Sunday, August 2, 2020

Need a Challenge and a Break? Hike Old Rag!

One of the best social distancing activities you can do is a hike. If you go to a place at a time that isn't crowded, you can stay safe and still enjoy some fresh air and the majesty of nature. We decided to head out to Old Rag Mountain for this exact reason with our friend R, whom we met and traveled with in Kenya. If you can go on a weekday, that'll be your best best for avoiding crowds but we had to go on a weekend so we went early. We left the DC area at 5am and arrived at the mountain around 7am. This timing had the excellent bonus of making sure our hike was much cooler than if we'd gone in the middle of the day. We even enjoyed a beautiful sunrise on the drive over:

The hike was about nine miles, but you should budget more time than you usually would for a hike that length because there's a decent bit of rock scrambling. You don't have to be a rock climber or a technical expert to get through those parts, but they do take a while to move through. Reviews online recommended we budget about eight hours for the hike, but we did it in only five including breaks! We were pretty proud of ourselves by the end. (You can see the stats of our hike at the end of this post.)

There are a few must-haves for this hike, including lots of water and decent sneakers or hiking boots. Some parts of the rock scramble are slippery, so if your shoes lack traction it can get dangerous. (I wore hiking boots that don't fit perfectly and paid the price for it with torn heel blisters. If I go again, I'll probably just wear my perfectly sized sneakers instead.) People are divided on whether to wear shorts or jeans, but I was glad I wore jeans for the extra protection against the rock even if they were a bit warmer.

You need to be pretty in shape to do the regular hike, but there's actually an easier route through the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and Saddle Trail that you can take. We saw a few families go that way with kids, but if you can do the harder route I recommend it. The views are awesome and the sense of accomplishment can't be beat. Be prepared for incredibly athletic people to pass you, though. One guy passed us on the way up and down and up again, and when we asked him from a distance about it he says he likes to come every week and do the whole thing twice for fun! I will not be reaching that level of motivation anytime soon, but I really admired his discipline.

We enjoyed perfect weather the whole time. It was overcast and relatively cool, and when it was sunny we could stay in the shade most of the time. If you're in the DC area and looking to get out for a half-day or full-day trip, definitely check out Old Rag!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Truth about State FSO Fellowships

I have almost written this post so many times, but I finally sat down and did it after hearing more about the experiences of some seriously awesome people. If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you may have guessed that I am not a fellow. After all, I've never really mentioned either of the two fellowship programs for those who want to become Foreign Service Officers at the Department of State. Then again, I've recently learned that plenty of fellows are made to feel like they have to hide their fellowship background.

Why is that? Well, it turns out there's some stigma there. People believe there is a difference between how hard it is to get in as a fellow and how hard it is to get in "the regular way". This is probably where I should reiterate the disclaimer on my blog and say that the contents of this blog are my personal opinions and in no way represent the U.S. government or Department of State or fellowship programs in any way. All that being said, I do think there's a difference in difficulty for fellows: they have it much, much harder.

Let me rewind a bit and give a (very brief) overview to the fellowship programs for blog readers who are unfamiliar with them. I'm primarily referring to two different fellowships in this blog post: Pickering and Rangel. (There may be additional fellowships I don't know as much about, but the generalizations I'm making in this post are my personal opinions about Pickering and Rangel fellowships.) The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship "welcomes the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the State Department, women, and those with financial need. Based on the fundamental principle that diversity is a strength in our diplomatic efforts, the program values varied backgrounds, including ethnic, racial, social, and geographic diversity." The Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship "seeks individuals interested in helping to shape a freer, more secure and prosperous world through formulating, representing, and implementing U.S. foreign policy. The Program encourages the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the Foreign Service, women, and those with financial need." Those probably sound similar because they are. At the end of the day, both fellowships aim to help diversify the U.S. Foreign Service. Both programs provide financial support for fellows to complete two-year master's degrees, two summer internships, and mentorship and training in preparation for Foreign Service careers.

I was not a fellow, but of course I wanted to be. What person interested in the Foreign Service and applying to graduate school anyway wouldn't want that kind of scholarship, mentoring, and training support? So I did apply to both Rangel and Pickering and I was ultimately not accepted to either one. (Things turned out completely fine for me. I still found scholarships that allowed me to graduate debt-free, I still had great internships, and most importantly I still achieved my dream of joining the Foreign Service anyway. The moral of this part of the story is: don't give up on your dream, even if your dream path doesn't work out! You can still make it!)

So having experienced all of this myself, imagine my surprise when I started hearing things about fellows. I heard a number of misconceptions, but by far the biggest one was that it was easier to get in as a fellow because you don't have to take the FSOT. Take it from me, someone who passed the FSOT all three times I took it and who scored so high on the FSOA (6.0) I was bumped to the top of the Register: it is much harder to get into a fellowship program than it is to crush the FSOT and FSOA. (Moreover, fellows do take and pass the FSOT and FSOA!) I sometimes wonder how many other FSOs applied to Pickering and Rangel and didn't get in but ended up joining the Foreign Service anyway. Because we as a society and as a work culture don't like to talk about rejection or failure, there's no way to know... but I doubt I'm the only one.

Fellows are generally younger and more racially and ethnically diverse than the general pool of non-fellows. Even so, there's absolutely no way to tell if your colleague is a fellow or not unless they tell you. Some people assume that just because someone is young and female and a racial minority that she must be a fellow, but that's simply not true. And over the course of a diplomatic career, how you were hired becomes trivial in comparison to what you've done since.

I do believe the fellowships are needed to help fill a gap where the traditional recruitment process is failing. It's failing (1) to ensure our diplomatic corps looks like the the country it represents and (2) to include people from all walks of life and races and regions and backgrounds so we can all benefit from that collective knowledge, creativity, and decision-making power. The social science research is clear: there is strength in diversity. I for one am honored to call the accomplished, innovative, energetic, and resilient fellows I know my colleagues.

If you're a fellow, please feel free to share my story the next time someone makes a snarky comment. And if you're looking at master's programs and considering the Foreign Service, definitely apply for Rangel or Pickering!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

So You Want to Start a Foreign Service Blog

A number of friends and colleagues have recently asked me about starting a Foreign Service blog.

Here are things I would recommend reading if you're thinking about starting one (or already have one and want a refresher):

  • Read the relevant guidance in the FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual). These are the official regulations and policies, so they're critical information. These include 3 FAM 4176.4 and 3 FAM 4176.5 as well as 5 FAM 792.2 and 5 FAM 792.3.
  • This is covered in those FAM references but is very important and deserves its own bullet: if you are blogging about "matters of official concern", you need to get approval from the Department of State before your post it. (Other agencies may have different regulations, so it's worth looking into whatever those are for your agency.) There's a lot of debate about what constitutes "official concern", but if you're in doubt then please ask your colleagues in Global Public Affairs if you're in DC or Public Affairs in your Embassy if you're overseas.
  • Always put a disclaimer on your blog and make it easy to find. Do not use official government banners or seals or anything else that might make your blog look like it's an official government blog. You should say directly that your blog is personal and does not represent your agency or any other agency in the U.S. government. Read other Foreign Service blogs to get a better idea of what kind of content is typical and what kinds of disclaimers people use. Here's my disclaimer: "The content of this blog does not represent the view of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government."
  • If you post about trips or locations, do so after the fact. It's a security issue to post where you are or what you're doing while you're still there. This can include the metadata in photos, as well. Also, don't post pictures of your housing or pictures of security officers or details like that that someone who wanted to hurt you would really like to have.
  • Be mindful of the Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of federal government employees. I would recommend not posting your political views publicly until after you retire for several reasons: our work is inherently apolitical and publishing those views publicly online could jeopardize that perception, it could hurt professionally with other Foreign Service personnel who don't share your views, and the Hatch Act is risky territory. With a U.S. election coming up, AFSA released a great presentation on what is and isn't allowed for Foreign Service personnel; you can see it here.
  • If you're an AFSA (Foreign Service union) member, read this guidance. (You have to be a member and log in to see that page.)
  • Keep in mind that people who are not looking out for the best interests of the United States will likely read your blog. Just because it's legal to publish something doesn't mean it's helpful or good to publish it.

