Hug A Tree, Or, Everything Is Always Changing

Photographer Nate Anderson shoots the remains of a burned out Eastern Joshua Tree in the Mojave National Preserve.

I learned Ruth Bader Ginsburg died while I was standing outside LAX, just back from my first flight since March 12 and waiting for the annoying LAX-it shuttle to the Uber lot. A friend simply texted, “RBG. Fuck” before I received a series of similar texts with just the single word.

A conversation with conservationist Brendan Cummings.

This gutting news came at the end of a four day trip to the Mojave Desert for VICE, where we drove past mountains on fire to see the burn scar of an August wildfire that killed tens of thousands of trees in the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.

Team Vice among the dead trees. L to R: Curtis Mansfield, Sam Rosenthal, Nate Anderson, me, Sarah Svoboda

Climate change was in the haze and the heat. Climate change was under our feet, in the scorched earth on which we stood. Reporting this devastation — and efforts to do something about it — is crucial and I’m pleased we got to get the exclusive footage up there in the Mojave National Preserve. I’ll share this visual, heart-breaking story on Monday. Behind-the-scenes, it meant briefly returning to BC — Before COVID, when I took long road trips or hopped on planes all the time for these intense reporting trips.

First flight since pre-quarantine

Everything is changed. Driving out to Joshua Tree, the sound guy and I avoided stopping anywhere. Hotels don’t do cleaning service because COVID. Everyone is fortified with their masks and clear plastic shields. We wore masks in all the interviews, even though they took place outside, because of the optics and for the extra protection.

Flying for the last leg of the reporting made me feel anxious and suspicious. I was scared to sneeze. In the Sacramento airport on my way home (from the one interview we flew into town for), only one restaurant in the food court remained open — the vegetarian one, natch.

But we also found joy and serendipity on this trip. As a VICE team, we ate and drank together outside by the pool after long days, sunburned from the desert and pricked by burrs at our ankles. Producer Sarah got a chance to see her sister, brother-in-law and toddler niece for the first time since Christmas when we did a drive by their balcony in Sacramento. My friend Rachel and her new baby, Simone, are also staying in Sac during COVID and the ladies drove out to our interview location so I could sneak a moment with Baby Simone. My little brother, Roger, had come to LA to help care for the girls while I was away, and we siblings were able to reunite for the first time since December at LAX for a mere moment, as he was headed home to Dallas and I had just landed from Sacramento.

When Roger and I reunited at LAX for two minutes before he took off. We snapped a photo for Mom and Dad

After I got home and got the girls down, David Greene, one of my most reliable drinking buddies and closest friends from NPR West, gathered a few of the regular friend squad for a night out of drinking and revelry like the old times. Only, we were always outside and we hugged with masks on and with our faces turned as far away from one another as possible. We used to go drinking together at least weekly, and we hadn’t since March. Finally we were all together again which felt restorative after a nonstop reporting trip and given the news, a tough, tough day.

I got home just before midnight and the earth shook. At first I thought, oh, maybe I’m drunker than I thought but nope, nope, it was an earthquake. Magnitude 4.8, and no damage or injuries here, but a reminder the ground beneath us is always changing.

2016 Year In Review: What Just Happened Here?

In July, with my fixer Akane, in the Japanese Alps reporting on a traditional naked festival.

Ah, 2016. A year so seemingly bad that it became its own internet meme. Not only was the soul-sucking U.S. presidential election rather horrifying, but artistic icons kept dying — Bowie, Prince, now George Michael. Mix in another hottest year on record, Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis, rising nativism all over the world, nuclear tests by North Korea and it’s easy to get a girl down, you know?

In the micro sense, my 2016 was a tornado of travel and jet lag but rather charmed and full of surprises, like the new baby in my belly. (WHAT!? Still processing, but running out of time for it to sink in.) It was a year for much Japan exploration, and full of friends and weekend getaways all over the place — Cebu, Bangkok, Okinawa, New York, London, Seattle and more.

Notable Firsts: The G7 summit, airport transportation by high-speed boat, flight with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, police-escorted motorcade through Beijing, aka, experiencing Beijing without its infamous traffic, gong bath (it is a thing), Go tournament, hosting an NPR show, getting a compliment from the president, kabuki show, naked man festival. (Some details below.)

Recurring Theme: Jet lag. Naps. Longing for booze and not being able to drink it.

