Friday, December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays from South Korea!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from South Korea! Normally we would be traveling this time of year, but we stayed put because of the pandemic.

The lockdown is pretty serious in Seoul right now with rising COVID-19 cases, so we spent our time either inside or walking outside around the city in places where we could stay distant from other people. The air quality has also been up and down lately, so ironically even without the pandemic everyone here would've still been in masks.

On Christmas Eve, we walked along part of the historic fortress walls of Seoul. In preserved parts of the wall, you could see the different styles of stones laid, which improved in efficiency and durability over the centuries. We also got to see a traditional gate, rebuilt by experts and painted with beautiful motifs on the ceiling inside. It was so cool!

In that same area, we dropped by Dongdaemun, known for its markets. There were fabric shops, cafes, street vendors, and a bunch of stores of all kinds (mostly closed). There were seasonal decorations around, as Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday here for both the religious and secular. I even spotted a nativity Christmas scene.

After that, I decided we should try and find some hodugwaja (호두과자), a Korean walnut pastry my friends kept raving about but I hadn't seen yet. It's a delicious, doughy morsel filled with sweet red bean paste (don't knock it 'til you try it) and walnuts. Thankfully, the Kakao Maps app (a Korean alternative to Google Maps) came to the rescue and helped us find a dedicated hodugwaja place where I bought two lovely wrapped boxes for us and to share.

On Christmas Day, we ventured out for a long walk in the park along the Han River. We went out in the late afternoon and enjoyed stunning views of the river. I bet it's even more beautiful in the spring and autumn when the trees and flowers are in bloom. Along the walking path, we also saw multiple sets of free outdoor exercise equipment that mostly older people were using. Some of these Korean senior citizens are so fit! Two gentleman who looked well into their 70s sped past us on our walk, and we saw others jogging and biking.

We got to enjoy the sunset as we walked back, and it got dark just in time for us to take some photos with a few light displays, including the one in the first photo of this post. (I wonder how many couples have proposed there?) I'm not sure if the lights are seasonal or permanent, but I'm glad we were able to enjoy them on our walk.

It wouldn't be a true adventure without a little failure, right? That's what I'm telling myself regarding my mixup at a food truck. Thinking I saw a yakitori food truck, I dragged Marwan over. I explained to him it was definitely skewered meat and he would definitely like it. I confidently brandished my Korean skills and ordered 12 pieces, thrilled to grab a bite after our long, cold walk. When the vendor scooped 12 balls into a tray, I figured I just had my Japanese food mixed up but I was pretty sure by definition yakitori had to be chicken. So I thanked the vendor, took the food, and led Marwan happily to a bench so we could sit and eat. We each popped one in our mouths only to look at each other in dismay. Confused, I explained I had been so sure what yakitori was, and then Marwan points out it was actually a takoyaki food truck! I promised chicken skewers, and I got us octopus balls! And the sprinkling of stuff on top I thought was fried onion in the dim light was shaved fish pieces. I might give takoyaki a try some other time, but let me tell you it does not hit the spot when you're expecting chicken! We gave the whole order away to our friends, thank goodness, who are bigger fans than we are.

It wasn't all outdoor adventuring, though. Inside, we watched the Lindsey Stirling Home for the Holidays Christmas special. If you want just a small taste of the awesomeness of her program, you can check out this video where she plays violin and dances all while hanging by her hair. We also watched a wonderful Christmas movie on Netflix called Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, a great celebration of Black talent and the best steampunk aesthetic I've probably ever seen in film. We also watched the Asia North Christmas devotional broadcast of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which featured music and messages from Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and more. You can watch the whole thing here.

Christmas looked and felt different this year, but I was glad to be able to spend it in person with M, on video chat with family, and here in this new city. And if you're reading this, I hope your season is merry and bright (or at least safe and peaceful)!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Our Hanbok Glamour Photoshoot

We shared a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience this weekend: we did a hanbok photoshoot at a palace in Seoul! This was definitely high on my Seoul bucket list. I'd scoped out our photographer's Instagram in advance and booked as soon as I saw he was available on Airbnb Experiences. His name is Chan and he was awesome! He has great English and knows just how to take a stunning photo, as you'll see throughout this post!

Hanbok is traditional Korean dress. It comes in all sorts of varieties: royal to everyday, traditional to modern, and every color combo you can imagine. I haven't worn hanbok since I was one year old for a special Korean ceremony we have called dol! M and I decided to go all out and picked royal-inspired robes. We thought the burgundy color suited the weather - it is winter, after all.

