Thanksgiving 2016: Okinawa, and Pineapples

The largest vehicle I have ever driven. And I had to do it on the 'wrong' side of the road.

The largest vehicle I have ever driven. And I had to do it on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Hello! We are just back from Okinawa, where we went on our FOURTH, count ’em, FOURTH, squad vacation with the Wan-Yau’s of San Francisco (but currently, Singapore). Eva and their son, Jonah, are the same age and met in swimming class when the Wan-Yau’s lived in Seoul in 2015. We first went on an eight-person adventure to the weirdest place ever, Jeju Island, last summer. Since then, we added trips to Osaka, Bangkok and now, Okinawa. We don’t really like to travel without them, now that we are so used to it. And we spent Thanksgiving with them in Seoul last year, so it was fitting to have thanksgiving dinner together again.

Okinawa is a great getaway from Korea for a long weekend. The weather is divine, the people are easygoing, the scenery is always beautiful. For family vacations, the attractions offer just the kind of ridiculousness I enjoy. Like PINEAPPLE PARK, a theme park tribute to pineapples. I cannot describe the LSD-trippiness of it very well except to say that there are “pineapple cars” with a pineapple theme song playing over and over again, and in the pineapple snacks store you can sample every kind of pineapple-made concoction ever made and fill up on the samples, so I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t love that.

Okinawa also boasts of impressive marine life, and one of the world’s best aquariums. So we loaded into our party bus, a Nissan rental van that could seat eight, and I drove the squad about 80 minutes north to see WHALE SHARKS.

Speaking of driving, this was the first time I drove “the British/Japanese way,” on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. Those aren’t the only things that are backwards. The signaling is on the right side of the steering wheel instead of the left, which means every time I wanted to “signal” I was just turning the wipers on and off. This was actually the hardest thing to get used to. By the time I mastered it, it was time to come home.

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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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Goodbye To My Constant Travel Companion, The Breast Pump

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Yet again I was standing over several bottles of my breastmilk splayed out in a bin My bag got pulled for an extra look at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport security checkpoint, something that happens pretty often when you’re carrying lots of liquids, I guess. The Japanese security agent pointed out the milk in plastic bottles he had removed exceeded the 150ml limit. (At least I think that’s what he was saying. I don’t speak Japanese, and he kept pointing at the 150ml line on the bottle.) Then he pulled up a giant blue plastic jug that looked like one of those tanks you carry spare gasoline in. It was half-full with a swamp-colored mix of whatever previous passengers must have dumped out. He started unscrewing the lid of one of my bottles.

“Oh no, no,” I said, starting to panic. “This is MY milk. It’s from my body. I can’t dump it. I can’t.” I started doing the two-hands-squeezing-in-the-air motion, in front of my chest. I have made this hand gesture for “boob sucking” so many times that I can only remember a single trip in Asia when I didn’t do it.

He turned pink. My arm hairs were stood up. The passenger who could understand English standing nearby started cracking up.

“Oh ok ok ok ok,” the Japanese guard said, sheepishly. I packed up and scurried to the customs check.

I pass through two airports a week, nearly every week, as part of my job as a foreign correspondent. I’m also the breastfeeding mom of an infant. I love nursing, I do not love pumping. But to continue doing the former, I have to do the latter when I’m away from baby. Which means every time I travel without daughter Isabel, a milk-extracting contraption powered by batteries or an AC adapter must travel with me, along with attachments and the storage bottles and ice packs necessary to keep the milk from going bad before it’s transferred home.

As the baby gets close to turning one, a milestone at which she can drink cow’s milk instead of mine, I am preparing to stop globetrotting with my constant companion — the breast pump and the milk.

What a year we’ve had together.

There was today’s close call, when I almost had to pour out the four bottles full of “liquid gold” I’d extracted from my body with the suck-simulating device I strap myself to in between conducting interviews and other reportage.

There was the time two Beijing airport guards took out the plastic suction parts — the catalog calls them ‘breastshields’ — in front of a line of people behind us, examining them like a frog they were about to dissect for 9th grade biology class.

“We’ve never seen one of these pass through before,” one of the twenty-something year old guards said to me, of the machine.

