You know how when Wile E. Coyote is chasing the roadrunner off the cliff and there are a few moments when he’s just running on air before dropping precipitously to the ground? That’s how 2018 feels, for America and the existing world order, anyway. This year was such a trash heap that the thing I most look forward to every Christmas, the Hater’s Guide To the Williams Sonoma Catalog, couldn’t happen because the author nearly died.
Despite the persistent ennui about global issues, this year was jam-packed personally and I avoided calamity (a heightened concern due to it being the Year of the Dog). Started the year in Sydney, then February away from home covering the Olympics, springtime was all nuclear rapprochement, got in a last gasp of Asia livin’ before a big repatriation at the end of the summer and filled the fall with hellos, reunions, and settling into being a Californian for the first time. All the while, there was drama at work I eventually learned to navigate, and many dumb dramas at home.
I feel so grateful to be in Southern California and to live on LA’s west side, where you can feel that cool sea breeze and are never more than a 16-minute ride to LAX. I love the multicultural, pluralistic, chilled-out populace. Every time I’m at a school assembly for one of the girls, I look at the faces of the kids performing and they are almost all brown or biracial. It makes me feel so hopeful about the future.
Most LA Thing To Happen: I was chatting up Gary Busey in my work lobby because hello, Gary Busey was just sitting in the lobby, when Tom Hanks walks by. Tom double-takes and says in his TOM HANKS voice, “Gary Busey? My god, how you doin’ man?” And he stops to chat with Gary Busey, introduces himself to me by going, “Hi, I’m Tom,” and then suddenly I’m sitting there talking with Tom Hanks and Gary Busey.
This Year’s Firsts: Moving to California. Going on Anderson Cooper. A real Hollywood movie premiere. Speaking to an arena. Being in the same room as Kim Jong Un’s sister. Being on the same street as Kim Jong Un. Olympics. Curling match. Gracie Award. Japanese robot hotel, where the receptionist was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Controlling robot legs with my MIND! Hosting Here and Now. Hosting It’s Been A Minute.
Products I Now Swear By:Posie Tint lip tint (I really embraced the Korean “barely there” makeup look), hay straws, reusable straws, SmartWool socks.
Most Relied-Upon Services: Reggie, the guy who washes our cars while parked in the NPR lot, and Drybar. I almost completely stopped doing my hair this year and farmed it out. Combine that with having three daughters who all need bang trims or cuts on a regular basis and I feel like I’m always in one salon or another. This is less about vanity and more about laziness.
Service I Miss the Most: KakaoTalk. One day I needed to access my Kakao from a desktop, which meant wiping all my previous conversations tied to my now defunct Korea phone number. I mourned for an entire afternoon. So much animated sticker-laden banter, GONE, GONE. I love Kakao so much that our goodbye party from Korea was Kakao-themed, as in, people came dressed up as Kakao emojis.
Best Live Sports Experience: The gold medal women’s hockey came between the US and Canada at the Winter Games. Women’s curling — the journey of the ‘Garlic Girls/Team Kim’ — is a close, close second.
Favorite Selfie: The one with all the North Korean cheerleaders in town for the Olympics
New Places: Danang/Hoi An, Vietnam. Mount Hood, Oregon. Sydney, Australia. Singapore.
Most Valuable New Friend: Tiffany, our realtor, who instantly made me feel at home (and went above and beyond in helping find us a home). Or Janet, the mom friend I made in the dropoff line at kindergarten. We learned our younger kids go to the same preschool and our older kids are obviously in the same kindergarten, so she’s my go-to for emergency “HEY CAN YOU WATCH OR PICK UP MY KID?!” calls.
Regrets: Not getting to go to Japan all the time anymore. Not talking to effing Bradley Cooper while he was just sitting there in the lobby of my office for 15 minutes, with no one to talk to. Friend Tim quipped, “You should just say to him, ‘Hey’ and when he turns around go, ‘I just wanted to take another look at you.” LOL.
