Seoul Long, Or, Elise Goes West

“We’re just trying to get it done. You’re exhausted all the time. When people are like, ‘Are you going to be so sad when it’s over?,’ You’re like, ‘All I can concentrate on right now is the glass of wine that’s going to happen in about eight hours.’”
–Matthew Rhys

What is it like in the maelstrom of the most unpredictable and chaotic global stories as it intersects with the most unpredictable and chaotic American presidencies? It’s what you expect: Sometimes thrilling, frequently exhausting, feels important. Last month, throngs of us covered history — the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders — and President Trump subsequently declared world peace. So I think my work out here is done.

Okay, so North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the same as it was before, and maybe even expanding. But after three-plus years on the peninsula, it IS time to go home — we repatriate to the US this weekend.

Look, we had three takes to get a mic dropping photo but catching a shot of the mic as it’s falling in *just the right place* was a bridge too far. We tried. Credit: Jun Michael Park

After flying west to wind up in East Asia, which became the titular blog and sendoff song (song still holds up), now I’ll fly east to the West coast, specifically Los Angeles — a place full of Asians! LA boasts the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, so this soft re-entry point means my next pore-vacuuming facial will only be a short drive away.

Broadly the plan is to develop a new beat, continue to host my video adventures and fill-in host our radio programs from DC or Culver City (we have some deal to say Culver City and not LA). Ideally I want to guinea pig expressions of NPR on non-radio platforms — live events, smart speakers, you know, whatever we can experiment with, without breaking.

And A Partridge In A Pear Tree

Not twelve hours after I landed in Seoul to open NPR’s first ever Korea/Japan bureau in 2015, the US Ambassador to South Korea was knifed in the face by a North Korean sympathizer. My internet wasn’t even set up, so I started by filing spots by phone.

The pace never slowed down. Over these past three years, I birthed the bureau, two humans and our video series Elise Tries, a labor of love and experimentation. All the while, North Korea news was relentless.

I covered 27 missile tests, three nuclear tests, one land mine explosion, a plan to bracket Guam, threats to “totally destroy” North Korea,this year’s rapid rapprochement, a unified Winter Olympics, an interKorean summit at Panmunjom, a historic US-North Korea summit and a partridge in a pear tree.

Doing some KJU play-by-play with assistant Se Eun…

Outside the Koreas, I shuttled back-and-forth to Japan 35 times, filed from nine Asian countries, one US territory and twice from Hawaii. Covered three presidential trips to Asia, the G7, the aforementioned Olympics, a few ASEANs, the now-defunct S&ED in Beijing, followed the 17-week candlelight revolution which brought down the South Korean president, the changeover to a liberal Korean leader, the ups-and-downs of Japan’s Prime Minister and peeled back a host of social issues and curiosities. The curiouser of the curiosities became grist for our bootstrapped Elise Tries vids, which somehow got seven million Facebook views in its first season and just won a Gracie Award.

Along the way, my family expanded (from three humans to five) AND contracted (from three pets to one). I delivered Isa in 2015 and Luna in 2017, both in Seoul. Nursing them each for a year meant the breast pump soldiered several international journeys.

The youngest, Luna, is walking and talking now, but her infanthood’s memorialized forever. Isa came here in my belly and now stands on street corners hailing her own cabs. Our oldest, Eva, arrived here as a goofy two-year-old and will leave a month shy of her sixth birthday — literate, and missing her bottom front teeth.

“Luna Tries” at eight weeks, getting a K-beauty facial

Eva somehow got into a badass Mandarin immersion kindergarten in Venice, and being fluent in a second language is something I’ve wanted to give her since she was born.

With Special Thanks…

Expat life is the kind of free-form existence that suits my Aquarian tendencies. And it’s a rare privilege these days to get to work overseas with the support of a large, well-funded news organization. But in addition to being a itinerant foreign correspondent, I’m also a partner and mom, and my spouse is ready to move on. A fairly woke feminist, he left his full time journalism job to join me on this adventure abroad. Women do this for men all the time, so neither he nor I think he deserves applause, but in the context of East Asia’s highly-gendered societies, Matty becoming a trailing spouse and the lead parent was radical. He — and our all around helper/housekeeper/nanny Yani — are the heroes of this Asia stint.

