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!

Saturday, July 30, 2022

How M and I Narrow Down My Bid List

When it's time for me as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to "bid on" (i.e., apply and compete for) my next job, there are hundreds of potential vacancies. A big part of the bidding process is combing through those vacancies and narrowing down the jobs that I'm interested in, and eventually which ones I want to rank higher. Every person and family has a different way of identifying the jobs and posts that might be a good fit for them, but in case it's helpful as a data point I wanted to share what we do.

Even though the Foreign Service is my career, it's also a major lifestyle for not just me but the whole family. I never understood diplomats who seem to want to coerce or bully their family members into coming along for the ride or dragging them to posts against their will. I won't even waste my time bidding somewhere that M doesn't want to go, and he has what we call the Spouse Veto. No matter how badly I want a particular job, if M pulls out the Spouse Veto then I will drop it from consideration before the bidding process even really starts. To his credit, M isn't high maintenance and almost never uses the Spouse Veto. He has only used it twice, for two posts I will not name here, and both were for the same reason: bad Internet. High-speed, reliable, and affordable Internet is crucial for M's work and quality of life, and he has to live wherever I'm assigned for years. It's perfectly reasonable to me that we make this our priority.

If the post clears M's Internet standards, then I want to make sure the job meets my requirements. At this stage in my career, I'm not looking to bid any "stretch" positions up or down. In other words, I want to bid positions that are a match for my rank and not above or below. I know some Foreign Service Officers are eager to bid stretch positions up to try and hasten promotion, but for someone like me who was just promoted and who hopes to enjoy a long career in the Foreign Service before retirement, I'm in no rush at the moment. (That could change if I start getting too close to the Time in Class (TIC) limit; we have a certain number of years at each level by which we must get promoted or we'll be unceremoniously pushed out of the Foreign Service.)

I'm not too strict about bidding only "in-cone" jobs at this stage in my career, either. I am a Public Diplomacy (PD)-coned officer with one PD tour under my belt, so I'm happy to do another PD tour or venture outside of my cone and come back to it later. The most important thing to me is that the work is exciting to me. That means I might consider an Economic (ECON) Officer tour if the portfolio covers technology, something I'm relatively knowledgeable and passionate about, for example. There are also certain regions I'm interested in due to the history, culture, or current priority issues. I take all of these into consideration when I'm adding jobs to my shortlist.

Of course, I also do think strategically about how a position may help my career long-term or make the most sense for me right now. Because I'll be coming off of a one-year staff assistant tour in the Near East Affairs (NEA) Front Office, I am focusing my energy this bidding cycle on NEA jobs where I know my recent DC experience will be an extra advantage. (People also commonly refer to the Near East as the Middle East and North Africa.) Jobs with supervisory potential also get a bonus from me because I haven't formally managed staff in the Foreign Service yet except in temporary, acting roles. I'm also leaning toward a job that is not language-designated because I so recently finished spending a year learning Korean and would like more of a break. Plus, it makes more financial sense not to start a language when coming off a DC tour because you're not eligible for many benefits you would receive if transferring between two overseas posts. These things are not dealbreakers for me, but they do help me narrow down the list.

S is still too young for schools to be a factor, but the next time I bid we will be looking at schools. M and I are not 100% decided yet, but we are considering enrolling S in a standardized school system such as the international German school system so that there's a little more uniformity in his education across posts. We both agree, though, that most Foreign Service kids are extraordinarily resilient and will adapt to whatever educational environment they're in as long as it's safe. (We also agree that services like GreatSchools and its international equivalents do more harm than good, with ratings correlating more closely with race and wealth than anything useful.)

I don't think this is particularly common, but a mentor of mine who excels at bidding told me she also looks at the most recent OIG (Office of the Inspector General) reports for posts on her shortlist. If a post has a recent history of malfeasance, toxic workplace culture, or other problems it will often come through in the OIG report. I have also found it useful, but moreso at the later stages of bidding once I have a manageable shortlist (because trust me when I say those reports are long).

