A Behind-The-Story Story, From Laos

Diners on the Mekong, Vientiane.

Last September when I was in lush Laos following around Barack Obama during his last tour in Asia as president, I met a fellow foreign correspondent I had long admired — William Wan. William, who was back in DC after a long stint in Beijing, is a storyteller with a kind and gentle spirit, unlike some of the more rough and tumble “flungs,” as our shop calls us international reporters.

We were in Vientiane most of the time, staying at a rather gross hotel that had too many mirrors in the bedrooms and smelled of too much air freshener. After long reporting days, I avoided time at the hotel and tried to hang out along the mighty Mekong, instead. William, who knew my voice from his NPR listenership, asked to tag along for dinner on a Tuesday night.

Obama was scheduled to fly to the historic town of Luang Prabang the next morning. I had a flight to go along, but owing to just learning I was two months pregnant and feeling the sickness (and paranoia about Zika mosquitoes), I canceled my trip. Over our dinner of fried things, William waffled on going to Luang Prabang, too. Obama was simply going to do meet-and-greets with locals and talk to young Southeast Asians in a forum; the White House didn’t arrange travel so we were all arranging our flights unilaterally, William went back-and-forth about whether it would be worth it just to see a typical dog-and-pony show.

When we said goodbye that night he still hadn’t decided. But the next night, I ran into him late in the evening at our filing center in the mirrored hotel. He was the only one left. He explained he was puzzling over what to do with what he got that day. It turned out he did go to Luana Prabang, but instead of following the president, he stood in the lines of people waiting for the motorcade along the street. That’s how he ran into a young monk named Sengdao. William stayed with him for hours and turned this lovely piece. An excerpt of what happened:

“He kept a watchful eye on the street beside his temple for signs of the police and Obama’s motorcade.

All morning, he waited beside the temple walls.

Around 1 p.m. a Scottish couple wandered past him.

“Did you see Obama?” they asked Sengdao.

The president, it turned out, had taken a back road to the adjacent temple. The couple showed Sengdao pictures of the motorcade on their phones, and he looked on politely, hiding his disappointment.”

The story still came out well and it was one of those great examples of going out and finding people stories instead of following around a predictable politician. This week, an epilogue. Obama heard about the monk missing his motorcade and wrote him answers to questions about life that Sengdao was seeking. It turns out the president wrote him back just weeks after the Laos trip, but the letter only recently got to him. William followed up:

He has shown the actual letter to even fewer people because of how precious it feels. “It’s not a secret, but it feels very personal and private that he would choose to write something to me. I don’t want to ruin that feeling,” Sengdao said. He emailed me a copy of the letter, but asked that it not be posted in full online.

Obama encouraged Sengdao to keep pursuing his dreams and dedicate himself to improving his own life and the lives of others. “The letter is an answer to all my questions,” Sengdao said. “He is like me, someone who started from nothing. It makes me think I can do that as well.”

It’s worth reading both stories. I’m so touched and happy this happened. And way to go, William, for finding the humanity in these otherwise super-staged trips.

William, in our filing center in Laos, trying to figure out how to write his monk story.

Here Are My Favorite Links on Love

Hangin’ out some hearts. Source: Gloria Garcia, Flickr Creative Commons

To mark the holiday, I went through my Evernote for links I’ve saved on modern love:

Joan Didion on loving yourselffirst. Nora Ephron and what love is like in the movies. Falling in love with a friendPreserving love in a culture of fear. Kurt Vonnegut on marriage. Whether you’re a libertine or a loyalist in relationships, you’re wrong. The Americans reminds us marriage isn’t black-and-white, and neither are politics. The operative fallacy about unconditional love. I want everyone to get laid more. What if the purpose of love is to break us up? The quantified breakup. True romance is the “palpable, reassuring sense it’s okay to be a human being.” “Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” And my favorite Zadie Smith: “Joy is such a human madness.”