There was the other time a Chinese guard demanded I show him all the parts of the pump, how the tubes connected to the base, and to turn it on before he let it pass.

There are the questions at security about where is the baby, to which I have to explain, good god if they baby were with me I wouldn’t have this overpriced contraption instead, would I?

Then there are the hassles I brought upon myself, due to carelessness. The first time I fired up the pump in my new home of Seoul, I blew out the pump’s power pack when I plugged it into Korea’s 220V. (The device was designed for America’s 120V.) Without that I couldn’t operate it, so a friend with military ties had to rush on to the U.S. base to buy me a new machine from the commissary.

Rule of thumb: Never leave any part at home. When I forgot to pack the critical suction cups, er, ‘breastshields,’ for a five-day trip to Beijing, I spent an entire morning on an odyssey to Chinese malls instead of reporting, because I HAD TO find parts close enough to what I needed so I could express my boobs before passing out from pressure and pain.

The adventures are always made more amusing (and challenging) because there’s a clock ticking on pumping — if you don’t do it every few hours, it’s not just uncomfortable but unhealthy.

Which is why a photographer I’d just met had to see (and hear) my pumping from the backseat of a cramped rental car as we drove through Fukushima’s temporary housing projects. Or why I have to reluctantly link up with the clunky device while in the middle seat of a plane, a blanket thrown over me and hoping not to wake the dudes sleeping on both sides.

The day President Obama visited Hiroshima I had about 20 minutes before he arrived to express my breasts in a bathroom stall. The State Department and U.S. Embassy press wranglers rushed my milk to the kitchen of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so it could be refrigerated until the event was over. When the museum restaurant with the fridge closed, the Japanese staff had expertly packed ice packs around the bottles to keep cool until I was done working. (The Japanese are serious about their packaging.)

Before I know it, this spinoff story of my Asia adventure, the one starring an awkwardly purring machine, will be over. Maybe I’ll miss it, most likely I won’t. And either way, I’ll always have a reminder of the year of pumping endlessly. It’s the wee one at home, who’s the real power source for the pumping.

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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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A Seattle Sojourn

Our plane after we got dropped off on the dock of John's farm.

Our plane after we got dropped off on the dock of John’s farm.

I just got back from a week in the Pacific Northwest, where I went to communion with clean air and great friends. For the Grist board retreat, board member John Vechey hosted us (and Grist leadership staff) on his 160-acre farm on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands just a short seaplane lift from Seattle. There, we met about the future of Grist and the future of the planet, but we also laughed a lot and ate ridiculously delicious meals and stayed in bucolic bungalows and drank Moscow Mules that John made at his bar.

The board members who made it to Orcas this time around.

The board members who made it to Orcas this time around.

But I didn’t want to fly all the way to the Seattle area and not spend time in Seattle proper. So I got a couple of days at the end in which one of my oldest pals, Brad, met up with me for a ramble around downtown and chowder on Alki Island. Thanks to social media, I was also able to squeeze in some meals with old pals who saw on Facebook that I was in town — Robert, from the KVUE days, and Celinda, from the Texas Capitol days. It meant a lot to get so much catchup time “in real life.”

Social media makes us more connected but also more hands off about the KIND of connection we’re doing. I think it’s really important to try and get together in the same physical space and explore a place as much as possible. As the temperatures dropped and a light rain fell to make it quintessentially Seattle, Brad and I walked through Pike Place Market and all the artisans selling weird wood art and through the newish Sculpture Park, where we discovered a stunning piece that only looked like a huge warhead or phallus from the back. So you gotta see it from the front. I also snuck in some super-speed shopping for “American things” at Target, so Eva and Isa both got a serious haul when I came home.

The "proof we were there" shot.

The “proof we were there” shot.

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Acculturation

noun ac·cul·tur·a·tion \ə-ˌkəl-chə-ˈrā-shən, a-\

1:  cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; also:  a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact


I’m back in Korea after a harried two weeks in the states. We hadn’t gone “home” to DC in nearly 10 months, so I was highly conscious when I returned, like a little baby that had just entered the world, already in progress. DC felt incredibly small and quiet. The nation’s capital is always unusually quiet during the holidays, as its denizens flood out to their real homes or on vacation. And it is geographically small — something like only eight miles across. But after being in Asian megalopolises for most of 2015, DC felt like Tulsa. The streets were narrow and the sidewalks were wide, rather than the other way around.

