2020 Year in Review: Brave New World

“It felt vaguely like being forced to live in a building splintered by a wrecking ball before the rebuilding had begun. Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed — with a harsh, unrelenting clarity — what had already been lost.”

—Leslie Jamison

Into the unknown. L to R: Eva, Luna, me, Isa

This year forced us to our knees. Like so many others, I found myself disoriented and trapped inside, falling to my emotional nadir. We lost Kobe Bryant. John Lewis. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And some 300,000 Americans to the plague. We yearned for the days when the rule of law was a given. America as we know it came apart at the seams. Even our best efforts to bridge differences won’t work by themselves, they require that the digital platforms shattering reality in the name of “consumer choice” will have to dramatically change or be regulated into doing so.

I experienced COVID year primarily as a loss of innocence — the year I finally, finally had to grow up. At one point this summer, we were under stay-at-home orders (for rioting) in the midst of stay-at-home orders (for coronavirus). Did we ever think we’d miss each other like this, that we’d yearn for the joy of company and coincidence, serendipity and surprise, the magic of sharing poorly ventilated spaces with strangers? Grief, loss and identity shift defined 2020, both in the universal sense, and in a personal one.

Despite a year of radical change, I write this post feeling privileged and contented. The threat of the virus took away so much — loved ones, freedom, hugs, travel, an entire way of life I took for granted. But it gave, too. A return to nature. A stillness in which, egad, we could be alone with our thoughts. Time for introspection! And for me, a real deepening of my relationships. Because there were no longer the “friends” you just run into at a drop-off, or at conferences, you had to be intentional about how you spent your time and who you reached out to check-in on. I was more deliberate with my friendships than ever, and I felt that intention among the loved ones who supported me. 

I’m also fortunate to be surrounded (more than ever, since they aren’t in school) by my loud, vibrant, healthy kids who remind us how adaptable humanity is at its essence. To borrow from Des’ree’s anthem from my millennial coming-of-age, we gotta be a little bit badder, a little bit bolder, a little bit wiser, harder, tougher. 

Culture That Got Me Through 2020: Bong Joon Ho (just his entire energy), PEN15, Run, I May Destroy You, Younger, BTS’ “Dynamite,” Palm Springs, Dave Grohl’s epic drum battle with a 10 year old he met on social media, the series ending of Bojack Horseman, this TikTok about Mitch McConnell 

Moments of Unadulterated Joy: This gas station in LA, the day the networks finally called the election for Joe Biden. These kids, experiencing the drum solo in “In the Air Tonight”

MVP New Friends: Jenn and Drew, who are the parents of my daughter Eva’s good friend Leif. They were rocks as we made Sunday pool time a regular thing to get through this hell year. Sarah Svoboda, who is my producer at VICE, became one of my closest girlfriends overnight. Rob, with whom I’d split giant breakfast burritos after five mile runs. I am now simultaneously fatter and in better cardiovascular shape.

Big Ideas: The fallacy of emphasizing individual responsibility over systemic fixes. We’re in a care crisis that connects to everything else in our society — the economy, gender, education, politics. The nuclear family ideal is not workable on its own. Neoliberalism failed.

MVP Snack: Brown sugar boba popsicles saved my 2020. I became an accidental boba pop influencer! My only other influencing was for the Saved by the Bell pop-up in West Hollywood, which was a special treat.

Firsts: Book deal. Hosting an hour-long nationwide radio special. Global pandemic. Shelter in place order. Wearing a mask every day. Not leaving the country all year. TV work for VICE. Homeschooling my children. Social distancing. Going a year without being with my parents.

The Energy To Bring To All Things: It’s what I call the Michaela Coel energy, after reading this landmark profile of the singular artist who brought us Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. We say this, from here on out: ‘This is what I need. Are you good enough to give it to me?’ Not ‘Am I good enough to deserve the kind of treatment that I want?’ 

Fave selfie. Celebrating Luna’s 3rd birthday, at home.

Regrets: Never did learn how to play the ukulele. Barely made progress on my book, which was supposed to be mostly done by now, in a parallel universe. My relationships felt very COVID-blocked, to different degrees.

