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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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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Hostile Environment Training In The English Countryside

View from my hotel room at the estate near Kent, England, where we trained for hostile situations.

View from my hotel room at the estate near Kent, England, where we trained for hostile situations.

So I’m back from a six-day trip to London and its outer regions, where I was sent for a hostile environment training course, which is something tailored for journalists who cover riots, natural disasters and war zones as well as non-profit employees who work in the same kind of areas. All my company’s foreign correspondents go through this, and usually every three years, to make sure our skills are fresh. It’s run by former British military people (the Brits seem to have cornered the market on hostile situation prep courses). They can authentically say things like, “I trained Peshmerga in 1991 and the new guard is really watered down.”

The training goes for varying lengths, but I was taking a ‘refresher’ which lasted three 12-hour days.

These courses cover everything from first aid (they do not let you leave without being able to quickly tie a tourniquet), to how to spot land mines, prepare risk assessments, handle sketchy checkpoints (where people are often fleeced or kidnapped), protect yourself under small arms fire or more serious stuff, like rocket-propelled grenades, avoid injuries while covering riotous protests and, of course, how to try and negotiate yourself out of a kidnapping/hostage situation. All this while doing your job, so the exercises also have you try and conduct interviews and record footage while you’re avoiding risk.

That time we made a makeshift stretcher with five of our coats.

That time we made a makeshift stretcher with five of our coats.

SAMPLE LESSON: “ISIS isn’t big into ciggies, so maybe have chocolates on you instead.”

To prepare you, the training team have bands of actors and real life scenarios (even a fake country with rebel factions and such) who are often catastrophically bleeding or disemboweled or stuck underneath actual vehicles or other assorted horrific situations so that you can practice your training.

SAMPLE LESSON: “There’s a certain amount of holes in your body and your objective is to come back without any additional holes.”

On the final day we simulated a convoy going into a rebel-held area of a fake country and ran into all sorts of intense situations. My four-man team hit a low point when we went running into a field of land mines because well, we didn’t really check. Gah! Learning experience.

SAMPLE LESSON: “Judge the right time and tactic to be extorted.”

The class is full of war correspondents and other assorted badasses. So hands do go up when a trainer asks, “Who was in Benghazi? Anyone do Tripoli? Remember when kids fired RPGs into the sky?”

Between the hands-on exercises are lectures from the military guys. One of them was Scottish and another, Irish. I could understand about 60% of what the Scot was saying, and about 75% of the Irish guy. Even the Liverpool accent was tough for me though, let’s be honest. This is some vocab I had to pickup along the way:

Boot: Car trunk
Bonnet: Hood
432 (I think?): Scottish emergency number

A sketchy checkpoint.

A sketchy checkpoint.

In addition, now I know how shrapnel flies up in an arc (hence the reason to get down really low if you can’t find cover), our first aid kids come with EXTRA packing gauze for those wounds where there’s an open cavity you need to pack and a special “Stump Dressing” for missing limbs.

I recommend this course, not only for the practical lessons but also because mine was in the most beautiful setting for a course like this. Apparently we did exercises where the Canadians trained for D-Day. And the band of classmates is going to be inevitably interesting, because, otherwise they wouldn’t be in this course. Afterwards you’ll know answers questions like “Can I elevate a stump?” and “How do I tourniquet myself?”

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Korean Programming Note

New show on Korean TV.

New show on Korean TV.

I don’t understand most Korean news programs except for those on the English-language channel, Arirang. They are doing a new show this season featuring panels of foreign correspondents based in Seoul and I guested last week. We talked North Korea at Imjingak, near the interKorean border.

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Musings On Newsroom Diversity

The people of color in the Texas Tribune newsroom when it launched, in 2009. We jokingly took this "minority caucus" photo.

The people of color in the Texas Tribune newsroom when it launched, in 2009. Given there were so few of us, we jokingly took this “minority caucus” photo.

 

As audiences — and, let’s face it — the entire United States of America — become increasingly non-white, new numbers are out on newsroom diversity. They’re “meh”:

“People of color make up about 17 percent of staffs at daily newspapers and 23 percent at digital operations. At print publications, about 38 percent of staffers are women; digital operations clock in at 50 percent women.”

