Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Happy International Trans Day of Visibility!

Did you know March 31 is the International Trans Day of Visibility? It's a day to celebrate the contributions of trans people, combat transphobia, and advocate for greater inclusion of trans people in our society and institutions. We have an Employee Affinity Group (EAG) called glifaa promoting LGBT+ pride in foreign affairs agencies, including the Department of State. In recognition of the International Trans Day of Visibility, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of glifaa's resources for trans* members and allies here.

If you've never heard the perspective of a transgender person in the international affairs field before, I highly recommend you start with this account from Dr. Chloe Schwenke. Here is one excerpt but I highly recommending reading the full post: "Unlike sexual orientation, there really isn’t any way to be discreet about changing one’s gender. A critically important part of the therapeutic process is living and dressing in the gender you know yourself to be. My therapist asked me early on to come to our sessions dressed as a female, which necessitated awkward changes of clothing in my car in the dark corners of underground parking lots. At least once I was dressed and with make up on, I passed pretty easily as a female. Not all transgender people do “pass” easily, yet their needs to express their authentic gender are every bit as urgent and valid as my own. In less tolerant societies than those found in liberal cities in the east and western regions of the United States, the humiliation experienced by transitioning people who appear in public, or need to use public toilet facilities, while not easily “passing”, presents profound problems, or the potential for serious victimization by others, even (in countries such as Uganda where I lived) by the government authorities. Few if any foreign diplomatic or aid missions are geared up to understand or be supportive in such situations, and the more realistic option may be to request a transfer back to Washington for the two to three years that most transitions require."

I'd also like to share a wonderful personal story from a Foreign Service member at the Department of State who transitioned while serving in Romania. You can read the full post here, but here's an excerpt: "In my mid-50s and with State being my second career, I have known I was transgender from my earliest years even though I did not know the word. I attempted to come to terms with being transgender in college in the 1970s, again in 1990, and a third time in 2000-02. Each time I was forced back into a closet, unable to overcome the obstacles both within myself and in society. When I began again to walk this path in 2010, I did so with dark memories of those earlier attempts. Would I have the courage and strength to see this through, perhaps the last chance in this lifetime to live as myself, not as an artificial construct for others?...U.S. society has changed and evolved in my lifetime. It is possible to transition gender and not lose everything, and it is now possible to do so in the Department of State. What a happy, wonderful time it is to be alive!"

You can read more about the International Trans Day of Visibility here, but if you're looking for a way as an ally to support here are a few ideas:

  • Reach out to a trans friend expressing your support.
  • Donate to organizations that support trans people.
  • Write to or call your elected representatives, school administration, workplace, health insurance, church, union, or other institution where your voice matters and express support of trans-inclusive laws and policies.
  • Share the contributions of trans people with others in your network.
  • Read about the history of trans people in your community, state, or country.

I'd like to share a little information about a trans person who inspires me: Victor Mukasa, a Ugandan human rights activist who identifies as trans-lesbian. He was assigned female at birth and raised in a conservative Catholic family, but he became a vocal member of the LGBT community and as a result faced intense persecution and harassment. He has spent his career speaking out against laws criminalizing homosexuality and other human rights abuses against LGBT people. You can watch a BBC interview with Mukasa here (CW: sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia, violence). I am moved by his example of living as his authentic self and working tirelessly for the rights of his community and others.

Thanks for making it this far, and Happy International Trans Day of Visibility!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

I'll Never Go Back to a Work Handbag

I made the transition to a professional backpack about a year ago, and I don't think I can ever go back to work handbags. Don't get me wrong, I love fashion and handbags in general and I do appreciate a perfectly accessorized outfit. But I can't deny the practical benefits of the work backpack and thought I'd share why I made the switch and am sticking to it.

My initial impetus for the work backpack (as it is for many professional women) was shoulder, neck, and back pain. I tried switching my heavy shoulder bag as much as possible, but I started to come home almost every night with localized pain around the muscles that bore the weight of my bag. No amount of herbal tea or massages or stretching or exercise could fix the knots and tension, which would persist through the weekend and get reinforced the next week at work.

Around the same time, professional women's groups I'm in started raving about their favorite professional backpacks. I learned for the first time that there are backpacks that convert into more traditional-looking handbags or that are designed to be professional-looking enough on their own. My initial reaction was to dismiss the idea of leaving the handbag behind. I thought of backpacks as something for students, not working professionals. But the more I heard from those who loved their work backpacks, the more I found myself opening my mind. Before I knew it, I was reading "20 Best Professional Backpacks of 2019" listicles. There were waterproof backpacks, backpacks that promised to last longer than any handbag, high fashion backpacks, and more.

