When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.
Spoke with Vox’s Liz Plank about the boxes women in my region are forced to fit into and the consequences and questions that flow from that. Thanks Liz and producers, for having me on!
The military term for a long stint elsewhere is TDY, which the armed forces like to joke stands for “Temporary Duty Yonder.” I’m not even sure what it really stands for, TBH. There I go with the acronyms again!
I went to Washington for most of November, coming off a blistering week-and-a-half reporting in advance of — and during —President Trump’s epic trip to Asia. (Nothing substantive was really achieved for the US but he commanded a lot of attention and resources in the region.) Thankfully, our afternoon program, All Things Considered, sent me a producer for the Asia trip — Becky — and we reported at a breakneck pace while sneaking in delicious meals. From the Tokyo leg, I came to Seoul for one day with Trump and covered a bunch of right-wing Koreans who welcomed him, then grabbed my baby and a suitcase and got on a plane to Washington. Then, Becky and I had to re-live Wednesday, November 8 due to the time difference. The first Wednesday November 8 was already exhausting; you can imagine having to do it again, but in Washington. I ended my second Wednesday November 8th with my former editor, Uri, at the “sad Hilton Garden Inn” bar, which is really, really sad. But I enjoy the kitsch of it.
I have spent too much time writing about the sad Hilton Garden Inn bar.
During said time in America, this what I remember: I interviewed the surgeon general, the former FCC Chairman, the head of Canada’s only HIV/AIDS treatment hospital, David Brooks, EJ Dionne, NPR’s East Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton three separate times about the fall of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik about more sexual harassment trouble at NPR, author Megan Hunter about her dystopian novella, comedian Hari Kondabolu about what’s wrong with The Simpson’s character Apu, my friend Megan Garber about why women don’t speak up about sexual harassment, wrote and put into the world longer-length pieces about the meaning of statues in the ongoing Korea-Japan conflict and the decline of the golf industry in Japan, and narrated as my cohost Ari put leftover Thanksgiving stuffing into a waffle iron.
I ate dinner and drank cocktails with so many old friends because I tried to do a different dinner reunion each night. This made for meaningful conversations and catchups and meetings of new family members (babies and children, natch).
CNN also flew me up to New York one Sunday morning to do Fareed Zakaria’s show from the actual set, which was fun because I missed my Council on Foreign Relations orientation and I got to apologize to the CFR president about it in person (he was fine so long as I paid my dues) and before I went home Friend Kat came to meet up for about 20 minutes before I trained it back to DC.
There was other stuff, too, but this blog is full of contemporaneous (and therefore incomplete) accounts.
Notes of extreme gratitude go to:
- Sudeep and Hun. My friend Hun gathered up baby things so that Luna would have a car seat and bouncer and Bumbo seat and pack n’ play while she was with me during TDY. Then she dropped off said stuff at Sudeep’s, who then pre-furnished my AirBnB with the baby items so that they were there and waiting for us when we arrived. How amazing are these people!?
- Marcus, who, upon learning I’d be coming to town, decided to host a dinner at his home for me and my friends. WHAT?! His house is decked out in fabulous modern Chinese art from his stints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and every piece had an incredible story. His wife Maggie made paella in those glorious cast-iron skillets that are actually meant-for-paella, and the dinner included my work spouse for life, Matt, singing us some numbers from his New York Times-themed musical that is in the works. (I am not joking.) This night was really fantastic.
- David, who was in Seoul with me with the President and invited me over to Thanksgiving at his house when he found out I’d be without my family this year. Luna, her helper Yani and I joined in and it ended up being just like the Thanksgivings in my own Asian-American family: loud, lots of code-switching, food and taking pictures of food.
- Robert Siegel, Kelly McEvers, Ari Shapiro and the whole staff at All Things Considered, which let me guest host on their program during some of the hardest weeks to be at NPR headquarters, because there’s sexual harassment stories hitting our own workplace in a widely public way. The co-hosts were exceedingly patient with me not knowing my ass from my elbow or a “line” from a “nipper”, which are shorthand terms for things that hosts say on the air. What a huge privilege to get to say “It’s All Things Considered from NPR News, I’m Elise Hu” for several days in a row. I will never, ever forget it.