Speaking of which, it's starting to get really cold in South Korea. I'm shocked at how quickly I adjusted. Just the other day, I caught myself saying, "It's not that bad - only 20s!" (Fahrenheit, of course.) Thankfully, we lucked out for our photo session. It wasn't too cold, the sun was shining, and the air quality cleared up just in time. We realized even more how serendipitous it was the next morning when we woke up to the first snow of the year.

So anyway, we met up at a hanbok rental shop with hundreds of outfits for men and women. I thought we'd have to get undressed, but to my surprise and delight the hanbok could just go on over our clothes. They're not particularly form fitting, so you can't tell there's a whole 'nother outfit on underneath. If you go, though, I would recommend wearing long sleeves you can roll up and nothing with a prominent collar. Also, make sure you wear good shoes - even in the long dresses you can see them in a number of photos. For our winter booking, I was very happy to have a sweater and sweater leggings underneath my outfit. It made for a much more comfortable and enjoyable few hours outside.

Donned in hanbok, we took a short walk to Gyeongbokgung, a palace nearby. Admission is free if you're wearing a hanbok, so we saw a few others visiting in hanbok and taking photos. There were a mix of locals and visitors, but the whole palace grounds were nearly empty. Chan explained that usually the place is packed on weekends, but the combination of the cold and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in South Korea meant more people were staying inside. One of the reasons I booked this experience, actually, is because it's one of the few low-risk things we can still do. We socially distanced outside and only took off our masks for photos. We put them back on when walking from site to site in the palace. It was a safe and memorable time.

There were so few people that we didn't have to wait at all to get a clear shot with no people in the background. So the whole thing only took a couple of hours and we were on our way. One thing I'll recommend to people who want to book this experience is to bring cash for the hanbok rental. They normally take card, but their business has been hit pretty hard by the pandemic and at least our shop requested cash to avoid the credit card fee.

The next day, Chan sent us a link to download over 170 high-quality photos from our session! We got to pick our 20 favorites for a little extra editing, and he turned those around in record time. I was amazed at his top-notch service. Everything from the quality of the photos, his helpful direction as to what poses to do to look good, to our great conversation throughout made the experience stellar. I would recommend it to anyone living or traveling to Korea in a heartbeat. Definitely check out the package for yourself here, and stay safe!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Our First Two Real Weeks in Seoul

We enjoyed our first two weeks in Seoul out of quarantine! Many have asked us how our daily life in South Korea is different from in the United States. We're both grateful to be working, but in our free time we've tried to experience our new home as much as possible. Right now, we're enjoying the sights as much as we can outside. Just the other day we walked past this art that reads in Korean, "People make books and books make people." Isn't that awesome? Of course, we're living in an unprecdented pandemic, so things are different than they would otherwise be. For example, Korea is famous for its saunas and karaoke rooms--two places I'd otherwise love to visit but are too dangerous right now. I hope to be able to go sometime before we move again!

Speaking of the pandemic, South Korea's response is serious. The government has mandated extensive contact tracing that includes downloading an app when you enter the country, reporting your symptoms and whereabouts, and signing over your personal information every time you go to a public place like a restaurant. That way, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, they can actually retrace that person's footsteps for the past few weeks and notify and test everyone who overlapped with them in time and location. I've never seen anything like it!

Koreans are also excellent mask-wearers. They have experience with other respiratory diseases (specifically both MERS and SARS) in the past, and they often wear masks when the air quality isn't great at certain times of year. Everyone from the elderly to very young children seems to have no problem wearing masks here. And there's a government requirement to wear masks outside in public places. (If you don't, you could end up paying a ~$90 fine.) So this was obviously a massive difference from what we saw in the United States. In a lot of ways, it's really beautiful and touching to see so many people come together here and around the world to do their part to fight this terrible disease. (Also, how cute is that little bird wearing a mask and washing its hands? Found in Itaewon.)

Seoul is a very cosmopolitan and global city, and that's especially apparent in the food. This means you can find unique twists on American chains, like the Burger King Guinness Whopper above, and top-notch international cuisine like the amazing kanafeh (a Palestinian dessert) we enjoyed at an Arabic restaurant pictured below.

It's getting significantly colder here (20s and 30s Fahrenheit), but people tell me it gets way colder than this later in the winter. I'm honestly terrified of the cold. Here's how much I hate the cold: my boss asked our team to let him know of our leave plans through February, so I Googled "warmest temperature Korea winter" and learned that the warmest part of South Korea at that time, Jeju Island, is still only about 40 degrees Fahrenheit! If the pandemic wasn't happening, you can bet I'd be on a plane to Thailand or Bali or somewhere tropical. But this year we're staying put, so I'll just try to stay as cozy and bundled up as possible instead.

