Friday, March 31, 2023

My Last Week of Maternity Leave: S's First Cruise

I'm so grateful for the wise and wonderful Human Resources Officer (HRO) who (1) reminded me as the birthing parent I was entitled to sick leave to recover from birth in addition to my three months of paid parental leave (PPL) and (2) suggested I consider splitting my maternity leave into chunks instead of taking it all at once. At the Department of State, we can split up our PPL and take it any time up until a year after the birth. That may not work best for everyone, but it worked splendidly for me and gave me more time to bond with baby S after I had recovered more fully from the postpartum period.

We decided to use my last week of maternity leave right before S turns one to go on a family cruise to the Caribbean. We picked a cruise that sailed out of Baltimore so we could drive there from home in Virginia and not worry about flights to Florida, the more common departure port. This meant we spent many more days at sea and visited fewer ports, but it was the best choice for us for the convenience. We requested a pack and play for S's room and were able to put him down for his regular naps and bedtime with minimal disruption.

Logistics-wise, we felt prepared for S's first cruise with plenty of clothes for varying climes, pouches and puffs for him to eat in case we couldn't find something he liked at the buffet, and his white noise machine, babycam, and sleep sack from home to help him sleep more comfortably in an unfamiliar place. We were relieved to find he loved plenty of the food on the ship and didn't seem bothered by the rocking over choppy waters. (I looked it up, and most babies under age two don't get seasick. They have a lower center of gravity and their world is already pretty wobbly anyway, so they don't have the same disorientation out on the water. Isn't that cool?)

Our first port of call was Cape Canaveral, Florida. A lot of folks do Universal Studios or Seaworld as a day trip from that port, but I stopped supporting new Harry Potter-franchised things and places with my hard-earned money due to issues (especially transphobia) from J.K. Rowling and I've heard too many reports of animal abuse at SeaWorld to attend with a clear conscience. Many had warned us there wasn't much to do in Port Canaveral itself, but we decided to venture out and explore on our own anyway.

First, we visited Manatee Sanctuary Park. It had a nice little walking path and some exercise stations, but the day we went was too hot to see any manatees. According to our local driver, you'd rarely see manatees there anyway - so folks who drop by should manage their expectations. After that, we went to the Wizard of Oz Museum. It had an impressive collection of over 2,000 Wizard of Oz-related items including the first known copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book that started it all, printed on May 23, 1900. Also on display is a 1914 book in the Oz series (which was much larger than I realized) that contains one of the first maps in fantasy literature, which fantasy fans will know later became a staple of the genre. At the end of the collection, there was an immersive room with images projected on every wall to make various scenes. S and I got to walk down the yellow brick road together, and we had so much fun!

The biggest disappointment was learning just how racist the older books were; I saw some very offensive depictions of Asian people in particular that I'll spare you but apparently many of the characters and peoples in Oz are coded for races that would have been widely understood at the time. Just because it was commonly accepted back then doesn't make it right. I firmly believe that it's important not to erase problematic history and that we must teach it to the next generation so they can understand the problematic legacy we're building on and discover what's right and wrong for themselves. S is still too young for me to have those conversations with him, but I hope I'm laying a good foundation.

Our next stop was CocoCay, Royal Caribbean's private island in the Bahamas. It was phenomenal, and I wish we could've stayed one more day so I could've gotten more time on the beach! Baby S touched sand and the ocean for the first time, but I had to pull him away when he tried to eat a bunch of pebbles. When M went back to the ship to put S down for a nap, I went swimming with some island pigs!

The Bahamas are famous for swimming pigs, which are not native to Major Cay where they are today; however, stories regarding their origin conflict. Some say they were the sole survivors of a shipwreck, while others say sailors left them on the islands on purpose as a food source they could revisit at any time. Regardless, I was glad I could have fun swimming with them, and M was more than happy to skip paying to swim with pigs!

The final port we visited was Nassau, capital of the Bahamas. We took a self-guided walking tour of the city, We climbed the Queen's Staircase, 66 steps built into limestone in the 1700s by about 600 enslaved people to create an escape route from Fort Fincastle. Then, we swung by the bright pink Governor's House, a colonial building that displayed a Christopher Columbus statue until last year after someone damaged the leg of the statue with a sledgehammer. The man reportedly shouted, "You destroyed this land; I’ve come to take this [expletive] back" while destroying the leg. The government decided to move the statue into storage for now as Bahamians debate what role colonial symbols like that should play in an independent country and whether such a statue might be a better fit for a museum than a seat of government. (That debate sounds familiar...)

