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.