Since it was in the flight path of a North Korean intermediate range ballistic missile, the lovely, lush Japanese island of Hokkaido was my day trip destination last week. That’s where I met up with Japanese-Canadian fixer Shizuka Andersen and rushed off through the countryside to yet-another-Japanese-town that felt a bit post-apocalyptic because it was originally built for a much larger population than lives there now.
Shizuka doesn’t drive, leaving me to fumble my way through driving on the left side of the road again (which means I kept turning the wipers on and off when I wanted to signal) and at one point drove at least two kilometers on the wrong side of the road before realizing I was driving straight into oncoming traffic and sharing a freak-out screeching car-veering moment with Shizuka. I also flew into and out of Hokkaido in one day, so thank God we went to Lawson’s (a Japanese convenience store) at the airport and stocked up on my go to konbini snacks: the egg salad sandwich, salmon onigiri, Jagariko and a lighly sweetened iced tea.
As we were driving the 90 minutes through fields of postcard-pretty green farms and their multi-colored barns, we scarfed down “lunch” in order to make it to Maple Tree Elementary School (student body: 60) in time for a missile attack drill! So bucolic out there for a war time anachronism, but such is life these days in Northeast Asia. Reported that story in lickety split so we had time to turn around and get back to the airport, and it was only when I went to fill up the gas tank before returning the rental car that I realized I spent the day with pesky onigiri rice stuck to my shirt. I guess no one noticed.
Next time I am definitely spending enough time in Hokkaido to AT LEAST try the onsen that’s inside the airport.
At any Shinto shrine you can get various omamori — lucky charms or talismans to provide protection and good luck. There is the generic one for “victory,” which is reliable, but also for very specific wishes, like a new job, or “traffic safety” or “beauty of legs and skin.” Since I am on my final Tokyo reporting trip before baby, I went to Meijijingu (shrine) specifically for the “speedy and safe delivery” charm for #3, but then saw the one “for soundness of mind and body of child” and thought, well I should get that covered, too. So now baby has both. And I’m out $20.
Japan and Korea have famously rocky ties dating to the various times in history Japan has tried to conquer Korea and the whole actually-colonizing-Korea bit in the early part of the 20th century. Imperial Japan did cruel things, like take tens of thousands of young, poor Korean girls into sexual slavery to serve at “comfort stations” during wartime. (I have detailed the UN report on this on my work blog.) The issue isn’t over. In fact, because Korea has continued to allow statue tributes to the comfort women despite a verbal agreement with Japan in December 2015 to resolve the issue “for good,” Japan is not pleased and pulled its ambassador to Seoul and its consul general in Busan.
That’s where a diplomatic row intersected with my Friday night plans. A few of the Seoul-based international bureau chiefs had been invited to dinner at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, high atop a gorgeous mountain near Seoul’s city center. It has an immaculate Japanese garden, from what I’d been told. When I was in Tokyo earlier in the week, the thought they might cancel the dinner crossed my mind. But no! Dinner was on. We went ahead and ate at the ambassador’s house without the host, the ambassador.
Part of the reason we were able to enjoy ourselves anyway was because the ambassador’s chef, who was brought in from Japan exclusively for him and his events, was NOT recalled to Tokyo. He was around to make us a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) dinner, which includes an appetizer, soup, sashimi, simmered dish, grilled dish, tempura dish, shokuji and dessert. Everyone agreed this place serves the best Japanese food you can get in Seoul, and Japanese is my ultimate favorite cuisine so it did not disappoint.
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.
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.
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
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.
Hello! We are just back from Okinawa, where we went on our FIFTH, count ’em, FIFTH, squad vacation with the Wan-Yau’s of San Francisco (but currently, Singapore). Eva and their son, Jonah, are the same age and met in swimming class when the Wan-Yau’s lived in Seoul in 2015. We first went on an eight-person adventure to the weirdest place ever, Jeju Island, last summer. Since then, we added trips to Osaka, Cebu, Bangkok and now, Okinawa. Now that we travel so much together we don’t really like to travel without them. And since we spent Thanksgiving with the Wan-Yau’s in Seoul last year, it was fitting to have thanksgiving dinner together again.