So when my last work handbag fell apart, I finally succumbed to my curiosity and bought my first work backpack: a sleek, waterproof, black backpack I could see myself wearing every day. Mine is even built to make pickpocketing more difficult: the zipper to open the main compartment lies against my back when I wear it, so I use it for traveling, too. It's simple and nondescript, and that's part of the point. I use my shoes and my earrings and the rest of my outfit to express my fashion sense these days. The backpack is simply a tool, and it serves its purpose well.

At first, I was fearful the backpack would stand out in a bad way, especially in the notoriously stuffy and traditional field of diplomacy. Thankfully, a colleague of mine was already using a professional backpack before I made the leap. Every person who challenges a norm or the way things have always been done (but doesn't have to be the way things are done) makes it a bit easier for the next person. And to my relief, I don't feel my backpack hurt me professionally or left a bad impression on my new coworkers when I arrived at U.S. Embassy Seoul.

Some argue that no bag is the best option of all, but I disagree. I keep a number of social and work essentials in my bag that couldn't fit in pockets alone (which all professional women know we can't count on in our clothes anyway). I always have tissues, breath mints, hand sanitizer, a spare pen and paper, a wallet with the large number of ID cards I need to carry, business cards, hair ties, and a water bottle. If I need to work later or longer, I can throw extra things in there like a phone charger, power bank, a snack, and more.

A year on, I'm glad I made the switch. My neck and back are much better off, and now I'm thoroughly sold that professional backpacks are the future of work fashion. It seems like most major handbag designers are capitalizing on the trend, too, so options for us are increasing every year. If you've never gone for the backpack before, I highly recommend it! At least for me, it was 100% worth it.

Monday, March 22, 2021

When the Show Must Go On

I am tired, y'all. Last week, I had a lot going on. First, I worked on the first foreign trip of our newest Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. (It was a very different experience from working on the visit of former Secretary Rex Tillerson in Kenya, for many reasons.) Official visits have a lot in common, but so far each I've worked on is different in at least some ways depending on the preferences of the principals, the communication and work styles of the advance staff (i.e., the people who come a little ahead of the high-level officials to make sure everything is ready), and the post.

This time, I did work similar to when I was a press site officer for the FLOTUS visit in my last tour. Secretary Blinken had two TV interviews, both filmed at the U.S. Ambassador's Residence (what we call the CMR, which stands for Chief of Mission Residence). In Seoul, this residence actually has a special name: Habib House, named after former U.S. Ambassador Philip C. Habib. It was a stunning building, with a dazzling mix of American and Korean architecture and design influences. You can watch the final products on KBS here and SBS here.

I also compiled press clips, summaries of the news coverage that happened before, during, and after the trip. Press clips help the Secretary's team and other key offices like that of the Department spokesperson stay on top of the latest breaking news and tweak talking points or prepare briefing materials. Thankfully, I worked with an amazing local staff team, because I only had 10-20 minutes to clear (i.e., read, format, and finalize) and send each set of press clips!

It would have only been a happy exhaustion if there hadn't been such terrible news from back home in the United States. Like many Asian Americans, I have watched reports of increasing anti-Asian racism and violence at home and abroad with trepidation. The mass shooting in Atlanta was heartbreaking and shook those of Asian descent and their allies and friends around the world. In South Korea, #StopAsianHate and #AsiansAreHuman began trending on social media (called SNS here for social networking service) that day. Soon after, Secretary Blinken, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and many others provided official comments and statements.

Asian Americans are an underrepresented minority in the Foreign Service, but I'm grateful that we have communities like the Asian Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies Employee Affinity Group and elsewhere to connect. My favorite remarks, shared by another Foreign Service friend, were the ones given by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the Commemorative Meeting for the International Day for the Elimination of Discrimination. I urge every reader of this blog to read her remarks in full here.

I'm working on organizing some events at work and virtually at home to process the recent surge in anti-Asian sentiment. But when things get hard, it's also important to take care of yourself. One of the best things I did once the Secretary had left (what we call "wheels up") and I had some time on the weekend was go for an hours-long walk with M. We walked through Antique Street in Itaewon and found a beautiful forest path in Eungbong Park and enjoyed an array of blooming magnolias, and just being in nature and getting some fresh air helped me reset. So to all the readers out there who are struggling: I see you and I mourn with you. And sometimes, enduring and thriving and finding the strength to go on is the most powerful response to hatred there is.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Our First Korean Road Trip! Jeonju, Damyang, and Gwangju

We just got back from a whirlwind long weekend road trip through some beautiful parts of South Korea: Jeonju, Damyang, and Gwangju. Renting a car was even easier than expected here, and it was so nice to get away from the city for a lot of time outside (especially now that the weather is warming up).

Our first stop was Jeonju, known for its hanok village of traditional style houses and being the source of signature Korean foods bibimbap (비빔밥, mixed side dishes over rice with red pepper sauce) and chocopies (초코파이, which you may know in mass produced form from your local Asian grocer). First, we took a romantic stroll through the hanok village.

