Friday, May 27, 2022

Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

I can't believe the month of May is almost over and we're heading into June - the start of summer! May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and I'm glad I was able to attend an Embassy piano concert and reception to mark the occasion while M watched baby S at home. When I went on maternity leave I resigned my leadership position on our IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility) Council (formerly known as D&I Council), but attending their wonderful events when I can is a way I like to show my support.

In this case, I knew I wanted to go as soon as I saw the email asking for RSVPs. Edwin Kim, an award-winning Korean American pianist with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, performed a special selection of pieces for the intimate gathering. I was hooked from the second sentence of his bio: "Praised by International Piano Magazine for performances infused with “magic in atmosphere, individuality and poise,” his repertoire encompasses timeless masterpieces of the piano literature along with innovative new compositions." He did not disappoint, performing a series of pieces from contemporary takes on Korean folk music to an outstanding rendition of Chopin's L'heroique Polonaise to some of his own original compositions. He could even sing! We were all blown away by his talent.

My mom is a pianist and piano teacher of incredible talent, so I have been to a lot of classical music concerts around the world and few have moved me the way Edwin's music did. He has a sensitive and artistic perspective on things that reminded me of my mom and made me a little homesick. He acknowledged the recent gun violence in the United States, which was on all of our minds, and he commented that the outside world was not nearly as beautiful as the world of music he was fortunate enough to live in every day. He said although he was not in a position of political power he could express feelings about what is happening through music that hopefully reaches people.

I loved being a part of such a special evening with my colleagues and friends. We were encouraged to wear traditional dress from an Asian culture, and I realized I didn't have a hanbok, but I did have a Tangzhuang-style custom-made jacket given to me by a friend and colleague when she retired. So I, a Korean American, ended up wearing a Chinese heritage style given to me by a Filipina American because I couldn't find any Korean clothes in my closet. Part of fashion is taking inspiration from and mixing different cultural influences, so it was fun to represent that - though I still wish I had a modern-style hanbok dress!

If you're lucky enough to be in the area when Edwin Kim is performing, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket. You won't regret it. He has a way of reaching everyone from classical music aficionados to the general public, as the best musicians can. This was a fantastic way to mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and I hope none of us limit our celebration of the history, culture, and contributions of AAPI folks to just one month.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Meeting President Biden and Second Gentleman Emhoff

Normally when there is a major visit by a U.S. official to a foreign country, almost everyone at the U.S. embassy in the country pitches in by working directly on the visit or covering for their colleagues' normal duties while they work on the visit. Because I am on maternity leave right now, I got to enjoy some of the fun parts of two recent visits without stressing about the extensive work behind the scenes I would normally be involved in if I weren't out of the office.

I was fortunate enough to attend two events called meet and greets, which are exactly what they sound like: an opportunity to meet a high-level visitor. If there is space in the schedule, visitors will often do meet and greets with employees and their families serving overseas, including military service members and diplomats. Since M wasn't particularly interested, he stayed at home with baby S while I attended both meet and greets: one with Second Gentleman (i.e., the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris) Doug Emhoff and one with President Joe Biden.

The Second Gentleman was very down-to-earth and kind to everyone regardless of rank. He answered one of my questions and shook my hand, but I ended up kicking myself later for failing to request a photo with him. I would've liked that memento of the event, but I'm glad I went anyway and got to hear from him. It was also a nice opportunity to catch up with friends and coworkers I haven't seen while I've been on maternity leave.

The President of the United States (POTUS) had a much larger meet and greet, and as someone with a newborn at home I was grateful the event was outside while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. I scoped out a spot close to the front early and had a great view of the President's speech. He apparently loves children and spent quite a bit of time with Embassy employees' kids, taking photos and talking to them.

I was hoping to get a photo with him, but unfortunately I was unlucky and just a few people took up all the time he had in my section, with one even shoving me out of the way. I thought about trying to press my way to the front, but after getting pushed around a bit I decided I was not willing to fight people for just the possibility of a photo.

Oh, well, even if I didn't get a photo with either the Second Gentleman or the President at least I got to be a part of the events. It was fun to experience an official visit that way without having to organize or support any of the events myself. Next time, I'll make sure to strategize better and leave with a photo!

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Our First (and Possibly Only) Guest in Korea: Hosting My Sister!

