I often get asked about how the girls are adjusting to living in the US, and whether they miss Korea. The answer is, they just hit the ground running/gliding. Already veterans of international travel, the girls don’t seem to need adjustment to new time zones or contexts like we grownups do. They didn’t experience the international move as major transition, but rather, as just one of the many new things in their young lives. For them, I don’t know whether a new country is internalized that much differently than a new school.
Isa (the three year old) misses her old teachers and said to me this week, “I will go back and say hi to Miss Hailey” as if it did not require a 12-hour flight to the other side of the world.
Eva, the eldest, is imprinted with some internationalism: She can hear the difference between Chinese, Korean and, of course, English. Today she said she needed “two green monies” because she experienced having currency that wasn’t all green. When we talk about what day of the week it is, she will note, “It’s Sunday afternoon here which means it’s Monday in Korea.”
Luna’s Korea references are all superficial: She sleeps with Kakao character pillows (Ryan the Lion and Apeach the peach) and her Pororo characters, Poby and Krong-Krong. But she and I have maintained the tradition in which only Koreans cut our hair.
“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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Let’s face it, I am not really getting much better at speaking Korean, except when I’m drunk, when something magical happens and I just start full-on speaking Korean. Friend Alex witnessed this once and said it was rather disconcerting because before that, she had never once heard me utter a single phrase in Korean.
Despite my lack of progress, I still spend every Thursday afternoon with Lee Unkyung, the trusted private teacher to British, Australian and New Zealand diplomats, as well as a raft of foreign correspondents who have come through Seoul. I love Unkyung and count her among one of my closest Korean friends. She is the oldest of four daughters, so she knows what it’s like to deal with the sister dynamics she witnesses among my children each week. As my Korean has haltingly improved, our conversations about birth order and sister relationships have gotten (slightly) more nuanced.
She’s also a font of story ideas! Because we start each lesson with conversation practice, she ends up sharing interesting headlines or debates that are going on in Korean society that I often don’t know about yet. So helpful.
Today we talked about the standard Korean phrases that translate awkwardly into English, and vice versa. I often hear, “Have a good rest,” for example. Which seems odd as an English phrase. But she explained that 푹 쉬세요 (pook she-seh-yo) is something Koreans say to one another all the time.
This happens in the reverse when you translate the English phrase “What do you think” into Korean, because in Korean, you don’t say “WHAT do you think” but instead “HOW do you think?” So she says it’s a dead giveaway that you’re translating an original English question from your mind when a speaker says “WHAT do you think” in Korean.
My favorite common Korean phrase is 마음에 들어요 (ma-oom-eh duhlauyo), which is understood to mean “it pleases me.” But if you want to be real literal about it, the phrase can translate as “It fits my heart exactly.” And what could be more lovely than that?
Just like that, she’s one. Luna’s sisters, Eva and Isa, helped her blow out her birthday candle. But Luna took charge of the doljabi ceremony, which went differently than Isa’s. (The tradition is that on your first birthday you choose an item from a “destiny platter” representing a future career or life.) Isa went straight for the microphone and held on tight. Luna touched the soccer ball, and then something else, but dropped them quickly before choosing a wad of Korean money and really committing to it.
All our babies were smiley, but Luna is probably the smiliest. She’s also the picture of serenity. She’s surrounded by a sustained level of chaos in the form of her sisters at all times, but she just goes on, stuffing strawberries in her face, trying to share them, padding around on all fours, trying out new toys by putting them in her mouth, all completely unaffected by whatever screaming fits or tantrums are going on her around her. These days Luna enjoys trying to walk by cruising around, holding onto furniture, chasing our cat Caesar, and feeding herself — she has always been interested in feeding herself while her middle sister Isa still loves it when other people feed her. People have different preferences.
What I’ll remember: The feeling of newborn Luna’s wispy hair tickling my chin when she nuzzled on my chest to sleep. Her tiny Gremlin noises in those first weeks. Her dive-bombing a boob for a snack. Her simultaneous hiccup + fart situation that went on until she was about three months old. Her star turn in the most popular of the Elise Tries videos.
This is the first time since October 2014 that I have not been pregnant with, or nursing, a child. I feel a new freedom and a sentimental melancholy at once. I’m adjusting to being “just me” again and so grateful for what my body has produced, ceaselessly, for three-and-a-half years. So much production of one thing or another! I probably should take vitamins.
A few weeks ago I received an invitation to “speak to some students and other young people,” to which I responded, okay, sure, because I try to say yes to events that involve young people. Pay it forward and all that. Little did I know until I got there this past week that it was a MAJOR PRODUCTION involving an audience of 4,000 people in a sports arena.
I am really grateful and relieved that they asked me to send in a slide deck before the Olympics onslaught so that by the eve of the forum, I didn’t have to prepare! My past self had already sent in some kind of deck that I could just generally follow when I took the stage. But man, what a crowd they had kickin’ in there.
