Repatriation

First fireworks show in Houston, after my first American baseball game in four years. Credit: Scott McKenney

I live in Southern California now, which feels like I’m in a semi-permanent state of vacation. I have already consumed a green juice from a juicebot, taken the ubiquitous electric scooters of West LA for a ride, taken a Megaformer class (Pilates on steroids) and gotten an excellent tan. Next I need some Botox and I will be all settled in! (Just kidding about the Botox, I spoke to my Korean dermatologist about that — since Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world, natch — and he said do not start fillers too early because they won’t work when you need them later.)

We live in West LA so the beach is a ten minute walk from here. And you can just go, anytime. Because the girls are not in school yet, feeling sand between our toes and splashing around in the Pacific is something that we do almost every day.

I am very happy to have graham crackers back in my life, as I didn’t realize how much I missed them until they returned to me. I write this as I eat Salt & Straw ice cream from the Venice location, using honey lavender ice cream as a vector for graham crackers.

Five days after we landed in LA I left for Houston, where the Asian American Journalists Association gathered for its annual convention and I promptly caught the rare August cold. After I parked it for seven hours at a Lupe Tortilla the first night so that I could see various friends who came by and eat flour tortillas and queso for the entire duration, I lost my voice the first morning there and found myself hopelessly jet-lagged the entire time. But the reunions were rad! Not just AAJA pals but also my old Texas buddies, some of whom hosted a little happy hour for me on Thursday and we caught up and gossiped and talked politics just like the good ol’ days. On Friday my lawyer friend Brian arranged for me to see the Astros from his firm’s seats behind home plate and let me just say, those seats were adequate. The best part was the buffet before and during the game for season ticket holders, which consisted of meat, a side of meat and some more meat. Plus all-you-can-eat ice cream and candy! Fireworks every Friday meant I got an all American show after the Astros fell (again) to the Mariners.

Back in LA now.

Surf lessons, next.

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On Being A Broad Abroad

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

— Anthony Bourdain

One of my first stories in Seoul was livestreaming a jajangmyeon bingefest with a star of mukbang, live broadcasts of people eating.

If you’re trying to figure out what to do when you grow up, I recommend foreign correspondence. It offers independence, a flexible schedule, creative output and a lot of travel. I mean, c’mon. If you love to explore, you’re paid to do it. You encounter fascinating new people who (maybe against their better judgement) become friends. Most importantly, you’re stretched in ways you can never appreciate or expect until you make your life in another country where the language and customs and systems are alien. It is like being a baby again, all the time, until one day you’re not.

A few thoughts, before I leave my Koreas and Japan beat:

William Faulkner said “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past,” something that reporting here will constantly remind you. The 20th century brought about breathtaking atrocities, and the lack of closure over Japanese colonization and subsequent wars in Northeast Asia color everything, more than a century after it all started. It surprised me, at first, how much South Korean identity seems to form in opposition to Japan, but the longer I spent here the more I came to understand the deep complexities in this relationship. The animosity goes through cycles of highs and lows, and my posting coincided with a rockier time in relations. So rocky, in fact, that one time we had to eat a the Japanese Ambassador in South Korea’s house — without him.

Efforts to reckon with war and its consequences led to one of the most unforgettable moments I’ve experienced as a reporter: The silence on the lawn of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park moments before Barack Obama came to pay respects to the victims of the US nuclear bomb dropped on the city, killing 140,000. The speech he gave is worth listening to again, in its entirety. Being there on that lawn, before a bombed out dome —  remnants of a municipal building destroyed in the blast — shook me.

I took this from the risers as Obama laid a wreath for the victims of America’s bombing of Hiroshima.

Among the greatest challenges in Korean and Japanese societies — is sexism, both malevolent and benevolent. The benevolent kind is the notion that there is such thing as a woman’s place, and a man’s place, in the first place. It’s Korea’s emphasis on a narrow, feminine aesthetic — long hair, skirts, looking “young” — at the exclusion of other ways to look. It’s the “awwww such a great husband” when people learn that Matty stayed home to watch the kids, when it should be normal. Malevolent sexism that results in violence and sexual aggression is a scourge women are beginning to rise up against in Japan and South Korea just as I’ve run out of time to report on it. My biggest regret editorially is not devoting more time to the consequences and the victims of such gendered societies. South Korea’s birth rate will drop below one, the only country in the world having so few babies. It’s bad for all of us in a society when half of us are discounted.

