This summer I reported and hosted a series of podcast episodes about travel for our life hack pod, Life Kit. Audio isn’t the most ideal medium for packing tips, so I flew up to New York to visualize the tips at the Away store with Away’s editorial director, Ally Betker. Huge thanks to Liz Gillis for shooting and putting this together with only two takes (because I had to get to the airport).
“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?
North Korea news has been relentless all of 2018 so far, and frankly it was relentless last year, too, under Year One of Trump. So I find myself constantly needing to take holidays in order to keep my brain from short circuiting.
How special a place is Vietnam, amirite!? Gah, I love Southeast Asia. In the end, nothing crazy happened, but there was a visa f-up that wasn’t discovered until we were at the airport with 30 minutes before boarding, so it required some unconventional problem solving. Thanks to surprisingly great service from a mysterious middleman in Danang, not only did we get into the country with some insta-visas, but we got to skip the hourlong queue to get through immigration because … I’m not going to ask about it.
Together with the squad, we learned how to wrap a lot of fresh meat and veggies into rolls at every meal and drink nonstop Vietnamese iced coffees and every day, everyone of us had an hour of spa time to use or lose so our main priority each day was, WHAT OTHER SERVICE SHALL I GET?
The two cities make for an excellent one-two punch because they’re such a paradoxical pair. Hoi An is so well-preserved and untouched by time and war that you could wander the streets and really feel a sense of history and international influences. Danang is discoed out with neon and over-the-top wedding venues and scooters buzzing way-too-close. There was a place on a main drag called Dirty Fingers, which, c’mon. Terrible branding decision. But it seemed like business was doing all right.
Last September when I was in lush Laos following around Barack Obama during his last tour in Asia as president, I met a fellow foreign correspondent I had long admired — William Wan. William, who was back in DC after a long stint in Beijing, is a storyteller with a kind and gentle spirit, unlike some of the more rough and tumble “flungs,” as our shop calls us international reporters.
We were in Vientiane most of the time, staying at a rather gross hotel that had too many mirrors in the bedrooms and smelled of too much air freshener. After long reporting days, I avoided time at the hotel and tried to hang out along the mighty Mekong, instead. William, who knew my voice from his NPR listenership, asked to tag along for dinner on a Tuesday night.
Obama was scheduled to fly to the historic town of Luang Prabang the next morning. I had a flight to go along, but owing to just learning I was two months pregnant and feeling the sickness (and paranoia about Zika mosquitoes), I canceled my trip. Over our dinner of fried things, William waffled on going to Luang Prabang, too. Obama was simply going to do meet-and-greets with locals and talk to young Southeast Asians in a forum; the White House didn’t arrange travel so we were all arranging our flights unilaterally, William went back-and-forth about whether it would be worth it just to see a typical dog-and-pony show.
When we said goodbye that night he still hadn’t decided. But the next night, I ran into him late in the evening at our filing center in the mirrored hotel. He was the only one left. He explained he was puzzling over what to do with what he got that day. It turned out he did go to Luana Prabang, but instead of following the president, he stood in the lines of people waiting for the motorcade along the street. That’s how he ran into a young monk named Sengdao. William stayed with him for hours and turned this lovely piece. An excerpt of what happened:
“He kept a watchful eye on the street beside his temple for signs of the police and Obama’s motorcade.
All morning, he waited beside the temple walls.
Around 1 p.m. a Scottish couple wandered past him.
“Did you see Obama?” they asked Sengdao.
The president, it turned out, had taken a back road to the adjacent temple. The couple showed Sengdao pictures of the motorcade on their phones, and he looked on politely, hiding his disappointment.”
The story still came out well and it was one of those great examples of going out and finding people stories instead of following around a predictable politician. This week, an epilogue. Obama heard about the monk missing his motorcade and wrote him answers to questions about life that Sengdao was seeking. It turns out the president wrote him back just weeks after the Laos trip, but the letter only recently got to him. William followed up:
He has shown the actual letter to even fewer people because of how precious it feels. “It’s not a secret, but it feels very personal and private that he would choose to write something to me. I don’t want to ruin that feeling,” Sengdao said. He emailed me a copy of the letter, but asked that it not be posted in full online.
Obama encouraged Sengdao to keep pursuing his dreams and dedicate himself to improving his own life and the lives of others. “The letter is an answer to all my questions,” Sengdao said. “He is like me, someone who started from nothing. It makes me think I can do that as well.”
It’s worth reading both stories. I’m so touched and happy this happened. And way to go, William, for finding the humanity in these otherwise super-staged trips.
At any Shinto shrine you can get various omamori — lucky charms or talismans to provide protection and good luck. There is the generic one for “victory,” which is reliable, but also for very specific wishes, like a new job, or “traffic safety” or “beauty of legs and skin.” Since I am on my final Tokyo reporting trip before baby, I went to Meijijingu (shrine) specifically for the “speedy and safe delivery” charm for #3, but then saw the one “for soundness of mind and body of child” and thought, well I should get that covered, too. So now baby has both. And I’m out $20.