At Matty’s first PTA meeting at Eva’s international preschool, the PTA president learned he’d just left his job as a Wall Street Journal reporter.

“She said, oh, you’re a reporter, you can probably take good notes,” he recalled. And that is how he became PTA secretary for the 2016-2017 school year. He downgraded to room parent the next year, because while still lead-parenting, he filed prolifically for the Los Angeles Times.

We both covered the summit spectacle to end all summit spectacles, in Singapore. The whole fam had to go because news rules our lives. We came full circle from last August, when the Party of Five went to Guam because Kim Jong Un threatened the territory and Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury.”

Now “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” if the President of the United States can be believed [clears throat].

Peace in the Far East. What better way to leave this beat?

Related:
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
Goodbye to KVUE-TV
Launching the Texas Tribune
Leaving Austin, NPR-bound
Seoul
The Long Goodbye from Washington

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Conversations With My Korean Teacher

(Credit: Jay P. Lee/Flickr)

Let’s face it, I am not really getting much better at speaking Korean, except when I’m drunk, when something magical happens and I just start full-on speaking Korean. Friend Alex witnessed this once and said it was rather disconcerting because before that, she had never once heard me utter a single phrase in Korean.

Despite my lack of progress, I still spend every Thursday afternoon with Lee Unkyung, the trusted private teacher to British, Australian and New Zealand diplomats, as well as a raft of foreign correspondents who have come through Seoul. I love Unkyung and count her among one of my closest Korean friends. She is the oldest of four daughters, so she knows what it’s like to deal with the sister dynamics she witnesses among my children each week. As my Korean has haltingly improved, our conversations about birth order and sister relationships have gotten (slightly) more nuanced.

She’s also a font of story ideas! Because we start each lesson with conversation practice, she ends up sharing interesting headlines or debates that are going on in Korean society that I often don’t know about yet. So helpful.

Today we talked about the standard Korean phrases that translate awkwardly into English, and vice versa. I often hear, “Have a good rest,” for example. Which seems odd as an English phrase. But she explained that 푹 쉬세요 (pook she-seh-yo) is something Koreans say to one another all the time. 

This happens in the reverse when you translate the English phrase “What do you think” into Korean, because in Korean, you don’t say “WHAT do you think” but instead “HOW do you think?” So she says it’s a dead giveaway that you’re translating an original English question from your mind when a speaker says “WHAT do you think” in Korean.

My favorite common Korean phrase is 마음에 들어요 (ma-oom-eh duhlauyo), which is understood to mean “it pleases me.” But if you want to be real literal about it, the phrase can translate as “It fits my heart exactly.” And what could be more lovely than that?

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The Summit

With Josh at the end of a long day, before our appearance on MSNBC

I slept about three hours a night for a few nights so the recovery feels like a really bad hangover. Matty is in such poor shape that (egad!) I had to take care of ALL THREE GIRLS AT THE SAME TIME yesterday. But gosh, I loved Singapore. The food, the expertly planned out thoroughfares, the rooftops, the polyglots, the sunshine, the pools available everywhere … if I were a super-rich expat I would totally live there! I mean, are you kidding? The place is so great that it seems fake. That is, if you like having malls at every corner to get whatever you need and no hassles whatsoever, and you’re okay with trading your civil liberties for it.

I did get lost in one of Singapore’s ubiquitous underground malls one time and I feared I would never be above ground again, and the irony was I went to the mall to buy sunscreen.

While Trump’s big accomplishment at the summit was the reset of the US-North Korea relationship (and world peace, of course), I completed the US cable news network hat trick (CNN-Fox-MSNBC) inside of about 12 hours! Anderson Cooper was probably the biggest star I got to appear with, something I was reminded of when we were in commercial break waiting to go live from a second floor hotel balcony when passersby on the sidewalk yelled, “ANDERSON COOPER!” He says they don’t usually have any material besides that. On the day of the summit, my friend Josh Lederman and I coincidentally got booked on Bret Baier’s show together, but the greatest coincidence was that for my last booking of the day, an hour with MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson, Josh was ALSO my studio buddy. Josh and I became friends in Laos and then reunited in Hawaii. This time around we got to hang in Singapore on rival cable networks. Journalism breeds some random and memorable friendships.

