After a LONG, CRAZY DAY on Friday involving Kim Jong Un’s first ever trip across the border — the first visit to the Soutb by any North Korean leader — I went on the new daily news pod from Vox to explain it.
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.
Spoke with Vox’s Liz Plank about the boxes women in my region are forced to fit into and the consequences and questions that flow from that. Thanks Liz and producers, for having me on!
True story: I would have posted this before the end of 2017 had my computer not died on the last day of the year. I guess 2017 wanted to get in one final disappointment. Don’t let the door hit ya!
“We worry, all along, that we are being buffeted about by forces beyond our control, because we are. The world is wheels within wheels within wheels, but so are we. Everything is under control, and nothing makes sense.”
-Todd Van der Werff, on 2017
To ignore the unsettled feeling brought on by the changes to America and the world under the least popular American president since modern polling began would be irresponsible, but I also find it infuriating and exhausting to think too hard about it. For example, I cannot bring myself to look at starving polar bear photos even though philosophically I think we all should.
This year I tried to focus on individual objectives and tasks in order to keep my sanity. Like trying to teach the girls how to live with kindness and consideration of other people. (A work in progress, as they aren’t even that nice to one another!) At work, I’m trying to do some good with the pretty significant microphone that we have to shine a light on ourselves and our times and to agitate for improvements to my organization (e.g., to try and make it more inclusive). To say I haven’t been in and out of ennui would be a lie. I was unable to consume alcohol for all of Q1 and finally I started doing so with abandon as soon as Baby Luna was out of me. There was a lot of catching up to do.
That the final two months of the year brought down so many sexual predators/misogynists and Alabama elected the guy who prosecuted the KKK instead of the guy banned from the mall represents some cautious hope that a corrective for these misshapen times will eventually come. And the year wasn’t all bad. The Houston Astros won the World Series, the aggressively exuberant baby Luna is here and Matt Lauer is gone from the airwaves. Reliable year-enders that I cherish, such as The Hater’s Guide to the Williams Sonoma catalog, still showed up.
Firsts: Getting lost in a go-kart on the streets of Tokyo. Being with Donald Trump in person. (And Melania.) Making wax food. IUD! Fareed Zakaria GPS. Potty Training boot camp (NOT FOR ME, I was the drill sergeant, okay?!). And a first (and last) — co-hosting All Things Considered with the man the myth and the legend, Robert Siegel, before he retires.
Recurring Themes: North Korea. Russia. Being frightened to see news alerts in the morning.
New Person: Little Luna Lee, our third human child, who weighed 8 pounds 6 oz., or as they measure it in Korea, 3.9 kg. The heaviest crotch nugget yet, and I whined about it heartily in her final weeks of incubation.
Favorite Selfie: On the streets with crowds of South Korean, with crack assistant Jihye the moment South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, was formally removed from office after being impeached by a constitutional court. (She’s now in jail on a slew of charges.)
Most Unintentionally Famous Friend: Bob Kelly, aka “BBC Dad,” after his hip-hoppity kids made the best ever appearance in this BBC interview, followed up by his stealthy-smooth wife, who came to yank them out
New Friend of the Year: Alex Field, who is Hong Kong-based but spent so much time in Seoul for various North Korea-related news that she started working out regularly with my pilates instructor. Women need women friends and she’s become a close one, as we whine about our jetlag together following our trans-Pacific journeys and commiserate by text — and in person — over being overworked.
The Year of the … Hobonichi Techo: I tried going fully analog for my calendar and diary like the Japanese do, and it was awesome. The Hobonichi Techo was bullet journaling before bullet journals, and the pages, after writing in them, take on this delicious crinkled quality that’s oh so satisfying. I didn’t write a journal entry each day, so it’s largely full of to-dos and footnotes from phone calls that help me look back, and monthly calendars that show my travels and meetings.
