“Love” Motels

Cards strewn all over the street feature numbers to call for a lady.

We were walking home from dinner one night when Friend Mike picked up a glossy, full-color business card with a woman’s gigantic posterior on it and a phone number. As we continued walking, it was clear that was just one of many cards like that which had rained on the street.

Upon more investigation (read: asking more experienced Korea dwellers), it turns out we live pretty close to an area with many “love motels,” which are hotels you can rent for an hour at a time. Many young South Koreans who still live with their parents use these as a place to hook it up, but they would also be convenient for entrepreneurial exchanges, I assume.

At one party a few weeks ago, a group of us started talking about these cards and how the women you get probably do not look like the ones advertised on the business cards. That’s when one of my Korean-speaking American friends called up the number. There wasn’t a long exchange, so the main things we learned were logistics and pricing.

You book a room, then tell the service where it is. The woman will show up at the love motel at the appointed time and location, and you must pay the equivalent of $150 per hour. There was no elaboration as to what you can do with your hour, so presumably it depends on the professional who is sent to you. There have been other advertisements around that use the Korean “tteok” or “dok” (depending on how you want to romanize) to describe these ladies … Dok is the word for a white, doughy rice cake. I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they’re called dok girls, but this is the kind of question I still have about the ol’ love motel sex business.

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It’s the Freakin’ Weekend

Guests giving a high five to Trump.

Every year the U.S. Embassy throws a big July 4th party for its friends in the other embassies, business folk in the American Chamber of Commerce and other associates, like us journalist types. The location has changed each year, and this year it felt like a giant car show in the Hyatt because sponsors parked Teslas and GM vehicles all over the place. Tito’s Vodka was also sponsoring and everyone knows it is my favorite beverage so, I just kind of parked it near the Tito’s station.

You know what was never busy though? The gazpacho station. I still don’t really get gazpacho.

The Trump selfie stations were a huge draw, as Korean guests really enjoyed going to get their pictures taken with the life-sized cardboard cutouts of the American president and his wife. (An embassy official was stationed near there to monitor for crude gestures at the selfie station, but she admitted that Koreans weren’t the concern, it was the Americans they had to worry about.)

Too Soon?

“The only people left at this party are the journalists and the arms dealers.” -Friend John

Ouch. That’s a reference to this episode, which you may have read about. (I have to say there’s a little bit of envy in the drama factor of this story. In all my years reporting, no one has ever approached me with a lucrative arms dealing opportunity.)

Look Ma

You’re now reading the musings of a bonafide member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Sleepy Cab Drivers and Relativsm

Assistant Jihye said her cabbie kept falling asleep when he drove her out to our interview this morning. She had to loudly talk to him the entire time to keep him awake. Little did I know it was a harbinger of things to come. After said interview, while riding home in a cab and the car started drifting in the lane. Then, the driver oddly didn’t pull up to the other cars to queue at a light. What was happening? I looked at his face and realized the driver HAD FALLEN ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL. (Note: This is an instance when you really want to be able to speak the same language.) All I could do was yell, “AJOSHEEE!!!” (A reverential term for an older man.) He suddenly awoke and hit the gas again, but continued to drift in and out of consciousness for the entire harrowing final block to my apartment.

That shit was cray. I promptly messaged Jihye to tell her about this, and she goes, “Yeah, yesterday another guy was falling asleep and he was on the highway and i had to cough and make noises.”

I don’t think these incidents should be happening so often…


There Are Three Types?

Big brains from around the world, around a table.

I spoke at a seminar about “nationalism in the Asia-Pacific context and how it might affect UNESCO’s suggested curriculum for global citizenship education.” I think this was the longest named seminar I’ve ever been a part of, and as usual the room was full of giant brains. At one point a professor discussed a slide in which he broke down relativism into three different types and I started chuckling because it was all so over my head.

Korean anthropologist observation at lunch: Anthropologists, diplomats, journalists and spies all essentially do the same work. Observe, develop sources, work those sources, hunt and gather information, present a framework for thinking about such information, make a persuasive case for your analyses.