My Gamechanger: Jungian depth psychology with a dream analyst. This is the most woo-woo I’ve ever sounded, I realize. But after dipping in and out of traditional, more conventional cognitive behavioral therapy for most my adult life, Friend Jenn told me about her dream analyst and I started seeing him over Zoom and I have never had a clearer and deeper understanding of my inner life. I feel more whole and more grounded in an organizing philosophy for meaning than, well, ever. I credit it with keeping me contented through the crucible that was 2020.

One of the year’s proudest achievements, squatting for around 15 minutes straight to conduct an interview with a man experiencing homelessness.

Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:

Wrote letters to more than 50 strangers, got the most moving responses
Got to know all the parks around here
Ran 301 miles
Held a squat for 15 minutes while conducting an interview
Watched 252 TED talks
Gained five to eight lbs, depending on the day
Never once got to hug my mom or dad 
Signed my first book deal
Went to so many Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom milestones and Zoom conferences that I never tracked it
Helped link doctors so they could share COVID lessons in its earliest days
Started hosting TED Talks Daily
Didn’t go to TED (the conference, because the plague canceled it)
Started working as a freelance correspondent for VICE News Tonight
Signed with my broadcast agent in January, who negotiated a lucrative deal by December
Co-created and hosted Labor, an indie podcast about why motherhood’s messed up  
Meditated more than ever before
Drew my first zine
Got a new cat, Abe
Did not get COVID19, at least not yet
Volunteered every Tuesday in the summer, delivering meals to neighbors in need
Got to know the homeless community in Venice
Went drinking with my high school economics teacher, Mr. Coates, 20 years after being his student. He re-explained the Laffer Curve to me at a punk bar in Chicago!
Reconnected with Matt Weiner
Read 39 books, a far cry from the 52 books of previous years
Moved into a new town home
Got a sandwich named after me — The Elise Hu, which is, shockingly, vegetarian
Flew 24,469 miles to 10 cities, never once left the country and spent only 29 days away from home — all of it, before March 13.

Previous Years in Review

2019 | 2018 | 2017 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010|2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

Halloween Sushi

Still not as good as the Silence of the Lambs year.

This year, because I’ve previously dressed up Eva as my favorite food (hot dog), our family theme was my favorite cuisine. The girls were tuna nigiri, a California roll, a smaller soy sauce. Spouse wore a shirt that said, “No sushi, no life” and a headband that says, “Fighting,” because I thought it was funny, okay?

This is my 14th Halloween with Matty. We had just started dating before Halloween 2004 and for a costume party, we did an Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum get up in those classic red Adidas tracksuits. Took second place in the contest, as we were beat out by whoever dressed up as “Swing States” that year. (Back when there actually WERE swing states. THAT’s how long we’ve been together!)

One of the funniest running jokes of those early years was Friend Sudeep always too cheap to get a costume and he’d wrap himself in toilet paper to dress up as a mummy.

Poking Fun At My Brother Never Gets Old

I found a photo of Roger when he was 15 and I was 17 and promptly texted him about it.

As y’all know, there are few things that delight me more than teasing my little brother, who at 33 years old and 6’2″ is not that little. I was at my parents house last week, where there are so many great pictures from yesteryear, like this Hu family shot from 2000, when Roger was clearly going through some stuff, as he admits.

Goodbye To My Grandma Rock

(A Chinese translation of this is available below the English.)

My grandmother died early this morning, aged 94. She was so strong and full of grit that part of me believed she would never die.

When my mom called to tell me, she didn’t say grandma died, she said, “Grandma left.” As if grandma went out on an errand. But I knew what she meant.

My mother is 61 years old and a grandmother herself, four times over. But she said to me, her voice breaking, “It’s unimaginable navigating this world without a mother.”

Grandma lived in Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t really get to know her until I was a teenager and we traveled back and forth more often. My mom’s relationship with her mom is so deep that I remember sometime around first grade, feeling really envious of grandma. Who was this woman my mom loved so much? By the time I was old enough to understand, I only wanted to spend more time with Grandma Rock, the ultimate survivor. The kind of survivor that made me believe she’d never die.

