A dispatch from coronavirus social distancing, once in an indefinite series
I have never before in my life eaten so much cheese. I stocked up before the store shelves went empty and now just working my way down through the stash, at rapid speed.
Matty absconded with the two older daughters earlier today and entertained them all day, so we were able to divide and conquer without cannibalizing one another.
The baby of the family, two-year-old Luna, learned how to use the Amazon Echo and has been making Alexa play her go-to jams of “Juice” by Lizzo, “Call Me Maybe” and some sort of “Say Cheese” kid song on repeat. I tried to get her into Radiohead and she indulged me for half of “High and Dry” before calling it quits.
Have been intimidated and would feel guilty about trying to go to Costco for one last run before these stores inevitably shut down, and am instead already bumming toilet paper rolls off my better prepared mom friends who can spare.
Update: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti just announced that LA is shutting down at midnight. Retail businesses, bars, clubs, gyms and fitness centers will all close until March 31, at least. Banks, grocers and pharmacies stay open. Restaurants will be available for takeout only.
Friend Harper gives a goody bag to his guests that stay over at his place in Chicago. In the canvas tote are cool things like Harper-branded stickers and … a black and white disposable film camera, which I managed to use until Harper came to LA last week and I could hand off the camera to him to develop.
I love the hard-won look of these. And the time capsule element – there’s something special about film because it gives you such a finite amount of photos you can take. I wasted a lot by just taking nonsense photos of things like takeout boxes, for fun, but I also found this exercise in limits (only 24 chances) and patience (had to handoff the film to be developed, and then wait) really lovely. Baby Luna looked hot, as usual.
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.
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.
The lead parent of our children is off in America so I have been really getting my momming on over the past few days. (Y’all know how that usually goes for me. VERY laissez faire.) Being in charge of my two children and a baby while also working from home was already going to be daunting in it of itself, but the despot Kim Jong Un decided to throw in an extra challenge! He invited President Trump to meet face-to-face, and Trump accepted, in an announcement that came down at 9am yesterday morning. A bona fide news bomb.
This is what I remember: I thankfully awakened slowly rather than suddenly because somehow there were no screaming fits or random sibling throw-downs to break up at the break of dawn. Since November 2016 I have avoided news inputs until I am fully awake and ready to take in whatever inevitably shocking alert is on my phone. Yesterday was distinct in that news hadn’t actually broken at 7:30am when I woke up. News ABOUT news was filling my inbox because POTUS DJT had popped his head in the White House Briefing Room (a room he’s never been seen in) and said there was a “major announcement” coming in 90 minutes. The countdown began.
Our helper Yani served breakfast and braided hair. I made sure the girls got on their buses. Baby Luna slept through all the way until 8:30am when both older girls were off for school. I hate having to feed her and read at the same time a furious feed-and-read situation followed in order to finish both in time for the announcement. By then, we knew that the news had to do with North Korea, and that the South Korean envoys who had just met with KJU on Monday went to Washington an invitation from Kim to Trump, to meet. This would be unprecedented and incredible on many, many levels. The craziest thing was that, at the 9am/7pm EST announcement, we learned Trump just accepted this invite immediately! It breaks with decades of U.S. practice but this is Trump and really, are there norms anymore?
From a windowless, carpeted room that serves as a perfect home “studio,” got on live with our program All Things Considered right after the announcement, at 9:30am Korea time. But my kindergartner Eva’s monthly school assembly was at 10am! I am her only parent in the country right now. She expected me to be there and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I rushed to her school by cab, stayed through to her performance (last because they’re the oldest) and then made sure she saw that I was there and had to go, then ran to hail another cab to take me home, making it with four minutes to spare before my next live conversation with All Things Considered, at 11am. That could have really gone the other way for me so, thank you God.
