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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Squad in Sydney

Harbour

From previous posts you may recall the Wan-Yau’s of Burlingame, California and now of Singapore, Singapore. We have gone on six squad holidays together now. The latest one, to Australia to ring in the new year, was the first to include Luna. We would have squeezed in a lot more in 2017 had Sarah Wan not faced unexpected family tragedy. But because of said tragedy we decided it was key to start the new year fresh, in the summertime because warmth > subzero temperatures.

After a freezing and quiet Christmas in Seoul we took the 10-hour flight down under, where the sun was out and everyone was sweaty, which was exactly what I was going for. The only notable stumble during the nine days down there happened at the beginning, when I was confronted with the reality that my family is too large for a standard SUV and I had to drop an additional thousand dollars at Hertz to upgrade to a giant seven-seater. (But before this happened I engaged in an irritated, aggressive-aggressive complaining to Matty about his inability to adequately squeeze all our stuff plus car seats into the regular-sized SUV. This happened out in the parking lot as he wore the baby in the front, sweat soaked through his dark blue polo shirt in the back and he was feeding hash browns to the older girls by stuffing them into their mouths. “YOU’RE WELCOME TO TRY IT IF YOU WANT,” he yell-whispered, of the luggage. How did we wind up with so many children!?!)

The rest of the vaca was a mix of beach time, pool time, green spaces and amusements for the children, afternoon cocktails, book reading, kid feeding and dominated by consumption of Tim Tams (original, dark chocolate and mint are my faves) and Australian avocados, which are a mystifying six dollars each. Joe also grilled out a lot for all of us in our lovely backyard high atop a hill where you could see Balmoral Beach, which is on the harbour. (Please note the harbour with a u — don’t want to make the mistake of leaving it out, y’know). One morning we gave Luna a leftover Australian beef rib and she chomped on it like a CHAMP even though she only has two teeth.

A final note, just because I can’t let this go: Why and how did passengers who used the lavatory on the Airbus 380 we flew home on decide that the toilet seat cover dispenser was the trash can?! When I went to this loo, I stood there staring at all the dirty paper towels stuffed into the cover dispenser for an inordinately long time as Isa giggled at herself in the mirror.

Oh, also, our Airbnb hosts had a bunny, “Hops,” and we got to feed him all week. He was adorable, except when he got out of his hutch and the dads had to set up an elaborate fort/trap to catch him so he could return to his little home.

Jess, Jonah, Eva. Isabel follows the beat of her own drummer so she’s always off doing something different.

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I stepped out of my home office to check on my four-year-old and Stiles playing in the living room. He was playing the role of a stuffed owl, and she was playing the role of Spongebob, I think. I’m not sure what the imaginary situation was but it involved several books displayed on the couch. Maybe some sort of museum? When they were talking in their characters, it sounded like they were in a different realm. I had to ask: “Are y’all in the spirit world?”

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We have a male cat named Cheese, one of two remaining cats in the family. Typically at the vet you register your pets with their given names and their humans’ last names. For example, our beagle was Saidee Hu. But instead of registering Cheese as “Cheese Hu-Stiles,” my husband Matty insisted registering him as “The Cheese.” This resulted in Cheese’s official file listing the cat as “CHEESE, THE.” That’s the only way you’ll find his records folder.

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

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Goodbye Mr. Chips

The Mr Stiles-Chips tribute. Like that scene at the end of A Beautiful Mind, but instead of pens, chips.

The Mr Stiles-Chips tribute. Like that scene at the end of A Beautiful Mind, but instead of pens, chips.

Everyone should be congratulating me today, because starting next week, I will no longer have to work with my husband! We have worked together at two different news organizations now, from 2009-2011 at The Texas Tribune, and after that, here at NPR.  Now he’s leaving me (professionally) and  joining The Wall Street Journal‘s Washington bureau, as a data reporter on their economics team. After being a data editor and news apps creator for the past couple of years, he’s eager to do some beat reporting again.  He is awesome at it — a few months ago a Texas state lawmaker came to visit me at NPR and he ducked to avoid Stiles cause he’s still scared of him.

