Thursday, January 21, 2021

My First Presidential Transition in Public Service

Just like that we have a new President, a new Vice President, and a whole new slate of nominees for key positions like the Secretary of State. All true defenders of democracy regardless of whether they voted for or against the President understand that a peaceful transition of power between political opponents has been one of the foundational principles undergirding our whole system of government for over 200 years. (The inauguration ceremony even included a recorded message from former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama!)

We members of the Foreign Service swear (or affirm) an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. In other words, we do not swear our allegiance to a particular political party or political leadership. That is why although certain (generally high-level) government appointments change between Presidential administrations, the overwhelming majority of our executive branch is staffed by apolitical public servants. In my view, that's a wonderful thing.

There are plenty of other parts of government devoted to partisan politics, but the crucial work of defending our national security, protecting U.S. citizens, and advancing U.S. interests around the world continues regardless of who is in power at any given moment. Every Senior Foreign Service member can look back over a career of faithful service under Republicans and Democrats, political appointees and nonpartisan bureaucrats, people they supported personally and people they didn't. But at the end of the day, we all work for the United States and its people. I look forward to continuing to do so for many years more.

If you're interested, you can see my post from the early days of this blog almost four years ago with the swearing in of my A-100 (i.e., class of new Foreign Service Officers) here. It includes the full text of the oath we took when we joined the Foreign Service and a lovely photo with our class mentor, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (who has now been nominated to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations).

Friday, January 15, 2021

My First Cultural Faux Pas in Korea

Please go easy on us foreigners! Half the time we really have no idea what we're doing. Of course, sometimes visitors to any new place are rude, but most of the time we only mess something up because we're clueless. I've only been in South Korea for a few months and I've already made two cultural faux pas. What can I say? It happens to everyone.

My first cultural faux pas was a simple gesture. I interact with a lot of Embassy customers in a given day in my current job. To keep the line moving, I need to gesture to the next waiting person to come up to my window. (For those who have never done Consular work before, let me tell you: that first day and especially that very first interview are extremely stressful. But they all get better after that, thank goodness.) But as I was trying to get used to the computer systems and interviewing procedures and immigration policy, I fell back on things that were familiar to me. Specifically, the U.S. beckoning gesture for someone to come forward.

For way too many customers, I invited them up with my palm facing up and fingers curling towards me. Apparently (I learned much later than I wished I had) this gesture is deeply offensive in Korean culture. Oops! I'm very sorry for all of those people I unknowingly made a rude gesture to at work! I didn't know any better before, but now I do. I'm so grateful that someone in the office gently corrected me. I later looked it up and to my horror learned what I was doing is known throughout the region as a demeaning gesture more fitting for animals than people. Yikes!

A few months after I learned that first lesson the hard way, I made another cultural error I realized immediately after it happened. I was giving a public diplomacy (PD) presentation to Korean university students over Zoom, and during the question and answer session one student really struggled with my last name. Realizing my surname can be difficult for Americans, let alone Koreans, I said, "You can just call me N." In American culture generally and in the State Department specifically, we are much more casual than our counterparts overseas. It seemed fine to me to ask the student to call me by my first name. I realized my misstep immediately based on the look of shock on the professor's face. She unmuted to clarify to her student: "You will call our guest Vice Consul." Korean culture is much more formal and deferential to authority than American culture, so in that moment I became a little too familiar for the Korean context.

My mistake actually reminded me of a section from Frank Ahrens's book titled Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan. Ahrens worked as the only non-Korean at Hyundai a number of years back and writes with levity about the many cultural blunders he made. One of them, tellingly, was asking people at work to call him "Frank." He later learned that his casual style and distaste for titles actually diminished the relative standing of not only himself but all of his subordinates in the eyes of others. Cultural ignorance can result in all kinds of unintended consequences, but anyone with emotional intelligence and humility who lives abroad knows that well enough.

