Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Gorgeous Weekend in Georgia

That's right, we're back in the United States (just for a few weeks of vacation)! We had two weddings and a bachelorette party to attend all around the same time, so we decided to make the trip despite the pandemic - especially since we are thankfully both fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We packed tons of masks and hand sanitizer, grabbed our recent negative COVID test results (mandatory for both entering the United States and entering Korea right now), and made our way to Incheon Airport.

When we arrived in Korea, everything was such a blur that we couldn't appreciate just how fantastic the airport is. This time we enjoyed the experience much more. Everything was efficient and comfortable, and we saw some special things, too. For example, there was a Korean cultural center with a woman providing live music on a traditional instrument called the Gayageum (yes, the same one I tried playing before). There was also an adorable robot milling around seeing if it could be helpful to any passengers on their way. It spoke several languages and seemed like it had a lot of AI-driven functions.

After a long plane journey sitting next to someone who blasted her upbeat music so loud through her headphones we could hear every song the whole flight (and a brief bout of intense stress at a possible leaving behind of our suitcases that turned out to be a false alarm), we finally landed in Atlanta. M was determined that our rental car be a Tesla, so we climbed into our Model S for the weekend and got to our hotel in Calhoun, Georgia around midnight. I could probably do a whole blog post on the differences between COVID-19 mitigation in the United States and South Korea, but that was by far the biggest reverse culture shock I experienced. In Korea, not wearing a mask in public - even if you're outside and fully vaccinated - can cost you a hefty fine and a confrontation with public health enforcers. Even at the airport in the United States, many travelers were unmasked (even while not eating or drinking) or did not wear their masks properly. Once we got to Calhoun, some folks gave us the stink eye for wearing masks, but having just gotten off an international flight and crossed three airports we were probably protecting them even more than protecting us. One of our friends told us that the local vaccination rate for even one COVID-19 shot was only 25%, so I'll admit that lack of community protection against the transmission we'd taken for granted in Seoul was a bit stressful.

We took extra precautions as a result, and that included me forgoing the chance to attend one of my favorite attractions in my whole home country: The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Many of my friends and coworkers know my deep love for coke products and The World of Coca-Cola in particular. I went there once as part of a high school trip and fell in love with the place. Years later, I dragged M back to Georgia as part of an American South road trip to experience the magic of The World of Coca-Cola with me, and I am unashamed to admit I shed a few tears of joy that it was just as magical as I'd remembered from my teenage years. This time, though, we made the tough call to skip it: they have no vaccination requirement and the whole attraction is indoors. That was more risk than I was willing to take, so the most "Georgia" thing we did was eat lots and lots of barbecue (pictured above).

The real reason we went to Georgia was for my friend C's wedding. C was the roommate of one of my best friends from high school and college, L. I'd gotten to know C's fiancee (then-girlfriend) B when we were together in the groom's party for L, and they are truly a perfect match. It was wonderful to come to C's hometown and see him and B married on his grandparents' stunning estate (which I confirmed had thankfully not been a slave plantation after one of my colleagues thoughtfully asked). The couple had so many personal touches, from signature cocktails for them and their two cats to a sweet ceremony officiated by a dear friend to a full Southern barbecue dinner in the spirit of the venue.

I think my favorite part, though, was an epic private fireworks show we could all watch from the house's steps. It was a perfectly clear night full of stars above and fireflies below, with the explosions of fireworks lighting up the sky in golds, greens, and reds. Of course, M took the opportunity to play around with my Pixel smartphone camera modes, including Night Sight (for astrophotography that actually captures stars) and Top Shot (a feature that uses AI to determine where during your video the best shots are and suggests them as still frame photos to separate).

The next morning we joined the same friends from the wedding for brunch with a Waffle House Food Truck outside the family home of C's parents. We were so busy stuffing our faces that I forgot to take a photo of the food truck, but I did snap a pic of an awesome room inside the house with wet signatures of all presidents of the United States, collected by my friend's grandfather throughout his life. The older ones were purchased, but many of the more recent presidents had signed personal letters or other documents specifically for my friend's family. (This Barack Obama signature is from a personal letter to the family in 2014.) How cool is that?

Before we left Calhoun, we took some time to visit a few sites safely outdoors. The first stop was a rock garden located behind the local Seventh-day Adventist church. Since 2007, a man named Dewitt Boyd "Old Dog" (and later his wife) assembled beautiful rock and shell replicas of castles, villages, and iconic buildings surrounded by beautiful flowers as a place to celebrate art and facilitate prayer and contemplation. I was blown away by this sculpture of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, complete with stained glass windows!

