Monday, June 17, 2024

A Week in Denver, Colorado with Family

I'm finally catching up on posts from our multi-week trip back home to the United States for my friend N's wedding and to spend time with family. We spent a week in Colorado staying with my sister C and her husband A, and we had a blast. Colorado is such a beautiful state, and I love getting to know it better through my family visits since my sister and mom moved there.

Coincidentally, the first full day we had in Colorado happened to be the same day my friend Rachel Rueckert was doing a book event in Denver for her debut novel, If the Tide Turns! We went with C and A to an awesome local bookshop called Tattered Cover for the event, where we learned all sorts of pirate facts and got fun swag.

I highly recommend If the Tide Turns to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It is well researched and beautifully written - I couldn't put it down! (I also recommend the vegan sushi restaurant a short walk from the Tattered Cover: Wellness Sushi! As a non-vegan sushi lover, I was skeptical but all of us loved it.)

S spent a lot of quality time with grandma, too, including a day we spent at the Denver Botanic Gardens with the whole family and my friend from college K who lives near my sister. My favorite part was the bonsai garden, with a range of bonsai trees that taught me that the art of bonsai is much more localized than I thought.

There were many bonsai using plants native to Colorado at different stages in their cultivation. All of them were beautiful in their own way. For the Nintendo gamers out there: doesn't the one in the photo above look just like it might be hiding a Korok?

We also encountered a few of these walls filled with twigs, fuzz, fur, and other things that local birds can come and take to use to build up their nests. It's such a cool concept and the first time I've seen anything like it.

The other stop that was an absolute hit was the Denver Zoo. S was in a state of pure delight for the many hours we were there and probably could've kept going if I wasn't so exhausted from so much walking. The zoo also included some aquarium exhibits, which were nice to enjoy without paying separately for an aquarium admission.

I can't believe how I got no pictures of any of the food we ate, but C and A are excellent hosts and wonderful cooks so we ate extremely well the whole time we were there. It was such a healing trip in so many ways, from the special family time to the refreshing and cool Colorado air (which also gives me the best hair and skin of my life while I'm there). It was hard to say goodbye at the end of our weeklong trip, but we're looking forward to the next time we can go back!

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Bachelorette Weekend in Savannah, Georgia

My Foreign Service bestie is getting married, so we flew to the States for the wedding and to visit our family. The timing worked out so I was able to attend my dear friend's bachelorette weekend in Savannah, Georgia. I've been to Savannah before as part of an American South road trip I took with M many years ago, but this time was completely different given the crowd and the occasion. I'm normally such a hardcore trip planner that it was such an unusual and nice experience for me to show up to a trip where someone else made the itinerary.

Longtime readers of the blog will know the importance the other N and M play in our lives from my many posts on our previous trips with them in Korea. This was N's bachelorette, and it was a blast. I hadn't met most of the other bridesmaids before, but I learned a lot about them and we all had so much fun celebrating N. We all arrived Friday night to our Airbnb in Savannah and hung out over drinks and pizza. I was the first to get there and with another bridesmaid helped the maid of honor decorate the Airbnb. This was my first time doing a full-on bachelorette trip like this, and it was so special, especially thanks to the two maids of honor: the one who attended and the one who couldn't attend but did a lot of the planning and logistics from afar.

(The theme for the weekend was Veuve before the Vows because N loves champagne. I learned in the process of writing this blog post that "veuve" means widow in French and became associated with champagne when widowed Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin changed the name of her late husband's business she decided to take over from Clicquot-Muiron et Fils to Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, which "suggested a certain kind of respectability to the beverage… some of these beverages had gotten associated with the debauchery and wild parties of the royal courts of old" according to historian Kolleen M. Guy. You can read more about that fascinating history on the BBC website.)

On Saturday morning, we kicked off the day with a phenomenal brunch at Collins Quarter at Forsyth Park. Everything was delicious, and I was thrilled to find one of my favorite herbal teas on the menu: butterfly pea tea. To my shock, they were planning on serving the tea without lemon, when the signature perk of this deep blue tea is that acid turns it purple. The effect is so fun to watch, and they were happy to oblige my request for a few lemon slices.

After brunch, we took a delightful stroll through the farmers market at Forsyth Park. I bought a paleo cookie that was one of the best I ever had, and a kind man selling honey gifted a bottle to N for free when he found out she was getting married. Another friend, A, bought a bag of delicious, local Georgia peaches that she and I enjoyed eating throughout the weekend. Farmers markets are something I really miss living in Dubai. The closest we have in the UAE is something called Ripe Market, which has food but mostly food trucks and not a lot of fresh produce.