At the end of the day, don't go too hard on yourself if you're adjusting to a new culture trying to memorize all the new rules of engagement and unlearning your own habits. Nobody is probably as embarrassed or mortified as you are when you commit a cultural faux pas. Just like most foreigners aren't looking to cause offense, most locals aren't looking for reasons to get offended. The kindest, most generous people--like the overwhelming majority of those I've met abroad--are quick to forgive. And we should be, too.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Convert's LDS Church History Primer

Happy New Year, all! I think we're all ready to move on to 2021. Now that 2020 is safely behind us, I thought I'd share some religious resources for my LDS readers (especially if you have a faith-related New Year's Resolution or want more context for this years Come, Follow Me lessons on Doctrine and Covenants). I decided 2020 was going to be the year I, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, learned more about Church history. I was kind of curious about the context of so many things we talked about in Sunday meetings. (Unfortunately, most converts like me never get to enjoy seminary in our Church.) Even some of my ancestors were pioneers (I learned after baptism) and I wanted to learn more about what life and faith was like for them. So I thought I'd write up a post on what I read, heard, and learned as a recommendation list for anyone else looking to expand their Church history horizons a bit. See the list below for the materials I used in the order I came across them:

  • "A Peculiar People": Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America by J. Spencer Fluhman: Okay, so I actually read this book before this year, but it was a great introduction recommended by my non-member friend who is completing her Ph.D in History. The author is an associate professor of history at BYU and is an active member of the Church. This historical context was a critical foundation for me. This was also the first place that I learned that anti-Mormons called Joseph Smith "American Muhammad" because of the many similarities between our religion and Islam. This fact delighted me, as a convert who noted these similarities when I first encountered the Church after studying the Middle East.
  • The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 50 Objects by Joe Hawkins: I discovered this podcast as I was looking for something to listen to on runs. I thought these would be helpful for faithful members seeking non-controversial additional information on some important turning points in Church history. I didn't enjoy the over-the-top apologist tone and choice to gloss over some of the most challenging episodes with justifications, but I did learn some things and get a better sense of the chronological progression of some important developments in Church history. The most edgy this one gets is briefly acknowledging that women used to administer blessings and that a few Black people participated fully in the Church before the Priesthood ban. That being said, it's a light, easy, and faith-promoting introduction to history content.
  • Saints, Volumes 1 and 2: This is a fantastic resource and would also be a great place for anyone to start learning about Church history. (I also used a photo from Saints online for this post.) These are available in podcast or written form (I preferred reading). Critics complain that because they are official Church products that they're biased (and they are biased towards the Church, of course), but I was pleasantly surprised how much controversial but well-researched content was included. (For example, it presents some of the evidence that Joseph deceived Emma in the practice of plural marriage and that women married to "unworthy" men were pressured/forced to leave their husbands and become polygamous wives to "worthy" members. Saints is also clear that there were multiple accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.) I hope that this important historical work, like the Gospel Topics essays, leads to more deep, necessary conversations about Church history than we get in a typical lesson.
  • Year of Polygamy by Lindsay Hansen Park: So many people I know who are still active members of the Church or who have left the Church all recommended this podcast. The series starts by going one by one through each known plural wife of Joseph Smith and telling that woman's story. It's a beautiful tribute to a frequently ignored part of our history: the experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, faith, and trials of the those too often seen as mere attachments to prominent men. As time goes on, the podcast broadens to encompass plural wives of Brigham Young and others, introduce fundamentalist Mormonism to a general audience, address polygamy's many intersections including with racism, and more. I also appreciate the author's transparency about the perspectives that she and the guests she interviews bring to the table so we can take their own biases into account. Do be aware, though, that the majority of the podcast is a few years out of date so there may be references to events or people that reflect that. I will also say these episodes are significantly longer than the other resources here, so this is a good fit for people who might already be into podcasts or audiobooks. If you prefer to read, the podcast frequently recommends the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd M. Compton.

I read every word and listened to every episode of the resources above, so I'm always up for engaging in the content with any friends or readers who are interested. Next on my Church history list is another book that many, many people recommended to me Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman. I think I am definitely taking a break from religious podcasts for a while after the countless hours I put in in 2020, but if you have a book or article recommendation, please drop it below!