“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used.”
–The President of the United States of America, last week, in a letter to Kim Jong Un
I slipped away to Hong Kong Friday night, after a topsy turvy week on the peninsula. North Korea hosted international journalists to show the destruction of its main nuclear test site only for American President Donald Trump, in a fit of pique a few hours later, to cancel the big Singapore summit he had abruptly agreed to in the first place.
In the hours since, the President has signaled the summit is back on and is acting like the letter never happened. He also tweeted that one of his aides who argued June 12th might be too soon to pull off “didn’t even exist.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise secret Saturday summit inside the DMZ to try and keep diplomacy on track. I have been on the radio basically every hour in one form or the other and have subsequently lost my voice.
All I’m saying is thank god I got to get away to beautiful, balmy Hong Kong for delicious dim sum and Canto food and drinking with my fellow foreign correspondent Ivan, who lives on the far Western edge of Hong Kong Island, which means when you wake up at his place all you see outside is water and lush green islands. Also, he plays piano and I realized how much I miss dwelling in a home with the sound of piano music in it. (Note to self: Move my piano back from Uncle Jim’s house after repatriation.)
Anyway. Friday night we went to sleep thinking the summit was off and awoke Saturday to cryptic notes that the summit was maybe back on, something we both reacted to with an instant expression: “Fuck!” Casting those feelings aside, we hiked the virgin mountain behind his place, got rained on at the top, then made it down the mountain back into bustling streets to squish ourselves at a table with strangers at a local dim sum joint where no plastic stool goes unoccupied. (This is the only real way to do it.) Before I came home, I made sure to stop by a traditional bakery to load up on egg custard tarts and every carb stuffed with char siu inside.
When you’re on the second most relentless beat of the year (just as it intersects with the first most relentless beat), you really have to snatch those small pleasures when you can.
The lead parent of our children is off in America so I have been really getting my momming on over the past few days. (Y’all know how that usually goes for me. VERY laissez faire.) Being in charge of my two children and a baby while also working from home was already going to be daunting in it of itself, but the despot Kim Jong Un decided to throw in an extra challenge! He invited President Trump to meet face-to-face, and Trump accepted, in an announcement that came down at 9am yesterday morning. A bona fide news bomb.
This is what I remember: I thankfully awakened slowly rather than suddenly because somehow there were no screaming fits or random sibling throw-downs to break up at the break of dawn. Since November 2016 I have avoided news inputs until I am fully awake and ready to take in whatever inevitably shocking alert is on my phone. Yesterday was distinct in that news hadn’t actually broken at 7:30am when I woke up. News ABOUT news was filling my inbox because POTUS DJT had popped his head in the White House Briefing Room (a room he’s never been seen in) and said there was a “major announcement” coming in 90 minutes. The countdown began.
Our helper Yani served breakfast and braided hair. I made sure the girls got on their buses. Baby Luna slept through all the way until 8:30am when both older girls were off for school. I hate having to feed her and read at the same time a furious feed-and-read situation followed in order to finish both in time for the announcement. By then, we knew that the news had to do with North Korea, and that the South Korean envoys who had just met with KJU on Monday went to Washington an invitation from Kim to Trump, to meet. This would be unprecedented and incredible on many, many levels. The craziest thing was that, at the 9am/7pm EST announcement, we learned Trump just accepted this invite immediately! It breaks with decades of U.S. practice but this is Trump and really, are there norms anymore?
From a windowless, carpeted room that serves as a perfect home “studio,” got on live with our program All Things Considered right after the announcement, at 9:30am Korea time. But my kindergartner Eva’s monthly school assembly was at 10am! I am her only parent in the country right now. She expected me to be there and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I rushed to her school by cab, stayed through to her performance (last because they’re the oldest) and then made sure she saw that I was there and had to go, then ran to hail another cab to take me home, making it with four minutes to spare before my next live conversation with All Things Considered, at 11am. That could have really gone the other way for me so, thank you God.
