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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Rest in Peace, Cheese

Cheese, on his last day at home with us. We are all missing him so much.

By Tuesday, after being hospitalized and on an IV for an evening, Cheese‘s condition hadn’t improved. The vet said Cheese was in advanced renal failure. He was in and out of consciousness by the time my spouse and spawn went to say goodbye. (I couldn’t bear to see him again, after I’d shuttled him to the vet and back on Sunday and again on Monday, when they decided to hospitalize him.)

Cheese was one cool cat. Probably the coolest dude in our whole family. He only lost his cool on the day we moved into the new house in Washington, when he went missing for the entire day. We went running up and down the streets in our new neighborhood, asking anyone if they’d seen Cheese, trying to call for him but he’s a cat, so, that wasn’t gonna work. We thought we lost him, back then. Anxious and dejected we returned home at dusk and heard a few meows from somewhere upstairs. Cheese had hidden behind the washer dryer all day. That memory just came back to me this morning, when I was getting dressed and found a stray white hair on my dress. Our other cat Caesar is all black, so it had to have been Cheese’s.

Matt, who started his career at The Dallas Morning News as an obituary writer, wrote one for Cheese. It’s a moving tribute to our furry friend.

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Goodbye To My Grandma Rock

(A Chinese translation of this is available below the English.)

My grandmother died early this morning, aged 94. She was so strong and full of grit that part of me believed she would never die.

When my mom called to tell me, she didn’t say grandma died, she said, “Grandma left.” As if grandma went out on an errand. But I knew what she meant.

My mother is 61 years old and a grandmother herself, four times over. But she said to me, her voice breaking, “It’s unimaginable navigating this world without a mother.”

Grandma lived in Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t really get to know her until I was a teenager and we traveled back and forth more often. My mom’s relationship with her mom is so deep that I remember sometime around first grade, feeling really envious of grandma. Who was this woman my mom loved so much? By the time I was old enough to understand, I only wanted to spend more time with Grandma Rock, the ultimate survivor. The kind of survivor that made me believe she’d never die.

Grandma’s surname is Shih, which literally translates to rock. And it’s fitting. She’s the oldest of six siblings, a well-known educator and later in life, one of Taiwan’s earliest female politicians.

She’s also two-times a war refugee — surviving the most devastating conflicts in recent Chinese history. When the Japanese invaded “Manchuria” in the Sino-Japanese War during WWII, she and her family were forced out of their home in Northeast China and migrated to central China. Decades later she had to flee again, many of her siblings in tow, during the brutal Chinese Civil War, when Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. She wound up in Taiwan until her death this morning.

She didn’t merely live. Grandma sucked the marrow out of life until the very end. She first worked as a teacher, but quickly became a principal and headmaster of the most elite women’s high schools in Taiwan. She was a working mom who never seemed to have any of our modern American angst about it. She had my aunt Linda, uncle Steve and her youngest, my momma, while also molding generations of young Taiwanese women at the schools she led. Those women have gone on to become artists and scientists and politicians and the brightest stars of Taiwan’s society. I remember visits to Taiwan and going out to eat with grandma in different cities. More often than not, we’d run into a former student who would recognize her and come by to say hello and thank you.

They recalled her being strict and exacting. I recall her being tough but warm, and how she found so many things delightful and humorous. She laughed with her whole body. One time when I was 12, we were in the backseat of a cab that was taking too long to get some place, and my externally sober grandma decided to show me her stupid human tricks to pass the time. Let’s just say she’s crazy flexible. She also showed me that you can do more than just roll your tongue in half — you can fold it three ways, like a flower. So now I too, can do this, if you ever want to see. (Apparently the ability to do this is genetic, so I guess grandma expected I’d be able to follow suit.)

While she expected excellence out of everyone, she reserved the toughest standards for herself. I have never seen her flub anything, especially when she spoke. When she came to my wedding in Amsterdam, she was 87 and still the sharpest one in the room. She spoke at the ceremony and at the reception in her native Mandarin Chinese. My friend Drew said afterward, “I couldn’t understand a word she said, but when Grandma speaks, we all know to shut up and listen!” She commanded the room like no one I’ve ever seen and probably will never see again.

The other thing I remember vividly about Grandma is her emphasis on (social and civic responsibility). She talked about it all the time. “Why’d you have three kids when you were so busy in your career?” .” “Hey, why’d you retire so late?” “.”

After she retired from her education career in Taichung — her final posting as principal was at a top all-girl’s high school there — my grandma continued breaking glass ceilings and served as one of the only women representatives to her political party’s national congress. “Why’d you get involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when you could have just enjoyed yourself?” “.”