I enjoyed going through my Evernote, in which every link I save I associate with several tags, so that I can go back and find saved links on general concepts when they strike me. If you liked this sort of “links on a specific theme” thing, let me know and I can feature other themes in the future.

This post is excerpted from my near-weekly newsletter, the Hu’s Letter. You can subscribe if you’re into that sort of thing.

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New Reading Resolutions

Part of the problem with being a professional reader and writer is that you spend all your time reading and writing, but often it’s not really the kind that you want to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a great privilege that my job is to straight-up read a lot, then travel around, discover ideas and people, or history as it’s happening, ask questions of the person/idea/event, then tell the story. I mean, that is a ridiculous vocation for which to be paid.

But after reading way too many periodicals during the hellish and hateful 2016 election, I found my psyche exhausted and altogether pissy by year’s end. I decided I need to recommit to reading about “bigger” ideas, themes, connections, etc. To get my head straight, if you will. So I am resolving to read more books, recommended by the smarty pants I get to call friends. I’ll track the recommendations (and by year’s end, the progress) here. If you have thoughts or additions, please let me know in the comments or all the other ways to reach me.

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Recommended by work friend Scott Detrow

Scott’s take: “So basically, it’s fiction but Charles Lindbergh runs against FDR. FDR runs a really serious issues campaign and Lindbergh just flies his plane from state to state entertaining people. He wins in a landslide, and immediately appeases Hitler. It goes by especially quick once you’re gripped by the horror of it becoming reality.”

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Recommended by work spouse Matt Thompson

Matt’s take: “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction. But it’s feel good post-apocalyptic fiction that will remind you of all the things to appreciate about life and living.”

Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Recommended by Reeve Hamilton of the now-defunct Breakfast Club

Reeve’s take: “I like it so much, I bought myself another copy. It’s about relationships and how they are complicated and affect each other. It’s really about group dynamics, which you would like. If you’re reading blurbs about how it’s about regrets, it’s about a totally different kind of regret. It also captures teen boyhood of a certain variety better than just about anything else, which I’m sure you will find to be a big selling point.”

Mao’s Last Revolution, Rod MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Recommended by John Delury, China historian and our Seoul friend

Delury’s take: “It’s a quick read. Once you understand the dynamic of ‘working toward the Chairman’, the pages fly by as your heart sinks. Its the best treatment of the Cultural Revolution’s high politics, the Mao-eye view.”

Born a Crime
Recommended by Liz Taylor

Liz’s take: “There are parts that are super poignant, makes some great observations about race, and also parts are totally hilarious. Go with Born a Crime.”

I like that a lot of these friends know me really well and emphasize the “quickness” of the reads, because I have a pretty short attention span. But we have a lot of weeks left in this year so keep your ideas and recommendations coming …

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Random Dinners: The One At The Japanese Ambassador’s Residence

The beautiful starter, which included pumpkin, octopus, shrimp, sweet potato and peas.

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.

Diplomat Sato-san, seated with the yellow tie, hosted a goodbye dinner because he is off to New York soon.

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’m not supposed to eat yellowtail or tuna due to incubating the baby but this was too delicious. So was the sake, since I had to take a shot because I am a hedonist with no willpower.

Steak tempura, and underneath the paper was folded into an origami crane, because, of course.

I only took pics of appetizers because once we really got down into the kaiseki’s many courses, I was just focused on eating.

As usual, outnumbered by men.

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On Meaningful Time

Happy 2017. Let’s start the year by talking about something that matters — meaningful time with the people we love.

Over Christmas 2015 — so, about a year ago — I was in Washington and saddled up at a bar in Bloomingdale with Chris Sopher, one of my favorite millennials (it is a running joke to make fun of him for his millennialness). Around that time, Friend Dave had sent me this post about how little time left we have with our loved ones, notably, our parents.

I was feeling quite weepy about it and started bringing it up all the time (as I do when I obsess on a certain topic. Current obsession: nuclear annihilation). Here’s the key graf and art:

“Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.

