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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View from My Window: Seoul

Dawn in the megalopolis.

Dawn in the megalopolis.

Good morning from Seoul, where I’m on the aforementioned scouting trip. This is a look out my window from the 16th floor of the Westin Chosun, which is the heart of the city and right by the Seoul Finance Center, where I will later attempt to open up a bank account.

No one comes here without talking about the food and I’ve only had one meal so far at a Japanese place across the street (the weather is grim — wet, snowy and -5 Celsius) but let’s face it, it was better than anything “just across the street” in DC.

Saying A Proper Goodbye

Kinsey had to listen to a lot of speeches about him on Tuesday. (Photo by John Poole)

Kinsey had to listen to a lot of speeches about him on Tuesday. (Photo by John Poole)

We didn’t want it to happen, but it did. Our boss Kinsey, who headed all NPR’s content and technology, got re-organized out of a job a few weeks ago. There is a longish take on the situation (reported here) which includes elliptical language about a stunningly Game of Thrones-ey situation, involving decades-old fiefdoms and fights among NPR and its stations over the network’s direction.

Since it happened so abruptly, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the tribute. But I thought the best way to show him our appreciation was by making something, because in all the talk about his visionariness, the reason he was so effective because made visions reality.

The other thinking that went into this was that whatever we built, the best way to pay him tribute was to work as a team, to symbolize our continued support for one another and the ability to quickly organize ourselves. That team had to bring together the people who make stories and the people who make technology, ’cause that’s a huge part of Kinsey’s legacy — making sure that product and editorial were lifting each other up.

From the Infinite Kinsey branding page.

From the Infinite Kinsey branding page.

So in our break times and overnight and on weekends, we made Infinite Kinsey. Modeled on NPR One, a listening app that gives you segmented audio that follows you on any device, the Infinite Kinsey is an endless stream of audio tributes for Kinsey Wilson, about Kinsey Wilson. We collected more than sixty audio tributes in the span of a week. They came from NPR employees past and present, and from all corners of the country. Some audio messages were sent in from as far away as Hong Kong and the airport in Istanbul.

Since it was a product, it needed a launch. Tuesday night at a goodbye gathering, I got epically blasted and we unveiled the player to its single intended user. It has a branding page and even a product launch video, a parody that Friend Claire put together, with great help from a bunch of NPR folks who volunteered to do some really goofy video shoots with us.

Goodbyes are so so hard, especially the ones you never wanted to happen.

But it’s important to put closure on this chapter — not just for KW’s sake, but for those of us who will continue at NPR. With our parting gift to him, we will kinda get to follow Kinsey wherever he goes, a stream of voices telling him he’s rad.

Claire and Becky, manning the tech table for the Infinite Kinsey rollout.

Claire and Becky, manning the tech table for the Infinite Kinsey rollout.

I’ve Got Seoul But I’m Not A Soldier

It’s announcement time! I’m switching roles and becoming an international correspondent for NPR. That’s very cool. But what’s cooler is I get to open up a new Korea/Japan bureau for the company, based in Seoul. You know I like the beginnings of things.

For most of 2013, Friend Javaun and I would randomly yell “Annyeong” to each other from one floor to another at NPR headquarters, where the fourth floor overlooks the third. Never did I imagine that Annyeong could become a daily, non-ironic greeting.

I lived in Asia for a spell when I was 19 years old, with an all-male hip hop group that had just signed on with Warner Music Taiwan. The lead artist was an alum of a hot 1990’s Asian boy band called “L.A. Boyz” and my roommates were forming Machi, which went on to enjoy brief fame and a hit collaboration with Missy Elliott. The afternoon I went out for a movie with those boys in crowded shopping center was the only time I’ve ever experienced what it’s like to be chased by paparazzi and screaming teenage girls.

I think back on that time as a vortex. I know I lived those months in Taipei, but the experiences were so heightened and frenetic and strange that it still doesn’t feel real, even these 12 years later.

Now I live what is more akin to a “grownup” life. A real job. A spouse. A spawn. Two cats. My geriatric dog. And we’re about to uproot ourselves and charge into the Asian vortex, together.

We’re planning to move at the beginning of 2015. I don’t know what to do with our house yet. I am panicked about getting to see the final episodes of Mad Men without too much time delay. I worry about my 16-year-old dog surviving a cross-planet move. I am unsure of my own abilities to cover a place where I am illiterate.

