나는 한국어를 말할 수 있어요! ... (sort of)


Well, it's official: I can speak Korean! (sort of). On Friday, I passed my final language exam!  So according to the Foreign Service Institute, I can now speak Korean well enough to do my job in Seoul.  And to think, nine months ago, the only Korean words I knew were "Bulgogi" and "Gangnam Style"*. 

Although I speak Spanish fluently, I've never considered myself a good language learner. I know colleagues who can speak 7, 8 even 10 languages fluently, with every little effort. Meanwhile, my language learning experiences have been less than successful: My one college semester of Russian ended with the only 'D' grade I ever got in my life. And although I studied French for 3 years in high school, today I can barely put together two sentences in le français.   

Of course, FSI language training is a lot different than your average high school or college foreign language class, where students might get 4 hours of classroom time a week.  At FSI, I was in class 5-6 hours per DAY, often involving 1-on-1 instruction, followed by 2-4 hours of homework and study time every night. Every day. For nine months!   

Studying ANY foreign language is difficult. But Korean isn't just any foreign language. FSI classifies Korean -- along with Chinese, Japanese and Arabic -- as "super-hard languages". That is, they are the most difficult languages in the world for a native-English speaker to learn. And among those super-hard languages, some linguists (arguably) consider Korean to be the hardest!

So there you have it: proof that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!  

I'm now enrolled in Basic Consular Course (a.k.a. ConGen).  Because my brain is a sieve, I'm also taking Korean refresher courses to ensure I don't forget my hard-earned language training.  I can now hold a basic conversation in Korean and even discuss some complex issues.  Not bad considering that it's been about 18 years since I was in a classroom.  And "Trilingual" sounds pretty cool!  I'm addicted to language learning now, and hope we have the opportunity to return to FSI to learn another new language!


* Bulgogi: Korean-style BBQ

* Gangnam Style: An infectious song by Korean pop star Psy. "Gang-Nam" --  literally meaning "South of the Han River" -- is the name of a wealth neighborhood in Seoul.

When the dream job is no longer a dream job...

For many Americans, including myself, a career in the U.S. Foreign Service is a "dream job." Visions of working and traveling to exotic locations, getting paid to learn languages, experiencing new cultures, promoting U.S. foreign policy and being on the front lines of diplomacy and security are just some reasons why people join the Foreign Service. But at the end of the day, it's still a job. So for a few people, the "dream" part of the job ends up not being all it's cracked up to be.  Yet attrition in the Foreign Service is a topic that is rarely discussed.

Traditionally, the Foreign Service has an annual attrition rate of about 3%. According to Hoover and Diplomat-in-Residence instructors, the Foreign Service has the lowest attrition rate of any government agency; 97% of A-100 graduates will receive tenure within 3-5 years. So what about the other 3%? 

 My A-100 class recently celebrated our third anniversary in the Foreign Service. We started A-100 with 93 students.  Since then, at least six of my classmates have since left the FS.  The reasons for resigning an FSO commission are as varied as FSOs themselves, but reasons are often common to any occupation: job unsatisfaction, long hours for low pay, wanting to start a family or spend more time with family, etc. 

But there are also several issues specific to the Foreign Service and military careers: living far from home for years or decades at a time; homesickness; spouse or family unhappiness; lack of spousal employment opportunities; inability to find a spouse/significant-other who will embrace the FS lifestyle; low pay compared to comparable jobs in the private sector; disillusionment; disagreement with U.S. foreign policy; and even "equal footing" - having to start at the "bottom of the rung" alongside recent college graduates, even if you have 20 years of professional experience.

This is probably a good time to mention that I have no intention of leaving!  I look forward to a long and propserous 20+ year career in the Foreign Service!  This issue only came up because my classmates and I are now up for tenure, and that got me thinking about attrition.

As I Googled the topic, I was suprised at the lack of information about attrition or blogs from former FSOs & FSSs on why they resigned. The few blogs I did find were, well, whiny.  Most of the information I have is anectodal, most of which I cannot share due to privacy restrictions.  So I would be curious for readers to respond to the following two questions:

1. If you left the FS, or if you considered leaving the FS, why? Do you have any regrets? (Judging by the number of FSOs I know who left the FS, then later returned, I would guess that the grass is not always greener on the other side!).

2. What does it take to survive a long career in the Foreign Service? (Off the top of my head: resilience, resourcefulness, independence, being a team-player, supportive family & friends back home in the States, and most of all, a supportive spouse who will be ready to drop his or her career & life to follow you anywhere -- as long as it's not an unaccompanied post!).  