We get around Seoul on public transportation (which is super fast, convenient, and inexpensive). Pictured above is M on the KTX, South Korea's famous high-speed train. We also explored a few neighborhoods: Itaewon (featured in the hit kdrama "Itaewon Class" on Netflix) and Mapo. We also saw (masked, distanced) some of my Korean family, most of whom I've never met! That was really special. Thankfully, my mediocre Korean was just enough for us to be able to communciate and have a great time. It's so nice to move somewhere and have family waiting for us for once.

We had a few really unusual experiences already. We ran into an impromptu outdoor battle of the bands in Mapo (pictured above). We also caught a crew filming a scene from a kdrama when we went out to dinner once. We were up on the second floor and I took a few surreptitious photos from the window (below). When we got back down to street level, staff yelled at us to put away our phones and not take any photos or video. I didn't recognize the actors whose faces I saw, but I hope to see them on Netflix later!

As a major Blackpink fan, I was hoping to see their fan paraphernalia sold everywhere (specifically the signature fan light hammer), but apparently it's pretty much sold out worldwide. I guess I'm not the only Blink around here. At least I get to see them in ads, like for this set of hair dye:

We're so happy to be in South Korea and we're thankful for this opportunity. Life in Seoul is relatively comfortable and safe. My body may be freezing half the time, but my heart is warm. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

How to Pass a Two-Week Quarantine

We finally made it to South Korea! And one of the requirements for all new arrivals to South Korea is a mandatory COVID-19 test and two-week quarantine if you test negative. (If you test positive, you're going straight to the Coronavirus treatment wing of the nearest hospital.) Thankfully, we tested negative and were able to head straight into our quarantine. We normally don't experience too much jetlag, but that trans-Pacific flight and 14-hour time difference are no joke! So we spent the first few days of our two-week isolation mostly sleeping.

As any Foreign Service member can tell you, PCS (Permanent Change of Station, i.e. post transfer) time is often a time of ruining habits. For most of us, fitness routines go out the window as we live out of suitcases and spend lots of time traveling. On top of that, when that shipment with all your kitchen essentials leaves and you're trying to use up everything in your pantry you can't take with you, eating well becomes challenging too. So healthwise, I went into quarantine with the attitude that it would be a nice reset for us. I made sure we were stocked up on healthy groceries including plain Greek yogurt, salad fixings, brown rice, whole grain bread, mixed vegetables, a few frozen meat options, and a bottle of soy sauce for flavor. (M was very disappointed in the lack of snacks and desserts, but it's all for our own good. And our wonderful friends and neighbors dropped off a few junk food items partway through our stay on request to help alleviate his suffering.)

I wanted to make the most of our two weeks, though, especially since I couldn't telework. (My job can't be done from home.) So (in classic me fashion) I made a list of everything I wanted to do! Here's an annotated list of what I did in case you're looking for recommendations to spice up your own quarantine:

  • Read: I read Shin Kyung-Sook's Please Look After Mom (winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize), Lori Gottlieb's Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (an excellent book about life and therapy, completely accessible whether you've been to therapy or not), and Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit (an excellent political philosopher's analysis of the failings of meritocracy). I also caught up on something my friend shared with me a while ago: a bunch of links from this blog providing a deep dive into the history of South Korea's 1980 Gwangju Uprising/Democratic Movement (including expectations of U.S. involvement or support depending on your side). In addition, although the time difference means I can no longer attend my friend W's monthly Black Thought Book Club, he was kind enough to leave me on the mailing list so I was still able to do the readings on my own.
  • Learned the Dynamite dance: Look, I am a total Blink. (In other words, Blackpink is my favorite kpop group as you can probably tell from the post photo, which I made sure to snap at the airport. Definitely check out the Netflix documentary on them if you haven't yet!) But I must admit BTS's Dynamite is a hit. It's just the upbeat, carefree tune I needed in 2020, and I loved the choreography. So I decided to learn the dance on YouTube as my quarantine workout. It was a nice option because I didn't have my yoga mats or any equipment to do my regular exercise routines.
  • Attended virtual church: Thank goodness for modern technology! There is an English branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Seoul, and I was able to participate in church meetings on Zoom from quarantine. One member of my branch even dropped off some homemade food for us!
  • Wrote a lot: I finished a novel draft for the first time in my life! At 79,777 words and 388 pages, it is by far the longest thing I've ever written. I felt so accomplished to be able to say that I (finally) finished it after five years of thinking about it and over a year of writing.
  • Planned, planned, planned: I spent hours excitedly planning a bunch of things to do once we were out of quarantine. I scoped out restaurants, shopping, even a local study group, Airbnb experiences, and more. It definitely helped pass a lot of time and got me even more excited for life in Seoul.
  • Caught up: Thank goodness for video chat! I was able to chat with some friends and family despite the brutal 14-hour time difference.
  • Watched Netflix: We watched a lot of The Flash together, and I also watched a good bit of the kdrama Chief of Staff. I thought it would help me with my Korean more than it did, but the story and acting are great. Next time, I'll make sure to pick a kdrama with Korean subtitles--I'm definitely not ready to go completely subtitle-less.