Favorite Stories/Interviews:Steven Yeun, for sure. Amy Westervelt. The Singapore Summit, which was a blur but a memorable blur. The summit before that — the inter-Korean one, which we covered from the most giant press file I have ever seen.
Life Theme: 50/50! We are all becoming more woke, as a society, and for me it’s given me a deeper appreciation of how equitable my marriage has been, and how frustratingly unusual it is, STILL, for women to get to live the lives of this brilliant Garfunkel and Oates feminist love song:
I’m gonna make your dreams come true As long as they don’t interfere with mine I’ll always be here for you For methodically allotted amounts of time I’ll be there to hold your hand If I happen to be in town And any time you need me There’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be around
Stiles and I saw them together and cheered obnoxiously because IT ME. Guiiiiiiilllty!
Also this year, in no particular order….
Attended three weddings Lost my cat, Cheese
Mostly survived my ben ming nian
Got a 15-year-old car accident blemish lasered off my leg
Got a ‘local gal makes good’ piece in my hometown paper
Discovered the best discount kaiseki lunch in Tokyo (thank you Japanese diplomats)
Accidentally locked myself in my Olympic apartment
Survived an international move, in the other direction Won a Gracie Award
Keynoted the Journalism and Women Symposium confab
Visited the set of Barry
Stopped nursing Luna, celebrated her first birthday
Didn’t get pregnant again, whew
Saw Lauryn Hill live, finally
Had an authentic Hong Kong dim sum weekend
Talked a lotabout sexism Completed the cable news hat trick — Fox, CNN and MSNBC in a single day Didn’t work at the Washington Post, again
Took my girls to Disneyland
Sold my Austin house
Coached first daughter through losing her first teeth
Covered the worst wildfire in California history
Accidentally stumbled upon the Korean curling “garlic girls” on a hot streak and followed it through to their appearing at the gold medal game, ultimately winning a silver
Covered the Kim-Moon summit
And the surprise Kim-Moon summit
The Trump-Kim summit in Singapore
Saw Reese Witherspoon in the flesh
Spent three murder weekends in the woods
Had epic Kakao-themed goodbye party in Korea
Appeared in a documentary that is not the air sex one
Spent 15th Christmas with Stiles, in which we avoided murdering one another
Squeezed in 54 books
Met the famous foodcam of the MIT Media Lab
Flew 233,340 miles to 31 cities, eight countries and spent 113 days away from home. This was crazy in it of itself but especially given the small children and their assorted activities/needs. Next year I’m staying put more so I can be alone with my thoughts — FRIGHTENING. I’ve already said it but I’ll say it again: Thank you thank you to my misanthropic husband and our live-in helper, Yani.
We are in the process of revamping my video series, Elise Tries, now that I am US-based and able to work in similar time zones and in the same physical space as the rest of the video team. What we have designed is a dive into a time marker in the future — 2050 — which means we’re essentially doing “Elise Tries: The Future.”
Last week we went to Houston to get a look at the future of the human body and the quest to eliminate disability-as-we-know-it.
One of the most active spheres for helping augment human capabilities is in robotically-assisted, or “bionic”, limbs. And the latest work in this field is brain-machine interfaces, or mind-control of the limbs. Eventually this invites in all sorts of questions about where man ends and where humans begin, which we’ll get into in reporting.
But first, we have to try stuff! NPR photographers Mito (from New York) and Nick (from DC) joined me at the University of Houston where we visited the lab of Dr. Jose Contreras-Vidal, who is now getting into pediatric exoskeletons, so we also met a 9-year-old boy with spina bifida who is hoping to learn how to use one of these badass exoskeletons. (They are $150,000 each so they really require a lot of grant money and research approval before subjects can join the study.)
The researchers had lots of rules for me so my brain could work unimpeded: Don’t get sloshed, get a good night’s sleep, keep the caffeine to a minimum and absolutely no energy drinks! (This reminded me of the time my running buddy Eddie decided he would drink a 5-hour Energy right before a marathon because he was like, this is gonna be about five hours so it will wear off just in time.)
