Commonlaw Cousins

“Cousins” growing up fast.

We have been on so many squad vacations together, in so many places and across so many continents, that today when our family parted from The Wan-Yau’s of San Francisco, Isa said, “They’re not friends, they’re our cousins!”

COVID-19 kept our families from coming together at all in 2020, and Sarah had worried that maybe the kids wouldn’t gel quite like they always have, especially now that our oldest ones are nearly nine years old. (Eva and Jonah have been close friends since they met in Seoul at age 2.) But nope, they were as thick as thieves within a half an hour of arriving at El Capitan Canyon, a bougie campground in Santa Barbara. It has its own spa. Need I say more?

Sarah has been hard-core into camping and fishing for who knows how long, and the family is from Northern California so they fit my stereotype of being more granola than we gas guzzling, single-plastic-using Southern Californians. We always count on her husband, Joe, to do all the grilling and he did not disappoint. The best part of the nonstop weekend of eating was Sarah’s insistence on having instant ramen while camping, so we tried three different kinds of instant ramen, either for nighttime snacks by the fire, or for breakfast, with our second-day fire-grilled ribeye.

Yeah this post is mostly reminiscing about eating.

El Capitan Canyon at night.

Oh wait, I did play a lot of “GoodMinton.” The paddle says “The world’s easiest racquet game.” Verdict: Not that easy! Probably not the world’s easiest!

Goodminton

We did not spa but we did hike to the llama farm in the canyon, where almost everyone got to feed those furry beasts. We swam in the pool on the grounds, and made lots of fires, and the kids huddled around a single laptop for movie nights.

Eva spent the weekend contorting her body in weird shapes and trying to do a handstand without a wall. She and Jonah also did a lot of role playing and “scenes” that they directed as if they were filming movies. Jess taught Isa how to use the Rainbow Loom™ to make bracelets, and a bracelet young Jess made me will now be part of my TED conference fashion as I head to TED tonight, in Monterey. Luna, who was previously too small on the squad trips to be fully part of the kid clan, is now full on inserting herself and included in everything, especially finding sticks and other flammable items for the fire. Sarah could not stop telling us she brought four bowls of microwaveable Bibigo rice.

Due to my brief stint in the Girl Scouts and my general love of graham crackers, I took charge of the s’mores station each night and taught the kids how to wait for their marshmallows to achieve peak swollenness in order to yield optimal gooeyness when smashed down into the sweet sandwich. This was my greatest contribution. Otherwise, I just laid around a lot.

Smoosh

Rest In Power, Caesar

Striking a pose, 2012

Caesar Hu-Stiles, born July 2004 in South Carolina, died this morning in his sleep in Southern California. He was gentle giant with the loudest purr.

Caesar was my very first cat — I only had dogs growing up. He came to me as a soft, black kitten with soft medium-length hair and a long poof of a tail. My friend Myra had originally bought the kitten from a breeder and suspected he was weaned from his cat mom too early, so Myra fed him from a tiny bottle until he was old enough to join me. She named him Caesar because he behaved so imperiously — always quietly surveying the situation and benevolently lording over us like a wise old man, even though he was just a kitten back then.

My last photo with Caesar, a couple months ago.

I remember him playing inside cabinets when he was small, and taking languorous naps slumping his body over the corner of the beds, like a sloth.

He is the only cat I’ve ever known who always came when we called, like a dog does. He could be outside with his brother cats, as far away as down the block, but when I called him from the porch and he’d instantly come trotting home.

He spoke often with his distinctive meows, seeming to be in dialogue with us, and he could call us at a high volume when he needed attention.

He loved basking in the sunshine, lazy afternoons, and napping with other creatures, including the human babies that appeared over the years. When we held him, he liked us to drape his body over a shoulder — that brought on the loudest purrs. He never scratched, he never made messes, he never tried to run away despite having outdoor-indoor privileges. He was so accommodating and easy as a pet that I once forgot to trim his nails for so long that they wound up growing into his nail beds. It’s illustrative of our relationship, about which I feel so heart-broken today. I took Caesar, and that he’s always been at my side, for granted.

He was my constant companion. He lived 17 years, in two different countries, three US states and the District of Columbia, and on both American coasts.

Cat nap with Baby Isa, 2015

He put up with chaotic children and a series of my other cats, the beagle dog Saidee and a few other creatures we’d pet-sit, each who would compete for food and attention and love.

He loved me fiercely. One time he showed it by bringing me home a bird he killed while I was at work. When I came home he was splayed out on the living room floor behind the bird, like Kate Winslet ready for Leo to draw her. Stunned and recoiling, I had to have a friend rush over to remove the dead bird, but I understood the significance of the gesture.

With Saidee the Beagle, 2011

It guts me to have an animal by side for so long — through my entire adult life — and to lose him. There were three pets that had been with me from young adulthood into middle age — Saidee the beagle (died 2015), Cheese the cat (died 2017) and Caesar, who died this morning. Now there is no four-legged connection to those halcyon days of my youth. That trail has ended.

He died sometime overnight, at home and at peace. Yani, our indefatigable nanny and helper, slept on the couch to be near him and make sure he was comfortable since he had stopped eating and used all his strength to meow loudly to each of us on Tuesday, which I knew in my gut was a goodbye.

The girls examined his body before I drove his body to the vet for cremation.

“Look at his eyes,” I overheard daughter Eva, saying to her sister. “He was looking up at the sun one last time.” Eva has called on us to eat Caesar salad, Little Caesar’s Pizza and give a loud family meow together for dinner tomorrow, in his honor.