Lastly, every stage of the bidding process allows me to refine my list a bit more. I already wrote a post about informational interview red flags, but there are plenty of other reasons to move a job down or off your bid list entirely at some point while bidding. Sometimes posts will send you hints (or tell you outright) that you're not competitive for a job or that they already have another candidate in mind, and those are not worth investing much time and energy in. If you discover that a position is extremely highly bid and you were on the lower end of relevant qualifications, it's also safe to assume that your chances of winding up at the top of their list are also slim. In other cases the timing of the job might change or the position might be reclassified at a different rank, so you have to stay on top of anything that might affect your eligibility and desire to pursue the opening. Other opportunities might jump up or down my list based on the other people who I find out will be at that post, especially if I know the person who will be my supervisor. Regular tweaking has been helpful for keeping my bid list realistic and giving me the best possible chances of a handshake (i.e., a job offer) at the end.

The #1 most important rule for us in putting together and updating my bid list is flexibility. If you are flexible in as many areas as possible, then it's much more likely you can ensure that you don't have to compromise on the things that matter most to you (in our case, that's keeping our family together and having great Internet). It's also worth noting that a lot of the strict "rules" around bidding are more like guidelines with many exceptions being made all the time for folks who know how and whom and when to ask. (Last bidding cycle, for example, I was told that under absolutely no circumstances could I bid early and my departure date from South Korea was fixed. I ended up getting permission to interview early if I was up front with offices about my scheduled departure date. Ultimately, I got my top choice job from bidding early and received an exception that allowed me to shift my departure date earlier to make it work.)

I hope this advice is helpful to others who are in the early stages of figuring bidding out or who might wonder what factors one Foreign Service Officer and her family consider when going for their next assignment. If you asked 100 different diplomats how they narrow down their bid lists, I'm sure you'd get 100 different answers. So please treat this post as the sole data point it is, and I wish all readers bidding this year the best of luck!

Saturday, July 23, 2022

An Overnight Hanok Stay with My Korean Family

Now that baby S is over 100 days old and before I went to work from maternity leave, we took one last chance to travel with my Korean family before we move back to Washington, DC. My family absolutely spoiled us, renting a big van to come pick us up and reserving a beautiful modern hanok outside of Seoul in Unakchae Hanok Village (운악채한옥마을). (A hanok [한옥] is a traditional Korean-style house.) S was such a champ, too, handling the car ride well and enjoying the time with our relatives even in an unfamiliar environment.

The modern hanoks were comfortable and spacious. We packed S's bassinet so we could set it up at the hanok and know we had a safe sleep space for him, and it worked perfectly. Everyone wanted to take turns holding and playing with S, and he loved the attention. My family continued to spoil all of us during our stay, accommodating S's feeding schedule and not letting us cook or clean a thing. They prepared delicious Korean meals throughout our trip, from a barbecue dinner to late-night spicy ramen and beers to a delicious breakfast.

My family even found a truly 100% non-alcoholic beer for me, which I didn't even know existed! Most non-alcoholic beers have a little bit of alcohol so I've avoided them, but after some incredulous Googling I confirmed my family was right and the one they offered me (Hite Zero) had no trace of alcohol. It tasted just like how I remembered beer tasted from back when I used to drink! My cousin J also introduced me to an amazing snack: Honey Butter Chips! Where have these been all my life? I hope I can find them at H-Mart once we move back to the States, because I discovered them way too late in my Korea tour.

We gathered around a bonfire to chat once it got dark and M and I put S to bed for the night. We didn't have our usual camera so we set up my laptop with white noise and an ongoing video call so we could watch him on our phones while we were outside or in another room. My uncle brought a magical powder of some kind that made the flames of our bonfire turn different colors. I took a photo and video, but they don't do it justice. The effect was so cool, casting the fire in shades of teal and blue and purple!

We played a few different games, including badminton and tuho (투호), a traditional Korean game where you try and throw arrows into a jar. Take my word for it: tuho is incredibly difficult and most of us couldn't get a single arrow in even after many attempts. My cousin S actually got an arrow in on the first try somehow and we all lost it like we were at an NFL game. M being how he is, he kept practicing tuho long after everyone else was done until he could get at least one arrow. Thank goodness he ended up getting two and calling it a night.

The next day, we checked out of the hanok and went with my family to the Garden of Morning Calm (아침고요수목원). M and I actually went there once before in the winter, but it was a completely different experience visiting in the summer. All of the Christmas lights we saw last time were replaced by green fields, flowers, and lush trees now. The one downside is that the weather on the day we went was scorching. S was such a trooper, though, and thankfully there was a nice nursing room where I could take him to cool off partway through our visit.

I was especially struck by a majestic tree called the Millennium Juniper (천년향). It was considered a sacred tree that watched over a village in Andong (안동) until the village was designated as a flooding area. Thankfully, the tree was preserved and transferred to the Garden of Morning Calm after almost a year of prep work. They believe the tree has been cared for since the Joseon Dynasty and estimate that it's about 1,000 years old. How cool is that?