“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr
Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)
Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).
I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.
Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.
We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.
Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.
I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.
Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.
Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.
The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.
The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.
Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.
I was woefully unprepared for work on Tuesday. After living Monday, December 26 twice — once in Seoul on one side of the international date line, and for the second time in Honolulu after going back in time 18 hours — I had to start Tuesday at 4am to follow around President Obama for the final time as POTUS.
Everything started out smoothly despite the early hour. Eating places weren’t open, but I discovered an uneaten KIND Bar that Friend Matt bequeathed me and put in my bag from the previous week in London, so I didn’t starve. And then all the logistics to get to President Obama’s vacation residence before he woke up in the morning were flowing. We loaded on to the press bus before 5am and took the journey to the residential neighborhood where the Obama’s stay.
Because POTUS wakes early for his morning workout, the press pool (charged with following his every move) had to hold in a rented, Japanese-style guest house during the wee hours, just waiting for him to get up. That’s when I discovered my lack of preparation: my audio recorder didn’t have the memory card in it. I left it in the computer back in the hotel. I also didn’t bring a backup. This meant I wouldn’t be able to record all the sounds and speeches of the day, which would include Obama’s final meeting with another global leader as president, and Japan’s Prime Minister’s key visit to offer condolences for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Photographers usually have extra SD cards on them (that’s the type of card our NPR recording devices use). But their cameras save to compact flash cards most often and SD cards are a touristy camera backup. So the still photogs weren’t able to help. Bloomberg’s Justin Sink happened to have an SD card, but it was a half-sized one, so it would have required an adapter. No one else in the 15 journalist pool was able to turn anything up, and the pool is so closely watched and wrangled because it has to stay with the president all day that I had NO freedom to break out and try to buy one.
President Obama then awoke for his workout at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Once his motorcade is rolling, the press bus joins in and we suddenly found ourselves on base. While POTUS worked out, the pool waits at a nearby base McDonald’s.
My mind wheels were turning, trying to figure out how to procure this card before the next morning stop — the bilateral meeting with Japan. So I went to the base PX store, which is like a Walmart for military. But they wouldn’t open for another three hours. Then I tried the open gas station at the Firestone Tire service center, which a White House press wrangler had to follow me to because you can’t go off on your own. They were selling an assortment of Haribo Gummi Bears, wart bandages and all sorts of car fresheners, but NO SD CARDS.
That’s when I mention to the Hawaiian store clerk at the gas station that I need an SD card badly. She says she could call a friend (this is 6:30am mind you) to drive off base to the open Walgreens and get me one. The press wrangler, who has followed me, rules this out. He says Obama could be finished up working out soon, and when he’s moving, we’re moving. We leave the store in defeat.
Another 20 minutes pass at the McDonald’s, waiting for POTUS to wrap up. Then we are told to load up and move out. As the van parks across the street to await folding into the motorcade, the gas station clerk RUSHES ONTO THE VAN out of breath, waving two SD cards that she had a family member drive and procure for me despite us giving up earlier. The whole press van (which has dealt with my whining for the past few hours) erupts in crazy applause. She straight-up saved the day. I don’t even know her name. I’m ever indebted and so, so grateful.
I will forever think the best of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.
Ah, 2016. A year so seemingly bad that it became its own internet meme. Not only was the soul-sucking U.S. presidential election rather horrifying, but artistic icons kept dying — Bowie, Prince, now George Michael. Mix in another hottest year on record, Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis, rising nativism all over the world, nuclear tests by North Korea and it’s easy to get a girl down, you know?
In the micro sense, my 2016 was a tornado of travel and jet lag but rather charmed and full of surprises, like the new baby in my belly. (WHAT!? Still processing, but running out of time for it to sink in.) It was a year for much Japan exploration, and full of friends and weekend getaways all over the place — Cebu, Bangkok, Okinawa, New York, London, Seattle and more.
Notable Firsts: The G7 summit, airport transportation by high-speed boat, flight with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, police-escorted motorcade through Beijing, aka, experiencing Beijing without its infamous traffic, gong bath (it is a thing), Go tournament, hosting an NPR show, getting a compliment from the president, kabuki show, naked man festival. (Some details below.)
Recurring Theme: Jet lag. Naps. Longing for booze and not being able to drink it.
Favorite Selfie: My brother Roger Hu goofing off with daughter Eva (and a magnifying glass) when we were all in Taipei for the Lunar New Year.
New Person: A new Hu was born on December 1, after 48 hours of labor. My little brother Roger is now a dad, to baby boy Ethan Hu. Another E-Hu in the family makes me so proud. I can’t wait to meet him.
Regrets: I didn’t call my friends who I don’t meet up with in random cities. Going to make a more concerted effort in 2017.
Free from nursing by July (but pregnant again in August), logged 128,367 miles in the air (resulting in jet lag for many days of 2016), going to nine countries and spending 145 days away from home. I need a nap. Bye.
