Finally, my friend Frank was able to track down the episode of “Alien Wire” — yes that’s the name of the show — I appeared on before leaving Seoul. It’s a Korean language talk show with all the bells and whistles — animated pop-ups, sparkles, sound effects, cartoonish captioning. I remember that morning being a blur and the place feeling like a machine. Even the makeup situation was an assembly line, in which women were made as white as possible.
I just nodded along, since I can only understand about every ten words in Korean.
“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?
When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.
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!
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
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
We were walking home from dinner one night when Friend Mike picked up a glossy, full-color business card with a woman’s gigantic posterior on it and a phone number. As we continued walking, it was clear that was just one of many cards like that which had rained on the street.
Upon more investigation (read: asking more experienced Korea dwellers), it turns out we live pretty close to an area with many “love motels,” which are hotels you can rent for an hour at a time. Many young South Koreans who still live with their parents use these as a place to hook it up, but they would also be convenient for entrepreneurial exchanges, I assume.
At one party a few weeks ago, a group of us started talking about these cards and how the women you get probably do not look like the ones advertised on the business cards. That’s when one of my Korean-speaking American friends called up the number. There wasn’t a long exchange, so the main things we learned were logistics and pricing.
You book a room, then tell the service where it is. The woman will show up at the love motel at the appointed time and location, and you must pay the equivalent of $150 per hour. There was no elaboration as to what you can do with your hour, so presumably it depends on the professional who is sent to you. There have been other advertisements around that use the Korean “tteok” or “dok” (depending on how you want to romanize) to describe these ladies … Dok is the word for a white, doughy rice cake. I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they’re called dok girls, but this is the kind of question I still have about the ol’ love motel sex business.
While Isa isn’t Korean, she WAS born in Seoul last summer, so we followed Korean tradition and did a doljabi ceremony for her.
Under the tradition, the one-year old gets a “destiny table” of items to choose from that align with various professions — stethoscope, computer mouse, pencil, money, etc. She went for the microphone without hesitation. But then followed up with her second choice, a gavel.
Following American tradition, there was an incident with fire and cake, in which she straight up took her hand and grabbed the flame. Mistakes were made.
Isa is my second daughter and as many of you know, she’s a rainbow baby, born after two miscarriages in a row. She’s been a superpower sunshine since she was born — the smiliest, snuggliest and sweetest blessing. We love her goofy tendencies: putting her full face into everything she wants to investigate (like the cats) and sniff them violently like Mary Katherine Gallagher, her ravenous appetite but shockingly slow eating, her growl and her laugh (which is a combined laugh-growl), and her obsession with putting items around her neck — necklaces, purses, headphones. Mostly headphones. We love you, Isa. You truly rock.