Today I went to Paradise, California, where search and rescue teams are accompanied by cadaver dogs, sifting through what’s left of homes and businesses. Wildfires, like tornadoes, act capriciously. Two houses on one side of a street look untouched, while across the street there’s nothing left but mangled metal and ash. Overall Paradise is just one giant scene of devastation, though. Up close you can see what remains of a lot of kitchens, because the ovens are still kind of around, and occasionally items survived, like couple of ceramic mugs. I spotted a yellow bumble bee mug because it was the only shock of color among so much white and gray.
Every survivor you talk to tells a harrowing story. A lot of them seem sanguine when they say to me, “Home’s gone. All gone.” They note the tunnel of fire, or a ring of fire that they drove through to escape down. They tell me about cars exploding behind them. The traffic as they tried to get out. The lone evacuees on the side of the street with their dogs that they encouraged to jump onto the beds of their pickups. Their neighbors running — running — from the heat and flames. To imagine that night is to imagine hell. And somehow so many people actually made it out alive.
Last week, in the first days of the fire, I was in Boston hosting Here and Now, our national program that originates from WBUR. I was in the comfort of a studio, talking with people from Butte County over a phone connection. We could all hear the weariness in their voices. The reporter in me thought, what am I doing in a studio? I have to be there.
I eventually made it here 10 days after the flames first raged. It took me awhile because I had fill-in hosting duty for a podcast, too. Last night the camaraderie and connection was clear for the three of us who were here for NPR: We are all former foreign correspondents who had been in the muck and wanted to be here. For Kelly and Leila, who both lived so long in the Middle East — they’d seen so many towns felled by armies and saw the parallels. “Parts of Paradise look like Fallujah,” Leila said to me. This is the kind of story that had it happened overseas, we’d probably be there for weeks.
This is California’s most destructive and deadly fire yet, but this is also part of a much larger story about climate change and its refugees. It’s a migration story. And it’ll continue.
This year I was invited to Mount Hood, Oregon to speak at JAWS CAMP (acronyms, which explains the all caps) about “journalism and your career,” with no other parameters. What follows are the remarks “as prepared for delivery,” as speech texts say when we get them from politicians — but not as they were actually delivered since I don’t follow a script and instead go off on random tangents.
JAWS is the Journalism and Women Symposium, founded in the mid-eighties by glass ceiling-breaking women in the industry and a group that continues today by training, supporting and convening lady journalists. Each year JAWS picks a place in the woods and holds CAMP (which now stands for Career and Mentoring Project) but really it’s a lot like adult girl scouts camp (but with actual hotel or resort rooms to sleep in at night).
Big thanks to my Friend Reeve (an actual professional speechwriter), who workshopped a lot of these ideas with me in the car last weekend in the Catskills, and gave my draft a real edit. I’m putting the full text here for posterity but um, I was asked to talk for 30 minutes so it’s a lot of words.
I’m just repatriating, or in the process of repatriating, from my three-year foreign correspondent stint in East Asia. It was a pretty crazy time to be there, with the whole fire and fury nuclear standoff and the hundreds of thousands in the streets who protested for the ouster of South Korea’s president. During this stint my family expanded from one kid to three, which played into an experience last summer when Kim Jong Un threatened Guam.
At the time, I had a four-month old who was nursing, aka on my boob every three hours, so I had to bring her to cover that breaking story. But since I had to bring her, I also had to bring my husband to take care of her while I was working, and if he was coming, then the other two girls had to come, and we woke them up in the middle of the night and whispered, “Sorry girls no camp today we have to go on an airplane to a beach, we’re going on a beach holiday!”
Missile launches and nuclear crises included, foreign correspondenting was pretty awesome – a dream come true. And because journalism as a business has been contracting my entire adult life, it was dream I had given up on. So what a surprise bonus to do it!
I want to share stories and lessons-learned from my time overseas, but first I want to tell you the story of how I ended up there as a one-woman bureau for NPR. Which brings me to a title I considered for this speech: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post.
I know I just said my dream was being a foreign correspondent, but there is irrefutable evidence that an even earlier dream was covering politics for a place like The Post.
My old elementary school friend, Casie Blount, made a funny discovery last month while cleaning. She found our class memory book from fifth grade. In it, we were required to write something looking back on our elementary school experience as we prepared to graduate.