실레합니다: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Korean

(실레합니다: Excuse me. Literally: "I'm committing rudeness and discourtesy!)

If you had asked me four months ago if I could learn Korean, the answer would have been a resounding 아니요 (NO!) Although I speak Spanish fluently and a tidbit of French, non-Romance languages might as well be Klingon. Korean -- along with Arabic, Chinese and Japanese -- are considered the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.  In Bahrain, I studied Arabic for a few months but quickly gave it up due to my lack of progress. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Or so I thought. 

On the day after Labor Day, we reported to FSI, my new home for nine months. On the very first day of class, our teachers showed us Psy's "Gangnam Style" video. Within 10 days, I learned 한글 - Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Within a few weeks we were reading simple paragraphs. After 3.5 months, I can now deliver a 10-minute speech in Korean -- albeit v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and sprinkled with grammatical mistakes. 

Of course, it helps that learning Korean is my full-time job. I'm in a small group classroom for 5-6 hours a day including some 1-on-1 lessons, followed by 2-4 hours of homework per night. We have monthly immersion outings that put our skills to the test. All the teachers at FSI are native speakers. 

Despite the full immersion, for the first 2 or 3 months, I was pretty frustrated at my learning pace. I was spending all my free time studying just to keep up with everyone. Suddenly in the past 2 or 3 weeks, I've managed to climb over the wall of frustration. Things are coming together. Now, learning Korean is actually fun (most of the time!).  I still have bad days where I somehow forgot everything I learned the past 3 months, but the bad days are becoming less frequent. I've even had a few DREAMS in Korean, and Mrs. Crab says that on at least one occasion I was speaking outloud in Korean in my sleep. I hope that's a good sign!

20120927_kfashionista_psy_gangnamstyle4Pros & Cons 

Compared to other difficult languages, Korean has several advantages over some other super hard languages: a simple alphabet, most of the sounds are the same as in English, no real glottal hacking-type sounds as in Arabic or German, and no gender. And unlike many Asian languages, Korean is not tonal. 

But Korean has one major issue that makes it extremely difficult: honorifics. The ending of every vowel changes depending on the relationship/age/work/social status between the persons involved in a conversation. Another major downer are particles. Every noun takes on a specific particle ending (suffix) depending on whether the word is a subject, noun, location, action location, countable/type of item, and even how that noun is used by the speaker!  

For example: in English you would say "I ride my bicycle every day to school" but in Korean you would say something like "Every day(+eh) I(+ga) school(+eh) my bicycle(+rul) ride(+ro) go(ending)", with a specific verb ending cluster that depends on the status of the person being spoken to!  I've found that thinking of Korean grammar as a mathematical equation makes it easier to learn the structure. 

My biggest problem with learning any language is learning vocabulary. I have a horrible short-term memory. I've never been any good at learning names & faces, let alone foreign language vocabulary. The only thing that works for me is continual repetition, hand-writing words multiple times, making and practicing flash cards, and using analogies (sometimes naughty ones) to make a word memorable. Eventually, a handful of words stick manage to stick in my overloaded memory bank. 

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty confident today as a Korean language learner, hence why I finally felt good enough to blog about my experience. It helps that all things Korean are cool right now!  And getting paid to learn a foreign language is pretty fracking awesome! 


Holy toledo batman, I can actually read this!




Have bike will travel

One of the joys of living in Washington is biking to work. DC is a very bike-friendly city, with lots of off-road bike trails, on-street marked bike lanes, bike racks and company programs that encourage employees to commute by bike. If you don't have your own wheels, the Capital Bikeshare program is a wonderfully popular option. 

Since returning to DC, I've been commuting 4 miles each way from our house to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).  Some of my colleagues commute 10 miles or more each way. FSI has a nice little gym with showers and plenty of bike racks.  There's even a DOS bicycle benefit program that pays you a small reward ($20 per month) if you forego any subsidized parking passes or Metro benefits. 

Not only is biking an environmentally-friendly way to get to work, but the health benefits are awesome. It's a free workout to and from work. Mr. Crab has lost 7 pounds since he began commuting by bike.

Unfortunately with morning temperatures in the low 30s, it's now getting too cold to bike. Some of my hard-core colleagues are still riding, but Mr. Crab is not a fan of extreme temperatures. That said, as long as you "kit up" properly, you're ok. You don't need to spend to much money to keep warm. Instead of the $200+ biking pants and $300 bike jackets, I spent about $50 for the REI jogging pants and another $70 on-sale for a Pearl Izumi windbreaker. Underneath, just wear layers of whatever you have around the house. I usually wore my old ski base layer (thermal underwear). 

