On Being A Broad Abroad

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

— Anthony Bourdain

One of my first stories in Seoul was livestreaming a jajangmyeon bingefest with a star of mukbang, live broadcasts of people eating.

If you’re trying to figure out what to do when you grow up, I recommend foreign correspondence. It offers independence, a flexible schedule, creative output and a lot of travel. I mean, c’mon. If you love to explore, you’re paid to do it. You encounter fascinating new people who (maybe against their better judgement) become friends. Most importantly, you’re stretched in ways you can never appreciate or expect until you make your life in another country where the language and customs and systems are alien. It is like being a baby again, all the time, until one day you’re not.

A few thoughts, before I leave my Koreas and Japan beat:

William Faulkner said “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past,” something that reporting here will constantly remind you. The 20th century brought about breathtaking atrocities, and the lack of closure over Japanese colonization and subsequent wars in Northeast Asia color everything, more than a century after it all started. It surprised me, at first, how much South Korean identity seems to form in opposition to Japan, but the longer I spent here the more I came to understand the deep complexities in this relationship. The animosity goes through cycles of highs and lows, and my posting coincided with a rockier time in relations. So rocky, in fact, that one time we had to eat a the Japanese Ambassador in South Korea’s house — without him.

Efforts to reckon with war and its consequences led to one of the most unforgettable moments I’ve experienced as a reporter: The silence on the lawn of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park moments before Barack Obama came to pay respects to the victims of the US nuclear bomb dropped on the city, killing 140,000. The speech he gave is worth listening to again, in its entirety. Being there on that lawn, before a bombed out dome —  remnants of a municipal building destroyed in the blast — shook me.

I took this from the risers as Obama laid a wreath for the victims of America’s bombing of Hiroshima.

Among the greatest challenges in Korean and Japanese societies — is sexism, both malevolent and benevolent. The benevolent kind is the notion that there is such thing as a woman’s place, and a man’s place, in the first place. It’s Korea’s emphasis on a narrow, feminine aesthetic — long hair, skirts, looking “young” — at the exclusion of other ways to look. It’s the “awwww such a great husband” when people learn that Matty stayed home to watch the kids, when it should be normal. Malevolent sexism that results in violence and sexual aggression is a scourge women are beginning to rise up against in Japan and South Korea just as I’ve run out of time to report on it. My biggest regret editorially is not devoting more time to the consequences and the victims of such gendered societies. South Korea’s birth rate will drop below one, the only country in the world having so few babies. It’s bad for all of us in a society when half of us are discounted.

Now, to the miss/won’t miss list.

Will Miss:

Heated toilet seats
Abundant simple syrup available with my iced tea
Same-day dermatologist or facial appointments
Scooter couriers for anything
Saying “kimchi” instead of “cheese” to take photos
My local bar, HappySexyEnjoy
Australians
Sound of slurping noodles
Slurping as a sign of respect
Dak hanmari at that place in “mackerel alley”
The view from our 35th floor condo on a clear day
Koreans marveling at my husband’s arm hair and being terrified of his chest hair
My Korean OBGYN, Dr. Jung
My pilates teacher Soomi and how she said things like, “Oh, your condition is not good today.”
How you can forget your phone or wallet some place and always get it back
Hobonichi Techo: Japan’s care and attention to design and proportion is expressed in its devotion to old-fashioned day planners. This one is my fave.
Friends That Became Family: With special thanks to the Yau family, our travel squad. And the Manzo’s, our Cass-chugging, karaoke-going, bake-sale-aiding rocks in the ROK
Public transportation in East Asia is 100X better, cleaner, more efficient than any system in the US. I dare you to find me a subway system as vast as Seoul or Tokyo’s that never has a broken down escalator, offers wifi in all the cars, heated seats in the winter and is always on time.
Fixers and photogs: So many generous colleagues have helped me and NPR along the way, including the right-hand women in Seoul: Haeyrun, Jihye and SeEun. In Japan: Chie, Akane and Jake, plus additional help by Shizuka that one time I almost killed her in Hokkaido. Chan in Malaysia. Fanny in Taiwan. Kham in Laos.

