Three-Way Birthdays To Remember

My last night in Austin was in February 2011, a week before our birthday. The karaoke goodbye at Do512 HQ was thrown in part by John and April, so this was our de facto final three-way party.

My last night in Austin was in February 2011, a week before our birthday. The karaoke goodbye at Do512 HQ was thrown in part by John and April, so this was our de facto final three-way party.

There is no annual gathering that’s more special to me than the now-defunct “Three-Way Birthday” parties of my Austin years. For five years in my twenties, I celebrated my birthday with two other Texas politcal reporters who also were born on February 17th — my besties April Castro and John Moritz. We are the dancing-on-bartops together (April) and buy-homes-from-one-another (I bought John’s house) kind of close friends. Our friendship was born out of many inside jokes, lunches at the Texas Chili Parlor (which makes a CHEESEBURGER SALAD), drinks at the Stephen F. Austin hotel, and long nights at the Texas Capitol, staking out one politician or another, or listening to the endless chubbing of lawmakers stalling votes or adding amendments to amendments to the budget bill. And, of course, our annual birthday ritual fueled memories for always.

I suppose I moved away first, so maybe it’s all my fault, but now we are in three different countries. John remains in Austin, Texas, but I weirdly live in South Korea and April recently relocated to Canada. I think of them often, and miss them often, but never as much as I do on our birthday. (This just reminded me: One year, a Texas lawmaker who was ALSO born on February 17 did one of those honorary resolutions on the House floor to recognize us for our birthday, probably just because it was also his day, but anyway, it was pretty amusing.)

I met April in a committee room at the Texas Capitol, and John on my first day on the beat as a Texas political reporter. We quickly learned we shared a birthday. This is a snap from our very first joint birthday party, in 2007.

I met April in a committee room at the Texas Capitol, and John on my first day on the beat as a Texas political reporter. We quickly learned we shared a birthday. This is a snap from our very first joint birthday party, in 2007.

The 2008 party is memorable because it didn’t happen, and we can blame Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for that. We were political reporters, and Obama and Clinton were locked in such a tight battle at that point because Obama hoped to lock up the nomination in Texas/Ohio, that we were working nonstop. On the night of our party, Obama held a rally in downtown Austin in which something like 30,000 people showed up. We had to cancel the party at the last minute because we had to cover the rally.

The invite to a party that didn't happen. When we made the invite campaign-themed, we didn't know that the Obama campaign would be the reason our party got canceled.

The invite to a party that didn’t happen. When we made the invite campaign-themed, we didn’t know that the Obama campaign would be the reason our party got canceled.

Every year for the big party we'd send out invitations in which we'd combine our three ages. In 2009, we turned 112.

Every year for the big party, we’d send out invitations in which we’d combine our three ages. In 2009, we turned 112.

In 2010, we threw our swankiest party, at a bungalow that's part of Hotel St. Cecelia. After years of throwing "three-way's," we actually had a bed at our party venue.

In 2010, we threw our swankiest party, at a bungalow that’s part of Hotel St. Cecelia. After years of throwing “three-way’s,” we actually had a bed at our party venue.

Happiest of birthdays to my partners-in-mischief and fellow February 17thers. I miss you and treasure our shared birthday memories.

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Occasionally I go to “rubber chicken dinners,” as they’re called in Washington. (Rarely is rubber chicken actually served, the food is often quite good.) They are awards shows or chamber of commerce anniversary events or whatever, where you’re seated at tables of eight or ten, like at a wedding, and much like weddings, they’re often at expensive hotels. I went to one last night where I was seated next to the New Zealand ambassador to Korea, and on the other side of her, the Netherlands ambassador to Korea. The Dutch guy was fun; we ninjaed out together before the program was over, saying “We have small children,” as an excuse. “Sure you have,” he said with a grin.

