Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Time flies when you're home for the holidays! It's so rare that we get to spend our most precious holidays with family and friends, so we're trying to make the most of it. After all, by this time next year, we'll be abroad again.

It's been really fun to celebrate baby S's first Christmas, though he's too young to appreciate our annual traditions. At the same time, certain things just make the season feel right and I'm sure I'll indoctrinate him soon enough. For example, I like to put up a Christmas tree and start playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving and go all in on the Christmas spirit until New Year's. That's just how it was in my family growing up, so I've carried that on in my own home. As an adult, I also somehow gravitated towards a specific jam thumbprint sugar cookie recipe with white chocolate drizzle that has become my go-to recipe for cookie exchanges. (And I always participate in at least one cookie exchange.)

My sister C and her husband even visited Virginia from Colorado, and we spent a weekend at Massanutten Resort that went by way too fast. Unfortunately, they had to cancel a lot of the outdoor activities due to the uncooperative weather. But we still enjoyed our time together, got a spa day out of it, and took S to his first-ever escape room. We all love games and puzzles, so it was a blast.

I also visited the DC Temple's Festival of Lights, an event my church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS church) hosts every December with beautiful lights, free concerts every night, and a display of nativities from around the world. (The first photo in this post is of the Temple.) This was also the first year I've ever seen with a Giving Machine, which is like a vending machine for charity. I'd heard of these and watched videos about them online, but it was my first time seeing one in person and using it.

Being home also gave me the chance to participate in a time-honored tradition I haven't been able to do for years while overseas: making a live Christmas wreath! The women's organization of my congregation started this Christmastime activity years ago and it's expanded more and more over time to a multi-night production. This year I made three wreaths: one for me and one each for two friends of mine who just had babies and couldn't make it. I love the opportunity to exercise my creative muscles and make something imperfect but beautiful. They also had a dirty soda bar at the event this year, which was a huge hit.

Memories like these are part of what makes our holiday season so special for my family. (I've tried to make a conscious effort to acknowledge that although this is my holiday season, it is not the holiday season for everyone. Someone at work even pointed out I had made that assumption when I referred to this time as "the holidays" - and they were right! So I'm trying to be more aware going forward, especially for those who find this time of year isolating.) We're excited to be home this year and celebrate with so many of the people we love most. And I would argue that knowing we won't have that every year helps us appreciate it even more when we do.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Career Advice from Michelle Kwan

A few weeks late, I've been meaning to write about the time I got to meet Ambassador Michelle Kwan! I met her as part of an intimate send-off tea event hosted by Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA), an employee resource group at the Department of State. We were sending her off prior to her departure to be the next Ambassador to Belize, and as soon as I heard the event was happening I RSVP'd. I mean, who doesn't want to meet Michelle Kwan?!

In case you live under a rock, Michelle Kwan is famous for being a world champion figure skater and Olympic gold medalist. Since retiring from her athletic career, she went back to school for a Master's degree from Tufts's renowned Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has worked in international affairs for more than 10 years.

Despite her star status, she was incredibly down-to-Earth, kind, and warm. She gave some of the best career advice I've heard in a very long time, so I wanted to share just a few nuggets of her wisdom that stuck with me here:

  • Others will try and pigeonhole you, but don't give up. Her story about transitioning from her career as an athlete really struck me. She said especially in the beginning as she was getting started in international affairs people were condescending and said things like "okay, figure skater" and "we don't have a job for you here, but can we get an autograph?" She just kept knocking on doors until one finally opened.
  • No matter how high up you go, stay humble. I was impressed that Ambassador Kwan didn't just give us advice but asked us what we thought she should know as she prepared to depart for Belize.
  • Advocate for all people, inside and outside your own group. She asked how she could be an ally not just for Asian Americans but for others at State with issues like discrimination in language testing that disadvantages heritage speakers.
  • Think about what you want to pass on to the next generation. It doesn't have to be exactly the same as what was passed on to you.
  • There is power and healing in processing shared cultural experiences. Many Asian Americans in the room bonded over the experience of feeling like they could never make their parents proud no matter how hard they tried - even Michelle Kwan! I like how Ambassador Kwan looked forward to the future, though, and noted she thinks very consciously about how she wants to convey acceptance and love to her own young daughter now that she's a parent.