Here are the other reverse culture shock observations:

  1. Everyone speaks English! I chatted up anyone who would talk to me and resumed saying hello to random people on the street. They always responded when I said “Happy Holidays” or “How ya doing?” So great.
  2. Damn, there are a lot of breakfast cereals and yogurts to choose from. The number of kids cartoon-themed yogurts alone floored me.
  3. I can get drinks larger than eight ounces?!
  4. Why does my alcoholic beverage cost three times my lunch?
  5. There are so many countdowns simultaneously splashed across the screen on domestic CNN. I can’t keep track of what they are counting down to. Is Armageddon nigh?
  6. The internet feels slow, but at least I’m not censored from visiting North Korean news sites.
  7. The clothes dryers are marvelous. I hadn’t properly dried my clothes in so long that I did a load of laundry every day just to take advantage of the quick dry cycle and how efficiently it dried my clothes, which came out so soft and fluffy.
  8. Why don’t any of the escalators work on DC Metro?
  9. So many women walk around in yoga pants. You never see a Korean woman walking around publicly in yoga pants.
  10. Stores are open before 10am. This revolutionized our time in DC because we were with our tots, which meant we could actually take them out of the house HOURS before we can in Korea.
  11. Spacial awareness: While shopping at grocery store Harris Teeter, I was pushing my cart and came within a six foot radius of another woman, who promptly apologized because we’d come so close. In Korea, you can be blatantly stepped on or, in our toddler’s case, mauled, and the other party doesn’t even notice.

Now that I’m back in Korea, I’m feeling a little sad because I’d just gotten used to being in America again, and then we left. It was fortifying to see so many of my bestest pals, even though our visits were compressed into a short time window. I don’t want to go back and forth too much, however, because the cultural whiplash — not to mention jet lag — might wipe me out.

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Jeju Island: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Do Again

An offering on my breakfast buffet. Jeju Island, I'll be back.

An offering on my breakfast buffet. Jeju Island, I’ll be back.

Right now it’s Tuesday morning and my infant daughter is off in slumberland, freeing me up to write about Jeju Island, which the Koreans say is the “Hawaii of Korea.” There ARE some things it has in common with Hawaii, like natural beauty and parts of the island so untouched that four way intersections have no stop signs or traffic lights, leaving you to your own devices.

Go team.

Go team.

I saw a UFO themed restaurant. I saw a waterfall without water falling. I saw a beach where everyone took off their shoes and lined them up on the boardwalk before stepping onto the sand. I tried a burger concoction that was a foot tall. I smelled fresh Jeju black pork on the barbecue grill, before quickly eating that, too. I visited a three-story Hello Kitty museum made complete with a Hello Kitty family portrait. I passed horses milling about near the highway. I went to a completely empty theme park the size and scale a large city zoo. The place called itself ‘Psyche World’ until it changed its name to something equally puzzling: Ecopia. There was a butterfly exhibit with only three butterflies. There was a giant castle displaying a jewel museum with likely fake but famous jewels, like that blue one from Titanic that the old lady dropped into the ocean in the end. There was the promise of the ‘CSI EXPERIENCE: JEJU.’ There was an empty concert park with futuristic white seating in the grass, next to a display of two crocodiles. There was vastness in the emptiness. Store clerks and ticket punchers appeared when we walked past, but if you went back five minutes later, they were gone.

This giant playground was empty so I found the single plastic lawn chair on the grounds and plopped down to breastfeed Isa.

This giant playground was empty so I found the single plastic lawn chair on the grounds and plopped down to breastfeed Isa.

I have learned that if you travel with the kind of friends who will agree to go to a weird place like Jeju Island with you on a week’s notice, you will undoubtedly have a great time, despite feeling like you’re in a vortex. They are the Yau family, who are also American expats in Seoul who also arrived here in March. Who also happen to have a preschooler and an infant. When it came to kid supplies like diapers, water bottles and sunscreen, as Joe Yau said, “There’s so many built in redundancies this way.