My sister C came to visit us in South Korea all the way from Colorado! She stayed for 10 days, and due to the pandemic she was our first and possible only guest we will be able to host during our time here, as there are only a few months left in our tour before we return to DC. C was such a huge help with baby S, and it was so nice to catch up with her and talk excitedly about her upcoming wedding. (What can I say? It's a big year for our family!)

C's visit coincided with multiple relevant holidays. Together with our Korean extended family, we celebrated Orininal (어린이날, Children's Day) at home. My family was kind enough to bring gifts for the baby and fruit, cakes, and drinks to share. It was a great chance for both C and I to practice our Korean language skills and spend some quality time with our family. We haven't been able to see them nearly as much as I would have liked during the COVID-19 era, but I'm so grateful they got to see us and C and S.

Later that week, it was also Korean Parents' Day and my first U.S. Mother's Day as a mother myself. My heart is so full with the joy our child brings to me. Postpartum recovery is very tough, but simple things like seeing his smiling face or holding him close or washing his little fingers and toes make every challenge and sacrifice worth it. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be entrusted with his care.

It was also that wonderful time of year each spring in Korea leading up to Buddha's birthday when all the Buddhist temples and streets around them are decorated with lotus lanterns. C and I took advantage of the opportunity and went to Jogyesa Temple (조계사), where we took the first photo of this post, and to Gwangjang Market (광장시장) together while M watched baby S at home. The Temple was gorgeous as ever, and the market was wonderful. We had some delicious lunch of mung bean pancakes (bindaetteok, 빈대떡), dumplings (mandu, 만두), and pig's trotters (jokbal, 족발). The bindaetteok (pictured below) was the best I've ever had.

When we were done eating, we walked by the stall of Cho Yoonsun (조윤선), made famous by the Street Food show on Netflix. We were only gone a few hours, but the mom anxiety was real! I kept texting M to reassure me S was okay even though I knew he had everything he needed at home including plenty of refrigerated and frozen milk. Now I understand so much better why my new mom friends always said leaving the baby in the beginning was so hard.

My confidence built after that excursion, I decided to accept my friend J's offer for two free tickets to a musical performance by a group called the Young Ambassadors from Brigham Young University (BYU) at Yonsei University (연세대학교) in Seoul. I didn't realize Yonsei University was so close to the Seoul Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my church. There were more missionaries gathered together at the Young Ambassadors show than I've ever seen in one place in Korea. Several of them were joyfully hugging when we arrived, and I guess they hadn't seen each other in a while. The vibe of the whole event was energetic and wholesome, and it really recharged my emotional and spiritual batteries to enjoy performing arts in person: something my sister and I have always loved.

I saw the show with C while M took care of the baby again, and S did so well we even had a chance to grab bingsoo (빙수) at a local cafe together afterwards. The area around the university was very hip, with tons of cute shops and street performers, and the walk was delightful on a warm spring evening. It reminded me a little bit of my own college days. Now that S is already over a month old, I hope being apart from him once in a while helps ease my transition back to work in a few more months.

The time flew so fast (I'm sure in part because M and I live our lives these day in 2-4 hour segments dictated by S), but the time with C was so special and has become part of my most treasured memories from our tour in Korea. I can't wait to see her again in a few months for her wedding and our own return to the United States.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Two Weeks in a Korean Luxury Postnatal Spa

I'm so glad we decided to partake in the Korean practice of postponing taking our baby directly home from the hospital and staying at a sanhu joriwon (산후조리원), or postnatal luxury spa, also known as a postpartum care center, instead. Many middle-class Korean women opt for these accommodations for 1-3 weeks after birth or they hire a postpartum domestic worker called a doumi (도우미) to come to their home. Korea places a big emphasis on the recovery of the mother after childbirth, so the focus of these services is to allow the mother to have a bit of a break and for her body to heal while the new parents are learning to care for the latest addition to their family.

We stayed at a joriwon called Versailles (베르사유 산후조리원) in Gangnam for two weeks. Most women seemed to leave their husbands at home (or perhaps their husbands weren't able to take the time off of work), but I was so grateful M was able to stay with me the whole time. As I was recovering, I needed his help for a lot of things and I was relieved to have his constant care. Our room at the joriwon was like a comfortable hotel room equipped with a few postpartum-specific additions including a bassinet, an endless supply of diapers and postpartum gowns, and a sitz bath machine in the bathroom. Someone came to clean the room every day, and we had a lovely springtime view outside to a promenade by a lake.