When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear …

The author is 34. Red is the amount of time he estimates he’s already spent with his parents.

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”

I was melancholy about this back then because I am one of those adults who doesn’t feel like she has grown up and therefore is over-reliant on my parents. I talk to them several times a week but even more so when I am cranky or have a cold or am homesick or really, any slew of reasons. I am terrified about losing them and brought up the above visualization with Chris. His response?

This is “problematic,” because it implies every unit of time you spend with a loved one has equal weight, when it’s not true. Frankly, you might be having a lot more meaningful moments with your parents now that you are older and more appreciative of them. So even though the BULK of your time (in quantity) with them is already spent, there’s still plenty of time for quality time, which is suffused with more meaning. Chris and I revisited this topic this week in a chat:

Christopher:  My current thinking on that would be that it’s also about perspective. I think I have much more productive and fulfilling interactions with my parents now than I did a few years ago. And I just refuse to go through life with angst about what I am missing or running out of. Better to be intentional about spending it with quality people doing things you love.

Me: Do you think being cognizant of the limited nature of time helps you with that intentionality though?

Christopher: Absolutely. I wonder what i would do if i was immortal and knew it.

Me: I wonder what the default age we all THINK we are living until. I would say, probably our expectation is we will live past retirement.

Christopher: Yeah.

Me: And we operate in that mode.

Christopher: We might not though.

Me: I’m constantly feeling like I don’t make enough use of my days though. Like, I am pretty lazy. Also, what is ‘quality’ time with ones parents? I don’t get into deep philosophical conversations with my dad, for instance. But i still consider us close.

Christopher: I think that’s a good question. I feel it is about self definition. I also think your family is what you want it to be. Many people have tough issues with biological family. i don’t see any obligation people have to that unless they choose that.

Me:  You mentioned you’ve been spending more quality time with your parents lately than before. What does that mean to you?

Christopher: What I mean is that I think we are both more aware of why we enjoy spending time with each other, and when we spend time with each other, it brings us more joy because we understand each other better than we used to. And I’m an adult, where as 10 years ago i was still figuring out what I was about.

Me: Anyway I felt much better last Christmas when you rebutted that post. But I also feel unsure about ‘quality time’ and what that means

Christopher: You have to define that for yourself, I think. I’m not sure I know either. If I sit around and watch a movie with my parents, does that count?

Me: Not sure! I think we know AFTER. Like, I remember our time at the bar talking about this [very topic], and our relationships and other things, as being meaningful. (Me and you, not me and my parents.)

Christopher:Right.

Me: So that’s an example of knowing in retrospect that time together had meaning to us.

Christopher:But you didn’t set out to ‘have an interaction with meaning’ at the time. You just set out to have drinks.

Me: Hahaha. Do you want me to do my google invites like that going forward?

Christopher:  Yes.

Me: “Invite: Interaction with meaning time with Elise,” Yes/No/Maybe/Propose New Time

Christopher: Yes.

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2016 Year In Review: What Just Happened Here?

In July, with my fixer Akane, in the Japanese Alps reporting on a traditional naked festival.

Ah, 2016. A year so seemingly bad that it became its own internet meme. Not only was the soul-sucking U.S. presidential election rather horrifying, but artistic icons kept dying — Bowie, Prince, now George Michael. Mix in another hottest year on record, Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis, rising nativism all over the world, nuclear tests by North Korea and it’s easy to get a girl down, you know?

In the micro sense, my 2016 was a tornado of travel and jet lag but rather charmed and full of surprises, like the new baby in my belly. (WHAT!? Still processing, but running out of time for it to sink in.) It was a year for much Japan exploration, and full of friends and weekend getaways all over the place — Cebu, Bangkok, Okinawa, New York, London, Seattle and more.

Notable Firsts: The G7 summit, airport transportation by high-speed boat, flight with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, police-escorted motorcade through Beijing, aka, experiencing Beijing without its infamous traffic, gong bath (it is a thing), Go tournament, hosting an NPR show, getting a compliment from the president, kabuki show, naked man festival. (Some details below.)

