I covered MERS, which was killing some 10 percent of people who got it, when it spread to South Korea in 2015. The scare led to a run on medical products and face masks, hospitals became overtaxed and the government took a big credibility hit for not reporting numbers transparently over the first few days. But life as we knew it continued apace. For some reason the fact I had a new baby that MERS summer doesn’t register at all; I guess we were completely unconcerned that random strangers were touching and holding newborn Isa all the time? Weird, now that I’m looking back on it with a different perspective.
In late January, when my ancestral home region of Wuhan became the epicenter of what’s now called SARS2 or COVID-19, it became clear to those of us who cover China that this outbreak could be not only deadly but widespread; that life as we knew it in Asia would slow or change dramatically. I didn’t know the seemingly logarithmic spread of this new, still mysterious virus would affect the entire globe as it has.
In a time of globalism (and as is always true for epidemics), nation-state borders mean nothing. Following its initial bungling of this outbreak, China’s unprecedented lockdowns of entire cities bought time for the rest of the world to prepare. The US appeared to have done nothing with the extra weeks and now it’s too late. By the end of last year, ennui about how digital life disconnected us IRL set in collectively. Now coronavirus is forcing life in 2020 to become one of further and deeper social isolation. I imagine this will be the case for another few months, at least.
I flew to New York yesterday on a plane where everyone had his or her own row. Surprisingly few people wear masks around the Western world, so the only reason I wore one was to protect others from my nagging cough. Coughing-while-Asian is quite problematic and even scary in the swirl of COVID19 xenophobia.
By the time I landed, a British health minister was infected. New York announced its first “containment area,” and the National Guard moved in to help. We made a point last night to eat at Chinese storefronts, where foot traffic has so slowed that restaurants have had to close.
My workplace and so many others implemented work-from-home plans, a dreaded situation in a period in my life that’s been chock full of dreaded situations. I fear it’s only going to exacerbate my existing feeling of alienation and sadness. I want my mom … but she won’t get on a plane, for obvious reasons.
For the past six or seven years, our colleagues have regularly confused me and fellow female Asian-American NPR reporter Ailsa for one another.
We would receive the other’s emails and compliments for the other’s stories. I would come into work and people would ask me where my little dog was (Ailsa’s). She got a lot of congrats on my Seoul posting a few years ago. These nagging microaggressions happened so often that in 2013, Matty made a desk sign for me that featured side-by-side photos of me and Ailsa so that people could have a handy visual reminder of who’s who. (You don’t have to point out we don’t really look alike, we are aware.)
Now, I’m one foot out the door at NPR and Ailsa has moved here to LA to start hosting All Things Considered from the best coast. You could say we are … interchanging. So we hosted a little “revolving Asians” party to welcome her, do another bday gorgefest for me and most importantly, to poke fun of our long running plight and the friendship we forged as a result.
I love LA because it takes all comers, people are always here for random reasons and it’s full of friends from so many walks of life. To illustrate, here are people who made it out for boozeday Tuesday, an incomplete list:
— The regular drinking buddies
— My college dorm mate
— The dad I take turns doing carpool with
— My across the street neighbor
— A Defense Department friend who lived in Seoul the same time as us
— A pair of reporters I hired in 2011; one who had just landed from DC
— People who CAME ALL THE WAY FROM PASADENA to VENICE, so they may have started driving last week
— Mari, my Japanese interpreter in Tokyo who is also a working actress now doing a bunch of pilot season auditions in LA
— A civil libertarian I met a party & shared an Uber with two weeks ago
— Husband, armed with cake
— A guy named Bob who I met at a 7 year old’s pool party last summer and confessed he had a big crush on Ailsa Chang. Somehow I remembered this and made sure to track him down to invite him out. This delighted him and and Ailsa both, but especially him.
Welcome, Ailsa! It’s an honor just to be Asian, but also not bad accidentally receiving all the love that’s meant for you. 😉
HOW RAD is Korean film director BONG JOON HO!?!? He was already considered one of the greatest of all time in his native Korea, but after last Sunday’s historic Oscar wins for Parasite, he’s now an international superstar. What I have loved about all of this is how lovably human and honest he is the whole way through, which has only earned him more fame, which makes him feel “super awkward.”
First off, we delighted in his delight:
Then, the more I read about his personal sensibilities and style, the more I adored him as a person living in a complicated world (and not just for his art, which is so distinctly him and on point). So in the same vein as the “7 Steps to Living a Bill Murray Life” piece from Vulture that I took to heart (because I want to live a Bill Murray life, obvi), I decided to mine Bong interviews to curate a how-to on living a Bong Joon Ho life.
