George Saunders’ Heartwarming Email To His Students During This Anxious Time

The writer Cheryl Strayed has a new podcast with The New York Times, Sugar Calling. It debuted maybe a week ago, but who knows, because I can’t feel time anymore. Anyway, today I listened to an episode featuring her mentor, the prolific and talented writer George Saunders. His collection, Tenth of December, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I like to re-read his commencement speech, “Congratulations By The Way,” for a pick me up.

In the podcast episode, he shares a letter he wrote to his graduate students at Syracuse during this terrifying time. It felt so affirming and nourishing to hear it, just as I’ve been really hitting the wall with this kind of contained lifestyle. Here it is, but not in its entirety.

“Dear S.U. writers —

Geez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew.”

But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards. What new forms might you invent to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.

Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, ah, so this is happening now. Or hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth — did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker. And then I real quick tried to pretend I didn’t just call the universe a stinker.

I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity, non-change, that we get taken by surprise. And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.

Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice — at all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I’m doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on — no walk? Again?

But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger, and we tend to live our lives there on its back. We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger. Now and then, that tiger wakes up, and that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up when someone we love dies or someone breaks our heart or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always, there have been writers to observe it and later make some sort of sense of it — or at least bear witness to it.

It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting — warts and all.

All of this to say, there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever. “

Hear Saunders read the whole thing, and talk with Strayed, in the episode.

Livin’ That Multihyphenate Life

New gig, who dis?

Starting today I’ll be in available in your feeds every weekday, hosting the daily TED talk podcast, which is the fittingly-named TED Talks Daily. It’s one of America’s top 20 podcasts and downloaded a million times a day, all over the world. Not only do I love working with the good folks at TED already and love being able to host this from anywhere with an internet connection, I can’t wait to connect with the global TED community. From the TED announcement:

 TED Talks Daily, which is downloaded one million times per day, is one of the most downloaded shows, and not just in the US — it’s been featured in Apple Podcasts’ top ten charts in 130 countries around the world (more than any other podcast)…

TED Talks Daily has long been a favorite way for audiences to engage with TED Talks, so we’re looking forward to adding onto the format,” said Colin Helms, head of media at TED. “What listeners have come to know and love about TED Talks Daily will continue, but with Elise as our host, we can build a richer backdrop for our talks.”

Ever since moving here I’ve craved and sought LA’s multi-hyphenate, project-based way of life. (Which is to say, I wanted to be job promiscuous instead of contractually locked down to one single employer.) So in addition to my other hustles, my dear friend Rachel and I co-founded a media company, and brought on another rad mom friend, Meghan. Reasonable Volume (yes named after Milton’s riff in my fave film of all time, Office Space) is already off & running and making bespoke pods & projects, so let’s make something together.

It probably goes without saying that I left my full-time role at NPR but in true LA-style, I am staying “attached,” like they say in Hollywood, to NPR projects as a roving host at-large. Public media remains vital and maybe now more so than ever.

And with guidance from my smart, savvy agent/friend/life coach, Howard, I sold my book project, Flawless, examining K-beauty, gender & power to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This year I have to actually write it.

OK that’s the update. Change is hard but constant. I’m trying, like everyone else, to keep my head above water and stay open to all of it. My cadence these days is every other day or so I’m totally fine and find a lot of joy in my quotidian quarantine life, and every off day I’m in total despair and think of all the calamity and uncertainty nonstop. The only way through it is through it, but I hope that we can all stay connected and supportive to one another during this wild time to be alive, a wild time to be a human.

For the Love of Naanwich

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.

Holy naanwich, this means so much to me.

Bruises That Won’t Heeeeaaaal

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.

The older girls take a watercolor class via Facebook Live. God bless all the creatives who gave generously of themselves to teach via video.

In New York last week, my literary agent Howard and I kept playing Sia music, and I discovered an excellent Sia cover of the Radiohead classic, Paranoid Android. Since then I’ve been back to playing No Surprises on a loop.

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us

From Leah Finnegan:

“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.”

Life in Lockdown, The First Sunday

A dispatch from coronavirus social distancing, once in an indefinite series

Fortuitous that the family got me a kitten for my birthday because now I have a new lap buddy for all this time at home.

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.

New York in a Time of Coronavirus

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.

Less road traffic, and less foot traffic, than normal

Interchangeable Asian Party

For the past six or seven years, our colleagues have regularly confused me and fellow female Asian-American NPR reporter Ailsa for one another.

elise/ailsa. for whatever reason the difference is very tricky for many of our colleagues. Oh and the great sage/our pal Kumari is the best part of this photo, obvi.

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. 😉

Very low light on the patio but the point is our friends became friends and that brings me great joy

Everything’s Better with Bong

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.

Here it is, for the LA Times.

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.

January, As Seen From A Disposable Film Camera

Foggy morning on Chicago’s Navy Pier

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:

Selfie without a screen with Harper, in Chicago. Hilarious we somehow made the same facial expression even though we couldn’t see ourselves when snapping this.
Lunch with Friend Emily in Chicago
The other plus of this exercise is the cam creates great opportunities to joke about the olden days of the 1990s. Mr. Coates, who taught me high school social studies and is nine years older than me, “showed off” how he remembered how to turn on the flash on this camera device due to his advanced age.
View from my hotel room, SF
A stroll with friend Sarah in San Francisco
Impromptu birthday cake, San Francisco
The beach five minutes from my LA home — Playa del Rey
Luna makes a sand creation with some trash
Isa “drives”
Eva and her good gal pal, Lucy, at school dropoff

And ICYMI, the photos from when I did this last year.