In just our short encounter, I learned so much from Ambassador Kwan, and I really look up to her. We're lucky to have her as a Chief of Mission, and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Manam(i)a, Here I Go Again

I just got back from a whirlwind few days in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. It was the first business trip (not counting PCS-ing) that I've done in years. I went there to support the travel of our Assistant Secretary, who met with Bahraini government officials and attended the Manama Dialogue, an annual forum for leaders across the region to convene and discuss diplomacy and security. It was the first full, in-person Manama Dialogue since the start of the pandemic.

Traveling with such a high-level principal teaches you a lot, and it was my honor to assist. I got to meet the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain and several ministers from across the Middle East. I got to practice my Political skills note taking, negotiating (especially when it came to the schedule), and managing relationships inside and outside the U.S. government. I was amazed to watch my principal work, from expertly handling meetings to doing interviews on TV on short notice to catching up on needed approvals and information in even the smallest snippets of time.

It was also a wonderful opportunity to get to know my colleagues at U.S. Embassy Manama. I loved working with them so much, I know I'll jump at the chance to work with them again someday. Bahrain itself was so inviting and the people gave me such a warm welcome that after just a few days I've decided I'll probably bid there in the future. In my opinion, you can get a sense after even just a few days what morale is like at an embassy - and it's high for our folks in Bahrain. We were also blown away with the awesome work of our military colleagues at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT). After all, Bahrain is famously host to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and an official visit to Manama wouldn't be complete without them.

Every principal has their own preferences, and it's important as a staffer or control officer to make sure you accommodate them. Some you'll know in advance but others you'll find out along the way and adjust accordingly. Even though I work with her every day in DC, for example, I just learned on this trip that our Assistant Secretary despises puns (and would surely detest the title of this personal blog post).

This was my first time traveling away from S. I'm not going to lie: that part was tough and I missed him. I had a brutal and difficult pumping schedule, and although the Embassy was very accommodating other facilities we visited during the trip were less so. (I became a pro at pumping in cramped and uncomfortable bathrooms by the end of the trip.) On the bright side, I was able to save most of the milk from the second half of the trip and bring it home in a checked cooler bag. My hotel was also kind enough to provide a special fridge in my room for my milk, as I learned hotel mimifridges are not cold enough for proper milk storage. What I brought back didn't completely replenish the stash M had to use for S while I was gone, but it was better than nothing.

With the time zone difference, I squeezed in a few brief video chats back home but otherwise I was working around the clock. I skipped many meals and only slept about five hours a night the whole trip. (Thank goodness I packed granola bars and trail mix!) I wasn't the only one - a lot of other support staff seemed to be living off of protein bars and coffee througout my stay.

So as great of a professional development opportunity as it was (and it really was, unlike some "professional development opportunities" in the Foreign Service that are office housework in disguise and not particularly career enhancing), I was relieved to accomplish the mission and head home to see my two favorite men (and catch up on sleep). I didn't even take the time I normally would to crop the photos of this post, but I hear all-natural, unedited photos are all the rage these days anyway so I hope you enjoy them. And now, I'm off to enjoy my precious time with them - just in time for Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Where We're Going Next! (And a Happy Halloween!)

It's handshake day, and I just accepted a handshake to my top choice job in Dubai! I'll be a Political Officer there starting next year. (Because a few have asked: yes, I'm still planning on staying a Public Diplomacy-coned officer. It just felt like the right time to try a reporting tour.)

I could do an extensive blog post about the ups and downs and especially the last minute twists and turns of my bidding experience, but in the end we got exactly what we wanted and couldn't be more excited. As those close to us know, Dubai is M's dream post. He already started planning his perfect Dubai life in advance, and it's been so fun to watch. I think S is going to love it, too.

It will be my first time working as a reporting officer (a term used to describe Political and Economic Officers) and my first time working at a consulate instead of an embassy. I'm sure I'll learn a lot and am looking forward to it.

By coincidence, handshake day fell on Halloween this year! We did a family costume: S was a baby shark, M was attacked, and I was a lifeguard. I thought it was pretty cute. Wishing everyone a successful handshake day and happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2022

It's Fall, Y'all!