But I’m also filled with excitement and wonder and gratitude for the chance to do this. I know how rare a privilege it is these days to get a chance to work overseas, supported by a large, well-funded news organization. As my friend and mentor Kinsey said, it’s invaluable experience that will change and shape our lives.

Whoa, right? We’re planting the NPR flag on an action-packed peninsula! Can you imagine the culture stories? This is the place where they just hosted a competition to see who could zone out the longest. C’mon, that is gold!

Onward, into the vortex.

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We Got Briefly Lost At The White House

Yeah, the briefing room totally looks like a TV set.

Yeah, the briefing room totally looks like a TV set.

After a really difficult couple of weeks at work (which I’ll get into someday), producer Nick Fountain and I took the two and half mile Uber ride to the White House to interview Megan Smith. She’s the new U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and formerly a senior executive at Google. We went to three wrong gates until winding up at the right one. Process of elimination!

Then, we found ourselves wandering the White House grounds without anyone guiding us where to go. This happened to be the same time the press corps was gathering for an afternoon press briefing with the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest. So Getty photographer Alex Wong tried to help us find our way, but that meant following him into the briefing room to figure out what was next.

It was very disorienting to walk into that tiny room we see on TV everyday, as everyone’s rushing in for a press conference. Everything looks bigger on TV, for one, so the photographers in the back were joking that everyone’s in the way no matter where you stand. I made some comment about egress. (No one uses that word anymore. Maybe they never did.)

Quick photo together before the afternoon press briefing.

Quick photo together before the afternoon press briefing.

Luckily, my friend Colleen spotted me and hung out with us so we weren’t so awkward. She covers the White House for the WSJ and you might remember her from That Time I Ran Into Obama In Denver, earlier this year. Took a few photos cause it’s not everyday you get lost and wind up in the White House briefing room. Then the press sec came in and Nick and I tried to be invisible, scrunched along the back wall, until someone finally fetched us and got us out of there. Later, my old assignment editor from South Carolina, Kim Deal, tweeted that she saw me wandering around in there.

The Megan Smith interview, which happened at the neighboring Old Executive Office Building, went great.

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Do You Remember … Dancing In September

Goofing off with Googlers.

Goofing off with Googlers. Photo by Bruce Gibson.

Here are some things I learned from Google Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt last night. He and Jonathan Rosenberg were in town as part of their book tour, and I was honored to moderate a conversation with them before a hypersmart DC audience of 600, at the Sixth & I Synagogue.

He likes those Hershey’s miniatures as much as the rest of us. When we were hanging in the green room before the show, I think he consumer about 17 of them in a row. Rosenberg even quipped, “I don’t think those are on your diet.”

He uses a Motorola Razr X, running Android, of course.

He prefers generalists over specialists, because the number one quality he looks for in people is passion. “It can be passion about anything,” he says. “But you can’t teach passion.” In other words, they want people who really care a lot, and they don’t care particularly about wedging people into particular roles. I love that.

He has new appreciation for Stephen Colbert and other comedians after learning how much time and energy Colbert spends getting into his character and preparing mentally to be so witty.

He’s not sure about the whole selfie thing, he says. But he gamely agreed to shoot a selfie of us. Luckily, photog Bruce Gibson caught us doing it, above. So meta.

Anyway. I’ve spent the last two months in such a state of constant motion that at no time have I not been rushing somewhere, recovering from what came before or preparing for what comes next. In no particular order I have: spoken in London on wearable technology and love, flew halfway to Cleveland to moderate a panel on the tech community in Ohio (only to be canceled at O’hare), reported stories on fashion that comes in a box, the PayPal-eBay split, net neutrality and other stuff I can’t remember anymore, spoken to public radio programmers about risky reporting situations, presented to the NPR board about Ferguson, threw a 2nd birthday party for my daughter, and interviewed billionaire Googlers about the inner workings of their company. On the same day, as if the random subjects I’ve been speaking on weren’t random enough, I was invited to moderate a panel on the future of reproduction.

Just the subject-shifting alone is enough for total cognitive overload. I do love nothing more than meeting new people and engaging with fresh ideas. But I also think I need some time to just not prep for anything or recover from anything. Onward.

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