The figures represent an increase in top line numbers, but as I pointed out when quoted for this piece, diversity isn’t just a numbers game. It is helpful to have metrics to see where you’re starting and whether you’re improving, but any diversity efforts have to be interrogated further: What does diversity mean to whoever is championing it? Does it mean just having a mix of people, or does it mean empowering non-white people in a way that’s meaningful, in a way that they’re not scared to share opinions that are out of sync, or might challenge norms and improve the organization?

My personal experiences as a person of color in newsrooms include annoyances like getting confused for another Asian reporter (so often that this is how me and Ailsa Chang became friends), and struggling with feeling like a token or “the only one” in the room. I even used Family Guy‘s token “Asian Reporter Trisha Takanawa” as my Facebook avatar for awhile. To drive home the point of subtle racism toward minority journalists, Family Guy makes it overt: “Tricia’s cultural background prevents her from entering certain buildings. In the series, she cannot go into the Park-Barrington Hotel because ‘they don’t allow Asians inside.'”

The burden of being “the only one” is a tax that we minorities pay over time, and could explain why so many people of color drop out of the field before realizing their full leadership potential. Why do I have to be the only one in a room who speaks up for inclusion? And don’t look at me for what Asians writ large think about things, as I can’t speak for the billions of us. As activist Jesse Williams says, racism is not a black person’s problem or a brown person’s problem. It should be the concern of everyone, so expecting that only people color carry that water is ridiculous:

“[Racism] is not a black problem. This is a white problem. This is an American problem. This is a societal problem. People should be outraged that a man is able to instigate an interaction with kids and then shoot them when it doesn’t go well. It should be an outrage for everybody.”

I don’t speak for my employer. For as long as I’ve been part of it, the organization has been talking about being a more demographically inclusive place. I believe my managers when they say they’re committed to diversity. But we have a ways to go on two fronts: retention of people of color and a lack of people of color in leadership positions. Over the past few years, we’ve lost women of color in top positions, so when I look at the very highest ranks of my company, I don’t see anyone who might have a shared experience with mine. The effects are between the lines. Without underrepresented groups in charge, not only are there likely editorial or hiring decisions that perpetuate a certain lack of diversity but what’s more concerning is that there are blind spots; gaps in experience or perspectives that seem “normal” that aren’t that way to everyone, but go unnoticed because the people at the head tables are racially homogenous.

Toward Solutions

This can’t just be a long rambling rant, right?

Besides a more thorough thinking through and interrogation of what diversity means to a newsroom, the other thing to think about is having people in power acknowledge unconscious biases transparently and use their power to make a more level playing field. This is important, because the homogeneity in leadership ranks can make newsrooms uncomfortable for people who feel different, and younger staffers may feel pressure to fit in by assimilating to existing culture rather than disrupting and diversifying it. That then undermines the whole point of having a diverse newsroom in the first place. The assimilation in small and big ways is where I feel I’ve compromised myself the most in my journalism career. I feel sad about it and it constantly weighs on me, especially during this presidential election cycle.

As a recruiting tool, it helps to make your women and people of color visible. It’s invaluable. I came to NPR because of the sheer visibility and change making of another person of color, Matt Thompson (now at The Atlantic). He is my forever work spouse and had no small part in recruiting me. He was a champion for recruiting people of color and even mandating that people of color be in finalist pools when we hired.

Beyond the straight transaction of recruitment, I think it helps me and other minorities to see other women and people of color speak up for themselves and own their value at organizations. It sets a great example and makes for places I want to work.

More Reading

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On Living In Asia And A Different Notion of ‘Freedom’

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured "hazardous for all groups," not just children and old people.

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.

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Planes, Trains, Buses and Boats

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

The traveling White House press loading yet another mode of transportation. These people are pros at moving their luggage around.

I just returned from a five-day trip to Japan that felt like it lasted two weeks. Part of the reason is how much of Japan’s main island we had to traverse to cover the president, who was making his final trip to the Asian country as president. He concluded it with an unprecedented visit to nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima.

You know how when you arrive at an airport there are signs for “Taxi” or “Rental Car”? At the Nagoya airport, there are signs just like that, except for “High Speed Boat.” That was the first leg of my journey to get to Ise-Shima, the twin cities hosting this year’s G7 summit. I boated it 45 minutes to Tsu before catching a bus to Ise, which was another 70 minutes away.

Boat transit.

Boat transit.