Then we did a pedal pub, which most of us had never experienced before, with another group who was also on a bachelorette trip. A pedal pub is not a pub itself but a vehicle powered by the pedaling of the customers and steered by an experienced conductor that you use to travel from pub to pub, where they offer special deals for pedal pub clients.

It was so much fun and we were able to get a light workout in while exploring a bunch of different places. The standout stop was Mint to Be Mojito, which has not only great mojitos but the best empanadas we've ever had. It even had a speakeasy in the back called La Aparicion that we got to experience since we were on the walking tour.

After that, we embarked on a cocktails and bar bites happy hour tour where we learned a bit about Savannah's Prohibition history and enjoyed drinks and food. I was grateful every stop had a mocktail option; I've become so used to mocktails in Dubai that I was surprised that multiple restaurants we visited had no non-alcoholic options listed. (The tour advertised itself as offering "heavy food tastings" but we felt like the portions were on the smaller end, so I would not recommend skipping a meal thinking the tour will be enough. It will not be enough for most.) We went back to the Airbnb to shower, eat some leftover pizza, and get ready for a night out.

Our evening started with Savannah Smiles dueling piano bar. Most of us (myself included) had never experienced a dueling piano bar before, but I had heard about them and was excited to go. Once we got in, I was blown away by the talent of the musicians. They were incredible pianists and singers (which I suppose on further reflection you have to be to succeed in such a heavily tip-based business where you are constantly improvising based on what the crowd demands). We could write things on napkins and take them to the stage with some cash to make song requests or insert a phrase. Of course, we had to get N and us up there for a dance as the bachelorette party. The maid of honor had brought several large prints of N's fiance M to the bachelorette and we took one of the faces on our night out, so even he made it up to the stage. (In case you're curious, we danced to Dancing Queen, which is a much longer song than we realized when we requested it. But now we have a fun memory!)

We then walked from the piano bar to the Electric Moon Skytop Lounge, a bar with a stunning view over the water. The highlight of the whole night was the Electric Moon dance floor, where people from seemingly all walks of life and all flavors of bachelorette were brought together by the most incredible DJ any of us had ever seen. We were tired from a full day of activities, but that DJ made us not want to leave. Every song and every transition was perfect. N loved it so much that she went up and got the DJ's Instagram handle so she could let her wedding DJ know that was the kind of vibe she was going for at her reception. We ended the night on such a high note.

On Sunday, we had bagels for breakfast at the Airbnb and then went to Tybee Beach for the day. Traffic was out of control but we made it there eventually. We had umbrellas and chairs reserved on the beach, and the maid of honor brought an inflatable engagement ring. We took photos, swam in the freshingly cool ocean water, sunbathed, read books, consumed an assortment of snacks and drinks we'd brought, and chatted. It was so relaxing. Even though Dubai has plenty of great beaches, we don't go often since M isn't a fan and it's a bit of a drive from our part of town. I hadn't realized how long it's been since I've enjoyed the beach until I was there. I love swimming and sunbathing and reading my book on the beach, and I managed to wear enough sunscreen that I didn't burn.

It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get food at the beach - everything was overcrowded and the wait times were very long. We decided to head back to the Airbnb, where we snacked, showered, and got dressed up in pink for our dinner at The Olde Pink House, a historic Southern restaurant. The food was so good, the portions were generous, and the ambiance was fantastic. It was the perfect choice for our final meal of the bachelorette. We decided to spend the rest of the night hanging out comfortably at the Airbnb, so we went back and changed into our pajamas and chatted and played games for hours. It is such a precious memory and I loved the chance to get to know these amazing women united in our love for N.

I already miss Savannah and there's even more I wanted to experience but didn't get a chance this time. (I'm looking at you, murder mystery book-themed tea house.) I feel so thankful I had the opportunity to come home from Dubai early enough to attend the bachelorette and meet the other bridesmaids and spend more time with N. At the same time, I missed M and S and was so excited to see them again. It's always good to come home.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Hiking in the UAE: Hatta Wadi Hub, Wadi Shawka, Wadi Al Helo, and Wadi Abadilah

During summer, the weather outside in the UAE is unbearably hot and so our time to explore the great outdoors this season was running out. While I was on leave from work for a few weeks, I wanted to make sure we got a taste of what was out there before it's too late. We ended up doing four hikes total in four different places: Hatta Wadi Hub, Wadi Shawka, Wadi Al Helo, and Wadi Abadilah.

