The cameras in the People's Square.

The cameras in the People’s Square.

This month, I am going from South Korea to Japan to China and then finally to Taiwan, spending about a week in each place. Each place has its own unique culture, despite being connected as a region. And now that we’re halfway through these journeys (only Taiwan is left) I’m not only feeling culture-whiplash, but a severe pain in my throat and a nagging cough known in the expat community as “Beijing Cough.”

These are some things I remember about Beijing:

Brother Roger took care of a lot of hospitality even though we were only seeing him as a secondary reason; the reason we went to Beijing was to help train students as part of the Sam Houston State University’s Global Journalism Center, which had partnered with Tsinghua University, my grandpa’s alma mater. Roger being the host he is, he made sure we had drivers anytime we needed, which helped a lot but all the car time also showed us how traffic really is murder in Beijing.

The girls were awesome. We stayed in a Marriott “executive apartment” for a few nights because the facility had a giant lap pool and a kids play room, both of which Eva took advantage of. There was also a giant closet that fit Isabel’s co-sleeper so Isa had a “room” of her own.

The duck was second to none, of course, but Roger introduced us to his favorite Japanese restaurant in Beijing and they knew how to make Japanese food, no joke. Tasted like a really quality joint in Tokyo, where we’d been just the week before.

Due to a windstorm, the smog got blown out of town for the first few days of our trip. It was straight up BLUE skies, which I didn’t expect. But the smog eventually returned and was so severe that I got recurring headaches, the tickle in my throat turned into a full-on cough, and when walking from our hotel to a coffee shop to meet my friend Ben, it straight-up smelled like everything was on fire. It was just the air.

I had forgotten about squatter toilets, which have largely been phased out of Seoul but remain in a lot of public bathrooms in Beijing. Squatters were a big feature of life when I spent a few summers in Taipei in the 1990s. Except in the 1990s I was in middle school, about 100lbs and hadn’t delivered two babies, so squatting wasn’t so physically burdensome. I was basically anxious every time I was away from the hotel and felt the need to pee.

This led to a discussion about squatters with the aforementioned Ben. He pointed out that squatters are actually more sanitary, in his mind. I think they’re gross because I have to be so close to the ground while squatting and you see the mix of shoe grime and wetness on the ground while you’re down there. But Ben said it’s much better to squat and NOT have your legs on a toilet seat that so many others have sat on. The solution of course is just to squat over a toilet seat, but toilet seats weren’t an option.

Since we’re on the topic of squatting, something else happened. Matty was outside our hotel one night and saw a cabbie turn his flashers on, get out of the car, drop trou, crouch behind some bushes and take a dump near the curb, get back up with his pants still open, tuck-in his shirt and return to the cab. No shame. Kind of amazing.

You know what else was kind of amazing? The valets who drive you home in your own car.

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Goodbye To My Dog

Saidee, at nearly 17 years old.

November 30, 1998 — September 27, 2015. Pictured here is Saidee at nearly 17 years old.

Update: Saidee left us on Sunday. Eva led her on her leash to a private van, which my assistant arranged for the ride to a compassionate vet, who gave us lots of time to say goodbye. Saidee died in my arms, at nearly half her normal weight after stopped being able to keep any food down. She knew we loved her, but more importantly, she was loving us — licking us — to the very end.

I am sitting here on my bed with my baby cooing at me and my dog in the other room. I am quite certain my dog is about to die.

We lived off Legacy Drive in Plano, Texas 17 years ago, when Saidee joined us as a puppy. My best friend Erin and I drove out to see her in my red Jeep Cherokee after I spotted an ad for beagle puppies in the classifieds. (Like I said, this was a long time ago.) Saidee has an official name — Legacy Lady Saidee, which follows the street name+first name naming custom of her show dog father, Copper Mountain Cody.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

At the time I was 16 and applying for colleges as a high school junior. I wanted my dog-loving mom to have a surrogate daughter since I knew I would be moving away. We chose to spell her name “Saidee” because my mom didn’t want the word “sad” anywhere in her name. When she joined us, she was so small she could burrow into my running shoe.