I hope this helps! There's always room for more folks in the Foreign Service blogosphere, so please feel free to link your blog in the comments if you have one and I'd love to check it out. Happy blogging!

Friday, July 17, 2020

Apolitical Ways to Serve People Right Now

There's a lot of hurt and pain going on in the world right now, but there are so many ways to help. I'm hoping this post can serve as a practical guide for busy people who want to contribute time or money but don't know where to start. It will be most helpful to those who are not looking for political or more controversial causes, as I wanted this list to be more broadly accessible.

Give Time

There are countless ways to volunteer, so I'll just list some of my favorites here in no particular order. You'll see that some are basic and can be done in a few minutes while others can be a more long-term commitment.

  • Send heartfelt digital thank you notes to people in your life who are essential workers or medical professionals.
  • Write and mail letters to your friends in general and people you know from marginalized groups who are disproportionately suffering in particular. We're almost all stuck inside and could use a pick-me-up! A friend did this for me and it made my day! (Yes, that is her drawing of us as the photo for this post. It's still on my fridge.)
  • If you know someone living far away from home, send or offer to send them a care package. (Trust me: this means a lot to people overseas in particular!)
  • Volunteer to distribute food to those who need it most. Many volunteers for these types of services tend to be older and higher-risk for COVID-19, so if you are lower-risk you could be a huge help. Local options in the DC area include the Capital Area Food Bank and Meals on Wheels.
  • Keep your foreign language skills sharp while helping others. For example, the volunteer organization LINK is seeking Spanish translators and interpreters at the time of this blog posting. A number of refugee and social service organizations need foreign language speakers right now, and a lot of work can be done online or over the phone.
  • Tutor kids and help them with their homework. Little Lights is a Christian organization, but you don't have to ascribe to any religion in order to participate in their homework clubs or reading and math programs for underserved kids in southeast Washington, DC.
  • Check with a local faith community other than your own to see what service opportunities they might have. This is also a great opportunity to get to know people from other walks of life. In the DC area, Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington often has excellent volunteer projects and welcomes anyone who wants to help. You can search their opportunities here. Islamic Relief USA also maintains a nationwide registry of current opportunities here. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (my church, also commonly known as the Mormon Church) maintains another searchable database here.

Give Money

A lot of people have lost income as a result of the pandemic directly or the measures taken to prevent its spread. If you're not one of those people or if you have cash to spare, you might consider buying gift cards at restaurants or ordering takeout. Or contributing to fundraising efforts for artists or other creatives who are struggling more than usual to find work right now. Here are a few examples of services you could patronize:

  • Donate food or money to help fight hunger, a cause which needs the support more than ever. Here in DC, the biggest is the Capital Area Food Bank. I can also personally vouch for Our Place soup kitchen in Charles County, Maryland, which provides a hot meal to those in need with dignity and love.
  • Contribute to organizations that provide financial empowerment to those in poverty or at a high-risk for poverty. In Fairfax County, Britepaths is a true leader in both short-term safety-net services and long-term solutions. If you're looking for a way to contribute on a more global scale, I highly recommend GiveDirectly. They already met their fundraising goal for getting cash relief to Americans impacted by COVID-19, but they still need support to reach their goal for giving cash to families in extreme poverty in Africa.
  • Order just-thinking-of-you gifts for the people you love and support small businesses. You could check out options like Uncommon Goods and Etsy to find unique gifts people wouldn't necessarily order for themselves on Amazon.
  • Support people who are trying to earn an income working online teaching languages or music or running virtual tours or games. For learning languages, you can check out italki (where you can learn pretty much any language from a native speaker almost anywhere in the world at a huge range of price points and where I've taken many awesome classes with Ani Kasparian) or NaTakallam (for learning Arabic, French, Persian, and Spanish from refugees specically). For online entertainment, you could try Airbnb experiences. They have everything from virtual cooking classes to virtual custom tours of distant lands.

I know this list is incomplete, but I hope it was helpful to at least one person looking to lose a bit of themself in the service of others. Happy giving!

Sunday, July 12, 2020

What I Wish Someone Told Me Before My First Tour

Not too long ago, I did a blog post on just some of the conflicting advice I've received in the Foreign Service. Now that we're preparing to move to our second post, I thought I'd do a post summarizing some of the most important things I wished I'd been told before my first tour. I wanted to write this down while it's still relatively fresh, and hopefully it'll help some other ELO (entry-level officer) out there.

In no particular order, here are those things that took me by surprise, that I wished I had known sooner, or that I am so grateful someone told me before I left:

  • Save digital copies of the rosters of all the training you do prior to departure (and after that) for your records. (I didn't do this with some of my classes and regretted it later.) It's amazing how easy it is to forget people you were in training with even just a few years ago. That list can help you remember the name of someone you bump into in the hallways of FSI or another office in the future, or it can assist in networking. For example, if you're a Political Officer interested in a certain post, you can see if someone from your Political Tradecraft course went to that post, reach out, and see if they have any helpful insights as you're bidding.
  • Err on the side of looping people in on everything. New people seem to get in trouble way more often for not cc-ing someone than over-sharing work information. Always cc your supervisor and everyone in the chain of command if the communication is between you and someone senior and let them tell you if they don't need to be informed of the details. Think of it this way: you never want your boss to be surprised in a high-level meeting by information they could've learned from you. Sometimes, senior officials will skip the chain of command and come right to you with a request, but those situations are no exception. Inform your higher-ups: it protects you and them.
  • There is an official Department of State Style Guide, but some things are more rigid and others are a bit of a free-for-all. This can be very irritating for grammar nerds and sticklers. For example, there is absolutely no consistency in using the Oxford comma, but all official documents must have the horrifyingly outdated two spaces between sentences. (If you are as disturbed by that last rule as I am, be prepared to find the vast majority of your colleagues passionately defending the wretched double space.)
  • The welcome kit isn't as bad as everyone says. (I know this is controversial, but... Yeah, I said it!) Everyone told us the quality of the items post provides in the "welcome kit" you use until your own stuff arrives is terrible. So imagine our surprise and delight when we discovered the welcome kit dinnerware at our first post was a perfect match for the set we actually owned! Our standards may be lower than average, but even the towels and sheets folks warned us about were just fine. (The exception to this are the kitchen knives... They truly are so bad I pack a chef's knife in my suitcase now.)
  • Read up as much as you can on your post and office before you get there. This includes the Integrated Country Strategy for that country (available online), the most recent OIG report (also available online), or documents specific to your office. In my case as a Public Diplomacy Officer, I read (internal) PD-specific annual strategy documents prior to my arrival in Nairobi.
  • Follow your onward post's official social media pages, read recent press releases or statements on the Embassy website, and pay close attention to (A) the issues that tend to come up most often and (B) the language the Embassy chooses to use in public messaging. This is excellent background for everyone--notjust PD Officers--to have. Some Public Affairs offices will even let you sign up for their curated email media newsletters prior to your arrival. I did this for my first tour and showed up much more well read on current events than average.
  • As soon as you arrive at your first post, set up as many internal courtesy calls as you can. If your work includes building relationships with external contacts, your team will usually help arrange external courtesy calls for you. Meanwhile, it's on you to do the legwork to meet people internally on your own initiative. At the suggestion of an excellent boss, I sat down for 15 minutes one-on-one with every American and local staff person in my office (~15 people) to learn more about their portfolios and where I fit in with them in my first week at post. I took a ton of notes that made very little sense to me in the moment but served as an invaluable reference guide in the following weeks. I also did versions of these courtesy calls with other offices when we had to work together and I wanted to learn more to help me collaborate across the interagency: I ended up sitting down with peers in USAID, the CDC, and the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Defense. It helped a lot.
  • Make sure you create an EER folder in the cloud or in your email inbox somewhere where you can start recording accomplishments throughout the year that will provide useful fodder for your EER. When you start out, you will probably put stuff in there that seemed important at the time that you later realize isn't that special. That's okay: it's better to have too much content to pull from than too little when EER time rolls around. (I actually did this the first time I drafted a Tweet for the Ambassador. Little did I realize at the time that later that would become a daily responsibility of mine, but I sure was proud of that first Tweet!)
  • Your mileage may vary on the Embassy social scene. As a newbie, I felt like I was fed this narrative of the Foreign Service feeling like a family and Embassy communities being very tight-knit. That is true at some posts and less true at others. It also varies wildly based on the family and social composition at your post: for example, are you a teetotaling family at a post full of singles who like to go to wineries on the weekend? It can even come down to where you happen to live: housing pools are often luck of the draw. We and several other friends I talked to from my A-100 did not feel very socially integrated into our Foreign Service communities at our first posts. (I shared what we learned about making friends abroad more generally here, in a separate post.)
  • Drinking is a huge part of U.S. Foreign Service culture as well as global professional diplomatic culture. If you don't drink (or don't drink much), expect comments and have polite but firm responses ready.
  • Age is an EEO-protected category for older people (over the age of 40), which means if you believe you've been discriminated against on that basis you can file an EEO complaint (more on that here). There is no EEO protection for ageism against young people, and that's reflected a bit in the culture. For example, I saw two equally skilled officers with similar rank get very different tasks delegated to them even within the same office, with the younger one obviously getting more of the administrative or grunt work. I've also heard colleagues complain about a supervisor by saying things like "No wonder they're so terrible, they're only in their 30s! They have no idea what they're doing." Thankfully, most people in the Foreign Service don't think that way, but enough do that it seems like all young people encounter that mindset at some point.
  • You'll learn a ton on the job. Plenty of people go to post without training that might seem absolutely critical to a new person (and it certainly doesn't hurt), but once you're at post you will figure out everything you need. I felt nervous about filling in an Information Officer (i.e., Press Attaché) job because I never received any IO training, but I was reassured by all of my coworkers that it wasn't necessary. I'd learned everything I needed to be successful in that role on the job already.
  • There are so many Foreign Service-related Facebook groups, no one could possibly keep up with them all. Check out a few and see which ones (if any!) you find the most interesting or useful and then just forget about the rest.
  • Your first tour really does fly by (for most). There will always be a special place in my heart for Kenya and Embassy Nairobi and I can't even imagine having spent my first tour anywhere else. Enjoy it while you can!

