Monday, May 31, 2021

Welcoming Summer with a Long Weekend on Korea's East Coast

We made it out to Sokcho, Seoraksan, and Yangyang this weekend! And I don't think I've been more sore coming back from a trip in a long time. It really feels like summer is coming, and we were lucky enough that the forecasted rain didn't come and ruin any of our outdoorsy plans. Our friends (who are also N&M), the same ones who joined us in Busan, came along for this trip, too.

First, we rented a car and drove from Seoul to Sokcho. I read reviews online that traffic can be terrible, so we waited until late (departing around 8:30pm on a Friday) and it was fine. I had my podcasts all queued up and the time flew. The next day, we went exploring in Sokcho. We tried chunbbang (춘빵), apparently a signature treat of the region, at a cute chain called 함's Bakery. It was delicious, with a crusty, sugary topping and a soft glutinous rice filling.

Then, we went up the Sokcho Expo Tower. I thought this one was way better than your average skydeck because it was positioned perfectly between majestic Seoraksan towering over the city and the glimmering sea with Sokcho's signature red bridge below. I paid 500 won (about 50 cents) to use one of the viewfinders in the tower, but I'm glad I picked the once facing the mountain because when we descended and continued our walk we found multiple free ones alongside the bay.

The weather was wonderful and we walked along the water for hours until we got hungry and grabbed lunch at a place called Getbae (갯배), which included a food court, shops, a cafe, and a vibrant terrace (the first photo of this post). It wasn't crowded at all, so we took our pick of foods and places to lounge. The whole vibe of the place was very industrial and hipster, and best of all for exhausted foreigners: you could order on screen kiosks in English and pay with credit card. We spent a good amount of time there enjoying the breeze and lack of other people. We even found a motion sensing video game that M seemed to have a knack for outside of the cafe.

We passed Sokcho market along the way, and I highly recommend swinging by if you want to try traditional food or buy snacks to share with others. There were a lot of people and more unique foods than we could possibly try on our short visit. There was everything from alcohol cakes to sweet and sour fried chicken to dried herbs and seafood. The four of us tried a local delicacy, squid blood sausage (오징어 순대). Apparently I was the only person who knew that it was blood sausage cooked inside of squid rings instead of intestine lining, since everyone else thought it was sausage made of squid meat. I made the horrible mistake of informing everyone what it was as we were eating, which did not go over well. Regardless, we made a good effort and almost cleared the entire plate. (The only thing I couldn't stomach was the intact squid head, which dripped a mucus-like white gooey substance when I pulled it off the blood sausage stuffed inside. Even I have my limits.)

After that, we had to book it back to the Airbnb. Our friends N&M needed a nap and we needed to head to Surfyy Beach for a surfing lesson I'd booked. We were running late and there was some traffic, so it was pretty stressful until we got there. Once we finally connected with our English-speaking surfing instructor and learned we had a private lesson instead of a larger group class, we were so relieved. We rented extra thick (5mm) wetsuits, boards, and boots, got changed, and spent the next three hours practicing our surfing technique. We've tried surfing once before in Hawaii, and somehow I felt like it was much easier there. I was happy that in the three-hour lesson I was able to stand a few times. It was a killer workout, though, and I was already tired just 30 minutes into the lesson.

After we finished surfing, we sat at Surfyy's sunset bar and met up with our friends for dinner. We enjoyed eating and chatting while enjoying the ocean views and relaxing after a long, intense day. Especially because we followed that up immediately with another long, intense day...

The next morning, we grabbed early breakfast at McDonald's (yes, I do love a good sausage egg McMuffin from time to time) and went to Seoraksan, South Korea's most famous mountain. We wanted to get there as early as possible to beat the crowds and make sure we could reserve cable car tickets. It turned out the cable car was a little crowded for my taste, but at least it earned us some spectacular views at the top.

After we came back down, we started on a pair of back-to-back hikes I had planned based on blog reviews I'd read of hikes that could be done in less than a day. First, we hiked up to Biseondae (비선대) Rocks, which was a moderate path and pretty pleasant: it was mostly shaded woods and there were multiple spots to stop by the river, splash our faces, and refill our bottles with fresh mountain water.