Later I delivered a stroller to a friend who needed to borrow it, ate lunch on base with some USGOV guys who joked around about this rather stunning news with me (I’m leaving the jokes out of this blog post), and because I don’t like to cancel appointments at the last minute, I took a cab all the way to my pedicure place only to realize that because I jumped into the cab while conducting a phone interview*, I forgot to bring any forms of payment! We had to turn around and return to my home, get my wallet, drive back to pedicure place only for me to realize, by then, that I didn’t have time for the appointment because there were many more live conversations to have and the web post to write-through. At some point I needed to sit down and speed read and correspond with more people, which is what those of us in the biz call “reporting.” In the evening when the girls had to be bathed and put down for bed, I was on Morning Edition twice. In between the two hits, Eva, who is starting to read, read to me (this felt interminable because I was on deadline) and we completed the True/False questions in the back because she loves True/False. Then I recall putting a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on for them in lieu of any more books.
I got the girls tucked in and put down for bed and then got my ass to a friend’s Pyeongchang Paralympics Opening Ceremony Watch Party, because YES THAT WAS YESTERDAY, too.
Here are the conversations, as they appeared in the course of this string of events:
All Things Considered after the feed-and-read with Luna (no link because it was replaced with the next one) All Things Considered in the nick-of-time after making it back from Eva’s assembly Morning Edition/Up First podcast after my failed pedicure attempt but got a giant cookie for Isa (she loves cookies) Morning Edition after the True/False questions All Things Considered after being awakened this morning with a 6:30am call to talk again. My voice is noticeably lower here because I’d just woken up. Sorry.
Not included in this post: All the stress eating and Starbucks green iced teas. By the end of the day there were just plastic Starbucks drink vessels strewn all over my desk.
*It was John, a friend/source of mine who is a China historian and North Korea watcher based here in Seoul. We spend half of our phone calls just mercilessly making fun of each other. A running gag is we our phone conversations by performing the phone greetings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese obnoxiously: (Roboseyo? Roboseyo! // Wei? Wei? // Moshi Moshi!? Moshi Mosh.)
True story: I would have posted this before the end of 2017 had my computer not died on the last day of the year. I guess 2017 wanted to get in one final disappointment. Don’t let the door hit ya!
“We worry, all along, that we are being buffeted about by forces beyond our control, because we are. The world is wheels within wheels within wheels, but so are we. Everything is under control, and nothing makes sense.”
-Todd Van der Werff, on 2017
To ignore the unsettled feeling brought on by the changes to America and the world under the least popular American president since modern polling began would be irresponsible, but I also find it infuriating and exhausting to think too hard about it. For example, I cannot bring myself to look at starving polar bear photos even though philosophically I think we all should.
This year I tried to focus on individual objectives and tasks in order to keep my sanity. Like trying to teach the girls how to live with kindness and consideration of other people. (A work in progress, as they aren’t even that nice to one another!) At work, I’m trying to do some good with the pretty significant microphone that we have to shine a light on ourselves and our times and to agitate for improvements to my organization (e.g., to try and make it more inclusive). To say I haven’t been in and out of ennui would be a lie. I was unable to consume alcohol for all of Q1 and finally I started doing so with abandon as soon as Baby Luna was out of me. There was a lot of catching up to do.
That the final two months of the year brought down so many sexual predators/misogynists and Alabama elected the guy who prosecuted the KKK instead of the guy banned from the mall represents some cautious hope that a corrective for these misshapen times will eventually come. And the year wasn’t all bad. The Houston Astros won the World Series, the aggressively exuberant baby Luna is here and Matt Lauer is gone from the airwaves. Reliable year-enders that I cherish, such as The Hater’s Guide to the Williams Sonoma catalog, still showed up.