The food at the joriwon was delicious and came very frequently. My food, three meals and two snacks per day, was included in our booking cost and we just added Marwan's meals to our tab for 10,000 Korean won (less than $10) a pop. Thank goodness I love Korean food and especially miyeokguk (미역국), the iron-rich seaweed soup traditionally given to mothers who have just given birth. It was so nice not to have to worry about any cooking and cleaning for those first few weeks so I could focus on feeding our baby.

Anyone who knows me also knows how much I love massages, and the joriwon did not disappoint in that respect. All the women staying at my joriwon received daily breast massages to stimulate milk production and prevent clogged ducts and mastitis. There was also this awesome leg sauna device I could use whenever I wanted. (One of my friends back home said this photo made it look like I was about to launch into space!) In addition, my package included three full-body postnatal massages that felt absolutely divine. Labor, childbirth, and recovery are no joke and I appreciated the extra attention to my aches and pains in the early days of motherhood. It took all of my self-control not to splurge for one of the many extremely expensive additional massage packages. They also had some "slimming treatment" packages available, but I'm honestly not sure exactly what those entailed and whether they were safe because I wasn't interested. After everything my body had been through with pregnancy and birth, I can tell you getting my pre-pregnancy body back as fast as possible was the last thing on my mind.

As part of the photo package we already purchased that included maternity photos, the same studio also sent a photographer to the joriwon to take newborn photos of baby S. They said we'll get to see the final versions of those photos when we come to the studio for our 50-day-old photos next month. He was so cute during the photo shoot but also very confused about what was happening. I can't wait to see them! We grabbed a few photos on my phone as they were taking the professional ones, so the first photo of this post is one of those.

The joriwon also included twice weekly visits by a pediatrician to examine all the babies there. Every time, the pediatrician said our baby seemed healthy and (to my relief) gaining weight and eating well once I was able to start breastfeeding. I heard some complaints from expat women that they felt joriwons were not supportive of exclusive breastfeeding, but I had the opposite experience. The nurses called me every time S was hungry so I could feed him and let me know if he hadn't eaten enough so I could keep going. They also taught me plenty of techniques for ensuring a good latch and waking him up when he was too sleepy to eat. I felt a little envy in the beginning for the formula feeding moms who were sleeping through the night every night while the nurses fed their babies, but at the end of the day I'm so thankful that breastfeeding seems to be working well for us. I am also so appreciative of formula, which helped us in the beginning as my milk was delayed and which is truly a miracle of modern science.

Having a team of nurses on call for help was probably the single best part about the joriwon experience. They taught us how to change a diaper, how to swaddle properly, how to discern different types of cries, how to bathe our baby safely, and more. Whenever we needed a break or just a nap, we could send S back to the nursery knowing they would call us for the next feeding and take care of any dirty diapers and fussiness in between. Every day that we spent at the joriwon, my body felt a little bit better and less in pain, and I don't think I would have healed as quickly if we'd been thrust out into the world on our own right away.

I will say I don't think our stay at the joriwon would have been nearly as comfortable without any Korean language skills. Almost nobody spoke English at the hospital or at the joriwon, so after three weeks of communicating extensively in Korean my brain was very tired. The owner of the joriwon did speak English and I spoke to at least one expat couple who stayed at our joriwon and didn't speak any Korean, but I personally have a hard time imagining how that would work between all the little daily interactions with people who didn't speak English.

It's wonderful to be home again, and thankfully S has adjusted well to the new environment so far. I'll miss having the team of nurses to call for help whenever I need them, but thanks to their training I feel much more prepared. They even gave us this awesome receiving blanket and rolled up cloth that we use multiple times a day to help make S more comfortable when he's feeding. We're so excited to start our new, real life on our own as a family of three now. I hope you enjoyed this little peek inside the joriwon experience!