Here is what I wrote:
“Hi! My name is Elise Hu, and attending Babler [my elementary school] for the last three years was a lot of fun and they’re going to be memorable.
I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I enjoyed them all greatly.
I made many friends and I also lost some friends because they had to move. They will always have a place in my heart no matter if I despised them or they were my good friends.
My personal goals for the future are to graduate from Princeton and become a famous writer or write for the press or broadcast the news. My main goal though, is to bother politicians — especially Democrats — as a press member.
In conclusion, attending Babler Elementary will always have a place in my heart, and I will personally make sure I will make at least 5 politicians really mad.”
WOW RIGHT!? I was sort of an insane fifth grader! I did end up making more than five politicians mad. They were not uniformly Democrats. I cannot explain the fifth grade Republicanism thing. Who knows. Instead of Princeton, I went to Mizzou for journalism school, which is the only place I applied, because it’s not captured in a memory book but by 8th grade I settled on a university and stayed with it. I didn’t have it all worked out in elementary school, okay?!
Still, 25 years after writing that down, I’m doing more or less what I set out to do at age 11. But my path has not been as focused as that fact might suggest. I would describe my overall career arc as “a series of the next most interesting things to do that would make sense for my family.” And one place it has failed to take me is The Washington Post.
Alternate Title: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post
I’ve never talked about this before publicly, but I am now a three time failure at working at the Post. Obviously, fifth-grade Elise would probably jump at any opportunity to write for and be a part of that venerable institution. The POST! The Post of legend, the Post of lore, The Post of Ben Bradlee, and now of Marty Baron, who Liev Schreiber totally nailed in his depiction in the movie, Spotlight. But three times now, I had an opportunity and failed to wind up there.
I think the reasons why speak to an important lesson I have learned in my career, which is that the journey itself is far more fulfilling than any particular stop or destination in your careers. It also speaks to the considerations that women must often make in this industry.
The First Time
The first time I got approached to go to the Washington Post was in the spring of 2012. What was happening? I think Bon Iver was still super cool back then. The Republican primaries were going on and Ron Paul was making another big run for it. And I found out I was pregnant with my first child.
It was just weeks after I learned this that I was recruited for a pretty high profile job for the Post. I wasn’t comfortable disclosing my pregnancy status when I was only four months pregnant. During the interview process, I was scared I wouldn’t get the job offer if I said something. So I didn’t.
I DID get the offer but ended up turning it down, after all the handwringing I went through. I think I just put my own comfort first. I did tell my boss and mentor at NPR, Kinsey, and he was persuasive in getting me to stay. But mainly what happened there was for the first time, I faced a job versus family choice. I prioritized my fledgling family over the potential prestige of a new gig.
When that baby was born, I was in the comfort of an organization where I felt I had less to prove, with bosses who already knew and trusted me. I was able to ease back into my work without the pressure of being at a new place, having to prove myself, and start something new for them. I sometimes have FOMO about that decision and wonder whether it was the right thing. But it all fit, you know? And it was great for Baby Eva.
These are valuable experiences to collect along your journey.
And with these courtships with potential employers, something of value also comes out of the meetings alone. Because I interviewed there, I got to meet Marcus Brauchli, the editor at the time. We joked about karaoke, since he was a longtime Asia correspondent. He said his go to karaoke repertoire featured a lot of John Denver. We hit it off so well that we became good friends despite my not taking the job … and years later, when I was facing the choice about whether to move abroad, it was he who said, GO GO GO!
To this day, we have hung out on both sides of the Pacific Ocean — he and his wife even hosted a dinner for me and my friends when I was briefly back in Washington last year — and we always get together for drinks when we’re in each other’s towns. Embrace the journey, and you’ll collect not just new experiences, but new friends along the way.
The Second Time
The second time the Post came around, I was back at work after having the baby and ready for my next move. That time, the Post didn’t choose me! The lesson that time came in just accepting you’re not always the first pick, and to accept that gracefully.
The Latest Time
Then I moved abroad and spent my three years gallivanting around Asia, trying out new experiences and reporting on this whole nuclear crisis thing.
Just as I’m finalizing my arrangements with NPR to move me back to California, where I long felt I belonged, the Washington Post called again! And this time around, the job felt perfect for me, the freedom was wide, the creative opportunities vast. It was a job that perfectly married my work experience and skill set with what they needed. We had a love-in when I visited the Post. I wanted to do that job more than I’ve wanted to do any job since first leaving Texas to work at NPR.
