Mr. Fenney

My zero hour geography teacher in 11th grade was Mr. Fenney. Mr. Fenney — late thirties at the time — was a hipster in Texas, before hipsters existed. He liked to talk about Italian art films to high schoolers, explain why the colonists had completely fucked Africa for forever, and treated us teenagers as far more enlightened than we really were.

We were also basically never able to get a rise out of him for anything. One afternoon, after a particularly difficult exam that morning, I busted into his 7th period class and announced to the whole class of mostly strangers, is this the Europe exam?! “That test raped me in the ass this morning!” Mr. Fenney just sort of chuckled and then went about his test proctoring. (Side note: What was I even doing?)

As these things go, I don’t remember any of the book teaching that Mr. Fenney did. Just the asides and random tidbits about the world that he would teach us, like showing us how nonsensically Africa was carved up. And since we had to memorize some land masses and rivers after coloring unlabeled maps as homework, I might be able to identify Laos on a map today (maybe).

The most salient memory I have of Mr. Fenney is what he slapped up on the overhead projector on the first day of class. It was a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It’s a famous T.S. Eliot missive, as I know now. But to my 17-year old self, this was revelatory. And it’s largely guided my life, it turns out. So I think of Mr. Fenney fairly often, and the esoteric — but crucial — impact he made on me. Thanks, dude. Sorry I was such a pain in the ass.

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Goodbye To My Constant Travel Companion, The Breast Pump

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Yet again I was standing over several bottles of my breastmilk splayed out in a bin My bag got pulled for an extra look at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport security checkpoint, something that happens pretty often when you’re carrying lots of liquids, I guess. The Japanese security agent pointed out the milk in plastic bottles he had removed exceeded the 150ml limit. (At least I think that’s what he was saying. I don’t speak Japanese, and he kept pointing at the 150ml line on the bottle.) Then he pulled up a giant blue plastic jug that looked like one of those tanks you carry spare gasoline in. It was half-full with a swamp-colored mix of whatever previous passengers must have dumped out. He started unscrewing the lid of one of my bottles.

“Oh no, no,” I said, starting to panic. “This is MY milk. It’s from my body. I can’t dump it. I can’t.” I started doing the two-hands-squeezing-in-the-air motion, in front of my chest. I have made this hand gesture for “boob sucking” so many times that I can only remember a single trip in Asia when I didn’t do it.

He turned pink. My arm hairs were stood up. The passenger who could understand English standing nearby started cracking up.

“Oh ok ok ok ok,” the Japanese guard said, sheepishly. I packed up and scurried to the customs check.

I pass through two airports a week, nearly every week, as part of my job as a foreign correspondent. I’m also the breastfeeding mom of an infant. I love nursing, I do not love pumping. But to continue doing the former, I have to do the latter when I’m away from baby. Which means every time I travel without daughter Isabel, a milk-extracting contraption powered by batteries or an AC adapter must travel with me, along with attachments and the storage bottles and ice packs necessary to keep the milk from going bad before it’s transferred home.

As the baby gets close to turning one, a milestone at which she can drink cow’s milk instead of mine, I am preparing to stop globetrotting with my constant companion — the breast pump and the milk.

What a year we’ve had together.

There was today’s close call, when I almost had to pour out the four bottles full of “liquid gold” I’d extracted from my body with the suck-simulating device I strap myself to in between conducting interviews and other reportage.

There was the time two Beijing airport guards took out the plastic suction parts — the catalog calls them ‘breastshields’ — in front of a line of people behind us, examining them like a frog they were about to dissect for 9th grade biology class.

“We’ve never seen one of these pass through before,” one of the twenty-something year old guards said to me, of the machine.

There was the other time a Chinese guard demanded I show him all the parts of the pump, how the tubes connected to the base, and to turn it on before he let it pass.

There are the questions at security about where is the baby, to which I have to explain, good god if they baby were with me I wouldn’t have this overpriced contraption instead, would I?

Then there are the hassles I brought upon myself, due to carelessness. The first time I fired up the pump in my new home of Seoul, I blew out the pump’s power pack when I plugged it into Korea’s 220V. (The device was designed for America’s 120V.) Without that I couldn’t operate it, so a friend with military ties had to rush on to the U.S. base to buy me a new machine from the commissary.