By the time she died, she was the matriarch of a huge extended family. She was a mother of three, grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to five. (Thanks to her side of the family, I have about 70 cousins and second cousins and we all kinda know each other.)

Despite her age, it was unexpected when I got the news of her passing because she had just come out of a scary gall bladder surgery a month ago and was doing really well. I video-chatted with her last week and she was looking and sounding great. She spent all day yesterday playing mahjong, which she has enjoyed in her final years, after she stopped all the international travel, yoga practice and ballroom dancing of her seventies and eighties.

My newborn Luna was going to meet her great-grandma Rock on Monday — we’ve had tickets to Taipei for weeks. We missed her by mere days. But grandma went in peace, at her home, and with my mom by her side. She knew the love of family, which is what she wished for us, especially after her own siblings were split up during China’s external and internal wars. She spoke about it often. So I’ll end this with what grandma said in her own words, from a speech she gave the family at a reunion in 2009:

“During China’s political turmoil our family was separated in an effort to flee to safety. Consequently, my siblings and I grew up during a very trying time where everyone was forced to fend for themselves. We lost contact with one another. Our biggest regret was not being able to enjoy the blessings of family warmth and sibling love.

Since we endured childhood loneliness without family, it is our wish that the future generations will see the value and enjoy the blessings of one another’s love and support. It is our hope the ties of our family love will be our legacy that is passed on to all future generations.”

With grandma and mom after I got hitched in Amsterdam, in 2010. She was 87!

You can read this in Chinese, after the jump.

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Farewell To My Right-Hand Woman

Trying to hike and conduct interview, with Haeryun, the last time I was eight months preggo.

The toughest thing about being a reporter in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is that functionally, you’re a child. I work without a key tool for reporting — the ability to communicate. That makes my interpreter and assistants in Korea and Japan as important and arguably MORE important than me to tell compelling stories.

Out on the streets of Seoul with Haeryun during the anti-Park protests.

For the past two years (almost to the day), Haeryun has been my right-hand woman. On her first day, when I had only been off the plane from the US for about 10 hours, the US Ambassador to Seoul was stabbed in the face. So there was no easing into the job. Korea news has essentially been non-stop since then. (Perhaps you’ve read about the missile tests, lethal poisoning deaths and impeachments on my patch lately.) To put together coherent pieces for air, not only does Haeryun do critical backgrounding and research, she also broaches sources and lines up interviews and concurrently translates them as I conduct interviews, she also works on her own when I’m traveling and goes out in the field when I can’t.

She acts as my Korean-speaking proxy, making the important human connections with sources that allow us to tell stories for our English-speaking audiences. On top of that, Haeryun also makes sure things run: That our driver Mr. Kim always picks me up at the airport on time, and that our office water delivery comes reliably and that our Foreign Correspondents Club dues are paid, etc etc.

Haeryun is a woman of many talents, here she’s running audio for a video project during a crazy facial procedure.

This week, Haeryun starts a new journalism adventure! She is going to the site Korea Expose, where she will be an editor and help oversee their staff of hungry writers who are diving into stories about Korean society and culture. We are all really excited to see what they will do there.

But that means she is bidding farewell to NPR’s Seoul bureau, the foreign post which she was instrumental in helping found. Together we have binge-eaten in front of thousands of strangers, crashed a Korean wedding, gotten lost on Jeju Island with the worst navigation device ever issued, witnessed the sorry state of caged, endangered bears, consoled grieving moms, followed alongside Korea’s marching single moms, covered way too many missile tests to count and spent way too many hours at the Seoul Immigration Office to make sure I could legally stay in this bureaucracy-loving country.

Always a good sport, she gets dragged into my noraebang (karaoke) sessions.

She is also my friend (one of my closest Korean ones, at that), shares my endless appetite (so she’s always a reliable eating partner) and has always been there for my entire family. So we will continue to hang and see each other, of course. But it’s the end of a chapter, so I wanted to make sure to give her a little blogpost tribute to say goodbye and thank you.

And a funny footnote: Despite all our time together, I still can’t pronounce her name right. This scene from Sisters pretty much sums up me and Haeryun, anytime I try to say her name:

Anyway… None of the Korea stories would have been shaped and told without you, Haeryun! We love you and will miss you.

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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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The Long Goodbye From DC, Part One

When leaving town, why have one big final blowout in which you accidentally consume too much marijuana and find yourself throwing up the entire way to the airport the next day (I’m just saying hypothetically, cough cough) when you can have a string of smaller goodbyes over the course of three weeks?