Now, to the miss/won’t miss list.

Will Miss:

Heated toilet seats
Abundant simple syrup available with my iced tea
Same-day dermatologist or facial appointments
Scooter couriers for anything
Saying “kimchi” instead of “cheese” to take photos
My local bar, HappySexyEnjoy
Australians
Sound of slurping noodles
Slurping as a sign of respect
Dak hanmari at that place in “mackerel alley”
The view from our 35th floor condo on a clear day
Koreans marveling at my husband’s arm hair and being terrified of his chest hair
My Korean OBGYN, Dr. Jung
My pilates teacher Soomi and how she said things like, “Oh, your condition is not good today.”
How you can forget your phone or wallet some place and always get it back
Hobonichi Techo: Japan’s care and attention to design and proportion is expressed in its devotion to old-fashioned day planners. This one is my fave.
Friends That Became Family: With special thanks to the Yau family, our travel squad. And the Manzo’s, our Cass-chugging, karaoke-going, bake-sale-aiding rocks in the ROK
Public transportation in East Asia is 100X better, cleaner, more efficient than any system in the US. I dare you to find me a subway system as vast as Seoul or Tokyo’s that never has a broken down escalator, offers wifi in all the cars, heated seats in the winter and is always on time.
Fixers and photogs: So many generous colleagues have helped me and NPR along the way, including the right-hand women in Seoul: Haeyrun, Jihye and SeEun. In Japan: Chie, Akane and Jake, plus additional help by Shizuka that one time I almost killed her in Hokkaido. Chan in Malaysia. Fanny in Taiwan. Kham in Laos.

With Jun at the Winter Olympics

The video shooters I relied on the most: Ces in Japan, Jun in Korea. Photog Kosake in Japan had to endure my pumping milk from the backseat of our tiny car in Fukushima, so, sumimasen. I hope all that sake we drank from paper cups on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo made up for it.

Mom and dad being nearby: I moved to Asia just around the time my parents retired and moved to Taipei. So my mom and dad were at my side when Isabel was born. And mom made it to Seoul just hours after Luna came into the world (Luna came very quickly so, she just barely beat my mom.) I was here when I learned the matriarch of our family, my Grandma Rock, died peacefully at age 94. A survivor of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War and twice a refugee, she still managed to live a life on her own terms. Part of her legacy is my stubbornness to do the same.

Won’t Miss:

The Costco shopping experience in Korea
Feeling the full dimensions of a patriarchy
Sewer smells in the summer
The swim cap requirement at pools
Monochrome cars and coats
Only three lip colors: pink, coral or red
Dessert cafes: Honestly, Korea needs another dessert cafe like I need a bag on my hip
The social unacceptability of showing any bare shoulders or cleavage
Backing in (all cars back in here)
Parking garage floors so clean your car squeaks when you’re backing in
The backward attitudes toward social minorities like LGBTs
Being 13 and 14 hours ahead of East coast time, which meant working all day Seoul time, and then working half the day US Eastern time.
Being yelled at by listeners: The guy who chastised me about saying jail instead of prison, and the guy who has a real issue with me saying “you bet,” which led to a lengthier response than complaint.

For others of us, the “what I’ll miss” is a lot more simple:

Me: What will you miss most about Korea?
Eva: I will miss the popsicles that live in Korea. I LOVE the popsicles.

I leave here both inspired by and forever indebted to this place and its people. We have nothing left if we lose our sense of wonder and will to wander. This is a region dynamic enough to fuel both. 감사합니다 and ありがとうございます.

Last night with the Japan crew, at an izakaya in Tokyo that serves CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS WITH PORK GYOZA FILLING.

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Seoul Long, Or, Elise Goes West

“We’re just trying to get it done. You’re exhausted all the time. When people are like, ‘Are you going to be so sad when it’s over?,’ You’re like, ‘All I can concentrate on right now is the glass of wine that’s going to happen in about eight hours.’”
–Matthew Rhys

What is it like in the maelstrom of the most unpredictable and chaotic global stories as it intersects with the most unpredictable and chaotic American presidencies? It’s what you expect: Sometimes thrilling, frequently exhausting, feels important. Last month, throngs of us covered history — the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders — and President Trump subsequently declared world peace. So I think my work out here is done.