The New Zealand ambassador and I discovered we share the same Korean teacher, who is a saint, we both conceded. But it turns out the ambassador was previously posted in Xian, Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei, so her spoken Mandarin is quite excellent. She even whipped out some Shanghainese, a dialect hard to find outside Shanghai. (Though my dad and sister pride themselves on keeping up their Shanghainese with one another.)

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I had a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner. The whole box, because that’s the appropriate serving size for my appetite. I threw in some chunks of lightly fried tofu for protein. Our housekeeper and cook is off on Sundays, so this is the only day of the week I’m left to fend for myself like this, which explains my orange powder and tofu concoction. But three hours later I was starving. I really wanted something saltier for a snack before my nightly Haagen Daaz ice cream bar, which I eat as I do my nightly pumping for Baby Isa’s strategic milk reserve. I called Matty, who was out tonight, and he was passing by a Taco Bell. I told him “crunchy tacos” and did not specify a number. He came home with three tacos, instead of two. His knowing that my 10pm taco snack should consist of three tacos and not two was the best Valentine’s gift I’ve gotten in years.

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“My overuse of Twitter was part of a larger set of issues I have. I have a deep hunger for information, distraction, and activity. If I slow down my stimulation or creation, I start to feel useless and confused. Throughout my life, I’ve usually satiated that hunger with cultural consumption and work, but Twitter gave me the chance to feed it more efficiently — and even more unhealthily.”

Annie Lowrey, on quitting Twitter. I feel this.

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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2015 Year in Review: This Asian Life

Hanging out at a cat cafe, Seoul.

Hanging out at a cat cafe, Seoul.

“This Asian Life” was one rejected names for my East Asia Tumblr, which ultimately got a pretty straightforward name, Elise Goes East! But lucky for me, the name still hung around my head long enough to return as a headline for my annual year-in-review post.

Between the globe irreversibly warming, mass gun deaths at a regular clip and the tumultuous rise of ISIS, it can feel like the human race is on the brink. But I have to stay hopeful, partly out of my constitution and partly because this year we brought another tiny human into the world and I want it to be a safe enough, survivable place for her.

In my little universe, there has been plenty of discovery and joy, and for that I’m endlessly grateful.

New Experiences: Moving to South Korea. Living in South Korea. Eating live octopus. Stranger in a strange land syndrome. Having a baby in a foreign country. Reporting through an interpreter almost exclusively. Ear infection. Getting abandoned in a cab without explanation. Crashing a wedding and going unnoticed. Eating 4,000 calories in front of an audience of thousands, who gave feedback the whole time. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Osaka, Japan. Osaka’s karaoke bars. Cat cafe.

Most Mindblowingly Awesome Gift: My friend and coworker, the shockingly talented Adam Cole, wrote and performed me a K-pop style goodbye song using common Korean phrases he taught himself in a day. This will be on the “best list” of my life, not just of the year.

Difficult Loss: Saying goodbye to my dog, Saidee.

Most Unexpected Mail: The last season of Mad Men on DVD, sent from LA by Mad Men creator and head honcho Matt Weiner. When he wrote me asking for my address, I thought it was a joke, until those DVDs arrived in the mail from his assistant.

Beverages of Choice: Gong Cha’s black tea iced bubble tea with full ice, 30% sweetness. Grapefruit soju. So much grapefruit soju.

Regrets: Never learned a signature karaoke song in Korean. Not counting kids books I read only three books beginning-to-end in 2015. This is by far my all-time low. Next year I’m taking the advice here on how to read more.

Product Discoveries: Okonomiyaki, “essence” for skincare, enoki mushrooms, pilates socks, Laneige water bank sleeping mask, Tony Moly Eye Cooling Stick

Things I miss about my American life: Snickers ice cream bars, the NFL, chatting it up with strangers, being understood when I ask questions, uncensored Internet, driving (on occasion), wasting time during the work day by walking to Starbucks with my coworkers, going to the office, being able to get food that’s not automatically spicy, Life cereal whenever I want it

Notable New Pal: Chris Holmes, who is Paul McCartney’s DJ. I met Chris in a classic living abroad/traveling a lot situation —  when you happen to be in the same place as an old friend. In this instance, I was in Tokyo at the same time as pal Harper, who was there with his dad to see Chris play in the Paul McCartney show in Tokyo. Not only did I get to hang with Harper and dad, we met Chris and his wife, Melinda, and when the McCartney tour came to Seoul, Chris hooked me up with VVIP tickets at the last minute. See? This is why you should say yes to everything.