Then I got measured for the exoskeleton, which required the researchers laying me down and feeling around my pelvis for my hip bones and leg sockets (I hope this part doesn’t make the final video cut), tried walking in it while manually controlled, and then I got into the COOLEST CAP EVER. The cap had 64 sensors connected to wires to read different parts of my brain, and then we could look at a monitor to see the expressions of my brain waves from each sensor. When I blinked, all the squigglies (think an EKG) zig-zagged, etc. It wasn’t until the cap was on and I was all connected to the system that I could get back into the legs and learn to make it move and stop with my brain.
After a few tries, I finally got it to happen. The craziest thing about it was how Atilla the researcher could watch the brain wave monitor and tell me IN ADVANCE that my brain was about to get to the point where I’d stop the robot, even when the robot was still moving. It’s much like how, if you’re in labor, doctors can watch a contraction monitor and see your contractions if you can’t feel them because your bottom half is under anesthesia. (I cannot speak from experience on the contraction thing because I refused to take any drugs and felt EVERY. DAMN. THING.)
Anyway I’m really glad I heeded their advice and didn’t get drunk the night before, because this would have been exceedingly difficult to do while hungover. The next day I rewarded my brain with a proper Texas chicken fried steak. Boy oh boy, do I miss “chicken fried steak Thursdays” at the Texas Capitol.
Earlier this month I traveled to Boston to guest-host our WBUR/NPR co-produced program, Here & Now, and also filled-in on two episodes of my friend Sam’s podcast, It’s Been a Minute. Some highlights, ICYMI:
American Motherhood is Messed Up, a conversation with author Amy Westervelt (who I met at JAWS in Oregon in October) about how capitalism and America’s Puritan roots shaped a motherhood culture that’s bad for our society’s men, women and children.
Steven Yeun on identity (and so much more). Actor Steven Yeun is a big deal in America for his stint on the Walking Dead, but he actually found that experience confining and explained why. He also opened up about the journey he’s taken regarding his identity as an Asian-American and how he learned to feel comfortable in his own skin. I learned a lot!
The Weekly Wrap. Every Friday on Sam’s show, a panel of guests comes in to riff on the week that was. My daughter Eva introduced the show (which was so awesome) and our guests — Peter Hamby of Snapchat and Soumya Karlamangla of the LA Times. We had so much fun and covered a lot of ground, from sausages to tough electoral fights to k-pop.
Today I went to Paradise, California, where search and rescue teams are accompanied by cadaver dogs, sifting through what’s left of homes and businesses. Wildfires, like tornadoes, act capriciously. Two houses on one side of a street look untouched, while across the street there’s nothing left but mangled metal and ash. Overall Paradise is just one giant scene of devastation, though. Up close you can see what remains of a lot of kitchens, because the ovens are still kind of around, and occasionally items survived, like couple of ceramic mugs. I spotted a yellow bumble bee mug because it was the only shock of color among so much white and gray.
Every survivor you talk to tells a harrowing story. A lot of them seem sanguine when they say to me, “Home’s gone. All gone.” They note the tunnel of fire, or a ring of fire that they drove through to escape down. They tell me about cars exploding behind them. The traffic as they tried to get out. The lone evacuees on the side of the street with their dogs that they encouraged to jump onto the beds of their pickups. Their neighbors running — running — from the heat and flames. To imagine that night is to imagine hell. And somehow so many people actually made it out alive.
Last week, in the first days of the fire, I was in Boston hosting Here and Now, our national program that originates from WBUR. I was in the comfort of a studio, talking with people from Butte County over a phone connection. We could all hear the weariness in their voices. The reporter in me thought, what am I doing in a studio? I have to be there.