Firsts: Getting lost in a go-kart on the streets of Tokyo. Being with Donald Trump in person. (And Melania.) Making wax food. IUD! Fareed Zakaria GPS. Potty Training boot camp (NOT FOR ME, I was the drill sergeant, okay?!). And a first (and last) — co-hosting All Things Considered with the man the myth and the legend, Robert Siegel, before he retires.
Recurring Themes: North Korea. Russia. Being frightened to see news alerts in the morning.
New Person: Little Luna Lee, our third human child, who weighed 8 pounds 6 oz., or as they measure it in Korea, 3.9 kg. The heaviest crotch nugget yet, and I whined about it heartily in her final weeks of incubation.
Favorite Selfie: On the streets with crowds of South Korean, with crack assistant Jihye the moment South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, was formally removed from office after being impeached by a constitutional court. (She’s now in jail on a slew of charges.)
Most Unintentionally Famous Friend: Bob Kelly, aka “BBC Dad,” after his hip-hoppity kids made the best ever appearance in this BBC interview, followed up by his stealthy-smooth wife, who came to yank them out
New Friend of the Year: Alex Field, who is Hong Kong-based but spent so much time in Seoul for various North Korea-related news that she started working out regularly with my pilates instructor. Women need women friends and she’s become a close one, as we whine about our jetlag together following our trans-Pacific journeys and commiserate by text — and in person — over being overworked.
The Year of the … Hobonichi Techo: I tried going fully analog for my calendar and diary like the Japanese do, and it was awesome. The Hobonichi Techo was bullet journaling before bullet journals, and the pages, after writing in them, take on this delicious crinkled quality that’s oh so satisfying. I didn’t write a journal entry each day, so it’s largely full of to-dos and footnotes from phone calls that help me look back, and monthly calendars that show my travels and meetings.
Most Satisfying Habit: Monthly calls with Matt. After we went my first year in Seoul without talking on the phone, MThomps put recurring calls on both our calendars, dates which we got really serious about keeping no matter the hour or where we were. (He was often running, so our phone calls followed a bouncing up and down kind of rhythm.)
Close Calls: When Matty had to bribe his way into Indonesia just in time to make it for Isa’s 2nd birthday.
Had third baby and she is the bomb
Read 52 books, most of them fiction and the vast majority by badass women authors
Became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations
Found out I’m Wikipedia-cited on the topic of “asian fetishes,” yikes
Kpop dance class #humiliation
Got in trouble with standards editor for saying “awesomer” on the air, but “y’all” was cleared
Got sketched at a wedding by a random stranger (literally sketched, not a play on words)
Got a bandaid nearly applied to me by a stranger on the Tokyo subway
Launched Elise Tries, an irreverent travel video series
Started sleeping two rooms away from my phones because news alerts were anxiety-inducing
Showed up in a stock image
Showed up in an online textbook
Showed up in Austin to surprise my goddaughter Lost my grandma, my hero, a rock
Ran successful potty training boot camp, training Isa in two days
Accidentally injured my cat Caesar out of negligence
Drove a go kart around the streets of Tokyo
Drove into oncoming traffic in Hokkaido
Threw a bunch of ceramics at walls in a “rage room” with my brother
Room-mommed for my two year-old, who started preschool
Co-HostedAll Things Considered
Sent a lot of random packages (my fave was melted wax that Friend Harper received, long story)
Spent July 4th covering an ICBM test
Spent Labor Day weekend covering a nuclear test
Spent too many weekend mornings covering other missile launches
Dressed family up as sushi for Halloween
Popped in on lots of podcasts: Sweet and Sour FM. It’s Been a Minute. Divided States of Women. Lots of Up First.
Logged 59,861 miles to go to six countries and one US territory, and spent 78 days away from home, a much more homebound year this year thanks to Baby Luna.
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.
Every year the U.S. Embassy throws a big July 4th party for its friends in the other embassies, business folk in the American Chamber of Commerce and other associates, like us journalist types. The location has changed each year, and this year it felt like a giant car show in the Hyatt because sponsors parked Teslas and GM vehicles all over the place. Tito’s Vodka was also sponsoring and everyone knows it is my favorite beverage so, I just kind of parked it near the Tito’s station.