The second hike was where everyone else's positive feelings for me as a person really got tested. The distance wasn't too far, but the trail was considered one of the most difficult on the mountain due to the seemingly never-ending steep rock steps. I'd read online that there was a small cave called Geumganggul (금강굴) at the end with a woman who may give you a piece of fruit to congratulate you on completing the hike. That really struck me (and reminded all of us of a videogame), so I was determined to make it there.

At various points, I think everyone else questioned whether joining me was the right call, but we eventually did make it to the top! And in the cave there was a beautiful Buddhist Temple-like space and a Buddhist monk waiting with a treat for us! (He was a man, not a woman, and he gave us wrapped candies, not fruit, but it was close enough.) He was so nice and encouraged me to take a bunch of photos. He even shared some of the photos he'd taken from his cave of the mountain outside.

It was one of the most intense hikes I've ever done, and the feeling of accomplishment and the endorphin rush was divine. It took us way less time to get back down the mountain than it did to climb it, and soon we were back on our way. We grabbed a Korean barbecue lunch and dessert at a cafe, and then we made our way to our final destination: glamping.

I'll admit my expectations were different from reality on the glampsite. The pictures online made it look like it was in a forest, when actually it was right by the beach. Plus, for the price we paid I actually expected the facilities to be a little nicer. At the end of the day, the site did its job and we enjoyed a relaxing evening grilling (there's something I just love about grilled onions in particular), chatting, and resting our exhausted selves. That night, M and I went for a romantic stroll on the beach, people-watched beach campers, and enjoyed the view of small fireworks some launched over the crashing waves. Next time, though, we'll probably just camp on the beach for free or stay somewhere else for much less.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Seoul. We came back home, dropped our friends off, and decided since we still had the car for a few hours that we would try to go to a restaurant we've had our eye on for a while that was just a little too far to take public transportation. Let's just say that excursion was an absolute disaster, the restaurant appears to exist no longer, there were many language barrier miscommunications with strangers along the way, and we ended up ordering takeout the last night of our long weekend. I add that detail to say not everything goes perfectly when you decide to venture outside of your comfort zone, and that's okay! Even those horrible, stressful experiences are worth it because they pale in comparison to the wonderful adventures we have when we go out, explore, and try new things.

I'm sure it won't be our last time on Korea's east coast. (I'm already planning our next surfing vacation!) We're so thankful for good company, great friends like N&M (we're like N&M^2!), and such a beautiful country to experience. What other joys will our first summer in South Korea bring? I look forward to finding out.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Don't Miss a Post - Subscribe over Email!

Recently, FeedBurner announced they wouldn't support email subscriptions any more so they can focus on more core functions of their business. That's great for them, but we've been using FeedBurner ever since we started the blog to notify subscribers about new posts. Some discover our blog through web search engines, others through social media, and others via word of mouth. But some decide they enjoy it so much they want to subscribe via email, and that way they never miss a new post.

Thankfully, my friend K works in digital marketing, and I immediately reached out to her for advice: what service could we use for email subscriptions for the blog? We explored a few different options but ultimately settled on Mailchimp. We set up an RSS email campaign that emails subscribers every time there is a new post.

If you want to sign up, you can do so by putting your email in the field on the right side of the blog if you're reading on a computer. If you're reading on a phone, you can subscribe by clicking this link. Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

It's Buddha's Birthday (부처님 오신날)!

It's Buddha's Birthday (부처님 오신날)! In South Korea, Buddha's Birthday is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar and is full of festivities for Buddhists but is also a public holiday for everyone. We started seeing colorful lanterns pop up around Seoul for the occasion a month ago, and the displays just ratcheted up in splendor the closer we got to the holiday.

There are Buddhist temples all over the country, including in Seoul. The one closest to the U.S. Embassy is called Jogyesa Temple. I've explored its lovely grounds often during lunchtime walks with colleagues, but some of my Korean coworkers mentioned it looks particularly wonderful lit up at night. So I gathered some friends and made plans to check it out the night before the holiday.

