I FOUND MY WHITE WHALE. So, five years ago I went to the Costco in Seoul’s Yangjae neighborhood and bought a bulk box of frozen “Naanwich,” which are little sandwiches made with naan and stuffed with chicken tikka masala. I was pregnant with Isa at the time and following my discovery, I ate two or three of these things a day. Then, the next time I went to Costco — and every other time since — THEY WERE GONE. Poof. It was as if they never existed.
I have been searching for Naanwich at Costco for five years. Today, when I braved the non-Costco grocery store to stock up on (mystifyingly) $400 worth of groceries (I guess I really do have a lot of mouths to feed), the shelves were picked over, as is the case during these pandemic times. However. When things are ransacked, they reveal. And on a frozen food shelf near the end of the aisle with employees make every shopper queue up in one single file, appropriately-spaced line, I found ONE SINGLE BOX OF … NAANWICH.
2020 has devastated me and will likely be one of the hardest years for all of us, ever. But it also makes stark the simple joys of reunions. This year not only did I reunite with my high school economics teacher, Mr. Coates, who had a singular influence on me, but I FOUND NAANWICH, my white whale.
If you’re not still in shock, you’re probably grieving the way things used to be. Life as we knew it melted away so fast we didn’t even get to say goodbye. My four-year-old asked me permission to touch her face today — she had an itch. My next door neighbor, who managed a high-end Venice restaurant called The Tasting Kitchen, has already lost his job and filed for unemployment. I am settling into a new normal of “working” while “teaching” homeschool. I taped an hourlong special that will air on NPR airwaves later this month from under a baby blanket in our guest room closet.
“We are all now in this boat: people whose daily lives have been obliterated, normalcy and joy replaced with fear and sadness. We will likely get a little sick. We will definitely know someone who gets sick, if we don’t already. Some people will get sicker. Others will die. Children will lose their mothers. And we have no choice but to witness it; we will spend the next few months being suspicious of the air we breathe, anticipating certain pain. We had the nicest plans, but.
If you want you can call this time period The Saddening, kind of like The Troubles. I might do that, treacle be damned, because it’s sad, what is happening, how we are trapped in it, how there’s nothing we can do to get out. So I’m just gonna be sad for a while. It will pass eventually and, when it does, everything will look a lot different.”
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.
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.”