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Best Advice I Got for First-Time Pregnancy

I made it through my first pregnancy, and so the next adventure begins! I wanted to take a step back and reflect and share some of the things going through my head now before too much time passes and I forget. Something I would've loved to see when I found out I was pregnant for the first time was a blog post like this from a trusted friend, so I thought I would share some of my experiences. Please take everything I say with a grain of salt, though, as I only have a sample size of one! So in no particular order, here's a list of great advice I appreciated as a first-time pregnant woman:

  1. Get used to unsolicited advice. I got so much unsolicited advice during pregnancy and a lot of criticism about what I thought were silly things. Here are some of the choices I made that people questioned to my face with language like "Are you sure that's good for the baby?" and "You shouldn't do that": drinking a cup of hot chocolate, having a macaron, wearing heels, exercising, the list goes on. I was especially surprised by how frequently these comments came from people who don't know me well at all. I've heard it only gets worse once the baby actually arrives, anyway. There's something about child-rearing that causes people to drop all their filters and social niceties and stick their noses in your business.
  2. Safe exercise during pregnancy is a gamechanger. You should talk to your medical provider before starting any new exercise routine, but most people who were active before pregnancy can continue exercising with a lot of mental and physical benefits. I was fortunate that exercise including prenatal yoga, pilates, and cardio felt great throughout my entire pregnancy. I found exercise helped stretch my muscles, relieve aches, and prepare my body for the physical exertion of labor and childbirth. I heard that back in the day they would tell women not to exercise at all during pregnancy and just lie down most of the time. That certainly did not work for me and is not recommended by doctors who have stayed up on the research (unless, of course, you have a condition or other issue requiring bed rest). My favorite prenatal exercise YouTube channel is called Pregnancy and Postpartum TV - I highly recommend it!
  3. The amount of information out there is overwhelming, so be selective and give yourself grace. There is a whole industry of books, movies, classes, and more designed to convince consumers they can have the ideal pregnancy and birth and parenting experience. I loved reading several books about the experience and biological processes of fertility and pregnancy and taking a birthing class and learning about mindfulness-based childbirth preparation. But if you don't have time to do those things, you and your baby will very likely be completely fine. I never got around to reading that original pregnancy blockbuster of a book: What to Expect When You're Expecting. And it was fine! There's no medal for acquiring a set amount of knowledge about having and raising your child; it's an ongoing, lifelong process. Even if having a baby is "natural" doesn't mean any of it is intuitive. I personally don't know how people got by before Google, as I found myself looking up the most random questions throughout the day and night whether it was about symptoms or recent research on infant safety or medical myths.
  4. Comparison is the thief of joy. I think comparing yourself to others, especially other pregnant people, can be discouraging. Every body and every pregnancy is so different that it's okay if you're bigger than someone who's farther along than you or if you have acne when their skin is glowing or have lower energy or whatever it is you're going through. Of course, I think bonding with other pregnant women and especially learning from experienced moms really helped me, but don't listen if someone says, "Oh, you haven't developed x symptom yet? That's a bad sign..." (unless that someone is your trusted medical provider).
  5. Eating for two is a myth. I was so disappointed to learn that "eating for two" isn't a real thing. I assumed I would be eating double the food throughout pregnancy, but in the beginning most barely have to consume anything more and even by the end you're not eating double what an adult would eat. (Now, sleeping for two was closer to my experience, especially during the first trimester. Some nights I slept 12 hours just because I was that exhausted from a normal day.)
  6. Only you know the right amount of advance preparation for you. If you're like me, you want to read plenty of books and listen to podcasts and watch documentaries about pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, parenting, and babies' development. Other expecting parents might get stressed out by all of that and prefer to figure it out as they go or rely on wisdom from their family and friends. One way isn't better or more right than the other; it just comes down to what will help you be the best you can be for your baby.
  7. Birth is one moment in the full life of parenting you have ahead of you. Sometimes, the pressure to conform to expectations for pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding is intense - especially for women in a society that often attributes our worth to traditional standards of motherhood. I have so many friends with birth or early parenting experiences that deviated wildly from what they had hoped for, but the good news is that those things are just a small cross-section of the life you will spend raising and empowering and caring for your child. This is not to minimize mistreatment of mothers by medical providers, family members, or other people who should be supporting them and their babies, including respecting their choices, but I found this idea relaxing when facing things over which we sometimes have so little control. Regardless of how you gave birth or fed your baby, you will make millions of other choices that can nurture and support your child and help them thrive and lead a fulfilling life.
  8. Know your rights, particularly if you are working. For example, do not let anyone pressure you to take less than the leave you want and are entitled to by law and policy. For me as a pregnant woman in the Foreign Service, this meant taking the sick leave I am entitled to in order to recover from birth in addition to the 12 weeks of paid parental leave I am guaranteed by law. If you want to pump after you return to the office, go check out the pumping room or whatever facility your employer provides and make sure they understand that you need time to pump throughout the day. If there are physical aspects to your job that become too difficult during pregnancy, advocate for your needs. Some people will be more familiar with the rights of pregnant people than others, but ignorance is no excuse for denying you required benefits or support.
  9. Ignore the career advice that doesn't work for you at this stage. Many people assume pregnant women want to take a step back from their careers, and for some that is truly their desire. But for others, you may feel completely fine going ahead at full speed. Everyone gets to make that decision for themselves. So if you want to take on a big project, travel (within safe limits recommended by your medical provider), apply for a competitive program, change gears, or accept a high-profile role then don't let others' expectations of you hold you back. Even before my baby was born I received some negative comments about my choice to bid on an intense staffer job given that I was pregnant. Simultaneously, I didn't put myself forward for certain professional development opportunities and work travel assignments because I knew it wasn't the right time for me. At the end of the day, though, those are my decisions and I know better than anybody else what's best for me and my family. (I also doubt men get this same level of scrutiny on their career choices when they have children.)
  10. Expect people to comment on your body all the time. I heard some pregnant friends had a lot of people touch their bellies, but I didn't experience that much (possibly because I was pregnant during a pandemic). What I did hear was a ton of comments on my body, not just from friends and family but total strangers! For folks who struggle with body image, this can be really harmful. I appreciated the nice comments (e.g., "you're glowing!") from friends because I certainly didn't feel like pregnancy was much of a glow-up personally, but the important thing is not how your body looks but all the amazing things your body can do. (I think this is true in life, not just in pregnancy. If you're interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book More Than A Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament by Lexie Kite and Lindsay Kite.) When in doubt, especially with someone you don't know, I suggest refraining from commenting at all on someone's physical appearance. I've heard multiple horror stories of people asking others about their due date or commenting on their bump when they are postpartum or even never pregnant. Assumptions can be hurtful and embarrassing for everybody.

