This year I was invited to Mount Hood, Oregon to speak at JAWS CAMP (acronyms, which explains the all caps) about “journalism and your career,” with no other parameters. What follows are the remarks “as prepared for delivery,” as speech texts say when we get them from politicians — but not as they were actually delivered since I don’t follow a script and instead go off on random tangents.
JAWS is the Journalism and Women Symposium, founded in the mid-eighties by glass ceiling-breaking women in the industry and a group that continues today by training, supporting and convening lady journalists. Each year JAWS picks a place in the woods and holds CAMP (which now stands for Career and Mentoring Project) but really it’s a lot like adult girl scouts camp (but with actual hotel or resort rooms to sleep in at night).
Big thanks to my Friend Reeve (an actual professional speechwriter), who workshopped a lot of these ideas with me in the car last weekend in the Catskills, and gave my draft a real edit. I’m putting the full text here for posterity but um, I was asked to talk for 30 minutes so it’s a lot of words.
I’m just repatriating, or in the process of repatriating, from my three-year foreign correspondent stint in East Asia. It was a pretty crazy time to be there, with the whole fire and fury nuclear standoff and the hundreds of thousands in the streets who protested for the ouster of South Korea’s president. During this stint my family expanded from one kid to three, which played into an experience last summer when Kim Jong Un threatened Guam.
At the time, I had a four-month old who was nursing, aka on my boob every three hours, so I had to bring her to cover that breaking story. But since I had to bring her, I also had to bring my husband to take care of her while I was working, and if he was coming, then the other two girls had to come, and we woke them up in the middle of the night and whispered, “Sorry girls no camp today we have to go on an airplane to a beach, we’re going on a beach holiday!”
Missile launches and nuclear crises included, foreign correspondenting was pretty awesome – a dream come true. And because journalism as a business has been contracting my entire adult life, it was dream I had given up on. So what a surprise bonus to do it!
I want to share stories and lessons-learned from my time overseas, but first I want to tell you the story of how I ended up there as a one-woman bureau for NPR. Which brings me to a title I considered for this speech: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post.
I know I just said my dream was being a foreign correspondent, but there is irrefutable evidence that an even earlier dream was covering politics for a place like The Post.
My old elementary school friend, Casie Blount, made a funny discovery last month while cleaning. She found our class memory book from fifth grade. In it, we were required to write something looking back on our elementary school experience as we prepared to graduate.
Here is what I wrote:
“Hi! My name is Elise Hu, and attending Babler [my elementary school] for the last three years was a lot of fun and they’re going to be memorable.
I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I enjoyed them all greatly.
I made many friends and I also lost some friends because they had to move. They will always have a place in my heart no matter if I despised them or they were my good friends.
My personal goals for the future are to graduate from Princeton and become a famous writer or write for the press or broadcast the news. My main goal though, is to bother politicians — especially Democrats — as a press member.
In conclusion, attending Babler Elementary will always have a place in my heart, and I will personally make sure I will make at least 5 politicians really mad.”
WOW RIGHT!? I was sort of an insane fifth grader! I did end up making more than five politicians mad. They were not uniformly Democrats. I cannot explain the fifth grade Republicanism thing. Who knows. Instead of Princeton, I went to Mizzou for journalism school, which is the only place I applied, because it’s not captured in a memory book but by 8th grade I settled on a university and stayed with it. I didn’t have it all worked out in elementary school, okay?!
Still, 25 years after writing that down, I’m doing more or less what I set out to do at age 11. But my path has not been as focused as that fact might suggest. I would describe my overall career arc as “a series of the next most interesting things to do that would make sense for my family.” And one place it has failed to take me is The Washington Post.
Alternate Title: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post
I’ve never talked about this before publicly, but I am now a three time failure at working at the Post. Obviously, fifth-grade Elise would probably jump at any opportunity to write for and be a part of that venerable institution. The POST! The Post of legend, the Post of lore, The Post of Ben Bradlee, and now of Marty Baron, who Liev Schreiber totally nailed in his depiction in the movie, Spotlight. But three times now, I had an opportunity and failed to wind up there.
I think the reasons why speak to an important lesson I have learned in my career, which is that the journey itself is far more fulfilling than any particular stop or destination in your careers. It also speaks to the considerations that women must often make in this industry.