With Jun at the Winter Olympics

The video shooters I relied on the most: Ces in Japan, Jun in Korea. Photog Kosake in Japan had to endure my pumping milk from the backseat of our tiny car in Fukushima, so, sumimasen. I hope all that sake we drank from paper cups on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo made up for it.

Mom and dad being nearby: I moved to Asia just around the time my parents retired and moved to Taipei. So my mom and dad were at my side when Isabel was born. And mom made it to Seoul just hours after Luna came into the world (Luna came very quickly so, she just barely beat my mom.) I was here when I learned the matriarch of our family, my Grandma Rock, died peacefully at age 94. A survivor of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War and twice a refugee, she still managed to live a life on her own terms. Part of her legacy is my stubbornness to do the same.

Won’t Miss:

The Costco shopping experience in Korea
Feeling the full dimensions of a patriarchy
Sewer smells in the summer
The swim cap requirement at pools
Monochrome cars and coats
Only three lip colors: pink, coral or red
Dessert cafes: Honestly, Korea needs another dessert cafe like I need a bag on my hip
The social unacceptability of showing any bare shoulders or cleavage
Backing in (all cars back in here)
Parking garage floors so clean your car squeaks when you’re backing in
The backward attitudes toward social minorities like LGBTs
Being 13 and 14 hours ahead of East coast time, which meant working all day Seoul time, and then working half the day US Eastern time.
Being yelled at by listeners: The guy who chastised me about saying jail instead of prison, and the guy who has a real issue with me saying “you bet,” which led to a lengthier response than complaint.

For others of us, the “what I’ll miss” is a lot more simple:

Me: What will you miss most about Korea?
Eva: I will miss the popsicles that live in Korea. I LOVE the popsicles.

I leave here both inspired by and forever indebted to this place and its people. We have nothing left if we lose our sense of wonder and will to wander. This is a region dynamic enough to fuel both. 감사합니다 and ありがとうございます.

Last night with the Japan crew, at an izakaya in Tokyo that serves CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS WITH PORK GYOZA FILLING.

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Seoul Long, Or, Elise Goes West

“We’re just trying to get it done. You’re exhausted all the time. When people are like, ‘Are you going to be so sad when it’s over?,’ You’re like, ‘All I can concentrate on right now is the glass of wine that’s going to happen in about eight hours.’”
–Matthew Rhys

What is it like in the maelstrom of the most unpredictable and chaotic global stories as it intersects with the most unpredictable and chaotic American presidencies? It’s what you expect: Sometimes thrilling, frequently exhausting, feels important. Last month, throngs of us covered history — the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders — and President Trump subsequently declared world peace. So I think my work out here is done.

Okay, so North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the same as it was before, and maybe even expanding. But after three-plus years on the peninsula, it IS time to go home — we repatriate to the US this weekend.

Look, we had three takes to get a mic dropping photo but catching a shot of the mic as it’s falling in *just the right place* was a bridge too far. We tried. Credit: Jun Michael Park

After flying west to wind up in East Asia, which became the titular blog and sendoff song (song still holds up), now I’ll fly east to the West coast, specifically Los Angeles — a place full of Asians! LA boasts the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, so this soft re-entry point means my next pore-vacuuming facial will only be a short drive away.

Broadly the plan is to develop a new beat, continue to host my video adventures and fill-in host our radio programs from DC or Culver City (we have some deal to say Culver City and not LA). Ideally I want to guinea pig expressions of NPR on non-radio platforms — live events, smart speakers, you know, whatever we can experiment with, without breaking.

And A Partridge In A Pear Tree

Not twelve hours after I landed in Seoul to open NPR’s first ever Korea/Japan bureau in 2015, the US Ambassador to South Korea was knifed in the face by a North Korean sympathizer. My internet wasn’t even set up, so I started by filing spots by phone.

The pace never slowed down. Over these past three years, I birthed the bureau, two humans and our video series Elise Tries, a labor of love and experimentation. All the while, North Korea news was relentless.