Recurring Theme: Jet lag. Naps. Longing for booze and not being able to drink it.

Favorite Selfie: My brother Roger Hu goofing off with daughter Eva (and a magnifying glass) when we were all in Taipei for the Lunar New Year.

New Person: A new Hu was born on December 1, after 48 hours of labor. My little brother Roger is now a dad, to baby boy Ethan Hu. Another E-Hu in the family makes me so proud. I can’t wait to meet him.

Eva and Uncle Roger’s giant nose

Regrets: I didn’t call my friends who I don’t meet up with in random cities. Going to make a more concerted effort in 2017.

Randomness: Pineapple Park, y’all. Hostile environment training. Dairy Queen in Laos.

Notable New Friend: CNN International’s Saima Moshin, who I technically met in 2015. But we really solidified our friendship this year, and I’m better for it.

New countries: Philippines, Thailand, Laos

And in no particular order…
Asked the Deputy US Secretary of State about North Korea’s hangover free booze
Watched traditional kabuki performed by children up in the mountains
Attended first Japanese naked man festival, featuring not men but boys (yikes)
Got attacked by a raccoon, who then STOLE my mic
Slept through Taiwan’s big February earthquake, had to do a bunch of TV to talk about it
Learned enough cab Korean to get around
Gave Isabel a Korean first birthday party
Ran out of passport pages
Went back and forth to Japan 11 times
Went to Hawaii for work … twice
Thought a lot about smog
Watched artificial intelligence beat a 9-time world champ at Go
Covered the President’s historic (and moving) visit to Hiroshima
Passed up a chance to live in Shanghai
(Went back-and-forth for awhile before making a decision)
Guest hosted Weekend Edition
Interviewed Omarosa
Had soooo many karaoke (or in Korea, norebang) nights
Played The Sunday Puzzle with NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz
Somehow got knocked up again, hrmmm
Learned how to tie a tourniquet really quickly, and to make one
Achieved objective of reading a lot more books than last year
Asked President B-H-O about North Korea on his final Asia trip
Got a presidential compliment: “Those are good questions”
Finally saw Sir Ian McKellen IN THE FLESH
Learned how to make a pig face out of a rice ball
Drove on left side of road and right side of car for the first time, didn’t die
Witnessed Obama and Shinzo Abe’s quiet tribute to Pearl Harbor victims at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Free from nursing by July (but pregnant again in August), logged 128,367 miles in the air (resulting in jet lag for many days of 2016), going to nine countries and spending 145 days away from home. I need a nap. Bye.

Previous Years in Review:
2015201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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Seoul -> DC -> NYC -> London -> Seoul … In Seven Days

Attempting to come out of a jet lag blur to say that I spent an incredible week in the Western hemisphere, which included a lot of time on planes and briefly, a train to New York. (After getting used to the bullet trains of Asia, the Amtrak feels like a damned stagecoach, not gonna lie.)

The notable thing about this trip was the lack of group activities; it was a lot of one-on-one dinners and breakfasts and coffee meetings with friends for whom I care deeply. And it all included a lot of freaking out about what is next for us in America and the world.

Things that common-law work spouse Matt Thompson said to me over burgers will stay with me, about how we need to lean more heavily into our archives and history, in general, to better understand what’s going at the dawn of Trump. And the work advice from people like Kate (who used to work with me) and Chuck (who is about to not work at NPR anymore) will make me feel better about the state of things in my career. Ultimately, the time in DC was so compressed that I had to fit in time with my BFF Sudeep by straight-up scheduling a walk together to the Triple A office, get a coffee to-go, walk to Treasury to get something back from an official, and then walk partially back to his office. That was the sum total of our reunion. For my other BFF, Sara, we scheduled a Chik-Fil-A dinner followed by a trip to Target. No joke. There was just no time.

