. The whole day was a real indication of how far we've all come in our language learning to even be able to participate in such an event. I'm so grateful that our language training includes creative immersion activities like that - it makes learning so much more rewarding and fun.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays

After two years away from home for the holidays, it's wonderful to be back (even if it's a little too cold for my taste). We celebrated an epic Thanksgiving as always with M's family, and I can hardly wait for Christmas to come. (The day after Thanksgiving, I typically start blasting Christmas music right through the rest of December.) Unfortunately, our seasonal decorations including our Christmas tree and ornaments did not make the cut for our UAB (unaccompanied air baggage, that part of our worldly possessions that we get to use while we're in long-term training), so they were thrown in HHE (household effects, shipped to a warehouse in Europe to wait until our next move).

Thankfully, though, all was not lost as an activity came along that gave me the perfect excuse to inject a little holiday cheer into our home: a live wreath-making! We took live wintry tree branches, leaves, and more and attached them by hand to a wire frame to make wreaths. I brought along my wonderful friends K (from high school), T (former roommate), and M (colleague and mentor from Nairobi who's also currently doing language training), and it was a blast. I will admit, M and T finished way before K and I did. We are such perfectionists sometimes! At least there were tasty treats and good company to enjoy in the meantime. As you can see from the first photo of this post, we somehow made four very different wreaths even though we all drew from the same pool of materials and attached them to the same frame. Cool, isn't it?

They had decorated the church room we used in such a lovely way. K and I were thrilled to see some camel silhouettes on the wall and knew we had to take a picture as a tribute to an inside joke about camels we've had going since we took French class together in high school. Talk about a long-running gag (not to mention a long and beautiful friendship)!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you've never tried making a live wreath before, I highly recommend it, but especially if you can do it with a bunch of friends! Feel free to let me know in the comments what you do to get in the holiday spirit at home or abroad.