One thing we quickly learned is that people who hike in the UAE must be quite fit in general, because every review of every hike we did in the past few weeks was rated "easy" on Wikiloc (the crowd-sourced outdoor hiking trail website and app, essential in the UAE in my opinion because so few trails are properly marked and otherwise you could get lost or find yourself on dangerous ground). Even though the hikes were rated easy, it always took us longer than the people leaving the reviews needed and we took plenty of breaks along the way. Our hikes ranged between 1 and 3.5 hours, and sometimes we struggled to find the trail on Wikiloc and ended up striking our own path back. Of course, we were limited because we brought S along with us in the hiking backpack and that prevented us from doing too much scrambling on the rocks or going too fast.

Hatta Wadi Hub had the most activities of the four, and they even had food trucks and amenities the other sites did not have. This is a popular destination for recreation and socializing, and it was easy to see why. The hike was okay and definitely the easiest of the four we did, but the trails definitely prioritized mountain biking. I would love to return with friends and try paddle boating and some of the other activities next time. The ice cream stand (called Glacee) was also phenomenal. I'm sure it helped that I was tired from the hot hike, but it tasted like some of the best ice cream I've had in my life.

Wadi Shawka was gorgeous, with sloping white steps up the side of the mountain leading to stunning views of the water below at Shawka Dam. I really appreciated the stops where we could catch our breath. Once we got to the top, we went down from the peak and took a turn so we could have a different view through the valley hiking back. Unfortunately, I did stumble on some loose rocks and of all the places I could have fallen I landed on an acacia thorn bush. It tore right through my hand and I spent the rest of that day plucking thorns out of my palm. (Just Google "acacia thorn" to see what stabbed me!) If you're going hiking in the UAE wilderness, I highly recommend at least a basic first aid kit - especially if you're clumsy like me! I thankfully got all the thorns out, and my hand healed nicely. What a relief!

Undeterred, we embarked on our third hike a few days later: Wadi Al Helo. You may have noticed that all of these hikes happen to be at places with "Wadi" in the name, and that's because "Wadi" means valley (traditionally a river valley but with the climate what it is it's often dry unless you go right after it rains), the best place to hike in a hot climate like the UAE. "Wadi Al Helo" is "Sweet Valley," and it was a sweet hike. This one had more archaeological significance than others, with a few (recreated?) ruins scattered around and a restored Islamic watchtower on the first peak of the hike. I imagine that part of the site is much more meaningful if you go with a local guide, as there wasn't much signage explaining the history or significance of what we saw. It was still a nice view, though. We tried to follow the Wikiloc entry I found on Wadi Al Helo exactly, but I think the farmer at the bottom of the mountain got tired of people hiking through their land. Since the Wikiloc was written, they'd erected a barbed wire fence and if that wasn't enough they reinforced it with sharp, high thorn bushes! Thankfully, M and I were able to walk parallel to the thorny fence until we made it back to the road and eventually back to the car.

We ended our hiking adventures with a trip to Wadi Abadilah. It's a good thing we ended on this one, too, because M said I won't be able to convince him to do another for a while after that experience! Wadi Abadilah was the greenest hike we did, with a start through some farmland and even running water. (We even saw some folks going for a swim in the water, but M told me not to go since we couldn't be sure the water was safe for swimming. I decided to spare him the stress.) The path that was described on Wikiloc was unavailable after a certain turn, so we tried to figure things out on our own. This resulted in not one but two extensive, rather steep ascents that ended up going nowhere - we ultimately had to turn back and retrace our steps to the beginning of the hike. M was not a fan of the high exertion and low payoff combo of those attempts to find the correct path, and we spent a couple days at home relaxing with no outside commitments as our reward.

If you're living in or visiting the UAE, that doesn't mean you have to give up the great outdoors. There is incredible nature in this country that is well worth exploring any time you can escape the sweltering summer heat. I love the opportunity hiking gives us to bond as a family, get some fresh air outside of the city, and experience other parts of the UAE besides Dubai. It's quite different than it is back home, but it wouldn't be any fun if everything everywhere was the same, anyway.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

A Two-Week Staycation Plus One-Week Eid Holiday in Dubai

I took some much-needed time off of work these past few weeks. However, unlike most of my vacations where I travel to some far-flung locale, this time I decided to do a staycation at home. It was so nice! I had time to do so many things I've been putting off, as well as restart some habits I mean to keep up with but sometimes run out of time to do. (For example, I'm using Anki, Duolingo, and Drops - my favorite language learning and refresher apps - consistently again.)