Fall is my favorite time of year, especially when we're back home. As a kid, I always loved it because it was the start of a new school year (nerd alert!) but also because everything about nature in autumn seems so perfect to me: the weather, the beautiful palette of trees of all different colors mixed together (best viewed from Skyline Drive in Shenandoah), crunchy leaves dancing in the wind, and the list goes on. Fall fashion and holiday hype aren't bad, either.

Since I know this time next year we'll likely be overseas again, I'm trying to make the most of the seasonal joys we have and will miss while we're gone - especially now that we've all fully recovered from COVID. S has been spending lots of time getting to know his family in the States and getting smothered with love everywhere he goes. He's also made a few new friends big and small and is loving America's spaciousness and food.

One of my favorite traditions is visiting the Cox Farms Fall Festival in Centreville, Virginia. I went when I was a kid and now I can bring my own child, which feels a bit surreal. You have to buy tickets online in advance, but they have two weekends where public service workers (including federal government employees) get a discounted rate. I highly recommend it!

In the Foreign Service, this can be a stressful time of year because even though most people have PCS'd (i.e., moved posts) by the end of summer it's still bidding season (and handshake day, where job offers known as handshakes are officially extended, is next week). I've really appreciated taking the time when I'm off duty to relax with loved ones, soaking up the precious year in DC and trusting that we will wind up exactly where we need to be.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Sometimes, Things Don't Go According to Plan

I am no stranger to professional twists and turns, from the rollercoaster start of my A-100 class to the cancellation of my Baghdad assignment and reassignment to Seoul. Still, this latest development took me by surprise. After years of successfully dodging COVID-19, including across multiple international transits, the virus finally caught up to me.

First, I tested positive and then M and S soon followed. Each day we're getting a bit better and seem to have avoided the worst symptoms - probably in part thanks to getting fully vaccinated and boosted. Unfortunately, the timing was terrible. I tested positive literally the day before I was scheduled to depart for the 9-day summit in Aspen, Colorado that is the hallmark and the highlight of the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP).

I hustled to submit my ICAP application materials early before going on maternity leave, had mentors review my application, and collected recommendation letters from some outstanding people. I was honored to be selected for one of only 20 spots in the program funded by the Department of State this year. Yet it's hard not to feel that that investment of time and energy and the Department's resources were not at least partially wasted due to my regrettably timed sickness. When I developed a fever, I was reluctant to admit I was sick at first. I think I knew deep down that I probably had COVID-19 but didn't want to consider what that would mean. As my symptoms worsened, I could deny it no longer and finally took a home test. I've taken so many tests throughout the course of the pandemic that it felt second nature at this point... But this was the first one that returned the second dreaded line.

Once I called off work sick, I spent the next day frantically working to cancel my flights and other travel bookings, return the coolers and shipping labels I'd purchased to transport milk for the baby while I was gone, and notify the Department of State ICAP contacts, the ICAP director in Colorado, and the person who was supposed to pick me up from the airport in Aspen. I also learned that I would not be considered a fellow anymore and would not be eligible for a spot in next year's cohort (as one of the requirements is to stay in DC for the following year and I am not bidding on DC jobs).

Then came the next wave of logistical challenges. As M and S tested positive later, we had to cancel and postpone a number of planned appointments including doctor's visits, registering our car, and more so we could do our part to keep others safe. We still signed on a condo (we told them about our infection and they agreed to proceed anyway) and moved from our hotel in DC to our new place in Virginia and received our first shipment of belongings from South Korea all while sick out of necessity.

Thankfully, we benefited from the kindness of family and friends and coworkers and made it in one piece to our new home. Now all we have to do is rest and recover and get over both the virus and the disappointment of roads not taken. As much as it stings in the moment, I'm sure we'll all make it out the other end just fine.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

What's UNGA?

UNGA (pronounced "ung-GAH" and not "U-N-G-A") stands for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. It's one of the most important events of the year in international affairs, and - as I wish I had known earlier so I could have managed my expectations - it requires an immense amount of preparation before, during, and after. (For staffers like me, there's an emphasis on the "before" there.)

