Advice, Illustrated

I was just in a regular gchat with my sister from another mother and part of it showed up in one of her drawings. Love!

some advice I got recently on new adult friendships #doodlediary #practicemakespetportraitist

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All Greek To Me

What it’s like to be friends with my friends, a sample conversation from lunch:

Richard: I feel like your Twitter personality is about 30% more pedantic than you are in real life.

John: I traffic in irony. I try to cultivate an ironic personality on Twitter. But I’m told maybe it doesn’t come across.

Me: What is up with you and Thucydides? You’re always bringing him up.

John: It’s not just MY thing. History of the Peloponnesian War one of the foundations of Western thought!

Richard: I didn’t read it just once, I read it TWICE.

John: I taught a semester long class on it. I’ve read several translations, but the Hobbes is the best one. Shoot, I’ve read it in CHINESE! [Pauses.] Of course you should read it in the original Greek.

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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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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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Mr. Fenney

My zero hour geography teacher in 11th grade was Mr. Fenney. Mr. Fenney — late thirties at the time — was a hipster in Texas, before hipsters existed. He liked to talk about Italian art films to high schoolers, explain why the colonists had completely fucked Africa for forever, and treated us teenagers as far more enlightened than we really were.

We were also basically never able to get a rise out of him for anything. One afternoon, after a particularly difficult exam that morning, I busted into his 7th period class and announced to the whole class of mostly strangers, is this the Europe exam?! “That test raped me in the ass this morning!” Mr. Fenney just sort of chuckled and then went about his test proctoring. (Side note: What was I even doing?)

As these things go, I don’t remember any of the book teaching that Mr. Fenney did. Just the asides and random tidbits about the world that he would teach us, like showing us how nonsensically Africa was carved up. And since we had to memorize some land masses and rivers after coloring unlabeled maps as homework, I might be able to identify Laos on a map today (maybe).

The most salient memory I have of Mr. Fenney is what he slapped up on the overhead projector on the first day of class. It was a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It’s a famous T.S. Eliot missive, as I know now. But to my 17-year old self, this was revelatory. And it’s largely guided my life, it turns out. So I think of Mr. Fenney fairly often, and the esoteric — but crucial — impact he made on me. Thanks, dude. Sorry I was such a pain in the ass.

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On My First Female Role Model Besides My Mom

Last night I fell down a rabbit hole on Medium (usually it’s Wikipedia) and found a list of writing prompts that friend-of-a-friend Nicole Zhu used in order to keep up a daily habit of writing. Between sometimes writing here on this blog but mostly posting on my work Tumblr and a mandate to write for my day job, I don’t think the world needs more of my words. But I felt inspired by the prompts and realized I don’t sit down and reflect as often as I used to, because the explosion of social platforms means I do my sharing in pieces, in snapshots or Snapchats rather than wordier reflections. 

Anyway. I have kept up this blog and its previous incarnations for all these years, so I might as well take some of the prompts and give them a whirl every once in a while, eh? It’s certainly something to do when I am avoiding doing other tedious things, like paying the bills or whatever. [Clears throat.] With that, here’s a musing on female role models.


Let’s get this part of out of the way: My most influential role model, female or not, is my mom. My mom is pure love. She makes me feel safe always. “Listen to me and you can’t go wrong,” my mom says, confident in her wisdom. And she’s right. She is unapologetic about who she is, realistic about the world and her confidence gives me confidence. We laugh about inappropriate topics, since she shares a subversive, macabre humor. We cry together because we wear our hearts on our sleeves (unapologetically). We never want to stop exploring, a value she instilled in me long ago. She told me as a child, “Never live your life for someone else’s gaze,” a lesson that shaped me. She also explained to me when I was quite young the quiet cruelties of being a person of color in a pasty white St. Louis suburb, making it easier for me when I did feel different.