The only annoying part of commuting by bikes are the rude A-hole drivers AND bicyclists.  Too many drivers who think they own the road; I've been cut off several times and nearly got "doored" one afternoon. One woman in a minivan in particular has turned in front of me on two separate occasions; next time I'm taking a photo of her car & license plate and posting it here.  And then there are the idiot cyclists who think they are above the law, failing to stop at lights or passing without giving an audible warning. Still, we're looking forward to spring time to start biking again. 

If you're just starting out, some good biking resources in DC include the Washington Area Bike Association and Bike Washington. And local REI branches offer all sorts of courses such as bike maintenance.  Don't miss the Mount Vernon Trail, which runs along the Potomac River from Teddy Roosevelt Island to Mount Vernon Estate. 

A few photos from my daily commute:


Enough is enough

Over the past few years, I often receive questions from FSO candidates. I usually take the time to respond to questions as soon as I can, often in much detail that takes me quite a while to compose. As of today, I'm no longer responding to private e-mailed questions unless it's a question that I can answer quickly.

Why? Lack of free time is part of the reason.  But in recent months, quite a number of recipients have not bothered to respond with so much as a "thanks." I bring this up because when you get to A-100, you'll be drilled with lectures about "corridor reputation." And nobody wants to work with ungrateful people.

There, I said it.

Congratulations, President Obama! Readers, whether you agree or disagree with the results, you have just witnessed American democracy in action. The system may not be perfect, but it's still the envy of people around the world. As Foreign Service Officers -- as do our brothers & sisters in uniform -- we swore to defend the U.S. Constitution and follow the orders of the President, whether Republican or Democrat. Special kudos to my colleagues who hosted election viewing parties at American Corners around the world! Check out some party photos from U.S. Embassies around the world:



Ain't That America!

It's been a while since we've updated this blog, and for that I apologize.  So here's a quick recap of what the Two Crabs have been doing since August:

--A three-week, cross-country, driving and camping trip through 28 states from Virginia to Idaho to Maine to New Orleans and back to DC!  We took "Home Leave" to heart, getting reaquainted with America, the Beautiful. I've posted a few photos from our trip below. After this trip, Mr. Crab has visited 46 of the 50 U.S. states (I'm missing Mississippi, Alabama, Oregon and North Dakota!). 

--Language training. In early September, Mr. Crab began intensive, full-time Korean language training. I will draft a separate post about language training. It's a challenging and difficult assignment, but quite exciting to get paid to learn a new language.

--Remodeling. Mrs. Crab has been diligently taking the lead on remodeling our kitchen and bathroom. We'll be glad when this is all over!

--Reconnecting with friends and family.  As DC/Baltimore natives, the Two Crabs are enjoying living, working and playing in our hometowns ... the first time in 7 years that we have lived in the States!

And with that, a few scenes from our trip through America, The Beautiful:

IMG_7042 IMG_7893


U-S-A! U-S-A!

The Two Crabs and Habibi the Cat are now back in America, watching the Olympics, spending time with friends and family whilst we enjoy one of the great benefits of the Foreign Service: Home Leave.  

Home Leave between overseas assignments is a Congressionally mandated requirement, dating back to the days when diplomats would spend many years overseas with limited communication to America; the U.S. government worried that these folks would forget their roots (and loyalties) and thus required that diplomats must return to the United States regularly to reaquaint themselves with their home country. Of course, that was before telephones, radio, TV, Internet, Skype and Facebook made it easy to stay in touch with Washington and friends & family back home. 

So far, the Two Crabs are experiencing something of a "reverse culture shock."  It's been SEVEN years since the Two Crabs have lived in the United States (we lived in London for five years prior to our two-year tour in Bahrain). During those seven years, we only returned to the states about once a year, and only for one or two weeks during each visit.  

For us, the U.S. had become an almost foreign country!  Home Leave has really opened our eyes to how much we have missed during our absence. Despite the readily-available resources on the Internet, it's nothing like being physically in the United States to realize how much we've missed!  Friends and family make pop culture references that leave us with blank stares. Folks use slang words and phrases that we have never heard before. 

A few culture shock observations we've witnessed during our first two weeks of Home Leave:

--My fellow Americans speak English with an American accent!  Overseas, our ears perk up when we hear an American accent.  It seems so strange to hear so many American accents all around us! Silly, but true.

--My fellow Americans eat dinner really really early!  The Two Crabs have definately adopted the European lifestyle, as we rarely eat dinner before 8pm. 

--My fellow Americans are punctual people.  In many parts of Europe and the Middle East, being one hour or more late to an appointment is considered totally appropriate. Full disclosure: the Two Crabs would be late to their own funeral. 