It was only my second week on the job when I was slammed with one of the busiest work weeks of my life (and that's saying something). Our team put together over 200 documents for our principals (i.e., the people we staff) and handed the final binder to our Assistant Secretary as she walked out the door with literal seconds to spare. When some details changed after folks had already departed for New York, we fixed materials in Washington, DC and made sure someone on the ground could get them where they needed to go. Several times, we were told at close of business one day that multiple documents had to be drafted and approved by multiple offices and several principals by opening of business the next day. I'm proud of the work my colleagues and I accomplished, but I'm grateful not to be working through nights and weekends every week.

UNGA technically goes on for months, but all eyes are on high-level week (HLW, also called high-level General Debate). This is where world leaders and high ranking officials meet and make speeches and talk with the press to help the public understand current events and (hopefully) advance good foreign policy. It's a unique opportunity, and it's the job of cogs in the bureaucratic machine like me to make sure we don't waste it.

I now have a whole new appreciation for how much goes on behind the scenes to make UNGA happen. All that being said, I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm relieved HLW is only one week out of the year. My advice to anyone transitioning to State Department headquarters in DC for the first time is to brace yourself for UNGA in advance. Cancel your night and weekend plans the week before UNGA if necessary. Arrange potential childcare options. Do what you need to do. (Or just don't do what I did and instead go for a job that isn't quite so affected by events like UNGA.)

Working on UNGA was a crash course in so many things I'm learning in my new position: how the building (i.e., State Department HQ) works (also referred to as how Washington works), how to balance the needs of drafting offices with clearing offices (I'll try to do a post about the clearance process later), when best to pick up the phone versus write an email versus walk over to someone's office, and so much more. I can already tell this is going to be a year of much professional growth and challenge. And now that UNGA HLW is over (and that I'm mostly trained and getting the hang of my job), I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Home Sweet Home: From Seoul to Denver to DC

After a very hectic week of traveling and celebrating, we are finally back in the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia)! First, we travelled from Seoul, South Korea to Denver, Colorado for my sister's wedding. It was such a magical (and jam-packed) wedding weekend! I kept praying nothing would go wrong with our flight because I've heard so many travel horror stories this summer and we were already just barely going to make it, but thankfully we arrived without incident.

Following the wedding weekend, we arrived in DC late at night and a dear friend picked us (and our seven bags) up from the airport and took us to our hotel. We'll be living in the hotel for at least a month while we figure out our longer-term housing situation while I'm serving my one-year tour in DC. We were able to find a longer-term residential hotel with a kitchenette and living room suite at the government rate, and we chose a place that gives me a short walking commute to work. It was such a relief to arrive at our destination, take a break from traveling, and get somewhat settled.

S was such a champ handling so many flights and time zone changes, and I'm pretty sure he's relieved we finally got somewhere where he can return to his regular sleep schedule. Me being me, I already scheduled a bunch of things I've been excited to do, including visiting a techy art gallery, catching a musical, and eating at some of my favorite restaurants that weren't around in Korea. I've also already been asked multiple times whether I came from North or South Korea, with some people assuming North! (Trust me, if I'd travelled from North Korea I would not be referring to it nearly as casually.)

I got to work right away in my new job at the Department of State headquarters in DC, and I am learning so much: new acronyms, processes, and even just navigating the hallways of a very confusing building! There are so many differences from my daily work environment at U.S. Embassy Seoul, I'll admit I had a bit of reverse culture shock. In South Korea, everyone is still wearing masks indoors and outdoors. In DC, I'm pretty much the only one at work still wearing a mask. Lunch in Korea was borderline sacred time, and all my colleagues would go out to eat nearly every day. Now, I'm lucky if I get 20 minutes to eat a quick lunch at my desk, as usually I'm still working right through lunch. The days are also much longer: I work a 9-hour shift but it's sometimes hard to get out of the office on time even after nine hours, whereas I could count on getting my Consular work in Seoul done in a regular workday. (But hey, at least I get a pay bonus for it!)

