Hadn’t been on Tech News Today netcast in a while, and so it allowed an inadvertent chance to share personal news.
“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr
Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)
Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).
I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.
Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.
We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.
Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.
I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.
Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.
Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.
The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.
The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.
Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.
Japan and Korea have famously rocky ties dating to the various times in history Japan has tried to conquer Korea and the whole actually-colonizing-Korea bit in the early part of the 20th century. Imperial Japan did cruel things, like take tens of thousands of young, poor Korean girls into sexual slavery to serve at “comfort stations” during wartime. (I have detailed the UN report on this on my work blog.) The issue isn’t over. In fact, because Korea has continued to allow statue tributes to the comfort women despite a verbal agreement with Japan in December 2015 to resolve the issue “for good,” Japan is not pleased and pulled its ambassador to Seoul and its consul general in Busan.
That’s where a diplomatic row intersected with my Friday night plans. A few of the Seoul-based international bureau chiefs had been invited to dinner at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, high atop a gorgeous mountain near Seoul’s city center. It has an immaculate Japanese garden, from what I’d been told. When I was in Tokyo earlier in the week, the thought they might cancel the dinner crossed my mind. But no! Dinner was on. We went ahead and ate at the ambassador’s house without the host, the ambassador.
Part of the reason we were able to enjoy ourselves anyway was because the ambassador’s chef, who was brought in from Japan exclusively for him and his events, was NOT recalled to Tokyo. He was around to make us a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) dinner, which includes an appetizer, soup, sashimi, simmered dish, grilled dish, tempura dish, shokuji and dessert. Everyone agreed this place serves the best Japanese food you can get in Seoul, and Japanese is my ultimate favorite cuisine so it did not disappoint.
A must-read from Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.
“Momma even when I’m a hundred, even when I’m a million, I’ll still be your baby.” -Eva, over Chicken McNuggets today
Happy 2017. Let’s start the year by talking about something that matters — meaningful time with the people we love.
Over Christmas 2015 — so, about a year ago — I was in Washington and saddled up at a bar in Bloomingdale with Chris Sopher, one of my favorite millennials (it is a running joke to make fun of him for his millennialness). Around that time, Friend Dave had sent me this post about how little time left we have with our loved ones, notably, our parents.
I was feeling quite weepy about it and started bringing it up all the time (as I do when I obsess on a certain topic. Current obsession: nuclear annihilation). Here’s the key graf and art:
“Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear …
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”
I was melancholy about this back then because I am one of those adults who doesn’t feel like she has grown up and therefore is over-reliant on my parents. I talk to them several times a week but even more so when I am cranky or have a cold or am homesick or really, any slew of reasons. I am terrified about losing them and brought up the above visualization with Chris. His response?
This is “problematic,” because it implies every unit of time you spend with a loved one has equal weight, when it’s not true. Frankly, you might be having a lot more meaningful moments with your parents now that you are older and more appreciative of them. So even though the BULK of your time (in quantity) with them is already spent, there’s still plenty of time for quality time, which is suffused with more meaning. Chris and I revisited this topic this week in a chat:
Christopher: My current thinking on that would be that it’s also about perspective. I think I have much more productive and fulfilling interactions with my parents now than I did a few years ago. And I just refuse to go through life with angst about what I am missing or running out of. Better to be intentional about spending it with quality people doing things you love.
Me: Do you think being cognizant of the limited nature of time helps you with that intentionality though?
Christopher: Absolutely. I wonder what i would do if i was immortal and knew it.
Me: I wonder what the default age we all THINK we are living until. I would say, probably our expectation is we will live past retirement.
Me: And we operate in that mode.
Christopher: We might not though.
Me: I’m constantly feeling like I don’t make enough use of my days though. Like, I am pretty lazy. Also, what is ‘quality’ time with ones parents? I don’t get into deep philosophical conversations with my dad, for instance. But i still consider us close.
Christopher: I think that’s a good question. I feel it is about self definition. I also think your family is what you want it to be. Many people have tough issues with biological family. i don’t see any obligation people have to that unless they choose that.
Me: You mentioned you’ve been spending more quality time with your parents lately than before. What does that mean to you?
Christopher: What I mean is that I think we are both more aware of why we enjoy spending time with each other, and when we spend time with each other, it brings us more joy because we understand each other better than we used to. And I’m an adult, where as 10 years ago i was still figuring out what I was about.
Me: Anyway I felt much better last Christmas when you rebutted that post. But I also feel unsure about ‘quality time’ and what that means
Christopher: You have to define that for yourself, I think. I’m not sure I know either. If I sit around and watch a movie with my parents, does that count?
Me: Not sure! I think we know AFTER. Like, I remember our time at the bar talking about this [very topic], and our relationships and other things, as being meaningful. (Me and you, not me and my parents.)