I hope this post is helpful for someone else out there who might be expecting or trying to conceive! Congratulations and good luck to all the readers out there on their own journeys.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Our Family of Two Is Now Three!

Our precious baby is finally here, out in the real world. That's right - we have a baby boy: S. Funny enough, I felt that he would be a boy very early on in my pregnancy before we could possibly know for sure because I had vivid dreams of having a boy. Even though we kept the sex of our baby a secret, most of our family and friends guessed that we would have a boy, too. Weird, huh?

I had a... let's just say intense experience delivering at a Korean hospital, and I am so happy I decided to stay at post to have our baby. I cannot say enough kind things about all the doctors and nurses in labor and delivery at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital. Soon, we'll be checking into our joriwon (산후조리원), the postnatal luxury spa where the three of us will stay for two weeks. (I'll make sure to blog about that later, too, but all I can say for now is: why don't we have those in the United States?)

You might wonder why we're not posting our baby's face all over the blog. After all, he is very adorable (you'll have to take my word for it). But we decided to leave our son's face off our blog and social media pages when he's young for a few reasons. First of all, M and I were lucky enough to grow up at a time where we could decide how we wanted to put ourselves out there on the Internet. Although we can't guarantee total privacy in an age with facial recognition and other technology, we wanted to give our child a chance to make those decisions when he's old enough, too. He's too young to know about our social media profiles, let alone express an opinion about whether he wants us to put his face there or not. This isn't the only option out there, but it was the right one for us.

I also don't want this blog to become a mostly mommy blog or family blog. I started this blog to share some information and life updates with folks back home, of course, but I also hope it can stay a resource for people who are interested in the U.S. Foreign Service and a career in diplomacy. There are plenty of fantastic parenting and cooking and lifestyle blogs out there, and I just don't see that type of content as part of the purpose of ours.

So with that quick update, I'm signing off to catch some precious shut eye and make the most of my recovery time. I plan to do future posts on the best advice I received as a first-time pregnant woman working and living overseas as well as maternity leave in the Foreign Service, but I have a feeling I may be posting at some weird hours for the next few months. It's all part of the adventure!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Baby Shower: A Little Cutie Is On the Way!

I feel so lucky to have gotten two baby showers (one virtual for folks back home and one in person here in South Korea) before our little one arrives in just a few short weeks! I was impressed with the organizers (my sister for the first one and a team of four friends N, L, S, and T for the second) for their creativity, willingness to work with my pandemic precautions, and resourcefulness at finding gender-neutral invitations, games, etc! (The baby industry is so gendered that even putting together a gender-neutral registry was tough.)