The First Time
The first time I got approached to go to the Washington Post was in the spring of 2012. What was happening? I think Bon Iver was still super cool back then. The Republican primaries were going on and Ron Paul was making another big run for it. And I found out I was pregnant with my first child.
It was just weeks after I learned this that I was recruited for a pretty high profile job for the Post. I wasn’t comfortable disclosing my pregnancy status when I was only four months pregnant. During the interview process, I was scared I wouldn’t get the job offer if I said something. So I didn’t.
I DID get the offer but ended up turning it down, after all the handwringing I went through. I think I just put my own comfort first. I did tell my boss and mentor at NPR, Kinsey, and he was persuasive in getting me to stay. But mainly what happened there was for the first time, I faced a job versus family choice. I prioritized my fledgling family over the potential prestige of a new gig.
When that baby was born, I was in the comfort of an organization where I felt I had less to prove, with bosses who already knew and trusted me. I was able to ease back into my work without the pressure of being at a new place, having to prove myself, and start something new for them. I sometimes have FOMO about that decision and wonder whether it was the right thing. But it all fit, you know? And it was great for Baby Eva.
These are valuable experiences to collect along your journey.
And with these courtships with potential employers, something of value also comes out of the meetings alone. Because I interviewed there, I got to meet Marcus Brauchli, the editor at the time. We joked about karaoke, since he was a longtime Asia correspondent. He said his go to karaoke repertoire featured a lot of John Denver. We hit it off so well that we became good friends despite my not taking the job … and years later, when I was facing the choice about whether to move abroad, it was he who said, GO GO GO!
To this day, we have hung out on both sides of the Pacific Ocean — he and his wife even hosted a dinner for me and my friends when I was briefly back in Washington last year — and we always get together for drinks when we’re in each other’s towns. Embrace the journey, and you’ll collect not just new experiences, but new friends along the way.
The Second Time
The second time the Post came around, I was back at work after having the baby and ready for my next move. That time, the Post didn’t choose me! The lesson that time came in just accepting you’re not always the first pick, and to accept that gracefully.
The Latest Time
Then I moved abroad and spent my three years gallivanting around Asia, trying out new experiences and reporting on this whole nuclear crisis thing.
Just as I’m finalizing my arrangements with NPR to move me back to California, where I long felt I belonged, the Washington Post called again! And this time around, the job felt perfect for me, the freedom was wide, the creative opportunities vast. It was a job that perfectly married my work experience and skill set with what they needed. We had a love-in when I visited the Post. I wanted to do that job more than I’ve wanted to do any job since first leaving Texas to work at NPR.
And I didn’t do it. I backed out of that potential job because of my husband. Modern day philosopher Chris Rock recently did a standup special called Tamborine (tambourine purposely misspelled), in which part of it is just him working through his recent divorce. And he talks about how when you’re in a marriage you’re in a band, and sometimes it’s your turn being backup player in the band. So if you’re gonna play the tambourine, you have to really PLAY it, he said. “Play it like Tina Turner!”
It’s my turn to play the tambourine. You see, when we went to Korea, my husband Matty, who is also a journalist, had to quit his job at the Wall Street Journal. He became lead parent for three years. It was not an equitable sharing of responsibilities. He shuttled the girls to music class and doctor’s appointments and showed up at all the assemblies. He packed lunches every day and made sure they had the costumes they needed for various performances. He did the bath and bedtime routine every night during the 35 work trips I made to Japan, and all the other trips to the US and China and Laos and Malaysia and wherever else.
He showed up at his first PTA meeting for Eva’s school and the other mom’s — it’s all mom’s in the PTA there because Korea is pretty gendered — they learned he was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal in his previous life. “Oh you must take good notes, then,” the president said. And the board voted him in as secretary.
So when we moved to LA, where he could slide most easily into a job at the LA Times, he said, “I’m not moving again, especially not just after we landed. It’s kind of my TURN.” And that was that. I was for the THIRD time, an almost-employee at the Washington Post.
Toward the Future
But the truth is, I would not trade the career I’ve had or my family for anything. It all worked out. I didn’t end up at the Post, but I did end up in South Korea and I promised I’d share some of that experience with you.
While in Korea, I learned all kinds of things besides the actual Korean language, because the Korean language is friggin’ hard! Someone ran into my Korean teacher and asked about how I was coming along with the language and my teacher said, “Elise has a great family.”