PCSing (short for Permanent Change of Station) is our term for transferring from one post to another, and it's always a ton of work. Add traveling internationally with a baby for the first time, transporting 360oz of frozen breastmilk, attending a whirlwind wedding weekend on the other side of the country, taking only two days of leave to adjust, trying to figure out a place to live and whether we'll buy a car or furniture, bidding on my next assignment, and starting a high-intensity job right away, and needless to say we've had our hands full. I hope to do more posts on bidding, some life updates, and insights on DC life in a staffer job soon (when I get a chance), so stay tuned!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Best Advice I Got for Returning to Work after Maternity Leave

At this point, I've been back at work from maternity leave for a month and it was a big adjustment. I thought I would take a post and compile the best advice I received for making the most of work and home during my transition back to the office. Here are my favorite tips:

  • If you have parental leave, negotiate the best format and timeline for your family. I know plenty of people who negotiated coming back to work part-time or working remotely more to help ease the transition back to work. In my case, my job is not conducive to telework but I was able to save several weeks of parental leave to use in my next assignment. Knowing I have those weeks saved for later has been such a relief during a hectic transfer season for my family. There's no one right way to use the leave you are entitled to, so push for what's best for you and your family. (And don't feel guilty about using the benefits you've rightfully earned!)
  • Treasure the time you have with your little one each day. Someone told me that there will be times when hanging out with my baby is boring because what interests him will seem dull and basic to me and because he doesn't seem like he's doing anything. But good parents don't just focus on doing with their kids; they focus on being with their kids. When I focus on just being with baby S during the short windows of time we get together during the workweek, I feel so much more connected to him. As a result, our time together - even if spent doing the most mundane things - feels special. Someone else suggested envisioning myself in the future 50 years from now, having travelled back in the past to hold my son as a baby just one more time. That also totally changed the way I see those tender moments of just snuggling him or playing with him.
  • Practice your work schedule in advance with your caregiver. M and I did a weeklong trial run of my work schedule where I pumped milk, M fed S my milk through bottles, and we timed S's morning and evening wake times to be right before and after my workday. It really helped me feel more comfortable my first day back in the office, and it helped us confirm the number of times I'd have to pump in a day and when.
  • Think carefully before attending that optional happy hour or scheduling things after work. I feel like I understand other working parents and caregivers so much better now that I'm one of them. One day, I scheduled a call for after work. To my horror, by the time I finished the call it was already past S's bedtime and M had put him to sleep. I was devastated because that one call prevented me from spending any time just hanging out with my baby the whole entire day and I had to wait until the next day to see him. That was such a hard lesson for me to learn. Although we can't always prevent scheduling conflicts, we can be thoughtful about whether they are necessary and whether there might be a better time. For example, now I try to schedule things after 7pm so it doesn't eat into my time with S.
  • Dress comfortably. A lot of postpartum employees are in a weird limbo where they're no longer pregnant but don't fit into their pre-pregnancy clothes, either. You shouldn't feel like you have to squeeze into painful or awkward outfits just because you wore them before. Your clothes at work (and everywhere else in life) should fit you, not the other way around.
  • Take care of your health and consider seeing a psychotherapist and physical therapist for postpartum care in addition to your OB/GYN. My therapist helped me immensely with recovering from birth, adjusting to parenthood, and preparing for the return to work.
  • Recognize the benefits you have and advocate for others to have them, too. I am so grateful to have had paid maternity leave, and I can't imagine how hard it must be to go back to work right away for those who would rather take time off but don't have the option. My experiences led me not only to be thankful but also to be even more committed to fighting for policies in the professional and political world that support families and working parents.
  • Ignore other people's assumptions and unwelcome comments. People will make comments and give you unsolicited advice on everything from your body to your childcare arrangements to your work schedule and so on. I find it helpful just to smile and brush off any unwanted comments and information, because people generally mean well and care but only you know what's best for you and your family.
  • Know and use inclusive language whenever possible. I already mentioned in a previous blog post that sex and gender are different. Some people prefer to reference nursing their infant as "chestfeeding" instead of "breastfeeding", so although I use the latter term for myself I am happy to use more inclusive language for others. I also don't like it when all caregivers are referred to as mamas or even parents because there are so many types of infant caregivers including grandparents, foster parents, siblings, cousins, godparents, etc. It doesn't cost me anything to use words that make others feel more seen and welcome.