It took awhile before I found other female role models. I grew up surrounded by boys. My only sibling is a brother. My childhood memories of Roger are of our forceful physical fights (I learned how to always go for his nuts when kicking or punching), building homegrown skateboarding ramps on our driveway and buying Fun Dip in between innings at his little league baseball games. My entire neighborhood peer group was also made up of boys; in the four houses closest to mine were each kids in my grade, and all those kids were boys: Ryan, Craig, Tommy and Craig. We waited for the bus together each morning. After school, thanks to huge fenceless yards, we stayed outside playing until dark almost every night. We built forts, played Ghost in the Graveyard and Kick the Can, or wandered to the neighborhood creek where the rocks were jagged and the water could start rushing dangerously quickly when it rained.

Jenny! (Using her current Facebook profile photo, so that I know this is a Jenny-approved photo.)

Jenny! (Using her current Facebook profile photo, so that I know this is a Jenny-approved photo.)

So my closest female relationships didn’t really come together until 5th or 6th grade, when I formed a bond with a fellow subversive — Jes Ingram. I remember going to Jes’ house to play Sim City (which might have been V1), sleepovers watching/reciting Ace Ventura Pet Detective word-for-word and hanging out around her house with her older sister, Jenny. I think she was my first female role model besides my mom. Jenny never passed on words of wisdom in the way moms do, but instead led by example. Jenny was class president and much-admired and beautiful but effortlessly so. Unlike the other popular girls who spent a lot of time primping for boys or to pickup boys at the mall (yes my middle school friends did that back then), Jenny was ‘whatever’ about her place in the preteen hierarchy, and even cooler for it. She seemed to have deep, authentic friendships, which in 7th grade felt sorta hard to come by. But mainly I looked up to Jenny because I find being bored pretty much anathema to existence, and Jenny was never boring. She has so much personality that it oozes from her like the cheese of a four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich. Jenny’s Personality and her personality are innate and not replicable, but for acolytes like me, thankfully she read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies and listened to a lot of music, so at least through all that time with the Ingram’s I got to be inculcated with her cultural influences. (And her sister Jes’s, of course, who I will always trust implicitly.)

I’ve seen a lot of movies in which young protagonists are somehow let down by their role models in the end. But some 20 years after first looking up to Jenny, I can report that she has only exceeded my stratospheric assessment of her.

Last year, Jenny learned she had breast cancer. She’s sadly not my first friend to fight cancer at a young age, but she’s fought it with the most humor and moxie. (Because, of course.) A few days ago, she lost her boobies, as she decided that getting a double mastectomy was the best way to prevent a recurrence. She’s been chronicling her journey on her blog, appropriately titled “Check Those Titties.” Reading it regularly has reminded me of many things (to check my titties, for one), but also how exceptional she is. And that maybe I should reflect and write about these personal memories, because it’s a way to thank people like her, to whom I’m eternally grateful.

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Three-Way Birthdays To Remember

My last night in Austin was in February 2011, a week before our birthday. The karaoke goodbye at Do512 HQ was thrown in part by John and April, so this was our de facto final three-way party.

My last night in Austin was in February 2011, a week before our birthday. The karaoke goodbye at Do512 HQ was thrown in part by John and April, so this was our de facto final three-way party.

There is no annual gathering that’s more special to me than the now-defunct “Three-Way Birthday” parties of my Austin years. For five years in my twenties, I celebrated my birthday with two other Texas politcal reporters who also were born on February 17th — my besties April Castro and John Moritz. We are the dancing-on-bartops together (April) and buy-homes-from-one-another (I bought John’s house) kind of close friends. Our friendship was born out of many inside jokes, lunches at the Texas Chili Parlor (which makes a CHEESEBURGER SALAD), drinks at the Stephen F. Austin hotel, and long nights at the Texas Capitol, staking out one politician or another, or listening to the endless chubbing of lawmakers stalling votes or adding amendments to amendments to the budget bill. And, of course, our annual birthday ritual fueled memories for always.

