The Most Memorable Stories I Got To Tell In 2016

“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

Sake from paper cups on the Shinkansen with my mom, photog and fixer, in February.

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.

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Saved By A Stranger, Hawaii Edition

Last shot of President Obama on my phone. He’s speaking at Pearl Harbor, framed by his traveling press.

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.

Predawn, holding in a Hawaii rental home with the rest of the White House press pool.

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.

Waiting at a McDonald’s while POTUS worked out, with WH correspondents Justin Sink of Bloomberg (L) and Josh Lederman of AP (R)

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.

The press pool on the move.

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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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