Anyway, the goodbye note from our boss, Scott, ended this way:

“Matt has worked on numerous interactive projects. Some highlights include a crowd-sourced directory of playgrounds designed for children with disabilities, an interactive that detailed the damage caused by the 2013 Oklahoma tornado and a database of workers killed in grain bins throughout the United States. He  has also championed data-related tools and training for the newsroom.

The list of Matt’s projects is impressive, but it doesn’t entirely capture the value he’s brought to the newsroom and the network. He’s played a vital role in our evolution as a news organization of real depth and expertise in the visual presentation of information. He’s not a spread sheet guy but a very fine reporter who has helped a whole bunch of people at NPR and in our member station universe think differently about their work and what’s possible in their work.”

As for his teammates, the legacy Stiles will leave behind is his inscrutable personality and dark sense of humor. Basically, the opposite of Mr. Chips. Incidentally, Stiles does actually LOVE potato chips. So as a tribute, his teammate Claire O’Neill arranged for his friends to bring bags of chips to pile onto the News Apps table all morning.

“It’ll be like that scene at the end of A Beautiful Mind when all the professors give Russell Crowe their pens. Except better because instead of pens … it’s chips.”

Congratulations, Mr Chips-Stiles.

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AAJA 2013: Baby in the Big Apple

Eva and Momma time in the hotel room.

Eva and Momma time in the hotel room.

Just back from a really fun and satisfying time in New York for this year’s Asian American Journalists Association annual convention. I’ve been part of AAJA since I was in 10th grade, thanks to a reporter for The Dallas Morning News who called to interview me about a student council project, I think. Whatever it was, I mentioned after the interview I wanted to be a journalist one day and she immediately encouraged me to join the organization. Since then, AAJA has been responsible for making connections that have shaped my life.

In 2002, AAJA hosted its national convention in Dallas, and that’s where I met Sudeep, who became my best friend and is responsible for introducing me to my husband Stiles. Stiles is not Asian-American by blood but often identifies with my peeps, so he joined AAJA in 2008 and has since been a much more involved member than me. He consistently reminds me to renew my membership, he has attended more AAJA conventions than I have in recent years, and he speaks on more AAJA panels than I do. He trumped me in New York, speaking on three panels to my one. I’m so proud of him!

This year, the programming really kicked things up a notch with fab workshops and thoughtful panelists. I loved seeing writer (and Twitter user) Jay Caspian Kang totally go anti-Twitter at a conference where social media networking was predictably de rigeur. Kang called Twitter a “circle jerk” and said he thinks less of people who tweet all day, saying it undermines your seriousness as a writer. That argument is for a whole different post — bottom line, exposure to unexpected points of view makes these confabs more interesting.

I regret not getting to spend more time with old friends, since that’s what is always so great about attending the annual AAJA confab. It feels like family. But I was a little time and resource constrained because of my actual family. The traveling baby, Eva, came with us (she’s a journalism convention pro now). She got to try some halal truck food, visit FAO Schwarz, have lunch with my old friend Tim, get overwhelmed by the lights and the tourists in Times Square, go shopping on Fifth Ave and take lots of her usual naps. She also enjoyed exploring the hotel room and goofing off, as you can see.

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Fortune

Celebrated Chineseness on Thursday.

somedudesmall

I love this caption so hard.

Mom was concerned about selecting an auspicious wedding date, which is apparently important in Chinese tradition. So she checked our selected date against Chinese almanacs and the universe said it was acceptable. (Thank God, cause I already begged, stole and borrowed to nab photographer Channing away from other couples on the now-auspicious date.)

That night, a new banquet hall/dim sum restaurant opened in  North Austin and I made the trek to eat some fried tofu. And shrimp dumplings. And Peking duck. And BBQ pork buns. Stiles couldn’t make it so my friend J-Dehn stepped in (because who turns down fried tofu?). He even donned a Matt Stiles nametag.

That move wound up causing some, uh, confusion. Like when the Statesman entertainment writer saw us and got a picture for his blog. At first he captioned Justin as Matt, and when corrected he changed it to this awesome moniker… (Click to enlarge)

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