Okay, so North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the same as it was before, and maybe even expanding. But after three-plus years on the peninsula, it IS time to go home — we repatriate to the US this weekend.

Look, we had three takes to get a mic dropping photo but catching a shot of the mic as it’s falling in *just the right place* was a bridge too far. We tried. Credit: Jun Michael Park

After flying west to wind up in East Asia, which became the titular blog and sendoff song (song still holds up), now I’ll fly east to the West coast, specifically Los Angeles — a place full of Asians! LA boasts the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, so this soft re-entry point means my next pore-vacuuming facial will only be a short drive away.

Broadly the plan is to develop a new beat, continue to host my video adventures and fill-in host our radio programs from DC or Culver City (we have some deal to say Culver City and not LA). Ideally I want to guinea pig expressions of NPR on non-radio platforms — live events, smart speakers, you know, whatever we can experiment with, without breaking.

And A Partridge In A Pear Tree

Not twelve hours after I landed in Seoul to open NPR’s first ever Korea/Japan bureau in 2015, the US Ambassador to South Korea was knifed in the face by a North Korean sympathizer. My internet wasn’t even set up, so I started by filing spots by phone.

The pace never slowed down. Over these past three years, I birthed the bureau, two humans and our video series Elise Tries, a labor of love and experimentation. All the while, North Korea news was relentless.

I covered 27 missile tests, three nuclear tests, one land mine explosion, a plan to bracket Guam, threats to “totally destroy” North Korea,this year’s rapid rapprochement, a unified Winter Olympics, an interKorean summit at Panmunjom, a historic US-North Korea summit and a partridge in a pear tree.

Doing some KJU play-by-play with assistant Se Eun…

Outside the Koreas, I shuttled back-and-forth to Japan 35 times, filed from nine Asian countries, one US territory and twice from Hawaii. Covered three presidential trips to Asia, the G7, the aforementioned Olympics, a few ASEANs, the now-defunct S&ED in Beijing, followed the 17-week candlelight revolution which brought down the South Korean president, the changeover to a liberal Korean leader, the ups-and-downs of Japan’s Prime Minister and peeled back a host of social issues and curiosities. The curiouser of the curiosities became grist for our bootstrapped Elise Tries vids, which somehow got seven million Facebook views in its first season and just won a Gracie Award.

Along the way, my family expanded (from three humans to five) AND contracted (from three pets to one). I delivered Isa in 2015 and Luna in 2017, both in Seoul. Nursing them each for a year meant the breast pump soldiered several international journeys.

The youngest, Luna, is walking and talking now, but her infanthood’s memorialized forever. Isa came here in my belly and now stands on street corners hailing her own cabs. Our oldest, Eva, arrived here as a goofy two-year-old and will leave a month shy of her sixth birthday — literate, and missing her bottom front teeth.

“Luna Tries” at eight weeks, getting a K-beauty facial

Eva somehow got into a badass Mandarin immersion kindergarten in Venice, and being fluent in a second language is something I’ve wanted to give her since she was born.

With Special Thanks…

Expat life is the kind of free-form existence that suits my Aquarian tendencies. And it’s a rare privilege these days to get to work overseas with the support of a large, well-funded news organization. But in addition to being a itinerant foreign correspondent, I’m also a partner and mom, and my spouse is ready to move on. A fairly woke feminist, he left his full time journalism job to join me on this adventure abroad. Women do this for men all the time, so neither he nor I think he deserves applause, but in the context of East Asia’s highly-gendered societies, Matty becoming a trailing spouse and the lead parent was radical. He — and our all around helper/housekeeper/nanny Yani — are the heroes of this Asia stint.

At Matty’s first PTA meeting at Eva’s international preschool, the PTA president learned he’d just left his job as a Wall Street Journal reporter.

“She said, oh, you’re a reporter, you can probably take good notes,” he recalled. And that is how he became PTA secretary for the 2016-2017 school year. He downgraded to room parent the next year, because while still lead-parenting, he filed prolifically for the Los Angeles Times.

We both covered the summit spectacle to end all summit spectacles, in Singapore. The whole fam had to go because news rules our lives. We came full circle from last August, when the Party of Five went to Guam because Kim Jong Un threatened the territory and Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury.”