I hope this list had information that was helpful or new to some folks, particularly brand new officers who haven't been to their first tour yet! And please feel free to offer any additional advice in the comments below.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Happy Birthday, USA!

Happy Independence Day! Today is the Fourth of July, though this year obviously looks a little different from previous years. While serving in Kenya, I spent months leading up to this day working my butt off on the huge events U.S. Embassies typically hold to commemorate the occasion. (Pretty much every embassy of every country has a big "national day" celebration with external guests each year, and when we do events like that they are called "representational events" since their main function is to represent the United States and strengthen our relationships.) Needless to say, 2020 is looking a lot quieter. We're still social distancing, so we looked for ways to make it special this year that did not involve jostling with crowds on the National Mall to see fireworks.

I started the day reading my friend's blog post, To Be An American, which briefly examines some of the contradictions, promises, and hopes implicit in our country's Founding (and I've recommended his blog here before.) We listened to the official National Anthem ("The Star-Spangled Banner") and the unofficial Black National Anthem ("Lift Every Voice and Sing"), the latter of which I only learned this year while participating in Juneteenth for the first time. (We also watched this interesting video explaining why our anthem is so complicated and difficult to sing. Apparently, there was even a major campaign to try and prevent it from becoming our anthem back in the day!)

We took full advantage of streamable content, starting the night before when we hopped on to Disney+ to watch Hamilton the movie with our friends (when I snapped the post photo while relaxing on the couch). If you haven't seen it, please go check it out! That Disney+ subscription is a lot more afforable than $300+ Hamilton tickets. And even M, who usually hates everything musicals and Broadway, enjoyed it. Later, we're planning on catching the U.S. Air Force Band streaming their July 4 tribute and watching the official fireworks show online (if we can't see any from our apartment window). So we were able to capture at least some of the spirit of festivity we'd normally have on this day.

M and I are grateful to be home for this holiday and to have the time to reflect on the many ways we love our country. This list of things non-Americans said they love about us and watched this funny video of people around the world imitating us also put big smiles on our faces. So Happy Fourth of July from our home to yours, wherever you are in the world!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Conflicting Career Advice in the Foreign Service

Every Foreign Service Officer has heard a great deal of conflicting advice on how best to advance their career, and most after a while form their own strong opinions. Here are just a few examples of things I've heard from more experienced diplomats:

  • If you don't inquire about a job at an Embassy by August that bidding season, you must not want the job. / If you inquire about a job at an Embassy before August, you must not be doing much of your current job.
  • We almost always use first names right away in the Department. / It is rude to address someone you haven't met by their first name.
  • Your statement in your EER should contain two well-developed examples only. There's not enough space to do more than that well. / Your EER should include many examples covering every aspect of your job. You don't want them to think you neglected any of your responsibilities.
  • You should focus on honing your expertise and building contacts in a "home" regional bureau. / We're generalists! You should dip your toes in as many bureaus as possible.
  • It will hurt your career to spend too much time studying single-country languages. / Language study time won't affect your career. Who cares exactly how many tours you've done?
  • You have to go back to Washington for your third or fourth tour. And make sure you return every so often. / Go to Washington whenever it's best for you; plenty of Foreign Service rockstars don't go back frequently or at all.
  • Ops (i.e., the Operations Center) is the best tour you can do for your career. / Ops doesn't give you the skills or bidding opportunities people say it does.
  • Try to serve outside of your cone. We're generalists! / Try to stay in your cone as much as possible. That's how you get promoted.
  • Play up your pre-Foreign Service experience. It can help you stand out. / Nobody likes it when people make it all about their pre-Foreign Service experience. We all came in at entry-level here.
  • Excellent language skills are critical to being a good diplomat. / Language skills are separate from what makes someone a good diplomat.
  • Don't speak up in meetings. / Speak up in meetings.
  • Explain you don't drink coffee, tea, or alcohol for religious reasons so it doesn't seem rude when you refuse. / Don't explain your religious reasons for not drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol because it makes people uncomfortable.
  • Check to and respond to emails on nights and weekends. That's part of public diplomacy. / Don't perpetuate the lack of work/life balance in public diplomacy. Insist someone call you if it's urgent and otherwise it can wait for the next workday.
  • If a member of the public harasses you, be nice. You're representing America. / If a member of the public harasses you, stand up for yourself. You're representing America.
  • Wear a suit jacket every day. / We're at an Embassy and you're a woman. You don't need to dress so formally.

The list goes on (and on and on)... It can be really challenging as a junior officer to try and figure out what is right and wrong in an institutional culture that doesn't come with any sort of handbook. Regarding the comments above, I've distilled a few hard-and-fast rules myself that I'm now going to impose on others through this post:

  • Bid on jobs that you're genuinely interested in rather than ones that fit any kind of 20-year strategy, or so I've learned from many who only went for something because they thought it would guarantee them a promotion or the perfect follow-on assignment. Most of them came away disappointed with that choice. At the same time, those who went for things they're truly passionate and excited about more often ended up doing great work, after which the connections and opportunities followed anyway.
  • You do need to serve in-cone (i.e., in your main career track) to get promoted, but there is a still a lot of pressure for non-reporting officers like me to do at least one tour in a political or economic job. If you ever want to be a DCM (i.e., Deputy Ambassador) or be competitive for other high-level, generalist positions, it wouldn't hurt.
  • No employee should be told to tolerate harassment for professional reasons. Part of representing America is representing our values with strength and courage, even when it's not what someone else wants to hear.
  • Always have a suit jacket (preferably one with usable pockets) on the back of your chair and dress shoes at your desk at a minimum at work. You never know when you might need it unexpectedly. Once, I was expecting a casual day at my desk wearing a cardigan when I was tapped to accompany the Ambassador to a meeting with external contacts. Thankfully, after I frantically messaged a number of women at the Embassy, my friend who worked two floors up was able to spare me her jacket for the afternoon. I didn't make that mistake again.
  • There is no one path to the top. That conflicting EER advice I received above came from two excellent officers whom I respect and look up to, and I ended up writing my EER somewhere in between what they each said.