Because both spouse and I had to cover the bejeezus out of the summit, and my parents are off on some Canadian adventure, we brought the children and helper Yani with us to Singapore. Eva’s bestie Jonah of the Wan-Yau’s lives in Singapore so the Wan-Yau’s helped entertain the girls the whole time. Almost positive we will never be able to repay them for their friendship.

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Sometimes I Respond To Email

Because I lack discipline and any real “life structure,” my email habits are rather capricious. I either respond RIGHT AWAY or I phantom respond. That is, I will BELIEVE I responded but what really happened was I wrote a response in my head but never actually committed it to something anyone could receive. BTW does everyone talk to themselves a lot? I feel like I talk to myself as much as John Nash as depicted by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, like when he was becoming full-on schizophrenic.

This morning a self-described tech industry exec wrote to say he mentioned me in his blog post, and was that okay? It turns out we had an email exchange back in 2014 when I was covering the tech and culture beat. The topic was the lack of diversity and women in computer engineering. (I had been writing a lot back then about the alarming gender and racial disparities in tech.) He had emailed me to say that the engineering team at his company was overwhelmingly white male but the problem was “nearly impossible” to change. I don’t remember what I wrote back but he did.

I know this because of the SHOCKINGLY FLATTERING post he wrote about it. I mean, seriously, I could not have made this up because if I were to make up a situation in which I helped someone out, I wouldn’t make is sound this nice because it wouldn’t be believable.

“I have not always been the greatest advocate for women, but I am learning. In 2014 a reporter from NPR, Elise Hu, had written a series about a lack of diversity in tech.  At the same time I was actively hiring and trying to fill the role with women. That said, I had gotten resumes from something like 50 candidates and roughly 47 of them were white men. What was I supposed to do?  How could this be my fault?  How could I be accountable? I reached out to Elise and pointed this out to her, thinking it was definitive proof that myself and people like me were off the hook.  
 
She wrote back in a little over an hour. She said many smart things, but asked me simply who had taught me to program?  The answer was my uncle.  She then carefully explained to me that white men were often teaching other white men to program and there in lies the problem.  They were sparking interest in computers in young white men, and doing nothing to spark an interest in more diverse populations. The cause of the pipeline problem was outside of academics.   
 
This resonated with me because it is my belief that while you can learn a lot about technology in academics, applying that knowledge successfully often requires direct one on one mentorship. The pipeline is our responsibility because we have the knowledge and even though we might not be academics we can still spend our time mentoring and sparking the interest in more diverse populations.  The problem is not caused intentionally, but simply based on normative behavior and pre-existing relationships.
 
We are accountable. Until that moment, I thought the best thing I could do was simply stand out of the way and avoid being biased as much as possible. Essentially be passive. It was again a strong and intelligent woman who changed my thinking, and taught me that it is everyone’s responsibility to play an active role in change.”

First, GO STEPHEN!

Second, the lesson of this is that sometimes the exchanges with strangers who write you can seem really mundane and perfunctory. But if you can offer your time or thoughts, they could potentially make an impact or have quite a ripple effect.

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My Mentor Marty And The First Time I Learned About Sinclair

“Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.”
-John Oliver

Marty at his desk with his firstborn, Andrew, in the late eighties.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would not still be in journalism today had it not been for the mentors I met along the way. One of the most important was Marty Haag. He warned me about Sinclair 15 years ago.

Marty was a legend by the time I first heard his name, which was sometime in 2000 when I went to intern at WFAA, the ABC affiliate which Marty led as news director for more than a decade. He turned down numerous job offers to lead TV networks because he was committed to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, a fact we all only learned of after his death. He was an executive at the station’s parent company, Belo, when I was at WFAA. But because of his focus and exacting leadership, that station was known across the country as a powerhouse and representative of the highest values in journalism. Marty had clear vision, creativity, encouraged risk-taking and empowered his reporters. He is the kind of boss that all his employees wanted to make proud. It’s rare — I have been in the business for a long time now and I have only come across people like that two times since.

I came to know Marty only by chance. I was interning that summer of 2000 and his son, Andrew, decided to intern, too. Andrew and I became friends and together, we went with the WFAA team to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to do tasks such as picking up lunch and cutting tape and running scripts. I was headed off to college that fall (incidentally also Marty’s alma mater). During my senior year a few years later I asked Andrew if, when I came home for the holidays, whether I could meet Marty. He connected us and we all went to eat at their country club because that’s where people from Dallas eat lunch. (True story: When I was on the golf team in high school we were expected to just practice at our own country clubs because it was assumed that everyone had one to go to.)

