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!