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.
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.
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-HostedAll 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I love a good wedding and Itry toblog aboutthemafterward, 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.