Things I learned: I learned about the beauty of slurping noodles loudly — you think it’s rude here in America but it’s really part of the enjoyment of eating noodles in Korea and Japan. True story: Cup Noodle, the ramen noodle maker, actually makes shorter noodles for the US because people here in the states don’t like to slurp, and shorter noodles prevent slurping.
I learned how to loudly wake up cab drivers who FALL ASLEEP at the wheel. I learned a lot about skincare. Koreans have that gorgeous, dewy alabaster skin and it comes at a price! They are serious about their direct sun avoidance. This past summer, the municipal districts in Seoul spent taxpayer money putting up giant umbrellas at street corners to help citizens avoid direct sunlight while out and about. It’s not just about those famous 12-step skincare routines, it’s about strict sun avoidance.
I learned some things I wish I hadn’t, like, about living in a place that’s arguably much harder for women than even the US these days. South Korea’s women are codified in the constitution as equal to men, but they’re cast by society as feminine mother characters with very strict norms about appearance and behavior. For example, in South Korea, even if it’s 100 degrees out, it’s a big social no-no to bear your arms or shoulders. I always felt like such a subversive if I wore a tank top outside.
There are many things about my time abroad that I will miss, but I am glad to be back — and to tackle a new challenge.
I think a lot about the future naturally, so when I repatriated with NPR I made up a new beat for myself. I am now covering the future. Correspondent, THE FUTURE.
I’m just getting started, but one through line in my reporting so far is that while people can imagine really interesting and optimistic futures, they cannot see how we get from the bleakness of now or the near present … to the brighter futures they imagine. And things FEEL bleak as we get our torrent of news alerts each day.
A few things I do to combat the bleakness, even though believe me, it’s rough. I ate three packs of those frozen White Castle sliders on Monday. That’s not a tip, it’s just something I did. Anyway so to counter it. I look to heroes who can’t afford to go numb — mothers fighting to find their kids and be reunited at the border. The sexual assault victims who keep using their voices in spite of everything. The Parkland teens. Women journalists like you, who demand a voice at the table in your newsrooms but also in the larger national dialogue. Continue to be inspired by and supported by one another.
The poet Maggie Smith put it brilliantly: “The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.”
Children also offer me some semblance of hope and motivation these days. They don’t have to be your own … I keep looking to the newer generations, writ large, to save us from ourselves. My three year old daughter, Isa, was about to climb a ladder of a playground jungle gym thing a few Sundays ago. And a little boy her height came up and asked for his dad to help him. And she said to him, “I climbed it all by myself. Because I’m a girl and girls have strong muscles.” Let a commitment to the future shove you out the door in the morning.
Hey it’s working! All the “girls are strong” indoctrination works on the next generation! And it’s helped by the fact that it’s true.
And the stats on the next generations are more hopeful. People aged 18-34 overwhelmingly favor rights for LGBT and people of color, people born in America today ARE made up of a majority people of color. These generations want guaranteed health care, push for more income equality, care about climate change, and the list goes on. If we’re not going to affect change as journalists for these 75 year old white men who are still in charge of everything, or, in charge of everything again, we should bear in mind the millions who might be seeing and watching quietly but without power — the next generations.
Before I know it my daughters will be eleven, my age when I wrote about my dreams of being a journalist on dot matrix printer paper. The lesson now that I’m in my mid-thirties and have had many iterations of a career is this:
You’ll never work at the Washington Post.
It’s that you can have a general idea of where you’re going and still never have any idea what your next immediate step is, and that’s awesome. My career has wound up being semi-informed winging-it, the whole way through. I wanted to make at least five politicians mad, but was never specific or directed about where I would work or even what platform of media I’d be working in. I never set foot in Korea before I agreed to move there.
Instead, what I think is useful is to be guided by principles. My tests are: Will this opportunity help me learn and grow in the ways I want? What is the team like — will I be surrounded by people who will teach me? And is this next thing meaningful in some way, and do I have some efficacy over it?
Those are my principles, and you should make YOURS clear and use that as a framework for decisions going forward. It makes decision points easier, I think. Be guided by principles and you can’t take a wrong step, you’ll do what’s right for you and your own journey.
Finally, I’ll say this. I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I am making many new friends here at JAWS Camp; it’s a tremendous honor to be among you. You will always have a place in my heart, no matter if I despised you or you were my good friend.