On the flip side, the days lingered and melted into each when there were fewer people to see — in London, for a weekend with Friend Matt (seems everyone is named Matt, it’s all very confusing, but at least I can’t trip things up this way). He wanted to get to a top-ranked restaurant he hadn’t been to yet, and to go to an all-night barn party/jazz jam session out in the country, and since I was going to spend my final time in America just gorging on the fast food I’ve missed (Whataburger, where have you been all my life), it wasn’t too much of a burden to join Matt on his more classy trip to London, instead.

Serendipity and luck were in our favor all along: We almost missed our flight but didn’t, no belongings were left or lost, and little things happened to time out just as needed. We stayed at a flat* in Covent Garden near the theater district, and while walking home from a late night dinner we saw signs for a show featuring Sir Ian McKellen(!) and Patrick Stewart. When Matt checked about getting tickets the next day, he learned it was closing night, snagged two tickets and we got in to saw the dense and (obviously) well-acted show. I joked that it was about the frailty of existence for rich white men, and then we read a review, in which the reviewer explained that essentially the play was about the existential ennui of rich white men.

There was also delicious food, libation I so longed for and trips out into the English countryside, one night for the most random, bohemian jazz jam session-cum-birthday party filming. I can’t quite describe it except to say there were some ballerinas and lots of soldier costumes, plus a gong bath. My first gong bath!

* I try to code switch to British terms like flat and queue and crisps where appropriate.

One Night In Beijing

I kind of dread going to Beijing these days because my brother Roger (who lives there) always makes it sound so dystopian. But my one-night trip was actually quite lovely. Even though I was there less than 24 hours, I was able to:

a) See my brother’s new office headquarters. He’s the founder of a tech startup in Beijing and they just moved from the tech district (by Tsinghua University) to center city. It was great seeing rows of developers working hard, just as I’ve seen in numerous American tech offices. Only twist was all these guys were employed by my scrappy little bro. Weird! (Also cool.)

b) Have drinks and dinner with Kinsey, a VIP on my “personal board of directors,” people to whom I go when seeking life advice or a centering when I feel off course. Kinsey also happens to be one of the biggest brains and most overprogrammed people I know, so getting any catch-up time with him is a delight. In Beijing, we continued our tradition of hanging out together only in cities where neither of us live and work, because that’s the only time he has time. Roger came along for dinner, and I love it when people from various parts of my life connect, so that was lovely.

The Gourd Pedicab. (There were several of these hanging from the vehicle. They were not lights, just gourds.)

The Gourd Pedicab. (There were several of these hanging from the vehicle. They were not lights, just gourds.)

c) Night-capped in a whiskey bar in the alleys of Beijing’s traditional hutongs with my Beijing-dwelling friend from Washington, Ben Dooley, who some of my pals may know from an inside joke as “Sad Eyes.”* Roger and I took a sketchy and too-risky-for-my-age pedicab ride in a pedicab adorned with hanging gourds (no idea why) to get there, and it was already past 10pm when we arrived. But the three of us sat talking and joking around, having a great time. Ben loved Roger’s jacket, and now Roger will take Ben to meet his tailor. EVERYONE IS CONNECTING, THIS IS WONDERFUL.

d) The best part came at the end of my trip: a forty minute cab ride to the airport and the driver astoundingly chatted me up (they usually aren’t chatty or are down right assholes). He asked about my family, told me about the context of China in the pre-Mao 1940s when my grandpa was sent to study abroad in the U.S. on a government scholarship, demonstrated nuanced understanding of the complex China-North Korea relationship, waxed philosophical about how we come into the world with nothing and leave with nothing, so just to make the most memories we can, and talked about U.S. politics a bit. His take on Trump? “His popularity makes it clear that Americans don’t have equal access to education and information.” ZING!

*The “Sad Eyes” story is one of my favorite and funniest stories of my five years in Washington. Someday I will have to relay it on this here blog.