Later I delivered a stroller to a friend who needed to borrow it, ate lunch on base with some USGOV guys who joked around about this rather stunning news with me (I’m leaving the jokes out of this blog post), and because I don’t like to cancel appointments at the last minute, I took a cab all the way to my pedicure place only to realize that because I jumped into the cab while conducting a phone interview*, I forgot to bring any forms of payment! We had to turn around and return to my home, get my wallet, drive back to pedicure place only for me to realize, by then, that I didn’t have time for the appointment because there were many more live conversations to have and the web post to write-through. At some point I needed to sit down and speed read and correspond with more people, which is what those of us in the biz call “reporting.” In the evening when the girls had to be bathed and put down for bed, I was on Morning Edition twice. In between the two hits, Eva, who is starting to read, read to me (this felt interminable because I was on deadline) and we completed the True/False questions in the back because she loves True/False. Then I recall putting a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on for them in lieu of any more books.
I got the girls tucked in and put down for bed and then got my ass to a friend’s Pyeongchang Paralympics Opening Ceremony Watch Party, because YES THAT WAS YESTERDAY, too.
Here are the conversations, as they appeared in the course of this string of events:
All Things Considered after the feed-and-read with Luna (no link because it was replaced with the next one) All Things Considered in the nick-of-time after making it back from Eva’s assembly Morning Edition/Up First podcast after my failed pedicure attempt but got a giant cookie for Isa (she loves cookies) Morning Edition after the True/False questions All Things Considered after being awakened this morning with a 6:30am call to talk again. My voice is noticeably lower here because I’d just woken up. Sorry.
Not included in this post: All the stress eating and Starbucks green iced teas. By the end of the day there were just plastic Starbucks drink vessels strewn all over my desk.
*It was John, a friend/source of mine who is a China historian and North Korea watcher based here in Seoul. We spend half of our phone calls just mercilessly making fun of each other. A running gag is we our phone conversations by performing the phone greetings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese obnoxiously: (Roboseyo? Roboseyo! // Wei? Wei? // Moshi Moshi!? Moshi Mosh.)
From previous posts you may recall the Wan-Yau’s of Burlingame, California and now of Singapore, Singapore. We have gone on six squad holidays together now. The latest one, to Australia to ring in the new year, was the first to include Luna. We would have squeezed in a lot more in 2017 had Sarah Wan not faced unexpected family tragedy. But because of said tragedy we decided it was key to start the new year fresh, in the summertime because warmth > subzero temperatures.
After a freezing and quiet Christmas in Seoul we took the 10-hour flight down under, where the sun was out and everyone was sweaty, which was exactly what I was going for. The only notable stumble during the nine days down there happened at the beginning, when I was confronted with the reality that my family is too large for a standard SUV and I had to drop an additional thousand dollars at Hertz to upgrade to a giant seven-seater. (But before this happened I engaged in an irritated, aggressive-aggressive complaining to Matty about his inability to adequately squeeze all our stuff plus car seats into the regular-sized SUV. This happened out in the parking lot as he wore the baby in the front, sweat soaked through his dark blue polo shirt in the back and he was feeding hash browns to the older girls by stuffing them into their mouths. “YOU’RE WELCOME TO TRY IT IF YOU WANT,” he yell-whispered, of the luggage. How did we wind up with so many children!?!)
The rest of the vaca was a mix of beach time, pool time, green spaces and amusements for the children, afternoon cocktails, book reading, kid feeding and dominated by consumption of Tim Tams (original, dark chocolate and mint are my faves) and Australian avocados, which are a mystifying six dollars each. Joe also grilled out a lot for all of us in our lovely backyard high atop a hill where you could see Balmoral Beach, which is on the harbour. (Please note the harbour with a u — don’t want to make the mistake of leaving it out, y’know). One morning we gave Luna a leftover Australian beef rib and she chomped on it like a CHAMP even though she only has two teeth.
A final note, just because I can’t let this go: Why and how did passengers who used the lavatory on the Airbus 380 we flew home on decide that the toilet seat cover dispenser was the trash can?! When I went to this loo, I stood there staring at all the dirty paper towels stuffed into the cover dispenser for an inordinately long time as Isa giggled at herself in the mirror.