Since we went on a random weekday, there was almost nobody around and we could easily keep to ourselves. We heard it can get crowded on the weekends, so that was a big relief. There are a number of traditional tea rooms there, too, but even if you're not a tea drinker there are plenty of cute cafes and restaurants where you can grab some refreshments.

After exploring the hanok village, we walked across the street to Jaman Mural Village, a graffiti-covered neighborhood with a completely different vibe. Pretty much every place there was closed, so it was very quiet and peaceful as we walked among the art. There was a range of styles from anime to pop art to realism to mosaics and more.

Next, we made our way to Damyang, my favorite destination of the trip. Damyang is well-known for bamboo, and we could easily see why after visiting Juknokwon Bamboo Forest. It was only about $3 per person for a day pass to the forest, and we spent hours walking around the various forest paths, taking photos, and enjoying the fresh air. (The first photo of this post was taken during that walk! It was so nice and cool in the shade of the bamboo.)

We also tried bamboo ice cream, which you can buy at the bottom of the art center in the forest or all over the place in the surrounding town. (I realized after eating the bamboo ice cream that a lot of bamboo ice cream has matcha or green tea in it, but after a few minutes of obsessive Googling I couldn't figure out whether all of the places add green tea. So as a side note if you're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like me or just don't drink green tea, watch out and maybe ask before you buy.)

There were a few sculptures scattered throughout the park, but one in particular caught our eye. This enormous reflective cube looked so futuristic and out of place we felt like we had stumbled onto a scifi movie set. We also saw various chairs, hammocks, benches, and even trash and recycling bins made out of bamboo. I never realized how sturdy and versatile bamboo was before, but whoever designed the park did a wonderful job showcasing some of its many uses.

A self-proclaimed "slow city", Damyang is more interested in preserving traditions and a simple way of life than throwing out all the old for the new. There's a road lined with metasequoia trees with pedestrian segments where music plays from hidden speakers, but we only saw it from a distance. (I'll admit, it was a little less impressive when the trees are still bare from winter, but the photos from the rest of the year I saw online look stunning.) We also tried to visit Gwangjuho Lake Eco Park, but it was admittedly a flop. I chickened out right at the beginning of our walk there because there were way too many mosquitoes. (And anyone who knows me in real life can attest to the fact that mosquitoes disproportionately love me.) I'm still glad we dropped by that park, though, so I could see three majestic king willow trees over 400 years old located right by the entrance!

I also snapped a picture of the cute, generic cafe where we grabbed lunch. For those back home who might be curious, you can see examples in the picture of how South Korea implements measures to mitigate COVID-19. Even though we were the only customers in the cafe, we had to have our temperatures checked to make sure we didn't have a fever. In addition, all customers needed to register for mandatory contact tracing either through a phone app or a sign-in sheet that includes your name, where you live, and your phone number. That way, if a confirmed case is found in an area where we've been, it's much easier to contact everyone and make sure we quarantine and get tested. On top of that, they had hand sanitizer for us to use and we had to wear masks unless we were eating or drinking. All of these measures are commonplace in South Korea, and we're impressed!

Our final stop was Gwangju, M's favorite of the trip (mostly because our super-tiny Airbnb helped him briefly live out his extreme minimalist dreams). There was a big contrast between his preference for the ultra-modern studio apartment and my favorite place we stayed, a traditional hanok with a gorgeous hanok cafe nearby.

Gwangju is famous as the site of a pro-democracy uprising starting May 18, 1980. It was largely led by many students back when South Korea was an authoritarian dictatorship. (CONTENT WARNING: VIOLENCE, RAPE) Activists were tortured, raped, beaten, and killed. Although the government squashed the uprising at the time, its legacy has played an enormous role in modern South Korean history and politics.

We visited the May 18th Memorial Park in the city, which held several moving monuments of the massacre including a monument of wounded activists and a statue of a woman mourning her dead child. I was horrified at the sheer number of names of those killed displayed in the Memorial Park and the rows and rows of graves in the 5.18 Cemetery, with smiling photos of the deceased next to each burial mound. If you've never heard of the Gwangju Uprising before and want to know more, I highly recommend watching the 2017 South Korean movie A Taxi Driver or reading the many related posts on Gusts of Popular Feeling, a blog run by a Canadian who writes for the Korea Times and has a deep knowledge of South Korean history backed up with primary sources.

Today, Gwangju is still known for its disproportionately large student population and its related innovative foodie culture at the crossroads of different regional cultures. After we paid our respects at the May 18th Memorial Park and 5.18 Cemetery, we explored the city, celebrating the vibrancy of Gwangju and South Korean life, something I firmly believe was only made possible by the courage of pro-democracy activists generations ago. We tried food the area is known for, including tteokgalbi (떡갈비, seasoned beef patties) and daetongbap (대통밥, rice cooked in bamboo), for the first time.