Up until the end, burrowing was a beloved pastime for her. Saidee didn’t bark or bay — odd for a beagle — but she loved to sleep completely under the covers after spending several minutes finding just the right cushion level. She cuddled close to humans, covering them with kisses, spooned with the cats, but was snooty about other dogs. True to her breed, her ultimate favorite activity is eating. Anytime my mom is cooking in the kitchen, Saidee is circling her feet, hoping for a snack to fall from the sky. And that nose of hers could suss out a morsel of food half a mile away. (Which might be why she ran away so many times, always to return somehow.)

She’s my mom’s dog but since we are a family that’s often on the move, Saidee has taken countless flights and road trips and lived with each of us Hu family members at various points in her long life. She joined us when we were all together in Dallas. She lived with Roger when he was at school in Arizona. She lived with Dad in St. Louis when mom’s job pulled her to Taiwan. In 2007, she moved in with Matty and me in Austin, and later, she moved with us to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

In her 17 years, she’s made many friends, put up with four different cats, survived a battle with skin cancer, briefly got a new identity, seen the American West and the Appalachian Mountains and despite deafness and blindness in her old age, she even managed a final journey with us — across the Pacific, to Seoul.

When I got Saidee, I was only a girl. Now I am a woman with two girls of my own. I always knew that I’d outlive her — and if we were lucky, that all of her Hu humans would — but I kept delaying the thought, since she’s stayed with us so long. But this week, Saidee did something that she’s never done in her life. She stopped eating. Dementia drives her to walk in circles or face a corner without explanation. I know it’s not long now.

I’ll never be able to repay Saidee for her friendship and her love. Thank you, Saidee Hu, for your insatiable hunger, for food, and for life. For teaching me about loyalty, about growing up, and growing older. For bringing us such joy.

The writer Zadie Smith, reflecting on joy, offered as an example the bonds between humans and our animals. She wrote that relationships with animals are intensified because of their guaranteed finitude.

“You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness,” she wrote.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

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Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving

Eva at three.

Eva at three.

Happy 3rd Birthday to my pretty young thing, the baby who blasted into the world and made me a momma.

In the year since her last birthday, Eva has had to leave the only home she knew and move to the other side of the planet, start at three different schools, adapt to a foreign country, say goodbye to her nanny and become a big sister. She’s done it all with joy and pluck, and the giant smile that melts me every time.

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Jeju Island: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Do Again

An offering on my breakfast buffet. Jeju Island, I'll be back.

An offering on my breakfast buffet. Jeju Island, I’ll be back.

Right now it’s Tuesday morning and my infant daughter is off in slumberland, freeing me up to write about Jeju Island, which the Koreans say is the “Hawaii of Korea.” There ARE some things it has in common with Hawaii, like natural beauty and parts of the island so untouched that four way intersections have no stop signs or traffic lights, leaving you to your own devices.

Go team.

Go team.

I saw a UFO themed restaurant. I saw a waterfall without water falling. I saw a beach where everyone took off their shoes and lined them up on the boardwalk before stepping onto the sand. I tried a burger concoction that was a foot tall. I smelled fresh Jeju black pork on the barbecue grill, before quickly eating that, too. I visited a three-story Hello Kitty museum made complete with a Hello Kitty family portrait. I passed horses milling about near the highway. I went to a completely empty theme park the size and scale a large city zoo. The place called itself ‘Psyche World’ until it changed its name to something equally puzzling: Ecopia. There was a butterfly exhibit with only three butterflies. There was a giant castle displaying a jewel museum with likely fake but famous jewels, like that blue one from Titanic that the old lady dropped into the ocean in the end. There was the promise of the ‘CSI EXPERIENCE: JEJU.’ There was an empty concert park with futuristic white seating in the grass, next to a display of two crocodiles. There was vastness in the emptiness. Store clerks and ticket punchers appeared when we walked past, but if you went back five minutes later, they were gone.

This giant playground was empty so I found the single plastic lawn chair on the grounds and plopped down to breastfeed Isa.

This giant playground was empty so I found the single plastic lawn chair on the grounds and plopped down to breastfeed Isa.