I suppose I moved away first, so maybe it’s all my fault, but now we are in three different countries. John remains in Austin, Texas, but I weirdly live in South Korea and April recently relocated to Canada. I think of them often, and miss them often, but never as much as I do on our birthday. (This just reminded me: One year, a Texas lawmaker who was ALSO born on February 17 did one of those honorary resolutions on the House floor to recognize us for our birthday, probably just because it was also his day, but anyway, it was pretty amusing.)

I met April in a committee room at the Texas Capitol, and John on my first day on the beat as a Texas political reporter. We quickly learned we shared a birthday. This is a snap from our very first joint birthday party, in 2007.

I met April in a committee room at the Texas Capitol, and John on my first day on the beat as a Texas political reporter. We quickly learned we shared a birthday. This is a snap from our very first joint birthday party, in 2007.

The 2008 party is memorable because it didn’t happen, and we can blame Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for that. We were political reporters, and Obama and Clinton were locked in such a tight battle at that point because Obama hoped to lock up the nomination in Texas/Ohio, that we were working nonstop. On the night of our party, Obama held a rally in downtown Austin in which something like 30,000 people showed up. We had to cancel the party at the last minute because we had to cover the rally.

The invite to a party that didn't happen. When we made the invite campaign-themed, we didn't know that the Obama campaign would be the reason our party got canceled.

The invite to a party that didn’t happen. When we made the invite campaign-themed, we didn’t know that the Obama campaign would be the reason our party got canceled.

Every year for the big party we'd send out invitations in which we'd combine our three ages. In 2009, we turned 112.

Every year for the big party, we’d send out invitations in which we’d combine our three ages. In 2009, we turned 112.

In 2010, we threw our swankiest party, at a bungalow that's part of Hotel St. Cecelia. After years of throwing "three-way's," we actually had a bed at our party venue.

In 2010, we threw our swankiest party, at a bungalow that’s part of Hotel St. Cecelia. After years of throwing “three-way’s,” we actually had a bed at our party venue.

Happiest of birthdays to my partners-in-mischief and fellow February 17thers. I miss you and treasure our shared birthday memories.

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A Sendoff Song, Written From Lines In A Korean Phrasebook

Sample lyrics.

Sample lyrics.

We are (finally) leaving on Sunday to open the aforementioned NPR Seoul bureau. The absurdly talented Adam Cole decided to try and challenge himself to write a K-pop style ballad using only words from a beginner’s Korean phrasebook. The results made me cry with laughter … and delight. So, so overwhelmingly awesome. We need to make this a K-pop hit, y’all.

The Best Advice I Got Last Year

One of the most pleasurable aspects of having brilliant coworkers is basking in the wisdom, knowledge and good-humored counsel of said colleagues. I am lucky to count among my people Shankar Vedantam, who, among many other things, is the social science correspondent for NPR and author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

It goes without saying that it’s pretty sweet to have this guy around when I’m in the middle of a professional or personal crisis and just need some sage advice.

Last year I was considering another job offer, since I had just hit my three-year-mark at NPR and three years was the longest professional association I’d ever had. I was feeling anxious to do something new, maybe just for the sake of the stretching and growing that comes with leaving your comfort zone. The role being offered was pretty great and something my 29-year-old self would have leaped at, but I was at the much-better-cooked age of 31 by then. I worried about the organization of the other place — was the leadership stable? Did it have a sustainable business?

Shankar said none of it mattered. What mattered most, he said, was passion and what we feel most passionate doing. Which gets to the best advice I got last year:

He said, we tend to make personal decisions with our hearts and work decisions with our minds, but it should actually be flipped.

It makes more sense, he said, to make work decisions based on emotion because so much of professional fulfillment — and success — flows from passion, and the other details (who owns a company, the board, etc) are out of our control. But interpersonal relationships are dependent on far more than passion, because of our children, homes, etc. So it’s better to make those decisions practically and not emotionally.

Shorter Shankar: Professional decisions? Heart. Personal decisions? Head.

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