In some ways, the two weeks felt long and in others they felt short. All I can say is that I am so ready to have quarantine over with so I can get back to living my (socially distanced, public health precaution respecting) life again. Now the next few years of our time in Korea on the other side of these walls can begin!

Friday, October 30, 2020

Buying Our First House (on TDY!)

I'm excited to share that we just bought our first house! And we did it all on TDY (temporary duty) training status!

To be honest, our first time home buying experience was a complete rollercoaster. Our first week of house-hunting, we were convinced we were going to get this beautiful, recently renovated townhouse. And then we were outbid by someone who showed up with $600,000 in cash! If you know anyone who is buying a house in the United States right now, especially in a hot market like the DC area, you've probably heard that competition is fierce. We can vouch for the fact that it is as wild and fast-paced as everyone said it was right now. We looked at some properties that sold the same day of their open house. Interest rates are low and savings for some are at an all-time high, so it's a great time to be selling real estate.

In our case, we've considered buying a property for a while and were pushed over the edge by the low interest rates and the fact that we have no idea when we'll be back in the United States. It is possible to purchase a property back home while serving overseas, but we love the peace of mind that comes with checking the place out for ourselves. M brings the analytical eye and experience with remodeling to spot flaws or where maintenance work is needed, and I like to think I bring an intuitive sense for what kind of property has broad appeal for renters with good taste (what I call "the vibe").

Our biggest advice to would-be homeowners is to explore all your options first and make sure you do your research. We talked to mentors, financial advisors, multiple realtors, multiple lenders, and multiple property management and real estate advising organizations to decide which market to focus on and whether real estate made sense for us. Once we decided we were going to go for it before we moved overseas again, every weekend became a real estate whirlwind. We'd make a shortlist of properties that met our requirements, hit all of them over the weekend, make offers on our favorites right away, and try again the following weekend. Almost every property we saw was sold within days. But luckily, we finally won a bid on a beautiful townhouse in a great area and we're thrilled with the final settlement. (Speaking of which: closing costs and closing paperwork are no joke! The stack of paperwork on top of countless DocuSign forms was enormous, as you can see at the end of this post.)

Because the Foreign Service is such a unique situation, we highly recommend you talk to people who know the ins and outs of our lifestyle, needs, and eligibility before you purchase a home for the first time as a diplomat. For example, some make a point to include things like pandemic or disaster clauses in their renter's agreements so that in the event of an emergency their family deployed abroad would have a home to come back to in the United States on short notice if needed.

For a more general (i.e., not necessarily Foreign Service) audience considering real estate as an investment, here are some of the things we learned:

  • If you're just looking to maximize your ROI (return on investment), your hometown may not be the place to buy. There are real estate investment strategy planning companies that can help you identify the rental market where you'll get the biggest bang for your buck (multiple folks told us Texas has a number of cities with excellent ROI right now, for example).
  • When you're researching the rental market for an area, don't just look at rent prices but also how long it's taking comparable landlords to find tenants. (A realtor who specializes in investment properties can be a huge help.)
  • What's your investment priority? Your real estate preferences could look very different if you're trying to maximize monthly income (in which case you just want the biggest difference between your mortgage and the rent checks) versus build equity (where you might be willing to break even or closer to even each month but the expected appreciation of that house is the real selling point).
  • Condos are almost never worth it for purely investment. They may seem tempting because of the lower maintenance, lack of a yard, and nice affordability-quality ratio, but we heard from so many people who lost money on them because of high condo fees, restrictions on renters and subletting, and other things that they as the owner couldn't control.
  • Read the fine print on your loan (assuming you have one and didn't just buy the property outright), and make sure there is no penalty fee for paying off your mortgage early. We listened to this sage advice from those who successfully made higher payments than required on 30-year mortgages and paid them off in 15 years. (This strategy can be better than just getting a 15-year mortgage even if you qualify for one because of the peace of mind that comes with having the option to fall back on the lower minimum payment each month if circumstances change.)
  • Always have an exit strategy. Some people really sour on real estate after purchasing a property that turns out to be a money sink, but if an investment isn't working for you then it's time to back out and reinvest elsewhere. Having a backup plan will help you swiftly execute a shift in a crisis instead of scrambling.
  • At the end of the day, (like all financial decisions) real estate decisions are personal. We have resources and access to local knowledge in our home state that made us more predisposed to investing there, even though it meant taking a lesser ROI. That trade-off is worth it to us, but it might not be for you.