And I didn’t do it. I backed out of that potential job because of my husband. Modern day philosopher Chris Rock recently did a standup special called Tamborine (tambourine purposely misspelled), in which part of it is just him working through his recent divorce. And he talks about how when you’re in a marriage you’re in a band, and sometimes it’s your turn being backup player in the band. So if you’re gonna play the tambourine, you have to really PLAY it, he said. “Play it like Tina Turner!”
It’s my turn to play the tambourine. You see, when we went to Korea, my husband Matty, who is also a journalist, had to quit his job at the Wall Street Journal. He became lead parent for three years. It was not an equitable sharing of responsibilities. He shuttled the girls to music class and doctor’s appointments and showed up at all the assemblies. He packed lunches every day and made sure they had the costumes they needed for various performances. He did the bath and bedtime routine every night during the 35 work trips I made to Japan, and all the other trips to the US and China and Laos and Malaysia and wherever else.
He showed up at his first PTA meeting for Eva’s school and the other mom’s — it’s all mom’s in the PTA there because Korea is pretty gendered — they learned he was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal in his previous life. “Oh you must take good notes, then,” the president said. And the board voted him in as secretary.
So when we moved to LA, where he could slide most easily into a job at the LA Times, he said, “I’m not moving again, especially not just after we landed. It’s kind of my TURN.” And that was that. I was for the THIRD time, an almost-employee at the Washington Post.
Toward the Future
But the truth is, I would not trade the career I’ve had or my family for anything. It all worked out. I didn’t end up at the Post, but I did end up in South Korea and I promised I’d share some of that experience with you.
While in Korea, I learned all kinds of things besides the actual Korean language, because the Korean language is friggin’ hard! Someone ran into my Korean teacher and asked about how I was coming along with the language and my teacher said, “Elise has a great family.”
Things I learned: I learned about the beauty of slurping noodles loudly — you think it’s rude here in America but it’s really part of the enjoyment of eating noodles in Korea and Japan. True story: Cup Noodle, the ramen noodle maker, actually makes shorter noodles for the US because people here in the states don’t like to slurp, and shorter noodles prevent slurping.
I learned how to loudly wake up cab drivers who FALL ASLEEP at the wheel. I learned a lot about skincare. Koreans have that gorgeous, dewy alabaster skin and it comes at a price! They are serious about their direct sun avoidance. This past summer, the municipal districts in Seoul spent taxpayer money putting up giant umbrellas at street corners to help citizens avoid direct sunlight while out and about. It’s not just about those famous 12-step skincare routines, it’s about strict sun avoidance.
I learned some things I wish I hadn’t, like, about living in a place that’s arguably much harder for women than even the US these days. South Korea’s women are codified in the constitution as equal to men, but they’re cast by society as feminine mother characters with very strict norms about appearance and behavior. For example, in South Korea, even if it’s 100 degrees out, it’s a big social no-no to bear your arms or shoulders. I always felt like such a subversive if I wore a tank top outside.
There are many things about my time abroad that I will miss, but I am glad to be back — and to tackle a new challenge.
I think a lot about the future naturally, so when I repatriated with NPR I made up a new beat for myself. I am now covering the future. Correspondent, THE FUTURE.
I’m just getting started, but one through line in my reporting so far is that while people can imagine really interesting and optimistic futures, they cannot see how we get from the bleakness of now or the near present … to the brighter futures they imagine. And things FEEL bleak as we get our torrent of news alerts each day.
A few things I do to combat the bleakness, even though believe me, it’s rough. I ate three packs of those frozen White Castle sliders on Monday. That’s not a tip, it’s just something I did. Anyway so to counter it. I look to heroes who can’t afford to go numb — mothers fighting to find their kids and be reunited at the border. The sexual assault victims who keep using their voices in spite of everything. The Parkland teens. Women journalists like you, who demand a voice at the table in your newsrooms but also in the larger national dialogue. Continue to be inspired by and supported by one another.
The poet Maggie Smith put it brilliantly: “The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.”