--My fellow Americans, specifically my fellow Washingtonians, are very physically active. I can't remember the last time we lived somewhere with so many joggers, walkers and bikers.  We love living in a place where we can walk everywhere to shops, restaurants, pubs, metro.

--Traffic laws in the U.S. are NOT optional!  That said, Washington drivers are only slightly better than Bahraini drivers. At least most people here actually stop at red lights (due to real fear of red light camers).  But too many people are still driving way too fast on the highways, zipping in and out of traffic with no turn signals. Idiots.

--Washington D.C. has a pretty damn good public transport network!  We can get pretty much anywhere on bus or train. Yes the Metro bashers -- especially New Yorkers and Europeans -- love to bash DC Metro.  But you might think differently if you lived in a country with ZERO public transport. And compared to London's Underground, the DC Metro is clean, mostly rat-free, and closes at 3am on weekends (by comparison, the London Tube is filthy because people can eat and drink anywhere, and the trains stop running at midnight even on weekends). 

--Everything seems a LOT more expensive since we left in 2005, especially gasoline and groceries. Of course, we just came from Bahrain where gas was only 80 cents a gallon and food was subsidized, and London where fresh fruit & veg were cheap and plentiful from the ubiquitous farmers markets.

--Many of our favorite shops have vanished (Maggie Moos, Borders, etc) But thankfully our old neighborhood pub is still here!

--Did customer service rep IQs suddenly drop while we were gone? Confidential to Verizon: it should NOT take one month and a dozen phone calls to surly reps to get our landline connected, repaired and re-connected (not once but twice connected to a wrong number). My favorite part was when Verizon could not find any record of our house in their database, despite the fact that we have owned this house fo rmore than 10 years and previously had Verizon service!  Ok that's enough of my ranting. But I do have to give mad props to the helpful folks at AT&T Mobile for re-activating my cell phone from Bahrian, so it was working the moment I landed in the States.

--Everyone seems to have a cell phone permanently attached to their head, even moreso than just a few years ago. Hang up and hang out! 

--America seems more divided than ever before by politics, religion, social issues, etc.  We also noticed that U.S. "news" channels are now filled 24/7 with shouting matches instead of real hard news stories or documentaries. International channels such as BBC World and CNN International are so much better than their domestic counterparts.  At the end of the day, we are all Americans and pledge allegiance to the same flag; it's too bad that fact has been lost to so many.

Anyway, that's my rant for day. We have a few more weeks of Home Leave, during which time we will be traveling around the country, exploring new parts of America! 

Images from our first two weeks in America:



Masalama, Bahrain

In a few hours, Mr. Crab will permanently depart Bahrain, the end of my first tour in the Foreign Service. Two years and 19 days, one authorized departure, two homes, 20 Friday brunches, a handful of great new friends, one new cat (Habibi!), one super-supportive wife / coworker (Mrs. Crab!), and many many treasured memories. 

Parting thoughts: The Foreign Service is my third career (after the military and journalism). This has been the most challenging and difficult job I've ever held, but it was also one of the most professionally rewarding experiences of my life. Despite the challenges, I've come to the conclusion that I made the right choice to join the Foreign Service!  For the prospective FS candidates: yes, the Foreign Service is a "dream job", but it's still a JOB -- with the same pluses & minuses that come with any career choice. But I have no regrets and now looking ahead to the future.  

The Two Crabs will soon be reunited in my hometown of Washington, D.C. When you next hear from us, the Crabs will be blogging about our adventures in America, the trials and tribulations of Korean language training as we prepare for our next tour in Seoul. 

See you on the flip side!



The Long Goodbye


One of the most emotional moments of a Foreign Service overseas tour is the long goodbye. From about mid-May to late August, most U.S. Embassies and Consulates experience a massive turnover.  Calendars become filled with goodbye dinners, lunches, parties, tears, laughter and memories.  I've said goodbye now to about a dozen co-workers. The most difficult part has been watching people who arrived after me, leaving before me.  Mrs. Crab has been back in the States for more than a month. And now it's my turn. In a few days I'll be permanently leaving Bahrain. It seems like just yesterday I hit the 6 month milestone, 100 days, 50 days. It did not seem real until about 30 days, when I really started my "Check Out" list, packing, planning, drafting "Welcome Notes" for my successor, sharing my "institutional knowledge" with colleagues, and attending my own going-away events.  This is my last weekend in Bahrain. I've given away all the food in my house, surviving on delivery and take-away meals. In one week, the Two Crabs will be back together again, barbecuing in our own back yard in America. Masalama.