It turns out many of the students had camped out overnight to catch the opening act, a K-pop group called Wanna One, a boy band put together on a reality TV show. You know, like O Town, or Danity Kane, the girl group P Diddy put together. Anyway, it was AFTER those boys, plus the Korean speedskater who won the first gold medal for South Korea in Pyeongchang, that the “anchor show” was programmed. That’s when a BBC documentarian, a CCTV anchor and I had to take turns giving short talks.
There really weren’t any parameters to the remarks except to help motivate young people about the profession, so I just riffed on my work here in Korea in a generally chronological order and ended with some tips on how to not suck in journalism. It felt pretty much like talking to a college class, except with simultaneous translation devices available for each audience member (like they have at the UN), much brighter lights, louder feedback from the sound system and hugeass screens to see yourself beamed at billboard size. (Newsflash: I do not lint brush myself often enough for giant high definition projection).
The craziest part was after the speech when I got swarmed by Koreans from the audience who wanted to take selfies together. This is so different from speaking in the US, where people usually come up to you afterward to challenge you on your remarks, trade business cards, see if you want to drink later, etc. These Koreans barely even spoke to me. They just held up their phones next to my face so we could squeeze in a shot together. I would say half of the selfies were normal and without filters, but the other half had Snapchat/Instgram like insta-face filters where we would be selfie-ing with animated hearts or our faces with auto-blush and auto-long lashes and such. It was sort of insane but also an incredible experience to see what young Korean selfie culture was like. Some people wanted to do the straight peace sign, others went for the pinched heart fingers, some just wanted a straight smiling selfie … so much variety. Kept me on my toes. Thanks, Korea!
This week I sat down with Arius Derr of a local podcast called Settlers of Seoul to talk about A LOT OF STUFF. Things I never thought about before, like the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. We did about an hour together, so I think this is officially the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent answering questions about myself. It was super fun, despite my being stumped a lot. Show notes are here.
The other night while waiting in line for fried foods at a holiday party, I chatted with a stranger lined up in front of me. Later I introduced myself and it turned out she had been wanting to meet me FOR MONTHS, as in, she goes, “Me and my husband were talking about how we were bound to eventually meet you just this morning!” At that point I was humiliated that our first conversation was about how much I was looking forward to all the fried food at the buffet. But if you know me, that’s pretty much the extent of all my “authentic” conversations with my friends anyway.
My oldest daughter, Eva, turns five on Friday. We celebrated by inviting her entire class to the Vaunce Trampoline Park in Gangnam for bouncing and ball pits and food. They were running around like whirling dervishes and we parents scavenged for leftovers afterward because the kids didn’t eat any of the plates of ribs that were served, instead going for fried chicken, fries, pasta and pizza. (Silly kids, they didn’t realize the ribs were the best.)
My mom talks about how she still remembers the day I was born like it was yesterday, so I guess it’s completely normal to feel like no time has gone by since the day baby Eva and I cooperated to bring her into the world in 2012. Time is so elastic — it feels both near and far, depending on how you look at it.
I remember Eva nursing until she got “milk drunk” and her big head flopping back into my arm nook. I remember watching a presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney while doing laundry while Eva was just a few weeks old, and Obama seeming so unprepared that pundits flipped out, thinking he was going to lose the election. I remember taking baby Eva to Costco in a Moby wrap, which I only use when the newborns are less than four weeks old because it’s the only time those wraps are comfortable. I remember how confident she made me feel about motherhood because she was just a really easy baby.
Eva is a much more high maintenance kindergartner, now. She is a natural artist and creative with her imagination and play, she is loud and boisterous and constantly irritated by her sister, Isa, who really has a sly way of getting under Eva’s skin. She loves to explore Google maps, particularly the Street View feature, and, owing to a lot of travel, is really at home in hotels. When she plays make believe, we often have to make believe we are at the gate of an airport, going on a trip to Japan. Eva also loves meetings and a certain order to things, and my mom thinks this is because she’s a Virgo. She likes agendas and lists and checking items off on lists. It doesn’t matter if it’s a to-do list, a grocery list, ingredients for muffins, the girl loves lists.
Happiest of Birthdays to Eva. Just like that, she’s five years old.
Yesterday I listened to a podcast episode about pelvic health, inspired by the uneasy experiences some women have had with their gynecologists. They advocated and featured nurse-midwives, who tend to be more feminist, holistic and just badass ladies. As someone who birthed all three children with midwives, I totally agree they are awesome. Midwives should be considered as a go-to option for regular exams whether you want/have children or not. But I’m also quite cool with my dude OBGYNS.