The story of how this came together was, I was all wrapped up in my Bong obsession during the run-up to the Oscars anyway, as he ran the award season circuit. Then on Oscar night when he became so meme-worthy, it became obvious he was a lifestyle guru. My editor at NPR didn’t get back to me when I pitched a piece so I just pitched it straight to my friends at my employer-in-law, the Los Angeles Times. They wrote me back right away, and the next night I came home punch drunk and knocked out the post. Very happy that it saw the light of day in a legit publication, but I would have done it for free.
We were so so so proud on Oscar night for South Korea, and Asians writ large, and for international film. Matty almost cried, hearing all that Korean being spoken from the stage.
Me: I feel like that was probably a good photo.
Mr Coates: Well, we’ll find out in two months. Or whenever you actually get the film developed.
In a now annual tradition, Friend Harper gives me a disposable film camera (this time with flash!) that I use for about a month. Half the film is wasted with the camera swishing in my purse, since movement winds it and takes accidental snapshots.
Two things I really enjoy about this exercise: The unknown — without a digital screen, I have no idea how these photos are gonna turn out. And the wait — the passage of time between the time the image was snapped, and when it’s finally developed, can change the photo’s interpretation.
January feels like last week … and a lifetime ago. No filter, obviously:
Can we go there to the crash place?
Who gets to go there to the crash place?
Who was driving the helicopter?
Who will take care of his kids?
How is the mommy getting the information?
Do you think baba* knows?
Can you tell baba?
His daughter’s name was Gigi!
— Questions (and a comment) from four year-old Isa, as she sat in her car seat listening to news of Kobe Bryant’s death.
I think Isa has some real journalistic instincts. Not only does she listen and ask a lot of questions, she is eager to go where news happened and share the answers.
* Baba is “dad” in Chinese, so that’s what the girls call Matty
Me: That makes me think of that Philip Roth passage, the one from American Pastoral. John: I don’t like that dude. Me: Oh right, you went to Vassar. John: I think he’s a misogynist. Me: Well, he has misogynistic viewpoints but I choose to see that as one of his many parts.
I’ll always stan Philip Roth. I realize he has his detractors, but he is smooth as glass and his observations just cut right to the heart of things, don’t they? John and I were chatting about something that went down with his wife, which reminded me of the beloved American Pastoral passage that flattens me every time. It’s about unpredictability, and never really knowing how our relationships will unfold, because the people in our lives are essentially unknowable:
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
“So I gotta ask, why Chicago? Is it the rampant gun violence? Or do you just like seeing improv actors who weren’t good enough for LA?”
— Bojack Horseman, on Chicago
What is the snow/slush mix falling down outside!? It is not pleasant.
To be fair. when I arrived on Thursday night the weather was downright balmy in Chicago, for January. But my youngest cousin, Stephanie, was getting married (today) and so I trekked it out here to rep her father’s side of the family. The rest of my family (Matty and girls), and the one into which I was born — the Hu’s, couldn’t make it for various reasons.
Since I was going to be here anyway, I was able to see my Chicago-based buddies AND bring the podcast/radio show I sometimes host, It’s Been A Minute, to WBEZ Chicago, the NPR member station here. It’s located (thanks to a $1 a year, 99-year lease) on the storied Navy Pier, home of tourists wearing MAGA hats, the Chicago Children’s Museum and a ferris wheel I could not see through the morning fog yesterday. Peter Sagal, who hosts the quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me from Chicago, came on to be a panelist. We got to catch up and hit him with the “patriarchy stinger,” which is a jingle that interrupts him every time he’s mansplaining.
On a whim, I decided to reach out to my high school social studies teacher, Mr. Coates, who has been living and teaching in Chicago for 20 years now. I know the exact number of years because he left Texas right after I graduated from high school and this year is my 20 year reunion. (CRAZY!) And I hadn’t seen him since I was 18, but he and his wife, MRS. Coates, met up with me for dinner on Thursday — the first time I’d ever hung out with Mr. Coates, actually. Enjoyed them both. Special night. And since my daughters (who usually introduced the podcast) didn’t tape their show intro in time, I was able to ask Mr. Coates to do it, and he makes an appearance on the podcast itself! He quipped that this is going to do wonders for “his brand.”