Now “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” if the President of the United States can be believed [clears throat].

Peace in the Far East. What better way to leave this beat?

Related:
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
Goodbye to KVUE-TV
Launching the Texas Tribune
Leaving Austin, NPR-bound
Seoul
The Long Goodbye from Washington

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“Delete words that end with “ly.” It actually works. Stories really do read and sound better. Also, by eliminating those “throwaway intensifiers” you literally open up space for action words that definitely move a story along.

Try it. You’ll be totally surprised. Plus, many in the audience will surely thank you. Some will certainly stop complaining.”

-our standards editor, Mark Memmott

Conversations With My Korean Teacher

(Credit: Jay P. Lee/Flickr)

Let’s face it, I am not really getting much better at speaking Korean, except when I’m drunk, when something magical happens and I just start full-on speaking Korean. Friend Alex witnessed this once and said it was rather disconcerting because before that, she had never once heard me utter a single phrase in Korean.

Despite my lack of progress, I still spend every Thursday afternoon with Lee Unkyung, the trusted private teacher to British, Australian and New Zealand diplomats, as well as a raft of foreign correspondents who have come through Seoul. I love Unkyung and count her among one of my closest Korean friends. She is the oldest of four daughters, so she knows what it’s like to deal with the sister dynamics she witnesses among my children each week. As my Korean has haltingly improved, our conversations about birth order and sister relationships have gotten (slightly) more nuanced.

She’s also a font of story ideas! Because we start each lesson with conversation practice, she ends up sharing interesting headlines or debates that are going on in Korean society that I often don’t know about yet. So helpful.

Today we talked about the standard Korean phrases that translate awkwardly into English, and vice versa. I often hear, “Have a good rest,” for example. Which seems odd as an English phrase. But she explained that 푹 쉬세요 (pook she-seh-yo) is something Koreans say to one another all the time. 

This happens in the reverse when you translate the English phrase “What do you think” into Korean, because in Korean, you don’t say “WHAT do you think” but instead “HOW do you think?” So she says it’s a dead giveaway that you’re translating an original English question from your mind when a speaker says “WHAT do you think” in Korean.

My favorite common Korean phrase is 마음에 들어요 (ma-oom-eh duhlauyo), which is understood to mean “it pleases me.” But if you want to be real literal about it, the phrase can translate as “It fits my heart exactly.” And what could be more lovely than that?

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Old House

Me: I’m selling my Austin House. Kinda sad.
Todd: Ah I remember that house fondly, as my breakup regrouping house.
Me: You housesat right after the breakup? I do remember you and my pets got tight.
Todd: Hanging out alone with your pets, in that fast-fooded part of town…

Closing on the house, 2007.

Eleven years ago, I was 25 years old and new to Austin. I used to eat lunch almost every day with fellow reporter/wise sage John Moritz, then of the Fort Worth Star Telegram‘s Capitol bureau. John became one of my best friends, trusted advisors, birthday-party-cohost, and the forever parent to a foster kitten we took in, Miguel.

What I remember about that time in my life was my mom was really on me about adulting and suggested I do so by buying a small house. I mentioned this to John at one of our lunches, probably at the Texas Chili Parlor, which has a delicious cheeseburger salad.

He goes, “Do you want to buy mine?” He proceeded to tell me some things about it — four bedrooms, open layout, huge backyard that he watered by hand each day after work. It sounded great to me, and I have a tendency toward the impulsive decision or two, so John never even put the house on the market. A few weeks later we signed the papers, closing the deal.

I love that house and kept it for the past decade, as a slum landlord.

It goes on the market this week or next, because it’s proven to be an excellent investment and because property taxes in Texas are super-high and I don’t want to pay them anymore.

I will miss you, house. You were my first big purchase, a symbol of the start of a weird, wily time they call adulthood. You passed hands from friend-to-friend, hosted lots of weenie roasts, were briefly home to my hot-bodded roommate Jarrod (who was into bears and introduced me to my favorite subset of gay, bears), and after I moved away, home to a series of my photographer friends who became my tenants. Friend Scott grew watermelons in the backyard and even raised some hens. A fertile house, indeed.

Today, it’s empty.