Children also offer me some semblance of hope and motivation these days. They don’t have to be your own … I keep looking to the newer generations, writ large, to save us from ourselves. My three year old daughter, Isa, was about to climb a ladder of a playground jungle gym thing a few Sundays ago. And a little boy her height came up and asked for his dad to help him. And she said to him, “I climbed it all by myself. Because I’m a girl and girls have strong muscles.” Let a commitment to the future shove you out the door in the morning.
Hey it’s working! All the “girls are strong” indoctrination works on the next generation! And it’s helped by the fact that it’s true.
And the stats on the next generations are more hopeful. People aged 18-34 overwhelmingly favor rights for LGBT and people of color, people born in America today ARE made up of a majority people of color. These generations want guaranteed health care, push for more income equality, care about climate change, and the list goes on. If we’re not going to affect change as journalists for these 75 year old white men who are still in charge of everything, or, in charge of everything again, we should bear in mind the millions who might be seeing and watching quietly but without power — the next generations.
Before I know it my daughters will be eleven, my age when I wrote about my dreams of being a journalist on dot matrix printer paper. The lesson now that I’m in my mid-thirties and have had many iterations of a career is this:
You’ll never work at the Washington Post.
It’s that you can have a general idea of where you’re going and still never have any idea what your next immediate step is, and that’s awesome. My career has wound up being semi-informed winging-it, the whole way through. I wanted to make at least five politicians mad, but was never specific or directed about where I would work or even what platform of media I’d be working in. I never set foot in Korea before I agreed to move there.
Instead, what I think is useful is to be guided by principles. My tests are: Will this opportunity help me learn and grow in the ways I want? What is the team like — will I be surrounded by people who will teach me? And is this next thing meaningful in some way, and do I have some efficacy over it?
Those are my principles, and you should make YOURS clear and use that as a framework for decisions going forward. It makes decision points easier, I think. Be guided by principles and you can’t take a wrong step, you’ll do what’s right for you and your own journey.
Finally, I’ll say this. I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I am making many new friends here at JAWS Camp; it’s a tremendous honor to be among you. You will always have a place in my heart, no matter if I despised you or you were my good friend.
This October I’m spending three weekends in a row in bucolic, woodsy communities where few people live and fewer cell phone signals exist. At night the roads are pitch black. If you were to get lost, you’d have to attempt the horror movie trope of pulling over and going to some stranger’s house to ask for directions or ask to use their phone. No one wants to do that in real life.
I am back from Murdery Woods Weekend One: CJ and Kat’s Wedding in the Catskills. The most frightening part of the whole trip ended up being when I just landed a few hours ago and due to the remnants of a cold, couldn’t equalize my ears, giving me that “OMG MY HEAD IS GOING TO EXPLODE” fear.
The wedding venue was in Mount Tremper, outside Kingston, New York. I rode an Amtrak up from the city, right along the Hudson, to get to Albany, which is the closest major city to the venue. Kingston, which was one of the first American settlements by the Dutch, is today blossoming with bearded Brooklynites who have moved in, lots of new artists and music festivals and cool murals on its buildings all over town. I tried the best tamales I’ve eaten in years at the Kingston Farmer’s Market downtown on Saturday, er, yesterday. The horchata was not bad, either. Old Friend Reeve, who conveniently moved to Upstate New York LAST WEEK, came through as both a dependable driver/wedding date (since Justin was unavailable). I enjoyed spending our car time together hearing his strong, highly specific opinions again, like the good ol days when we set out to run three miles but accidentally ran six because we were too busy making wisecracks the whole time.
Anyway. We got sublimely photo-bombed by a New York Assemblyman who was so expert at photobombing that by the time we noticed it happened, he was gone. Poof!
Kat is the little sister I never had, or my fourth daughter who I’d be biologically incapable of having, depending on who is making the reference. That she is marrying/married her love of many years, CJ, who makes her feel so supported and encouraged all the time, made all of us cry happy tears during the whole ceremony. The ceremony you will not see in photos (see above).
Saturday afternoon, Reeve and I took the Clinton “Peg Leg” Bates Memorial Highway out to the mountain house where all this was going down. “Bet he never thought he’d have a highway named after him,” Reeve said.
Besides all the love in the air, the occasion also allowed for my favorite thing about weddings, which is reuniting with old friends and meeting new, interesting people. (My next favorite thing is messing with strangers by pretending to have a totally different identity.) My bestie Matt Thompson and his bear beau Bryan drove up from DC, we made inappropriate jokes the entire time we were together and ate a lot of food. “We are very food oriented people,” Reeve had to explain to someone in CJ’s family who couldn’t understand all my strategic positioning for the doughnuts.