And up in the ‘burbs, my cousin Steph is now lawfully wedded. Given my inability to handle anything below 65 degrees, I cringed in horror as the wedding party braved the falling snow and 30 degree F/-1 degree C, windy outdoors to get a photo outside the church. But so glad to be here, to celebrate the wedding of my final unmarried cousin (who, incidentally, is only 24), and ready to get back to the sunshine, so long as the gods of O’Hare airport let me.
Now that 2019 is over, it’s time for my annual look back at my year in books. Man, there was so much great new fiction and nonfiction this year, and many titles remain on my “to read” list, which have rolled over to 2020. My favorites represent a mix of 2019-released books and modern classics. I struggled to prune it to ten, because I loved SO MUCH of what I read:
Book I Did NOT Like: The New Me, by Halle Butler, even though this was well-reviewed by critics. I think it was too nihilistic for me.
I didn’t have any new reading objectives this year. I tried to keep 52 books, stay committed to my book club and keep prioritizing works by women and people of color.
Picking ‘Em: Generally, I pick books by simply reading authors I already like, i.e. Roth, Jamison and Shteyngart. I also read books that publicists send me* that look different or interesting — this year, a poetry book on surveillance, Swedish lit and a lovely graphic novel by my friend Malaka. The bulk of my reading list represents recommendations from friends. It felt like a fiction-heavy year, but the data surprised me.
I spent a month in a sling and a lot of that month proned out after my shoulder injury, so that led to a burst in reading time. I also read a lot on planes, so when I was on planes more, I seemed to enjoy more reading.
I still read on my Kindle, to which I really need to attach a tracking device, because I turn places upside down looking for my Kindle WAAAAY too much. As a regular habit, I try to read a chapter or a unit (story, essay etc) in a collection of a book when I first wake up in the morning, instead of first checking my phone upon waking. I binge-read a lot on planes (when I’m not watching terrible movies), in cabs and while getting pedicures.
Credit to Nicole Zhu, a friend and fellow book-lover who inspired me to start the 52/52 challenge a few years ago. We finally hung out, in Atlanta in August, and spent hours talking about books we read! A dream. And big thanks to my perpetually grumpy-yet-weirdly-generous spouse, Matty, who made this post’s dynamic charts in Python this year, a first for him. The code behind this is available, so you can do this with YOUR reading data. too.
*This is a perk of being an NPR journalist/host. Free, new books get mailed to you all the time by publicists.
Stand up straight.
Sit up straighter.
Spend uninterrupted time thinking.
Explain the why.
Carry a book at all times.
Carry a notebook at all times.
Write down everything.
Cross things out.
Make more time for others.
Make more room for others.
Make things — in collaboration with others — that didn’t exist before.
Remember that maintenance is also productivity.
What a time to be alive. The House just impeached the US president. Brexit really is going to happen. Big Tech has finally revealed itself to be far more nefarious than nice; and some of its darling companies (cough WeWork cough) laid bare as just giant Ponzi schemes that fuel capitalism’s excesses while promising “community.”
I am still living in the sunshine and swimming in the sea — spending my first full year back in America in the freaky paradise that is Southern California, where there’s no real winter or hot summer. Reality interrupts sometimes — we felt the long, rolling earthquake on July 4 and much of California’s brush and forests caught fire in the fall. A reminder that this state, like the rest of Planet Earth, is increasingly unsustainable.
This year felt like my real re-entry, a transitional period in which I had to learn how to live a more quotidian and (literally) domestic life after all the nonstop absurdity and madness of living abroad. My intention at the outset of 2019 was to be still and look inward, and I’m one for two — lots of looking inward, but not so much stillness.
I learned constantly, mainly in the service of my central creative project and raison d’etre at NPR for the past year — Future You. It explored how emerging technologies are changing what it means to be human. We asked philosophical questions but packaged them in lightweight videos, playing with the long game in mind. In all, I had some 124 electrodes gelled to my head in all this year, plus an untold amount of wattage sent to my brain to show a future of mind-machine melding. I also learned how to extend my life, thanks to the Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, one of the world’s leading experts on aging. We became fast friends.
External circumstances interrupted during the back half of 2019 to force me to think more deeply and weigh what matters most. I’m reflecting now after an autumn of tumult. Everything felt triumphant and purpose-driven the first half of the year, then my shoulder dislocated at the end of June and I was down an arm, homebound and feeling crippled and useless. Then, to all of our surprise, my team got laid off in August. This meant the cancelation of the show, without consultation. I struggled for a few months with what I wanted to make — and be — next.