The island is a place frequented by Chinese travelers. So many that  he rich ones are now scooping up thousands of square meters of the island itself.

The people who don’t frequent Jeju island are people who speak English. The eight of us spent the four day weekend speaking ‘hand Korean,’ which is generally just wildly gesticulating and getting responses we couldn’t understand, until the point the Korean speakers simply throw their arms into a giant X formation, which is the loudest silent rejection I’ve come to know in Korea. Since the GPS navigator was similarly in Korean only, a hotel employee had to come out to our car each morning and program in a destination for us and we crossed our fingers we’d wind up somewhere discernable. Considering many streets don’t even have names down there, it was a wonder we had a navigation device at all.

Here’s the thing. To me, vacation explorations are not just respites from routine but a chance to make yourself purposely uncomfortable or weirded out a little. It’s in those situations you learn and grow and laugh. There is so much laughter in the absurdity of a place like Jeju Island. We survived. Neigh, we thrived.

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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.

Quick Jaunt to London Town

If you're thinking, ew, you put your shoe by your fish plank, I'd remind you that I was already committed to eating greasy fried fish off a piece of butcher paper.

If you’re thinking, ew, you put your shoe by your fish plank, I’d remind you that I was already committed to eating greasy fried fish off a piece of butcher paper.

Back from four days in London. Too bad I only hung in England and didn’t get over to Wales, cause my real obsession this year has been on the Welshmen Michael Sheen and Matthew Rhys. Sheen is the star of Masters of Sex, which I somehow worked into my talk at a London Wearables and UX Design conference on Tuesday. This is what mad crushes do to a person. And I am crushing all the time.

I didn’t have a lot of time to sightsee and I hit a lot of the touristy things before. Notably, the time I went to London at age 18 with six of my best pals from high school. I still feel horrible about our folly of indiscriminate youth while there: Clearly under the influence, we got on the tube and started chanting USA! USA! USA! to a crowd of irritated Brits. I am so, so, so sorry, England.

This time in London, I: enjoyed drinks and much catching up with my rival for 8th grade student council president, Billy Simpson, who now lives in London. Wandered the British Museum. Took a walk around Bloomsbury and Covent Gardens. Ate a fried fish plank as big as my size 9 shoe. Stopped by to see the Government Digital Service office, a cabinet level agency in the UK that’s revolutionizing government there by making it “digital by default.” Lunched and toured the BBC HQ with the intrepid Ari Shapiro, my colleague at NPR and our London correspondent. Met one of my Twitter pals in person and talked over drinks. Went the wrong way on a bus one morning, almost missing my talk at the wearables event. Made it just in the nick of time. Got purposely lost in a lovely bookstore called Foyles. Drank lots of iced tea with too little ice, because the Brits think we Americans are crazy to be so fixated on ice. Never got rained on. Really enjoyed myself.

Thanks, London, and sorry again about that embarrassing USA chanting incident so many years ago.

 

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Heartbreak Tally

Awarding of arbitrary points for things that happened today:

My emergency #NED jersey didn't help, I guess.

My emergency #NED jersey didn’t help, I guess.

+ 15 Got into Uber and the driver asks me if I’m headed to watch the game. I say yes. He offers to sell me his last remaining Team Netherlands jersey from his trunk. It’s Van Persie and it’s $40. The kismet drove me to make the purchase.

– 100 After 120 minutes of soccer without a score, the match ends in a penalty kick shootout, in which the Dutch lose after our first kicker gets his shot blocked. Gonna take a while to recover. Still no world championship trophy for the Dutch team, a longtime European football stalwart.

+ 10 Having my old friend and Denver Post sports columnist Ben Hochman to watch the game with me.

– 75 Ryan Gosling is apparently having a baby with Eva Mendes, which links them together for life. Crest. Fallen.

+ 90 All Things Considered aired my five-minute+ rumination on whether a burrito is a sandwich, an idea inspired by Noah Veltman’s five minute lightning talk on a side-passion of his, at the Knight/MIT Civic Media conference last month.

TOTAL: -70

Had I not lost Ryan Gosling, the chance to go through sandwich taxonomy on national air and get myself a Netherlands jersey in the nick of time would have ended this day on the positive side of the ledger.

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