Hard Choices

Yesterday I was talking with Reeve about a difficult decision and how I didn’t know how to weigh it because it’s between two great choices. He said that there’s no way you can really do pro/con lists for decisions like that, a nugget of knowledge he learned from this TED Talk on the topic.

The gist is it’s almost impossible to make a difficult decision on the merits of the competing choices alone. Instead, you should use tough choices as opportunities to make a decision based on which values to affirm. If this makes no sense, it will if you watch the talk.

I found this clarifying in the way that advice from Shankar helped me a lot that one time.

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The Summit

With Josh at the end of a long day, before our appearance on MSNBC

I slept about three hours a night for a few nights so the recovery feels like a really bad hangover. Matty is in such poor shape that (egad!) I had to take care of ALL THREE GIRLS AT THE SAME TIME yesterday. But gosh, I loved Singapore. The food, the expertly planned out thoroughfares, the rooftops, the polyglots, the sunshine, the pools available everywhere … if I were a super-rich expat I would totally live there! I mean, are you kidding? The place is so great that it seems fake. That is, if you like having malls at every corner to get whatever you need and no hassles whatsoever, and you’re okay with trading your civil liberties for it.

I did get lost in one of Singapore’s ubiquitous underground malls one time and I feared I would never be above ground again, and the irony was I went to the mall to buy sunscreen.

While Trump’s big accomplishment at the summit was the reset of the US-North Korea relationship (and world peace, of course), I completed the US cable news network hat trick (CNN-Fox-MSNBC) inside of about 12 hours! Anderson Cooper was probably the biggest star I got to appear with, something I was reminded of when we were in commercial break waiting to go live from a second floor hotel balcony when passersby on the sidewalk yelled, “ANDERSON COOPER!” He says they don’t usually have any material besides that. On the day of the summit, my friend Josh Lederman and I coincidentally got booked on Bret Baier’s show together, but the greatest coincidence was that for my last booking of the day, an hour with MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson, Josh was ALSO my studio buddy. Josh and I became friends in Laos and then reunited in Hawaii. This time around we got to hang in Singapore on rival cable networks. Journalism breeds some random and memorable friendships.

Because both spouse and I had to cover the bejeezus out of the summit, and my parents are off on some Canadian adventure, we brought the children and helper Yani with us to Singapore. Eva’s bestie Jonah of the Wan-Yau’s lives in Singapore so the Wan-Yau’s helped entertain the girls the whole time. Almost positive we will never be able to repay them for their friendship.

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Topsy Turvy

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used.”

–The President of the United States of America, last week, in a letter to Kim Jong Un

I slipped away to Hong Kong Friday night, after a topsy turvy week on the peninsula. North Korea hosted international journalists to show the destruction of its main nuclear test site only for American President Donald Trump, in a fit of pique a few hours later, to cancel the big Singapore summit he had abruptly agreed to in the first place.

In the hours since, the President has signaled the summit is back on and is acting like the letter never happened. He also tweeted that one of his aides who argued June 12th might be too soon to pull off “didn’t even exist.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise secret Saturday summit inside the DMZ to try and keep diplomacy on track. I have been on the radio basically every hour in one form or the other and have subsequently lost my voice. 

All I’m saying is thank god I got to get away to beautiful, balmy Hong Kong for delicious dim sum and Canto food and drinking with my fellow foreign correspondent Ivan, who lives on the far Western edge of Hong Kong Island, which means when you wake up at his place all you see outside is water and lush green islands. Also, he plays piano and I realized how much I miss dwelling in a home with the sound of piano music in it. (Note to self: Move my piano back from Uncle Jim’s house after repatriation.)

Anyway. Friday night we went to sleep thinking the summit was off and awoke Saturday to cryptic notes that the summit was maybe back on, something we both reacted to with an instant expression: “Fuck!” Casting those feelings aside, we hiked the virgin mountain behind his place, got rained on at the top, then made it down the mountain back into bustling streets to squish ourselves at a table with strangers at a local dim sum joint where no plastic stool goes unoccupied.  (This is the only real way to do it.) Before I came home, I made sure to stop by a traditional bakery to load up on egg custard tarts and every carb stuffed with char siu inside.

When you’re on the second most relentless beat of the year (just as it intersects with the first most relentless beat), you really have to snatch those small pleasures when you can.

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