Grandma’s surname is Shih, which literally translates to rock. And it’s fitting. She’s the oldest of six siblings, a well-known educator and later in life, one of Taiwan’s earliest female politicians.

She’s also two-times a war refugee — surviving the most devastating conflicts in recent Chinese history. When the Japanese invaded “Manchuria” in the Sino-Japanese War during WWII, she and her family were forced out of their home in Northeast China and migrated to central China. Decades later she had to flee again, many of her siblings in tow, during the brutal Chinese Civil War, when Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. She wound up in Taiwan until her death this morning.

She didn’t merely live. Grandma sucked the marrow out of life until the very end. She first worked as a teacher, but quickly became a principal and headmaster of the most elite women’s high schools in Taiwan. She was a working mom who never seemed to have any of our modern American angst about it. She had my aunt Linda, uncle Steve and her youngest, my momma, while also molding generations of young Taiwanese women at the schools she led. Those women have gone on to become artists and scientists and politicians and the brightest stars of Taiwan’s society. I remember visits to Taiwan and going out to eat with grandma in different cities. More often than not, we’d run into a former student who would recognize her and come by to say hello and thank you.

They recalled her being strict and exacting. I recall her being tough but warm, and how she found so many things delightful and humorous. She laughed with her whole body. One time when I was 12, we were in the backseat of a cab that was taking too long to get some place, and my externally sober grandma decided to show me her stupid human tricks to pass the time. Let’s just say she’s crazy flexible. She also showed me that you can do more than just roll your tongue in half — you can fold it three ways, like a flower. So now I too, can do this, if you ever want to see. (Apparently the ability to do this is genetic, so I guess grandma expected I’d be able to follow suit.)

While she expected excellence out of everyone, she reserved the toughest standards for herself. I have never seen her flub anything, especially when she spoke. When she came to my wedding in Amsterdam, she was 87 and still the sharpest one in the room. She spoke at the ceremony and at the reception in her native Mandarin Chinese. My friend Drew said afterward, “I couldn’t understand a word she said, but when Grandma speaks, we all know to shut up and listen!” She commanded the room like no one I’ve ever seen and probably will never see again.

The other thing I remember vividly about Grandma is her emphasis on (social and civic responsibility). She talked about it all the time. “Why’d you have three kids when you were so busy in your career?” .” “Hey, why’d you retire so late?” “.”

After she retired from her education career in Taichung — her final posting as principal was at a top all-girl’s high school there — my grandma continued breaking glass ceilings and served as one of the only women representatives to her political party’s national congress. “Why’d you get involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when you could have just enjoyed yourself?” “.”

By the time she died, she was the matriarch of a huge extended family. She was a mother of three, grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to five. (Thanks to her side of the family, I have about 70 cousins and second cousins and we all kinda know each other.)

Despite her age, it was unexpected when I got the news of her passing because she had just come out of a scary gall bladder surgery a month ago and was doing really well. I video-chatted with her last week and she was looking and sounding great. She spent all day yesterday playing mahjong, which she has enjoyed in her final years, after she stopped all the international travel, yoga practice and ballroom dancing of her seventies and eighties.

My newborn Luna was going to meet her great-grandma Rock on Monday — we’ve had tickets to Taipei for weeks. We missed her by mere days. But grandma went in peace, at her home, and with my mom by her side. She knew the love of family, which is what she wished for us, especially after her own siblings were split up during China’s external and internal wars. She spoke about it often. So I’ll end this with what grandma said in her own words, from a speech she gave the family at a reunion in 2009:

“During China’s political turmoil our family was separated in an effort to flee to safety. Consequently, my siblings and I grew up during a very trying time where everyone was forced to fend for themselves. We lost contact with one another. Our biggest regret was not being able to enjoy the blessings of family warmth and sibling love.

Since we endured childhood loneliness without family, it is our wish that the future generations will see the value and enjoy the blessings of one another’s love and support. It is our hope the ties of our family love will be our legacy that is passed on to all future generations.”

With grandma and mom after I got hitched in Amsterdam, in 2010. She was 87!

