Hopefully this will be the only pandemic birthday. Seriously. But damn, I feel so overwhelmed by the birthday love.
I have made no secret of my despair and how excruciating I’ve found the past year to be. Knowing this, despite the distance, my dearest loved ones showed up in ways they could. My friends proved how well they know me by making sure my door didn’t stop ringing with food deliveries and found ways to socialize, within limits. Thank you for this haul:
An Olive Garden(!) gift certificate
A whale watching tour (where we saw two whales and HUNDREDS of dolphins when our boat came upon their pod)
A pineapple lychee boba from the San Gabriel Valley
Cupcakes and the best banana pudding, from Magnolia Bakery, delivered to my door
Two mini-cakes from my fave bakery, Angel Maid
A giant box of snacks, also delivered to the door
An outdoor, distanced get together hosted by Jenn and Drew
A second outdoor, distanced bday soiree hosted by Sam Sanders
A sushi dinner on my actual birthday, in Janet’s backyard
A giant strawberry cake from my daughters
A surprise Doordash delivery of seven(!) different boba teas and a shaved ice delivered straight to my door
A book about how to unleash my creativity using the tricks of advertising
Assorted cannabis gummies and chocolate
“Zhong Sauce,” which is apparently some amazing hot sauce you can put on anything
A “morning hangover cure” bottled beverage
To sum up: Enough sugar to plunge me straight into diabetes
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. 😉
The joke goes that for the New York Times to consider something a trend, all it takes is three instances. I don’t know how many times it takes to make a tradition but after Friend Matt dropped down to Costa Rica for one night for my 30th, and I went to Las Vegas for one night for his 29th, I suppose it became a fun trend/tradition/trendition(?) to skip town for a night for one of our birthdays. This time we’re all older, as Young Matt’s already 35.
Popping up to a SF party from LA was a snap compared to the time Eva was 10-weeks old and I’d leak milk if I wasn’t near enough to feed her but Friend Liz and I still spontaneously flew across the country for for the Vegas shindig. There was a moment at the club at 2am when I yelled over the music to Liz, “WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE OR ELSE I WILL HAVE TO PUMP IN THE BATHROOM OF TAO.”
Matt has collected an eclectic bunch of high-achieving friends in his 35 years. Being San Francisco, a lot of them work in fields like venture capital or tech or finance. A few of his friends are actors. So there’s a certain amount of posturing at these parties, but the posturing is more merry and less irritating than it is in DC. (If I never go to another book party where everyone I talk to is looking over my shoulder to find someone cooler to talk to, I will be just fine.)
For Friend Erin and me, the crowded soiree became an experiment in trying to learn interesting things about a string of strangers as quickly as possible because there were a lot of awesome people to squeeze in. An incomplete list of them, by the shorthand names we gave them:
The scuba-diving neuroscientist
The “lesbian” who’s actually not a lesbian
Something about robot waiters
(Not) Tom from MySpace
Lawyer who rode a horse that was on The Bachelor
97.9 percent back-in-the investment guy
Dude who runs a high tech circus: “It’s a micro-amusement park”
My high point was probably when we started talking to a guy with a British accent and I wasn’t sure if he was faking it, so I decided to fake a British accent in case he WAS trying to mess with me. This went on, an absurd conversation in a British accent, until he proved he was actually British and I had to give up. He was impressed I used the term “lorry” though.
Anyway. San Francisco is special because I got to squeeze in one-on-one time with people who have known me for 20+ years. Not one but BOTH high school besties — Erin and Wade — now work and live there with their respective husbands. So does my old Plano Senior High School golf teammate, Chris, who I later became closer with, in college. “I’m playing the best golf of my life these days,” he reports. “I could join the tour. I think it’s because I stopped giving a damn.”
Erin and I partying together again marked maybe the thousandth-or-so party we attended together since we first met in 9th grade. Being from Texas, those parties involved a lot Taco Cabana, Aaliyah music and dark fields with kegs in the backs of pickup trucks. And for some reason we saw Sister Hazel live three times in high school, even though they really only had that one hit song.
“Finally I figured out, but it took a long long tiiiiiime….”
My oldest daughter, Eva, turns five on Friday. We celebrated by inviting her entire class to the Vaunce Trampoline Park in Gangnam for bouncing and ball pits and food. They were running around like whirling dervishes and we parents scavenged for leftovers afterward because the kids didn’t eat any of the plates of ribs that were served, instead going for fried chicken, fries, pasta and pizza. (Silly kids, they didn’t realize the ribs were the best.)
My mom talks about how she still remembers the day I was born like it was yesterday, so I guess it’s completely normal to feel like no time has gone by since the day baby Eva and I cooperated to bring her into the world in 2012. Time is so elastic — it feels both near and far, depending on how you look at it.