By the time I was halfway home today from the other coast (I do enjoy the East coast, just not living there), I had a message from Matty saying, “I am going to murder the children. They are demons.” So it turns out the closest thing anyone came murder this weekend was not in the woods, but back in LA in my own home.
Last week at dinner when it was daughter Eva’s turn to share highlights and lowlights of her day, she was nearing the finish line and then suddenly stops and goes, “OH I FORGOT. There’s a really sad story.”
“What is it?” I said, in a wide-eyed over-exaggerated childlike way, to mirror her dramatic setup.
Then she unloaded with this crazy story she learned from her kindergarten teacher at school.
“One day, there was a bad guy. And he took a plane, and he CRASHED it into a building. And it died so many people. And even people on the ground were died too, because of the building crashing. It’s really, really sad.” [Eva makes face pouty here.]
Upon realizing what she was telling us, Matt and I looked at each other and he responded by saying something like, “Yes that was really really sad. And those people shouldn’t have died.” (I’m not sure Eva realized this was an actual event that happened until that point, in which her dad brought his personal memory of 9/11 into the conversation and made that connection for her, whether we should have or not.)
Then I go, “The guy who crashed the plane into the building died, too.”
And immediately Eva comes back with, “But he WANTED to die. He flew that plane knowing he was going to die.”
A week later I am still stunned to hear the 9/11 story recounted to me by my five-year-old as a distant story, and not something real that she experienced in her lifetime. And also stunned that she processed all of this and they talked about it at school but I guess you’re not supposed to shelter small people from news … but still, yikes. I keepl turning over this whole scene in my head, and the adorable way she said, “And it died so many people.” Because I don’t even know if she has ever used the verb “kill” before. Sigh.
Two shipments of hundreds of boxes were involved: one from DC, which was from the storage unit I hadn’t seen since early 2015, and another from the shipping container that came over from Korea. Now both are finally, finally here in Los Angeles.
(Have you noticed that Los Angeles is pronounced frighteningly incorrectly? How do native Spanish speakers deal with this? As a running joke my colleague at NPR West and I keep over-pronouncing it Lohs Anhuhlays just to amuse ourselves.)
The Korea stuff was packed in matching boxes but the boxes have a real stench to them and I want them out of my house but that would require me going through the remaining boxes that the movers didn’t unpack. And I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to write this post.
Some things that happened:
I went to DC to oversee the storage unit move but got lost inside the rows and rows of storage units. Things got so desperate I even picked up one of those emergency phones to alert someone for help but NO ONE WAS ON THE OTHER END. Eventually I figured things out but then I couldn’t unlock the combo lock I put on there so I had to get the lock axed off. Finally inside the unit, I found some pure gold, like the ad from that time I advertised juniors clothes for the PX circular (the equivalent of the Target or Walmart on American military bases around the world) wearing a DISCMAN, yes a discman.
Sitting around at bars in DC I overheard conversations about:
How sound bites are rigged against the speaker because of the way their words are cut
Note: No one here in West LA seems to know what NPR is and I kind of like it.
My children are going through a lot of transition and I’m so proud of them. The oldest one and the middle one are both in school now, and both are awesome schools but they each have so many events and social activities that I feel it’s really cramping my social activity flexibility. Thank goodness I have ride-or-die pals here in the area for the following emergencies so far:
Low blood sugar, weepy and longing for a home-cooked Indian meal on my move day, which Raina brought over in the middle of her work day
Needing to drink and ponder life’s great mysteries on short notice
Last-minute tonkotsu ramen fixes
I didn’t notice these were all food/bev emergencies until I jotted them down just now.
My days are being dominated by school drop offs and pick ups that require driving, finding street parking, parking and then walking a child onto campus before being able to say goodbye (as opposed to our door-to-door bus service we had in Korea in which the girls were just carried off and dropped off from the high rise).
We can’t find anything. Half of my conversations with Matt Stiles are “Have you seen my X” and trying to maintain some semblance of civility with one another but really wanting to knife each other since there are box cutters everywhere but not really but kind of really because moving sucks.
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.
“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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.”