I eventually made it here 10 days after the flames first raged. It took me awhile because I had fill-in hosting duty for a podcast, too. Last night the camaraderie and connection was clear for the three of us who were here for NPR: We are all former foreign correspondents who had been in the muck and wanted to be here. For Kelly and Leila, who both lived so long in the Middle East — they’d seen so many towns felled by armies and saw the parallels. “Parts of Paradise look like Fallujah,” Leila said to me. This is the kind of story that had it happened overseas, we’d probably be there for weeks.
This is California’s most destructive and deadly fire yet, but this is also part of a much larger story about climate change and its refugees. It’s a migration story. And it’ll continue.
This year I was invited to Mount Hood, Oregon to speak at JAWS CAMP (acronyms, which explains the all caps) about “journalism and your career,” with no other parameters. What follows are the remarks “as prepared for delivery,” as speech texts say when we get them from politicians — but not as they were actually delivered since I don’t follow a script and instead go off on random tangents.
JAWS is the Journalism and Women Symposium, founded in the mid-eighties by glass ceiling-breaking women in the industry and a group that continues today by training, supporting and convening lady journalists. Each year JAWS picks a place in the woods and holds CAMP (which now stands for Career and Mentoring Project) but really it’s a lot like adult girl scouts camp (but with actual hotel or resort rooms to sleep in at night).
Big thanks to my Friend Reeve (an actual professional speechwriter), who workshopped a lot of these ideas with me in the car last weekend in the Catskills, and gave my draft a real edit. I’m putting the full text here for posterity but um, I was asked to talk for 30 minutes so it’s a lot of words.
I’m just repatriating, or in the process of repatriating, from my three-year foreign correspondent stint in East Asia. It was a pretty crazy time to be there, with the whole fire and fury nuclear standoff and the hundreds of thousands in the streets who protested for the ouster of South Korea’s president. During this stint my family expanded from one kid to three, which played into an experience last summer when Kim Jong Un threatened Guam.
At the time, I had a four-month old who was nursing, aka on my boob every three hours, so I had to bring her to cover that breaking story. But since I had to bring her, I also had to bring my husband to take care of her while I was working, and if he was coming, then the other two girls had to come, and we woke them up in the middle of the night and whispered, “Sorry girls no camp today we have to go on an airplane to a beach, we’re going on a beach holiday!”
Missile launches and nuclear crises included, foreign correspondenting was pretty awesome – a dream come true. And because journalism as a business has been contracting my entire adult life, it was dream I had given up on. So what a surprise bonus to do it!
I want to share stories and lessons-learned from my time overseas, but first I want to tell you the story of how I ended up there as a one-woman bureau for NPR. Which brings me to a title I considered for this speech: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post.
I know I just said my dream was being a foreign correspondent, but there is irrefutable evidence that an even earlier dream was covering politics for a place like The Post.
My old elementary school friend, Casie Blount, made a funny discovery last month while cleaning. She found our class memory book from fifth grade. In it, we were required to write something looking back on our elementary school experience as we prepared to graduate.
Here is what I wrote:
“Hi! My name is Elise Hu, and attending Babler [my elementary school] for the last three years was a lot of fun and they’re going to be memorable.
I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I enjoyed them all greatly.
I made many friends and I also lost some friends because they had to move. They will always have a place in my heart no matter if I despised them or they were my good friends.
My personal goals for the future are to graduate from Princeton and become a famous writer or write for the press or broadcast the news. My main goal though, is to bother politicians — especially Democrats — as a press member.
In conclusion, attending Babler Elementary will always have a place in my heart, and I will personally make sure I will make at least 5 politicians really mad.”
WOW RIGHT!? I was sort of an insane fifth grader! I did end up making more than five politicians mad. They were not uniformly Democrats. I cannot explain the fifth grade Republicanism thing. Who knows. Instead of Princeton, I went to Mizzou for journalism school, which is the only place I applied, because it’s not captured in a memory book but by 8th grade I settled on a university and stayed with it. I didn’t have it all worked out in elementary school, okay?!
