We had the wind at our backs in early August, when my scrappy team of video producers convened to shoot this Future You episode on memory. It just came out this morning…
Things changed by the time we flew home.
The night after my head was stimulated with tiny bursts of electricity (for the video), I awoke in a sleep lab to find out that our photographer and friend, Kara, had been laid off over the phone while getting her gear ready, in the parking lot. My other lead producer, Beck, got a call with the same news while she was with her parents, on vacation.
Their layoffs were part of a handful that included the cancelation of my series when the run is finished, the end of original video out of the news department, and executed at the direction of our new news chief. We got no rationale except that she’s “prioritizing other things.”
Suffice to say, I’d been blessed that nothing like that has ever happened in my professional life. This felt even worse and more harsh because of the way it went down, mid-stride on a Tuesday morning during a difficult shoot.
Kara didn’t even have time to properly process before we went straight back into finish the final interview of the shoot. She was so, so professional and demonstrated the kind of grace under pressure that I can only strive for. Because Kara moved onto her next job before getting to finish the edit, our New York-based colleague Nickolai finished the edit so that we could put it out today. Big thanks to everyone involved for not losing heart and seeing it through.
As for me, I’m not sure what’s next. The end of original news video also means the end of my role, though we haven’t finalized how that is going to look. Change is a constant, I certainly know well enough not to resist it.
These are the things my Austin friends gave me when I went back this week:
— Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller-branded bandanas (red and pink)
— 12 oz of green chile queso, HOT
— Two Longhorn candies
— Campaign button: “Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy”
— One Topo Chico
— One P. Terry’s Veggie Burger and fries
— Two zines: “The Teeth of The Great British Bake-off,” featuring illustrations of every participant’s teeth, and “Sexy Patents,” a compilation of actual patents for crotchless underwear and such
Went back to ATX at the invitation of UT’s Moody School of Communications and the Annette Strauss Institute, which hosted press critic Jay Rosen and me for its annual Denius Symposium on News Integrity. Jay’s really good on the historical context of the industry and talking things out helped me sort through some of the thornier questions about the role of the press in these challenging times.
Austin. You were so gridlocked but still so … Austin. Toddy got a cocktail at an old firehouse-turned-bar-and-hostel, which releases 12 bees for every drink you order. I think that’s what the deal was?
Jimmy made us all eat endlessly at a new upscale Shanghai-style Chinese place on West Sixth. Melissa and I perused a badass new consignment boutique on South Lamar called Rags. I put down nearly a pound of brisket, the moist kind, and sausage, plus a bunch of Friend AmZam’s hearty sides when she showed up to dress a baked potato with … more brisket. The thought of running Town Lake’s hike and bike trail, like the good ol’ days, crossed my mind but I did not.
I ate P. Terry’s two days in a row. The second time it was on the house, thanks to Friend Todd (different from the aforementioned Todd) who has somehow gotten to lead the trifecta of iconic Texas fast food brands — Whataburger, Taco Cabana and now is CEO of P Terry’s. (What!? Crazy, right?!) I introduced him to my goddaughter Marion Cass, who picked up from school as a surprise, and Todd introduced me to the actual Patrick Terry, who started my fave Austin burger chain in 2005.
Man, this summer was rough. Not only did my arm fall out of its socket, altering my shoulder ever since, but my video producers on the Future You team were unceremoniously laid off WHILE WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF AN OVERNIGHT SHOOT. The fallout isn’t quite over yet.
All the while, I was starving and super tired! I had to eat right and exercise more, for work. An actual exchange at Harvard Med:
Me: Will I have to stop eating McFlurry’s for breakfast?
Researcher: You eat McFlurry’s for breakfast? How old are you!?
For the Future You episode on life extension, the oncologist and longevity doctor Peter Attia worked with Harvard geneticist David Sinclair to give me a longevity regimen to reverse my inner, or biological age. They were trying to help me make my cells read as if they were young again.
Sinclair’s research in recent years has isolated the molecule thats help repair cellular damage from aging to give mice better blood flow, stronger muscles — the general benefits of exercise and eating right — in pill form. Now it’s being tested on humans. And I tried testing it for myself, along with the other age-reversing techniques we know of like diet changes, for the back half of the summer.
The end result? Catch it in the latest Future You (thank god we finished shooting this before my producers got the axe).