Three of my dude lady-part docs stand out in particular, mainly because I shared some unconventional experiences with them. The experiences are not graphic, they’re just … unique.
While on a semester-long break from the University of Missouri, I went to live in Houston with my mom, who was diplomating down there at the time. To occupy myself, I took a rather irregular schedule of classes at U of H and trained for a marathon. I also decided to work a side job as the front-desk check-in girl at the 24 Hour Fitness at San Felipe and Voss, mainly just to get a free gym membership.* What I remember about that time in my life is eating a lot of Whataburger (same intersection) and working alongside a few real roided-out sales guys who liked to guess womens’ weight when they came in.
Every morning, a genial, portly, tan, white-haired guy checked in to ride the recumbent bicycle for a good 45 minutes before maybe lifting some weights, showering and going to work. Since he was a regular, we began chatting and eventually I learned he was a well-known lady doc in H-town. As I had grown up in Dallas, I didn’t have a gynecologist in Houston. So I decided, hey, Dr. Katz is cool, I’ll make an appointment! And that’s how he became my practitioner as well as a gym buddy with whom I’d ride recumbent bikes on occasion. He’s stuck in my memory because we spent the morning of September 11 together. After a marathon training run at Memorial Park, I went to the gym to cool down by riding the bike while watching TV with Dr. Katz. That’s when we saw the plane hit the first tower.
My two years as a reporter in upstate South Carolina (the foothills of Appalachia) felt far more like foreign correspondence than being out here in East Asia. I was exposed to more absurd, utterly unfamiliar situations than I was able to fully appreciate at the time.
This place was the buckle of the Bible belt, home to Bob Jones University (where women are still not allowed to wear pants) and the only place I’ve ever witnessed a KKK cross burning. While in Spartanburg, I went to a family physician for birth control, which should be noncontroversial, but Dr. Sanctimonious told me he was proud of the fact that he did not prescribe birth control because he didn’t believe in it, his faith guided him and la la la la. This surprised me but not that much, and instead of reporting him I just found an actual OBGYN, whose first name was Hugh. I’ll call him Dr. Hugh. He spoke softly and also had white hair, but unlike Katz, was thin and wiry. He was very sweet, like a southern Mr. Rogers.
I started seeing him during a time I was single. I remember this because right after the pelvic exam, while I was still in those gyno table stirrups, he whirled around and ASKED ME IF I WAS SINGLE, as he had a young medical resident that he really wanted to introduce me to. (To this day, I still wonder what it is that he saw down there that made him think, I should play matchmaker!) Two weeks later, when the hospital sent me my pap smear results, Dr. Hugh had handwritten a message on it. It said something like, “Turns out the resident I told you about is actually engaged! So sorry.”
Dr. Chung helped deliver Isa and Luna, our two girls born in South Korea. He’s a Korean who speaks pretty good English, as he caters to a lot of Western clients and is an advocate of natural birth, which is rare and perhaps considered a little hippie-ish among South Koreans. He is so chill that he barely examined me throughout my two pregnancies here. But he has a knack for saying and doing things that would definitely be considered inappropriate in Western medical settings. Like when I ran into him six weeks after birthing Luna in the packed waiting room of his practice and he started in on how smoothly my birth went. In front of everyone, he goes, “When she came out, didn’t it feel like an orgasm to you? It’s orgasmic, right?” I stood in silence for a few beats, trying not to acknowledge the roomful of people around us, and said something about how it certainly was a relief to deliver a healthy baby. (BUT THE ANSWER IS NO.)
A few weeks later, my assistant and I were nervously sitting at one of those processing windows at the Seoul Immigration Office, where I was applying for an Alien Registration Card for Luna. The issue at the immigration office is even though its clients are not Korean, the staff there barely speak any English. And it’s bureaucracy-laden. So between the lack of language and the layers of paperwork, I almost always get rejected there the first time I try to apply for registration or renewal. It was going to happen again, when Dr. Chung saved me! The rather stern lady at our window was going over our papers and noticed Luna’s birth certificate from the birthing clinic and immediately softened.
“Oh, I also gave birth at the same center,” she told us. “Wow,” I said. “Did you have Dr. Chung? He’s great, right? Very chill.”
“And very handsome,” she says, with no expression.** (Assistant Jihye had to translate this, with a chuckle.) The immigration officer approved Luna’s registration.
In conclusion, I barely know these guys but in some ways they know me quite well. And I’m grateful for each for taking good care of me, being a friend to the extent a doctor is a friend, and for the, uh, memories.
*This was my second job at a gym. In high school I did a stint as the smoothie girl at the Q Fitness Club in Plano, where I would get $20 tips for making $3 smoothies, so, clearly I was led to believe working at gyms was lucrative.
** Dr. Chung himself once told me he was considered very good-looking in Korea, which was helped by his height. I’m gonna say he’s about 6’2″.