Then, we visited the historic site and park of New Echota, previous capital of the Cherokee Nation and the place where the infamous Trail of Tears began. It was a particularly meaningful stop this weekend as the first Indigenous Peoples' Day recognized by the President of the United States. At New Echota, we learned about the lives of Cherokees in the 1800s, which encompassed a diverse range of experiences. Some Native Americans resisted colonial expansion and fought to maintain their sovereignty and culture, while others assimilated. The New Echota sites were beautifully maintained, though I was disappointed at some of the euphemisms used in the explanatory texts. For example, the brochure we were given mentioned the New Echota tavern had a takeout window to serve "those whom the Innkeeper did not allow inside." I had to ask a staff member to confirm that included slaves of African descent owned by Native American farmers in New Echota.

There were many impressively reconstructed buildings and artifacts, including the building and press from the first Native American printed paper (The Cherokee Phoenix) in Cherokee, the first Native American written language. I was pleasantly surprised at how critical of the United States government the historical accounts were, particularly in the small museum portion of the site. It is clear that the United States repeatedly violated Native American sovereignty, even when indigenous peoples acted perfectly in accordance with signed treaties and within U.S. institutions. Two examples that stuck with me were the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court case and the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.

In Worcester v. Georgia, even though the Supreme Court ruled in the Cherokees' favor and affirmed that Native American nations were "distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights", U.S. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling. The 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which relinquished enormous amounts of Cherokee land, was signed by a few Cherokee leaders but was never approved by the council mandated in the nation's governing documents. (The council meetinghouse is pictured below.) In fact, the majority of Cherokees opposed the treaty and the Cherokee signers were eventually assassinated. Although it was legally illegitimate, the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty, which laid the groundwork for the Trail of Tears on which over 4,000 Cherokees died.

We must not forget the darker side of our history for many reasons. We must not repeat the mistakes and betrayals previously committed. But crucially, we must also acknowledge past wrongs and take concrete action to mitigate the harm that continues from the decisions of our ancestors - whether they be biological predecessors or just people whose legacy we personally benefit from today. A good place to start is to learn more about the history of indigenous people wherever you live and then listen to indigenous people today when they advocate for policies or steps we can take to make things better.

With that, our weekend in Georgia went by in a flash. We left with reflective minds, warm hearts, and full bellies - we couldn't have asked for more. Congrats to B and C, and we look forward to returning to the Peach State again someday!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

I Voted Absentee! Did You?

I just sent in my absentee ballot! Just because we live overseas doesn't mean we lack a home. And voting is one way we can advocate for things that matter to us back home: what policies are getting tabled or implemented, how our taxes are being spent, the way local schools are being run, and more. I love exercising my democratic right to vote, one that many around the world wish they had and advocate for every day.

A lot of folks don't vote unless there's a presidential election happening, and plenty of people don't vote at all. But I love voting every year! Votes make a difference, especially in smaller, local elections where fewer people turn out to the polls. As a Foreign Service Officer, I am bound by the Hatch Act - which limits some of my political expression. So although you won't see me out here campaigning for specific parties or candidates, I will make it a point to make my voice heard by voting and by encouraging other people to vote.

I personally find absentee voting so much more convenient than voting in person. That way, I can vote on my own time and don't have to worry about traffic or lines or party reps right outside the polling station trying to hand me pre-filled sample ballots. In my home state of Virginia, they allow people to vote absentee as long as you request the mail-in ballot in advance.

I also know from personal experience that they have safeguards in place to prevent voter fraud. One time, I went to a polling station in person because I never received a ballot. They confirmed at the polling station that I was sent an absentee ballot but it must have gotten lost in the mail. I had to fill out a provisional ballot in person that would be voided if my mail-in ballot were ever found completed and included in the tally. From what I saw, they take election security seriously!

Are you registered to vote? If not, go to vote.gov now and sign up to vote in this year's elections! You can also see if your state allows absentee voting by mail on Ballotpedia, which also lists whether an excuse for absentee voting is required. Regardless of your political leanings or party membership, I hope you take the time to register and vote! The future of our country is up to us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What's Corridor Reputation?

I was surprised when writing my previous blog post on my recent promotion and referencing "corridor reputation" to realize that I hadn't done a blog post explaining it yet. So for those who are unfamiliar with how things work in the Foreign Service (or who are just very new), here's a brief introduction. Corridor reputation is kind of what it sounds like: what people know and say about you and whisper to each other in the literal and metaphorical hallways of the Department of State.

Where corridor reputation comes most into play in the Foreign Service is for bidding, or getting your next job. For decades, hiring managers have used corridor reputation to help determine whom they select for a job (and whom they avoid like the plague). Applicants do the same thing: for example, when I learned I was heading to Seoul for my second tour a friend of mine warned me about a particular manager at the Embassy there who had a terrible corridor reputation. Specifically, this manager was known for making inappropriate comments, picking on their subordinates, and overlooking the forest for the trees. And honestly, I saw for myself that that particular corridor reputation was well earned.