Attempting to come out of a jet lag blur to say that I spent an incredible week in the Western hemisphere, which included a lot of time on planes and briefly, a train to New York. (After getting used to the bullet trains of Asia, the Amtrak feels like a damned stagecoach, not gonna lie.)
The notable thing about this trip was the lack of group activities; it was a lot of one-on-one dinners and breakfasts and coffee meetings with friends for whom I care deeply. And it all included a lot of freaking out about what is next for us in America and the world.
Things that common-law work spouse Matt Thompson said to me over burgers will stay with me, about how we need to lean more heavily into our archives and history, in general, to better understand what’s going at the dawn of Trump. And the work advice from people like Kate (who used to work with me) and Chuck (who is about to not work at NPR anymore) will make me feel better about the state of things in my career. Ultimately, the time in DC was so compressed that I had to fit in time with my BFF Sudeep by straight-up scheduling a walk together to the Triple A office, get a coffee to-go, walk to Treasury to get something back from an official, and then walk partially back to his office. That was the sum total of our reunion. For my other BFF, Sara, we scheduled a Chik-Fil-A dinner followed by a trip to Target. No joke. There was just no time.
On the flip side, the days lingered and melted into each when there were fewer people to see — in London, for a weekend with Friend Matt (seems everyone is named Matt, it’s all very confusing, but at least I can’t trip things up this way). He wanted to get to a top-ranked restaurant he hadn’t been to yet, and to go to an all-night barn party/jazz jam session out in the country, and since I was going to spend my final time in America just gorging on the fast food I’ve missed (Whataburger, where have you been all my life), it wasn’t too much of a burden to join Matt on his more classy trip to London, instead.
Serendipity and luck were in our favor all along: We almost missed our flight but didn’t, no belongings were left or lost, and little things happened to time out just as needed. We stayed at a flat* in Covent Garden near the theater district, and while walking home from a late night dinner we saw signs for a show featuring Sir Ian McKellen(!) and Patrick Stewart. When Matt checked about getting tickets the next day, he learned it was closing night, snagged two tickets and we got in to saw the dense and (obviously) well-acted show. I joked that it was about the frailty of existence for rich white men, and then we read a review, in which the reviewer explained that essentially the play was about the existential ennui of rich white men.
There was also delicious food, libation I so longed for and trips out into the English countryside, one night for the most random, bohemian jazz jam session-cum-birthday party filming. I can’t quite describe it except to say there were some ballerinas and lots of soldier costumes, plus a gong bath. My first gong bath!
* I try to code switch to British terms like flat and queue and crisps where appropriate.
Right now it’s Tuesday morning and my infant daughter is off in slumberland, freeing me up to write about Jeju Island, which the Koreans say is the “Hawaii of Korea.” There ARE some things it has in common with Hawaii, like natural beauty and parts of the island so untouched that four way intersections have no stop signs or traffic lights, leaving you to your own devices.
I saw a UFO themed restaurant. I saw a waterfall without water falling. I saw a beach where everyone took off their shoes and lined them up on the boardwalk before stepping onto the sand. I tried a burger concoction that was a foot tall. I smelled fresh Jeju black pork on the barbecue grill, before quickly eating that, too. I visited a three-story Hello Kitty museum made complete with a Hello Kitty family portrait. I passed horses milling about near the highway. I went to a completely empty theme park the size and scale a large city zoo. The place called itself ‘Psyche World’ until it changed its name to something equally puzzling: Ecopia. There was a butterfly exhibit with only three butterflies. There was a giant castle displaying a jewel museum with likely fake but famous jewels, like that blue one from Titanic that the old lady dropped into the ocean in the end. There was the promise of the ‘CSI EXPERIENCE: JEJU.’ There was an empty concert park with futuristic white seating in the grass, next to a display of two crocodiles. There was vastness in the emptiness. Store clerks and ticket punchers appeared when we walked past, but if you went back five minutes later, they were gone.
I have learned that if you travel with the kind of friends who will agree to go to a weird place like Jeju Island with you on a week’s notice, you will undoubtedly have a great time, despite feeling like you’re in a vortex. They are the Yau family, who are also American expats in Seoul who also arrived here in March. Who also happen to have a preschooler and an infant. When it came to kid supplies like diapers, water bottles and sunscreen, as Joe Yau said, “There’s so many built in redundancies this way.
The people who don’t frequent Jeju island are people who speak English. The eight of us spent the four day weekend speaking ‘hand Korean,’ which is generally just wildly gesticulating and getting responses we couldn’t understand, until the point the Korean speakers simply throw their arms into a giant X formation, which is the loudest silent rejection I’ve come to know in Korea. Since the GPS navigator was similarly in Korean only, a hotel employee had to come out to our car each morning and program in a destination for us and we crossed our fingers we’d wind up somewhere discernable. Considering many streets don’t even have names down there, it was a wonder we had a navigation device at all.
Here’s the thing. To me, vacation explorations are not just respites from routine but a chance to make yourself purposely uncomfortable or weirded out a little. It’s in those situations you learn and grow and laugh. There is so much laughter in the absurdity of a place like Jeju Island. We survived. Neigh, we thrived.