Washington D.C. is a place where people say, “I have a hard stop” at the start of meetings, unironically. It’s a place where the day starts with policy breakfasts at 7am, and the barbacks can name all nine Supreme Court Justices. As a new Californian, being in Washington in the days before the Mueller report dropped felt like culture shock, one in which I was bemused to discover photographers staking out to shoot photos of the Mueller lawyers picking up lunch, as if they were paparazzi staking out Harrison Ford.
Speaking of Harrison Ford, I had to get up for one of those early AF breakfasts to prepare for a white paper release event (Washington is also a place where there are white paper launch events). And I’m sitting there with the authors of the report, having breakfast and talking nuclear deterrence and sanctions sequencing when I casually look to my right and HARRISON FORD was sitting there, an arms length away, eating breakfast. Just like us.
I turned back to the table, made a crazy eyes face, and the others whispered, “Oh you’re just realizing this?” And then they dissuaded me from telling him I love him saying anything to him because they’d already observed him waving others away. Man, too bad. That is probably the biggest celebrity I’ve ever sat a foot away from at breakfast. He had the pleasure of hearing us go over a proposed policy toward North Korea that acknowledged it would not soon give up its nuclear weapons.
Shooooooot, if I don’t start speeding it up I’m not going to be able to keep that New Year’s Resolution about blogging a certain number of times a month. One day, the relentlessness of the North Korea beat will end, but not before it ends me, first.
I took a sojourn to the states last week (DC and then New York), which at first was awesome but now that I am back and only sleeping in three hour bursts, and only sometimes at night, my despair is rather acute. My brain feels like a bowl of soggy instant oatmeal. I took very few photos, so there’s really nothing to aid my collapsing memory of many things that happened last week.
There was plenty of patio-drinking, random run-ins in the street and lingering breakfasts. Also: trying our friend Rose’s new restaurant, reunioning, making the rounds of the think tank circuit, speaking about sexism in South Korea to young policy wonks, a comedy show where I discovered the knock-down hilarious Michelle Butreau, a board meeting for Grist and a last minute meetup with Texas friends weekending in New York thanks to Instagram.
In an embarrassment, I set up my friend Matt on a blind date and then ruined my own matchmaking by bringing him to a party the night before the date. At this party he met SOMEONE ELSE that he decided he liked so much that he canceled the date. I am awesome.
Felt a lot of highs and lows and now I’m just feeling really, really exhausted.
The military term for a long stint elsewhere is TDY, which the armed forces like to joke stands for “Temporary Duty Yonder.” I’m not even sure what it really stands for, TBH. There I go with the acronyms again!
I went to Washington for most of November, coming off a blistering week-and-a-half reporting in advance of — and during —President Trump’s epic trip to Asia. (Nothing substantive was really achieved for the US but he commanded a lot of attention and resources in the region.) Thankfully, our afternoon program, All Things Considered, sent me a producer for the Asia trip — Becky — and we reported at a breakneck pace while sneaking in delicious meals. From the Tokyo leg, I came to Seoul for one day with Trump and covered a bunch of right-wing Koreans who welcomed him, then grabbed my baby and a suitcase and got on a plane to Washington. Then, Becky and I had to re-live Wednesday, November 8 due to the time difference. The first Wednesday November 8 was already exhausting; you can imagine having to do it again, but in Washington. I ended my second Wednesday November 8th with my former editor, Uri, at the “sad Hilton Garden Inn” bar, which is really, really sad. But I enjoy the kitsch of it.
I have spent too much time writing about the sad Hilton Garden Inn bar.
I ate dinner and drank cocktails with so many old friends because I tried to do a different dinner reunion each night. This made for meaningful conversations and catchups and meetings of new family members (babies and children, natch).
CNN also flew me up to New York one Sunday morning to do Fareed Zakaria’s show from the actual set, which was fun because I missed my Council on Foreign Relations orientation and I got to apologize to the CFR president about it in person (he was fine so long as I paid my dues) and before I went home Friend Kat came to meet up for about 20 minutes before I trained it back to DC.