My former common-law work spouse Matt started his new gig at The Atlantic this month, our former boss Kinsey starts his new job in New York next month and my own move to Korea is imminent, so the first in the goodbye string was getting some of our old NPR colleagues together for drinks the same night the Packers showed America how to lose a football championship.

So many smiling faces. I already miss a lot of these colleagues so much.

So many smiling faces. I already miss a lot of these colleagues so much.

The other memorable part of this long goodbye tour is the DELICIOUS ETHNIC MEALS PEOPLE ARE MAKING FOR US. Eyder and his wife Cynthia dropped off authentic Texican enchiladas — Cynthia makes the verde sauce from scratch — and I ate three in one sitting. Chris Howie’s mom-in-law makes the most incredible Indian food ever and they had us over for a feast of I don’t even remember how many dishes. I got lost in a dream scenario of homemade naan, butter chicken, saag paneer, daal, oh man I can’t even describe.

Next, we wanted to see lots of DC drinking buddies and needed to get rid of a lot of random items in our house, like Magic Mesh, which Nick Fountain apparently wanted “real bad.”

So Friday night we had people over for a Hu-Stiles House Cooling, so that I could see lots of awesome people and give away items which included:

– Mark Sanford’s early book, The Trust Committed To Me
– A George W. Bush action figure
– A travel music stand
– Half a bottle of Jameson
– Some kind of Dutch knife sharpener
– A leftover party favor from my bridal shower in 2010
– A cat scratcher
– A screener of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood
AND SO MANY MORE AWESOME THINGS FOR YOU TO REMEMBER ME BY!

I mean, look at the excitement on their faces to leave with this bounty.

I mean, look at the excitement on their faces to leave with this bounty.

Last weekend we partied with the NPR  "olds." This weekend it's partying with the NPR "youngs." The olds definitely got drunker.

Last weekend we partied with the NPR “olds.” This weekend it’s partying with the NPR “youngs.” The olds definitely got drunker.

More goodbye-ing to come…

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Stay Classy, KVUE

“I found what I wanted. It was the aspiration to become a political news journalist. Let’s examine the facts.

a.) I love politics. I find it interesting and feel it is a field that takes a lot of work and critical thinking. I also like it because of the involvement of the people in the field.

b.) I love news and current events.

c.) I like to write about the news. Actually, I like to write about any interesting topic, and the news is constantly changing so I think it would be very interesting to write about.”

–Me, Mrs. Blackmore’s 7th grade Language Arts class, Age 12

Even after all these years, the a, b, and c remain the same. But I won’t be writing for broadcast anymore, at least not with the same regularity. After spending my entire adult life in television news, it’s my last day at an organization with “-TV” at the end of its name. It’s kinda weird to think about.

The strength of friendships forged in the field between TV reporters and photographers is unmatched, largely because we rely so heavily on one another to turn our news products. So I’ll miss my photographer friends the most, but hope that they will teach me as I start shooting and editing in my new capacity as a multi-platform journalist at Texas Tribune. My friend (and TV reporter idol) Otis put it well when he said, “The thing about TV news is that it is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. The pay stinks, the hours suck, and, more often than not, the reward for work well done is more work.”

A goodbye wave to TV News

A goodbye wave to TV News (photo by JL Watkins)

Still, I’m generally hopeful about television news’ future. I’m not leaving because there’s ‘no way to save  TV’. I just think it needs a serious gut check. My own experience at big broadcast companies has led me to worry these corporate behemoths might be systemically crippled from making the kinds of innovative and agile changes necessary to compete in this Web 2.0 world. In many ways they run like battleships, and the thing about battleships is that they take awhile to turn.

My hope is that leaders in the industry think beyond the next few years and consider the best ways to distribute a product for a smarter, more engaged and more discerning ‘next generation’ of news consumers. In the meantime, I’m grateful for ideas like Texas Tribune, which will dedicate itself to civic engagement, explanatory and enterprise reporting, and using the tools of the social web to allow our users to be active in the ongoing political conversation in Texas. As we consider the future, the Tribune model is as worthy as any other idea in trying to keep journalism alive.

My favorite mentor, Marty Haag, died in 2003 before he could see what’s happened to the world of television journalism in which he was a titan. I hope my decision to leave TV, but not leave journalism, won’t let him down. As he liked to say to his sons, who passed this on to me: “Just make a decision and move forward.”

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