People tend to feel very strongly one way or another about corridor reputation. I've heard multiple experienced Foreign Service Officers say things like, "Promotions and awards are unfair, but bidding and corridor reputation are usually spot-on." At the same time, many officers - especially women and minorities - have pointed out how a process that relies on something as opaque and schmoozy as corridor reputation perpetuates networks of "old boys' clubs" and is rife with unconscious bias. Some argue it is no better than gossip subject to the same whims as any high school popularity contest.

I have conflicted feelings about it. I see the real damage it has caused but I've also seen people dodge bullets thanks to corridor reputation. I'm sure there must be a better way to keep the good parts and mitigate the bad, and there have been several very thoughtful pieces addressing this issue recently. This year, there are also several pilot programs ongoing with Department of State Foreign Service bidding that aim to explore alternatives to the existing, corridor reputation-dependent system.

So what do you think? Does corridor reputation help or hurt? Is there a better way we should be doing things? Let me know in the comments - I love hearing people's thoughts and new ideas about it!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 Years Since 9/11

I can't believe it's been 20 years since 9/11. Every American who was old enough to know something was going on remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. For me, I was in elementary school. I remember that suddenly everything that day stopped. My school cancelled classes and the teachers turned on all the TVs. All of the adults around me were crying, and I wasn't old enough to really understand why but I didn't think I'd ever seen so many grown-ups crying all together before. Growing up in northern Virginia, there was an extra fear among some of the families that a loved one might have been killed in the Pentagon attack.

I remember sitting, confused and sad, with all the other students as we waited for our parents to come and pick us up. I don't recall much else from that day. After that, though, things would never really be the same. So many people in my community came together to comfort and support each other. That experience didn't extend equally to everyone, though. Later, I learned that some of my friends who were Arab or Muslim or looked Arab or Muslim to others were treated very differently from that day all because some people decided they were the enemy.

There is no excuse for heinous terrorist attacks, and there's no justification for discrimination and violence against marginalized groups, either. Whenever I write or see or hear #NeverForget, of course I think of how we must not forget the enormous human cost of that day: the lives lost, the physical and mental health permanently harmed, the friends and family with a gaping hole where their loved ones should still be. We also must not forget the goodness of the first responders, of those who helped others trying to escape, and the people all over the country and world who came together to mourn with us. We must also never forget the temptation embedded in the worst parts of human nature to blame someone just because they are different from us.

If you have time today, I highly recommend listening to the latest episode of a podcast I love called The Experiment: What 9/11 Did to One Family. With an excellent combination of strong reporting and compassion, they interview the family members of Bobby McIlvaine, Jr., one of the almost 3,000 Americans who died in the attacks 20 years ago today. I loved an analogy of grief referenced in the episode: grief is like everyone affected being at the top of a mountain with a broken leg. They all need to make their own way to the bottom of the mountain, but they can't rely on each other the same way they otherwise would because they all have the same problem: the broken leg. Everyone needs to make their own path down in their own time.

I hope everyone reading this post is making their own way down the mountain of grief, whatever form that's taken. If you or someone you care about is struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other adverse mental health effects, which research shows can increase around anniversaries of traumatic events, please don't hesitate to talk to a grief psychologist or other mental health professional. Let's take care of ourselves and each other.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

I Got Promoted to 03!

I was so thrilled to wake up on Saturday morning to a flurry of congratulations text messages and emails letting me know I was promoted! All Foreign Service Officers are hired somewhere between the grades of 06 and 04. They count up in reverse order, and regardless of where you started everyone progresses automatically to 04 by the time you're up for tenure. Every promotion after you get tenure is competitive and based on your Employee Evaluation Reports (EERs).

Going up a grade makes you competitive for higher-level jobs and comes with an increase in pay. Like the vast majority of U.S. federal government salaries, our pay scales are public and you can see them online. So I just went from 04 to 03! (The levels above that are 02, then 01, then the Senior Foreign Service. There aren't as many grades as you would expect.) Something unique about these promotions is that cables (basically special emails) go out to the entire Department of State announcing the full list of people who were promoted at each level. That's how so many friends and colleagues found out I was promoted even before I did. (I was fast asleep here in Seoul when the cable came out worldwide.)

I know some people really hate the public nature of tenure and promotion lists, but I personally love it. The past few years I haven't even been eligible for promotion, but I enjoyed seeing colleagues and mentors on the tenure and promotion cables throughout and sending them congratulations. It's a great opportunity to catch up, maintain your network, and share in the joy for people you care about and respect. I received congratulatory messages from people I haven't seen in years, and it was great to reconnect.

