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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

How to Improve Your PNQs

Disclaimer: I have never served on the Board of Examiners (BEX) and do not share any of this advice with inside knowledge of how Personal Narrative Questions (PNQs) are scored. Everything I say in this post (and the blog) is my personal opinion and not official or representative of the Department of State.

PNQs are the stage of the process to apply to be a U.S. Foreign Service Officer that used to occur after the written test but is now done before, as I understand applicants these days submit their PNQs before they even take the Foreign Service Officer test (FSOT). I think this order switching is a huge improvement, because it means that the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) can start looking at your essays without delay if you pass the exam. I've had the chance to provide a lot of feedback on PNQs to folks I mentor (as mentors of mine did for me when I applied), so I thought I'd do a post distilling some of the most common tips I share and mistakes I tend to see. In no particular order, here are the things I always emphasize to folks drafting and revising their PNQs:

  • Answer the question. It seems the questions are actually much clearer now than they were when I applied. They tell you exactly what they're looking for, so make sure you address every aspect fully. It's obvious when someone is trying to work in an example that doesn't really fit. It's more important to answer the question than to bend over backwards to show off your unique example.
  • Familiarize yourself with the publicly available precepts for Foreign Service promotion. At least when I applied, almost all of the questions were based around these precepts and reading their detailed descriptions helped me better understand what the evaluators were looking for in my responses.
  • Don't include unnecessary details. PNQ space is highly limited, and you should only include those details that are either (a) essential to understanding enough background to follow the story in the example (assuming that story highlights your qualifications) or (b) necessary to highlight your qualifications directly. Most of the PNQs I read spend multiple sentences on current job descriptions, project details, or acronyms that don't add anything to the reader's understanding of the writer's qualifications.
  • Connect your examples back to the Foreign Service and your specific cone/track whenever possible. After you've established through your example what an amazing written communicator you are, for instance, talk about how you are confident you can bring that skillset to public communications or cable writing or whatever work you seek to do in the Foreign Service. Just one sentence on this at the end of each PNQ can really bring the example home and show that you're focused on the relevance of the narratives you chose to the job.
  • Don't recycle examples if you can help it. If you use the same example for every single question, it looks like you either lack experience or have so many negative experiences that you can only think of one to showcase something good.
  • Stick to professional examples. Stories from work, volunteering, or school are all fair game but I always recommend candidates steer clear of personal, family, romantic, or religious examples because you don't know how the reader will take them and because they will almost always be perceived as less appropriate. If you lack work experience, I suggest seeking out volunteer opportunities that will allow you to develop the skills you want to underscore in the PNQs. No matter where you live in the world, there are volunteer organizations that would love your help and give you experiences that not only make for great PNQ material but can help you excel once you do join the Foreign Service.
  • Reject the myth that you need a certain type of experience to do well on the PNQs. You can shine on your PNQs without a single international experience. You don't have to have a graduate degree in international affairs or a first career in public service or fluency in a foreign language to stand out, so use the best examples you have from your own life regardless of whether they fit the stereotype of what a diplomat-in-training would have seen or done by that point.
  • Be politically sensitive. Foreign Service Officers are apolitical bureaucrats who should be sensitive to perceptions of political bias and other leanings that might not reflect well on the Department of State, which represents all Americans overseas and carries out U.S. foreign policy. This doesn't mean you need to remove your experience working on a political campaign if it's the perfect example, but there's no point in getting into the details of a certain political party or candidate - after all, that information has nothing to do with your demonstrated qualifications. This also means you should definitely not include examples that undermine or contradict U.S. foreign policy, as your job as a Foreign Service Officer will be to advance that foreign policy regardless of your personal beliefs. (There are channels for constructive dissent, but at the end of the day all of us are responsible for toeing the line, especially publicly while serving overseas. If that becomes an insurmountable challenge for someone, they always have the option to resign.)
  • Use official terminology when referencing countries or geographic regions. There are a lot of disputed names for border regions, territories, bodies of water, and more around the world. It only takes a few minutes to look up online what the U.S. government officially calls something to make sure you are using the proper term you would be expected to use if you joined the Foreign Service.
  • Leverage the STAR method and explain the Situation, Task, Action, and Result in each of your examples. You should spend way more time on the actions you took and the resulting outcome than on the situation and task, which is only useful insofar as it provides the minimum context needed for the reader to understand what you did and how it demonstrates your qualifications.
  • Request feedback from people who are not already familiar with your examples. Outside readers are great for pointing out jargony or specialized terms, unnecessary background, and examples that confuse someone who isn't an expert in your field.
  • Keep your language direct, clear, and concise. This is not the time for poetic, flowery, or academic prose. You should avoid passive voice and run-on sentences and make sure each line of each essay is contributing something important to the whole picture.

I hope this advice is helpful to those blog readers who are applying (or thinking about applying) for the Foreign Service. As I always say, take all advice with a grain of salt, use what works for you, and toss the rest. It took me three tries to get past the QEP myself, and I don't think there was a major difference between my PNQs each of those times. Happy writing, and best of luck to you!

Friday, February 4, 2022

Where We're Going Next!

I'm so excited I can finally share the news about our next assignment! I've known about it for months, but I wanted to wait to post about it until my departure date was confirmed. (That part turned out to be more complicated than expected.) We're thrilled to share we'll be returning home for me to take a one-year assignment in Washington, DC!