M and I used the time to play a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. We have so much nostalgia for the Legend of Zelda games, which we played as kids, but they've gotten so much better over time. The storyline of this game moved me more than any other one I can remember. I love exploring the world and solving the puzzles and M loves nabbing all the collectibles as we go. We make a great team.

We got to explore a few sights in Dubai that we normally find it difficult to make time for around my work schedule. We went to Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary and saw wild flamingos. S was thrilled!

We also visited The Green Planet, an "indoor rainforest" and nature conservation and education site tailored to families. We saw lemurs that reminded me of the PBS show Zoboomafoo (any other 90s kids have nostalgia for this? M didn't!) and some unique birds, frogs, snakes, and other animals.

It was also really nice to have the chance to learn things that have nothing to do with my job. I spent a little time learning how to look at art thanks to a free, self-guided art course from the art historian who created the DailyArt app, which gives a summary of a new piece of fine art every day. My break also happened to overlap with General Conference, a semiannual broadcast of spiritual messages for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), like me. I had some church friends over to watch, and it was so nice.

We had the chance to celebrate Easter, including S's first-ever Easter egg hunt eggsecuted (hehe) by yours truly. I filled reusable Easter eggs with mini M&Ms and Easter-related Bible quotes and hid them around our apartment. S sprinted as fast as his little legs could carry him all over the place and tried to pick up as many eggs as possible at once. It was so cute. I don't know what he was more excited for: finding the eggs, shaking them, or eating the chocolate.

Then, we had a week-long public holiday for Eid Al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan, for which we went to an Emirati restaurant, Al Fanar, to see fireworks over the water in the part of Dubai called Festival City. It wasn't the first time we took S to see fireworks, but it was the first time he was aware enough to see what was going on and be actively impressed. I'll never forget his little "wooooooooow" at the sight.

Amazingly, it happened to be S's birthday during this break, as well, and I can't believe he's two! We spent a long time teaching him to say "two" instead of "almost two" when people ask him how old he is. (Of course, usually he's too shy to say anything when somebody asks, but at least we tried.) We decided to do a family staycation at a local beach resort in Dubai with a kids' club, playground, and wading pool, and S loved it. We went for long walks on the boardwalk together as a family, tried delicious food in multiple different hotel restaurants, and watched S fall in love with the wading pool (with me, the other water lover of this family, by his side).

We also did some hikes together as a family as half-day trips, exploring a bit of the emirates but returning to Dubai each day. I'll do a separate blog post on all of our recent hiking adventures, or this one will get very long very quickly! Suffice it to say I feel much more recharged, restored, and ready to get back into the workweek when I return.

I hoped to disconnect more fully from work during my break, but for my last week I was assigned to be a control officer for someone landing in Dubai the day I get back to the office - so I had to do some work preparing for that person's arrival in advance. In classic control officer fashion, that same person's visit ended up getting cancelled - thankfully before my planning got too far. All in all, though, I was able to get the rest I needed, so I feel good about going back. I hope everyone reading this can also find a moment of peace and rest in their life.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Tips for Acing the DEIA Question in Foreign Service Interviews

Image by Nick K from Pixabay

This year, I have the luxury of not bidding (i.e., what we call applying for our next post of assignment) and somehow I find it easier to be reflective and think about the best bidding advice I've received and learned when I'm not under the pressure of finding a job just yet myself. I've previously shared my informational interview red flags and green flags, as well as how M and I narrow down our bid list. I even did a miscellaneous bidding advice roundup. But something I've been asked a lot recently and haven't yet done a post on is how to ace the DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) question we all expect these days in interviews. The question is usually some variation on "What does DEIA mean to you?" or "How have you supported DEIA?" or "Tell me about how you've advanced DEIA in your current role."

This is not a purely cynical question I'm hearing from people who don't care about DEIA and want to fake it 'til they make it to their dream post. DEIA questions can be difficult even for the most dedicated employees because it's hard to know what's admissible versus inadmissible, what hiring managers are looking for, and how you can stand out from all the other candidates answering this question. With the caveat that this is merely one mid-level Foreign Service officer's opinion and it should be taken with a grain of salt, I wanted to consolidate my personal advice for answering this question effectively after a few rounds of mid-level bidding experience, lots of practice with others both more senior and junior to me, conversations I've had with hiring managers including regional bureau DEIA advisors, and sitting in on interviews including with some Chief of Mission (i.e., Ambassador) interviews. Here's my advice roundup in no particular order:

  • Don't confuse DEIA with affirmative action. One hiring manager told me, "You'd be amazed at how many men proudly announce in response to the DEIA question that they have hired a woman and therefore they are champions of DEIA." This not only demonstrates that you don't know what DEIA really is but also makes an insulting implication that women can't be hired based on merit. Crucially, it is illegal to make a hiring decision in the Foreign Service based on protected categories like race or sex. This is an unacceptable response.
  • Don't feel like your example only matters if it's about race or sex; use the best example you have. Too many people think about DEIA only in terms of race or sex when your best example of what you've done to advance DEIA might be advocating for better accommodations for people with disabilities or ensuring equitable policies for LGBTQIA+ people or whatever it might be.
  • Some people say they are so overwhelmed with their basic day-to-day essential tasks that they don't have time to invest in DEIA initiatives that are worth talking about in an interview (or even in an EER). I think this is a mistake. Although it's wonderful if you can volunteer on your post's or office's DEIA Council (what were previously called D&I Councils), that's not a prerequisite to doing DEIA work. The best employees incorporate DEIA into their regular work anyway. If you're a press attaché, you could look at including journalists from outlets with different perspectives than the safe, U.S.-based ones you already know well. If you're a cultural affairs officer, you could conduct outreach, prioritize grant proposals, and seek out exchange applicants in marginalized geographic areas. If you're a reporting officer, you could make sure your contact lists and invitation lists include more people from underrepresented groups and your meetings with friends and allies include more than just the stereotypical Western European diplomats. If you're a management officer, you can make sure all religious holidays and observances are respectfully and appropriately accommodated with policies such as floating holidays or ensuring employees have a private place for prayer and meditation. If you're a consular officer you can use norming sessions (i.e., meetings where you make sure all interviewing officers are on the same page) and validation studies (i.e., research the Department does on consular outcomes for those who receive and travel on U.S. visas) to advocate that visa decisions be made on substantiated evidence and not unconscious bias.
  • Try to talk about the outcome of whatever you did. Instead of just saying you invited more women to a reception, you can say, "As a result of my efforts to diversify the economic section's contact list, we gained insights from women entrepreneurs who underscored additional barriers they faced obtaining capital in country. Our team wrote a front-channel cable reporting on the discrepancy and incorporated talking points about empowering women entrepreneurs into all engagements with the Ministry of Economy, which increased host government outreach and programs for women and other marginalized business owners. In addition, our initiative inspired other posts in the region to investigate and identify gaps, as well." It doesn't always have to be that grand, either. For example, sharing that people who attended your event said they never realized how much the language they were using hurt people from rural areas or that people with invisible disabilities contacted you later to say they were thankful you stood up for people like them in front of the team makes your example more meaningful.
  • If you have the opportunity to show DEIA leadership, do it - but it's not necessary to share if you are a member of an underrepresented group. For example, you can say something like "As vice president of one of State's largest employee resource groups representing x individual members spanning the globe, I learned that many of our members faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace for their identity from managers and colleagues who misinterpreted U.S. opposition to certain countries and governments as antipathy for entire ethnic groups. As a result, I spearheaded programs to set Department-wide policy on inclusive and precise language, including the first-ever ALDAC on the subject, that empowered people to have official guidance to point to when pushing back on discrimination in the workplace. Many employees have written to me in the months since expressing their relief and gratitude for official guidance that gives them the top cover they need to feel empowered and effective at work. Y% of employees from this demographic said in the recent Stay Survey that they struggle seeing a future for themselves in the Department, and although we have a long way to go I'm proud that initiatives like the one I made a priority will help to change things for the better." (An ALDAC is a cable sent from Main State, what we call Department of State headquarters in DC, to all diplomatic and consular posts around the world.) Notice in this example the actual identity of the person talking is unnecessary. The hiring panel shouldn't be hiring you because you're a member of a marginalized group; they should be hiring you because of what you've accomplished. It's worth practicing highlighting your accomplishments without referencing your identities, if possible. They're important in the real world but incidental to the hiring manager's decision.
  • Always think about how what you've done can build the institution. One of my examples was I pushed for my post to have newsletters accessible to people with visual impairments for the first time. How can I take that benefit even further? I can share the results with others through employee resource groups or with a cable so other posts that don't yet have accessible newsletters can make the switch, too, and learn from what we did. That not only makes a better interview example, but more importantly it actually benefits more people.
  • Stay away from topics of reverse discrimination or underscoring historically privileged identities. I wish this could go without saying, but I've heard Foreign Service people complain to me that the real victims of modern DEIA efforts are straight, white men and that they should be the priority. I've also heard complaints of reverse racism, accusations that bidding and promotions are now skewed in favor of underrepresented groups, and that it's so hard to be Christian nowadays. People have a right to their personal opinions, but these hot takes have no place in a professional interview of any kind and definitely not in response to a DEIA question.
  • Use specific examples of your accomplishments, regardless of the question. Sometimes the question is so abstract and general (e.g., "What does DEIA mean to you?") that people are tempted to give an abstract and general answer. This is never as effective as an answer backed up by specific examples. You can say, "DEIA is the very foundation of the strength of the United States, and I support it not only because science has demonstrated over and over again that DEIA is more creative and effective and productive but also because it's the right thing to do. That's why when I was a section chief and learned that women and Muslim entry-level officers at my post felt left out and disadvantaged because the DCM would host whiskey and cigar nights with only their male, alcohol-drinking counterparts, I decided to take action..." This is just a hypothetical example, but I wrote it out to illustrate how you can address the abstract question very quickly but make it a stronger answer by backing it up with a concrete example.
  • The best DEIA examples take personal investment and courage. (Warning: this is probably my most controversial piece of advice here.) If you want to stand out from other bidders, I don't think it's usually enough to say you organized a webinar or made a flyer or planned a single event on a very safe DEIA topic that everyone who attended already agreed was good and important. Our institution changes very slowly, and there are a lot of necessary and overdue DEIA changes that will require some friction. If you stood up to your boss on a DEIA issue, that shows you were willing to take a level of personal risk for integrity that a lot of Foreign Service personnel wouldn't. If you stood up to your boss and it was successful and you got the change implemented and an apology, that shows that you're not only brave but diplomatic and effective (and I think it speaks volumes about the professional maturity of your boss, as well). This is just my two cents, but I think DEIA leadership requirements are moving in this direction because our organization sorely needs this level of commitment. I've had countless mentors since I joined the Foreign Service tell me when I was going through something discriminatory or unfair and say, "That's really horrible. But if I were you I'd put my head down and not make a big deal about it. I'm conflict averse and the Department doesn't reward people who go against the grain." With all due respect to those mentors, I think many of us newer folks are not willing to spend the rest of our careers putting our heads down and accepting the work culture this attitude fuels. As I've said before and will say again: more often than not I've found entry-level cowards become mid-level cowards and mid-level cowards become senior-level cowards. Courage has to start somewhere.