If I have any advice for people who are trying to get promoted from 04 to 03, it's to try to focus on doing the most interesting work you can get with the best bosses you can find. If you're passionate about your job and surrounded be great mentors and people, you'll have plenty of opportunities to shine (and the EERs are so much easier to write). I didn't get tenured on my first look, but that didn't stop me from getting promoted at the first opportunity. All I had this year were three EERs, one of which was only about six months long instead of the usual year thanks to COVID 19-related delays. But I was fortunate to do fun, fascinating work with an array of great managers who valued my contributions and with whom I'd be happy to work again.

Talking to my entry-level peers, I realize that is not the case for too many of us. And of course, you have limited control earlier in your career when your assignments are directed. But if you don't get promoted in your first two tours, the greater power you have at the mid-level to decide your next steps might be just what you need to blow the socks off the next promotion board.

Honestly, this promotion felt so validating at a time when I've been shedding some of the meekness and fear of taking up too much space I had when I first started public service. My latest career motto is "Some things are worth burning a little corridor reputation for" and I have been trying to stay true to it in my second tour. (I'll do a whole post on corridor reputation at some point, but to sum up it's the professional reputation that determines so much of your fate in the Foreign Service.)

I couldn't picture myself ignoring inappropriate comments and putting my head down even when I shouldn't have to for the next 10-20 years, so I've started speaking up more. And although it puts some people off, I've found it's also brought me many new connections and allies. I'm so grateful for the mentors who blazed the trail and made a better institution for me, and I want to make sure I do the same for those who follow. And today it feels like even in this notoriously rigid, bureaucratic, resistant-to-change organization that there may be space for people like me. (Or that we can make it ourselves.) And that is something worth celebrating!

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Someone Made Art of Me!

There's an amazing mixed-race Korean artist named Lee-Won Fulbright who recently completed an art project featuring other mixed-race Koreans. I was so honored to be one of the people included in her art, and with her permission I'm sharing the results on the blog. She combined photos and illustrations of us in a Korean patchwork quilt style called jogakbo (조각보). (Do you recognize the photo in mine?) Tradition jogakbo is made from scraps of left-over fabric, and I thought it was a beautiful way to represent the different parts and pieces that make us who we are especially as people of mixed Korean heritage.

Every piece in this collection includes the word honhyeol (혼혈), a word I have heard often in Korean class, the news, and more and more in life. If you look this word up in a Korean-English dictionary, you could get any translation from "(neutral) mixed-race" to "(derogatory) half-breed". If I understand the word correctly, the most literal translation is "mixed blood", a heavy word in a culture that was once known for tanil minjok (단일민족). Tanil minjok is a historical Korean ethnic nationalism that focuses on pure bloodlines. As Korea becomes more multicultural, the idea of who or what can be Korean is (slowly) changing.

These are just some of the things that mixed-race Korean people and mixed-race people in general wrestle with on a constant basis: how we identify, how others see us, whether we can be fully accepted by any of our constituent parts, and more. I have deeply enjoyed talking with other mixed people about these issues and how they have shaped our understanding of ourselves, others, and the greater communities we inhabit. Like all great art, Lee-Won's work is both aesthetically beautiful and a meaningful conversation starter. I highly recommend you check out all her work on her website.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

When the World Is Heavy

There is so much suffering going on in the world right now. In addition to already raging crises in Ethiopia, Yemen, Xinjiang, and elsewhere, there was recently a massive earthquake in Haiti and of course the ongoing rush evacuation from Afghanistan. I'm not an expert on any of these issues or those countries, and I think a lot of harm has come from pundits and even foreign policy professionals spouting their various hot takes around the clock. I don't want to add to that noise.

It's difficult when you work in international affairs not to be affected by such events, but the influence on our lives as observers or even responders cannot possibly be compared to those whose reality it truly is. A prominent journalist I won't name posted on Instagram something I found absolutely revolting regarding their experience reporting in Afghanistan. They said it's been "extraordinary" for their "career" and boasted about the chance to "get a front row seat on history", all while promoting their own book. Unfortunately, I've heard some others in the field express ongoing events in similar terms, focusing on how working in a crisis situation will help them earn a promotion or give them something to brag about on social media. Others have expressed envy that they don't get to be on the ground in the action.

There's nothing wrong with drawing attention to world events, especially when so many lack access to reliable information. And I know I am grateful for my colleagues who have volunteered to serve and help as many people as possible, including some who have done so at great risk to themselves. But I wish more of the posts I saw with political opinions, articles of varying credibility (and some that I'm pretty sure are part of disinformation campaigns meant to sow discord among the American public), or just photos of people I know in faraway lands expressing anger or sadness included something else.

So I wanted to use this space to do two things I wish I saw more of out there in the world. First, to those who are hurting and struggling with what's happening: know that you are not alone. To those who are most directly affected, those who don't parachute into a crisis and get to parachute out months later safe and secure: I will do my best to make sure you are not forgotten. And I will do my best to listen to you first.