Rule of thumb: Never leave any part at home. When I forgot to pack the critical suction cups, er, ‘breastshields,’ for a five-day trip to Beijing, I spent an entire morning on an odyssey to Chinese malls instead of reporting, because I HAD TO find parts close enough to what I needed so I could express my boobs before passing out from pressure and pain.

The adventures are always made more amusing (and challenging) because there’s a clock ticking on pumping — if you don’t do it every few hours, it’s not just uncomfortable but unhealthy.

Which is why a photographer I’d just met had to see (and hear) my pumping from the backseat of a cramped rental car as we drove through Fukushima’s temporary housing projects. Or why I have to reluctantly link up with the clunky device while in the middle seat of a plane, a blanket thrown over me and hoping not to wake the dudes sleeping on both sides.

The day President Obama visited Hiroshima I had about 20 minutes before he arrived to express my breasts in a bathroom stall. The State Department and U.S. Embassy press wranglers rushed my milk to the kitchen of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so it could be refrigerated until the event was over. When the museum restaurant with the fridge closed, the Japanese staff had expertly packed ice packs around the bottles to keep cool until I was done working. (The Japanese are serious about their packaging.)

Before I know it, this spinoff story of my Asia adventure, the one starring an awkwardly purring machine, will be over. Maybe I’ll miss it, most likely I won’t. And either way, I’ll always have a reminder of the year of pumping endlessly. It’s the wee one at home, who’s the real power source for the pumping.

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What is the future of journalism? Pick any adjective out of the dictionary and that word can describe it. The news business is in such a revolutionary time that filling in “The Future of Journalism is ____” with any word, and supporting the argument, has become a parlor game among a certain mass media-obsessed set.

Today I found myself on another future of journalism panel, and a Japanese journalist shared the observation that his paper’s business plan is “old people living longer.” Luckily, he says, Japan is an aging society and “old people love the printed paper,” so their business model rests on those eyeballs. The only times people call to cancel their subscriptions is when a subscriber has a.) died, or b.) lost enough eyesight that the print is too difficult to read.

Banking on old people to stick around as long as possible (in relatively good health) is kind of Japan’s nationwide policy, come to think of it.

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On Living In Asia And A Different Notion of ‘Freedom’

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured "hazardous for all groups," not just children and old people.

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.

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Planes, Trains, Buses and Boats

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

I just returned from a five-day trip to Japan that felt like it lasted two weeks. Part of the reason is how much of Japan’s main island we had to traverse to cover the president, who was making his final trip to the Asian country as president. He concluded it with an unprecedented visit to nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima.

You know how when you arrive at an airport there are signs for “Taxi” or “Rental Car”? At the Nagoya airport, there are signs just like that, except for “High Speed Boat.” That was the first leg of my journey to get to Ise-Shima, the twin cities hosting this year’s G7 summit. I boated it 45 minutes to Tsu before catching a bus to Ise, which was another 70 minutes away.

Boat transit.

Boat transit.

That was just the beginning of several days inside various transportation-craft, the best of which were the chartered planes for the traveling White House press. They featured KFC chicken fingers as we awaited clearance for take-off and everyone in first class.  Instead of numbered seats, you get a seating chart, by news organization.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

I like doing these POTUS trips because I get to reunite with some of my old Washington pals, like David Nakamura, who travels with the president a lot for his gig at the Washington Post, and I always meet new friends, too. This time the CNN International crew that adopted me was led by their Hong Kong-based editor and correspondent, Andrew Stevens. When the G7 leaders visited the heart of Shinto-ism, the Ise Shrine, the press didn’t get to go. So we waited til the leaders left and made our way there to check it out.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

Not long after this photo was taken, we wandered a street in front of the shrine’s entrance and found a craft beer stand. Not unlike a lemonade stand, but with beer and fried oysters on sticks. Divine.

The trip got increasingly more intense as the end of it neared, because the final day was the weightiest of the president’s Asia journey: He visited nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima, and became the first U.S. president to do so. It was emotional being there, especially when the two survivors that would shake hands and hug the president were rolled in their wheelchairs right past me as I rushed to get out to the camera locations to catch the wreath laying. I knew immediately they were the survivors from their ages — nonagenarians — and from the contentment on their faces. One of them had clear evidence of burns on his skin. I later read he had been burned head to toe in the bombing.