There was other stuff, too, but this blog is full of contemporaneous (and therefore incomplete) accounts.
Notes of extreme gratitude go to:
Sudeep and Hun. My friend Hun gathered up baby things so that Luna would have a car seat and bouncer and Bumbo seat and pack n’ play while she was with me during TDY. Then she dropped off said stuff at Sudeep’s, who then pre-furnished my AirBnB with the baby items so that they were there and waiting for us when we arrived. How amazing are these people!?
Marcus, who, upon learning I’d be coming to town, decided to host a dinner at his home for me and my friends. WHAT?! His house is decked out in fabulous modern Chinese art from his stints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and every piece had an incredible story. His wife Maggie made paella in those glorious cast-iron skillets that are actually meant-for-paella, and the dinner included my work spouse for life, Matt, singing us some numbers from his New York Times-themed musical that is in the works. (I am not joking.) This night was really fantastic.
David, who was in Seoul with me with the President and invited me over to Thanksgiving at his house when he found out I’d be without my family this year. Luna, her helper Yani and I joined in and it ended up being just like the Thanksgivings in my own Asian-American family: loud, lots of code-switching, food and taking pictures of food.
Robert Siegel, Kelly McEvers, Ari Shapiro and the whole staff at All Things Considered, which let me guest host on their program during some of the hardest weeks to be at NPR headquarters, because there’s sexual harassment stories hitting our own workplace in a widely public way. The co-hosts were exceedingly patient with me not knowing my ass from my elbow or a “line” from a “nipper”, which are shorthand terms for things that hosts say on the air. What a huge privilege to get to say “It’s All Things Considered from NPR News, I’m Elise Hu” for several days in a row. I will never, ever forget it.
My experiences during short bursts of time in the states are reliably memorable because they are so abbreviated, and therefore I have to really make the most of every moment. In my downtime I a.) kept going to the Au Bon Pain next to my DC hotel to get giant iced teas and breakfast sandwiches and b.) watched some domestic cable news, which let’s face it, is pretty terrifying these days. The programming is interrupted by catheter and other medical device commercials, which are clues I should not be watching.
Highlights that I can piece together through the jet lag:
The Washington Half
Finally visited the Blacksonian — the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — on the day I landed in DC. Eyes still bloodshot from the flight and jet lag setting in, Matt Thompson, his partner Bryan and I powered through and saw crazy amazing stuff like the Parliament Funkadelic MOTHERSHIP. Yes, yes we did.
Friend Claire came down from New York for a hang. We lingered over a three and a half hour dinner at a mezcal place, not because of the meal but because we had some epic catching up to do.
Don Gonyea gave me advice about work and life, which is always much appreciated.
Hanson, you know, of mmmmbop fame from 20 years ago, played a Tiny Desk Concert on the first day I went back to work in DC. They actually played two, because they recorded their very special Christmas Tiny Desk, too. Taylor (the middle one) and I joked around a bit about how the dinosaur on his Christmas sweater was wearing the same sweater, creating some sort of ugly Christmas sweater matrix.
One of my ex-work spouses, Javaun, took a train up from Lynchburg (where he now lives) to spend Tuesday evening hanging out and eating barbecue and drinking beers together. I can’t even remember all the ground we covered because, beer.
Finally ate at the State Department cafeteria in Foggy Bottom — a bucket list item.
Because I am support the notion of spending money to save time, I hired April Yvonne, friend of my always glam friend Angie Goff, to shop for me. She picked out racks of clothes in a few Georgetown shops in advance, so all I had to do was try things on and make decisions. The whole excursion only took two hours in total and I was hella wardrobed for the weekend and work by the end. Endorse.
The Austin Half
Met the following babies who have joined us since I’d last been in Austin: Baby Adaline. Baby Thomas. Baby Marcella. Baby EJ. Baby Franklin. Toddler Hattie. Toddler Emma. Missed Baby Sam, who is fattening up in a NICU right now, but boy was I overjoyed to see his parents.