First, we grabbed a Buddhist temple-style dinner at a restaurant called Sanchon (산촌), which means "mountain village" in Korean. In pre-COVID times, this restaurant would host a traditional music and dance performance every night at 8pm. Once the pandemic is over, I hope they'll do those again. Regardless, the food alone made the visit worth it. Temple cuisine focuses on fresh, seasonal herbs and vegetables. You'll never find meat at these meals or the "five food taboos": garlic, onion, scallion, chives, and leek. It is believed these foods are too stimulating in taste, causing lust and anger and interfering with meditation.

We had two sets of appetizer platters: the first was a mix of herbs and roots and the second highlighted mushrooms. Even that giant green thing that looks just like a lettuce salad was actually a thin, green mushroom! I'd never seen or tasted anything like it. Then came an impressive collection of sides as our main course, alongside rice and soybean stew. The stone pots of sticky rice even came with hot water to help you scrape the race on the sides of the bowl - my favorite part! We ended the meal with a creamy white dessert drink that tasted just like original tart forzen yogurt at Sweetgreen. (What can I say? It's my favorite froyo flavor and I'm a little homesick.)

After dinner we made our way to Jogyesa Temple. Along the way, we saw the lanterns strung along the street lit up. We also came across deung-gan (등간), lantern poles lit with a traditional Korean method. The various lantern shapes symbolize different things such as better life, good health, and defeating bad energy. This year, there were special prayer lanterns for overcoming COVID-19.

Once we arrived at the temple, we could enjoy the magnificent displays. The sheer number of lanterns draped in a canopy over the grounds was impressive enough, but there were also artistic lanterns interspersed throughout. Some Buddhists went to worship inside the temple itself or at several shrines, but most people there were just walking around and enjoying the sights like we were.

It was a special and beautiful evening, and I'm so grateful we got to experience it. I so admire the thoughtfulness, care, and hard work that went into the creative and awe-inspiring lanterns, and we wish everyone celebrating a happy Buddha's Birthday!

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Clearance for Personal Media Interviews

I recently did two interviews talking about my Foreign Service career on my own outside of work time: an audio interview on the Employed podcast and a written interview for a newsletter called Our Women in the World. Even personal interviews done on my own time, if in U.S. Department of State interest, require what we call "clearance" from the Department.

When a government employee hears the word "clearance", they may barely be able to suppress a groan. Clearance is simply our name for the process of approval by everyone with a stake in the product or the event or the thing getting cleared. Sometimes, that can stretch to a very large number of offices and individuals, some of whom will take a long time or have minor, seemingly unnecessary changes (what is often referred to as "happy to glad" changes because they're more likely to swap a synonym that make any substantive edits).

If you're a Foreign Service Officer assigned overseas who wants to do an interview or any kind of media engagement on your own time, you need to get that cleared with your supervisors, the local Public Diplomacy (PD) section, and the Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA) in Washington, DC.

If you've never done this before, I recommend talking to your post's assigned Press Attaché or your Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and they can send you the clearance form we use in the Department with all the information you need to send about the interview. Thankfully, even though we call it a "form" it's really just a list of things that can go in the body of an email instead of any formal memo. You'll need to gather information about the interview format, context on the requesting journalist, and most importantly make the case (just a sentence or two is sufficient) of why your participation is in the Department's interest. In this case, I wanted to talk in both of these interviews about diversity and inclusion at the Department of State and share information about this exciting career with others who might not be aware of it, especially women, people of color, and people from areas other than the East and West coasts.

I recommend requesting clearances as soon as possible regardless of the actual interview date, as it can take a while to get them all. In my case, each of these interviews took weeks to clear. Once my bosses approved, I sent the request to PD, who cleared it internally and with GPA for me. Once I received the clearance, I was free to go and do the actual interviews.

Do you want to listen to the final product of all these clearance efforts? You can read my written interview with Jennifer Koons in Our Women in the World here. And you can listen to me in the season finale of the Employed podcast wherever you get your podcasts or on Ali's website here (just scroll down to "Listen Here" and click on the episode labelled "Diplomat (Foreign Service Officer)". As intimidating as the clearance process can be, my advice is not to let it hold you back from talking about things that are important to you. There's a reason we have the process, and the more you know it and use it, the easier it gets to navigate.