Es ist Zeit, Deutsch noch einmal zu lernen

I recently received some very good news.  I can now bid on Spanish posts for my next assignment.  I signed up for a self-study Spanish in anticipation of improving my Spanish so I could bid on Spanish-speaking posts for my next job assignment.  I planned to self-study for three months and then test in Spanish in order to improve my language score.  Fortunately, the criteria for qualifying for a language-required post recently changed, and my current Spanish score now makes me eligible for a short Spanish language course after I leave Korea.  Consequently, I can now bid on Spanish-required posts.  Although I know Chinese and can pursue assignments at Chinese-speaking posts, I need to have a backup plan in case I don’t qualify for a Chinese-speaking assignment.  Learning Spanish opens up a number of new job possibilities. 

Es ist Zeit, Deutsch noch einmal zu lernen.  ("It’s time to learn German again.")  My German score falls a bit short of qualifying for a short course, so I will now switch my focus to improving my German.  The chance of being assigned to a German-required post after Seoul is slim, because German-speaking posts in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are all in high demand.  However, exam scores are good for five years, and improving my German will allow me to pursue jobs at German posts in the distant future.  If I am successful in improving my German, then I’ll focus on improving my French.  French is spoken in more locations than is German.  Frankly though, many of the French-speaking job possibilities outside Paris are not too appealing because my French-speaking posts are often marked by violence and political instability.  I would really like to improve my increasingly rusty and meager Korean, but the nature of my work requires that I focus on the future more than the present.  I will bid on my next assignment in early 2006, so I have one year to improve all of my foreign languages in order to bid the wide range of posts possible.  Because I will likely not return to Korea anytime soon, I am moderately interested in improving my Korean.  Once I leave Korea, my Korean will undoubtedly fade into memory.  In the future I need to be very fluent in at least two foreign languages.  I plan to focus on achieving fluency in Chinese and Spanish because both languages are much more widely spoken than Korean.  Korean is also a very, very difficult language to master.  In my opinion, Chinese is much easier to speak than Korean, and both languages are classified at the same level of difficulty.

In other news, today I had lunch with coworkers at PhHōa, a Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant in downtown Seoul.  (Phở, pronounced "fuh," is the Vietnamese term for noodle soup.)  I love eating at Phở Hōa.  It’s a specialty chain based in Sacramento, California with franchises throughout the U.S. and Asia.  My wife and I often ate at Phở Hōa when we lived in Seattle.  We couldn’t find any restaurants while living in the Washington, D.C. area, so when my coworkers suggested it I enthusiastically said yes.  I ordered the same dish I always ordered in Seattle, phở noodle soup with beef flank and brisket.  It tasted just like I remembered it.  The soup was definitely a welcome change from Korean, Chinese, and American food I eat all the time. 

I realize I frequently write about food.  There’s a few reasons why I do.  For one, I love food.  I am always on the "see food" diet–I see food, and I eat it.  Secondly, food is a very important part of one’s culture, and no cultural discussion would be complete without talking about ethnic cuisine (even American–Kentucky Fried Chicken qualifies as ethnic American food in my book).  Thirdly, many social gatherings take place over meals.  Meals provide a great setting for socializing and getting to know others.  Lastly, food is a relatively innocuous topic to discuss.  Instead of focusing on controversial topics such as politics, it’s much easier to talk about food without stirring controversy.  You can almost never go wrong with food–unless you insult the cook, of course!

Not just another day

Our final shipment of household goods arrived today, shattering the peace and quiet we’d been enjoying.  If you’ve been reading about our adventures in Korea, you might be wondering, "Wait, how many shipments are coming?  You must have a lot of stuff."  The answer is, yes, we shipped ourselves too much stuff.  Our household goods from Seattle that had been in storage left via cargo ship in early January, and our air freight soon followed.  Our car arrived last week, and we just received our final shipment from our temporary home in Washington, D.C.  That shipment left just before we moved to Korea.  One and a half months in transit is very fast.  Many of my colleagues around the world who left the states last year still have not received their household goods.  Unfortunately, now we have to figure out how to consolidate two households, our Seattle and Washington, D.C. households, and find places to store items we don’t need.  When I put in the orders to ship our stuff abroad, I had the crazy idea of shipping as much as possible so we didn’t miss anything important.  Living abroad however is much like traveling abroad–don’t take more than you need.  Now we have to figure out what to do with all of our stuff without unnecessarily cluttering up our home.