I have learned that if you travel with the kind of friends who will agree to go to a weird place like Jeju Island with you on a week’s notice, you will undoubtedly have a great time, despite feeling like you’re in a vortex. They are the Yau family, who are also American expats in Seoul who also arrived here in March. Who also happen to have a preschooler and an infant. When it came to kid supplies like diapers, water bottles and sunscreen, as Joe Yau said, “There’s so many built in redundancies this way.

The island is a place frequented by Chinese travelers. So many that  he rich ones are now scooping up thousands of square meters of the island itself.

The people who don’t frequent Jeju island are people who speak English. The eight of us spent the four day weekend speaking ‘hand Korean,’ which is generally just wildly gesticulating and getting responses we couldn’t understand, until the point the Korean speakers simply throw their arms into a giant X formation, which is the loudest silent rejection I’ve come to know in Korea. Since the GPS navigator was similarly in Korean only, a hotel employee had to come out to our car each morning and program in a destination for us and we crossed our fingers we’d wind up somewhere discernable. Considering many streets don’t even have names down there, it was a wonder we had a navigation device at all.

Here’s the thing. To me, vacation explorations are not just respites from routine but a chance to make yourself purposely uncomfortable or weirded out a little. It’s in those situations you learn and grow and laugh. There is so much laughter in the absurdity of a place like Jeju Island. We survived. Neigh, we thrived.

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What I’m Reading: The Trying A Newsletter Edition

I’ve gotten really into a couple of email newsletters that people I like and admire put out — notably Ann Friedman‘s, Jamelle Bouie‘s and Sean Bonner‘s. Newsletters are all the rage these days and I’ve toyed with doing one myself so I’m trying it out. You can subscribe at this link, and I’ll cross post here on HeyElise if you prefer not to crowd your inbox further.

What I Wrote

I’m on leave so I’m not doing a ton of writing for work. That said, I hope you’ll enjoy one of my last NPR pieces before I had a baby, on hard-core Korean hikers and how hiking links Korean immigrants to their ancestral homeland. I also wrote a bunch of answers for Cup of Jo, the popular lifestyle blog, about motherhood in South Korea. And if you haven’t moseyed over there yet, I started a blog for two-week-old Isabel Rock, because it wasn’t going to be fair that her sister has a Tumblr and I didn’t do some sort of documenting for Isa.

What I Read

Korean Juliana Haahs on being shamed for her looks by her Korean family. Ann Friedman on how the Taylor Swift/Nicki Minaj Twitter tussle laid bare what happens when white people hear big picture critiques about system racism. Sheila Smith on the uproar in Japan over legislation that would allow the pacifist nation to better defend itself militarily. Andy Greenwald on why Masters of Sex is not as good this season. The Atlantic writers scathingly and deliciously diss True Detective each week and that’s my favorite thing to read after my viewings. Choice example:

“Why, why, why, does Pizzolatto keep making Frank say thinks like, “It’s like blue balls. In your heart”? Poor guy’s got enough to deal with without it sounding like he’s doing pornographic slam poetry.”

What I’m Still Reading

Book: Korea: The Impossible Country, by Daniel Tudor

The former Economist correspondent in Seoul explores the history, culture and ways of life here on the land I now call home. It’s been dragging in a few parts but I’m learning a lot of fascinating tidbits so I’m working my way through.

What I’m Watching

Rectify is a quiet and sometimes lyrical show on Sundance Channel that I only recently discovered. The first season is only six episodes and available on Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming, so it’s easy to get caught up. It’s worth the investment if you enjoy character driven stories and can handle a more plodding pace. Not sure? Read Matt Zoller Seitz’s review, which won’t give much away.

Also: I’m hate-watching True Detective, of course.


The Instagram account of Chriselle Lim: Chriselle Lim is a stylist and video blogger that once worked with the famous YouTube tycoon, Michelle Phan. I’ll never have her glamour or togetherness so I lurk on her Instagram, instead. Also she has an adorable baby who is also already living a more stylish life than the rest of us.