I remember Eva nursing until she got “milk drunk” and her big head flopping back into my arm nook. I remember watching a presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney while doing laundry while Eva was just a few weeks old, and Obama seeming so unprepared that pundits flipped out, thinking he was going to lose the election. I remember taking baby Eva to Costco in a Moby wrap, which I only use when the newborns are less than four weeks old because it’s the only time those wraps are comfortable. I remember how confident she made me feel about motherhood because she was just a really easy baby.
Eva is a much more high maintenance kindergartner, now. She is a natural artist and creative with her imagination and play, she is loud and boisterous and constantly irritated by her sister, Isa, who really has a sly way of getting under Eva’s skin. She loves to explore Google maps, particularly the Street View feature, and, owing to a lot of travel, is really at home in hotels. When she plays make believe, we often have to make believe we are at the gate of an airport, going on a trip to Japan. Eva also loves meetings and a certain order to things, and my mom thinks this is because she’s a Virgo. She likes agendas and lists and checking items off on lists. It doesn’t matter if it’s a to-do list, a grocery list, ingredients for muffins, the girl loves lists.
Happiest of Birthdays to Eva. Just like that, she’s five years old.
While Isa isn’t Korean, she WAS born in Seoul last summer, so we followed Korean tradition and did a doljabi ceremony for her.
Under the tradition, the one-year old gets a “destiny table” of items to choose from that align with various professions — stethoscope, computer mouse, pencil, money, etc. She went for the microphone without hesitation. But then followed up with her second choice, a gavel.
Following American tradition, there was an incident with fire and cake, in which she straight up took her hand and grabbed the flame. Mistakes were made.
Isa is my second daughter and as many of you know, she’s a rainbow baby, born after two miscarriages in a row. She’s been a superpower sunshine since she was born — the smiliest, snuggliest and sweetest blessing. We love her goofy tendencies: putting her full face into everything she wants to investigate (like the cats) and sniff them violently like Mary Katherine Gallagher, her ravenous appetite but shockingly slow eating, her growl and her laugh (which is a combined laugh-growl), and her obsession with putting items around her neck — necklaces, purses, headphones. Mostly headphones. We love you, Isa. You truly rock.
There is no annual gathering that’s more special to me than the now-defunct “Three-Way Birthday” parties of my Austin years. For five years in my twenties, I celebrated my birthday with two other Texas politcal reporters who also were born on February 17th — my besties April Castro and John Moritz. We are the dancing-on-bartops together (April) and buy-homes-from-one-another (I bought John’s house) kind of close friends. Our friendship was born out of many inside jokes, lunches at the Texas Chili Parlor (which makes a CHEESEBURGER SALAD), drinks at the Stephen F. Austin hotel, and long nights at the Texas Capitol, staking out one politician or another, or listening to the endless chubbing of lawmakers stalling votes or adding amendments to amendments to the budget bill. And, of course, our annual birthday ritual fueled memories for always.
I suppose I moved away first, so maybe it’s all my fault, but now we are in three different countries. John remains in Austin, Texas, but I weirdly live in South Korea and April recently relocated to Canada. I think of them often, and miss them often, but never as much as I do on our birthday. (This just reminded me: One year, a Texas lawmaker who was ALSO born on February 17 did one of those honorary resolutions on the House floor to recognize us for our birthday, probably just because it was also his day, but anyway, it was pretty amusing.)
The 2008 party is memorable because it didn’t happen, and we can blame Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for that. We were political reporters, and Obama and Clinton were locked in such a tight battle at that point because Obama hoped to lock up the nomination in Texas/Ohio, that we were working nonstop. On the night of our party, Obama held a rally in downtown Austin in which something like 30,000 people showed up. We had to cancel the party at the last minute because we had to cover the rally.
Happiest of birthdays to my partners-in-mischief and fellow February 17thers. I miss you and treasure our shared birthday memories.
In the year since her last birthday, Eva has had to leave the only home she knew and move to the other side of the planet, start at three different schools, adapt to a foreign country, say goodbye to her nanny and become a big sister. She’s done it all with joy and pluck, and the giant smile that melts me every time.
My semi-annual trip to Miami for my side-hustle collided with my birthday weekend. Just like I like it, absurdity ensued.
I’m really fortunate to have a crew of brilliant and hilarious friends down in the 3-0-5, so Friend Chris organized a whole day/night featuring my favorite activities: beachtime, sunshine, pooltime, delicious cocktails, celebrity sightings, Justin, meat and cheese, Korean liquor, the 90’s and private karaoke. These are some things that happened:
Justin, my partner-in-crime, came down for the shenanigans and while we were catching up at Starbucks, Jesse Something, The Bachelor circa 2004, walked in. He’s still on TV as an ESPN commentator, and he paused at the sugar/cream station and kept looking at me as if he either knew me or was waiting for me to realize who he was, but it took me too long. Wah-wah. I didn’t get to invite him to my birthday party.