I am back in Seoul to speak at a conference on North Korea and not only is it a short visit, I’m losing a bunch of time from jet lag, so everything’s happening in hyper-speed.
— While delight is my overwhelming feeling, a sense of emotional constipation has returned, because I can’t properly communicate. There’s so much I want to know and understand and say and I just … can’t. I have really taken for granted how easy my life has become in California because I speak English in an English-speaking place.
— The trend food item right now is a twist on milk tea: “Black sugar pearl milk tea.” The “creme brûlée iced milk tea” is a second. They have existed before, I think, but are currently riding the Seoul trend wave. This means when I showed up at a coffee shop at 1pm trying to get one, the place was sold out. Incidentally, a black sugar milk tea has been my personal go-to drink back home in LA. The ones in Korea are not shaken before they’re served, so they look marbly. The creme brulée iced milk tea has a layer of creme brulée foam at the top of the drinks, which I didn’t try but they looked pretty sugary, rich and delicious.
— This happened, of course:
Giant inflatable bear making its way down the street and occasionally charging people, aka just another Tuesday in Seoul town pic.twitter.com/XpnKyjNeaA
— I am struck by how quickly I felt unattractive from the abundant messages about how to improve my appearance. Including but not limited to: The ads for the same doe-eyed, V-line jawed women everywhere, the endless, looming multi-story cosmetic surgery centers, one of which unabashedly emblazoned itself with an English sign for “Cosmetic Laser Vaginal Surgery.” Racks and racks of products to make you sit straighter (posture corrector), your toes straighter (toe aligner), your breasts bigger (waterproof chicken cutlet-looking bras), your “problem areas” smoothed out (flesh-colored sticker patches). It goes on. I stopped in a great Garosugil clothing store and as it is with all those Gangnam boutiques, the clothes come in “free size” which means, “one size.” Free size isn’t free, it’s limiting.
— A lot of our old friends have moved because they, too, were foreign correspondents or diplomats on three-year postings. But my Korean native friends still here have been taking me on a nonstop eating bonanza. For breakfast I’m making bulgogi and scrambled eggs, a twist on steak and eggs. Grandma Jin Ok’s #1 chicken cauldron soup? First stop after getting off the plane. Shabu shabu that you roll into Vietnamese wraps? Yes please!
— Reunited with Ju Hee, my Seoul hair stylist, and had her chop off 12 centimeters (we need to get on the metric system, people). Ivanka did it, so did Shiv Roy on Succession, and both those ladies are such great role models, amirite? JK I really just cut off my hair because September is the hottest month in LA, we live in a neighborhood close to the beach so we have no central AC, and my neck was hot. I do think Shiv Roy’s hair looks amazing…
There are so many Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles that this weekend, there were COMPETING Moon Festivals on the east side of town, over there in communities like Monterrey Park and Arcadia, where a ton of Taiwanese folks live. I only know this because Eva has joined a Chinese Children’s Chorus and had to perform at two of these festivals, back to back.
While it’s about 14 degrees hotter on that side of LA, the boba teas and other Taiwanese street foods are also about 14 times better. So I left Eva with her choir teacher and went off exploring the street food vendors. I got the moon cakes, natch, plus dim sum standards of xiao long bao and char siu bao because, low hanging fruit.
But then I wandered into the world of vegan meat pies (which are cooked on a griddle and flattened, so, the Chinese equivalent of quesadillas), and the crazier milk tea creations, like “dirty milk tea” (not sure what makes it dirty), the Hokkaido Taro slush (Eva tried this and liked it) and the big mystery item that I was too full to consume was KOREAN-TAIWANESE FUSION NOODLES. I felt seen.
Chinese folk legend holds that in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, the gates of hell open up and the ghosts come out to torment the living. There are all kinds of rituals you can perform to try and keep the darkness at bay, or preventative measures like not letting your kids go out at night and being very careful. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing until my mom and dad, who were in town this summer, said, “Of course you’re having a run of bad luck, it’s ghost month!”
August actually started triumphantly, with an affirming trip to Atlanta where I saw old friends from AAJA and got to talk a little about my dad. Since then, my producers were laid off while we were in the middle of a field shoot, the minivan’s door was ripped off by a Santa Monica Big Blue bus and my spouse narrowly escaped injury and last week I learned a skunk has made a home in the crawlspace under my house! Dealing with him is very tricky since you don’t want him to spray under your house and leave a stink there … FOREVER.