Here are some additional tips specific to those returning to work and nursing:

  • Have a strategy to build a freezer stash of milk and start as early as possible. I know some add a pumping session each day to build up a stash, but another option (which is what worked best for me) is to use a silicone manual pump to catch let-down from the opposite side while nursing. Even though each session (especially in the beginning) only netted me a small smount of milk (e.g., half an ounce), those small amounts really added up over the days and weeks of maternity leave. By the time I went back to work, I had plenty of milk in the freezer to give me peace of mind knowing that there would be enough for baby S even if I didn't pump enough the previous day or if he was extra hungry (e.g., during a growth spurt).
  • If you're pumping, invest in accessories and make sure your manager is aware of your needs. In addition to my pump I have a nice pumping bag, flange spray, lanolin cream, and reusable milk storage bags. They have made my experience pumping much more convenient and comfortable, and I use all of the products so frequently I think they are worth choosing carefully. I also made sure to talk to my manager prior to my return and let him know my pumping schedule since I knew I wouldn't be working during those times.
  • If you need to travel for work, figure out the logistics in advance. How will you feed your baby? Does your employer support shipping pumped milk? What are the milk transport policies of your company/airline/train/country? Are there certain types of travel you're able to do and others you need to delegate or pass on to others? Are there work trips where you could pay for your baby and a caregiver to accompany you if you pay for an extra hotel room? These are all questions one should ponder in advance if your job is one that requires travel. (Not to scare any readers, but as Yun Sun put it in an excellent article in The Atlantic: "Had someone asked me when I started my first job what I thought would be the greatest challenge for a female professional, I probably would have popped out some big-concept answer: gender equality, equal pay, or work-life balance...Or so I thought before I became a breastfeeding mother. I can now say with confidence that traveling internationally with pumped breast milk has been the greatest challenge of my working career.") Consider products or services that can help make milk shipment easier; we had a fantastic experience shipping my 360oz frozen stash from South Korea to the United States with coolers from Milk Stork.
  • Make sure you're eating and drinking enough to maintain your milk supply. It is your legal, social, and moral right to breastfeed/chestfeed as long as you choose, so don't feel like you have to cave into pressure to diet, skip meals, or cut back on the nutrition you need to keep going.
  • Set your own personal nursing goals, but be flexible. Most working moms I know in the Foreign Service have a goal to breastfeed their child for one year. The American Academy of Pediatrics just updated their guidance this year to recommend feeding children human milk up to two years and beyond. Be informed, but do what works best for your and your family.

I hope this advice was as helpful for you as it was for me (or at least illuminating for some readers). It's not easy going back to work after maternity leave, but for many of us it's necessary and well worth the challenge.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Happy Anniversary to Us!

M and I just celebrated our wedding anniversary (and our first anniversary as parents)! We went on the first real date we've taken in about six months, thanks to my wonderful friend N offering to watch baby S while we went out.

Originally, we were planning to go to a French restaurant in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul. But the day before our anniversary, the city had record rainfall and we saw tons of photos and videos of Gangnam absolutely flooded. Afraid of getting stranded on the other side of town, we changed our reservation to somewhere closer to us (and farther from the Han River) with parking so we could drive and get back home quickly if we needed to.

Thankfully, the rain was much lighter on our actual anniversary. I was still glad we adjusted our plans if for no other reason than the peace of mind it gave me. It's hard enough going out for the first time and leaving a baby behind; I did not need to add any stress on top of that. So we went to Boccalino, an Italian restaurant in Seoul's Four Seasons Hotel.

The service was outstanding. We started our meal off with an amuse bouche of watermelon, pistachio, and ricotta as well as a strawberry and pink peppercorn soda, anchovy bread, and various dips. For appetizers, we ordered a fennel, lobster, and orange salad (which was okay) and a burrata and tomato salad with balsamic pearls (which was fantastic).

Our main courses were pan-fried codfish for me and fusilli bolognese for M, both of which were delicious. When we go out to eat, M tends to play it safe and order things he knows he likes. For me, I like ordering things that are tasty but that I don't cook at home either because the cooking process is difficult or unfamiliar or because the ingredients are hard to find or because M doesn't eat it. Fish usually isn't M's favorite (with salmon being the exception), so I love getting it at restaurants.

We finished off the meal with two ordered desserts (chocolate ice cream and profiteroles for me and mango sorbet for M), but since we mentioned it was our anniversary they gave us an additional scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with a candle and happy anniversary sign board. It was so sweet in every sense of the word. (Longtime readers of the blog also know that ice cream is basically our favorite dessert.)