You know what was never busy though? The gazpacho station. I still don’t really get gazpacho.
The Trump selfie stations were a huge draw, as Korean guests really enjoyed going to get their pictures taken with the life-sized cardboard cutouts of the American president and his wife. (An embassy official was stationed near there to monitor for crude gestures at the selfie station, but she admitted that Koreans weren’t the concern, it was the Americans they had to worry about.)
“The only people left at this party are the journalists and the arms dealers.” -Friend John
Ouch. That’s a reference to this episode, which you may have read about. (I have to say there’s a little bit of envy in the drama factor of this story. In all my years reporting, no one has ever approached me with a lucrative arms dealing opportunity.)
You’re now reading the musings of a bonafide member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
We are witnessing this weekend an exodus of Republican party leaders from Donald Trump, their nominee for the highest office in the land. The floodgates broke open after an 11-year old video leaked in which Trump’s saying predictably horrifying things about women and basically bragging about his previous sexual assaults. That he just “grabs them by the pussy,” he says, and kisses women whenever he wants, because “when you’re a star” you can get away with it. He is aided and abetted on that tape by all the men who were with him on a studio lot’s bus, and in particular by the known bro, television host Billy Bush.
Why now? Trump’s attitudes about women were long known (a case of marital rape, calling women “slobs” and “dogs,” saying breastfeeding is “disgusting” and a whole slew of nose-cringing comments). So were his other attitudes, that actor Josh Gad laid out succinctly:
“We screamed until we were hoarse that calling Mexicans rapists, banning people based on their religion, not disavowing Klan members, calling women fat and disgusting, dishonoring POWS and Purple Heart fallen soldiers, and making fun of the disabled was not only unpresidential but unbecoming of a human being. And most importantly, for eight years we have sat astonished that a political ascension could be gamed out of questioning the birthplace of our first black President.”
All of this has been clear about Donald Trump. Why abandon him now? It seems one answer is, because these GOP leaders have people in their personal lives that are affected by the hatefulness of his speech and the sexual assault he’s advocated. One thing we are hearing a lot from Republican lawmakers and officials now is the “I have daughters” line, or “I have a wife.”
This need for proximity to a person affected by an injustice in order to believe in it is really eating at me this weekend. Our elected representatives are not chosen to just represent their families or their personal experiences. And if they’re only going to take stands based on that, there are entire groups of people and experiences that would never benefit from justice: What if you don’t know a poor person? Or disabled person? Or someone without health insurance? Or a Muslim? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee? Do the injustices affecting them not matter?
“The existence of your neighbors pain is not dependent on your belief in it,” actor and activitst Jesse Williams said. And it comes up again and again in a time of serious racial strife and division in America.
I was reminded of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s change of heart on same sex marriage a few years ago. He changed his position at the lobbying of his son, who is gay. While it’s good for gay people that someone in power changed his position to their side, the reason why he did it is worth interrogating. Matt Yglesias wrote on this topic back then:
“But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.”
When I went on a slew of tweets about this subject last night, one person responded by saying, we’re only human. And that’s true. It’s easier to have compassion and empathy for those we consider our neighbors and our friends. But that then drives another point and theme I’ve been turning over and over again in my head this election year: The critical need to be nearer to those, have more conversations with, collisions with, friendships among those who aren’t like us. We’re in a period of resegregation in America, by many quantifiable measures. And that is only making it harder for people to have empathy for those who look different, talk different, have different backgrounds.
It was a bit of serendipity then, that I found this quote in my old notes from philosopher John Stuart Mill from back in 1848. It’s truer now than it was back then, I think.
“It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is particularly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
I hope we all do some soul searching when this election is over in a month. But the work of trying to better understand each other and care for each other is a long, something difficult slog. I don’t know that humanity has any other choice but to do the work.