Me: So that’s an example of knowing in retrospect that time together had meaning to us.
Christopher:But you didn’t set out to ‘have an interaction with meaning’ at the time. You just set out to have drinks.
Me: Hahaha. Do you want me to do my google invites like that going forward?
Me: “Invite: Interaction with meaning time with Elise,” Yes/No/Maybe/Propose New Time
I was woefully unprepared for work on Tuesday. After living Monday, December 26 twice — once in Seoul on one side of the international date line, and for the second time in Honolulu after going back in time 18 hours — I had to start Tuesday at 4am to follow around President Obama for the final time as POTUS.
Everything started out smoothly despite the early hour. Eating places weren’t open, but I discovered an uneaten KIND Bar that Friend Matt bequeathed me and put in my bag from the previous week in London, so I didn’t starve. And then all the logistics to get to President Obama’s vacation residence before he woke up in the morning were flowing. We loaded on to the press bus before 5am and took the journey to the residential neighborhood where the Obama’s stay.
Because POTUS wakes early for his morning workout, the press pool (charged with following his every move) had to hold in a rented, Japanese-style guest house during the wee hours, just waiting for him to get up. That’s when I discovered my lack of preparation: my audio recorder didn’t have the memory card in it. I left it in the computer back in the hotel. I also didn’t bring a backup. This meant I wouldn’t be able to record all the sounds and speeches of the day, which would include Obama’s final meeting with another global leader as president, and Japan’s Prime Minister’s key visit to offer condolences for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Photographers usually have extra SD cards on them (that’s the type of card our NPR recording devices use). But their cameras save to compact flash cards most often and SD cards are a touristy camera backup. So the still photogs weren’t able to help. Bloomberg’s Justin Sink happened to have an SD card, but it was a half-sized one, so it would have required an adapter. No one else in the 15 journalist pool was able to turn anything up, and the pool is so closely watched and wrangled because it has to stay with the president all day that I had NO freedom to break out and try to buy one.
President Obama then awoke for his workout at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Once his motorcade is rolling, the press bus joins in and we suddenly found ourselves on base. While POTUS worked out, the pool waits at a nearby base McDonald’s.
My mind wheels were turning, trying to figure out how to procure this card before the next morning stop — the bilateral meeting with Japan. So I went to the base PX store, which is like a Walmart for military. But they wouldn’t open for another three hours. Then I tried the open gas station at the Firestone Tire service center, which a White House press wrangler had to follow me to because you can’t go off on your own. They were selling an assortment of Haribo Gummi Bears, wart bandages and all sorts of car fresheners, but NO SD CARDS.
That’s when I mention to the Hawaiian store clerk at the gas station that I need an SD card badly. She says she could call a friend (this is 6:30am mind you) to drive off base to the open Walgreens and get me one. The press wrangler, who has followed me, rules this out. He says Obama could be finished up working out soon, and when he’s moving, we’re moving. We leave the store in defeat.
Another 20 minutes pass at the McDonald’s, waiting for POTUS to wrap up. Then we are told to load up and move out. As the van parks across the street to await folding into the motorcade, the gas station clerk RUSHES ONTO THE VAN out of breath, waving two SD cards that she had a family member drive and procure for me despite us giving up earlier. The whole press van (which has dealt with my whining for the past few hours) erupts in crazy applause. She straight-up saved the day. I don’t even know her name. I’m ever indebted and so, so grateful.
I will forever think the best of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.
Ah, 2016. A year so seemingly bad that it became its own internet meme. Not only was the soul-sucking U.S. presidential election rather horrifying, but artistic icons kept dying — Bowie, Prince, now George Michael. Mix in another hottest year on record, Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis, rising nativism all over the world, nuclear tests by North Korea and it’s easy to get a girl down, you know?
In the micro sense, my 2016 was a tornado of travel and jet lag but rather charmed and full of surprises, like the new baby in my belly. (WHAT!? Still processing, but running out of time for it to sink in.) It was a year for much Japan exploration, and full of friends and weekend getaways all over the place — Cebu, Bangkok, Okinawa, New York, London, Seattle and more.
Notable Firsts: The G7 summit, airport transportation by high-speed boat, flight with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, police-escorted motorcade through Beijing, aka, experiencing Beijing without its infamous traffic, gong bath (it is a thing), Go tournament, hosting an NPR show, getting a compliment from the president, kabuki show, naked man festival. (Some details below.)
Recurring Theme: Jet lag. Naps. Longing for booze and not being able to drink it.
Favorite Selfie: My brother Roger Hu goofing off with daughter Eva (and a magnifying glass) when we were all in Taipei for the Lunar New Year.
New Person: A new Hu was born on December 1, after 48 hours of labor. My little brother Roger is now a dad, to baby boy Ethan Hu. Another E-Hu in the family makes me so proud. I can’t wait to meet him.