My first shower was held on Zoom, and I had so much fun I completely forgot to grab a screenshot. It was a great mix of friends from different parts of my life as well as family, and we played a baby trivia Jeopardy game where let's just say there was a huge range in both questions and the familiarity of the attendees with the answers.

My second shower kept getting postponed due to waves of COVID-19 in Korea, but my friend N eventually pointed out that any further delay probably meant I wouldn't have one before the baby arrived. So we whipped out our hand sanitizer and masks and my wonderful friends organized an outdoor, socially distanced baby shower so I wouldn't miss out on that experience. It had an adorable "cutie" orange/tangerine theme, and from the moment I walked into the setup I felt so special. (Yes, I even reused my maternity photo shoot flower crown. When else am I going to wear it?)

We chatted, enjoyed delicious food and drinks, played baby shower games, decorated onesies, and opened presents. There was even a decorative #Sbitiny sign L made that matched the theme that people could sign like a guest book. Given the long shipping time between when someone orders off of our U.S.-based registry and when the products arrive in Korea, I thought I wouldn't be able to do presents at all but M got pictures of the items that were still on the way and sent them to N so she could print them out and put them in wrapped boxes. It was so thoughtful.

Even though it was a women-only baby shower, several of the male significant others of the party planners came to help set up and clean up, as well. It felt like a team effort to celebrate me, the baby, and the excitement of our growing family. We are so fortunate to have family and friends who love us enough to do something like this for us. Especially when you're preparing to give birth and navigate becoming a parent far from home, it makes all the difference.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Happy International Women's Day!

Happy International Women's Day (IWD)! Occuring on March 8 every year, IWD "is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality. IWD has occurred for well over a century, with the first IWD gathering in 1911 supported by over a million people. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific."

I got the best IWD gift ever in the mail today with the arrival of my contributor's copy of Exponent II, one of the publications I mentioned in a previous post! It's so amazing to see my historical fiction short story in print in a Mormon feminist publication I respect so much. If you like stories about polygamy and free will and overcoming adversity, you'll love my piece (called "Elect Lady"), featured as the first story in the magazine.

If you're interested in reading my story, you'll have to buy a copy of the print magazine (which you can do from the Exponent II website) or a digital subscription. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to enjoying all of the essays, stories, poetry, and art in my own copy. It'll hold a special place in my heart as my first-ever paid fiction publication in print.

If you need suggestions for how to commemorate IWD, I highly recommend listening to the Our Dirty Laundry podcast to learn about some of the pitfalls of white feminism in U.S. history to get a fuller picture, purchasing a book by a woman (one I loved and just read is Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto, which had me laughing harder than any book in recent memory), or watching a show or movie that highlights the experience of women (I'm currently on a nostalgic binge of Sister, Sister on Netflix). Or just recognize the amazing contributions of the women in your life - we all have women without whom we wouldn't be where we are today. How are you celebrating today?

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

United with Ukraine: A Few Thoughts

The world, and especially the Western world, has turned all eyes on Ukraine. The United States stands united with Ukraine against Russia's aggression. If you're just catching up to the historical context, you can see a timeline put together by the Department of State's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. For updates on the developing situation and information on what the U.S. government is doing, the Department of State has also set up a United with Ukraine webpage. In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Devlopment (USAID) Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) has compiled a list of reputable, vetted, well-established relief organizations that are accepting donations to assist on the ground.

Another thing all of us can do is try to stop the spread of disinformation and misinformation about this (and any) conflict. Sharing propaganda can advance an agenda you don't agree with, and it incentivizes unreliable information sources to keep churning out content and getting clicks. CBC News has a great article with expert tips on how to avoid spreading misinformation about Ukraine. If you accidentally share something you later find out is untrue, it's always worth correcting the record. But even better is to prevent false information's spread in the first place. (If you're interested in this topic, see my previous blog post about spotting fake news.)

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the discriminatory tone of multiple instances of Western media coverage and analysis of Ukraine. I can't count the number of news outlets, politicians, and even personal friends who have subconsciously made racist and Islamophobic comments. The Washington Post documented this phenomenon in reporting and commentary. In my view, we should applaud efforts to accept refugees from Ukraine but demand better for all refugees worldwide - not just the ones who are "similar to" or "look like" those with the most means to help.