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2015 Year in Review: This Asian Life

Hanging out at a cat cafe, Seoul.

Hanging out at a cat cafe, Seoul.

“This Asian Life” was one rejected names for my East Asia Tumblr, which ultimately got a pretty straightforward name, Elise Goes East! But lucky for me, the name still hung around my head long enough to return as a headline for my annual year-in-review post.

Between the globe irreversibly warming, mass gun deaths at a regular clip and the tumultuous rise of ISIS, it can feel like the human race is on the brink. But I have to stay hopeful, partly out of my constitution and partly because this year we brought another tiny human into the world and I want it to be a safe enough, survivable place for her.

In my little universe, there has been plenty of discovery and joy, and for that I’m endlessly grateful.

New Experiences: Moving to South Korea. Living in South Korea. Eating live octopus. Stranger in a strange land syndrome. Having a baby in a foreign country. Reporting through an interpreter almost exclusively. Ear infection. Getting abandoned in a cab without explanation. Crashing a wedding and going unnoticed. Eating 4,000 calories in front of an audience of thousands, who gave feedback the whole time. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Osaka, Japan. Osaka’s karaoke bars. Cat cafe.

Most Mindblowingly Awesome Gift: My friend and coworker, the shockingly talented Adam Cole, wrote and performed me a K-pop style goodbye song using common Korean phrases he taught himself in a day. This will be on the “best list” of my life, not just of the year.

Difficult Loss: Saying goodbye to my dog, Saidee.

Most Unexpected Mail: The last season of Mad Men on DVD, sent from LA by Mad Men creator and head honcho Matt Weiner. When he wrote me asking for my address, I thought it was a joke, until those DVDs arrived in the mail from his assistant.

Beverages of Choice: Gong Cha’s black tea iced bubble tea with full ice, 30% sweetness. Grapefruit soju. So much grapefruit soju.

Regrets: Never learned a signature karaoke song in Korean. Not counting kids books I read only three books beginning-to-end in 2015. This is by far my all-time low. Next year I’m taking the advice here on how to read more.

Product Discoveries: Okonomiyaki, “essence” for skincare, enoki mushrooms, pilates socks, Laneige water bank sleeping mask, Tony Moly Eye Cooling Stick

Things I miss about my American life: Snickers ice cream bars, the NFL, chatting it up with strangers, being understood when I ask questions, uncensored Internet, driving (on occasion), wasting time during the work day by walking to Starbucks with my coworkers, going to the office, being able to get food that’s not automatically spicy, Life cereal whenever I want it

Notable New Pal: Chris Holmes, who is Paul McCartney’s DJ. I met Chris in a classic living abroad/traveling a lot situation —  when you happen to be in the same place as an old friend. In this instance, I was in Tokyo at the same time as pal Harper, who was there with his dad to see Chris play in the Paul McCartney show in Tokyo. Not only did I get to hang with Harper and dad, we met Chris and his wife, Melinda, and when the McCartney tour came to Seoul, Chris hooked me up with VVIP tickets at the last minute. See? This is why you should say yes to everything.

Favorite Selfie: Isabel nailing me in the face a few days after I tried the “rice ball baby face” meme on her.

Items Muled to Seoul By American Friends: Hidden Valley Ranch, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Advil Liquigels, Almay Eye Makeup Remover Pads, Loreal Voluminous Mascara in Blackest Black, Lawry’s Taco Seasoning, my Graf & Lantz tote bag, baby shoes, Clean and Clear Foaming Face Wash, Degree deodorant, Purpose face wash, Robitussin Cough and Cold, Zinc throat spray.