From then on, Marty and I began one of the great email correspondences of my life. He was quick with the wisecracks and always generous with his advice and wisdom. We met up IRL around graduation to talk about my job hunt. He was retired by then, and teaching at SMU. I had harebrained ideas about maybe just packing up and moving to Nepal to make a documentary. He never seemed to shoot down ideas like that, always willing to imagine what was possible instead of what was not. My more “traditional” notion was to find a job in television news. This is the part of the conversation I remember vividly, and it shaped my trajectory.

Me: Should I just send resume tapes* everywhere throw everything up against a wall and see what sticks?

Him: No. Be targeted in your job hunt. Work for newsrooms with integrity because they will make you better. Don’t work at companies that don’t value journalism. I wouldn’t work at any Sinclair stations, because they only care about the bottom line.**

Marty then proceeded to write down on a Post-it, in pencil, the specific call letters of stations I should work at for my first job and their respective cities. One of them was KWTX-TV in Waco, where I wound up. When I wrote him telling him of my troubles at work (the kind of pedestrian problems the likes of a senior reporter being mean to me), he wrote, “Just keep your head down and work hard and let the work speak for itself.”

I still hear Marty’s voice as clear as day, in my head. It’s powerful how people’s voices really stick with you.

Epilogue, aka, this is no longer about Sinclair

Not more than three months after I started that job in Waco, Marty died suddenly of a stroke over Christmas/New Year’s break. I spent several days afterward at the Haag house with his sons and his beloved golden retrievers and a steady stream of loved ones who flowed in and out of that place. Marty is the first (and only) mentor I’ve had who died and while it cannot compare to what his sons and wife must have gone through, this loss hit me hard.

What I remember about those days at the Haag house was his younger son, Matthew, playing a lot of chess. And at some point when his brother was taking a long time to consider a move, Matthew, then just a teenager, recalled what his father often said to him. “Just make a decision and move forward,” Matthew said, recalling his dad’s advice. He was talking about chess but also about everything.

So many journalists-who-you-know were nurtured, shaped and guided by Marty: Scott Pelley, Russ Mitchell, Andrea Joyce, Leeza Gibbons, Paula Zahn, Verne Lundquist, Dale Hansen (who still talks about him in interviews), hundreds more. A few years after Marty’s death when I ran into Matthew at a bar, he introduced me to his girlfriend and told her, “This is my dad’s last protegé.” There was no one behind me, as Marty died when his son Andrew and I were both only 21.

With Andrew at CNN in New York last month.

Today Matthew is a reporter at The New York Times, Andrew is a producer at CNN, and two weeks ago I got to see Andrew in person when I was in New York. I’m sure Marty is so, so proud of them.

Most of the time I find it a huge privilege to do what we do but over the years I have often gotten down in the dumps and unmotivated and plainly just want to do something else. But I often think, what would Marty say, and I either keep my head down and work hard or just make a decision and move forward.

I have never worked at a Sinclair station.

*These were actual VHS tapes, kids

**Now we know Sinclair cares about not just the bottom line but also conservative orthodoxy. Trivia: Marty fired Bill O’Reilly for breaches in journalism ethics back when O’Reilly worked for him in the 1970s.

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Yesterday, A Behind-The-Scenes Memoriam

Melbourne street art, shot by Edward H Blake

The lead parent of our children is off in America so I have been really getting my momming on over the past few days. (Y’all know how that usually goes for me. VERY laissez faire.) Being in charge of my two children and a baby while also working from home was already going to be daunting in it of itself, but the despot Kim Jong Un decided to throw in an extra challenge! He invited President Trump to meet face-to-face, and Trump accepted, in an announcement that came down at 9am yesterday morning. A bona fide news bomb.

This is what I remember: I thankfully awakened slowly rather than suddenly because somehow there were no screaming fits or random sibling throw-downs to break up at the break of dawn. Since November 2016 I have avoided news inputs until I am fully awake and ready to take in whatever inevitably shocking alert is on my phone. Yesterday was distinct in that news hadn’t actually broken at 7:30am when I woke up. News ABOUT news was filling my inbox because POTUS DJT had popped his head in the White House Briefing Room (a room he’s never been seen in) and said there was a “major announcement” coming in 90 minutes. The countdown began.