Rest in power, Emperor. Your quiet presence made every house we shared a home. Thank you for tolerating me. I miss you so much already.

When baby Eva came home, 2012.
At home in Korea, 2015. Photo by Haeryun Kang.

Goodbye Rubens Avenue

OK the pit is giant but this just fell off the tree in our backyard on Christmas morning 2019.

Our backyard is home to a guava tree, which gifted us with guava abundance the first fall we lived in LA. And it turns out we have an avocado tree, too, which delivered perfect avocados on Christmas morning last year. And at some point I learned we had two tall banana trees, which led to one of the funnier cultural misunderstandings between me and our Indonesian helper, Yani.

Yani is more than a “helper” — she cooks and cleans and also basically raised Isa and Luna, as she’s been living with us since moving to Seoul to join the family in the fall of 2015. She previously worked in Taiwan to care for my grandparents, so she’s been caring for two different generations of us.

She is from a rural village in East Java, and her family owns a lot of farmland where they grow fresh fruit and vegetables. When she saw the banana tree sprung ripe bananas last year, I found her outside in the backyard taking a kitchen knife to the base of the tree, as it were a machete. She was like, the bananas are ripe, time to hack down the tree!

I had to stop her and explain hey, uh, we don’t need to do that, we don’t need those bananas and this isn’t even our house, we’re renting! This baffled her, as she said it was the best way to get the bananas down.

I’ll miss those trees. I’ll miss toddler Luna walking up and down the streets and making herself at home in random neighbors’ yards, just lounging on their patio furniture or gardens while sometimes wearing nothing but a diaper. I’ll miss hooking on to the Ballona Creek bike path for a run or a ride by essentially just crossing the street. I’ll miss trying to chase Isa and Luna around on their scooters as they raced through the hood. I’ll miss how freely the cats got to roam inside and out. I’ll miss our next door neighbors, the Davidson’s, who we drove to the airport when they made a COVID19-prompted decision to move to DC earlier this summer. And our smart and sarcastic neighbors the Taylors, across the street, who also grew to be close friends.

We moved to the rental on Rubens from South Korea, so it’s my first California home. Now we are headed to a townhouse I closed on a couple weeks ago, three miles away, in Culver City. It’s conveniently located a block down from NPR and across the street from Luna’s ballet studio. I don’t know if it’s smart to buy during this crazy uncertain time, but the monthly payments on a house I own will be way cheaper than rent on the westside of LA, that’s for sure. Friend Skyler is decorating from afar, with a Pinterest board and lots of detailed links and digital drawings and text messages. My guidance for her was to decorate a nest that matched my personality — warm, but with whimsy. Or, “mid-century meets the Muppets.” Her wallpaper choice for the master bedroom went up today and it’s cute AF.

Wallpaper in my new nest, selected with love by my friend and pro bono decorator, Skyler Stewart.

Ever forward, ever forward.

Questions From The Preschooler Upon Learning of Kobe’s Death

The Kobe mural on Melrose.

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

In The End, It’s Up To The Mother

Ever since that time A Cup of Jo published the photo of me eating a cheeseburger while giving birth to Isa, I’ve been asked by folks about giving birth without pain meds.

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.

Bus vs Minivan

“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.

Swimming to America, A Love Story

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.

And I find myself thinking a lot about that young, skinny, desperate man these days, as refugees and immigrants have come under fire and accused of hating America.

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. 

The man knows a lot about how to live.

My dad, me and his rooftop garden at their Taipei home. (Not to be confused with his other garden, in California.)

Limericking in Ireland

A momma duck and her ducklings at Ross Castle.

Hello from an estate in Killarney, Ireland, on the island’s Eastern coast. Our family friends the Wan-Yau’s met up with us in Dublin as one of their stops during their epic monthlong traveling adventure around the world. Like us, they are repatriating after living in Asia for several years (Seoul then Singapore) and decided to travel as their furniture and belongings are shipped back to San Francisco.

This is our NINTH squad trip together since we met in 2015. Together our two families have traveled to Jeju Island, Cebu, Osaka, Okinawa, Sydney, Taipei, Bangkok, Danang/Hoi An and now, an Ireland road trip. Eva and their oldest, Jonah, met as toddlers in swim class and through those two we grownups became friends. Amazingly, Eva and Jonah are still super close and love spending time together. “I’m surprised they play together so well since they are both obviously Alphas,” Sarah remarked.

I’m going to try and remember each day with a limerick. Here’s yesterday’s (which was an epic travel day from LAX to DUB then caravaning to this lush farm in Ireland, where we are surrounded by rolling green hills, cows and sheep grazing, and clouds resting atop mountains in the distance. It is as green as you imagine.

Ten hours by plane, four by car
To Killarney we traveled far
The girls made a fuss,
Matt tried not to cuss,
Luna threw up, her forehead is marred.

And for today:

After jet leg and traveler’s rest
Yesterdays’s spirits we tried to best
In the town we explored a castle
The children were not too much hassle
Dined at home to avoid any stress.

I’ll try to keep going!

F

“I don’t say fuck at school!” Eva, 6, announced to the both of us. Then her sister Isa, 3, chimed in. “I don’t say fuck at school too!”

On the one hand, our profligate use of “fuck” is certainly picked up by the children. On the other, they seem to understand where it is and isn’t appropriate to be dropping f-bombs.