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That Time We Had A Baby In South Korea

Early Thursday morning, I awoke suspecting something was … off. It was exactly a week before Hu-Stiles #2: Electric Boogaloo’s due date, and my inability to go back to sleep indicated maybe I was in labor. When actual contractions came on around 4am (just like with Eva), I called my mom, who wasn’t supposed to arrive from Taipei until Saturday, and told her I wanted her to get on a plane ASAP. Spouse Stiles started his husband-coaching and labor was ON, man. Contractions were getting moderate, but nothing I couldn’t handle while also getting Eva ready for school.

By about 8am, things were getting uncomfortable, and my Korean birthing center’s midwife wanted us to go ahead and go in because second babies tend to come faster (Teaser: This was NOT the case for me). We dropped Eva off at school along with my Dad, who is town for babysitting help, so he could take charge of picking her up later.

Now that we are home as a family of four, I can blog about the experience!

A Birth in Korea: Stray Observations

We chose Mediflower, a natural birthing center in Seoul’s Gangnam district, because I like things as un-medicalized as possible and Eva was born without any pain interventions to great results for mom/baby, so we wanted a repeat experience, if possible. Medical interventions during labor & delivery actually tend to be high in South Korea, which has a higher C-section rate than the U.S., even. So we really had to find a place that wasn’t going to take the control of the birth out of my hands.

That said, the experience wasn’t completely Western.

Take off your shoes. The center makes you take off your shoes, like any Korean home, upon entrance. They offer a wide array of slippers at the center entrance but each labor and delivery room had a slipper rack, too.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

There’s an obsessive focus on meal time and meals. (This is not a complaint.) My midwife Suyeon, or “Su,” checked us in and immediately presented us a menu for lunch, even though I was already six centimeters dilated. If you’ve given birth in an American hospital, that is not a point they let you chow down, if they let you eat at all. You can choose Western style meals or the Korean meals, which feature lots of banchan and some sort of main soup, stew or noodle dish. My spouse Stiles chose Korean. I went with a cheeseburger, which I had to eat between contractions and just after laboring in the tub for awhile.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Koreans believe Miyeokguk is the elixir of life. At the hospital/birthing center, Miyeokguk is available at every meal. It is seaweed soup, and Korean moms who abide by the traditional “confinement month” or “sitting month” after having a baby basically have to eat this every day, nonstop, to help in recovery and to get milk flowing for baby. Seaweed is an alkaline food which helps with pH balance and it’s full of iodine, which the Koreans say you need for getting your lady parts healed. I like it well enough, but I can see how you could easily get sick of it.

As in any part of the world, labor and delivery is not a walk in the park. I just had to accept that this was going to be a long day, and that contractions get more painful and intense and the breaks in between them get shorter until you face the daunting part of pushing out a small human. At one point between contractions I tried bouncing on the ol’ ab ball and this started an impromptu singing of R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” (key part includes ‘Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce’). This was fun until it got a contraction going again. I knew Matty was being especially forgiving while I was in labor because he usually doesn’t ever let me sing in front of him, ESPECIALLY not Ignition Remix.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The tub and rope setup was pretty handy. Every two rooms share a water birthing tub with these 50 Shades of Gray-looking ropes to hang onto. You can dim the lights and work your way through the contractions, or even deliver in the tub. I just used the tub to get through contractions and got in and out of it a few times during labor day. It felt nice but I wanted to move around too much to stay in there for baby.

My mom made it before the typhoon. Mom wasn’t scheduled to arrive until Saturday, but I didn’t think I could go through with the pain of delivering a baby naturally without my mom being with me for the birth. She got on one of the only flights from Taipei to Seoul left (and among the last before they started canceling them in anticipation of Typhoon Chanhom), and made it to the birthing center with TWENTY MINUTES to spare. I was pushing, despairing and at the ultimate nadir of the labor process by the time she got there. It’s pretty amazing that the baby took her sweet time and didn’t make her appearance until her Oma (grandma) was by my side.