A lot of the rest is honestly just using that good judgment and emotional intelligence we were hired for and deciding how to adapt to our environment (cultural, political, interpersonal, etc). Some of the above can be chalked up to rookie mistakes, but to be frank a sizeable portion is just a matter of opinion. So it's okay if you were mistaken or if you heard from a previous boss to do things one way and your new boss wants the exact opposite. By the time I'm in one of those higher-level roles, I hope to remember just how confusing it can be and to be sympathetic when they do something wrong. After all, it's always possible someone else told them to do it that way first.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Two Simple Ways to Fight Racism

Unless you live under a rock of willful ignorance, you've heard that racial strife is boiling over in the United States. I am not an expert on this subject, but there are a lot of opinions flying around online about this. So here's that part of mine that I actually find worth sharing on my blog: the status quo is unacceptable and these injustices cannot be tolerated if we are who we say we are.

There are many people more worth listening to on this subject, but I have seen a lot of lists going around like "75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice" that seem mostly already geared towards people who have some understanding of the problem and want to be a part of organized action. The target audience I'm envisioning for this post is more curious about where to start on a more basic level. Perhaps you're even diving into this subject matter for the very first time. And that's okay because we are all constantly learning and growing. So that's why I wanted to distill my suggestions down to just two simple ways to fight racism. Please note this is not a checklist; this is a starting point. That being said, I hope some readers find it helpful.

1. Listen and Learn

It's exhausting for people who are suffering from a problem to have to explain the problem to others over and over again. That's why it's so helpful for those of us on the outside to be able to take ownership of our own learning, seek out good resources, and listen. Some of my favorite resources include @laylafsaad and @jameelajamilofficial on Instagram. If you prefer to read things, I recommend The Root and particularly this timeline of events that led to what we are seeing right now (note: it does have cursing). One Foreign Service-specific example that I consider a must-read is this heartbreaking article by someone who should have been supported enough to have been able to stay in public service. As one of my colleagues put it, "The State Department lost a great officer due to indifference that could have been based in a number of -isms. Hopefully, this story and our current environment will inform the way we manage and engage with colleagues at post and at FSI and in social media." (And yes, do at some point go and read that "75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice" article even if you find it a bit daunting. It includes more recommended resources for learning, too.)

2. Lift Where You Stand

We have a powerful influence in our families, circles of friends, and communities. Whenever we can, let's stand up for others even if they're different from us. That means not only refusing to laugh at the racist joke but also calling it out directly. That means not scrolling past that social media post where an echo chamber is reinforcing racist stereotypes but engaging in the conversation and providing an alternative point of view not just for the posters but for the many silent others watching. Take those materials and sources you discovered while following step one and share them with people you care about. Join diverse book clubs or start one of your own. If you're a parent or teacher or auntie or uncle, talk to kids about racism and help them consume entertainment featuring diverse characters.

It's that simple and easy to get started. I'm trying to do better and be better, too, so let's make this journey together as a society and as a country. Now, there is surely some subset of readers who will think, "But I thought you were in the Foreign Service? Aren't domestic issues a little outside of your purview?" To whom I offer the following:

  • In the digital age, the foreign/domestic issue divide is to some extent a false dichotomy. Especially as a Public Diplomacy Officer working to improve America's image, influence, and partnerships abroad it's impossible to ignore the effect what's going on in our country has on our effectiveness on the international stage. I highly recommend this article where the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom explores some of the main issues youth in the UK have with the United States (spoiler alert: racism and police brutality are high on the list).
  • I have deviated from this blog's regularly scheduled programming before, when there were outbreaks of violence in Kenya and Charlottesville. I will probably do it again.
  • This is my blog, and I think advocating for what is true and right (even when it's hard) is more important than making everyone comfortable.

Please feel free to share your thoughts or advice in the comments below. Trust me: I'm listening.

Monday, May 25, 2020

(Happy?) Memorial Day

Isn't it interesting that we say "Happy Memorial Day" when we're recognizing a national holiday to honor and remember those service members and families who served and sacrificed for us? I'm grateful for those brave men and women, but it doesn't feel quite right to say the mood of a day like today is simply "happy" when there is a need for solemnity, not as a matter of obedience but of respect.

M and I tried to make our Memorial Weekend and especially Memorial Day special. We visited the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, worked on genealogy and thought about the veterans in both our families, and took some time to reflect quietly over long walks in the beauty of nature at Great Falls Park and in Georgetown. In this post, I thought I would intersperse photos we took this weekend with quotes, poems, or thoughts that I found worth considering on Memorial Day. I hope you get as much out of them as I did.

I'm embarrassed to say I never knew the story behind Taps until this year, but almost everyone will quickly recognize the tune. It was first played in 1862 during the Civil War and has now become our traditional military funeral melody. You can read the heartbreaking story behind it and listen to it played at Arlington National Cemetery here.

Regardless of political leanings, I hope we can all agree that we owe a lot to the sacrifices of our soldiers. Although we can never repay what we owe, we should strive to build a nation worth serving and a world where the horrors of war are lessened as much as possible. Adlai Stevenson II once said, "Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." And on Memorial Day in 1982, Ronald Reagan said, "And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice." (You can read more excerpts from that speech here.)

Many soldiers including some of our loved ones have drawn additional strength from their faith before, during, and after military service. I was struck by this Memorial Day message from Church in 2015 that still resonates today, as well as this linked video about two brothers who struggled with PTSD and addiction after returning from war.

I want to end with a poem called "The Unknown Dead" by Elizabeth Robbins Berry that I liked even as someone who is not a big appreciator of poetry in general. (You can read other Memorial Day poems here.) Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope you had a peaceful and sound Memorial Day.

The Unknown Dead by Elizabeth Robbins Berry

Above their rest there is no sound of weeping,
Only the voice of song-birds thrills the air;
Unknown their graves, yet they are in God's keeping,
There are none "missing" from His tender care.

He knows each hallowed mound, and at His pleasure
Marshalls the sentinels of earth and sky;
O'er their repose kind Nature heaps her treasure,
Farmed by soft winds which 'round them gently sigh.

Bravely they laid their all upon the altar,
Counting as naught the sacrifice and pain,
Theirs but to do and die without a falter—
Ours to enjoy the victory and the gain.

They are not lost; that only which was mortal
Lies 'neath the turf o'erarched by Southern skies;
Deathless they wait beyond the heavenly portal,
In that fair land where valor never dies.

In the great heart of coming generations
Their fame shall live, their glory never cease;
Even when comes to all earth's troubled nations
God's perfect gift of universal peace.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Final FSI Korean Test Complete!

I have thoughts, I have advice, and I have feelings to share. But first of all, what a relief to have passed my final Korean test at the Foreign Service Institute (i.e., Diplomat School)! After almost nine months of intensive studying, I feel like a weight has been lifted. Now, I'll be working on maintaining the language skills I've gained so far, but there's definitely a lot less pressure.

Given the pandemic situation, instead of a normal in-person test I was assessed over video conference. Even though the setting was remote, the format of the test was very similar to what it would have been under normal circumstances. The biggest difference was being able to take the reading and speaking tests separately instead of in one sitting. Thankfully, I received the results even sooner than I expected. My final score is: 2+/2+!

I have a lot of conflicting emotions about this score. I did much better on the reading than I expected, but I was disappointed I failed to reach a 3 in speaking after being estimated at a 2+ months ago. At the same time, I only needed a 2/0 to pass so I'm grateful to have that out of the way at least. Maybe I can even try again for a higher score once we make it to Seoul and I spend some time living in a more immersive environment. And although I failed to reach the 10% language incentive pay threshold, I still qualified for a 5% pay bump!