Favorite Selfie: My brother Roger Hu goofing off with daughter Eva (and a magnifying glass) when we were all in Taipei for the Lunar New Year.

New Person: A new Hu was born on December 1, after 48 hours of labor. My little brother Roger is now a dad, to baby boy Ethan Hu. Another E-Hu in the family makes me so proud. I can’t wait to meet him.

Eva and Uncle Roger’s giant nose

Regrets: I didn’t call my friends who I don’t meet up with in random cities. Going to make a more concerted effort in 2017.

Randomness: Pineapple Park, y’all. Hostile environment training. Dairy Queen in Laos.

Notable New Friend: CNN International’s Saima Moshin, who I technically met in 2015. But we really solidified our friendship this year, and I’m better for it.

New countries: Philippines, Thailand, Laos

And in no particular order…
Asked the Deputy US Secretary of State about North Korea’s hangover free booze
Watched traditional kabuki performed by children up in the mountains
Attended first Japanese naked man festival, featuring not men but boys (yikes)
Got attacked by a raccoon, who then STOLE my mic
Slept through Taiwan’s big February earthquake, had to do a bunch of TV to talk about it
Learned enough cab Korean to get around
Gave Isabel a Korean first birthday party
Ran out of passport pages
Went back and forth to Japan 11 times
Went to Hawaii for work … twice
Thought a lot about smog
Watched artificial intelligence beat a 9-time world champ at Go
Covered the President’s historic (and moving) visit to Hiroshima
Passed up a chance to live in Shanghai
(Went back-and-forth for awhile before making a decision)
Guest hosted Weekend Edition
Interviewed Omarosa
Had soooo many karaoke (or in Korea, norebang) nights
Played The Sunday Puzzle with NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz
Somehow got knocked up again, hrmmm
Learned how to tie a tourniquet really quickly, and to make one
Achieved objective of reading a lot more books than last year
Asked President B-H-O about North Korea on his final Asia trip
Got a presidential compliment: “Those are good questions”
Finally saw Sir Ian McKellen IN THE FLESH
Learned how to make a pig face out of a rice ball
Drove on left side of road and right side of car for the first time, didn’t die
Witnessed Obama and Shinzo Abe’s quiet tribute to Pearl Harbor victims at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Free from nursing by July (but pregnant again in August), logged 128,367 miles in the air (resulting in jet lag for many days of 2016), going to nine countries and spending 145 days away from home. I need a nap. Bye.

Previous Years in Review:
2015201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

How An Earthquake Got Me Out of A Conference Call

Waiting around after our building evacuation.

Here I was, going into the 51st minute of a conference call about charter schools, when I started feeling a tremor beneath me. At first I thought it was just some effect of the footlong chili cheese dog from lunch, but when the slight tremor turned into a steadier rocking, I looked over at my colleague Ken, who was so panicked that he slammed down his receiver and took off. “Don’t use the elevator,” he said, as he rushed out the door. I took the time to say goodbye to my conference call-mates, find my cell phone and camera, and then went down stairs.

Outside, we were a hapless group of journos standing in the middle of downtown DC, awaiting instructions on what to do next and trying to stand close enough to the building to stay connected to wifi. I found All Things Considered host Robert Siegel reading his Blackberry and learning we were indeed in an earthquake, it measured 5.8 on the Richter scale and centered in Mineral, Virginia, which was about 100 miles southwest of us. And it was he and the rest of the ATC staff that was let back in the building first, since they had an earthquake to consider in time for the broadcast.

ATC Host Robert Siegel was also evacuated.

This fairly-significant quake reminded me of the “best” quake memory I have. It was Easter 2002, and I was with mom in a department store in downtown Taipei, awaiting a dance performance from the Chinese hip-hop boy band I was living with at the time. But all of a sudden there was a rumble, and we were all rushed out into the streets. My journal from that time:

“on Sunday, minutes before Ed and Kenny were going to dance at FNAC (an electroncis store), an earthquake struck, and weeny Kenny blew out of the building….well, everyone else did too, i guess, but anyway, the point is i never got to watch the boys perform. oh well, i guess i get the privilege of seeing them do headstands and funky stretches around the house all the time.”

The whole roommate crew plus my mom found one another near National Taiwan University later that day, and ate a bunch of mango shaved ice. It was awesome. So today, after the earthquake, I immediately craved ice, which, like other great Asian food, can’t be found in DC’s Chinatown.