After the hospital staff encouraged me to eat dinner (BECAUSE OF COURSE THEY DID), Isabel arrived at 7:12pm Thursday night at a healthy 8lbs, 4oz and 21 inches long. I shared a quick pic on social media, returned some emails and then went to bed for the night. Mom roomed-in with us so she did the overnight rocking and diaper changing when Isa fussed and I nursed the baby a few times while half-asleep.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

The next morning I awoke to a living nightmare that was also hilarious. Remember how the water birthing tub is shared between two rooms? A laboring mom checked in next door while we were sleeping. I awoke Friday to the sound of what I thought was a slaughterhouse, but really, it was just the final moments of a water birth. Seriously, it was like the cows in Fast Food Nation. Mom and I started cracking up just hearing this ordeal because we really thought this woman was not going to survive, much less deliver a baby. I was flooded with memories of delivering Isa the night before and I shuddered at the thought. After a few really awkward and terrifying moments only HEARING what was behind door #2, we heard a baby crying. She did it!*

The lactation consultant was so pro that she seemed like a North Korean Olympics Coach. Before checking out, Isa got her first bath and I got a lactation consultation from an elite North Korean soldier. I mean, a South Korean lactation specialist. She was a bigger-framed lady, tough and stern and scary with her style. She could only coach me through a translator so we went through this elaborate dance of her jerking me around on the bed and squeezing my boobs and contorting the baby’s mouth and jaw to show me the ultimate positions for breast feeding. I was so bewildered that I’m not sure I got much out of it. But baby seems to be eating enough, so far. Her older sister loves her.

Eva and Isa's first photo together.

Eva and Isa’s first photo together.

Isa got two birth certificates, one in each language. Next week she must go to the U.S. Embassy to declare herself as a U.S. citizen born abroad and to get her passport. The photo will be good for five years, which is going to be pretty funny.

*My mom later tried to tell me, in the nicest way possible, that if I thought the woman-next-door sounded bleak, that I sounded way scarier while delivering Isabel. I hope that’s not true…

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Roger Gifs, Day 3: Jubilation On The Water

I’m not really sure what’s going on here. But it’s probably not the only one I am going to share from Roger’s stand-up rafting on some piranha pond.

Roger on some sort of standup raft in a pond.

Roger on some sort of standup raft in a pond.

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Roger Gifs, Day 2: Roger Wears Suits On Long Flights

For the latest in my series poking fun at my little brother (but also not-so-secretly being jealous at his lifestyle), I chose a clip of Roger flying to Indonesia with a camera crew in tow. He seems to lounge and sleep with his bespoke suit on. This seems crazy to us lay people, but it’s become a joke in our family that every time we pick up Roger at the airport, even if it’s a flight from Beijing to Washington, he comes off the plane in a suit.

Those noodles look good, actually.

Those noodles look good, actually.

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Introducing Roger Gifs!

Roger Gif 1: I am Roger

Roger Gif 1: I am Roger

The most random and unintentionally amusing person I know is my little brother, Roger Hu. He’s also an expat in East Asia, working as the CEO of a tech startup he founded in China, TeeKart. It’s like Open Table but for booking golf tee times.

TeeKart is partnered with golf resorts in China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, and for some reason he got asked to host a handful of marketing vids to introduce the Indonesian courses he works with. The videos are ridiculous.

THIS IS GREAT NEWS FOR ME, because now I am going to start making a series of “ROGER GIFS!” This is “Roger Gif 1: I am Roger.”

These are going to get more insane, I promise.

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Please Stay In Touch

We drove our Nissan up to my great-uncle’s and left it there in Potomac, Maryland, then took an Uber to the airport to make the great trek to South Korea. It was a trek indeed, as it included a false start: the first leg of our journey to San Francisco was canceled due to mechanical errors, plane de-icing taking too long, and timed-out pilots after we were forced to sit on the runway at Dulles for six hours. Pretty miserable. It didn’t make the next two days easy, in which we actually did fly to San Francisco and then on to Seoul’s Incheon Airport. But we are here now.

Since my life in Korea is largely for work, I’ll be blogging a lot at my new work-Tumblr, Elise Goes East. Please follow along and send me any suggestions. The posts will also be available on my public facing Facebook page. So those are two places you can easily reach me. Email or Kakao Talk (EliseHu00) are also methods.

I hope you come and visit.

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