Okinawa is a great getaway from Korea for a long weekend. The weather is divine, the people are easygoing, the scenery is always beautiful. For family vacations, the attractions offer just the kind of ridiculousness I enjoy. Like PINEAPPLE PARK, a theme park tribute to pineapples. I cannot describe the LSD-trippiness of it very well except to say that there are “pineapple cars” with a pineapple theme song playing over and over again, and in the pineapple snacks store you can sample every kind of pineapple-made concoction ever made and fill up on the samples, so I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t love that.
Okinawa also boasts of impressive marine life, and one of the world’s best aquariums. So we loaded into our party bus, a Nissan rental van that could seat eight, and I drove the squad about 80 minutes north to see WHALE SHARKS.
Speaking of driving, this was the first time I drove “the British/Japanese way,” on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. Those aren’t the only things that are backwards. The signaling is on the right side of the steering wheel instead of the left, which means every time I wanted to “signal” I was just turning the wipers on and off. This was actually the hardest thing to get used to. By the time I mastered it, it was time to come home.
What is the future of journalism? Pick any adjective out of the dictionary and that word can describe it. The news business is in such a revolutionary time that filling in “The Future of Journalism is ____” with any word, and supporting the argument, has become a parlor game among a certain mass media-obsessed set.
Today I found myself on another future of journalism panel, and a Japanese journalist shared the observation that his paper’s business plan is “old people living longer.” Luckily, he says, Japan is an aging society and “old people love the printed paper,” so their business model rests on those eyeballs. The only times people call to cancel their subscriptions is when a subscriber has a.) died, or b.) lost enough eyesight that the print is too difficult to read.
Banking on old people to stick around as long as possible (in relatively good health) is kind of Japan’s nationwide policy, come to think of it.
I just returned from a five-day trip to Japan that felt like it lasted two weeks. Part of the reason is how much of Japan’s main island we had to traverse to cover the president, who was making his final trip to the Asian country as president. He concluded it with an unprecedented visit to nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima.
You know how when you arrive at an airport there are signs for “Taxi” or “Rental Car”? At the Nagoya airport, there are signs just like that, except for “High Speed Boat.” That was the first leg of my journey to get to Ise-Shima, the twin cities hosting this year’s G7 summit. I boated it 45 minutes to Tsu before catching a bus to Ise, which was another 70 minutes away.
That was just the beginning of several days inside various transportation-craft, the best of which were the chartered planes for the traveling White House press. They featured KFC chicken fingers as we awaited clearance for take-off and everyone in first class. Instead of numbered seats, you get a seating chart, by news organization.
I like doing these POTUS trips because I get to reunite with some of my old Washington pals, like David Nakamura, who travels with the president a lot for his gig at the Washington Post, and I always meet new friends, too. This time the CNN International crew that adopted me was led by their Hong Kong-based editor and correspondent, Andrew Stevens. When the G7 leaders visited the heart of Shinto-ism, the Ise Shrine, the press didn’t get to go. So we waited til the leaders left and made our way there to check it out.
Not long after this photo was taken, we wandered a street in front of the shrine’s entrance and found a craft beer stand. Not unlike a lemonade stand, but with beer and fried oysters on sticks. Divine.
The trip got increasingly more intense as the end of it neared, because the final day was the weightiest of the president’s Asia journey: He visited nuclear ground zero, Hiroshima, and became the first U.S. president to do so. It was emotional being there, especially when the two survivors that would shake hands and hug the president were rolled in their wheelchairs right past me as I rushed to get out to the camera locations to catch the wreath laying. I knew immediately they were the survivors from their ages — nonagenarians — and from the contentment on their faces. One of them had clear evidence of burns on his skin. I later read he had been burned head to toe in the bombing.
Anyway, it’s difficult to cover those sorts of events because of the bigness of what’s happening before your eyes and the lack of time to reflect upon what you’re bearing witness to, and what had happened there in that spot where we stood, where now there’s manicured lawns and children and French bulldogs playing. 71 years ago, it was a wasteland.