After Gwangju, we were ready to drive back home. On the way back, we decided to make a spontaneous stop somewhere where it looked like we might be able to take a walk. Imagine our surprise when we found a small neighborhood designed like a European town, complete with bakeries, squares, fountains, and boutiques! It was called Meta-Provence and is modeled after France, and walking around there really felt like we had briefly stepped into another continent. It was such a delightful surprise.

After that, we actually made our way back. It took a little over four hours due to some traffic on the way, but the only tricky parts were figuring out which lanes to drive in to pay our tolls properly and refilling the car when the pump didn't have information in English. (If you're new to driving in South Korea, I highly recommend this guide and this one.)

A road trip is a great way to explore South Korea, especially during a pandemic. The roads are wonderful and well-marked and renting a car was easy. Even if you're avoiding indoor attractions or sites with crowds, there are plenty of safe places to explore outside and enjoy Korea's extensive natural beauty. I hope as the weather gets warmer and more of the population gets vaccinated, it'll be even easier to get out and experience the country.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Stunning Yeoju Pottery Tour

I'm not a big shopping trip person in general. M and I generally lead a minimalist lifestyle, and we don't like having a lot of stuff cluttering our house. But I do like to have things here and there that are precious treasures from the places we've lived and the memories we've made. So when I had the opportunity to join an Embassy tour to Yeoju, famous for its pottery (called 도자기 in Korean), I jumped at the chance. Thankfully my friend N could make it, too! It's always way more fun to shop with someone else.

Our first stop was a small shop, but it's no exaggeration to say it was filled with the most gorgeous pottery I'd ever seen in my life (the first photo of this post). My favorite was the traditional porcelain with blue motifs, so I couldn't help myself and purchased a few accent pieces for my dinner set.

We also got to drop into the factory out behind the shop and see workers carefully handling the ceramics at different stages in the production cycle.

After that, we went to a bunch more shops offering so many different styles and kinds of pottery. I saw kimchi jars, flower pots, home decor, tea sets, dinnerware, vases, candle holders, and pretty much anything one could need made out of clay. It seemed like the more we progressed throughout the day, the more rustic the offerings became. They were all lovely in their own way.

Thankfully, I reined in my impulse to buy half the things I saw and stuck with my modest purchase from the first store. It was so fun exploring all the merchandise and imagining how it would beautify my home, though. It had been a very long time since I had gone on a shopping trip at all, so I'm grateful there was a way here for us to do it safely and support small businesses sharing the astounding skill behind Yeoju pottery with the world. It's the perfect souvenir if you visit South Korea!

Monday, March 1, 2021

Hiking Namsan

We finally hiked Namsan with a couple of friends. Namsan is the closest mountain to where we live, and it includes a lovely park, a tower up on the peak, and some picturesque views of downtown Seoul. If you visit Korea, you may notice that all the mountain names end in "san"; "san" (산) just means "mountain" in Korean.

Normally Namsan is pretty crowded, and that's no surprise given the excellent location for city-dwellers. But we went early on a long Korean holiday weekend when Seoullites are more likely to travel out of town, so there weren't many people at all. It was easy to stay socially distanced, and all the hikers and walkers wore masks. We're grateful to live somewhere where the public takes public health precautions seriously.

The weather was perfect the day of our hike. I felt a little chilly when we started, but by the time we reached the trailhead I was already warm. (We had to walk uphill through part of the city before we even reached the park.) About a half hour into our 3-hour excursion, I was definitely sweating. I'm sure a part of it was that I could be more in shape, but I thought it was a pretty good hike and steeper than I expected. The next day, my calves agreed.

Partway up, we stopped to take in the views. Some days in Seoul, it's hard to see anything at a distance due to bad air quality making everything a bit hazy. Thankfully, that was not a problem for us on Namsan and we enjoyed looking out over the different neighborhoods and landmarks like the Han River and the Blue House.

We also spotted a stone block in the Seoul City Wall inscribed with information dating back to King Taejo's reign in 1396! If you look closely at the rock in the photo below, you can see the writing in Chinese characters. That writing predates the Korean language and Korean alphabet, called hangeul (한글).

We also grabbed takeout from one of the many vendors and ate outside. There were even a few different places for couples to buy and hang "love locks", a trend we saw in multiple places in Europe but didn't realize made it to South Korea. We didn't buy anything this time, but we did stop to grab a romantic photo in front of the love lock backdrop.

I loved the opportunity to get some fresh air, warm my muscles, and spend a few hours enjoying nature and the city with friends. In a pandemic, hiking is one of the safest things we can still do. And I hope we'll get to do a lot more of it soon.