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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Yesterday, A Behind-The-Scenes Memoriam

Melbourne street art, shot by Edward H Blake

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.

Behind the scenes, twenty minutes before the Up First podcast taping.

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.)

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On Risk

Things feel like they’re getting dodgier on the Korean peninsula given so much talk about military options rather than diplomatic ones for ending the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Friend Ben and I were chatting about this and he got philosophical when I asked him whether he thinks I should leave. The response ended up being rather poetic, now that I look at the way the lines broke:

hard to say
if you leave
you’re safe
but
on the other hand
what is risk?
you face it every day in one form or another
crossing the street
climbing a stepstool to change a light bulb
eating

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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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Korean Programming Note

New show on Korean TV.

New show on Korean TV.

I don’t understand most Korean news programs except for those on the English-language channel, Arirang. They are doing a new show this season featuring panels of foreign correspondents based in Seoul and I guested last week. We talked North Korea at Imjingak, near the interKorean border.

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