And in no particular order, this year I:

Traveled 39,895 miles, visited seven countries and spent 54 days away from home (DC and then Seoul). It is a lot more time at home than last year. I’m still exclusively breastfeeding little Isa, so she has to fly with me everywhere since I’m her food source. Pumping is an occasional option, but, since I am a known pump-hater, it is a last resort.
Kicked off 2015 in Mexico with some of my best pals and whiskey water
Said goodbye to Washington, D.C.
Got the best sendoff song of ever
Moved into my first-ever high-rise
Started learning Korean
Took a few MOOCs
Fried a few appliances due to international voltage differences
Learned about PM2.5 and started checking it every day
Played Korean drinking games with my company’s CEO
Started learning Korean, made little progress
Made a bunch of new expat friends, and
Entertained a lot of guests who visited from the states
Spent a lot more time with my mom/dad/brother, thanks to being newly Asia-based
Witnessed a line for a Taco Bell opening
Got the angriest listener voicemail
Let a stranger sleep on my shoulder on the Tokyo subway, which I learned is a Japan thing
Reflected upon my Korea experience with many blogs and magazines
Ate a giant cheeseburger in between contractions, during the birth of my new baby
Visited Jeju Island, a super weird place
Got a 10-year visa to China, but had to sign an MOU promising I wouldn’t commit acts of journalism when I’m there
Started life-logging again, this time with FitBit
Had a weird meeting at the North Korean embassy in Japan
Interviewed a Taiwanese presidential candidate
Witnessed a dog groomed into a square
Pissed off PSY’s lawyer
Found an uncannily spot-on Texas-themed bar in Tokyo
Covered ASEAN.
Spoke at my grandfather’s alma mater, in Beijing.
Got bronchitis after a trip to Beijing
Started a newsletter with a punny name.
Survived a 14-hour flight with a cranky husband, highly verbal three-year-old and a nursing baby. Then made it through their jet lag.

I think we can call it a year now. Goodbye, 2015.

Previous Years in Review:
201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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We Need To Talk About My Osaka Karaoke Experience

Intense singing. With strangers.

Intense singing. With strangers.

It’s no secret I enjoy a good karaoke night with friends, but it turns out there’s a semi-private karaoke experience — with strangers — I enjoy just as much.

Last weekend in Osaka my friend Sarah and I stumbled upon several bars of the same type: They are sorta-divey, narrow spaces — only as wide as a tall man’s wingspan, a single, sit down bar that seats maybe 12 people, tops, and three bartender women who serve you sake, beer or liquor while you and your barmates sit around and take turns signing karaoke selections which appear on the two screens in front of you. (The bartender ladies make sure to offer you the remote and song book at frequent intervals so the singing doesn’t cease).

You just drink and sing, and smoke, since it’s allowed in Japan, with strangers in a super intimate setting. Or you can ignore everyone and stare straight ahead, since it’s a bar and not a living room setting, like private karaoke rooms (which are far more common across Asia). But everyone applauds you at the end of your selection, these bars are full of men but non-suggestive bartender women, and you end up feeling a general sense of community in a short amount of time. I need to know what this bar concept is called!

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of  "Moon River" with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of “Moon River” with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

We befriended the Osaka man who happened to be seated next to us, and he humored me by singing the Japanese cliche, “Sukiyaki,” because it was the one Japanese song I could think of. I returned the favor by selecting “Moon River,” with which, for some reason, all Asians I’ve ever karaoked with are familiar.

The best part of the evening was, after we were three bottles of sake in, the bartender ladies passed out karaoke snack sticks for everyone. I think it was like a Funyun, but in the form of a cylinder, and wrapped in cute Doraemon packaging featuring little Doraemon holding a microphone singing. They come in onion or curry flavor (among others) and they were DELICIOUS. Sarah was most excited about the snack.

WHAT ARE THESE BARS? I don’t know the Japanese name for them but there’s gotta be a name for this type of experience, since while wandering the area near the Tennoji Zoo (parts of it can be kinda sketchy by Japan standards), there were several of them in a row. At first we were intimidated about wandering into one, namely because they were so small that it seemed unnerving, and because all the customers were men and the bartenders were women. But nothing even remotely weird or sexual seemed to happen while we were there. It was just a good ol’ time, making new friends. Definitely one of my top nights in Asia.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

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