After getting drunk on the beach thanks to a pitcher of some refreshing vodka concoction, we decided to do some poolside time at Soho House even though the water was flooded with children. I looked left and BAM! Spotted Sofia Coppola reading a magazine just a few chairs down from us. I was too chicken to say anything to her, so Justin and I took weird surreptitious photos. Then we noticed her husband — the lead singer of Phoenix — and her daughters, playing in the water. We avoided taking sketchy photos of the kids.
Tim Elfrink (who just won a Polk Award, woot) lives in Miami, and our mutual Mizzou friend Nick was also in Florida escaping DC’s wintry gloom, so they joined in on festivities. We started at a divey pool bar with excellent cheesesteaks and $5 drinks.
We got some ridiculous Coors swag and posed with the beer girls. Then we had to drink some free Coors Light.
Tucked away in our private-karaoke room by midnight, these are some of the selections performed by the group to celebrate the 1990’s, my halcyon days of youth:
“Birdhouse in your Soul” They Might Be Giants
“Spiderwebs” No Doubt
“Always be my Baby” Mariah Carey
“The Sign” Ace of Base
“Livin’ La Vida Loca” Ricky Martin
“Man in the Mirror” Michael Jackson
“Callin’ Baton Rouge” Garth Brooks
“Too Close” Next
“Mmmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” Crash Test Dummies
“Thong Song” Cisco
Despite four attempts by different people, the song system was unable to choose R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” which is infinitely superior to what kept coming up — just plain ol’ “Ignition.”
Karaoke participants — on four separate occasions — chose R. Kelly’s “Ignition,” which is an inferior song that is most definitely not the catchy, viral “Ignition Remix” of 2003. Then I came home and discovered Jimmy Fallon had sang it for us.
While squished on our leather karaoke room couch for 12, pal Michael and I went through two and a half bottles of soju on our own. I think Justin enjoyed his own bottle on the other side of our karaoke coffee table. He nursed a hangover for two days, since we started drinking some kind of refreshing vodka stuff around 3pm that afternoon.
There is something involving 3am sandwiches at some famous place on South Beach, but I don’t remember it clearly except that Justin awoke the next morning with two of those sandwiches in bed with him.
On the actual night of the birthday, Michael Maness took me out to a smokey dive bar where he got to control the jukebox. Yes, there was David Allan Coe. And yes, we did stop to eat 1am Cuban sandwiches on the street. Happy birthday, indeed.
Blogger and actress Elizabeth Banks just did a fun post looking back on her birthdays in years past. She encouraged her readers to do the same. It’s perfect timing for me to participate, as the second anniversary of my 29th birthday is in a couple weeks.
My Best Birthday Ever was only a year ago…
It involved being in Costa Rica, with 11 amazing people, sharing two idyllic vacation villas, grilling our own food, making fresh guac and eating under the stars, being newly knocked up with the-fetus-that-would-become-Eva, and getting surprised on the actual birth day when the pals all showed up wearing bastardized Costa Rican flag t-shirts with my face on them. (The shirt did lead to a minor snafu at the airport with Costa Rican officials, but we all eventually made it home.)
My Worst Birthday Ever was in sixth grade, when I turned 12.
It started out awesome, with my dad surprising me in the morning with a “dirt cake.” He dumped ice cream into a flower pot and topped it with a layer of oreo cookie crumbles and gummy worms. But that night, when I hosted a little scavenger hunt at the mall, my friends Samantha and Kelly decided to shoplift some rings from JC Penney and got detained by mall security, then slipped out of the questioning room when no one was watching and disappeared. This led to a few frantic hours in which two 6th graders were missing in suburban St. Louis. Birthday FAIL.
My Most Absurd Birthday Ever was when I turned 21.
It involved going to a Ja Rule concert in the basketball stadium at Mizzou. Enough said.
The guys from HBO’s Entourage would often just drop into Vegas for an evening, so when Friend Matt said to come on out for his birthday weekend, I called Friend Liz, she said “I love this” and on Saturday, we hopped on a flight.
Knowing we would meet many folks for the first time, I joked on our flight out that I wanted to be called “Kenneth.” It cracks me up when people are named one thing but then go by something totally random.
So during introductions, I said, “I’m Elise. But you can call me Kenneth.” Our new pal, Owen, got the joke right away and made up some name he, too, would go by. The gals next to us also seemed to catch on, laughing gamely. It was amusing for about two minutes before the conversation shifted and the ol’ Kenneth gag was history.
To communicate with his dozen friends in the desert, Matt used a group texting service in which the sender’s name precedes his or her message. I participated in the texting, as did the others, through 24 hours of eating and drinking and dancing and confetti and brunch.
When it was time to head home, we shared a cab to the airport with a gal who sat next to us at dinner the night before. We were discussing the group text system and this is what followed:
Her: Who’s Elise Hu? She seemed pretty talkative on the texting but I can’t remember who that was. She must have been quiet in person.
Me: I’m Elise.
Her: But I thought you were Kenneth.