Second, I wanted to share some links and resources for those who want to help but don't know how. Please see a very modest list below of places where your donation could make a big difference (in no particular order):

  • Doctors without Borders: They're providing lifesaving humanitarian care around the world, including in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Yemen.
  • International Rescue Committee: They help refugees, displaced people, and others devastated by crises, and they just put out a major call for immediate emergency funding to support people in Afghanistan.
  • CNN Haiti Earthquake Relief: CNN vetted 33 charity organizations that are helping on the ground in Haiti right now that need support.
  • CNN Help for Afghanistan Refugees: CNN vetted 15 charity organizations that are helping refugees from Afghanistan right now that need support.
  • United Nations World Food Programme: They save and change lives through the gift of food assistance to vulnerable children and families.

Even if you don't have money to spare, I recommend reading more on the issues above and contacting your Congressional representatives to let them know what you think. Every little bit counts. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

How Good Are You at Spotting Fake News?

Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am fascinated by fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. There are so many nexuses to that issue, from sociology to technology to science communication to media studies to political science and the list goes on. (It's also a U.S. government priority with respect to my Foreign Service track, Public Diplomacy.) As it's a hot topic in academia right now, there's a lot of scholarship coming out about how we can understand misinformation and combat it.

One of the areas of research that intrigues me the most is called "prebunking", the idea that you can "inoculate" people against false information by introducing them to techniques bad actors use to manipulate people and spread fake news. There are a number of quick, free online games produced by top research institutions and universities that have shown to produce statistically significant improvement in users' ability to identify misinformation and change behavior.

Do you think you're good at spotting fake news and manipulation techniques online? Here are some free games and quizzes you can play in your browser where you can test your misinformation knowledge:

  • Spot the Troll: This quiz tests to see if you can spot which social media accounts are trolls or real people. My favorite part is that the makers of the game use real accounts and then provide in-depth analyses you can choose to read if you want on the troll accounts. This one was harder than I expected!
  • Fakes? No Thanks!: This very quick quiz lets you pick a topic and gives you just 20 seconds to determine whether 16 snippets of articles, social media posts, or memes about that subject are true or false. This one was also tougher than I thought it would be, and it led me to realize a particular image I've seen and believed for years was fake.
  • Bad News: This game has you pretend to be a fake news-generating mastermind. It's a little grim going through these techniques and realizing just how common they are, but it does help you recognize better when someone is trying to pull one of these tricks on you.
  • Go Viral: This one is similar to Bad News, but it's shorter and specifically focused on COVID-19 misinformation.
  • Troll Factory: This is similar to Bad News, except it uses actual social media posts people made in real life and is focused on anti-immigration trolls in a European context. This one needs a big content warning: some of the social media content is extremely offensive (I saw racist, violent, and Islamophobic language when I played).
  • Breaking Harmony Square: This game has you use disinformation to wreck a town. Unlike Troll Factory, the storylines are fake, wholesome, and less politically charged so it's more accessible to a wider audience.
  • Fake It To Make It: This is by far the most complex of all the games, as the others are generally just click-through decision trees while this one lets you manage a budget, name and choose designs for your fake news sites, and more.
  • BBC Bitesize quiz: Can you spot the signs of fake news? This isn't so much a "game" as a quick "find the differences" type of exercise. There are nine indicators that a particular news article is fake. If you miss any of them, you can scroll down and watch a video explaining all nine.

What I love about those games and quizzes is that they're informative but also fun. It seems counterintuitive that providing information on what bad actors are doing could prove helpful for society (instead of just helping manipulative people be more manipulative), but the reality is fake news generators already know what they're doing. The key is to help us, the people being targeted, realize what they're doing before we fall for it. And all people - no matter how smart, how critically thinking, or how educated - are vulnerable to manipulation that plays on our pre-existing beliefs and biases. We all have a part to play in stopping the spread of fake news and verifying information before we share it. If you know of any other games or resources on this topic, feel free to comment below!

Monday, August 9, 2021

Happy Anniversary to Us!

We popped over to Daejeon (대전) for a weekend trip to celebrate our anniversary! Daejeon was where my parents met and fell in love all those decades ago, so it seemed like a romantic choice.

With the pandemic still raging in Korea, we wanted to get away from Seoul while doing things that minimized the risk of spreading COVID-19. Many of the things we would have otherwise done (like the famous Yuseong Foot Baths, a free public foot bath drawing water from hot springs, pictured above) were completely shut down for now for public health reasons. Daejeon is known for its STEM research and education, so another stop that was closed down this time was the Geological Museum. Maybe next time!

We took a bit of a detour on our way to Daejeon to drive to Donghaksa (동학사) Temple. My mom mentioned she brought me there when I was really little, but I was so young I don't remember. It was easy to picture what my little family must have looked like, though, because plenty of parents with small kids brought them there to play in the shallow streams alongside the Temple walking path. Strangely, we saw almost no non-Asian people this entire trip, so several people stared at us and a few older men even asked us where we were from (and seemed satisfied when we said "U.S.A."). Anyway, the forest path was so tranquil, and given how hot it was we were grateful for the shade.