I hope this is helpful advice, but remember I'm just one person with one opinion. Best of luck to everyone bidding, and I hope you work hard to move forward DEIA not just during interview season but all year round!

Saturday, March 2, 2024

How I Manage Too Many Emails, Not Enough Time

A Foreign Service mentor of mine I really admire once told me, "You'd be amazed how far you can get in this career just by responding to emails." As an entry-level officer, I didn't understand what she meant but now that I'm hitting my mid-career stride I completely agree. Like most modern office workplaces, the State Department is overflowing with emails: newsletters, administrative automated emails, meeting and event invitations, requests for clearance (what we call required approvals on documents or courses of action), networking messages, missives from mentees or mentors or colleagues or friends who need advice or are hoping to catch up or are responding to you - some of which require your attention or approval but some of which are just for your information. Of the ones that need action, some have deadlines and some are open-ended. Either way, I have yet to meet someone in the mid-level Foreign Service and above who isn't sick of the overwhelming number of emails.

In this environment, it is very tempting simply to relinquish control of one's inbox and give up. I have met plenty of people - including those in essential jobs where a missed email literally could alter someone life - fall into this camp. Alternatively, some let Outlook rule their lives, spending every night and weekend combing through emails to make sure they've read every word of every email that comes through just in case they are needed. I don't think either of these extremes is healthy or contributes to a positive work culture. I also don't think there is a one-size-fits-all solution for every person or every job: people need to find the email management system that works best for them.

At the same time, I'm happy to shared what has worked for me because it has served me well throughout all four of my tours in the Foreign Service so far. I love my system so much that I use the same one for my personal email and work email: Inbox Zero. Yes, this means my inbox is empty or nearly empty a majority of the time. (And it feels great!) TechTarget summarizes the key tenets of Inbox Zero, which I quoted below followed by my own commentary:

