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.

Ten*

February 2006. Five moves, four cats, three children, two home continents and one beagle ago. I’m brimming with gratitude for having you to grow up with, Matty.

“Love is something ideal, marrying is something real, and no one ever confuses the ideal with the real without being punished for it.”

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, c. 1823

Today is our tenth wedding anniversary. And we’re in our sixteenth year of love and friendship. In reflecting on this milestone, I’ll start with a moment of misery and move to some lessons learned.

Around two children into my marriage, I called my mom from a Tokyo hotel room, devastated by some marital dispute. I said something like, “I don’t know how long I can do this,” about my relationship. I continued: “Humans live so LONG nowadays!” My mom, who celebrated her 40th anniversary with my dad last year, chuckled and said she totally got it. Her idea is that modern marriage contracts shouldn’t be ’til death do us part. Rather, she wished they were more three or five-year contracts, like my then-employment contract at NPR. In those, you can re-up at the end of the three-year terms, or you can opt not to and both sides walk away without shame. It’s the norm. It’s also a built-in check-in. At renegotiation time, we say, “How are we doing? What could be better? What is the value of this to us?” All USEFUL in a relationship! Instead, in marriage we have a whole “I promise you forever” thing that’s lofty, high pressure and impossible to predict. If you walk away, does the whole relationship have to be considered a failure? It obscures what was likely a solid, satisfying partnership for various periods. Which gets me to my first takeaway…

To me, the day-to-day work is ultimately a better signifier of love than a ceremony. I cannot imagine my life without my husband. I cannot. But the promise you make in front of friends and family on your wedding day is at best a hopeful aspiration, and just one day in an endless run of days in which you choose to be present in the relationship. I have to get up each day and decide whether I still choose this, choose my partner, and so does he. A day can come when he or I decide to NOT choose the other. Ultimately, I’ve learned there was no epic sweep to promising ourselves to one another ten years ago, inside a 16th century room that’s part of an Amsterdam museum. In actuality, our partnership has represented a series of daily recommitments. In that sense, my mom makes so much sense. For a sustaining partnership, we don’t NEED the ceremony of a wedding or a traditional marriage vow at all! Why NOT short-term contracts?

Your partner can enhance you, or he/she can diminish you. Choose well. Matty didn’t think twice about giving up his career for three years to support mine, a choice that women make for men regularly but is less common the other way around. I didn’t expect anything less from him, because our partnership is about sharpening the other from similar  positions of power. (He also agreed to take my last name while we were dating, because, even if it’s just symbolic, down with the patriarchy!)

Marriage is a contract individualized to the people in it. Matty has always acknowledged we aren’t each other’s everything. I feel most seen in the understanding that we won’t fulfill one another’s every need, and he has long given me the space for meaningful connections with people who aren’t him. The moral here is what you decide about your relationship is between the two of you. But intimacy requires bringing your full, open hearts in speaking up and designing your marriage to your unique specs.

Forgive. I love this, from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings:

“In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.”

Older but wiser.

I’m filled with appreciation and love. Especially because part of this post has been “maybe we’ll be together forever, maybe we won’t,” I want to underline how deeply love and appreciate my husband. If Matty and I don’t stay together “forever,” I will still never transition from my roaring twenties to my semi-responsible thirties with anyone else. I will never lock eyes with another man while pushing out a baby of ours in a delivery room. And there’s something beautiful about the moments unique to life stages, all the ones that forever bond us to each other — a shared history that can be shared with no one else. Our most daring choice to be together happens each day. Who knows about tomorrow.

“To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being—what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.”

—Ada Calhoun

*Incidentally it is also an excellent Pearl Jam album, though that’s neither here nor there.

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.

Life And Love And Journalism, Remarks To The Journalism and Women Symposium

There it is. Mount Hood! Photo: Erica Yoon

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.


Speaking some words. Photo courtesy Journalism and Women Symposium, by Erica Yoon

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.

My entry in our fifth grade memory books.

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.

Kidding.

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.