So without violating any non-disclosure agreements, I do have some advice. I feel like I've learned a lot since my first FSI language test in Arabic a few years ago. So I thought I'd share a few things that I found helpful or that I wish I had known earlier in hopes it'll benefit some future FSI language student:

  • Familiarize yourself with the ILR standards. The language scores are based on Interagency Language Roundtable criteria, described in detail here. You can also watch short clips demonstrating the various levels in English. There's an example of where I wanted to be here, and where I currently am here.
  • Do your best to get your head in the game, but accept that (as my dad often said) excrement occurs. For example, in preparation for my reading test I went to bed early the night before, had a nutritious breakfast, and tried not to stress out. Despite my best efforts, though, I ended up having a horrible stress dream where I had to take the test while insects were laying eggs in my ears (gross, I know... I probably read too much science fiction). Then, I accidentally burned my breakfast and set off my smoke alarm. I was way more frazzled than I'd hoped the morning of my test, but I just had to roll with it! I tried to think of it as good preparation for work, where I'm sure I'll someday have to use my language skills when my brain feels completely fried.
  • Be bold. The language test is not a time for shyness; you've got to give them something to evaluate you on, after all! I would err on the side of being talkative and don't be too timid to interrupt the tester if you need to ask a question or clarify something.
  • Practice your self-introduction. The speaking portion of the test always begins with an introduction and small talk, so I always find getting that right helps me build confidence for the rest of the test.
  • Time yourself reading. It's not enough to have good reading comprehension. The reading portion of the test requires you to read fast, so when you're getting closer to your test date I highly recommend giving yourself a limited amount of time to read, summarize, and analyze articles to practice increasing your speed.
  • Try to avoid comparing yourself to your classmates or others. I personally struggle with this, but comparison is not only the thief of joy but it's the mother of a whole lot of unnecessary stress. (Yes, I just made that up... But it's true.)
  • Prepare a one pager with all the vocabulary and expressions you want to memorize for articulating yourself intelligently before the test. I was inspired to do this by my colleague S's excellent one pager specifically for how to discuss economics and statistics in Korean (it's amazing how many words there are for "increase" and "decrease"). I found it really helpful in elevating my ability to have a conversation, so I called it my "Sound Smart Reference Guide". (A snippet of it is the cover photo of this post.)
  • Team up with others. I really benefitted from helpful videos, articles, and tips other Korean students sent me, so I tried to share relevant things with them. We're all in this together.
  • Put things in perspective. Plenty of successful diplomats I look up to have failed language tests. The vast majority of people will not have their career ruined by a single bad language test. Most folks will just take a little more time and then wind up exactly where they are supposed to be anyway. And a few years later, nobody will likely know, remember, or care how many weeks it took you to get that score.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Best of luck to all of my colleagues who are preparing for language tests, and I'm raising a glass (of grapefruit seltzer) to myself and everyone else who is done!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Top Email Newsletters I Recommend

I enjoy using email to stay informed, and I've tried a ton of different free email newsletters over the years. I use emails to stay on top of political and financial news as well as stay connected culturally and digitally with information that I feel adds something to my life. So I thought I'd sum up the newsletters that I've found to be tried and true. In other words, these are the ones I open and read every single time. Most are daily and concern the news, but there are some that are less frequent and more varied on topics. (And of course, you can sign up to receive emails for this blog, too! If you're on a desktop, just submit your email address in the lower right. If you're on a mobile device, just click view web version and then enter your email in the lower right.) Enjoy!


  • Vox Daily Sentences: This is a left-of-center summary of the news that covers a fair number of issues. Their reporting is thoughtful and they include information aggregated from other news sources in their newsletter.
  • The Atlantic Daily: I don't read most of The Atlantic in detail, but their newsletter gives me an idea of which longform pieces I actually want to take the time to read. Several of their articles have stuck with me years after I read them.
  • Robinhood Snacks: Robinhood provides succinct, punchy, and interesting finance news digestible even for not-so-economically-inclined readers like me.
  • Stephen Aftergood's Secrecy News: This is a bit of a niche newsletter that doesn't publish that frequently but provides updates in publicly available U.S. government secrecy, intelligence, and transparency policy. I recommend it for folks interested in national security and open government policy.
  • Diplopundit: This is essentially a blog for State Department insiders with a mix of breaking news, gossip, and analysis. I recommend it for folks who work at State who want to keep up with the goings-on of Foggy Bottom.


  • Latter Day Light: This is a short daily devotional with a brief Scripture, Church leader quote, Church history factoid, and usually a one-panel cartoon. I like it because it gives me a brief pause in my day to think about eternal things.
  • The Well Examined Life: This is a blog recently launched by my dear friend E, who is a lawyer by day but an excellent scholar of the Scriptures and religious history in his spare time. I always find his perspectives deeply thought-provoking and insightful, and I hope you will, too.
  • FamilySearch: I'll be the first to admit I'm not the most diligent family history researcher, but I still enjoy the emails from FamilySearch letting me know when there are some records in my family tree I can clean up and reminding me of memories and stories recorded about my ancestors.


  • TED-Ed Newsletter: I get about three original animated educational videos per week, and I watch whatever's in the email. The topics include history, literature, science, math, and even riddles, and the animations are beautifully done. I highly recommend this if you're just generally curious and want to learn something outside your wheelhouse.
  • Morgan Hazelwood's Writing Blog: This has great tips and encouragement for the creative writers out there! I heard about this great blog from someone at the Washington Science Fiction Association, and it definitely lived up to the hype. The newsletter is helpful without being overwhelming. Check it out!
  • Blogilates Newsletter: This is the newsletter for YouTube fitness legend Cassey Ho. I originally signed up for this to get the free monthly POP Pilates workout calendars, but I've also grown to love the blog posts and videos about body positivity, fitness, healthy eating, and more.
  • Slate's Dear Prudence: So I confess, I'm addicted to advice columns. I don't always agree with Slate's columnist, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, but I do like to think about the dilemmas posed in the weekly chats and think about how I would advise a friend in that situation. And thinking about those things has increased my understanding and compassion for people going through various hardships and has even helped me comfort my friends in real life more effectively when they're struggling.

Of course, there are some newsletters that I once read but fell by the wayside, but a lot of that is due to personal preference. I cancelled my subscription to theSkimm because they had a few cases of misleading reporting, and when I reached out to them they followed up with a form reply and no corrections. I stopped following Foreign Policy and Politico because I find they publish too many viewpoints too frequently for me to keep up with limited time. With Foreign Affairs and various DC think tank newsletters, I felt their most important content was generally captured in the news or conversations I'm already having with friends. I also used to get a lot of food-related emails and cancelled those because I can pretty much find all the food information I want when I want at my own convenience. Not all of these newsletters are bad, it's just that I don't have the time to read them.

If one or more of the newsletters above interest you, you should give it a shot and see if you like it! You can always unsubscribe later. I've sure enjoyed them a lot. Let me know in the comments if you have a recommendation that I missed; I'm always looking for more!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

It Is Well (with Our Easter)

Happy Easter! We hope yours was as peaceful as ours was. Before the spread of Covid-19, I was planning on participating in a special choral program at Church today. Of course, now that we're social distancing we spent a quiet day at home instead. It felt special in other ways, though.

The day was off to a strong start because my kind friend J sent me a custom recording of her singing one of my favorite hymns, A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, with a ukulele accompaniment. Because I couldn't go to Church or take the Sacrament today, I wanted to do something to make it feel like Easter. As part of my daily Scripture study, I've been going through Saints, Volume 2 (a narrative history of the early Church) after recently finishing Saints, Volume 1. Today, though, I made an exception and focused on the Church's #HearHim devotional resources designed especially for Easter. I read Scriptures about the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, revisited talks by Church leaders, listened to hymns, and more. I was particularly moved to learn for the first time the story behind the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul". You can listen to it and learn more about the background here. Taking a few hours to intensively study, ponder, pray, and worship made a huge difference in my personal experience of Easter today.

On a sillier note, I enlisted Marwan in a beloved Easter tradition I had with my sister: Peep Wars/Peep Jousting. We would stick toothpicks in our Peeps marshmallows, make them face each other on a plate, and then pop the whole thing in the microwave to see which Peep stabbed the other first (since marshmallows expand when heated). I can't say it was hugely successful, but we had a good laugh and still ate the Peeps. (I will also say it works a lot better with the bird Peeps that have a wider base than the bunny Peeps we used today.) You can see the setup in the photo above and the results below.