New Word

I had no idea what THOT was. Stiles had to explain it to me. He thinks THOT is hilarious! (He loves finding sexist things hilarious just to irritate me.) People have too much time on their hands.

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The #HyoJam Nuptials At The British Embassy

I love a good wedding and I try to blog about them afterward, emphasis on try. There are some years where we attend so many weddings that I end up without the clearheadedness (cough sobriety cough) to remember to do so. Since I am of reasonably clear mind right now, a few thoughts about this one:

1.) It was a perfect day weatherwise and pollution-wise in Seoul for James and Hyojin (#hyojam) to get married. They’re both English-language journalists in Korea with a lot of international study and work in their backgrounds, so this afforded an opportunity for 200 of their loving family, wisecracking friends and whip-smart coworkers from all corners of the globe to witness their union AND party together on the lawn of the British Ambassador’s residence (which is on the same compound as the Embassy). “This just proves how far you all will come for free booze,” James quipped.

2.) Given James and Hyojin’s vocations, their wedding meant 90% of all the primarily English-speaking people who cover or research North Korea for a living were in the same place. “Thank you to Kim Jong Un for not conducting a nuclear test,” James said, in remarks at the reception. “Because had he done so, half of you wouldn’t be here.” (Tis true.)

3.) Four-year-old Eva went as my date because Matty has a well-documented history of preferring stand-ins for events that require heavy-socializing. Eva got to wear her Korean hanbok, which is what Koreans traditionally wear to weddings. She loved getting dressed up but was not great about sitting still during the ceremony. Thank god my assistant and friend Jihye came to sit with us and entertained Eva with Snapchat face filters during the ceremony’s second-half.

4.) In the time before we headed to the reception on the Embassy compound and after the ceremony, it got super hot and Eva wanted shade. So we found a bench near a tree and sat down. That’s when a random Korean dude came up and asked me to sit still because he wanted to sketch me in profile. My friend Nat, who was in town from D.C., witnessed the whole exchange and said it would make for a great story: “Oh hey remember that time we were sitting outside the Anglican church on the diplomatic compound when a sketchy dude came up and wanted to sketch you Titanic-style?” The drawing only took two minutes and was … all right, I guess?

5.) Mainly this wedding rocked. There was all kinds of free boozing super-interesting guests, owing to the foreign correspondenting and diplomat-sourcing of James and Hyojin. James, for example, is a British national who studied in China and can speak Korean, English and Mandarin, which is an eclectic mix of expertise that can describe much of the crowd assembled.

6.) Some people run in the Las Vegas party circuit, some in the Hollywood party crowd, mine is the diplomatic/journalist/North Korea specialist crowd. It is decidedly wonky and heavy-drinking. Sometime last night at the wedding after-party and after several shots, I wandered to four different clusters of people milling about around on the patio, drinking and smoking. I kid you not, all FOUR groups were talking about sanctions and the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on North Korea, albeit taking different angles in their chatter. I mean, WTF.

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Harper’s Bazaar Junior

That time we were in Harper’s Bazaar.

To be honest, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Harper’s Bazaar Junior, and I have some real reservations about haute couture for kids (because it’s really for the adults, isn’t it?). Anyway a writer reached out to me after finding me on Instagram and asked for some recommendations of places we like to take the kids to eat and play, in Seoul. Here’s my contribution, which features my go-to “Chicken Cauldron Place,” which as it turns out, has a real name.

 

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A Behind-The-Story Story, From Laos

Diners on the Mekong, Vientiane.

Last September when I was in lush Laos following around Barack Obama during his last tour in Asia as president, I met a fellow foreign correspondent I had long admired — William Wan. William, who was back in DC after a long stint in Beijing, is a storyteller with a kind and gentle spirit, unlike some of the more rough and tumble “flungs,” as our shop calls us international reporters.

We were in Vientiane most of the time, staying at a rather gross hotel that had too many mirrors in the bedrooms and smelled of too much air freshener. After long reporting days, I avoided time at the hotel and tried to hang out along the mighty Mekong, instead. William, who knew my voice from his NPR listenership, asked to tag along for dinner on a Tuesday night.