Our helper Yani served breakfast and braided hair. I made sure the girls got on their buses. Baby Luna slept through all the way until 8:30am when both older girls were off for school. I hate having to feed her and read at the same time a furious feed-and-read situation followed in order to finish both in time for the announcement. By then, we knew that the news had to do with North Korea, and that the South Korean envoys who had just met with KJU on Monday went to Washington an invitation from Kim to Trump, to meet. This would be unprecedented and incredible on many, many levels. The craziest thing was that, at the 9am/7pm EST announcement, we learned Trump just accepted this invite immediately! It breaks with decades of U.S. practice but this is Trump and really, are there norms anymore?

From a windowless, carpeted room that serves as a perfect home “studio,” got on live with our program All Things Considered right after the announcement, at 9:30am Korea time. But my kindergartner Eva’s monthly school assembly was at 10am! I am her only parent in the country right now. She expected me to be there and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I rushed to her school by cab, stayed through to her performance (last because they’re the oldest) and then made sure she saw that I was there and had to go, then ran to hail another cab to take me home, making it with four minutes to spare before my next live conversation with All Things Considered, at 11am. That could have really gone the other way for me so, thank you God.

Later I delivered a stroller to a friend who needed to borrow it, ate lunch on base with some USGOV guys who joked around about this rather stunning news with me (I’m leaving the jokes out of this blog post), and because I don’t like to cancel appointments at the last minute, I took a cab all the way to my pedicure place only to realize that because I jumped into the cab while conducting a phone interview*, I forgot to bring any forms of payment! We had to turn around and return to my home, get my wallet, drive back to pedicure place only for me to realize, by then, that I didn’t have time for the appointment because there were many more live conversations to have and the web post to write-through. At some point I needed to sit down and speed read and correspond with more people, which is what those of us in the biz call “reporting.” In the evening when the girls had to be bathed and put down for bed, I was on Morning Edition twice. In between the two hits, Eva, who is starting to read, read to me (this felt interminable because I was on deadline) and we completed the True/False questions in the back because she loves True/False. Then I recall putting a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on for them in lieu of any more books.

I got the girls tucked in and put down for bed and then got my ass to a friend’s Pyeongchang Paralympics Opening Ceremony Watch Party, because YES THAT WAS YESTERDAY, too.

Behind the scenes, twenty minutes before the Up First podcast taping.

Here are the conversations, as they appeared in the course of this string of events:

All Things Considered after the feed-and-read with Luna (no link because it was replaced with the next one)
All Things Considered in the nick-of-time after making it back from Eva’s assembly
Morning Edition/Up First podcast after my failed pedicure attempt but got a giant cookie for Isa (she loves cookies)
Morning Edition after the True/False questions
All Things Considered after being awakened this morning with a 6:30am call to talk again. My voice is noticeably lower here because I’d just woken up. Sorry.

Not included in this post: All the stress eating and Starbucks green iced teas. By the end of the day there were just plastic Starbucks drink vessels strewn all over my desk.

*It was John, a friend/source of mine who is a China historian and North Korea watcher based here in Seoul. We spend half of our phone calls just mercilessly making fun of each other. A running gag is we our phone conversations by performing the phone greetings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese obnoxiously: (Roboseyo? Roboseyo! // Wei? Wei? // Moshi Moshi!? Moshi Mosh.)

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Great, or The Greatest, “Fan” Mail?

I have been working in journalism for my entire adult life and while most of the time the engagement with our listeners, readers and viewers is totally awesome, every once in awhile I get hostile feedback with picayune complaints that invariably include a personal dig. This absurdly rude type of “reader mail” has uniformly come from men. And it always includes some patronizing, preachy component.

There was that voicemail about jail versus prison, in 2015:

Last week, I got another classic one that I had to share with folks, because it was a) so absurd that it circled around to being funny b) the sender entered his name as “First Name Last Name” c) his email was an excite.com address and d) it so amused Friend Reeve that he spent his precious time helping compose a long-ass response (which I edited considerably before sending).

Here’s the listener note, which was, I kid you not, triggered by the fact I say “You bet” instead of “You’re welcome” sometimes.

And here’s the director’s cut response, of which only about five percent wound up in the actual response.