Still, 25 years after writing that down, I’m doing more or less what I set out to do at age 11. But my path has not been as focused as that fact might suggest. I would describe my overall career arc as “a series of the next most interesting things to do that would make sense for my family.” And one place it has failed to take me is The Washington Post.
Alternate Title: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post
I’ve never talked about this before publicly, but I am now a three time failure at working at the Post. Obviously, fifth-grade Elise would probably jump at any opportunity to write for and be a part of that venerable institution. The POST! The Post of legend, the Post of lore, The Post of Ben Bradlee, and now of Marty Baron, who Liev Schreiber totally nailed in his depiction in the movie, Spotlight. But three times now, I had an opportunity and failed to wind up there.
I think the reasons why speak to an important lesson I have learned in my career, which is that the journey itself is far more fulfilling than any particular stop or destination in your careers. It also speaks to the considerations that women must often make in this industry.
The First Time
The first time I got approached to go to the Washington Post was in the spring of 2012. What was happening? I think Bon Iver was still super cool back then. The Republican primaries were going on and Ron Paul was making another big run for it. And I found out I was pregnant with my first child.
It was just weeks after I learned this that I was recruited for a pretty high profile job for the Post. I wasn’t comfortable disclosing my pregnancy status when I was only four months pregnant. During the interview process, I was scared I wouldn’t get the job offer if I said something. So I didn’t.
I DID get the offer but ended up turning it down, after all the handwringing I went through. I think I just put my own comfort first. I did tell my boss and mentor at NPR, Kinsey, and he was persuasive in getting me to stay. But mainly what happened there was for the first time, I faced a job versus family choice. I prioritized my fledgling family over the potential prestige of a new gig.
When that baby was born, I was in the comfort of an organization where I felt I had less to prove, with bosses who already knew and trusted me. I was able to ease back into my work without the pressure of being at a new place, having to prove myself, and start something new for them. I sometimes have FOMO about that decision and wonder whether it was the right thing. But it all fit, you know? And it was great for Baby Eva.
These are valuable experiences to collect along your journey.
And with these courtships with potential employers, something of value also comes out of the meetings alone. Because I interviewed there, I got to meet Marcus Brauchli, the editor at the time. We joked about karaoke, since he was a longtime Asia correspondent. He said his go to karaoke repertoire featured a lot of John Denver. We hit it off so well that we became good friends despite my not taking the job … and years later, when I was facing the choice about whether to move abroad, it was he who said, GO GO GO!
To this day, we have hung out on both sides of the Pacific Ocean — he and his wife even hosted a dinner for me and my friends when I was briefly back in Washington last year — and we always get together for drinks when we’re in each other’s towns. Embrace the journey, and you’ll collect not just new experiences, but new friends along the way.
The Second Time
The second time the Post came around, I was back at work after having the baby and ready for my next move. That time, the Post didn’t choose me! The lesson that time came in just accepting you’re not always the first pick, and to accept that gracefully.
The Latest Time
Then I moved abroad and spent my three years gallivanting around Asia, trying out new experiences and reporting on this whole nuclear crisis thing.
Just as I’m finalizing my arrangements with NPR to move me back to California, where I long felt I belonged, the Washington Post called again! And this time around, the job felt perfect for me, the freedom was wide, the creative opportunities vast. It was a job that perfectly married my work experience and skill set with what they needed. We had a love-in when I visited the Post. I wanted to do that job more than I’ve wanted to do any job since first leaving Texas to work at NPR.
And I didn’t do it. I backed out of that potential job because of my husband. Modern day philosopher Chris Rock recently did a standup special called Tamborine (tambourine purposely misspelled), in which part of it is just him working through his recent divorce. And he talks about how when you’re in a marriage you’re in a band, and sometimes it’s your turn being backup player in the band. So if you’re gonna play the tambourine, you have to really PLAY it, he said. “Play it like Tina Turner!”