Sam’s dad Jimmy is my ultimate favorite eating partner. He also cooks delicious food and personally catered my engagement party with Spanish tapas since he trained to be a chef in the kitchens of Spain and Charleston, SC. Because of serendipity, the weekend I was in Austin was also the Far East Food Festival, in which some sixty Austin restaurants served up healthy portions of various Asian creations and Jimmy was judging the food. He added me as a judge so we CHOWED DOWN until the heat and the food consumption did us in. I had to quit early because I just couldn’t eat anymore. Embarrassing, but true.
Due to the abbreviated time, there were extra meals sandwiched in. On Friday I had a cheeseburger appetizer at P Terry’s while en route to Cooper’s barbecue where we disappeared pounds of brisket, sausage and ribs plus jalapeno mac-and-cheese, potato salad and the standard vat of pickles plus white bread. (Also Cooper’s offers free beans!) This was my favorite meal because of the strong appetizer IN THE CAR ON THE WAY to BBQ and my reliable eating buddies, Blake and Justin, joined to work up some serious meat sweats. I probably could have recovered for third lunch after this but we had do disperse.
Reunited with the dim sum club on Saturday morning to eat our faces off.
Did not see my oracle, Harry Whittington (the guy Dick Cheney accidentally shot in the face) but did see Bachelor Brad, who we seem to run into in Austin pretty much all the time. Is he everywhere? Is it because he’s a twin?
Surprised my goddaughter Marion Cass at her school, which led to second graders drawing me a bunch of butterflies and teaching me how to play a game called Sleeping Queen (need to get this for my daughters). Marion Cass also had me over to her house Sunday afternoon where she showed me how she can do things like SPLITS IN THE AIR because, gymnastics and being seven.
The purpose of this Austin return was to attend Friend Todd’s wedding. Did it, and so glad, because I love weddings! I also get to take partial credit for this union in the butterfly-flaps-its-wings kind of way, because I brought Todd to the Texas Tribune in 2009 as we were starting it. Here’s what happened: He was a weirdo who was teaching me Final Cut Pro as a part of a class I took at Austin Film School. I decided he was adorable even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t wash his hair at the time and was always railing about the dangers of aspartame and fluoride. Started calling him Hot Toddy behind his back (he later confronted me about this and yep, guilty) and convinced our boss Evan to give him a job at the Tribune because we were in wild wild west days of throwing jobs around. It was through this job that he met Carsi, his bride.
Reeve and I ran the hike and bike trail and joked around the whole time, just like the good ol’ days.
Sent up a flare in DC, and again in Austin, for big group happy hours. Both led to the happiest reunions, predictably. In Austin, April, my BFF from those halcyon days of my partying/Texas lege-covering twenties in Austin, HAPPENED to also be back after moving away to Toronto a few years ago. We got to see each other for about twenty minutes. I’ll take it.
The last time I was in America, I was two people. This time it was just me and my pump, which had to be used every few hours for the duration of the nine-day trip, the bottles and bags of expressed milk piling up in my respective hotel freezers until I had so much that I paid $400 in heavy baggage fees to bring all that liquid gold home. In order to keep it frozen while flying, I snuck in a trip to Ace Hardware in DC and got a giant padded cooler bag, which ended up being perfect. Thanks, Ace Hardware.
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:
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.
Damn, there are a lot of breakfast cereals and yogurts to choose from. The number of kids cartoon-themed yogurts alone floored me.
I can get drinks larger than eight ounces?!
Why does my alcoholic beverage cost three times my lunch?
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?
The internet feels slow, but at least I’m not censored from visiting North Korean news sites.
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.
Why don’t any of the escalators work on DC Metro?
So many women walk around in yoga pants. You never see a Korean woman walking around publicly in yoga pants.
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.
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.