You can read this in Chinese, after the jump.

Continue reading “Goodbye To My Grandma Rock”

Harper’s Bazaar Junior

That time we were in Harper’s Bazaar.

To be honest, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Harper’s Bazaar Junior, and I have some real reservations about haute couture for kids (because it’s really for the adults, isn’t it?). Anyway a writer reached out to me after finding me on Instagram and asked for some recommendations of places we like to take the kids to eat and play, in Seoul. Here’s my contribution, which features my go-to “Chicken Cauldron Place,” which as it turns out, has a real name.

 

Dinner Songs

Just as it was in my own childhood, we make a point to sit down together for dinner as a family every night when I’m not traveling. (This family gathering happens at around 5:30pm, which means I often have first dinner and second dinner, because I eat again when I go out with friends.) Anyway, it’s been pretty funny lately because Eva gets impatient with listening to her dad and I blather on about things like American politics. So we started taking turns telling each other about what we did each day which ensures Eva gets a prominent role.

Eva loves her turn to talk about her day, and she’s added some flair to it. Sometimes she says, “First, I will start with a song” and proceed to sing an entire song before going through her day chronologically and fielding our questions about it. Last night, when it was Matty’s turn, he goes, “First, I will begin with a song.”

On Meaningful Time

Happy 2017. Let’s start the year by talking about something that matters — meaningful time with the people we love.

Over Christmas 2015 — so, about a year ago — I was in Washington and saddled up at a bar in Bloomingdale with Chris Sopher, one of my favorite millennials (it is a running joke to make fun of him for his millennialness). Around that time, Friend Dave had sent me this post about how little time left we have with our loved ones, notably, our parents.

I was feeling quite weepy about it and started bringing it up all the time (as I do when I obsess on a certain topic. Current obsession: nuclear annihilation). Here’s the key graf and art:

“Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.

When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear …

The author is 34. Red is the amount of time he estimates he’s already spent with his parents.

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”

I was melancholy about this back then because I am one of those adults who doesn’t feel like she has grown up and therefore is over-reliant on my parents. I talk to them several times a week but even more so when I am cranky or have a cold or am homesick or really, any slew of reasons. I am terrified about losing them and brought up the above visualization with Chris. His response?

This is “problematic,” because it implies every unit of time you spend with a loved one has equal weight, when it’s not true. Frankly, you might be having a lot more meaningful moments with your parents now that you are older and more appreciative of them. So even though the BULK of your time (in quantity) with them is already spent, there’s still plenty of time for quality time, which is suffused with more meaning. Chris and I revisited this topic this week in a chat:

Christopher:  My current thinking on that would be that it’s also about perspective. I think I have much more productive and fulfilling interactions with my parents now than I did a few years ago. And I just refuse to go through life with angst about what I am missing or running out of. Better to be intentional about spending it with quality people doing things you love.

Me: Do you think being cognizant of the limited nature of time helps you with that intentionality though?

Christopher: Absolutely. I wonder what i would do if i was immortal and knew it.

Me: I wonder what the default age we all THINK we are living until. I would say, probably our expectation is we will live past retirement.

Christopher: Yeah.

Me: And we operate in that mode.

Christopher: We might not though.

Me: I’m constantly feeling like I don’t make enough use of my days though. Like, I am pretty lazy. Also, what is ‘quality’ time with ones parents? I don’t get into deep philosophical conversations with my dad, for instance. But i still consider us close.

Christopher: I think that’s a good question. I feel it is about self definition. I also think your family is what you want it to be. Many people have tough issues with biological family. i don’t see any obligation people have to that unless they choose that.

Me:  You mentioned you’ve been spending more quality time with your parents lately than before. What does that mean to you?

Christopher: What I mean is that I think we are both more aware of why we enjoy spending time with each other, and when we spend time with each other, it brings us more joy because we understand each other better than we used to. And I’m an adult, where as 10 years ago i was still figuring out what I was about.

Me: Anyway I felt much better last Christmas when you rebutted that post. But I also feel unsure about ‘quality time’ and what that means

Christopher: You have to define that for yourself, I think. I’m not sure I know either. If I sit around and watch a movie with my parents, does that count?