That was just the beginning of several days inside various transportation-craft, the best of which were the chartered planes for the traveling White House press. They featured KFC chicken fingers as we awaited clearance for take-off and everyone in first class.  Instead of numbered seats, you get a seating chart, by news organization.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

CNN was the team in charge of pooling the shots for the rest of the networks, hence, UBER crew.

I like doing these POTUS trips because I get to reunite with some of my old Washington pals, like David Nakamura, who travels with the president a lot for his gig at the Washington Post, and I always meet new friends, too. This time the CNN International crew that adopted me was led by their Hong Kong-based editor and correspondent, Andrew Stevens. When the G7 leaders visited the heart of Shinto-ism, the Ise Shrine, the press didn’t get to go. So we waited til the leaders left and made our way there to check it out.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

At the Ise Jingu with CNN producer Steven Jiang, in from Beijing, yours truly and CNN correspondent Andrew Stevens, in from Hong Kong.

Not long after this photo was taken, we wandered a street in front of the shrine’s entrance and found a craft beer stand. Not unlike a lemonade stand, but with beer and fried oysters on sticks. Divine.

The trip got increasingly more intense as the end of it neared, because the final day was the weightiest of the president’s Asia journey: He visited nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima, and became the first U.S. president to do so. It was emotional being there, especially when the two survivors that would shake hands and hug the president were rolled in their wheelchairs right past me as I rushed to get out to the camera locations to catch the wreath laying. I knew immediately they were the survivors from their ages — nonagenarians — and from the contentment on their faces. One of them had clear evidence of burns on his skin. I later read he had been burned head to toe in the bombing.

Anyway, it’s difficult to cover those sorts of events because of the bigness of what’s happening before your eyes and the lack of time to reflect upon what you’re bearing witness to, and what had happened there in that spot where we stood, where now there’s manicured lawns and children and French bulldogs playing. 71 years ago, it was a wasteland.

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“We often get caught up in platforms rather than the most important tool for success, which is not a technological platform at all: it’s intellectual curiosity. It’s that persistent tug to want to know more, to ask questions, to seek answers. The best reporting comes from the best questions, and no matter what the platform, great journalists are asking them.”

my chat with Gigaverse about finding good work, my favorite platform on which to report and balancing parenthood and journalism

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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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The Long Goodbye From DC, Part One

When leaving town, why have one big final blowout in which you accidentally consume too much marijuana and find yourself throwing up the entire way to the airport the next day (I’m just saying hypothetically, cough cough) when you can have a string of smaller goodbyes over the course of three weeks?

My former common-law work spouse Matt started his new gig at The Atlantic this month, our former boss Kinsey starts his new job in New York next month and my own move to Korea is imminent, so the first in the goodbye string was getting some of our old NPR colleagues together for drinks the same night the Packers showed America how to lose a football championship.

So many smiling faces. I already miss a lot of these colleagues so much.

So many smiling faces. I already miss a lot of these colleagues so much.

The other memorable part of this long goodbye tour is the DELICIOUS ETHNIC MEALS PEOPLE ARE MAKING FOR US. Eyder and his wife Cynthia dropped off authentic Texican enchiladas — Cynthia makes the verde sauce from scratch — and I ate three in one sitting. Chris Howie’s mom-in-law makes the most incredible Indian food ever and they had us over for a feast of I don’t even remember how many dishes. I got lost in a dream scenario of homemade naan, butter chicken, saag paneer, daal, oh man I can’t even describe.

Next, we wanted to see lots of DC drinking buddies and needed to get rid of a lot of random items in our house, like Magic Mesh, which Nick Fountain apparently wanted “real bad.”

So Friday night we had people over for a Hu-Stiles House Cooling, so that I could see lots of awesome people and give away items which included:

– Mark Sanford’s early book, The Trust Committed To Me
– A George W. Bush action figure
– A travel music stand
– Half a bottle of Jameson
– Some kind of Dutch knife sharpener
– A leftover party favor from my bridal shower in 2010
– A cat scratcher
– A screener of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood
AND SO MANY MORE AWESOME THINGS FOR YOU TO REMEMBER ME BY!

I mean, look at the excitement on their faces to leave with this bounty.

I mean, look at the excitement on their faces to leave with this bounty.

Last weekend we partied with the NPR  "olds." This weekend it's partying with the NPR "youngs." The olds definitely got drunker.

Last weekend we partied with the NPR “olds.” This weekend it’s partying with the NPR “youngs.” The olds definitely got drunker.

More goodbye-ing to come…

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