Finally, my friend Frank was able to track down the episode of “Alien Wire” — yes that’s the name of the show — I appeared on before leaving Seoul. It’s a Korean language talk show with all the bells and whistles — animated pop-ups, sparkles, sound effects, cartoonish captioning. I remember that morning being a blur and the place feeling like a machine. Even the makeup situation was an assembly line, in which women were made as white as possible.
I just nodded along, since I can only understand about every ten words in Korean.
“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?
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?
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.
When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.
North Korea news has been relentless all of 2018 so far, and frankly it was relentless last year, too, under Year One of Trump. So I find myself constantly needing to take holidays in order to keep my brain from short circuiting.
How special a place is Vietnam, amirite!? Gah, I love Southeast Asia. In the end, nothing crazy happened, but there was a visa f-up that wasn’t discovered until we were at the airport with 30 minutes before boarding, so it required some unconventional problem solving. Thanks to surprisingly great service from a mysterious middleman in Danang, not only did we get into the country with some insta-visas, but we got to skip the hourlong queue to get through immigration because … I’m not going to ask about it.
Together with the squad, we learned how to wrap a lot of fresh meat and veggies into rolls at every meal and drink nonstop Vietnamese iced coffees and every day, everyone of us had an hour of spa time to use or lose so our main priority each day was, WHAT OTHER SERVICE SHALL I GET?
The two cities make for an excellent one-two punch because they’re such a paradoxical pair. Hoi An is so well-preserved and untouched by time and war that you could wander the streets and really feel a sense of history and international influences. Danang is discoed out with neon and over-the-top wedding venues and scooters buzzing way-too-close. There was a place on a main drag called Dirty Fingers, which, c’mon. Terrible branding decision. But it seemed like business was doing all right.
I gotta hand it to my mom and dad for putting up with my variable obsessions. This year it is the beng ming nian situation. I am overly fixated on how to prevent mishaps and general misfortune since it is the Year of the Dog, my zodiac year. Chinese tradition holds that every 12 years when your hit your zodiac year, accidents and misfortune can befall you. Since I am not able to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the “core four” Hu’s because I’m covering the Pyeongchang Olympics, I rushed over to my parents’ place in Taipei a couple of weeks ago so mom could roll my birthday egg in advance and settle my anxiety by taking me to do some beng ming nian countermeasures.
We went to a Buddhist temple that was teeming with people and followed the instructions to an tai sui, which translates to “Taming Tai Sui.” Tai Sui is supposedly a deity and you are supposed to make an offering to it to dissolve bad luck. (This is some real Taoist stuff but we’re doing it, okay!) The ritual required lighting exactly three incense, praying and showing gratitude to Buddha, and then taking my “receipt” for my an tai sui and waving it over the sticks of burning incense (“be careful not to set the paper on fire, Elise,” my mom said, knowing how klutzy I am). I have sought purification and peace for the new year and offered incense to tame Tai Sui. The temple gave me an omamori (a charm, or amulet) for protection, too. I feel better.
Then mom and I went and bought a giant Taiwanese iced milk tea. This Lunar New Year is getting off to a solid start.
This week I sat down with Arius Derr of a local podcast called Settlers of Seoul to talk about A LOT OF STUFF. Things I never thought about before, like the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. We did about an hour together, so I think this is officially the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent answering questions about myself. It was super fun, despite my being stumped a lot. Show notes are here.