It’s my turn to play the tambourine. You see, when we went to Korea, my husband Matty, who is also a journalist, had to quit his job at the Wall Street Journal. He became lead parent for three years. It was not an equitable sharing of responsibilities. He shuttled the girls to music class and doctor’s appointments and showed up at all the assemblies. He packed lunches every day and made sure they had the costumes they needed for various performances. He did the bath and bedtime routine every night during the 35 work trips I made to Japan, and all the other trips to the US and China and Laos and Malaysia and wherever else.
He showed up at his first PTA meeting for Eva’s school and the other mom’s — it’s all mom’s in the PTA there because Korea is pretty gendered — they learned he was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal in his previous life. “Oh you must take good notes, then,” the president said. And the board voted him in as secretary.
So when we moved to LA, where he could slide most easily into a job at the LA Times, he said, “I’m not moving again, especially not just after we landed. It’s kind of my TURN.” And that was that. I was for the THIRD time, an almost-employee at the Washington Post.
Toward the Future
But the truth is, I would not trade the career I’ve had or my family for anything. It all worked out. I didn’t end up at the Post, but I did end up in South Korea and I promised I’d share some of that experience with you.
While in Korea, I learned all kinds of things besides the actual Korean language, because the Korean language is friggin’ hard! Someone ran into my Korean teacher and asked about how I was coming along with the language and my teacher said, “Elise has a great family.”
Things I learned: I learned about the beauty of slurping noodles loudly — you think it’s rude here in America but it’s really part of the enjoyment of eating noodles in Korea and Japan. True story: Cup Noodle, the ramen noodle maker, actually makes shorter noodles for the US because people here in the states don’t like to slurp, and shorter noodles prevent slurping.
I learned how to loudly wake up cab drivers who FALL ASLEEP at the wheel. I learned a lot about skincare. Koreans have that gorgeous, dewy alabaster skin and it comes at a price! They are serious about their direct sun avoidance. This past summer, the municipal districts in Seoul spent taxpayer money putting up giant umbrellas at street corners to help citizens avoid direct sunlight while out and about. It’s not just about those famous 12-step skincare routines, it’s about strict sun avoidance.
I learned some things I wish I hadn’t, like, about living in a place that’s arguably much harder for women than even the US these days. South Korea’s women are codified in the constitution as equal to men, but they’re cast by society as feminine mother characters with very strict norms about appearance and behavior. For example, in South Korea, even if it’s 100 degrees out, it’s a big social no-no to bear your arms or shoulders. I always felt like such a subversive if I wore a tank top outside.
There are many things about my time abroad that I will miss, but I am glad to be back — and to tackle a new challenge.
I think a lot about the future naturally, so when I repatriated with NPR I made up a new beat for myself. I am now covering the future. Correspondent, THE FUTURE.
I’m just getting started, but one through line in my reporting so far is that while people can imagine really interesting and optimistic futures, they cannot see how we get from the bleakness of now or the near present … to the brighter futures they imagine. And things FEEL bleak as we get our torrent of news alerts each day.
A few things I do to combat the bleakness, even though believe me, it’s rough. I ate three packs of those frozen White Castle sliders on Monday. That’s not a tip, it’s just something I did. Anyway so to counter it. I look to heroes who can’t afford to go numb — mothers fighting to find their kids and be reunited at the border. The sexual assault victims who keep using their voices in spite of everything. The Parkland teens. Women journalists like you, who demand a voice at the table in your newsrooms but also in the larger national dialogue. Continue to be inspired by and supported by one another.
The poet Maggie Smith put it brilliantly: “The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.”
Children also offer me some semblance of hope and motivation these days. They don’t have to be your own … I keep looking to the newer generations, writ large, to save us from ourselves. My three year old daughter, Isa, was about to climb a ladder of a playground jungle gym thing a few Sundays ago. And a little boy her height came up and asked for his dad to help him. And she said to him, “I climbed it all by myself. Because I’m a girl and girls have strong muscles.” Let a commitment to the future shove you out the door in the morning.