Oh, also, our Airbnb hosts had a bunny, “Hops,” and we got to feed him all week. He was adorable, except when he got out of his hutch and the dads had to set up an elaborate fort/trap to catch him so he could return to his little home.
Luna is crawling around, so we have to really watch out for small items on the floor that she might try and grab and sneak into her mouth. Today after a quick breastfeed for her afternoon snack, Luna went about her normal business of crawling around the floor under the supervision of our helper Yani. All of a sudden her laugh turned into a panicked throat-clearing/hacking noise. I looked over at her and she looked like she’d just seen a ghost and her eyes said “SOMEONE HELP ME.”
Yani looked similarly panicked so I called upon that crazy time I spent in the English countryside last fall and just smacked her really hard in the back of her chest (harder than I thought I would need to, as my former Royal Marine instructed) and she instantly puked up the contents of her tiny tummy. I searched the beige puddle of puke (this is the kind of thing that does not phase you once you’ve been a mom to numerous dogs, cats and/or humans), and found a small square of Scotch tape that she must have eaten and accidentally gotten lodged in her throat.
Crisis averted, Luna instantly returned to smiling and laughing. So uh, THANKS, my British hazardous environment training instructors! Really glad I wasn’t called upon to deal with a “sucking chest wound” though, which I vaguely remember learning something about in the same course but really not enough to do anything about should someone have one.
The military term for a long stint elsewhere is TDY, which the armed forces like to joke stands for “Temporary Duty Yonder.” I’m not even sure what it really stands for, TBH. There I go with the acronyms again!
I went to Washington for most of November, coming off a blistering week-and-a-half reporting in advance of — and during —President Trump’s epic trip to Asia. (Nothing substantive was really achieved for the US but he commanded a lot of attention and resources in the region.) Thankfully, our afternoon program, All Things Considered, sent me a producer for the Asia trip — Becky — and we reported at a breakneck pace while sneaking in delicious meals. From the Tokyo leg, I came to Seoul for one day with Trump and covered a bunch of right-wing Koreans who welcomed him, then grabbed my baby and a suitcase and got on a plane to Washington. Then, Becky and I had to re-live Wednesday, November 8 due to the time difference. The first Wednesday November 8 was already exhausting; you can imagine having to do it again, but in Washington. I ended my second Wednesday November 8th with my former editor, Uri, at the “sad Hilton Garden Inn” bar, which is really, really sad. But I enjoy the kitsch of it.
I have spent too much time writing about the sad Hilton Garden Inn bar.
I ate dinner and drank cocktails with so many old friends because I tried to do a different dinner reunion each night. This made for meaningful conversations and catchups and meetings of new family members (babies and children, natch).
CNN also flew me up to New York one Sunday morning to do Fareed Zakaria’s show from the actual set, which was fun because I missed my Council on Foreign Relations orientation and I got to apologize to the CFR president about it in person (he was fine so long as I paid my dues) and before I went home Friend Kat came to meet up for about 20 minutes before I trained it back to DC.
There was other stuff, too, but this blog is full of contemporaneous (and therefore incomplete) accounts.
Notes of extreme gratitude go to:
Sudeep and Hun. My friend Hun gathered up baby things so that Luna would have a car seat and bouncer and Bumbo seat and pack n’ play while she was with me during TDY. Then she dropped off said stuff at Sudeep’s, who then pre-furnished my AirBnB with the baby items so that they were there and waiting for us when we arrived. How amazing are these people!?
Marcus, who, upon learning I’d be coming to town, decided to host a dinner at his home for me and my friends. WHAT?! His house is decked out in fabulous modern Chinese art from his stints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and every piece had an incredible story. His wife Maggie made paella in those glorious cast-iron skillets that are actually meant-for-paella, and the dinner included my work spouse for life, Matt, singing us some numbers from his New York Times-themed musical that is in the works. (I am not joking.) This night was really fantastic.