Anyway, it’s difficult to cover those sorts of events because of the bigness of what’s happening before your eyes and the lack of time to reflect upon what you’re bearing witness to, and what had happened there in that spot where we stood, where now there’s manicured lawns and children and French bulldogs playing. 71 years ago, it was a wasteland.

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A Seattle Sojourn

Our plane after we got dropped off on the dock of John's farm.

Our plane after we got dropped off on the dock of John’s farm.

I just got back from a week in the Pacific Northwest, where I went to communion with clean air and great friends. For the Grist board retreat, board member John Vechey hosted us (and Grist leadership staff) on his 160-acre farm on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands just a short seaplane lift from Seattle. There, we met about the future of Grist and the future of the planet, but we also laughed a lot and ate ridiculously delicious meals and stayed in bucolic bungalows and drank Moscow Mules that John made at his bar.

The board members who made it to Orcas this time around.

The board members who made it to Orcas this time around.

But I didn’t want to fly all the way to the Seattle area and not spend time in Seattle proper. So I got a couple of days at the end in which one of my oldest pals, Brad, met up with me for a ramble around downtown and chowder on Alki Island. Thanks to social media, I was also able to squeeze in some meals with old pals who saw on Facebook that I was in town — Robert, from the KVUE days, and Celinda, from the Texas Capitol days. It meant a lot to get so much catchup time “in real life.”

Social media makes us more connected but also more hands off about the KIND of connection we’re doing. I think it’s really important to try and get together in the same physical space and explore a place as much as possible. As the temperatures dropped and a light rain fell to make it quintessentially Seattle, Brad and I walked through Pike Place Market and all the artisans selling weird wood art and through the newish Sculpture Park, where we discovered a stunning piece that only looked like a huge warhead or phallus from the back. So you gotta see it from the front. I also snuck in some super-speed shopping for “American things” at Target, so Eva and Isa both got a serious haul when I came home.

The "proof we were there" shot.

The “proof we were there” shot.

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Tuesday night, our building is making every resident unplug all our electronic devices — including appliances — from midnight to six a.m. while some Korean authority conducts an apartment-wide electricity inspection. Our neighbor Julie is super pissed about it. Her husband has sleep apnea so he uses with one of those machines to aid his breathing at night. Its power source is a cord plugged into the wall, something that will be impossible tomorrow night. He scrimped on getting one with the optional battery-power pack! Now Julie’s not only pissed about the inspection, she’s reminded about her earlier anger that he didn’t buy the battery powered option.

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My Morning Routine Doesn’t Exist

I am continuing my quest to keep up this blog by picking random writing prompts from this list.

This is my morning routine, as of the past few months: Wake up around 6am to the sound of Baby Isabel murmuring and cooing in her crib. She never cries when she wakes up, she just says some stuff like, “Nnnnhn, breh, muhh, arrehh” and occasionally, “Mamamamamamamama.”

She sleeps behind us in a walk-in closet, because we’re space-limited and her sister Eva hasn’t warmed to the idea of letter her sister share a room with her yet. Anyway.

After I let Isa make her noises for a good 10 minutes so that I can slowly wake up, I or Matty go get her, and then I plant her face on my boob for feeding. She gulps down one boob, then switches to the other all while both of us are half asleep. Then I pass her off to Matty, who will burp and return her to her crib for anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. The reason the timing is not exact is because Isa is consistently awakened later in the morning by her own poop (cause who wants to sleep with poop on their ass) or her sister. Each morning, once the sun is brightly shining, we hear the thud-thud-thud-thud-thud of three-year-old Eva, whose footsteps slow as they approach the master bedroom. She creeps in quietly wearing a mischievous grin, and knowing full well that we’re going to tell her not to wake her sister. (She always ends up somehow waking her sister.)

Then Matty does Eva’s morning get-ready-for-school routine, Isabel gets handed off to our helper, Yani, and I go back to sleep. At least I try. This is only somewhat successful depending on whether Eva decides she only wants me to do her hair before school in the morning, and what I find in my email. If I get some sort of email that wakes my brain, I’m up for the day. If neither a hair nor email incident happens, I sleep until about 9:30am.

It sounds hellish but I keep thinking that someday I will miss this routine.