After dinner we were feeling adventurous and decided to scope out the hotel's speakeasy cocktail bar that our friends are always raving about: Charles H. It took us a while, but eventually we found the hidden door. It is difficult to describe in words how cool this place is. You go through the hidden door down a black staircase to a sleek front desk, and then a bouncer opens up another door into the bar itself. Entering Charles H, the atmosphere hits you from the moment you cross the threshold. The decor is classy, the lighting is just the right level of dim, and the swinging jazz music had me hooked from the get-go.

There's always a question of how accommodating a place designed for drinking alcohol will be for teetotalers like us, especially when we haven't come with a group of drinkers. In this case, there was a cover charge, but it was very manageable (less than $10 per person). A server seated us and brought over welcome drinks of champagne. He was confused when I refused the drinks, but eventually he understood my explanation that we don't drink alcohol. To my surprise and delight, he came back in a few minutes with freshly squeezed orange juice welcome drinks for us instead. (Very often in situations like that, non-drinkers just don't get a welcome drink. So I was already impressed with the service.)

As we nibbled the free chips and olives on our table, M and I ordered some non-alcoholic mocktails. His was a tropical one from Brazil that tasted strongly of creamy banana. Mine was a citrusy, sugary lemongrass drink with a unqiue lemongrass straw. It was nice to know they had some options that were okay even for my religious prohibition against drinking alcohol or coffee or tea.

After a fun night of chatting and reminiscing about our many years together, M and I headed home and found S happy and safe in N's care. Even though we had to change up our itinerary last minute, I think it's safe to say our anniversary date was a success. Going out with M is one of my favorite things to do, and I'm glad we got to have a date, just the two of us, one more time before we leave South Korea.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Informational Interview Green Flags

Since I previously wrote about my informational interview red flags as I go through the bidding process (i.e., process of applying for my next job), I thought I'd also talk about some of the "green flags" on a more positive note. Green flags are those signals to me that a job would be a good fit or that the post will meet my and my family's goals and needs. In no particular order, here are some of the green flags I've experienced during my time bidding in the Foreign Service so far:

  • When there appears to be diversity among the leadership and the staff. I'm always pleasantly surprised to hear people detail an office's structure and reveal that there's relatively even representation between men and women, for example. If the leadership of a post has diversity, such as racially diverse representation in Country Team (i.e., the senior-most staff at an Embassy), that's even more impressive given the fact that diversity drops off with each increasing rank in the Foreign Service.
  • When they're excited to explain the portfolio or priority issues to you and do so clearly and concisely. You can really tell when someone is excited about their work, and I like to see that passion especially from an incumbent. That means the job is enjoyable for them. It also means that they're generous and adept enough to share information about it with others who aren't experts but who are interested without being condescending or rambling.
  • When there are robust employee support organizations and associations. This matters more to me for large posts than small posts (because small posts may not have the human capital to spare), but I love to hear when embassies have an active Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Council and glifaa (i.e., LGBTQI+ association) representative and U.S. Embassy Association (i.e., a group devoted to the U.S. Embassy community) and more. That tells me people there care about building up each other and the institution and not just doing the minimum required work to scrape by each day.
  • When they mention a few honest cons and not just the pros about where I'm bidding. I find someone who is willing to admit the unglamorous parts of a job or life at a post much more credible. I give more weight to the positive things they say because they're willing to tell me about some of the negative things, too.
  • When they mention work/life balance as an important part of the culture at post. Most decisionmakers know how difficult it is for someone applying to the job to ask about work/life balance. Many hiring managers will consider people who ask such a question as lazy or unserious or entitled, so it's difficult to obtain information about it even if having that information is crucial to finding out whether you want to bid or highly rank or accept a job. As a result, I appreciate it when they bring it up so I as the candidate don't have to - it shows me they're thinking about how to attract the best candidates and that it's a priority for them. I've also heard some horror stories (and experienced instances myself) when non-urgent tasks are treated like emergencies, demanding 24/7 attention and interfering with every aspect of life outside of work. (I strongly disagree with that approach. In my opinion, it gives nowhere for a team to ramp up to in the case of an actual crisis. The best examples of leadership on this issue I've seen are bosses who assign off-hours duty if needed, mandate compensation for overtime work, push back on unnecessary assignments, and refuse to respond to routine email after hours or let their subordinates do so. Given our work culture, though, that's extremely rare. I hope someday it's much more common.)
  • When the incumbent and hiring managers are responsive. A quick and thoughtful pattern of responses indicate to me that the office is well-organized and takes recruitment for the position seriously. If they put that kind of attention and time management to hiring, I think it's more likely that they'll put the same effort into setting me up for success on the job through mentoring, onboarding, and collaborating as a team.