Favorite Selfie: Isabel nailing me in the face a few days after I tried the “rice ball baby face” meme on her.

Items Muled to Seoul By American Friends: Hidden Valley Ranch, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Advil Liquigels, Almay Eye Makeup Remover Pads, Loreal Voluminous Mascara in Blackest Black, Lawry’s Taco Seasoning, my Graf & Lantz tote bag, baby shoes, Clean and Clear Foaming Face Wash, Degree deodorant, Purpose face wash, Robitussin Cough and Cold, Zinc throat spray.

And in no particular order, this year I:

Traveled 168,895 miles, visited seven countries and spent 54 days away from home (DC and then Seoul). It is more mileage but a lot more time at home than last year. I’m still exclusively breastfeeding little Isa, so she has to fly with me everywhere since I’m her food source. Pumping is an occasional option, but, since I am a known pump-hater, it is a last resort.
Kicked off 2015 in Mexico with some of my best pals and whiskey water
Said goodbye to Washington, D.C.
Got the best sendoff song of ever
Moved into my first-ever high-rise
Started learning Korean
Took a few MOOCs
Fried a few appliances due to international voltage differences
Learned about PM2.5 and started checking it every day
Played Korean drinking games with my company’s CEO
Started learning Korean, made little progress
Made a bunch of new expat friends, and
Entertained a lot of guests who visited from the states
Spent a lot more time with my mom/dad/brother, thanks to being newly Asia-based
Witnessed a line for a Taco Bell opening
Got the angriest listener voicemail
Let a stranger sleep on my shoulder on the Tokyo subway, which I learned is a Japan thing
Reflected upon my Korea experience with many blogs and magazines
Ate a giant cheeseburger in between contractions, during the birth of my new baby
Visited Jeju Island, a super weird place
Got a 10-year visa to China, but had to sign an MOU promising I wouldn’t commit acts of journalism when I’m there
Started life-logging again, this time with FitBit
Had a weird meeting at the North Korean embassy in Japan
Interviewed a Taiwanese presidential candidate
Witnessed a dog groomed into a square
Pissed off PSY’s lawyer
Found an uncannily spot-on Texas-themed bar in Tokyo
Covered ASEAN.
Spoke at my grandfather’s alma mater, in Beijing.
Got bronchitis after a trip to Beijing
Started a newsletter with a punny name.
Survived a 14-hour flight with a cranky husband, highly verbal three-year-old and a nursing baby. Then made it through their jet lag.

I think we can call it a year now. Goodbye, 2015.

Previous Years in Review:
201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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We Need To Talk About My Osaka Karaoke Experience

Intense singing. With strangers.

Intense singing. With strangers.

It’s no secret I enjoy a good karaoke night with friends, but it turns out there’s a semi-private karaoke experience — with strangers — I enjoy just as much.

Last weekend in Osaka my friend Sarah and I stumbled upon several bars of the same type: They are sorta-divey, narrow spaces — only as wide as a tall man’s wingspan, a single, sit down bar that seats maybe 12 people, tops, and three bartender women who serve you sake, beer or liquor while you and your barmates sit around and take turns signing karaoke selections which appear on the two screens in front of you. (The bartender ladies make sure to offer you the remote and song book at frequent intervals so the singing doesn’t cease).

You just drink and sing, and smoke, since it’s allowed in Japan, with strangers in a super intimate setting. Or you can ignore everyone and stare straight ahead, since it’s a bar and not a living room setting, like private karaoke rooms (which are far more common across Asia). But everyone applauds you at the end of your selection, these bars are full of men but non-suggestive bartender women, and you end up feeling a general sense of community in a short amount of time. I need to know what this bar concept is called!