The next day, we explored the city of Daejeon a bit. We were thrilled to find the hotel where my dad was living when he first came to Korea still standing! My dad was working for a private telecommunications company in those days, doing some small part to help Korea become the most connected country in the world today. Where he stayed was called the Yousung Hotel, it was located right by the river, and it has been in operation for over 100 years! We dropped by the hotel lobby and stumbled upon a beautiful display of copies of Korean artifacts, including the world's oldest movable metal type (predating Gutenberg by 78 years). (You can read more about Korea's history of movable type innovation on the UNESCO website if you're interested.)

After that, we even found a nightclub that my parents went to called Casanova (카사노바)! We swung by during the day and they were closed, but I was amazed to see it was still there and seemed like it would be pretty popular during normal, non-pandemic times.

Then, we got out of the city a bit and went to a park called Gyejoksan (계족산) to walk its famous red clay trail (황톳길) barefoot. They have a regular walking path next to the clay path, so I honestly wasn't sure if I'd be able to convince M. But at the last minute he decided to get the full experience, so we took off our socks and shoes and plowed right onto the trail. There are shoe cubbies at the entrance, but we (and some of the other hikers) preferred to carry our shoes with us.

Some parts of the red clay were firmer and others were muddier, but our favorite parts felt like Play-Doh under our feet. Once we got to the end of where we wanted to walk, we cleaned our feet at a foot washing station, waited for them to dry, put our socks and shoes back on, and walked back on the normal path.

There was also an acupressure section where you could walk on hard, smooth rocks, but I was too scared to try it on my insufficiently calloused feet.

That night, we took the local metro to the other side of town to see the Daejeon Skyroad, an outdoor shopping area with enormous screens suspended above the walking area. It was such a great date night spot clearly targeting a young couple audience. There were karaoke bars, dessert cafes, arcades and game rooms, photo stations, and everything one might need for a memorable night on the town.

For food, we went traditional and got some of Daejeon's well-known 바지락 칼국수 (clam and knife-cut noodle soup) and rounded off the evening with a trip to Daejeon's most famous bakery, Sung Sim Dang (성심당). Of course, I had to try their signature pastry, a fried soboro bread filled with sweet red bean paste. It was delicious: crunchy on the outside and silky smooth on the inside!

We returned to Seoul at the end of the weekend with hearts (and bellies) full. We had one last anniversary celebration feast at a Mediterranean restaurant in Seoul called Cleo (클레오). Our three-course dinner was awesome. And that's another year in the books! I'm looking forward to many, many, many more.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

I Got Tenure! And It Didn't Even Take Ten Years...

My puns may actually be getting worse over time. But that's not the purpose of today's blog post, which is about how I just got tenure! If you've heard of tenure before, the first thing that probably popped into your head was tenure for a professor at a university. The Foreign Service has its own version of tenure that's a little different.

When you first join the Foreign Service as an entry-level officer (ELO, what used to be called a junior officer), you're technically a "career candidate" until you get tenured. You can be in career candidate status for up to five years, but you need to get tenured to be commissioned as a full Foreign Service Officer. The idea is that you have the time you're serving as a career candidate to demonstrate that you can succeed over a full Foreign Service career. You can read all the nitty gritty details in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) if you're so inclined; the relevant section is 3 FAM 2240.

After three years, you get what's called your "first look" at tenure. A tenure board made up of volunteers from around the Foreign Service (plus one public member who is not part of the Foreign Service) reviews all the candidates who are up for tenure that cycle and selects whom to recommend. If you fail to get tenure during your first look, you get a second look a year later. If the board thinks you still need more time to demonstrate you make the cut, you can get a third look six months after your second look.

So what are they using to decide whether you should get tenure? Your Employee Evaluation Reports, known as EERs. Tenure and promotion are the reasons EERs are so important. The vast majority of career candidates get tenured, so most ELOs don't have too much to be worried about. I didn't get tenured on my first look, but plenty of my classmates didn't, either. Many of us (including me) were tenured on our second look.

Tenure means I get to stay in the Foreign Service! (If you are not recommended for tenure, you are separated from the Service.) It also means I can now do things that only tenured officers can do, like out-year language bid (i.e., bid early on language-designated jobs where I have an active language score). It's a nice feeling to be tenured. Plus, since the tenure board results were announced across the Department of State I received a flurry of congratulatory messages from friends and colleagues around the world. M and I also had a fancy meal to celebrate the good news (where we snapped the photo at the top of this post).