The good news is, we’re almost at the end of the month, and things are supposed to improve once the ghosts go back to their lair. Here’s hoping.
Look, I don’t think any woman should feel pressured to give birth a certain way. You do you — a feminist birth is more important than an unmedicated, vaginal one. If you are interested, however, and want to prepare, I spoke with the New York Times’ Parenting section briefly for its guide to unmedicated birth.
“You were out of town and we almost lost our father. And then we’d be stuck forever with just you, mom.” [grimaces]
—Eva, 6, about Matty losing the minivan door to a Santa Monica city bus, and somehow not getting hurt by the chin of his chinny chin chin
I was on a shoot in Albuquerque at the time and since Stiles never calls me, really, ever, I picked up the phone and said, “Are you okay?” and immediately he goes, “NO! I just got hit by a bus!”
It’s been a crazy and difficult week. If I wasn’t so committed to an upcoming Future You episode on longevity which requires me to adopt healthy lifestyle habits, I’d be drinking myself to sleep tonight.
“There’s a story in your voice
both by damage and by choice.
It tells of promises and pleasure,
and a tale of wine and woe,
the uneasy time to come,
and the long way ’round we go to get there.”
—Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams
Note: These are the remarks as originally written, for a speech to public media broadcasters at AAJA’s National Convention in Atlanta. I was drinking Corona from a glass (weird) and feeling like my jolly self when I started talking, but then I surprised myself when I started crying during this speech. Then people in the audience were crying with me, and it ended up being an emotionally cathartic and meaningful time. Thanks to those of you who could make it!
Tonight I’m going to talk about the importance of making sure your voice is heard. But I want to open with a story about my dad, since without him I wouldn’t have MY voice.
It begins in Shanghai with — as you might expect — a young boy.
My dad was five years-old when the Communists defeated China’s ruling democratic government, the Kuomingtang, in the bloody Chinese civil war. So the backdrop of his youth was formed by Mao Zedong’s deadly and costly reforms of China, a famine that killed 30 million people at least, and the absence of his father.
My grandpa was on the other side of the world, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d gone to get his graduate degrees on a Chinese-government funded scholarship not long after my dad was born and during the years when China was open to the world. Grandpa never could return to China after he left, since his country’s government had been replaced with a totalitarian situation where no outsiders were allowed in, and no Chinese were allowed out.
My dad grew up with his mom and sister, eventually reaching an age when it was time to go to college. But he only attended for a semester or two before Mao closed all colleges and universities as part of the Cultural Revolution and an effort began to return intellectuals to the fields. This included children of artists and intellectuals and anyone considered bourgeoisie. My father was sent to labor and re-education on a pig farm in Guangdong province.
I don’t really know what he saw there — he doesn’t talk about it. All I know is it was a really horrifying time. And he would get up in the mornings and secretly practice swimming in the freezing streams behind the farm … training to escape.
This labor camp in Guangdong Province was close enough to the free, British Hong Kong that he could feasibly try and escape the camp and defect from the country. Y’all know mainland China and Hong Kong are connected by land, but it was considered too risky to try and cross the land border, with its fencing and guards and all. It was slightly less risky but still highly dangerous to try and get into Hong Kong by sea, by crossing the bay.
Twice he and a few other men made the attempt to defect by raft, in the middle of the night. Twice they were caught, brought back and subjected to beatings and more re-education.
On the third try, he and five others dived into the deep, dirty Shenzhen bay, and swam four kilometers — more than two miles — in the dead of night to Hong Kong, risking being shot or drowning along the way.
My dad recalls seeing the twinkling lights of Hong Kong from that dirty, freezing water as the most emotional moment of his life. It was the moment he saw freedom.
My grandpa, as you recall, was in St Louis this whole time, working his senator, Stuart Symington, to make sure my father could get passage into the United States should this treacherous escape plan actually work. Senator Symington reached out to a New York Senator, Bobby Kennedy, to help my dad if he was able to fly into a New York airport. A few years ago, I saw the letter from Kennedy’s office to my grandfather, saying that my dad would be permitted to enter the US as a refugee, since he was fleeing communist China.
By the time my 6’2” dad made it to the state, he weighed just 135 pounds.