There was also a gorgeous lily pond with a bridge over it that looked like a scene out of a romantic movie. Between the picturesque walking paths and the collections of bright, summery flowers I think the garden was well worth a repeat visit. I've heard from some folks who have stayed in Korea longer-term that they make it a point to go every single season because the grounds change so much based on what's blooming at that time. And after witnessing the summer transformation, I believe it! (Just make sure you take plenty of water and a fan if you're dropping by during the hottest months.)

After that, we went to Dumulmeori Lake (두물머리), where three rivers meet. It was a lovely park and we enjoyed the (much cooler) walk by the water. We didn't have a chance to explore the whole park area, but there was plenty of space relative to the number of people and we had a chance to sit and watch the shimmering lake whenever we wanted a break.

We also had some delicious massive hot dogs that were sort of like double-battered corn dogs with sugar, ketchup, and mustard on the outside. (Don't knock it 'til you try it.) There were a lot of stands with street food, and according to my family the hot dogs are pretty famous. One hot dog was enough for an entire meal and made me feel like I was at a fair or a carnival.

Before we knew it, it was time to come back home and say goodbye. We had such a magical weekend with my family, and they made the whole overnight trip such a special treat for all of us. I'm going to miss them so much. Though it's terribly unfair that the pandemic took away so much time we would've otherwise spent together, I'm grateful we had the chance to make some special memories before we go.

Monday, July 18, 2022

S's 100-Day Celebration: A Korean Tradition

I can't believe our baby is already 100 days old! 100 days is traditionally an important milestone in Korean culture, a holdover from previous times when many children did not live to that age. Although I clearly have not been following this rule, the 100-day mark is also typically the time after which the Korean mom and new baby can start going out in the world (as it's believed going out too much before then hampers recovery and puts mother and child at risk). These days, many people don't celebrate a child's 100 days and prefer instead to go all-out for the child's first birthday (another big one in Korea called the dol janchi, 돌잔치).

But we decided to go ahead and do a 100-day party (baekil janchi, 백일 잔치) for S for a few reasons. First of all, it was so easy to throw something traditionally Korean together while we're in South Korea: we were even able to rent a whole baekil janchi party set for the weekend! Second, we knew we only had a couple of months left to spend with my Korean family before we leave for the United States, so we wanted to make some nice memories together while we're still here. Third, I talked to one of my Korean American friends back home who had done an adorable baekil janchi for her son. When I mentioned I was on the fence about whether to organize something, she mentioned any excuse to get a baby in a hanbok (한복, traditional Korean dress) is a good one. Once I pictured S in a baby hanbok, it was a done deal and I knew I had to do the party.

We were so busy in the days leading up to the party cleaning the house top to bottom, picking up the party rental set, preparing food, and ordering rice cakes. Part of the 100-day tradition is to give special baekil rice cakes to 100 people to bring good fortune and long life to your baby. Between the guests at our party and my coworkers at the embassy, we got our rice cake recipients covered (with the help of some awesome colleagues who helped me get the rice cakes to folks in the office while I'm still on maternity leave).

The rice cake gift sets were so cute, and the big square one was even filled with delicious chocolate - something I've never seen in a rice cake like that before. (If you're curious, the Chinese character on that rice cake means 100, or baek in Korean. Chinese characters are called hanja, 한자, in the Korean language. A lot of Korean words are based on such Chinese characters.)

Joining us and my Korean family were our friends and neighbors (the other N&M), who had just come off of two weeks of hosting their family members visiting Korea from the United States. I was impressed they had the energy after so much running around with their guests, but I'm so glad they were able to attend and be a part of spoiling little S (and making sure we got our money's worth on the party set). My friend N made a gorgeous Almond Joy cake for the event that was as tasty as it was beautiful (and that you can see on the right in the photos of the whole spread).

Everyone brought such nice gifts, too, from the traditional gold rings to the most delightfully arranged flower basket I think I've ever seen to a norigae (노리개), an ornamental accessory either worn on a woman's or child's hanbok or hung in a room for good luck. Some of my colleagues at the embassy even sent a cute Korean baby book and a card to mark the occasion. We were so happy to have an excuse to shower love over little S, and can't wait to celebrate his first birthday with the rest of our family next year once we're back home!