Here's to one major Foreign Service milestone completed! I'm excited to see what's next.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

What 6 Months of Adjudicating Visas Taught Me

I've been at U.S. Embassy Seoul for months and have yet to blog much about my actual work here. As longtime readers may recall, my last tour was in Public Diplomacy, which happens to be my cone/track. But here in South Korea, I'm doing a completely different job: Consular (CONS) work. For the first six months of my tour, I focused on non-immigrant visa (NIV) interviews, and now I'm rotating to another unit called American Citizen Services.

What are non-immigrant visas? They're the visas you need when you travel temporarily to a foreign country. They are different from immigrant visas, which you apply for when you plan to immigrate to another country permanently. As a non-immigrant visa adjudicator, it was my job to interview dozens of applicants a day and determine whether they met the qualifications for a non-immigrant visa. These requirements are set by U.S. immigration law (as well as Presidential Proclamations, court interpretations of law, and other policies).

So in no particular order, and with the surety that I'm forgetting some key things I should add, enjoy the list of things I found interesting enough to share that I learned from six months of visa work:

  • Visa interviews are a lot of fun. I know not everyone feels this way, but I love the chance to meet so many different people from all walks of life. Everyone applying to go to the United States has their own story, and I love learning more about them.
  • Most U.S. non-immigrant visa interviews are shorter than people expect. (I can do a straightforward one in about a minute.) But each one of those interviews is an opportunity to be a Public Diplomacy representative. Regardless of the visa decision, we can give people a positive impression of our country by treating them with kindness, professionalism, and respect.
  • Visa work varies wildly from post to post. Countries with more or less fraud, lower or higher issuance rates, and other factors will have very different applicant pools and post policies. For example, South Korea is part of the visa waiver program with the United States. As a result, many tourists and business travelers can go back and forth between our countries without a visa. That is not the case for the vast majority of countries.
  • Sometimes, people will lie to your face. You can't take it personally.
  • Once you become a Consular Officer, tons of people come out of the woodwork to try and ask you for visa advice. They often don't realize they're putting you in an awkward position, because you have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. You don't want to give people the impression that knowing a Consular official or Embassy employee will give them a leg up in the visa application process. (It doesn't. If a friend comes in for a visa appointment, someone else has to interview them.) When someone asks me for visa or immigration advice, I always suggest they ask a lawyer.
  • There is a real camaraderie that comes with serving "on the line" with other entry-level officers. This was something I missed out on in my first post, where I was the only junior officer in my section. But now, I'm glad I got to enjoy the experience of sharing window hours with my colleagues, being part of a team of peers, and laughing over so many stories where you just had to be there.
  • Language skills can really help you out in a Consular job. Almost every day, I did a few interviews in Korean. It helped me maintain some of my language skills, but it also helped me save time during interviews.
  • In the digital age, people will leave reviews about you online. My colleagues and I read a few reviews of ourselves together for fun the other day. Someone referred to me as 백인 브루넷 (white brunette) and another called me "the lady who's always smiling and laughing" or something like that... I'll take it!

I'm glad Consular work is a requirement for entry-level Foreign Service Generalists. From my time in PD, I know that visa-related sections of Embassy websites (and posts on social media) usually get by far the most engagement. And any Foreign Service member can tell you that regardless of your position a contact will eventually mention something about a visa, and it's good to have some idea what they're talking about. I also think it gives new officers a common shared experience to draw from and connect with, while providing an opportunity for us to build our networks and meet a crucial overseas service need. What's not to love? I'm thankful for my time in NIV, and it may not be my last.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Independence Weekend Getaway in Gangneung

We decided to take another road trip to the east coast of Korea for the long weekend around the Fourth of July. This time, we left right after work on Friday and that rush hour Seoul traffic is no joke! Things improved dramatically once we got out of the capital area, but it's probably best to leave earlier or later if you're traveling to the coast for the weekend. We arrived in Gangneung and checked into St. John's Hotel, an enormous place right by the beach. They have accommodations for every traveler in Gangneung, from small "pensions" to motels to campsites to resorts to Airbnbs. Places tend to book up months in advance, though, so it's best to lock in your reservations early.

Once we reached our destination, we swung by an adorable little French cafe called C'est la vie and I fell in love with it. It was so small and quirky from the location to the decor, and the little chocolate terrine I had was delicious. If that wasn't enough, they had little guestbooks and stationery there for you to leave messages for other customers. It was a delightful experience, and as we were leaving the woman working there called out and ran to give us little sachets of purple flowers she bundled up for us. It was obvious we were foreigners, and she said it was a little thank-you gift for visiting. I cannot recommend this cafe highly enough! Definitely stop by if you find yourself in Gangneung.

Saturday morning, we walked along the beach and through a pine forest trail by the hotel and took photos with various art installations scattered throughout the area. One thing that's fun about traveling in Korea is the care devoted to Instagrammable setups for photos all over the place. The part of the beach we explored is one of many beaches with a beautiful backdrop and swings or photo frames or other props for visitors.