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On My First Female Role Model Besides My Mom

Last night I fell down a rabbit hole on Medium (usually it’s Wikipedia) and found a list of writing prompts that friend-of-a-friend Nicole Zhu used in order to keep up a daily habit of writing. Between sometimes writing here on this blog but mostly posting on my work Tumblr and a mandate to write for my day job, I don’t think the world needs more of my words. But I felt inspired by the prompts and realized I don’t sit down and reflect as often as I used to, because the explosion of social platforms means I do my sharing in pieces, in snapshots or Snapchats rather than wordier reflections. 

Anyway. I have kept up this blog and its previous incarnations for all these years, so I might as well take some of the prompts and give them a whirl every once in a while, eh? It’s certainly something to do when I am avoiding doing other tedious things, like paying the bills or whatever. [Clears throat.] With that, here’s a musing on female role models.


Let’s get this part of out of the way: My most influential role model, female or not, is my mom. My mom is pure love. She makes me feel safe always. “Listen to me and you can’t go wrong,” my mom says, confident in her wisdom. And she’s right. She is unapologetic about who she is, realistic about the world and her confidence gives me confidence. We laugh about inappropriate topics, since she shares a subversive, macabre humor. We cry together because we wear our hearts on our sleeves (unapologetically). We never want to stop exploring, a value she instilled in me long ago. She told me as a child, “Never live your life for someone else’s gaze,” a lesson that shaped me. She also explained to me when I was quite young the quiet cruelties of being a person of color in a pasty white St. Louis suburb, making it easier for me when I did feel different.

It took awhile before I found other female role models. I grew up surrounded by boys. My only sibling is a brother. My childhood memories of Roger are of our forceful physical fights (I learned how to always go for his nuts when kicking or punching), building homegrown skateboarding ramps on our driveway and buying Fun Dip in between innings at his little league baseball games. My entire neighborhood peer group was also made up of boys; in the four houses closest to mine were each kids in my grade, and all those kids were boys: Ryan, Craig, Tommy and Craig. We waited for the bus together each morning. After school, thanks to huge fenceless yards, we stayed outside playing until dark almost every night. We built forts, played Ghost in the Graveyard and Kick the Can, or wandered to the neighborhood creek where the rocks were jagged and the water could start rushing dangerously quickly when it rained.

Jenny! (Using her current Facebook profile photo, so that I know this is a Jenny-approved photo.)

Jenny! (Using her current Facebook profile photo, so that I know this is a Jenny-approved photo.)

So my closest female relationships didn’t really come together until 5th or 6th grade, when I formed a bond with a fellow subversive — Jes Ingram. I remember going to Jes’ house to play Sim City (which might have been V1), sleepovers watching/reciting Ace Ventura Pet Detective word-for-word and hanging out around her house with her older sister, Jenny. I think she was my first female role model besides my mom. Jenny never passed on words of wisdom in the way moms do, but instead led by example. Jenny was class president and much-admired and beautiful but effortlessly so. Unlike the other popular girls who spent a lot of time primping for boys or to pickup boys at the mall (yes my middle school friends did that back then), Jenny was ‘whatever’ about her place in the preteen hierarchy, and even cooler for it. She seemed to have deep, authentic friendships, which in 7th grade felt sorta hard to come by. But mainly I looked up to Jenny because I find being bored pretty much anathema to existence, and Jenny was never boring. She has so much personality that it oozes from her like the cheese of a four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich. Jenny’s Personality and her personality are innate and not replicable, but for acolytes like me, thankfully she read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies and listened to a lot of music, so at least through all that time with the Ingram’s I got to be inculcated with her cultural influences. (And her sister Jes’s, of course, who I will always trust implicitly.)

I’ve seen a lot of movies in which young protagonists are somehow let down by their role models in the end. But some 20 years after first looking up to Jenny, I can report that she has only exceeded my stratospheric assessment of her.

Last year, Jenny learned she had breast cancer. She’s sadly not my first friend to fight cancer at a young age, but she’s fought it with the most humor and moxie. (Because, of course.) A few days ago, she lost her boobies, as she decided that getting a double mastectomy was the best way to prevent a recurrence. She’s been chronicling her journey on her blog, appropriately titled “Check Those Titties.” Reading it regularly has reminded me of many things (to check my titties, for one), but also how exceptional she is. And that maybe I should reflect and write about these personal memories, because it’s a way to thank people like her, to whom I’m eternally grateful.

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