I've heard from so many people I love that they can't stop doomscrolling and that they feel helpless. I don't know what the right balance is for anyone else, but I for one appreciate the chance an increasingly globalized world gives us to know (and therefore take action) regarding others' suffering even when they're far away. It has been heartening to see the Americans, Koreans, and other free people around us stand united with Ukraine and seek opportunities to help others they will probably never meet or know. If you have financial means, donate. If you have time, write to your representatives and advocate for the policies you believe in, including foreign policies. If you have an audience or a community, encourage them to care, contribute how they can, and not give in to despair. Especially in the midst of tragedy and trauma and war and violence, there is always work to be done. Let's do our part.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Maternity Photos Are In!

It's so funny that I spent this whole pregnancy saying I didn't want to take maternity photos. I even refused to take weekly progress photos like M wanted because I just knew I'd forget a week or two and it would drive me nuts that the whole record would be incomplete. (Plus, I was supposed to be trying to do less this year overall.)

But I kept getting calls and texts from a photo studio affiliated with the postnatal luxury spa (산후조리원) where we'll be staying after the birth, and with each marketing pitch I felt myself warming up more and more to the idea. What really sealed the deal was confirming that it was "free" to get the photos taken, and we could see if we liked them before deciding to buy any. My thought was: well, if they're that confident we're going to love them, they must be good! (Yes, I realize that's how they get you. What can I say? They got me.)

So M and I grabbed a taxi one Saturday afternoon to Birthday Studio, which was located in Gangnam. I had applied a base coat of makeup before I left home and grabbed a flower crown I'd ordered online and a few sets of earrings in case I needed multiple options. Once we arrived, I was whisked to hair and makeup (all included, along with dress and shoe rental) while M relaxed in a waiting room. I could choose up to two dresses, but I brought my own in case their sizes didn't fit me or didn't meet my religious standards of modesty. In the end, I chose one of their dresses (a delicate pink that matched the flower crown I brought) and wore my own, a burgundy dress.

I imagine the staff spoke some English, but I communicated with them in Korean and they seemed much more comfortable. Once I was dolled up, I met up with Marwan in a studio room where a photographer with the most English ability of anyone we met there directed us into hundreds of poses. I love it when a photographer knows exactly what they want and tells you just what to do. I never know exactly how to stand or what to do with my arms or feet to get the absolute best photo, but the studio photographer had it down even to pinky finger placement.

The space for taking photos was small but comfortable, with various lighting options and a plain chair we used for some of the photos. I liked the simplicity of it and how we weren't asked to use a bunch of cheesy props as I've heard some studios do. The same kind lady who did my hair and makeup was also on standby to help with any flyaways and hair mishaps, which is especially helpful if you have mischievous bangs like me.

After we finished our photo shoot, we were escorted to the waiting room, brought some water and juice, and told to wait a bit while they prepared the photos. I assumed that meant they were picking the best ones to present to us as part of their sales pitch at the end. Little did I know they were assembling a whole promotional video complete with quotes perfectly designed to pull on any pregnant person's heartstrings!

When another staff member walked in with the prepared files, M and I sat patiently while she pulled them up on the screen. Imagine my shock and surprise as they played a video they had secretly recorded of M while I was doing hair and makeup, telling me how much he loved me and what a great mother I would be! I admit, I was already teary in the first few minutes. Then they hit me with the full blast of maternity photo highlights, affirmations, and poetic quotes. Yup, at that point I was a goner. And we hadn't even talked prices yet!

One of the nice things about getting maternity photos at a Korean studio is that they tend to do photo packages. A typical "full" package includes maternity photos, newborn photos, 50-day photos (for 50 days after the birth), and 100-day photos (you get the idea). We decided to spring for maternity photos, newborn photos, and 50-day photos but to hold off on any more since we knew we'd be moving back home soon and family would probably want to do pictures, together, too.

The prices were very reasonable and much less than what we'd expect to pay in the United States (at least in the DC area). We got the package of those three photo occasions (again, including hair and makeup and dress and shoe rental) including digital files, photo editing for our favorites, and a small album for 600,000 Korean won (about $500). They also said if we changed our mind we could always add the 100-day photos to our package later.

I'm so happy with how these first photos turned out and look forward to treasuring those newborn and 50-day photos, too! Photographers and photo studio staff are amazing people, using their creative talents to capture the special moments in people's lives. I'm so grateful Birthday Studio kept calling and texting me, or I might never have decided to take the plunge and get these photos.