I’m finally out of my malaise, though. New things abound! Can’t wait for 2020, a chance for a buoyant new beginning.
Culture That Made 2019 Bearable:Fleabag, Lizzo, Parasite, Succession, the cringeworthy L to the O-G rap on Succession, Deadwood: The Movie, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the writing of Rebecca Traister, The Cut on Tuesdays, the newsletter Ask Molly
New Practices: Epictetus said, “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” So to lean into my 2019 goal of looking inward, I kept a daily, hand-drawn checklist to make sure I did (or tried to do) the following — meditate, journal, take a vitamin and exercise. The visual representation really shows consistency and lack thereof. Sometimes I just ran out of vitamins, okay? I do most things last minute.
The Year’s Firsts: A night at the Magic Castle. Giving a commencement speech at the Missouri School of Journalism, my alma mater. Shoulder dislocation. Irish hospital treatment. Opioids. Drag racing with a professional stunt driver. Brain stimulation. Being monitored in a sleep lab while getting brain stimulation. Getting all three daughters to introduce one of my podcast episodes. The tedious experience of lice removal for my older girls.
New Places: Albuquerque, NM. A few Hawaiian islands I’d never visited before — Kauai and the Big Island. Ireland, where folks kept telling my fair-skinned baby Luna, “Welcome Home” and whose National Ambulance Service I am eternally grateful for. Never did get to visit the Blasket, though.
MVP New Friend: David Sinclair, aforementioned
MVP Old Friend: Harper Reed, who, while helping me through my doldrums randomly introduced me to his friend Michael, with whom he was developing a TV pilot. Serendipitously, Michael goes, “Oh hey do you have a reel?” A week later, I was on a set, shooting a real life commercial, the first since I was a teenager and appeared in commercials for places like Sonic Drive-Ins. This entire sentence just sounded ridiculous when I read it back.
MVP New Sandwich: Popeyes lives up to the hype
Disappointments: The short-sightedness of the newsroom “reorganization” this August and the way it happened. The current era at NPR. Not keeping up with my newsletter. My poor posture, in general — Dr. Raj, my PT, says I had shoulder impingement a long time before my injury.
Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:
Talked about my Dad’s epic freedom swim in public
Took the OJ Simpson tour
Lost the door to the minivan after my husband nearly got hit by the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus
Hired a garage organizer and got organized
Received a message from another person’s brain with computer-assisted telepathy Moved a robot with my mind
Increased my vertical jump by 11 percent
Went under the care of a celebrity longevity doctor; he told me to stop eating so much orange dust
Lowered by biological age by five years
Got my long term memory boosted in a sleep lab
Appeared on The Today Show as B-roll
Shot a commercial
Saw Idris Elba in real life
Partied at Lawrence Welk’s former house
Inadvertently became a Flonase “influencer”
Saw Adam Driver on Broadway, he was riveting
Saw an otter feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Stayed at an entirely wolf-themed lodge
Breathed the same air as Beyonce
Ate breakfast back-to-Harrison Ford’s back, and no one told me for most of this time
Became an Annenberg Innovation Lab fellow
Potty-trained Luna, my last baby
Spent more time with mom and dad, who moved to Orange County for part of the year
Reunited our fellow Asia expat travel squad when the Wan Yau‘s returned to the states
Went to Palm Springs, twice
Went back to Seoul, twice
Went to DC 4X
Went to San Francisco 4X
Went to New York 4X
Wrote and hosted a bunchof podcast episodeson howto travel better
Nearly went broke after having to cough up a bunch in capital gains taxes (thanks, selling the Austin house)
Took a morphined-out Irish ambulance ride with medics named Owen and Paddy, natch
Spent a month in a sling
Spent a month without eating sugar
Spent six months in physical therapy
Watched members of my team get laid off in a parking lot while on the job, and on vacation
Decided to leave NPR after that happened
Took part in a little non-violent resistance
Celebrated my parents 40th anniversary in Hawaii on an epic trip with 20 other family members
Started a new small business with my girlfriends
Fit in reading 52 books, barely
Flew 180,846 miles to 28 cities, three countries and spent 99 days away from home. Next year I’m getting carbon offsets and undertaking an effort to cut this down significantly, because it’s so terrible for the planet to fly this much. Like everything else about my 2019, it’s been a year of reckoning.