That trip to Birmingham was one of my last trips out of town, though none of us knew it at the time. The interviews, with everyday folks from various walks of life, and researchers and neuroscientists, taught me a lot about contact theory and the psychological and sociological importance of coming into contact with those who you consider quite different from you. It also taught me about cycles of “high conflict” and the only way to step back from the brink — embracing complexity. The interview with journalist Amanda Ripley, in this special, is most illuminating and I’m privileged and proud to have been a part of it.
Today my friend David, who co-hosts the program Morning Edition and podcast Up First, announced he was leaving NPR after 16 years. I’m so excited he is joining the ranks of the revenue promiscuous, like me. And his news gives me a reason to give him a much-deserved shout out not just for being a tremendous, curious and thoughtful journalist who I learn from constantly, but a most loyal friend. David is the kind of friend I want to be to others.
But for David, I might have not wound up at NPR West from my posting abroad. As I said on Twitter, he’s a co-conspirator and cheerleader, encouraging me to push for a West coast post, when it was extremely rare for an NPR international correspondent to return to the states and wind up anywhere besides the DC headquarters. David made the NPR West office, and life in Venice, sound so idyllic and collegial. And he was right.
The man doesn’t sleep. He works from midnight until 8am and due to a bicoastal marriage and a relentless wanderlust, he travels every week. But he always makes time for his friends, consistently taking charge on planning drinking get togethers and having people over (his wife Rose is a well-known restaurateur so they know how to host) and just checking in and being supportive, always.
I grew up with Mister Rogers and PBS in general. PBS played an outsized role in my childhood because my mother didn’t speak English with me at home, so a lot of my early understanding of the world came from what I saw on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers Neighborhood. When I was in elementary school, our family went to Pittsburgh and got a tour of the studio where they make the show. We got to see the puppets from the land of make believe and I was star struck. I think Mr. Rogers was my first celebrity crush, and always in my heart. When he died in the early aughts, I grieved. And since then, I have kept a book of his quotes and wisdom with me wherever I live, so other people can read him when they come over.
Last week while guest hosting It’s Been a Minute, I spoke with Carvell Wallace, the host of Finding Fred, a podcast that deep dives into Mister Rogers’ life and lessons and legacy.
Our conversation brought me to tears. This is the part of the transcript that hit me hard, though, it’s best heard rather than read. The Mr. Rogers conversation is in the middle of the show — it follows the “three words” A segment.
WALLACE: So he was really swimming upstream in almost every sense. And I think people – because we have unhealed children that live in us that we’re not seeing and that are not loved, I think we’re still looking for a child’s solution to being an adult. So perhaps what he might tell us is that – and he said this – this is something that he said in the last thing he ever did in television, which was a PSA after 9/11:
ROGERS (archived recording): I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us. And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.
WALLACE: And he talked about two very important concepts. One is the idea that – it’s a Jewish concept – tikkun olam, which means to be repairers of the world.
ROGERS (archived): I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.
WALLACE: And the second concept that he talked about is that he spoke to adults. And he said, I’m so proud of you and who you’ve become.
ROGERS: It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.
WALLACE: And so even there, he’s saying to people, you are free from the burden to have to prove yourself. And so with that out of the way, perhaps you can focus on repairing the world.
GAAAHHH it hit me so hard in the feels when we played the tape of Mr. Rogers in the interview, and then again when I listened to the mixed version for edit/review, I started bawling all over again.
We had the wind at our backs in early August, when my scrappy team of video producers convened to shoot this Future You episode on memory. It just came out this morning…
Things changed by the time we flew home.
The night after my head was stimulated with tiny bursts of electricity (for the video), I awoke in a sleep lab to find out that our photographer and friend, Kara, had been laid off over the phone while getting her gear ready, in the parking lot. My other lead producer, Beck, got a call with the same news while she was with her parents, on vacation.
Their layoffs were part of a handful that included the cancelation of my series when the run is finished, the end of original video out of the news department, and executed at the direction of our new news chief. We got no rationale except that she’s “prioritizing other things.”
Suffice to say, I’d been blessed that nothing like that has ever happened in my professional life. This felt even worse and more harsh because of the way it went down, mid-stride on a Tuesday morning during a difficult shoot.
Kara didn’t even have time to properly process before we went straight back into finish the final interview of the shoot. She was so, so professional and demonstrated the kind of grace under pressure that I can only strive for. Because Kara moved onto her next job before getting to finish the edit, our New York-based colleague Nickolai finished the edit so that we could put it out today. Big thanks to everyone involved for not losing heart and seeing it through.