After dinner, M and I went for a pleasant walk in the neighborhood while listening to Reply All, one of our favorite podcasts. It was an amazing episode about investigating a catchy 90s pop song that had somehow been wiped from the Internet. You can listen to it here. Anyway, we enjoyed some scenic views and some encouraging words written in chalk along the path. What a great idea, to write positive things in chalk for people to enjoy and be cheered by when they go outside!

Lastly, my dear friend K generously offered to let us do a contactless pickup of some extra dessert she made! We got some of her scrumptious cake and pashka (a Polish bread traditionally made for Easter) to enjoy at home. And it was super delicious--we dug in as soon as we got back home.

All this time missing things I'm so used to has given me an increased appreciation for just how much I take for granted. At the same time, there was something sweet about the experience of a quiet and relatively solitary Easter experience at home. I'll certainly remember this day, and I'm glad I wrote down what it was like so I can revisit and share it in the future.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Strange Lands: Scifi Reading List

As you could probably tell from my previous post on the African literature book club I joined in Nairobi, I'm a very big fan of community reading and discussion. When we moved back to the DC area for me to learn Korean, I immediately looked for a local book club and found one for science fiction (scifi) with a fantastic name: Strange Lands. (I also later learned this book club is one of many subgroups within this literary Meetup page - definitely check it out if you're looking to get connected with the book scene in Arlington, Virginia!)

Just as I left mini-reviews for the African literature I read, I thought I'd do the same for these scifi books. I think a lot of these will be accessible to both longtime scifi fans and those new to the genre.

  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I enjoyed this book, but our book club was extremely divided on it. It was unconventional as far as science fiction goes, taking place in an alternate-history 1950s America. It was clear to me the author had done extensive historical and scientific research, which paid off. I also thought the diverse representation was well done, including Jewish people, persons with disabilities, and people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The book did get a little too ambitious to the point of introducing too many characters who didn't have a chance to be developed more in-depth. (I also didn't like the periodic romance scenes, but that's just a personal preference.) Overall, I would recommend this book because it's an easy read, the main character is someone worth rooting for, and it has the single best depiction of anxiety I've ever seen in a book.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey: I recommend this book without hesitation. It's a delightful space opera that infuses themes of noir, political intrigue, sociology, and horror quite well. The pacing of the story is some of the best I've read in a long time despite the book's heft. There are eight books in the collection after this one, but don't let that scare you for two reasons: first, the book doesn't end on a cliffhanger so precarious that I felt I had to continue immediately (though everyone insists the book series continues to be as good or even better and I should keep going). Second, there's now a TV show so you can always catch up that way. My biggest qualm was the writing of women (as objects of lust and plot device movers rather than their own agents), but I'm told that gets better in the second book. You could also make the argument that the women are that way because they are filtered through the perspective of the two main characters in the book, both of whom are Problematic Protagonists.
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: The premise of this book is truly unique: a broadcast of alien life is detected, and while governments try to figure out what to do the Catholic Church sends a Jesuit mission into space. I have very complex feelings about this book. The pace can feel a bit slow at the outset and then a little rushed at the end. At the same time, the book's themes of religion and philosophy are so expertly explored through the lens of a plausible future world. I found myself shaken through the whole final section of the book, following the arc of the main character and the impact of his experiences on his ideals and his pursuit of truth.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: I loved this book, but I don't think it would necessarily appeal to general science fiction fans. The science fiction elements felt very light throughout, even though they did undergird the main premise of the book. I would recommend this book to fans of literary fiction or memoir who are open to speculative fiction. I liked the way the recollected stories from youth tied together and didn't want to put the book down. The whole thing is written from the perspective of a narrator reminiscing, and it is equal parts mysterious, unsettling, and heart-wrenching.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: I wouldn't consider this work science fiction but rather urban fantasy, so I'm not quite sure on how this was chosen for our book club. Regardless, I'm glad it was because I enjoyed the world and the characters so immensely that I hardly cared that the plot was a little cliche. Although it took me a while to get into this book, it turned out to be a true gem. I put my money where my mouth is and actually immediately bought and read the next books in the trilogy because I couldn't wait to let it go just yet. That is extremely rare for me, given that I have a list of hundreds of books already on my Kindle (and mental) wish list. If you like urban fantasy, London, and magic, you'll love this book. (And I liked the second and third books even better.)
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman: I'm going to preface my commentary by saying the author is the protege of Margaret Atwood, and I fully expect her to continue to be an important voice in feminist science fiction. That being said, this book was not my favorite. I really liked the premise: what if we woke up and women had a power that instantly made them the stronger and more dominant sex? At the same time, I didn't like the frame (where the main story was presented as a stylized account of human history), one of the main characters (Allie), and the extensive sexual and physical violence (also see my thoughts on Ursula Le Guin's work below).
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: I loved this book! I was so grateful for the African literature-focused book club we had in Nairobi, because through it I understood more of the references in this one. This book has so much going on: aliens, marine biology, mysterious deities, interesting characters, mystical powers, and more. The whole thing is set in Lagos, and even though I've never even been to Nigeria the descriptions just pulled me right into the setting. I highly recommend this one.
  • *BONUS* The Birthday of the World by Ursula Le Guin: So this one's a bonus because I didn't read it in my main book club, but rather I picked it up for a Politics & Prose after-hours class (which I highly recommend). This was my first time reading Le Guin, but I can't say it was fully my cup of tea. I feel a bit uncultured saying this given how common it is in literary science fiction, but stories like these about complicated alien cultures that are very difficult to understand or that reveal information very slowly are a struggle for me. It's a shame because my general preference is for the exact kind of soft science fiction that explores new ways of being, forming relationships, and building societies. I also realized how prudish I am compared to the average reader, because I cringed more than anyone else in my group at the frequent depictions of rape and vulgarity in this short story collection. To be fair, the other participants who had read other works of hers, particularly her famous book The Left Hand of Darkness, seemed to enjoy these short stories more. I'll have to give that one a try next time.
  • *BONUS* The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison: This was also not part of the book club, but M and I read it together and are working on the rest of the series now. So many people have recommended this book to me so many times over the years, and now that I read it I can see why. The story is exciting and engaging, the world is very unique, and I like how it kind of straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction. The characters are complex and well-written, too. I highly recommend this one for any readers who like adventures and are okay with ambiguity. M agrees!

I originally thought this post would be even longer, but I've stopped attending this book club so I can maintain social distancing and help control the spread of Covid-19. M and I are still reading speculative fiction books together while I continue to work on my own novel manuscript. In the meantime, I thought I'd share the above recommendations for anybody else looking for new reading material while stuck at home. Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

#CoronaWriMo: A Silver Lining?

I previously wrote about our Coronacation and experience with social distancing. This time I thought I'd write about one way I'm trying to make the most of this experience: #CoronaWriMo. For those who are active in the #WritingCommunity online, you're probably already familiar with National Novel Writing Month, known as #NaNoWriMo. It takes place every November, and writers around the world resolve to crank out 50,000 words or more to write a novel (really more of a novella) in just that month.

So naturally plenty of folks thought all this time inside would give us a bigger opportunity to write, and the idea of #CoronaWriMo was born. I actually finally crossed the 50,000 word total on my first ever novel draft on only the second day of social distancing, when I'd lacked the motivation to work on it regularly for a long time. My one New Year's Resolution for 2020 was to finish this draft, and this disease might actually help put me over the finish line.

I've learned so much about myself writing a novel for the first time. Foremost, I don't enjoy writing novels in general. I don't experience the same rush and excitement that pushes me to stay up all night working on a short story. Needless to say when I am done with this first draft, I fully expect I'll be putting it down for a while to refocus on my short stories. I have several drafts that need some revision and polishing, but I've neglected them this year while plagued by guilt for not making more progress on my novel.