  1. "Some messages are more equal than others." This is the most challenging one for me, because I like to go in order from oldest to newest email by default, but sometimes you have to go through your emails in priority order or the top priorities will fall through the cracks. It's not enough to have a goal of taking care of five emails by lunch: the most important and urgent emails need to be addressed and treating all emails as equal can tempt anyone to do the easier or more fun emails first.
  2. "Your time is priceless and wildly limited...Accept that your workload exceeds your resources." This means saying no, delegating, or asking for help when you need it. In the Foreign Service world, I find this reminder very helpful when I see a cable about a very cool grant program that I might be able to apply for and manage but I really don't have the time or the bandwidth to put in the necessary effort to make the program successful. It's better that I just ignore the cable announcing the opportunity than spinning myself and others up to feel like we need to submit something.
  3. "Less can be so much more." For instance, I used to feel like I needed "thank you" and "you're welcome" responses to emails all the time, but now a simple thumbs up in Outlook or even a quick instant message in Teams does the job without cluttering both our inboxes.
  4. "Lose the guilt." If someone doesn't like your quick or curt response, don't beat yourself up over it. I will add a caveat that in the Foreign Service context it is crucial to be attuned to local cultural communication differences and not to be rude (by the standards of your counterpart's culture) in email communications. Even if you do find someone was hurt or offended by your quick and short response, shaming yourself over it doesn't help. Thank whomever helped you learn, resolve to do better, and get back to work. There are plenty of other ways to streamline efficiency, including in other emails, so don't feel like including all the proper introductions and how-are-yous and flowery signoffs is a waste of time if it's meaningful in that culture.
  5. "Lying to yourself doesn't empty an inbox." I most often see this in bad estimates of how long an email will take to handle. If it needs more time, don't try and dive in five minutes before you have to run to a meeting. If you need to consult with people before responding, consult with them and then respond instead of cluttering everyone's inboxes with unnecessary back-and-forth.

There is a key feature in Outlook and Gmail I find essential for maintaining my Inbox Zero lifestyle: snooze, which allows you to remove emails from your inbox to a "snoozed" category and schedule them to re-enter your inbox at a specified later date and time. I snooze emails with reckless abandon in my personal and work systems whenever I don't have time to respond in the moment or whenever I might need to follow up later. (It's worth noting the snooze feature is more reliably available in web Outlook than the desktop version, at least for State employees.) Did I get emailed tickets with a QR code for an event on Thursday? I snooze it for Thursday evening right before the event. Is there an administrative task I need to make sure gets done? I snooze it to next week as a reminder to follow up if I haven't heard any updates by then. The possibilities are infinite!

Where I differ from the traditional Inbox Zero approach, which recommends aggressively deleting or archiving emails as you go through them, is that I file completed emails into folders due to federal government records retention requirements. I can't just delete my work emails because technically my work emails involving official business are federal government records that must be kept according to specific laws, regulations, and policies. They can be requested due to the Freedom of Information Act, and sometimes historians, political scientists, and other academics use our unclassified or declassified emails for their research. I have periodically archived my emails to assist with storage space, but I don't have the same freedom to archive and delete work emails that I do with my personal inbox.

Alternatives to my system include a long list of automated rules and filters and color-coded labels, which I've seen some people use to great effect. For me, I prefer a few simple rules that are low-stakes enough I am confident I won't miss something very crucial that may require my action. For example, I have a "Roundups" folder in Outlook where my automatic rules put media summaries, political and economic highlights, newsletters from headquarters, and other large-distro items that summarize things that may be of interest to me. These are pretty much never urgent and consolidating them in the Roundups folder instead of cluttering up my inbox allows me to review (or more often skim) them when I have a good chunk of reading time or when I'm in the car on my way to or from a work meeting. My rule leaves new messages in the folder unread so I can see where I left off once I do get reading time, and the rules are very specific (i.e., from a certain sender to a certain distribution list with certain words in the subject) so nothing requiring my individual attention or response accidentally skips my main inbox.

I hope this information is helpful to readers; I think the sooner you transition to Inbox Zero (or whetever email management system works for you), the easier your work life will be. I still think State Department culture has a long way to go on things like calling people for truly urgent tasks instead of expecting them to check emails around the clock, but there are things we can do to make it better and save ourselves from burnout in the process.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Work (and Family) Trip to Thailand

Sometimes, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) provides trainings overseas, and I was delighted to participate in one of those in Bangkok, Thailand. I'd traveled to Thailand once before but I was so young I didn't remember. Now, I had the opportunity to spend a week there and we decided to make a family trip of it.

I took a course on Propaganda and Disinformation, which is typically tailored very specifically to Public Diplomacy (PD) Officers but this year was opened up to more reporting officers (our catch-all term for Political and Economic Officers) interested in collaborating with PD on these issues. I learned a lot from the instructors, guest speakers, and the other students. To my delight, many local staff joined for the course. In my opinion, officers and specialists and local staff and EFM (Eligible Family Members, or family members of Foreign Service personnel) employees are kept separate unnecessarily far too often.