To me, the story of my family’s relationship with America is a love story. Immigrants don’t hate America — they love what this country stands for. The very idea of it inspired so many of them to leave the only homes they’d ever known, often at great peril, to find a safe harbor and a new home.
And now, some of these people, or their children (like me), or their children’s children, have the great opportunity and responsibility to tell this country’s story through our work. But that does not mean suppressing our own truths. Our voices contain multiple stories.
It is important that, for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — we don’t stop being children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves when we’re covering the news.
Because at its core, journalism tells us how other people live, and helps us to imagine living like them. Having immigrant stories so close to us strengthens our work, because we can cover these stories with a layered perspective, with humanity, and with ears that are open to the truth of how other people are living.
Lomi Kriel, the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the family separation policy, long before it burst into the national news, says the number one thing that makes her good at covering immigration… is that she is an immigrant.
There is real deliberation and combat right now over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and who gets to speak up about how it’s being run. Who has power, who frames that power, whose voices matter. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but I just want to affirm that your voice matters.
Your voices especially matter in the face of newsroom power structures that are still so lacking in the diversity we talk about at conferences like these. Even as I got more career experience, I had trouble getting over the hump of thinking that my voice was somehow “less than,” because as a child in St. Louis and Dallas suburbs, I was almost always the only Asian person in my classes or in my activities. That kind of environment can make you internalize a notion that white is default and your otherness is something to be ashamed of.
Things are changing, in so many places! I look around at my daughters’ preschool and elementary schools in LA. They are, first of all, Spanish and Mandarin immersion schools, which tells you a lot, and second, the classes look like the UN of little humans. White and brown and black and all the other shades in between. It’s America! My generation’s old baggage about being “the only one” is increasingly irrelevant in Gen Z’s multicultural, pluralistic world.
That’s the world we have to reflect in our news coverage or else we’re failing to tell the truth.
The truth is what fighting for representation is about. Creating more diverse journalism isn’t about slotting people of color into the newsrooms we have, it’s about transforming the newsrooms we have — our institutions, our culture, and our storytelling — because it gets at the heart of what journalism is: telling the full truth of a story.
We aren’t serving our communities as well as we could be when we aren’t represented or representing by making our voices heard.
Whatever it took for you or your ancestors to get here, we have literal skin in the game now. And it enhances our coverage because you know what it is to be of America but also questioned about your Americanness. You know what it’s like to have a foot in a different culture.
Shrug off this notion that somehow your skin in the game makes you less objective — it makes your coverage more FULL. We can’t be truly helpful to our communities until you know what it’s like to need help. That makes those of you who have real, lived-in experience of immigration so valuable in covering the negotiation of America’s identity right now.
So stake your claim in your newsrooms, speak your voice in your communities, tell stories of people’s lived experiences and do it with compassion. Until we can have discussions about how crucial your voices are, in all our newsrooms, and move it toward meaningful action, we aren’t doing enough.
We are more alike than we are unalike, as Maya Angelou famously said, and our charge as journalists is to not let one another forget it.
And since he figured so much into my remarks here, and has played such a role in making me who I am, I’ll close with an update on my dad’s story. I’m happy to say that it isn’t finished.
My dad is alive and well and thriving. He has four grandchildren. He has a titanium hip but continues to love gardening, something he’s been into since I was old enough to form memories. He gets so excited when hummingbirds come to feed at the bird feeder in his garden. He loves watching his vegetables sprout — everything he plants somehow survives. Seriously, he threw an avocado pit into my compost one time and a full on avocado tree the length of my arm sprouted out of my compost bin.
I mean, when this is one of the handout rounds, how could we have lost? Terp was in town and joined the crew, and thankfully he knew Jeff Gillooly on sight. Watching every single Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan retrospective pays off, eventually.
To be honest, though, this was a close one because the wheels really came off in the last round (when every question is worth a point and the last one is worth 5.5 points).
The last question was, how many days will have passed between the release of the original Top Gun and the new one (which comes out next year)? I thought it came out in 1987, but the rest of the team calculated it with summer 1988. Then we learned it actually came out in 1986, so we lost so much of our advantage that we ended up only winning by half a point. A win is a win!
Had Nurse Kelly (on our team) not recalled that Bob Carlisle was the singer of “Butterfly Kisses” (for the “father-daughter song” round) and Friend Sunil not known that 97 was the highest prime number under 100, we would have have been paying full price for our tab that night.