I hope this post was helpful for anyone in or out of the Foreign Service considering jumping into real estate for the first time! We're happy to join the homeowners' club and are so grateful to all the mentors, advisors, friends, and family who gave great advice along the way. And if you're looking for an amazing realtor in the DC area who knows a ton about real estate investment (and has the Foreign Service background), we highly recommend Tanya Salseth at Keller Williams!.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Life Insurance as Retirement Investment

As a follow-up to my previous, very broad post about financial management in the Foreign Service, I thought it might help to share something M and I only learned about relatively recently: life insurance as an investment. Like many other government employees, Foreign Service members have access to robust retirement options. For example, I have the combination of Social Security (though I had plenty of public school teachers tell my generation not to count on this one), a pension, and an IRA through the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP, the U.S. government employee retirement plan).

But what if you have more disposable income and would like to invest that in more diverse sources to build wealth for the future? There are so many options out there. A popular avenue with Foreign Service Officers is real estate, which I'll address in a future post. But another strategy involves life insurance. I first learned about this method attending financial education webinars for Foreign Service members, and after that M and I did a deep dive into how this mysterious new world works.

We ultimately decided to purchase permanent life insurance. Unlike FEGLI (Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance), my new life insurance plan is tied to me as an individual and not to my job. In other words, if something unexpected happens and I need to leave government service, I'll still be covered. This advantage alone probably would've been enough to convince us to make the switch, but there were other reasons, too.

At the risk of sounding morbid, I have to say that not too long ago, I thought life insurance only mattered if you die. Turns out, there are plenty of plans that go far beyond this. One thing I like about the plan I ultimately selected, for instance, is that it will pay out a stipend even prior to my passing if I'm diagnosed with a serious illness or suffer a major accident. That security and peace of mind is well worth our investment. Moreover, because I chose a permanent life insurance plan instead of a term life insurance plan, I can collect that savings tax-free with compound interest as a boost to my income in retirement. (Term insurance is cheaper than permanent insurance but is designed to provide coverage only within a specified timeframe. Make sure you hear both sides of the debate, though; some prefer term life insurance plans or say to skip life insurance entirely.) Because I'm starting the process at a young age and in good health, life insurance is much more affordable.

If you want to learn more about life insurance as a retirement investment, I highly recommend you check out The Purpose of Money, a podcast and online resource for personal finance and investment run by our friend and colleague Acquania. You can even contact her through her website and she will do customized financial advising for you and offer helpful advice on your retirement savings plan, no matter where in your investment journey you are. (I should add that we're not getting any kind of referral bonus or kickback for sharing information about her financial advising services; we really just think they're that good!) We especially hope this post was helpful to other investment newbies looking to diversify their savings and build some financial security for the future. If you have investment tips, please feel free to comment them below.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

ConGenerally Speaking...

I know, it's been I while since I threw a pun in the title of a post. I hope this one got at least a few of my readers groaning and rolling their eyes, the mark of every truly great pun.

This is a bit of a victory post: after a year of delay when our Baghdad assignment was cancelled, and an additional four-month delay due to the pandemic, I finally started ConGen! ConGen is the common name for Consular Tradecraft training. It was required for me to be able to do my next job in South Korea, which could include adjudicating visas and helping U.S. citizens abroad.

Let me be clear (because some have already asked): I will not be giving out visa advice or coaching anyone, even people I love, on how to increase their chances of getting a visa. All I'm going to say is apply early, organize all your required documents and trip information, and be open and honest. You can find all of the publicly available information on visas at Trying to give people I know special treatment is the type of thing that could not only cost me my job but compromise the integrity of the process (not to mention national security). So please do not pressure the Consular Officer in your life to give you advice!

It's often way too much information for one person to try and remember it all anyway. The best we can hope for is to memorize where to go find information. Every day brings new tests of our resourcefulness and judgment. I'm also becoming much more intimately acquainted with certain sections of the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) and Foreign Affairs Handbook (FAH), the compendia of regulation and policy information we need to do our jobs. To my dismay as a stickler for rules and clarity, I came across a poorly written part of the FAM during ConGen. The people I first complained to brushed it off, but then I found the people who write the FAM and suggested that they change it, and they actually agreed! They're working on it now. I love it when nerds and rules enthusiasts band together. (Unfortunately, I can't share the portion that is getting updated here because it's sensitive but unclassified, but suffice it to say I am very proud of myself.)