While my memories of my last hometown, Austin, are vivid, my memories of DC are sort of soft focus. I think this is because I didn’t spend as much time just existing in DC — I originally took a job here that required nearly 50 percent travel — and I drank a lot, and, the nature of covering national news means you’re less a part of the community in the way you are when you’re coverage is “of and for” a more localized area.
But D.C. grew on me. Our daughter was born here, I worked among some of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever met and feel this is the place I “grew up” and stopped feeling like a child that was just flitting about life. I enjoyed checking off some D.C. bucket list items like attending the Correspondent’s Dinner a couple of times, hosting a book party where people looked for their names in the index and spending summer nights at Nats games.
If there’s one common thread about DC no matter what your friend group, it’s that we’re always saying goodbye. D.C., as it’s well known, is full of people who aren’t from here and don’t stay here, so even in the short four years I’ve been here I’ve said goodbye again and again and again such that it’s reluctantly become muscle memory. I suppose it’s not so strange for me to leave, too, and I fully expect the place to be unrecognizable when I return.
Some places I’ll remember…
Favorite Place For A Stiff Post-Work Cocktail (Plus chicken wings!): Stan’s on Vermont Ave near 15th Street.
I said cocktail but they actually serve you a full tumbler of a hard liquor of your choice and it’s so full that your requested mixer comes in a separate glass. This will get you drunk in a hurry, and the basement location, the delightful hostess who remembers you and all your friends AND their famous chicken wings make this a great night, every time.
Favorite Lunch or Dinner Restaurant: Sushi Taro. Located conveniently need the Kazakstan Embassy, Sushi Taro became a go-to in my waning days of DC because I frankly prefer Japanese cuisine above the rest. Except for some Chinese dishes, of course. Like roasted duck.
Favorite Breakfast: District Taco, cause you can take a gal out of Austin but not the breakfast taco cravings out of the girl.
Favorite Happy Hour That No Longer Exists: Kushi. The service was meh and the food was only above mediocre but damn, we drank there so much. For a couple of years a group of us reliably met every Tuesday night with rotating hosts for the Tuesday Night Drinking Club and Matt Thompson almost always picked Kushi when it was his turn to host. It closed last fall because the owner hadn’t been paying rent. Oops.
Favorite Drinking Spot Before It Was Overrun By Millennials: The Passenger. It was like The Max for NPR, back in the old building. I remember so many summer nights spent sweating in that front booth cause the air circulation in there is horrid. But the craft cocktails were divine.
Best ‘Stuff White People Like’ Market: Union Market. This venue also hosts Crafty Bastards, which is also quite white.
Need A Random Weekend Walk? Meridian Hill Park has lots of space for picnicking and often has a drum circle going so you can enjoy that while on your walk. For more nature, my family and I like the National Arboretum. (The Arboretum is also excellent for Christmas card photos.)
Overhyped: Why do people love Sweetgreen? Why does everyone eagerly pay $12 for a salad and a drink?
Cheap Lunch: Harris Teeter will put a giant slice of pizza in their oven for you and sell it to you for $2.99. So I get two slices and it’s still cheaper than half a salad at Sweetgreen.
The Only Good Chinese In DC Proper: Panda Gourmet, which is the restaurant inside a Days Inn on an otherwise shady stretch of New York Avenue. It serves Szechuan and Shanxi cuisine (they are very different from one another), and we love anything on the menu that starts with ‘twice-cooked’. Also a big fan of their eggplant in garlic sauce and Shanxi noodles.
My Hair Guy: Carlos Perina of Corte Salon. Carlos is excellent with color, gives Eva free bang trims every three weeks and became one of my close friends over the last few years. He cut Clinton in the nineties and also gave Johnny Wright a station at his salon before Wright became Michelle Obama’s traveling hair guy.
