Sunday, November 27, 2022

Career Advice from Michelle Kwan

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Manam(i)a, Here I Go Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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