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.