After my training each day, I got to spend time with M and S exploring the city a bit. I loved the cultural vibrancy as we went many places with no English (and communicated extensively with gestures) and stumbled across beautiful temples and shrines everywhere, such as Erawan Shrine (pictured above). The cost of living was incredibly affordable compared to Dubai, and I was stunned to find myself regularly purchasing fresh, substantial meals during my lunch break for about one dollar. I bought several clothing items, too, including the very stereotypical touristy elephant pants.

My favorite place we visited was Chatuchak Market, the best street market I think I've ever experienced in my life. It's only open on the weekend, so I'm glad we got to Bangkok early enough before my training to go. The market's scale was enormous, and it felt like you could find almost anything there. We stumbled on a sprawling fine art section, and if our suitcases weren't so full I don't think I would've been able to resist buying one of the many stunning paintings or sculptures we saw. People recommended we go early to beat the crowds, and that's exactly what we did.

We tried the famous coconut ice cream, which I found so refreshing in the heat. I also had the spiciest food of my life at a street stall where each skewer of vegetables, fish, or meat cost 10 Thai baht (less than 30 cents). It was so good I devoured all five of my skewers even though my mouth felt like it was on fire. We didn't take S's stroller because so many blogs online said the metro and the street market were not doable with a stroller but I'm here to tell you that all those other blogs are wrong. M and I both felt our excursion was stroller-friendly and even saw a few other families with strollers. Especially if you have a sturdy stroller like we do, I think it would've been worth it especially so we could have used the stroller fan for S and had a place to put his backpack.

I enjoyed some cultural activities in the evenings as well, including a private Muay Thai (Thai martial art sometimes described as Thai boxing) class outdoors that got my heart racing while M and S cheered me on. The instructor was kind enough to let S put on the kid gloves, which he loved. I also took a tour that included trying on traditional Thai clothes, of which there are apparently many different kinds. I happened to find a top and sash that matched my existing outfit perfectly (the first photo of this post). I also took a lotus folding lesson and learned that folding lotus petals properly and beautifully without ripping the petals off the bud is a lot harder than it looks! Here I snapped a photo of three different styles I did: sunflower style, peony style, and star style. Lastly, I got more massages in a week than I have in months and discovered a new love of the Thai style of massage (which is usually clothed, without oil, and has more muscle stretching than a Western standard massage).

We also met up with some of my A-100 colleagues, and it was so good to see them again. One of the most fun things about being in the Foreign Service is bumping into people all over the place (and for some a different part of the world every single time you see each other). So having seen some old friends and made some new ones in my training, we wrapped up our Bangkok trip energized and rejuvenated to come back home. (I will say, the older I get the more I miss my pillow and my bed when I'm gone.) I feel so grateful for this opportunity, for the supportive leadership that allowed me to take it, and for the chance to spend some extra time with my family. (And I certainly hope that's not the last time I get to visit Thailand!)

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Beach Glamping in Ras Al Khaimah

We went beach glamping as a family ages ago, and I'm only getting around to blogging about it now. We stayed at Longbeach Campground in Ras Al Khaimah, one of the northern emirates that make up the seven-emirate federation of the United Arabic Emirates (UAE), along with a few other families from the U.S. Consulate. Ras Al Khaimah, sometimes abbreviated RAK and pronounced "rack", has a name that means "head of the tent" in Arabic and supposedly traces its origins to an actual tent that was once erected there for navigation. It seemed like an especially appropriate place to camp!

It was our first time camping in a tent with S, and we were very nervous about how much sleep any of us would get. My anxiety spiked when we arrived a bit early to the campsite and the tent was a sauna. We were sweating buckets and hoping it would cool down. Thankfully, once we opened up the tent the ocean breeze and setting sun did their thing. By evening the tent was not only cool but very pleasant.

The campground had family-friendly activities including a mini-zoo and kids' playroom, which we really appreciated so we could relax while S had a safe place to run around. The food was also buffet-style with a huge selection, which we not only love for ourselves but for making sure there's something that will fill up our ravenous but sometimes unpredictable toddler.

After we put S to sleep in our tent with the babycam, M and I had a romantic stroll around the campground and lounged by the ocean under clear skies next to crashing waves. We also miraculously snuck into the tent without waking him up, a feat I know other parents of small children will understand is one of the sweetest victories this phase of life has to offer. The whole experience was so restful and healing, and it was so nice to get away from the city and taste some nature.

On the day we left, I noticed a ton of morning glory blooms, and that's my favorite flower. RAK lives up to its reputation as a wonderful destination for getting outside, and I can't wait to explore some more of it while we're living in the UAE.