After that, we popped over to Jumunjin (주문진) to visit the famous bus stop from a BTS album cover. We took a group photo there together with the ocean waves in the background. There was even a picture of the well-known photo of BTS taped to the wall inside the bus stop itself. Do you recognize the place?

Our next stop was Ojukheon (오죽헌), which was really high on my list. For just 3,000 Korean won (less than $3) per person, we could check out the home and grounds of one of Korea's two most famous Confucian scholars: Yulgok Yi I (율곡이이). He and his mother, Shin Saimdang (신사임당), are both immortalized on the Korean 5,000 and 50,000 won banknotes respectively.

Back in those days, scholars did a bit of everything when it came to intellectual arts: painting, poetry, calligraphy, prose, and the list goes on. I had read several summaries of Ojukheon that only described Shin Saimdang as Yulgok's mother, but I learned actually visiting the site that she was an accomplished painter and artist herself. There was a museum highlighting some of the family's works, but the thing that impressed me the most were preserved sesame seeds with calligraphy on them from centuries ago! I can't even imagine the tools that were used at a time without microscopes or lasers to make such intricate art, but I was blown away by the skill and creativity. (Who would even think to do calligraphy on a sesame seed?)

There was also an original book written by Yulgok and the accompanying inkstone he used. I was shocked to see such a priceless national treasure on display without security guards or anything, but there were CCTV cameras and signs everywhere. Those cameras must work well, because everything seemed to be in great shape.

We also got to peek inside some of the rooms of the traditional hanok (한옥) house where Shin Saimdang and Yulgok grew up. The room where Shin Saimdang gave birth to Yulgok is named after a dream she had about a dragon during the birth. This was back in 1536, so I can only imagine what it was like to deliver a baby on that hard wooden floor, so delirious from the pain and the experience that you can't help but dream of dragons. Historical and cultural sites are some of the coolest places to visit!

To round off our Saturday night, we split off from the other N&M because I wanted to drag Marwan to a tofu place for dinner. A lot of the traditional Korean restaurants in the area serve tofu and seafood and not much else, so it may not be appealing to every palate. But I'd heard of how amazing the tofu is at Chodang Tofu Village (초당두부마을), a neighborhood right by the hotel, so I had to try it. M isn't the biggest tofu connoisseur himself, but thankfully we found a place where I could get a tofu stew (순두부) set and he could enjoy a massive, greasy potato pancake (감자전). It was the perfect hot comfort food for a drizzly evening.

On Sunday we slept in and then explored some restaurants and cafes in the area, including at Gangneung Coffee Street. Two restaurants we can recommend for a filling and tasty meal are Long Bread (롱브레드 강릉점) for sandwiches and Western food as well as Rui (루이식당) for Japanese food.

One of the things we love about Korea is the prevalence of dessert cafe culture. A lot of restaurants don't serve dessert, but that gives you the perfect excuse to find a place that specializes in coffee, tea, and cakes or other treats instead. And especially when you only have a few days to see a certain town, it means you can cover a lot more ground with limited meals.

We went for a walk after dinner and stumbled across a walking path called Wolhwa Street (월화거리) that used to be the site of railroad tracks but has since been converted to a romantic pedestrian trail (pictured in the first photo of this post). It had a magical feeling that reminded us of the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away, as if we were crossing over to a fantasy realm. I spent some time reading online afterward what the story was behind the place, but sources kept referencing a love story I'm not familiar with from Korean lore: Hwarang Muwolrang and Yeonhwa. If you know the story, please let me know in the comments below!

Since it was the Fourth of July, we bought some small sparklers and fireworks at a local convenience store called GS25 after dinner. (Turns out, pretty much every convenience store in a beach town in Korea sells these.) We walked out to Anmok Beach (안목해변), launched our little fireworks, lit our sparklers, and paid a modest tribute to America before calling it a night.

We had to head back to Seoul on Monday, but not before we experienced St. John's infinity pool. It was a nice way to spend a morning, but I honestly don't think it was worth the extra cost. We did snap a few memorable photos, though, and the weather was gorgeous.

We went back to Long Bread for brunch since there weren't a lot of brunch options in town. I had a delicious eggs benedict, but there was a long wait and a surprisingly large number of customers. I can't say I fully understand why there were so many people out and about on Monday given that it was a U.S. holiday and not a Korean one, but my theory is that a lot of people there were students on school break of some kind.

We queued up some podcast episodes (this time our mix included Maintenance Phase, Reply All, and The Dark Side of Seoul) and made it back to Seoul in a little over three hours. That's another Korean road trip in the books! Gangneung was a great location for a peaceful, relaxing summer weekend trip. We felt like we saw everything we needed to see, rested up, and enjoyed the great food and company. We hope your Independence Day was as good as ours. Happy Fourth of July, wherever you are!