Hey it’s working! All the “girls are strong” indoctrination works on the next generation! And it’s helped by the fact that it’s true.
And the stats on the next generations are more hopeful. People aged 18-34 overwhelmingly favor rights for LGBT and people of color, people born in America today ARE made up of a majority people of color. These generations want guaranteed health care, push for more income equality, care about climate change, and the list goes on. If we’re not going to affect change as journalists for these 75 year old white men who are still in charge of everything, or, in charge of everything again, we should bear in mind the millions who might be seeing and watching quietly but without power — the next generations.
Before I know it my daughters will be eleven, my age when I wrote about my dreams of being a journalist on dot matrix printer paper. The lesson now that I’m in my mid-thirties and have had many iterations of a career is this:
You’ll never work at the Washington Post.
It’s that you can have a general idea of where you’re going and still never have any idea what your next immediate step is, and that’s awesome. My career has wound up being semi-informed winging-it, the whole way through. I wanted to make at least five politicians mad, but was never specific or directed about where I would work or even what platform of media I’d be working in. I never set foot in Korea before I agreed to move there.
Instead, what I think is useful is to be guided by principles. My tests are: Will this opportunity help me learn and grow in the ways I want? What is the team like — will I be surrounded by people who will teach me? And is this next thing meaningful in some way, and do I have some efficacy over it?
Those are my principles, and you should make YOURS clear and use that as a framework for decisions going forward. It makes decision points easier, I think. Be guided by principles and you can’t take a wrong step, you’ll do what’s right for you and your own journey.
Finally, I’ll say this. I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I am making many new friends here at JAWS Camp; it’s a tremendous honor to be among you. You will always have a place in my heart, no matter if I despised you or you were my good friend.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“Delete words that end with “ly.” It actually works. Stories really do read and sound better. Also, by eliminating those “throwaway intensifiers” you literally open up space for action words that definitely move a story along.
Try it. You’ll be totally surprised. Plus, many in the audience will surely thank you. Some will certainly stop complaining.”
“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used.”
–The President of the United States of America, last week, in a letter to Kim Jong Un
I slipped away to Hong Kong Friday night, after a topsy turvy week on the peninsula. North Korea hosted international journalists to show the destruction of its main nuclear test site only for American President Donald Trump, in a fit of pique a few hours later, to cancel the big Singapore summit he had abruptly agreed to in the first place.
In the hours since, the President has signaled the summit is back on and is acting like the letter never happened. He also tweeted that one of his aides who argued June 12th might be too soon to pull off “didn’t even exist.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise secret Saturday summit inside the DMZ to try and keep diplomacy on track. I have been on the radio basically every hour in one form or the other and have subsequently lost my voice.
All I’m saying is thank god I got to get away to beautiful, balmy Hong Kong for delicious dim sum and Canto food and drinking with my fellow foreign correspondent Ivan, who lives on the far Western edge of Hong Kong Island, which means when you wake up at his place all you see outside is water and lush green islands. Also, he plays piano and I realized how much I miss dwelling in a home with the sound of piano music in it. (Note to self: Move my piano back from Uncle Jim’s house after repatriation.)
Anyway. Friday night we went to sleep thinking the summit was off and awoke Saturday to cryptic notes that the summit was maybe back on, something we both reacted to with an instant expression: “Fuck!” Casting those feelings aside, we hiked the virgin mountain behind his place, got rained on at the top, then made it down the mountain back into bustling streets to squish ourselves at a table with strangers at a local dim sum joint where no plastic stool goes unoccupied. (This is the only real way to do it.) Before I came home, I made sure to stop by a traditional bakery to load up on egg custard tarts and every carb stuffed with char siu inside.
When you’re on the second most relentless beat of the year (just as it intersects with the first most relentless beat), you really have to snatch those small pleasures when you can.
When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.