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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr
Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)
Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).
I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.
Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.
We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.
Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.
I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.
Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.
Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.
The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.
The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.
Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.
Japan and Korea have famously rocky ties dating to the various times in history Japan has tried to conquer Korea and the whole actually-colonizing-Korea bit in the early part of the 20th century. Imperial Japan did cruel things, like take tens of thousands of young, poor Korean girls into sexual slavery to serve at “comfort stations” during wartime. (I have detailed the UN report on this on my work blog.) The issue isn’t over. In fact, because Korea has continued to allow statue tributes to the comfort women despite a verbal agreement with Japan in December 2015 to resolve the issue “for good,” Japan is not pleased and pulled its ambassador to Seoul and its consul general in Busan.
That’s where a diplomatic row intersected with my Friday night plans. A few of the Seoul-based international bureau chiefs had been invited to dinner at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, high atop a gorgeous mountain near Seoul’s city center. It has an immaculate Japanese garden, from what I’d been told. When I was in Tokyo earlier in the week, the thought they might cancel the dinner crossed my mind. But no! Dinner was on. We went ahead and ate at the ambassador’s house without the host, the ambassador.
Part of the reason we were able to enjoy ourselves anyway was because the ambassador’s chef, who was brought in from Japan exclusively for him and his events, was NOT recalled to Tokyo. He was around to make us a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) dinner, which includes an appetizer, soup, sashimi, simmered dish, grilled dish, tempura dish, shokuji and dessert. Everyone agreed this place serves the best Japanese food you can get in Seoul, and Japanese is my ultimate favorite cuisine so it did not disappoint.
I don’t understand most Korean news programs except for those on the English-language channel, Arirang. They are doing a new show this season featuring panels of foreign correspondents based in Seoul and I guested last week. We talked North Korea at Imjingak, near the interKorean border.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Occasionally I go to “rubber chicken dinners,” as they’re called in Washington. (Rarely is rubber chicken actually served, the food is often quite good.) They are awards shows or chamber of commerce anniversary events or whatever, where you’re seated at tables of eight or ten, like at a wedding, and much like weddings, they’re often at expensive hotels. I went to one last night where I was seated next to the New Zealand ambassador to Korea, and on the other side of her, the Netherlands ambassador to Korea. The Dutch guy was fun; we ninjaed out together before the program was over, saying “We have small children,” as an excuse. “Sure you have,” he said with a grin.
The New Zealand ambassador and I discovered we share the same Korean teacher, who is a saint, we both conceded. But it turns out the ambassador was previously posted in Xian, Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei, so her spoken Mandarin is quite excellent. She even whipped out some Shanghainese, a dialect hard to find outside Shanghai. (Though my dad and sister pride themselves on keeping up their Shanghainese with one another.)