I covered 27 missile tests, three nuclear tests, one land mine explosion, a plan to bracket Guam, threats to “totally destroy” North Korea,this year’s rapid rapprochement, a unified Winter Olympics, an interKorean summit at Panmunjom, a historic US-North Korea summit and a partridge in a pear tree.

Doing some KJU play-by-play with assistant Se Eun…

Outside the Koreas, I shuttled back-and-forth to Japan 35 times, filed from nine Asian countries, one US territory and twice from Hawaii. Covered three presidential trips to Asia, the G7, the aforementioned Olympics, a few ASEANs, the now-defunct S&ED in Beijing, followed the 17-week candlelight revolution which brought down the South Korean president, the changeover to a liberal Korean leader, the ups-and-downs of Japan’s Prime Minister and peeled back a host of social issues and curiosities. The curiouser of the curiosities became grist for our bootstrapped Elise Tries vids, which somehow got seven million Facebook views in its first season and just won a Gracie Award.

Along the way, my family expanded (from three humans to five) AND contracted (from three pets to one). I delivered Isa in 2015 and Luna in 2017, both in Seoul. Nursing them each for a year meant the breast pump soldiered several international journeys.

The youngest, Luna, is walking and talking now, but her infanthood’s memorialized forever. Isa came here in my belly and now stands on street corners hailing her own cabs. Our oldest, Eva, arrived here as a goofy two-year-old and will leave a month shy of her sixth birthday — literate, and missing her bottom front teeth.

“Luna Tries” at eight weeks, getting a K-beauty facial

Eva somehow got into a badass Mandarin immersion kindergarten in Venice, and being fluent in a second language is something I’ve wanted to give her since she was born.

With Special Thanks…

Expat life is the kind of free-form existence that suits my Aquarian tendencies. And it’s a rare privilege these days to get to work overseas with the support of a large, well-funded news organization. But in addition to being a itinerant foreign correspondent, I’m also a partner and mom, and my spouse is ready to move on. A fairly woke feminist, he left his full time journalism job to join me on this adventure abroad. Women do this for men all the time, so neither he nor I think he deserves applause, but in the context of East Asia’s highly-gendered societies, Matty becoming a trailing spouse and the lead parent was radical. He — and our all around helper/housekeeper/nanny Yani — are the heroes of this Asia stint.

At Matty’s first PTA meeting at Eva’s international preschool, the PTA president learned he’d just left his job as a Wall Street Journal reporter.

“She said, oh, you’re a reporter, you can probably take good notes,” he recalled. And that is how he became PTA secretary for the 2016-2017 school year. He downgraded to room parent the next year, because while still lead-parenting, he filed prolifically for the Los Angeles Times.

We both covered the summit spectacle to end all summit spectacles, in Singapore. The whole fam had to go because news rules our lives. We came full circle from last August, when the Party of Five went to Guam because Kim Jong Un threatened the territory and Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury.”

Now “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” if the President of the United States can be believed [clears throat].

Peace in the Far East. What better way to leave this beat?

Related:
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
Goodbye to KVUE-TV
Launching the Texas Tribune
Leaving Austin, NPR-bound
Seoul
The Long Goodbye from Washington

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Guam, Or “The Target Zone”

On a Wednesday a couple of weeks ago, North Korean state media announced it was examining a plan to bracket the U.S. territory of Guam (land mass the size of Columbus, Ohio) with four simultaneous missiles. Our president responded by saying something about unleashing “fire and fury” and then tweeted some other overheated rhetoric, so for a few days Guam was the center of the news universe.

On the Wednesday night of the announcement, I decided I needed to get to Guam right away. But I am nursing Luna 100 percent, as in, her only sustenance is from me. And Guam would be an open-ended trip, which meant I did not have enough of my pumped, stored milk ready for her. So Luna needed to come, which meant her dad needed to come to take care of her while I worked, which meant we’d have to tote along the other two girls, too. Suddenly all five Hu-Stileses needed to be on a plane to Guam. The plan came together after the girls had already gone to bed for the night, so on Thursday morning we woke the girls early to announce their bags had been packed and we were “going on a holiday, to a beach”! (Not factually untrue, for them.)