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of  "Moon River" with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of “Moon River” with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

We befriended the Osaka man who happened to be seated next to us, and he humored me by singing the Japanese cliche, “Sukiyaki,” because it was the one Japanese song I could think of. I returned the favor by selecting “Moon River,” with which, for some reason, all Asians I’ve ever karaoked with are familiar.

The best part of the evening was, after we were three bottles of sake in, the bartender ladies passed out karaoke snack sticks for everyone. I think it was like a Funyun, but in the form of a cylinder, and wrapped in cute Doraemon packaging featuring little Doraemon holding a microphone singing. They come in onion or curry flavor (among others) and they were DELICIOUS. Sarah was most excited about the snack.

WHAT ARE THESE BARS? I don’t know the Japanese name for them but there’s gotta be a name for this type of experience, since while wandering the area near the Tennoji Zoo (parts of it can be kinda sketchy by Japan standards), there were several of them in a row. At first we were intimidated about wandering into one, namely because they were so small that it seemed unnerving, and because all the customers were men and the bartenders were women. But nothing even remotely weird or sexual seemed to happen while we were there. It was just a good ol’ time, making new friends. Definitely one of my top nights in Asia.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

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Tokyo-Seoul-Beijing-Seoul-Taipei

The cameras in the People's Square.

The cameras in the People’s Square.

This month, I am going from South Korea to Japan to China and then finally to Taiwan, spending about a week in each place. Each place has its own unique culture, despite being connected as a region. And now that we’re halfway through these journeys (only Taiwan is left) I’m not only feeling culture-whiplash, but a severe pain in my throat and a nagging cough known in the expat community as “Beijing Cough.”

These are some things I remember about Beijing:

Brother Roger took care of a lot of hospitality even though we were only seeing him as a secondary reason; the reason we went to Beijing was to help train students as part of the Sam Houston State University’s Global Journalism Center, which had partnered with Tsinghua University, my grandpa’s alma mater. Roger being the host he is, he made sure we had drivers anytime we needed, which helped a lot but all the car time also showed us how traffic really is murder in Beijing.

The girls were awesome. We stayed in a Marriott “executive apartment” for a few nights because the facility had a giant lap pool and a kids play room, both of which Eva took advantage of. There was also a giant closet that fit Isabel’s co-sleeper so Isa had a “room” of her own.

The duck was second to none, of course, but Roger introduced us to his favorite Japanese restaurant in Beijing and they knew how to make Japanese food, no joke. Tasted like a really quality joint in Tokyo, where we’d been just the week before.

Due to a windstorm, the smog got blown out of town for the first few days of our trip. It was straight up BLUE skies, which I didn’t expect. But the smog eventually returned and was so severe that I got recurring headaches, the tickle in my throat turned into a full-on cough, and when walking from our hotel to a coffee shop to meet my friend Ben, it straight-up smelled like everything was on fire. It was just the air.

I had forgotten about squatter toilets, which have largely been phased out of Seoul but remain in a lot of public bathrooms in Beijing. Squatters were a big feature of life when I spent a few summers in Taipei in the 1990s. Except in the 1990s I was in middle school, about 100lbs and hadn’t delivered two babies, so squatting wasn’t so physically burdensome. I was basically anxious every time I was away from the hotel and felt the need to pee.

This led to a discussion about squatters with the aforementioned Ben. He pointed out that squatters are actually more sanitary, in his mind. I think they’re gross because I have to be so close to the ground while squatting and you see the mix of shoe grime and wetness on the ground while you’re down there. But Ben said it’s much better to squat and NOT have your legs on a toilet seat that so many others have sat on. The solution of course is just to squat over a toilet seat, but toilet seats weren’t an option.