Reliable Vietnamese Nail Ladies: Soleil 21 on Capitol Hill
Reliable Local Chains: Matchbox, Beau Thai, We The Pizza
Reliable Dim Sum: You have to drive a bit to Rockville but Far East knows what its doing. And it’s right next to a Wendy’s so if you are hungry for dessert afterward (which let’s face it sometimes I am) you can get a frosty.
Airports: Just don’t fly out of Dulles. People from DC would rather spend a night in Prince Georges County jail than fly out of Dulles.
Bar Trivia Options: Argonaut, if you like drilling down on subject specific questions. Nellie’s, for sports and just random fun questions plus cheap drinks (great for teams).
A Good DC Gift For A Friend: A bottle of Greenhat Gin. Or something kitschy from a local artist at Monroe Street Market.
Things to be Avoided: Driving on Rhode Island Avenue (anytime). Any carry-out that serves Chinese/Chicken Wings/Subs, of which there are many.
Annual DC Events That Should Make Your Calendar: Embassy Day. The High Heel Race. The Pride Parade. The AFI Film Festival in Silver Spring. Actually I don’t know that many ‘DC’ events because I only lived here about 60 to 70 percent of the last four years. But those are the ones I made it to and enjoyed.
T.S. Eliot says that you really only know a place after you left and came back, so I don’t claim to know DC at all. But again, it somehow crawled into my heart and became home, albeit only for a short time. See you next time, Washington.
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?
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!
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.)
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.
The bazillionaire founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, paid a visit to the Hill today to press lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to support some sort of immigration reform, which tech companies are interested in so they can get and keep high skilled, often Indian and Chinese labor. But Zuckerberg says his interest in the policy debate has extended to all 11 million estimated undocumented folks in the U.S.
As part of his visit, The Atlantic snagged him for a sit down interview in front of an invited audience. I went as press. The “#ThisTown” crowd attended, so David Gregory was there, all eight feet of him, and so were about 200 other interested Washingtonians.
Among the more interesting things Zuckeberg said was actually about his Mandarin, and how he set up a personal challenge to learn Mandarin and learned enough to communicate basics but found he had a hard time listening and understanding it when others spoke the language.
“I told my wife, I’m really bad at listening in Mandarin. She said, ‘You’re really bad at listening in English.'”
2013 is halfway over and it’s been a riot so far. And sorta dangerous. Baby Eva keeps testing the bounds of her survival skills, rolling herself off furniture, squeezing the dog by the jowls or trying to crawl head first down the stairs. And we grown-ups keep acting like children.
A couple of weeks ago, my partner-in-shenanigans, Justin, visited DC. (You may remember him from previous blogged-about adventures.) We had already partied ourselves into a stupor on Friday night and thought we were going to lay low on Saturday by going to a neighborhood pig roast. A bluegrass band played the faves (but I couldn’t get them to do that David Allan Coe song because they didn’t know the long spoken interlude), the pork was that perfect blend of lean and moist and outside it felt cool and dry enough to actually enjoy a picnic. So relaxing was it that we got sleepy out there, with the tunes and the beers.
Then, after it turned dark, we got our second wind. To celebrate homeowner/hostess Hillary’s birthday, her friends had gotten Chinese lanterns, which, if made well, are easy to light and send floating into the sky. The more, the prettier. At this party, dozens of us got lanterns and the band started playing a little soundtrack to our impromptu lantern lightings. Justin and I successfully got one lit and watched it spirit away to the cheers of the group.
But that was an exception. Most of these lanterns ended up crashing to the ground before getting any lift and promptly setting grass, chairs, bags, plates — and very nearly, children — on fire. We were able to stomp out these fires, but they happened in various places around the lawn, and sometimes at the same time. When some lanterns actually made it up in the air, they wound up crashing into trees or the roof, which made for real close calls. Eventually many of us gave up on the lanterns and cleared the yard.
Suddenly, Justin and I were amped up to party some more! Headed out to U Street after leaving the fire dangers and enjoyed a long night with some other fantastic pals. Nothing like almost setting houses and people on fire with a well-meaning Chinese lantern activity to really get you going again.