In case any readers are curious about what I write, it mostly has very little to do with my work. My favorite genre to write in is soft science fiction. The reason I like it is because it's a fun genre for exploring philosophical and moral questions without the baggage that real world people and settings impose on stories. (Or at least you can choose how much baggage you want to keep around in your world.)

So I'll keep plugging away at my science fiction novel draft for now, though I admit I haven't been as diligent or consistent as I would've liked. These really are unprecedented times... So whether you're taking the chance to do something new or you're just trying to survive (I go back and forth depending on the day), I hope you're hanging in there! We all deserve some extra grace right now. And if you're doing #CoronaWriMo or have any other goals while social distancing, feel free to share below.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Going on Coronacation

Like many in the United States, M and I are currently practicing social distancing in response to the threat of pandemic Covid-19, also known as the novel coronavirus. In this post, I want to share why we're doing it, what it looks like for us, and some opportunities to help.

M and I are both healthy and young, so we're not in the high-risk group for Covid-19. At the same time, we're listening closely to the advice of public health specialists, epidemiologists, and medical researchers out there so we can be part of the solution when it comes to protecting vulnerable populations. We have a lot of loved ones who are immunocompromised or older or would have comorbidity with other conditions like high blood pressure or respiratory problems. We also have a lot of friends working in the medical field who are trying to keep their heads above water and help prevent the system from being overwhelmed. We're going to do our best to minimize the risk of spreading the new coronavirus to folks like them, especially now that it seems clear the virus is quite contagious even when the carrier is asymptomatic.

So what are some of the things we're doing to help keep our community safe? These are some of the simple steps we've taken in recent days that might be worth considering:

  • Teleworking (if possible): M's part-time teaching job is already fully remote, and my full-time Korean classes are finally switching to full-telework starting this week. If you can work from home, it's a great way to limit a lot of the exposure risk. At the same time, it's important to recognize not everyone's work is so flexible--M still has to go in for the family business because it's physical work that needs to be done on site.
  • Skipping the gym: I just temporarily froze my gym membership. (If you attend an Orangetheory Fitness, you can do this easily with a phone call and email.) It's simply too easy to contract this disease in such close quarters with lots of circulating air and shared equipment. If you can use one of the many great YouTube channels for home workouts (my favorite is Blogilates) or if you can go for a run in an open space like a wide park, that would be much safer.
  • Limiting large social gatherings: We're staying home from restaurants and parties for now. The more people you're physically near during this time, the riskier it gets. There's obviously a huge spectrum between having a best friend come over to hang out for a little bit (relatively safe) and going to a crowded bar (please don't if you can help it).
  • Reasonably (!) stocking the pantry: The "reasonably" is crucial here--I am not advocating for this mysterious toilet paper obsession that has seemingly spread across our society even faster than the new coronavirus itself. It helps to go to the store only if you need to, and even then it's better if you try to go early in the morning or late at night when there are fewer people there. Grocery delivery might also be a good option for folks. Either way, stocking up on shelf-stable and freezer foods in bulk is a great way to stretch what you have and stay fed while minimizing additional trips out into the public.
  • Keeping the Sabbath at home: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, like many others, has temporarily suspended our usual religious services around the world. Thankfully, I have some wonderful Priesthood holders in my life who are visiting with me on a more individual basis so I can still take the weekly Sacrament. I'm sure this decision isn't easy for any religious leadership, but it will help protect the maximum number of worshippers.
  • Upholding #StopReflectVerify standards: If I see you sharing fake Covid-19 news on social media, I will call you out right away. There are a lot of malicious, opportunistic folks trying to capitalize on the panic. We should all be checking the legitimacy of our sources, confirming when information was published to see if it's up-to-date, and not buying into misinformation marketing campaigns. For example, I saw this fake news doing the rounds earlier: that if you gargle salt water it will completely kill Covid-19 and you'll be safe. This is not only untrue but dangerous. You can gargle salt water and still catch this virus as well as spread it to others. Let's stop, reflect, and verify before we share or comment online.
  • Cutting back on non-urgent volunteering: I usually try and volunteer at a rest home once a week. Needless to say, the residents there all fall within the highest-risk category for this pandemic and I will not be visiting them in the near future. A few friends of mine who usually volunteer in person have taken the opportunity to try and find volunteer opportunities online, which is a fantastic idea.
  • Refraining from travel: We are refraining from travel at this time and are re-evaluating our ability to go on trips we'd planned for the future. Yes, it's frustrating, but the risks outweigh the inconveniences.
  • Maintaining personal hygiene: This is probably the most important one of all. We're continuing to regularly wash our hands correctly and trying not to touch our faces. I'm notoriously bad about touching my face, so I can't promise perfection but I'm trying my best!

So given that life is clearly a bit different right now, what else is worth thinking about as we go through this together? Someone pointed out that volunteers in many areas tend to be older and at higher risk for the worst consequences of Covid-19. So if you are young, healthy, and low-risk, you might want to call a local food pantry or meals on wheels and see if they need help meeting demand right now. Another good idea I saw circulating online was to buy gift cards and generic merchandise like t-shirts from restaurants that are probably struggling right now. Those gift cards can always be redeemed well after the crisis has passed, and it helps businesses with already narrow profit margins weather the storm.

I hope this blog post was helpful or maybe even just resonated with a few readers who are stuck in the same boat. In the meantime, I hope everyone has the chance to catch up on reading, writing, art, memes, or anything else that helps us beat cabin fever during this "Coronacation" in our homes. We'll look forward to the day when everything can go back to normal but prioritize protecting and helping others until then.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

My First Scored FSI Korean Assessment

As most readers of this blog know, I am currently in what's called long-term language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI, a.k.a. diplomat school). For over six months now, I've been studying Korean full-time. That's about five hours of class a day with two to three hours of studying expected outside of class. The only other time I've ever studied a language this intensively or for this long was back when I did an Arabic immersion in Oman. It's intense, but I feel that having done it once before is making this go-around a lot easier.

We recently also reshuffled the classes, and my new class is a major challenge. There are only three students including me in my class, and we rotate teachers to expose us to a variety of teaching styles and methods. This system has been really useful for me, especially now that I'm in a "harder" class. My classmates seem to absorb information like a sponge, and I'm continually impressed by how diligently they're studying. They really help me stay motivated to do my best and to push myself instead of staying complacent, which brings me to the real subject of this post: my first scored Korean progress assessment.

Last year, we had another progress assessment but we were only provided general feedback and whether we were "on track" or "not on track". From that test, I learned about specific issues I needed to work on going forward. These included (A) my upspeak (i.e., the phenomenon of turning your intonation up at the end of sentences), which I often do even in English when I'm unsure or nervous and (B) my sacrifice of accuracy for speed. I really focused on these weaknesses in the months since, and I'm delighted to say it paid off because I improved on both those counts this time around.

This progress assessment was scored, meaning we were provided with a rough estimate of what the testers (who also happen to be our regular teachers) think we would score if we took the test today. FSI tests are scored on a scale of 0 to 5 based on the on the Interagency Language Roundtable, or ILR guidelines (which you can read more about here). On my final test scheduled in May, I need to receive a score of at least 2 in speaking and 0 in reading (basically, anything above a zero is a nice bonus but not required). On the final test day, we'll be tested in both reading and speaking, but this time we only did the speaking portion.

So, imagine my surprise when I learned I was assessed to already be speaking at a 2+ level in Korean! I was floored for multiple reasons. First of all, I've spent way more time intensively studying Arabic, and yet when I joined the Foreign Service I tested at a 2 for speaking. I certainly didn't expect my Korean score to surpass my Arabic score anytime soon. Second, I know that a 2+ is way closer to a 3 than a 2. Before receiving this estimated score, I never dreamed I'd be able to get a 3 in half the time it usually takes (almost 2 years total). I honestly think it's my new class that has really accelerated my learning lately and brought me up to this level.

When I talked to a friend about my estimated score and how I still had more than two months left of language training before my final test, he encouraged me to go for the 3. He also reminded me that if I do score higher than needed, I'd be eligible for Language Incentive Pay since Korean is a Super Hard Language. (I know it sounds cheesy, but I swear that's the official name of the category of languages!) Basically, to incentivize Foreign Service Officers investing time and energy in these difficult and high-demand languages, the Department of State will provide certain salary percentage pay bumps to those who achieve specific scores. If you're interested, you can read about that in more detail here.