Obama was scheduled to fly to the historic town of Luang Prabang the next morning. I had a flight to go along, but owing to just learning I was two months pregnant and feeling the sickness (and paranoia about Zika mosquitoes), I canceled my trip. Over our dinner of fried things, William waffled on going to Luang Prabang, too. Obama was simply going to do meet-and-greets with locals and talk to young Southeast Asians in a forum; the White House didn’t arrange travel so we were all arranging our flights unilaterally, William went back-and-forth about whether it would be worth it just to see a typical dog-and-pony show.

When we said goodbye that night he still hadn’t decided. But the next night, I ran into him late in the evening at our filing center in the mirrored hotel. He was the only one left. He explained he was puzzling over what to do with what he got that day. It turned out he did go to Luana Prabang, but instead of following the president, he stood in the lines of people waiting for the motorcade along the street. That’s how he ran into a young monk named Sengdao. William stayed with him for hours and turned this lovely piece. An excerpt of what happened:

“He kept a watchful eye on the street beside his temple for signs of the police and Obama’s motorcade.

All morning, he waited beside the temple walls.

Around 1 p.m. a Scottish couple wandered past him.

“Did you see Obama?” they asked Sengdao.

The president, it turned out, had taken a back road to the adjacent temple. The couple showed Sengdao pictures of the motorcade on their phones, and he looked on politely, hiding his disappointment.”

The story still came out well and it was one of those great examples of going out and finding people stories instead of following around a predictable politician. This week, an epilogue. Obama heard about the monk missing his motorcade and wrote him answers to questions about life that Sengdao was seeking. It turns out the president wrote him back just weeks after the Laos trip, but the letter only recently got to him. William followed up:

He has shown the actual letter to even fewer people because of how precious it feels. “It’s not a secret, but it feels very personal and private that he would choose to write something to me. I don’t want to ruin that feeling,” Sengdao said. He emailed me a copy of the letter, but asked that it not be posted in full online.

Obama encouraged Sengdao to keep pursuing his dreams and dedicate himself to improving his own life and the lives of others. “The letter is an answer to all my questions,” Sengdao said. “He is like me, someone who started from nothing. It makes me think I can do that as well.”

It’s worth reading both stories. I’m so touched and happy this happened. And way to go, William, for finding the humanity in these otherwise super-staged trips.

William, in our filing center in Laos, trying to figure out how to write his monk story.

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Farewell To My Right-Hand Woman

Trying to hike and conduct interview, with Haeryun, the last time I was eight months preggo.

The toughest thing about being a reporter in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is that functionally, you’re a child. I work without a key tool for reporting — the ability to communicate. That makes my interpreter and assistants in Korea and Japan as important and arguably MORE important than me to tell compelling stories.

Out on the streets of Seoul with Haeryun during the anti-Park protests.

For the past two years (almost to the day), Haeryun has been my right-hand woman. On her first day, when I had only been off the plane from the US for about 10 hours, the US Ambassador to Seoul was stabbed in the face. So there was no easing into the job. Korea news has essentially been non-stop since then. (Perhaps you’ve read about the missile tests, lethal poisoning deaths and impeachments on my patch lately.) To put together coherent pieces for air, not only does Haeryun do critical backgrounding and research, she also broaches sources and lines up interviews and concurrently translates them as I conduct interviews, she also works on her own when I’m traveling and goes out in the field when I can’t.

She acts as my Korean-speaking proxy, making the important human connections with sources that allow us to tell stories for our English-speaking audiences. On top of that, Haeryun also makes sure things run: That our driver Mr. Kim always picks me up at the airport on time, and that our office water delivery comes reliably and that our Foreign Correspondents Club dues are paid, etc etc.

Haeryun is a woman of many talents, here she’s running audio for a video project during a crazy facial procedure.

This week, Haeryun starts a new journalism adventure! She is going to the site Korea Expose, where she will be an editor and help oversee their staff of hungry writers who are diving into stories about Korean society and culture. We are all really excited to see what they will do there.