One of my biggest takeaways from this course is just how important local conditions are. Everything from the most common types of cases, pitfalls to watch for, and statistics on refusal and admittance rates vary widely from post to post. Moreover, certain programs and special requirements have a big impact on circumstances. For example, we have a visa waiver program in place with South Korea, so a lot of the most common tourist visas don't need to be issued at all in my office.

At the same time, worldwide travel demand has decreased drastically as a result of the pandemic. Consular work probably looks very different now than it did even just a year ago. I'll just have to wait until I get to post to see what it'll look like for me!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Virtual Temple Trip?

Your reaction when you hear the words "virtual temple trip" might be similar to mine when I first heard them: Huh? What? And how? Longtime readers of this blog know I (like, it seems, a disproportionately large number of Foreign Service people) am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS Church or Mormon Church). And like many people both inside and outside the Church, I was very excited for the Washington, DC temple to open briefly to the public after years of renovation. Of course, that eventually became another disappointment provided courtesy of COVID-19.

For those who may not know, here's a little background on our temples. They are different from our regular Church buildings that we (used to, pre-pandemic) attend every Sunday and do most of our activities. There are certain extra special ordinances (like sealing a marriage) that can only be done in the temple, and only card-carrying (literally) members of the Church can go inside the temple itself. You need to pass two interviews with local leaders confirming you're a member in good standing to get your "card" (what we call a temple recommend) or have it renewed. Each temple has a Visitor's Center and grounds that are open to the public, but everyone needs a recommend to go inside the temple.

That is, except when there's a temple open house. When a temple is newly built or extensively renovated, they usually have an open house where anybody can come and see the inside of our most sacred space. After the open house, the temple is rededicated and then closed only to members again. I still remember how cool it was to take M to the Philadelphia temple open house and show him what the inside looked like since he could only accompany me to the outside of the DC temple.

Anyway, the pandemic forced the Church to postpone the planned DC temple open house for this fall and I hope they will still be able to do a full open house later because it would be a shame for everyone in the DC area who has waited for this opportunity to miss it. In the meantime, my Relief Society (local women's Church organization) announced we would do a two-week virtual temple trip. We launched the trip with a Zoom meeting sharing our experiences with the temple, received daily invitations to revisit specific temple-related talks, videos, and Scriptures, and agreed to meet again to discuss it at the end.

Did every single word of the materials sent during this virtual temple trip resonate with me? No. (See the part of President Nelson's talk where it says I get to preside through the Priesthood in our home if M dies, except I already have more Priesthood since he's not a member, and that's kind of an old-school way of looking at presiding in my opinion.) But most of the rest of that talk did touch my heart. And certain portions of the temple trip gave me new spiritual insights.

If you'd like to take your own virtual temple trip, here are my favorite resources from these two weeks I just had to share:

  • Convenience Versus Covenants: This talk was something I needed to hear.
  • Finding Healing After the Death of a Child: I don't even have kids, but this one is a real tear-jerker. I love the strength and wisdom of this mother.
  • The Miracle of Hope: This was my favorite! Okay, I'm cheating a bit because this came from a separate Church email, but I really loved it and had to share.
  • Consecrate Thy Performance: This was my favorite that actually came from the virtual temple trip.
  • Sacred Temple Clothing: I love to pull out this video whenever someone asks me about my "magic underwear" or something else inappropriate. (And yes, that has even happened to me at work.)
  • An Especially Noble Calling: This is a celebration of womanhood and women's roles as discplies of Christ, and I'm here for it.
  • #HearHim: I just love this invitation from President Nelson to hear the Savior and reflect on how we hear Him.

A Christian friend of mine who is not a member of my faith recently shared online that many people in the United States and around the world are really struggling with religious observance right now. It goes beyond needing to stay at home during the pandemic, but many people feel lonely, isolated, hopeless, and disconnected from community and spirituality. I hope at least one of these virtual temple trip resources are a blessing to at least one reader, and I look forward to the day I can go to the temple in person again (hopefully in Seoul)! (And if you really are dying to see what the inside of the DC temple looks like, you can see the renderings online here.)

Friday, September 18, 2020

54 Weeks of Korean, and I'm Free!

I did it! I finally graduated from Korean class at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute)! My training was supposed to be about 36 weeks, and instead I was there for 54. I'm not sure how much more I could have handled. It's depressing to admit this, but I'm not sure I made much progress in the past six months or so. All I can say is that I think Zoom and self-study really helped me maintain what I learned, but I am so ready to hit the ground running in South Korea and actually put these language skills to work in a proper immersion environment.

For those who missed my previous posts, I passed my language test back in May, but I was delayed from moving on for months due to the pandemic. Now I'm finally allowed to graduate (albeit four months late)! Oh well, it could be worse: I'm hoping for a speedy resolution for all of my friends and colleagues still stuck in training limbo, too.