Since we’re on the topic of squatting, something else happened. Matty was outside our hotel one night and saw a cabbie turn his flashers on, get out of the car, drop trou, crouch behind some bushes and take a dump near the curb, get back up with his pants still open, tuck-in his shirt and return to the cab. No shame. Kind of amazing.

You know what else was kind of amazing? The valets who drive you home in your own car.

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Goodbye To My Dog

Saidee, at nearly 17 years old.

November 30, 1998 — September 27, 2015. Pictured here is Saidee at nearly 17 years old.

Update: Saidee left us on Sunday. Eva led her on her leash to a private van, which my assistant arranged for the ride to a compassionate vet, who gave us lots of time to say goodbye. Saidee died in my arms, at nearly half her normal weight after stopped being able to keep any food down. She knew we loved her, but more importantly, she was loving us — licking us — to the very end.

I am sitting here on my bed with my baby cooing at me and my dog in the other room. I am quite certain my dog is about to die.

We lived off Legacy Drive in Plano, Texas 17 years ago, when Saidee joined us as a puppy. My best friend Erin and I drove out to see her in my red Jeep Cherokee after I spotted an ad for beagle puppies in the classifieds. (Like I said, this was a long time ago.) Saidee has an official name — Legacy Lady Saidee, which follows the street name+first name naming custom of her show dog father, Copper Mountain Cody.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

At the time I was 16 and applying for colleges as a high school junior. I wanted my dog-loving mom to have a surrogate daughter since I knew I would be moving away. We chose to spell her name “Saidee” because my mom didn’t want the word “sad” anywhere in her name. When she joined us, she was so small she could burrow into my running shoe.

Up until the end, burrowing was a beloved pastime for her. Saidee didn’t bark or bay — odd for a beagle — but she loved to sleep completely under the covers after spending several minutes finding just the right cushion level. She cuddled close to humans, covering them with kisses, spooned with the cats, but was snooty about other dogs. True to her breed, her ultimate favorite activity is eating. Anytime my mom is cooking in the kitchen, Saidee is circling her feet, hoping for a snack to fall from the sky. And that nose of hers could suss out a morsel of food half a mile away. (Which might be why she ran away so many times, always to return somehow.)

She’s my mom’s dog but since we are a family that’s often on the move, Saidee has taken countless flights and road trips and lived with each of us Hu family members at various points in her long life. She joined us when we were all together in Dallas. She lived with Roger when he was at school in Arizona. She lived with Dad in St. Louis when mom’s job pulled her to Taiwan. In 2007, she moved in with Matty and me in Austin, and later, she moved with us to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

In her 17 years, she’s made many friends, put up with four different cats, survived a battle with skin cancer, briefly got a new identity, seen the American West and the Appalachian Mountains and despite deafness and blindness in her old age, she even managed a final journey with us — across the Pacific, to Seoul.

When I got Saidee, I was only a girl. Now I am a woman with two girls of my own. I always knew that I’d outlive her — and if we were lucky, that all of her Hu humans would — but I kept delaying the thought, since she’s stayed with us so long. But this week, Saidee did something that she’s never done in her life. She stopped eating. Dementia drives her to walk in circles or face a corner without explanation. I know it’s not long now.

I’ll never be able to repay Saidee for her friendship and her love. Thank you, Saidee Hu, for your insatiable hunger, for food, and for life. For teaching me about loyalty, about growing up, and growing older. For bringing us such joy.

The writer Zadie Smith, reflecting on joy, offered as an example the bonds between humans and our animals. She wrote that relationships with animals are intensified because of their guaranteed finitude.

“You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness,” she wrote.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

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Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving

Eva at three.

Eva at three.

Happy 3rd Birthday to my pretty young thing, the baby who blasted into the world and made me a momma.

In the year since her last birthday, Eva has had to leave the only home she knew and move to the other side of the planet, start at three different schools, adapt to a foreign country, say goodbye to her nanny and become a big sister. She’s done it all with joy and pluck, and the giant smile that melts me every time.

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