Regrets: I didn’t call my friends who I don’t meet up with in random cities. Going to make a more concerted effort in 2017.
Notable New Friend: CNN International’s Saima Moshin, who I technically met in 2015. But we really solidified our friendship this year, and I’m better for it.
New countries: Philippines, Thailand, Laos
And in no particular order…
Asked the Deputy US Secretary of State about North Korea’s hangover free booze
Watched traditional kabuki performed by children up in the mountains
Attended first Japanese naked man festival, featuring not men but boys (yikes)
Got attacked by a raccoon, who then STOLE my mic
Slept through Taiwan’s big February earthquake, had to do a bunch of TV to talk about it
Learned enough cab Korean to get around
Gave Isabel a Korean first birthday party
Ran out of passport pages
Went back and forth to Japan 11 times
Went to Hawaii for work … twice
Thought a lot about smog
Watched artificial intelligence beat a 9-time world champ at Go
Covered the President’s historic (and moving) visit to Hiroshima
Passed up a chance to live in Shanghai
(Went back-and-forth for awhile before making a decision)
Guest hosted Weekend Edition
Had soooo many karaoke (or in Korea, norebang) nights
Played The Sunday Puzzle with NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz
Somehow got knocked up again, hrmmm
Learned how to tie a tourniquet really quickly, and to make one
Achieved objective of reading a lot more books than last year
Asked President B-H-O about North Korea on his final Asia trip
Got a presidential compliment: “Those are good questions”
Finally saw Sir Ian McKellen IN THE FLESH
Learned how to make a pig face out of a rice ball
Drove on left side of road and right side of car for the first time, didn’t die
Witnessed Obama and Shinzo Abe’s quiet tribute to Pearl Harbor victims at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial
Free from nursing by July (but pregnant again in August), logged 128,367 miles in the air (resulting in jet lag for many days of 2016), going to nine countries and spending 145 days away from home. I need a nap. Bye.
Attempting to come out of a jet lag blur to say that I spent an incredible week in the Western hemisphere, which included a lot of time on planes and briefly, a train to New York. (After getting used to the bullet trains of Asia, the Amtrak feels like a damned stagecoach, not gonna lie.)
The notable thing about this trip was the lack of group activities; it was a lot of one-on-one dinners and breakfasts and coffee meetings with friends for whom I care deeply. And it all included a lot of freaking out about what is next for us in America and the world.
Things that common-law work spouse Matt Thompson said to me over burgers will stay with me, about how we need to lean more heavily into our archives and history, in general, to better understand what’s going at the dawn of Trump. And the work advice from people like Kate (who used to work with me) and Chuck (who is about to not work at NPR anymore) will make me feel better about the state of things in my career. Ultimately, the time in DC was so compressed that I had to fit in time with my BFF Sudeep by straight-up scheduling a walk together to the Triple A office, get a coffee to-go, walk to Treasury to get something back from an official, and then walk partially back to his office. That was the sum total of our reunion. For my other BFF, Sara, we scheduled a Chik-Fil-A dinner followed by a trip to Target. No joke. There was just no time.
On the flip side, the days lingered and melted into each when there were fewer people to see — in London, for a weekend with Friend Matt (seems everyone is named Matt, it’s all very confusing, but at least I can’t trip things up this way). He wanted to get to a top-ranked restaurant he hadn’t been to yet, and to go to an all-night barn party/jazz jam session out in the country, and since I was going to spend my final time in America just gorging on the fast food I’ve missed (Whataburger, where have you been all my life), it wasn’t too much of a burden to join Matt on his more classy trip to London, instead.
Serendipity and luck were in our favor all along: We almost missed our flight but didn’t, no belongings were left or lost, and little things happened to time out just as needed. We stayed at a flat* in Covent Garden near the theater district, and while walking home from a late night dinner we saw signs for a show featuring Sir Ian McKellen(!) and Patrick Stewart. When Matt checked about getting tickets the next day, he learned it was closing night, snagged two tickets and we got in to saw the dense and (obviously) well-acted show. I joked that it was about the frailty of existence for rich white men, and then we read a review, in which the reviewer explained that essentially the play was about the existential ennui of rich white men.
There was also delicious food, libation I so longed for and trips out into the English countryside, one night for the most random, bohemian jazz jam session-cum-birthday party filming. I can’t quite describe it except to say there were some ballerinas and lots of soldier costumes, plus a gong bath. My first gong bath!
* I try to code switch to British terms like flat and queue and crisps where appropriate.
Hello! We are just back from Okinawa, where we went on our FIFTH, count ’em, FIFTH, 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, Cebu, Bangkok and now, Okinawa. Now that we travel so much together we don’t really like to travel without them. And since we spent Thanksgiving with the Wan-Yau’s in Seoul last year, 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.