Interviewing the Guam governor, Eddie Calvo.

I LOVED GUAM! I mean, I slept four hours a night for several nights because there were so many shows to report for and so many stories to put together on tight deadlines. But Guam was delightful. It’s shabby — there are some real rundown places and parts of it and it has a small-town USA feel with pool halls and gambling joints. But I prefer that to a completely antiseptic resort area. I thought a lot of the tropical setting mixed with Americana — we were greeted with a giant Home Depot and K-mart when we drove out of the airport in our rental car. I also got to know the folks at Guam Public Radio (total staff = 4) and they were the most generous colleagues to work with for a few days.

In the end, North Korea decided it would not launch toward Guam, at least not for now.

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The #HyoJam Nuptials At The British Embassy

I love a good wedding and I try to blog about them afterward, emphasis on try. There are some years where we attend so many weddings that I end up without the clearheadedness (cough sobriety cough) to remember to do so. Since I am of reasonably clear mind right now, a few thoughts about this one:

1.) It was a perfect day weatherwise and pollution-wise in Seoul for James and Hyojin (#hyojam) to get married. They’re both English-language journalists in Korea with a lot of international study and work in their backgrounds, so this afforded an opportunity for 200 of their loving family, wisecracking friends and whip-smart coworkers from all corners of the globe to witness their union AND party together on the lawn of the British Ambassador’s residence (which is on the same compound as the Embassy). “This just proves how far you all will come for free booze,” James quipped.

2.) Given James and Hyojin’s vocations, their wedding meant 90% of all the primarily English-speaking people who cover or research North Korea for a living were in the same place. “Thank you to Kim Jong Un for not conducting a nuclear test,” James said, in remarks at the reception. “Because had he done so, half of you wouldn’t be here.” (Tis true.)

3.) Four-year-old Eva went as my date because Matty has a well-documented history of preferring stand-ins for events that require heavy-socializing. Eva got to wear her Korean hanbok, which is what Koreans traditionally wear to weddings. She loved getting dressed up but was not great about sitting still during the ceremony. Thank god my assistant and friend Jihye came to sit with us and entertained Eva with Snapchat face filters during the ceremony’s second-half.

4.) In the time before we headed to the reception on the Embassy compound and after the ceremony, it got super hot and Eva wanted shade. So we found a bench near a tree and sat down. That’s when a random Korean dude came up and asked me to sit still because he wanted to sketch me in profile. My friend Nat, who was in town from D.C., witnessed the whole exchange and said it would make for a great story: “Oh hey remember that time we were sitting outside the Anglican church on the diplomatic compound when a sketchy dude came up and wanted to sketch you Titanic-style?” The drawing only took two minutes and was … all right, I guess?

5.) Mainly this wedding rocked. There was all kinds of free boozing super-interesting guests, owing to the foreign correspondenting and diplomat-sourcing of James and Hyojin. James, for example, is a British national who studied in China and can speak Korean, English and Mandarin, which is an eclectic mix of expertise that can describe much of the crowd assembled.

6.) Some people run in the Las Vegas party circuit, some in the Hollywood party crowd, mine is the diplomatic/journalist/North Korea specialist crowd. It is decidedly wonky and heavy-drinking. Sometime last night at the wedding after-party and after several shots, I wandered to four different clusters of people milling about around on the patio, drinking and smoking. I kid you not, all FOUR groups were talking about sanctions and the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on North Korea, albeit taking different angles in their chatter. I mean, WTF.

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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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2016 Year In Review: What Just Happened Here?

In July, with my fixer Akane, in the Japanese Alps reporting on a traditional naked festival.

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.

Eva and Uncle Roger’s giant nose

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.

Randomness: Pineapple Park, y’all. Hostile environment training. Dairy Queen in Laos.

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
Interviewed Omarosa
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.

Previous Years in Review:
2015201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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