Although I don't think I improved quite as much one-on-one with a teacher over Zoom than I would have with in-person classes, I must leave a glowing review of the Korean department at FSI. The teachers are outstanding and helped me learn so much. The photo of this post is actually of a full-length Korean novel I am reading (largely as a result of their hard work and patience). As any foreign language learner can attest, reading a novel in another language is not easy, but I'm surprised at how much I can understand and the fact that it's even possible for me to get through the book. I thought these lines I selected were particularly gripping. (Bonus points if you can translate it into English and extra bonus points if you can guess the name of this extremely popular book. The name is actually mostly in the picture.)

Besides reading, I'll be attempting to keep my Korean skills up by watching Korean dramas (kdramas) on Netflix. I already watched Crash Landing on You, Designated Survivor (yes, there's a Korean version and it's awesome), My ID is Gangnam, and Itaewon Class. I'm currently working my way through It's Okay to Not Be Okay, and I've got Romance is a Bonus Book, Sky Castle, and Kingdom still on my list. Let me know if you have any other recommendations for me in the comments!

For any other Korean learners who might be reading, I'll end on this poem by Kim Sowol, a celebrated Korean poet who died tragically young. It's beautiful and accessible, but difficult to translate perfectly into English. It's called 진달래꽃 (Azaleas).


나 보기가 역겨워
가실 때에는
말없이 고이 보내 드리오리다

영변에 약산
아름 따다 가실 길에 뿌리오리다

가시는 걸음 걸음
놓인 그 꽃을
사뿐히 즈려밟고 가시옵소서

나 보기가 역겨워
가실 때에는
죽어도 아니 눈물 흘리오리다

Friday, September 4, 2020

Making Money in the Foreign Service

We have really enjoyed taking the past few months and years to think about our long-term financial goals and make plans for how to get there. You can find the full spectrum of financial security among U.S. Foreign Service members: those who live paycheck to paycheck, those who were doing fine until a devstating illness or unforeseen circumstance changed everything, those who are comfortable, and those who are very well off. I thought I would take some of the most general guidelines we've learned and share them for those looking for information on where to begin. This is especially relevant if you're starting out in the Foreign Service but to some extent probably applies to most everyone.

The most important thing we've learned through introspection and research is that everyone's financial goals are a little bit different. Some people want to increase their net income as much as possible as soon as possible. Others want to build wealth in the long-term for future generations. It's crucial that each person as an individual or household decide what your goals are first. Then you can figure out the best way to achieve those goals.

No matter how young you are or how early in your career you are, it's important to think about retirement. In fact, the sooner you start, the better! I've heard generic advice like "save 10-15% of what you earn as retirement" before, but that may or may not be the most effective for you. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (like me) or others who tithe 10% of their gross income and have other expenses like union dues, health insurance, and more, putting away an additional 15% may not work. Other expenses like eldercare or chronic illness treatment may make it less feasible, too. Moreover, shorter-term goals like saving up for a down payment on a home might mean those contributions change over time. Regardless, it's worth thinking about retirement strategically and revisiting retirement preparations regularly.

In the U.S. Department of State, we have access to what's called a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), where the government will match our contributions up to a certain percentage each year. Everyone agrees maximizing your TSP's matching is a good idea and that you should diversify your investment, but there are a lot of differing opinions about how best to do that given the fact that you can choose how your savings are allocated between fund types. Read up on different philosophies, compare the pros and cons (e.g., how much time and energy you need to spend monitoring financial markets to sustain that strategy, what the growth rates are for fund types, and how much risk you want to take), and then choose what's right for you. The free TSP allocation guide is a great place to start.

If you lack knowledge and experience in this area, a financial advisor (or two or three) can be a huge help. We had the best experience talking to experts who could understand our unique situation: people who are current or former Foreign Service members or who worked with our community frequently. One excellent resource is The Purpose of Money; on their website you can sign up to get a financial tips newsletter, enjoy a financial literacy podcast, or set up a free consultation. We also talked to mentors we knew had successfully invested in real estate and other areas we were interested in so we could benefit from their wisdom and experience. Most people are happy to pay it forward.

I hope this post was helpful to other folks on their own financial journeys. If you have your own advice or recommended resources to share, please leave them in the comments below!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Best Board Games for a Pandemic

If you're like us, you're spending a lot more time at home during this pandemic. We've seen a lot of recommendations for things to binge on Netflix, read on Kindle, and order online. But what about if you want to have some wholesome fun with your family or roommates while giving your eyes a rest from the screen you're probably staring at most of the day and night? Well, then this post is for you.