But that means she is bidding farewell to NPR’s Seoul bureau, the foreign post which she was instrumental in helping found. Together we have binge-eaten in front of thousands of strangers, crashed a Korean wedding, gotten lost on Jeju Island with the worst navigation device ever issued, witnessed the sorry state of caged, endangered bears, consoled grieving moms, followed alongside Korea’s marching single moms, covered way too many missile tests to count and spent way too many hours at the Seoul Immigration Office to make sure I could legally stay in this bureaucracy-loving country.

Always a good sport, she gets dragged into my noraebang (karaoke) sessions.

She is also my friend (one of my closest Korean ones, at that), shares my endless appetite (so she’s always a reliable eating partner) and has always been there for my entire family. So we will continue to hang and see each other, of course. But it’s the end of a chapter, so I wanted to make sure to give her a little blogpost tribute to say goodbye and thank you.

And a funny footnote: Despite all our time together, I still can’t pronounce her name right. This scene from Sisters pretty much sums up me and Haeryun, anytime I try to say her name:

Anyway… None of the Korea stories would have been shaped and told without you, Haeryun! We love you and will miss you.

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Roger Gifs #4: Finger Lickin’ Good

I’m not sure what sort of Indonesian delight my brother Roger is eating here, but he seems to indicate to us that it was delicious.

Yum yum yum yum yum yum yum. Delicioso!

 

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Charmed

At any Shinto shrine you can get various omamori — lucky charms or talismans to provide protection and good luck. There is the generic one for “victory,” which is reliable, but also for very specific wishes, like a new job, or “traffic safety” or “beauty of legs and skin.” Since I am on my final Tokyo reporting trip before baby, I went to Meijijingu (shrine) specifically for the “speedy and safe delivery” charm for #3, but then saw the one “for soundness of mind and body of child” and thought, well I should get that covered, too. So now baby has both. And I’m out $20.

Just covering my spiritual bases.

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Since We’re On The Subject of Refugees…

“The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you.”

-Madeleine Thien, in her cultural revolution epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

My dad, Beechy Hu, on Shanghai's famous Bund before he defected from China in 1966, in the early years of China's punishing Cultural Revolution.

My dad, Beechy Hu, on Shanghai’s famous Bund before he defected from China in 1966, in the early years of China’s punishing Cultural Revolution.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Since nothing is divorced from the context it’s in, I can’t think about who I am (or who we are as Americans) without thinking about where I came from.

More than 15 years before I was born, my dad left the only home he’d ever known — China — on a leaky raft in the South China Sea. His dad, my grandfather, had been the United States as a student since my dad was a baby (after scoring high enough in some national exam that earned him a scholarship), and when war with the Japanese broke out he couldn’t go back. That situation was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was a familial tie to the Western world. A curse, because Grandpa’s scholar status is exactly what Mao Zedong and his forces targeted for “re-education in the countryside” during the years of China’s oppressive Cultural Revolution.

I don’t know the details, as my dad has gone the 34 years of my life without talking about it. But in snippets I’ve heard from him, my late aunt (his sister), and my mom, and my grandmother, I have learned my father was one of the tens of thousands of young Chinese sent to labor in rural areas of China to familiarize themselves with the plight of Mao’s vaunted peasants. Dad went to a pig farm where he saw beatings, starvation and suicides. To this day he doesn’t speak of this time in his life, probably because a lot of it is unspeakable.

The pig farm was in Guangdong province, in Southeastern China, close enough to the coast to make an escape. The situation in China was getting While laboring, he secretly trained to swim long distances in a freezing river near the farm by slinking into the water every day before dawn. He told me this summer he didn’t know whom to trust, so he could tell no one in the family about his plans to defect. It was a time of secrets, since countrymen were turning on each other, and encouraged to.

On the other side of the earth, Grandpa was lobbying his senator in Missouri, Stuart Symington, to help get my father asylum should he make it to the U.S. Symington’s office reached out to the senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, for help, since if my dad survived the long odds to make it out of China, his first stop would be in a major city like New York. Kennedy’s office worked with Symington’s office, and wrote my grandpa assuring Dad would get safe passage. He made it, at 6’2″ and weighing only 135 pounds, with no papers to his name.

But for American values and its policies of that time, I wouldn’t be here.

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