These are just a few of the things that stand out to me as green flags for bidding. They may not apply to everyone, but I've been known to warm up to a post, solidify my desire to bid on a job, or move the position higher up on my own ranked list based on these green flags. I hope everyone bidding this year has lots of great opportunities on their list with plenty of their own encouraging green flags. Good luck!

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Savoring Korea's Cafe Culture

One thing I'm going to miss terribly about our time in South Korea is the wonderful cafe culture. There are regular cafes, themed cafes, dessert cafes, Instagram cafes, animal cafes, and the list goes on. In this post, I'll share a few of my favorite cafes in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul walking distance from our house.

A dessert place I thankfully discovered early on in my tour and patronized regularly is La Vie en Coco (라비앙코코), a chocolate cafe. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love chocolate. But I'll admit I can be a little picky about the type and quality of chocolate. So believe me when I say La Vie en Coco is the real deal!

It's a very small cafe with only a handful of seats and a tiny menu. They're most well-known for their drinking chocolate and it does not disappoint. The rich, creamy drinking chocolate transports me to Europe every time I order it. You can get it hot or cold, perfect for the frigid Korean winter or blazing, humid summer.

They also sell boxes of chocolate with flavors that change based on what's available. On my most recent visit, I bought a box of chocolate truffles that were half for me and half for M. (It was a bit embarrassing, because I confidently attempted to order the box in Korean but realized only after a few minutes of confusion that I was using the wrong Korean word for the number nine as I was trying to order. In the Korean language, there are two sets of numbers: one known as native Korean numbers and one called Sino-Korean numbers. Crucially, they are not interchangeable. You generally need to use the correct one for each specific context. So I repeated the Sino-Korean word for the number nine over and over again while the poor cashier stared at me blankly until we figured out I picked the wrong number set and should have used the native Korean number. Oops!) Anyway, La Vie en Coco boxes make beautiful gifts for any chocolate lovers, and M has gotten their chocolates for me for occasions in the past.

The next cafe is actually a bagel shop that my friend N recommended called Local Villa Bagel (로컬빌라베이글). These are the best bagels I've ever had in my life. (I know I'm a traitor to my fellow University of Virginia alumni for saying this, but it even beats Bodo's Bagels for me!) They were so buttery and soft with an amazing texture that defies the dry, dense bagel stereotype. The cream cheeses were extraordinary, as well.

My avocado lox bagel with arugula made for an outstanding and filling meal, and I ended up taking a bag of assorted bagels and cream cheese to go. The free water was infused with mint, and the whole cafe was so bright and airy that it created an open and mood-boosting atmosphere. I think it tends to attract a younger audience, too... Most of the other patrons were clearly Gen Z.

The last cafe I'll mention is a study cafe called Nolsoop (놀숲). This study cafe was billed as a "Cartoon & Book Cafe" and seems like it might be a chain. It was so fun, I wish I'd learned about it much sooner.

When you arrive, you place your shoes in a shoe locker and put on slippers. Then, you can order food and drink at the counter and get a time card. When you leave the cafe, you pay for whatever food and drink you ordered and for the hours you spent at the cafe. It's very inexpensive; I stayed an hour and ordered a cherry soda, and my total was about $5.)

On the entrance floor there were board games and places to play them. Downstairs and upstairs, there were a variety of nooks to study, rest, and read. There was also an impressive collection of manga/manhwa(만화)/comic books that you could read while you were there and simply return before you left. There was also a terrace where you could sit outside, though the day I went was much too hot for that option.

Instead, I grabbed a comfortable, padded, private spot to stretch out, read, write, and enjoy my cherry soda. I love the idea of a study cafe, and the whole vibe reminded me of my college days. There were plenty of groups of students there reading or studying, but even as an adult well out of school I'd go back. It was the perfect setting for being productive.

This is just a small snapshot that might give readers a taste of Korea's cafe culture. If you ever visit South Korea, make sure to check out some cafes while you're here. There's truly something for everyone!