David, who was in Seoul with me with the President and invited me over to Thanksgiving at his house when he found out I’d be without my family this year. Luna, her helper Yani and I joined in and it ended up being just like the Thanksgivings in my own Asian-American family: loud, lots of code-switching, food and taking pictures of food.
Robert Siegel, Kelly McEvers, Ari Shapiro and the whole staff at All Things Considered, which let me guest host on their program during some of the hardest weeks to be at NPR headquarters, because there’s sexual harassment stories hitting our own workplace in a widely public way. The co-hosts were exceedingly patient with me not knowing my ass from my elbow or a “line” from a “nipper”, which are shorthand terms for things that hosts say on the air. What a huge privilege to get to say “It’s All Things Considered from NPR News, I’m Elise Hu” for several days in a row. I will never, ever forget it.
Eva has this exaggerated, four-year-old way of asking “what’s happening” by punching each word out: “What. Is. Happening.” She never uttered it yesterday, but it would have been appropriate for every travel snafu we ran into starting from the moment we arrived at the airport check-in counter at 10 in the morning. First, our noon flight had been pushed back by four hours. Then, I realized I left baby Luna’s passport at home, because I packed passports still thinking we were a family of four. Whoops. Then, a more severe passport snafu for her dad: Matty didn’t have six months left on his passport before its expiration date, so the airline straight up would not let him fly. The Matty situation required a lift from the embassy (which, thanks to having friends who are in consular affairs at the embassy, got him on the access list to get a new passport within hours). But even still, we had to leave him behind.
The Luna situation required calling back the driver who brought us to the airport, driving an hour+ through typical maddening Seoul traffic back HOME to get the passport, turning around and taking a train to the airport, get to the security checkpoint and have Eva’s boarding pass not clear due to a hyphen, walking her BACK to the counter on the other side of the departure hall, getting the hyphen fixed, going through security as a family of five (since Matt’s left behind, I have our helper Yani THANK GOD), then getting to the airport tram.
We had Isa in a stroller so this required an elevator. After attempts to take three different elevators — none of them air conditioned — all were out. We finally get to the gate via escalators and tram and that’s when Eva starts tantruming out because she’s hot and tired from all the walking. Our flight’s delayed another hour, Isa needs snacks, I have three-month-old baby Luna pressed on me the entire time with a look of “What. Is. Happening.” We finally get on the plane and amazing, have two empty seats next to us in our row, but before we can snag them to allow Isa and Eva to stretch out across them to sleep, Koreans rush up like they’re fleeing a war and belt themselves in them, leaving Yani stuck holding 30 pound Isa in a single seat while Isa sleeps for HALF THE FLIGHT. By the time we arrived at midnight, after first leaving the house for the airport at 9am, the girls were frayed but holding it together, I was sweatier than I’ve ever been and sleepy, Yani was just relieved to have Isa’s hot body not pressed against her and Luna was wishing she was back in the womb, I imagine.
Anyway I’m writing this down so I won’t forget yesterday. It was our first trip as a family of five and only four of us actually made it on the journey. (Yani became our fifth yesterday, and it was and is absolutely critical to our functioning.) And while we ran into annoying frustrations, it comes with the territory. (Ahem, like how our flight to leave the US and move to Seoul became several flights after the first attempt to move from our home country was aborted after we’d boarded and sat on a tarmac in Dulles for six hours. And still not nearly as bad as the night I slept in the baggage claim of DFW Airport.) Frankly it was an awesome day depending on how you look at it. But for that super long delay, we wouldn’t have had time to get Luna’s passport. But for our amazing friend at the embassy who we could just call up and get on the American Citizen Services access list, Matty wouldn’t have a new passport so fast, fast enough to get on a flight tonight to see us tomorrow.
And the destination after our arduous march was Bali — paradise! Over mango juice this morning at breakfast al fresco, Eva said to me unprompted, “Momma, Bali is so beautiful. Like 100 beautiful,” awarding imaginary points to it on her arbitrary (but valid) Eva scale.