So what's the job? I'll be a Staff Assistant for the Front Office of the Near East Affairs (NEA) bureau. At the Department of State, NEA covers the Middle East and North Africa. (If you're curious, you can see the full list of covered countries and areas on the State website.) It will be a very intense year, but I'm excited to make my way back to the bureau where I originally envisioned spending most of my career. It should also set me up nicely for an onward assignment in the region, but the jury's out on that benefit until after the next bidding season.

I mentioned the departure date was a little complicated... Since my arrival to Korea was delayed during the pandemic, I was technically pushed from the summer bidding cycle (with my original planned arrival date of July 2020) to the winter cycle (with my actual arrival of November 2020). With a two-year assignment, that means my estimated departure date was November 2022 and I was scheduled to bid mid-level for the first time on the winter cycle. As the winter cycle approached, however, I saw two job openings pop up on the summer cycle that I really wanted to go for: a PD job in Doha and the Staff Assistant job in DC.

After giving my Career Development Officers (CDOs - I have two because I'm on the border between entry-level and mid-level right now) a heads-up, I decided to apply for both jobs. I heard bidding mid-level for the first time could be brutal, so I figured if I didn't get either job then I would just bid normally on the winter cycle as I'd previously planned. It's tough because new mid-level officers have to compete with those with more experience, tours, and connections under their belt. I heard a lot of horror stories about great Foreign Service Officers who couldn't get a single offer on handshake day (the day when offices and posts extend their official offers in the form of what are called handshakes). So I collected references, updated my resume, and hoped for the best.

Needless to say, my bidding experience was extremely unusual. I only had one interview for the Staff Assistant job, and they even sent me (and all the applicants) questions in advance so we could prepare our best answers. I was very impressed with the office's clear and prompt communication on their expectations and timeline. Even though I knew lobbying is a critical component of bidding, I decided not to ask my mentors and others to lobby for me for a few reasons. First of all, I wanted to save my lobbying firepower for the winter cycle where I thought it was more likely I'd need it. Second, most of the people I worked with in Africa and East Asia didn't seem to know the decisionmakers in NEA anyway. To my astonishment, three people at my current post lobbied for me anyway after I asked them for information about the job and the office I was bidding - including one person who had never even worked with me but who was willing to put his reputation on the line for my sake on the sole basis of my corridor reputation. I was very moved, especially because that individual had such a stellar reputation himself.

A few weeks later, with no additional effort, I received the Staff Assistant job offer and accepted it. I still had multiple interviews scheduled for the Doha job, so I contacted those decisionmakers to let them know I'd accepted an offer for another position and needed to cancel my interviews. I was also thoroughly surprised at the positive response I received to my request to cancel those interviews: everyone was courteous, professional, and a few of the interviewers even told me they hoped I would consider their office for future bidding because they thought I'd be a great fit. NEA has an outstanding reputation for bidding, and that matched my experience. I couldn't help but chuckle remembering some of my negative bidding experiences in other bureaus from when I was originally looking for a post-Baghdad assignment and some offices didn't take me as seriously as a newer officer.

The catch was, my new office wanted me there in August and my current post didn't want me to go until November. After much negotiation, angst, and stress (for me), I finally worked out a September 2022 departure. The hardest part of that whole process was seeking approval from ELGEN, the part of the CDA/EL office at the Department of State that approves departure adjustments of more than +/- 30 days for entry-level Foreign Service Generalists like me. I highly recommending avoiding it if at all possible.

Nevertheless, we're looking forward to being back home, especially with our little one in tow, this year. And there's such peace of mind in having at least our next assignment sorted out along with a timeframe. This is one of my favorite parts of my job, and I can't wait to see where it takes us next.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Happy Seollal (Lunar New Year)!

새해 복 많이 받으세요! Happy Lunar New Year! In Korea, the Lunar New Year is called Seollal (설날) and the typical greeting is literally translated as something like "May you receive much luck/blessings in the new year!" COVID-19 cases are up in Seoul due to the omicron variant, so we couldn't do anything big to celebrate. Instead, we had a few work friends over for a potluck dinner and my favorite traditional Korean game, yut nori (윷놀이). We played two rounds: one with the house rules as I remembered them from my own childhood and one with the "official" rules M found on Wikipedia. Our friends brought a money gun they bought at a local higher-end novelty store called Artbox, and it was so fun to shoot the money out like we were on a game show after we played.

I can't believe I forgot to take a photo of the tteokguk (떡국) I made - oops! Tteokguk, a rice cake soup with regional variants (e.g., beef versus anchovy base, milky versus clear broth, etc) is the signature dish of Seollal. The delicious, oval-shaped rice cakes symbolize wealth and prosperity to come in the new year. Another friend brought over scrumptious dumplings, and everyone pitched in to fill, wrap, and cook them together. We even had rice cakes other friends purchased at a specialty shop. The group couldn't help but add a few American offerings to the spread, as well, including apple crisp and carrot cake (the latter of which is my one cake recipe and always reminds me of my friend J - when I visited J in England many years ago I loved the cake so much I begged her mom for the recipe).

I'm glad we marked the occasion in our small way. Do you celebrate Seollal or another version of Lunar New Year? Either way, we wish you all the luck and blessings possible. These days, I think we'll take all of those we can get.