I thought I'd put together a list of some of our top board games that we can recommend for folks who are social distancing. After all, the games you want to play as a household can be quite different from the ones that fit better at a larger party. (And it's no secret in the Foreign Service community that many U.S. diplomats are full-on board game geeks.) Here are some of our favorites:

  • Pandemic (2-4 players): Of course this had to top the list! Besides being the perfect ironic game for our time, it's the first co-op game Marwan and I enjoyed playing over and over again. This is a great introductory game for people who are more used to playing games where all the players compete against each other, and it doesn't take too long to learn.
  • Forbidden Island/Forbidden Desert (2-4 players/2-5 players): These two are made by the same folks who created Pandemic. The mechanics are different, but both are still cooperative games. These are great ones to turn to when you get tired of playing Pandemic (or if you keep winning on Heroic mode).
  • Fluxx (2-6 players): This is usually M's favorite. This is by far the easiest one to start. The rules are simple (or at least start that way), the cards explain most of everything you need to know, and it doesn't take long to set up or play.
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill/Betrayal at Baldur's Gate (3-6 players): These games are almost exactly the same, but the former is set at a haunted house and the latter is based on Dungeons and Dragons. For the first part of the game, you work together to explore the area. At some point, your exploration will trigger a shift to the second part of the game with a variety of scenarios and rules that will apply depending on chance. Sometimes it's every man for himself, others you work together against the game, and sometimes one of you will become a traitor. The diversity of scenarios, all extremely well done by professional game writers, gives these great replay value.
  • Codenames (2-∞ players): This one is known more as a party game, but did you know you can play it with just two people? Check the instructions for fun variations on the rules that allow you to play it with a group of any size. This one is simple, fast, and doesn't require a lot of explanation. (Also, for those in language class: Codenames is available in some non-English languages, as well!)
  • Terraforming Mars (1-5 players): My wonderful sister shipped this game to us as a surprise, and we love it! The best way I can think of to describe it is a cross between Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. I would recommend this more for people who already like board games and want to add a new one to their collection. And yes, you can even play this game by yourself (though we haven't tried that version ourselves).

We hope you enjoyed this list. Feel free to let us know any of your favorite #quarantinelife board games below in the comments so we can expand our collection, too!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Celebrating an Anniversary Mid-Pandemic

Happy anniversary to us! We weren't able to do the things we originally planned to commemorate this year's milestone anniversary, but we went out of our way to make it special while still respecting public health guidelines during a pandemic. When we knew we wouldn't be at our next post and wouldn't be able to travel for our anniversary, we looked around for other options to get away from our claustrophic, one-bedroom apartment by the city. We were thrilled to find this delightful private yurt nestled in a small town by the Blue Ridge Mountains on Airbnb. The best part was that it was part of a category of Airbnb rentals with "Enhanced Clean", meaning the host "committed to a rigorous cleaning protocol developed with leading health and hospitality experts". Our hosts were wonderful, responsive, and went above and beyond to prevent the spread of COVID-19: from sanitizing the doorknobs to letting us check ourselves in with a key instead of interacting with other people.

We took the weekend away to enjoy nature and the beautiful outdoor spaces our home state of Virginia has to offer. We saw a bunch of wildlife, including multiple families of deer, black bears (a momma and her cub), and this adorable wild rabbit (pictured below). During the day, we went for walks and enjoyed beautiful plants and not-quite-ripe blackberry bushes. At night, we watched fireflies light up the grassy fields as the sunset turned to dusk. It was beautiful and reminded me of some of the things I love and miss most of our home when we're away.

For a few meals, we ate outside at a few restaurants with socially distanced tables and mask requirements. It definitely felt different than dining out did before the pandemic, but it was a special treat after months away from restaurants. We had everything from German fare to American breakfast food to Peruvian delicacies to very unusual and exciting artisanal chocolate. (I couldn't help myself and bought some cocoa nibs herbal tea, halwa chocolate from Dubai, and pistachio/fig dark chocolate. I also tried shrimp and bonito chocolate for the first time, which isn't nearly as off-putting as one might expect.)

Lastly, we sought out online experiences we could safely from our yurt to help make the weekend more special. We did an intro to Argentinian tango class run by an expert in Buenos Aires who taught us not only the moves but also the culture of tango. We booked a session with a composer in Singapore to improvise custom music for stories we shared about our life together (the first photo of this post). We even danced again to our first dance song at our own wedding. The best thing about all of these moments was that they allowed us to create that special feeling of celebration and commemoration even if we couldn't go to the places hosting those events.

But all things must come to an end, and so has our weekend away from it all. As disappointing as it was for us (like so many others) to forgo their plans this year, we have been able to reaffirm our appreciation for those things we miss and create happy new memories anyway. And, thankfully, we get to keep doing it all together.

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!