At lunchtime I joined my conversation partner for lunch.  Although she is Korean, she suggested having lunch at Burger King.  I was surprised by her choice, but I obliged.  She explained that Koreans love American fast food, especially McDonald’s and Burger King.  I have not yet seen a Mickie D’s in Korea, but I’ve seen at least three Burger King restaurants in Seoul.  Downtown Seoul has many American fast food restaurants, and they’re all packed at lunchtime.  The clientele appears to be generally younger than customers at Korean restaurants.  She mentioned that Koreans love also love American-style barbeques.  This summer I’m hoping to buy a grill (I love to grill).  If I do I will invite Koreans over for American-style barbeque.  It’s a great way to get to know Koreans and share American culture.

Tonight, amidst our unpacking, we ate dinner with a coworker and his wife.  He is American, and she is Korean.  They came bearing a housewarming gift–three boxes of Kleenex tissue.  I thought this odd until they explained that Koreans traditionally come to house warmings with a gift of tissue.  I appreciate the gesture, but I now have seven boxes of tissue to use up.  We are very well supplied now.  The Chinese meal my wife cooked was delicious, and I played host and cleaned up afterwards.  The conversation was great.  Although we could have spent the time unpacking, we enjoyed the company immensely.  We haven’t done as much entertaining as we could.  Life in Seoul is very conducive to getting together with friends, and our circle of friends and coworkers is ample.

Can’t buy a market

The U.S. stock markets’ performance has been lousy this year.  All the major indexes are off this year.  They’ve been negatively affected by news from Iraq and underperforming U.S. economic indicators such as the U.S. GDP growth rate and unemployment rate.  The price of oil is up to around $54/barrel.  The dollar has strengthened, but it is still very weak.  The trade deficit and federal budget deficits continue to grow.  Interest rates keep going up because the Fed is still mildly worried about inflation (of course, the price of crude doesn’t help–gas prices affect the entire economy).  Stalwarts like AIG and HP and formerly darling stocks such as Krispy Kreme have fallen in financial and regulatory trouble. There have been several large market losses this year and only a few modest gains.  What’s a small investor to do? 

I think now might be right time to begin investing again.  A down market cheapens stocks that should rise when the market rebounds.  It’s a simple fact that stock markets are cyclical.  During the doldrums of summer last year the markets tanked, and then 2004 ended with a bang following the presidential election.  2004’s market momentum unpredictably ground to a halt just days after 2005 started.  (The market usually has a good year after an incumbent president wins reelection.)  It’s important when investing not to focus too much on market peaks and valleys, because they tend to lead to irrational investing decisions.  At the end of last year, for example, I bought into (literally) the hype that will becomes a potent competitor to eBay.  Perhaps someday, it’s much too small now to become the next eBay.  Fortunately, I didn’t buy much, but I bought it at a very high price and the share price has since decreased by almost one-third since then.  The stock price might eventually recover, but I will likely sell it at a loss to recoup my loss.  On the other hand, I did not follow the crowd and buy DreamWorks Animation at IPO last year; I waited until its share price had decreased to a reasonable level and bought once the IPO euphoria subsided.  I sold it at a profit once other investors saw the value of the Shrek franchise and the fact that DreamWorks Animation is now a serious competitor to Pixar, a darling stock five years running. 

Although the depressed market is discouraging, I believe that now may be the time to assess what stocks, mutual funds, and bonds may be more attractive to buy (or sell).  Here’s a few suggestions if you’re interested in investing:

  1. Set a target price for both buying and selling investments. 
  2. Buy what you know.
  3. Choose investments you believe are undervalued and will outperform.
  4. Be patient; don’t panic when the investment rises out of reach or dips unexpectedly. 
  5. Do not day trade or buy and hold indefinitely.  
  6. Set a high and low target selling price and sell on schedule. 
  7. Don’t worry too much if the stock price of the stock you sold keeps going up; what goes up can and often will go down.
  8. Diversify equity holdings by buying mutual funds and bonds.
  9. It is preferable to sell individual investments prior to major announcements; don’t buy after an earnings announcement if the price swing is substantial (e.g. when Merck pulled Vioxx off the market last year). 

It is easy to get burned if you hold onto a stock indefinitely and continue to hold on to it while it tanks.  Too many people bought worthless investments and held onto them too long during the bust (2000-03).  For example, Infospace shares spiked in March 2000 at the equivalent of $1,300/share; today a share of Infospace costs $38/share.  Get in and out of a stock while you can.  Don’t waste your money buying at an exuberantly irrational market peak, and don’t watch your investment tank just because you think it will rebound.  Invest wisely.  Buy low at a target price and sell at a target price.