Last, we stopped at the historic Graycliff Hotel. I especially enjoyed the Graycliff chocolatier shop... So much so that I neglected to take any pictures of the chocolate. Suffice it to say the chocolatier's stellar reputation is well-deserved. We ended with a delicious lunch at a Greek restaurant called Athena Cafe & Bar. (Apparently, there is a substantial Greek community in Nassau.) We enjoyed Bahamian conch fritters, a lamb gyro for M, and a trio of dips with pita bread for S and me. We grabbed some ice cream at Italian Dolce Gelato afterward. Unfortunately, it was cash only, but we scraped together enough bills to get a cup to share since I wanted it so badly. What can I say? It was a hot day.

We made the most of our last few days on the ship heading back. I soaked up the sun and enjoyed the pool and hot tub, and M enjoyed going all-out at the buffet and catching up on things over Wi-Fi. I periodically checked my work emails mostly so I could delete the deluge of things I missed but didn't need and maintain my inbox zero approach. Mostly, though, I did things that were relaxing and fun for me like reading and blogging and dancing and taking naps. It was so hard to come back home and end our vacation, but I feel so rested and healed. I'll treasure this time I got to spend with my family forever.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

What I Wish Folks in the Field Knew About DC

It's been so hard to find the time to blog lately, but I finally got a long weekend away and a few moments to breathe, enjoy nature, and catch up on things I enjoy. We booked an Airbnb in Lake Anna with friends, and despite almost cancelling the trip due to a stomach bug we recovered and ended up going after all. It was a lovely time, so I'll be interspersing this blog post on professional content with a few photos of our trip.

Doing even just a one-year tour at Main State (what we call State Department headquarters, also known as "HST" for the Harry S. Truman Building where Main State is housed) has taught me so much that I'm definitely going to take with me when I go back out to the field later this year. Some of the things I learned are tidbits I had vaguely heard before but didn't think about too much until I witnessed it firsthand. One is that work-life balance for most is generally better in overseas tours than domestic tours, especially domestic tours in regional bureaus. I'm going to think about that when I'm at post and corresponding with the desk - they probably have a lot on their plate that I don't have visibility on every day. Plus, when they message me after hours or ask for something in a ridiculous time frame, they're probably just the messengers and it's not their fault.

Whenever I worked on official U.S. government visits abroad, I felt like post did all of the work and the desk was just kind of there if we needed them. Now that I've seen visits from the other side, I know that's not the case. The desk does a lot of work helping prepare the paper and the logistics and serving as a liaison between those working the visit on the ground and the staffers and special assistants and others supporting whoever it is who's visiting. Even when a non-State Department official visits, the State Department does a lot of work to make sure the visitor is safe and the visit is effective and successful.

I wish people in the field knew how different DC work is from post work. It is not (as I previously thought) very similar work just happening in the United States instead of in a foreign country. There is a lot more paper and a lot less reporting, and the broadness of any given subject matter expertise is higher per position at least in a regional bureau. For example, a single desk officer in DC might cover all issues touching on another country including the bilateral relationship, their role in the region, their political and economic situation, consular issues, and more. At the same time, that post might have many officers that can each devote their attention to just one of those topics. I'm so impressed with the desk officers in my bureau, Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), for really knowing their stuff when they have to cover so much.

Bidding and networking are also a lot easier from DC, in my opinion. There are countless employee groups and professional development opportunities that span a huge range of interests and identities. While I've been in DC, I've been able to participate in a monthly breastfeeding support group, the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, connections with colleagues who are also members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like me, and a DC mentoring program. I've also been able to find out about more bidding opportunities and connect with offices and hiring managers that I would have never had the same access to while serving overseas.

So many of my peers have said they'll never come to DC due to the cost of living, but I think it's doable for most depending on the job and where you're willing to live. If you have a job like mine where you get a special differential (in my case an 18% salary increase) and you're willing to live a ways outside of DC, it's a lot more affordable. Importantly, I think there are things you learn spending time actually working at Main State that you can't learn anywhere else, and I see higher level Foreign Service positions requiring DC experience more and more. Of course, compared to the housing provided overseas it will be a financial hit, but with enough planning most folks can prepare and budget for a few years of paying rent (like the rest of our country does all the time).

Others who have served in DC, please feel free to share your advice in the comments below: whether you agree with me that a DC tour is worthwhile, what surprised you, and what you wish people in the field knew. Thanks for reading!