Dear [EMAIL ADDRESS REDACTED],

I’m sorry to hear that you have emailed management repeatedly and have yet to receive a response. As a reporter, I know how frustrating it can be to reach out and not know if your message was received. Somewhere in Kim Jong Un’s inbox, there is probably a whole folder of my unanswered interview requests. So, I hope you didn’t lose any sleep wondering, “Did she get my message?”  You bet I did!

You’ll have to bear with me, Gnarlee. Usually I am pretty casual. But since I know you’re a stickler for these sorts of things, I looked up the top ten email manners tips on EmilyPost.com, and I intend to follow them very closely as I write this response.

The first tip is to always respond, and to try and do so within 24 hours. Check! The second is to use the subject line to alert the receiver to the substance of the email, relieving them of any suspense. As you can see, I have done that. I hope you were not kept in suspense too long. I know you are very sensitive!

The third tip, which I think is a very good one, is to “consider using an address book function that doesn’t list all recipients in the ‘to’ header.” Accordingly, I have bcced numerous people on this email. The fourth — and I bet you can appreciate how relevant this was, Gnarlee! — is to not respond when you are “hot under the collar.” I followed the internet’s advice, and I let this sit for awhile before deciding that I would, in fact, send it.

Tips five, seven, nine and ten don’t really have any bearing on our correspondence. Tip eight is to keep it professional, by which they mean don’t talk about personal stuff. I would imagine following the standard letter-writing format I learned at Babler Elementary School — like making sure you have a salutation and a closing, using proper punctuation,  and things like that — could also fall under the idea of “keeping it professional.” So, even though I notice this was not a priority for you, I have made sure to do that, because as I said, I really want this email to demonstrate basic manners.

Finally, Gnarlee, that brings us to tip six. And I fear that this is where this whole project might fall apart, because tip six is “know your audience.” And even though your email clearly identifies you as “Full Name,” I feel like I just don’t know you, Gnarlee. And I feel like you don’t know me. And that makes this difficult. For all I know, your upbringing was completely different from mine. It’s also likely that our current lives don’t look all that similar (unless, of course, you are also a one-woman foreign bureau for NPR — in which case, way to go!). So unfortunately, though as you can see I came pretty close, I fear I may not be able to adhere to all of the top ten etiquette guidelines. Not because of any deficiency in my education, but just because they turned out to be a bit too rigid for our current context. No doubt, this has disappointed you, Gnarlee. I am sorry for that. The last thing I would want to do would be to write an email just to needlessly upset you.

My pleasure,

Elise

The New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner put it well, when she explained why she shares this kind of stuff:

“The biggest thing: I think it’s important for people who don’t get (or send?!) notes like these to see what the costs are for publicly being a certain type of person. Journalists need to see this, because while lots of us get stuff like this, PLENTY MORE don’t. And for many who do, the hostility is not gendered/racist/intimately personal in this way. It’s also important for journalist/public actors who DO get these notes to know they’re not alone. If you’re getting garbage hurled at you, know you aren’t the only one.”

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It’s A Dog Eat Dog Year

I am a ball of anxiety as 2018 gets underway. We are headed into the Year of the Dog, which is my zodiac year. Chinese superstition governs that you have to be very careful during your “本命年” because you’re more likely to have bad luck or accidents. You’re supposed to avoid negative people and life transitions like getting married or starting a business during the year.

There are countermeasures, like a lot of wearing-of-red. I think.

The last time this came up, when I was 24, was actually awesome! It was the year I miraculously got a dream job to cover the state capitol in Texas, which let me move out of South Carolina and reunite with my surly long-distance boyfriend. It also led to friendships that have endured and some of the most fun, most memorable reporting years of my life. TBH I wouldn’t be here, posting this from my sweetass employer-provided high-rise overlooking Seoul but for that key life change during my zodiac year.

But this time around I happen to be scheduled for unemployment by summer, because my contract will end. Where will I live? What will I do for a living? There are many factors that make a gal feel … unsettled.

I need to go see my mom for an egg rolling.

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2017 Year in Review: “Provocations”

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!

Awaiting a Trump press conference in Tokyo at Akasaka Palace, during his first trip to Asia as president.

“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.

ahhhhhhh!!!

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.

New Places: Indonesia, Guam, Hokkaido, Australia

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:

2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010
2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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Temporary Duty Yonder

Reported to duty.