Me: Not sure! I think we know AFTER. Like, I remember our time at the bar talking about this [very topic], and our relationships and other things, as being meaningful. (Me and you, not me and my parents.)

Christopher:Right.

Me: So that’s an example of knowing in retrospect that time together had meaning to us.

Christopher:But you didn’t set out to ‘have an interaction with meaning’ at the time. You just set out to have drinks.

Me: Hahaha. Do you want me to do my google invites like that going forward?

Christopher:  Yes.

Me: “Invite: Interaction with meaning time with Elise,” Yes/No/Maybe/Propose New Time

Christopher: Yes.

Thanksgiving 2013

I’m always thankful for family, and mine is particularly badass partly because it’s huge and includes a lot of foodies and eaters. So Thanksgiving with my extended family in Maryland always involves a lot of serious eating but it’s really more like a giant face-stuffing scrum than it is a “lunch” or a “dinner.” Part of the reason is because we have about 30 family members plus kids involved each year, so we don’t sit around one giant table, and we eat in phases starting at the lunch hour but powering on through til dinner. It generally includes our hyper-physical four-year-old cousin Luc beating and wailing on Stiles for a good chunk of time, and Cousin Clarence reliably brings Turducken — the Louisiana favorite involving a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. (Note: My cousins the Ho brothers enjoy some cult fame in a tiny corner of the Star Wars and kung fu choreography-loving internet for their 2002 fight video, Art of the Saber. True story.)

Our meat selections felt endless — Suk, my cousin’s wife Diem’s sister’s husband — got himself a smoker and making brisket has become a new hobby of his. So on top of two fried turkeys, the Turducken, a ham and endless sides, we had two choices of brisket — spicy and sweet. Our pals Audrey and Patrick have spent so much time flying back and forth to family this year that they stayed in town for Turkey Day, so they joined us at the Maryland festival of meat, armed with Audrey’s signature brussel sprout salad, which disappeared quickly. Gobble, gobble.

audrey brought her specialty from her texas momma's recipe — brussel sprout salad.
Audrey brought her specialty from her Texas momma’s recipe — brussel sprout salad.

the turducken (foreground) and one of our turkeys.
The turducken (foreground) and one of our turkeys.

cousin cary goofing off with toddler eva.
Cousin Cary goofing off with toddler Eva.

part of our feast included a counter of asian food — chinese, vietnamese and korean to represent all the asian types in our family. so eva dutifully ate from chopsticks.
Part of our feast included a counter of Asian food — Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean to represent all the Asian types in our family. So Eva dutifully ate from chopsticks.

one side of the kitchen was just for sides.
One side of the kitchen was just for sides.

with the newlywed texas pals patrick and audrey, who we brought along.
With the newlywed Texas pals Patrick and Audrey, who we brought along.

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The Lactation Station (And Other Nursing Adventures)

this is how eva and i spend a lot of our time together.
This is how Eva and I spend a lot of our time together.

Someday when I am old, I will look back on these days of new mommahood, when at least four times during the workday I find myself in a windowless 3’x5′ room, on the other side of the wall from our national security correspondents, attached reluctantly to an electric breast pump while overhearing conversations about the ramifications of unilateral disarmament.

To be clear, I think nursing is awesome. I truly enjoy providing both physical and emotional sustenance for Baby E in one loving act. It’s really no sweat, either, since Eva is my only baby. My Chinese great-grandmother nursed seven (7) babies in total, earning her the respect of many generations and lasting evidence of her hard work — mom tells me my great-grannie could actually fling her drooping boobs over her shoulders. Impressive on many levels, that lady.

But the difference between nursing a baby and pumping milk for a baby is like the difference between visiting Venice and going to the Olive Garden. Pumping is tedious and soulless and in my case, always really awkward when I emerge from the lactation station and make eye contact with the national security guys who surely overheard my pump as they were discussing war and Syria and what not.

I am glad I had a daughter, because maybe one day she will have a baby of her own, and she, too, can experience the wonder and the weirdness that is motherhood.