Everyone I've spoken with at FSI seems to have a wildly different language learning experience. A lot of things are language-specific or even teacher-specific, but at the end of the day we're all there to learn what we need to learn to be successful and effective while we serve overseas. I'm really enjoying my time in long-term language, and I hope to make the most of what little time I have left. Even if I end up falling short of the 3 that I want, I'm excited just to try, do my best, and make sure to appreciate this precious opportunity.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How to Retain a Language

A lot of diplomats study multiple languages over the course of their careers. Unless you achieve complete fluency, though, maintaining proficiency in any language is hard work. So what's the difference between someone who can pass a language test but rapidly loses what they learned and someone who becomes a true polyglot?

I consider myself an aspiring polyglot, so I've spent some time exploring what helps make a language truly stick. Since my brain typically seems to handle only English and one other language at a time, I currently struggle most with switching between foreign languages in the moment. Although I'm certainly a work in progress, I have discovered some strategies that have helped me retain conversational ability in previously studied languages. I've summarized these below:

  • Attend meetups: You can't beat practicing with native speakers in real-life, so I recommend attending meetups for the foreign languages you speak. You can search for foreign language meetups here, or check your local library to see if they have a conversation group available. If you're in the DC area, I also recommend you take a look at Conversational DC here.
  • Study one language intensively at a time: It's very confusing to try and start from scratch in multiple languages at once. I recommend focusing on one language at a time until you reach a conversational level. Then, if you want to study another language you can continue to maintain your level in the other language(s) more easily than if you were still at a beginner level.
  • Memorize how to clarify in each language: It's so much easier to stay in the zone of each language if you minimize the number of times you need to resort to English or any other language when you get stuck. It's helpful to be able to ask what a word means, ask someone to please repeat what they just said, or admit that you didn't quite understand in the same language you're using at the time.
  • Know language-specific fillers: For the same reason, it's helpful to be strict with yourself about using the correct filler words for the language you're practicing. The moment I say "um," my brain already starts shifting back to English. I've also definitely said "yani" (يعني) in Korean class, and it shifted my brain right over into Arabic.
  • Practice with other polyglots or in multilingual settings: The more you practice switching back and forth between foreign languages, the easier it gets. Something that really helped me with this was to memorize a few stock sentences of introduction for myself in every language I want to practice. That way, I can immediately say those few memorized phrases and usually by the time I'm done introducing myself my brain has successfully shifted into the correct language.
  • Mix up your flashcards: If you've studied multiple languages, chances are you have flashcards or study materials for all of them. When you quiz yourself, mix them up for an additional challenge. I also find it helpful to see a word on a flashcard in one language and then to try and think of it in all the other languages I know. If I can't think of how to say it in a specific language and I think I'll use it often enough that I'd want to know, I'll check a dictionary. (And of course, I'm going to plug my favorite flashcard app I've been using for years: Anki.)

I hope this advice has been helpful to the readers of this blog, and please let me know in the comments if you have any additional tips I missed. Goodbye! 안녕히 계세요! مع السلامة! Kwa heri! Au revoir!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

8 Steps to Start Learning Korean for Free

So you think you might want to learn Korean? Korean has so little in common with English that it can be really hard for an English learner to figure out where to start. I wrote this post as a helpful guide for a true beginner to learn about some of the free resources available online to help them discover this beautiful and fun language!

I'm not going to dwell on my beloved free flashcard app Anki, because I already sang its praises for virtually all languages in a previous post. You can just assume that I recommend Anki for pretty much anything. I will say that the Korean Vocabulary and Korean Grammar Sentences pre-built flashcard decks by Evita are excellent and include high-quality audio recordings. In general, I was surprised by how many Anki Korean shared decks there are.

So without further ado, here are the eight steps I recommend to start learning Korean for free online:

  1. Learn Hangul/Hangeul: So, the good news is Korean has an alphabet made up of letters, just like English does (as opposed to the thousands of characters you would have to learn for, say, Chinese). I highly recommend starting with Ryan Estrada's excellent graphic here, which provides a simplified overview and makes the whole thing way less intimidating. Then, I recommend watching videos on YouTube to get used to practicing and hearing the sounds. If you prefer something a little more interactive, you can try this gorgeous Let's Learn Hangul site here. It looks excellent, but I haven't played it all the way through so I can't promise a paywall will never pop up before you complete it. There are also multiple Anki shared decks for the Korean alphabet, so really there are plenty of free resources for this step.
  2. Dive Deeper on Pronunciation Rules: Although Korean is a phonetic language, meaning each letter makes a specific sound, there are certain placements or combinations of letters that might lead a sound to change. Thankfully, these changes are generally governed by consistent and common rules so they can be learned fairly easily. You can watch a great video summarizing the Korean alphabet and pronunciation rules here. Another video summarizes the letter names and pronunciation rules for badchim (받침, the consonant at the end of some syllable blocks) here. (You can go into more detail on badchim here.) You can also find a simple overview of other pronunciation rules written out here, and a much more extensive list of examples by character with audio files here.
  3. Get Basic Sentence Structure Down: Sentence structures in Korean are so different from those in English. In Korean, the sentence ends with the verb or adjective (also known as a descriptive verb). Moreover, the subject can drop if it's obvious to the listener and speaker what or who it is. For a well-done and simplified intro on sentence structure, you can start on this great resource with explanations and example sentences here. Once you've reviewed that, there's a video that goes into some of the cultural connections to the language structure and provides more examples here.
  4. Build Exposure on Duolingo: I recommend this as step four because I don't think Duolingo is great for learning Hangeul and it's much more effective once you've at least seen the basic Korean sentence. You should be able to test out of those Hangeul lessons right away if you just quickly familiarize yourself with the official Korean romanization rules, available in a handy chart here. Doing Duolingo every day with the volume turned up will help build vocabulary and gain exposure to more types of sentences, and I think Korean Duolingo is built fairly well relative to other languages.
  5. Supplement with TTMIK: TTMIK (Talk to Me in Korean) sells lesson content but also provides a wealth of videos for free on YouTube here. When I have a niche question about what the difference is between two phrases in Korean that seem similar, or why something is pronounced differently than expected, or how to say particular holiday greetings I always check TTMIK's YouTube channel first because chances are they already have a relevant video. I have another friend who swears by their dictation practices for improving listening, and I've used a number of their vocabulary builder videos to improve my speaking. This is a treasure trove of information for Korean learners at all levels.
  6. Practice Your Level: Now that you have the basics down, it's time to practice more at your level. This is where I highly recommend the DLIFLC (Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center) GLOSS (Global Language Online Support System) here. (Yes, they really love their acronyms!) They provide an impressive range of listening and reading practice lessons with grammar, vocabulary, videos, and more. They're a true challenge, so you should start at level one and only move up when you feel ready.
  7. Try Some News: Full Korean newspapers are notoriously difficult to read and full of idiomatic expressions and sentence endings you wouldn't see elsewhere. This is where the JoongAng Daily bilingual Korean-English column comes in real handy. It's not a direct translation, but the Korean article is much easier to follow once you know the gist from the English one. As you become more advanced, you can switch to starting with the Korean article without looking at any of the English and seeing how much you can understand and figure out before confirming. Check it out here.
  8. Reference a Context Dictionary: Korean and English are not in the same language family, so you can bet that a lot of words don't work in direct translation or carry many different meanings and nuances. As you continue to study Korean, I highly recommend building the habit of using a Korean-English and English-Korean dictionary with context, meaning when you look up words it will give you example sentences from real, verified translations. My favorite is the Naver Dictionary, which you can use on the web or via mobile app. (I use both.) Naver is almost like the Google of Korea, and they also have plenty of other materials you can use to practice, like news articles.

Obviously, everyone's language learning style and preferences are different. But if you're looking to start learning Korean without spending a lot of money on expensive classes, I hope this post is a good starting point. Please let me know in the comments below if I missed any other great tools for beginning Korean learners, and happy studying!