The military term for a long stint elsewhere is TDY, which the armed forces like to joke stands for “Temporary Duty Yonder.” I’m not even sure what it really stands for, TBH. There I go with the acronyms again!

I went to Washington for most of November, coming off a blistering week-and-a-half reporting in advance of — and during —President Trump’s epic trip to Asia. (Nothing substantive was really achieved for the US but he commanded a lot of attention and resources in the region.) Thankfully, our afternoon program, All Things Considered, sent me a producer for the Asia trip — Becky — and we reported at a breakneck pace while sneaking in delicious meals. From the Tokyo leg, I came to Seoul for one day with Trump and covered a bunch of right-wing Koreans who welcomed him, then grabbed my baby and a suitcase and got on a plane to Washington. Then, Becky and I had to re-live Wednesday, November 8 due to the time difference. The first Wednesday November 8 was already exhausting; you can imagine having to do it again, but in Washington. I ended my second Wednesday November 8th with my former editor, Uri, at the “sad Hilton Garden Inn” bar, which is really, really sad. But I enjoy the kitsch of it.

I have spent too much time writing about the sad Hilton Garden Inn bar.

During said time in America, this what I remember: I interviewed the surgeon general, the former FCC Chairman, the head of Canada’s only HIV/AIDS treatment hospital, David Brooks, EJ Dionne, NPR’s East Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton three separate times about the fall of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik about more sexual harassment trouble at NPR, author Megan Hunter about her dystopian novella, comedian Hari Kondabolu about what’s wrong with The Simpson’s character Apu, my friend Megan Garber about why women don’t speak up about sexual harassment, wrote and put into the world longer-length pieces about the meaning of statues in the ongoing Korea-Japan conflict and the decline of the golf industry in Japan, and narrated as my cohost Ari put leftover Thanksgiving stuffing into a waffle iron.

The panel! Richard Haass, Ian Bremmer, me and Fareed

I ate dinner and drank cocktails with so many old friends because I tried to do a different dinner reunion each night. This made for meaningful conversations and catchups and meetings of new family members (babies and children, natch).

CNN also flew me up to New York one Sunday morning to do Fareed Zakaria’s show from the actual set, which was fun because I missed my Council on Foreign Relations orientation and I got to apologize to the CFR president about it in person (he was fine so long as I paid my dues) and before I went home Friend Kat came to meet up for about 20 minutes before I trained it back to DC.

There was other stuff, too, but this blog is full of contemporaneous (and therefore incomplete) accounts.

Notes of extreme gratitude go to:

  • Sudeep and Hun. My friend Hun gathered up baby things so that Luna would have a car seat and bouncer and Bumbo seat and pack n’ play while she was with me during TDY. Then she dropped off said stuff at Sudeep’s, who then pre-furnished my AirBnB with the baby items so that they were there and waiting for us when we arrived. How amazing are these people!?

I got to be the guest of honor at Marcus and Maggie’s amazing table

    • Marcus, who, upon learning I’d be coming to town, decided to host a dinner at his home for me and my friends. WHAT?! His house is decked out in fabulous modern Chinese art from his stints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and every piece had an incredible story. His wife Maggie made paella in those glorious cast-iron skillets that are actually meant-for-paella, and the dinner included my work spouse for life, Matt, singing us some numbers from his New York Times-themed musical that is in the works. (I am not joking.) This night was really fantastic.

 

    • David, who was in Seoul with me with the President and invited me over to Thanksgiving at his house when he found out I’d be without my family this year. Luna, her helper Yani and I joined in and it ended up being just like the Thanksgivings in my own Asian-American family: loud, lots of code-switching, food and taking pictures of food.

 

  • Robert Siegel, Kelly McEvers, Ari Shapiro and the whole staff at All Things Considered, which let me guest host on their program during some of the hardest weeks to be at NPR headquarters, because there’s sexual harassment stories hitting our own workplace in a widely public way. The co-hosts were exceedingly patient with me not knowing my ass from my elbow or a “line” from a “nipper”, which are shorthand terms for things that hosts say on the air. What a huge privilege to get to say “It’s All Things Considered from NPR News, I’m Elise Hu” for several days in a row. I will never, ever forget it.

    In the host chair with Ari, who is pretty much a perfect human

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