Most Satisfying Habit: Monthly calls with Matt. After we went my first year in Seoul without talking on the phone, MThomps put recurring calls on both our calendars, dates which we got really serious about keeping no matter the hour or where we were. (He was often running, so our phone calls followed a bouncing up and down kind of rhythm.)
Close Calls: When Matty had to bribe his way into Indonesia just in time to make it for Isa’s 2nd birthday.
This year I…
Had third baby and she is the bomb
Read 52 books, most of them fiction and the vast majority by badass women authors
Became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations
Found out I’m Wikipedia-cited on the topic of “asian fetishes,” yikes
Kpop dance class #humiliation
Got in trouble with standards editor for saying “awesomer” on the air, but “y’all” was cleared
Got sketched at a wedding by a random stranger (literally sketched, not a play on words)
Got a bandaid nearly applied to me by a stranger on the Tokyo subway
Launched Elise Tries, an irreverent travel video series
Started sleeping two rooms away from my phones because news alerts were anxiety-inducing
Showed up in a stock image
Showed up in an online textbook
Showed up in Austin to surprise my goddaughter
Lost my grandma, my hero, a rock
Ran successful potty training boot camp, training Isa in two days
Accidentally injured my cat Caesar out of negligence
Drove a go kart around the streets of Tokyo
Drove into oncoming traffic in Hokkaido
Threw a bunch of ceramics at walls in a “rage room” with my brother
Room-mommed for my two year-old, who started preschool
Co-Hosted All Things Considered
Sent a lot of random packages (my fave was melted wax that Friend Harper received, long story)
Spent July 4th covering an ICBM test
Spent Labor Day weekend covering a nuclear test
Spent too many weekend mornings covering other missile launches
Dressed family up as sushi for Halloween
Popped in on lots of podcasts: Sweet and Sour FM. It’s Been a Minute. Divided States of Women. Lots of Up First.
Logged 59,861 miles to go to six countries and one US territory, and spent 78 days away from home, a much more homebound year this year thanks to Baby Luna.
Previous Years in Review:
Things feel like they’re getting dodgier on the Korean peninsula given so much talk about military options rather than diplomatic ones for ending the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Friend Ben and I were chatting about this and he got philosophical when I asked him whether he thinks I should leave. The response ended up being rather poetic, now that I look at the way the lines broke:
hard to say
if you leave
on the other hand
what is risk?
you face it every day in one form or another
crossing the street
climbing a stepstool to change a light bulb
Since it was in the flight path of a North Korean intermediate range ballistic missile, the lovely, lush Japanese island of Hokkaido was my day trip destination last week. That’s where I met up with Japanese-Canadian fixer Shizuka Andersen and rushed off through the countryside to yet-another-Japanese-town that felt a bit post-apocalyptic because it was originally built for a much larger population than lives there now.
Shizuka doesn’t drive, leaving me to fumble my way through driving on the left side of the road again (which means I kept turning the wipers on and off when I wanted to signal) and at one point drove at least two kilometers on the wrong side of the road before realizing I was driving straight into oncoming traffic and sharing a freak-out screeching car-veering moment with Shizuka. I also flew into and out of Hokkaido in one day, so thank God we went to Lawson’s (a Japanese convenience store) at the airport and stocked up on my go to konbini snacks: the egg salad sandwich, salmon onigiri, Jagariko and a lighly sweetened iced tea.
As we were driving the 90 minutes through fields of postcard-pretty green farms and their multi-colored barns, we scarfed down “lunch” in order to make it to Maple Tree Elementary School (student body: 60) in time for a missile attack drill! So bucolic out there for a war time anachronism, but such is life these days in Northeast Asia. Reported that story in lickety split so we had time to turn around and get back to the airport, and it was only when I went to fill up the gas tank before returning the rental car that I realized I spent the day with pesky onigiri rice stuck to my shirt. I guess no one noticed.
Next time I am definitely spending enough time in Hokkaido to AT LEAST try the onsen that’s inside the airport.
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.
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.)
“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.)
You’re now reading the musings of a bonafide member of the Council on Foreign Relations.