As for me, I’m not sure what’s next. The end of original news video also means the end of my role, though we haven’t finalized how that is going to look. Change is a constant, I certainly know well enough not to resist it.
I’ve been all over California this month — work trips to San Francisco and San Diego, shooting the video series and hosting It’s Been a Minute episodes from both places, and made it to Palm Springs for the first time for spring break with the family.
The new series has a name, Future You with Elise Hu, and we’ve been heads down on getting the first two episodes ready for an early May release. We also need to get ahead of ourselves in filming them, so this week a crew from DC came out to work with me on Venice Beach, and then we all went to San Francisco together for a harried schedule of more interviewing and filming.
Lots of bright sides: The DC ladies got to thaw out (because apparently it’s still cold out East), and I got to have my collaborators with me in person, instead of over the video chats we do all the time.
What else do I have to say about April? I potty trained Luna using the Potty Training Boot Camp method (two days, it’s amazing). She turned two years old, so I REALLY have no more babies.
I went to San Diego for a few days to speak at a member station gala and do other assorted speaking activities.
For the older girls’ spring break, we took everyone to the desert (everything went smoothly until one of Eva’s friend’s, Brandon, accidentally ate walnuts to which he is allergic and wound up in the hospital).
Also I’m spending an inordinate amount of time training on vertical jump, so I’m ready for the NFL combine. Hehe. Actually it’s for episode three. It will all make sense later.
Chance encounters are the best. I get more than my fair share of good ones.
I am happy to report they are now engaged, bc I randomly met them last night when I wound up on their bar trivia team. And our team, which we named, "Alexa, Sue the National Enquirer" CAME IN FIRST, winning $50 off our bar tab pic.twitter.com/o2QXNSjkLa
Yesterday, I had just flown back from a conference/retreat in Sonoma when I got a random message from my high school friend Bryan, who I hadn’t seen since 2001.
Bryan introduced me to blogging nearly 20 years ago by setting up my LiveJournal as part of building elisehu.com for me. (That site got even fancier when Friend Justin added Flash!) Besides websites, our times spent together consisted a lot of Cici’s Pizza (all you can eat for only … 2.99).
So, the reason Bryan reached out is because his Tuesday night bar trivia team only had three other members who could make it, so he took a gamble in asking me to go (not knowing if I could even be helpful at a trivia challenge … little did he know I EFFING LOVE BAR TRIVIA).
Upon joining the team, which we named “Alexa, Sue The National Enquirer,” I met Kat and Kevin.* How did Kat and Kevin meet? Good question. It turns out they met through a matchmaker, and their first date was recorded in full on, wait for it, NPR for a Morning Edition piece that aired a year ago. NPR? Hey that’s where I work!
I am happy to report they are now engaged. And our trivia team CRUSHED IT, coming in first place, winning fifty dollars off our bar tab. But perhaps we should have slacked a little because the prize for second place was a copy of the book, “Conflict Resolutions for Couples.”
*Kevin really showed his chops on a question about the common name for the medical condition ‘circadian dysrhythmia.’ Answer: jet lag.
“We’re just trying to get it done. You’re exhausted all the time. When people are like, ‘Are you going to be so sad when it’s over?,’ You’re like, ‘All I can concentrate on right now is the glass of wine that’s going to happen in about eight hours.’” –Matthew Rhys
What is it like in the maelstrom of the most unpredictable and chaotic global stories as it intersects with the most unpredictable and chaotic American presidencies? It’s what you expect: Sometimes thrilling, frequently exhausting, feels important. Last month, throngs of us covered history — the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders — and President Trump subsequently declared world peace. So I think my work out here is done.
Okay, so North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the same as it was before, and maybe even expanding. But after three-plus years on the peninsula, it IS time to go home — we repatriate to the US this weekend.
After flying west to wind up in East Asia, which became the titular blog and sendoff song (song still holds up), now I’ll fly east to the West coast, specifically Los Angeles — a place full of Asians! LA boasts the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, so this soft re-entry point means my next pore-vacuuming facial will only be a short drive away.
Broadly the plan is to develop a new beat, continue to host my video adventures and fill-in host our radio programs from DC or Culver City (we have some deal to say Culver City and not LA). Ideally I want to guinea pig expressions of NPR on non-radio platforms — live events, smart speakers, you know, whatever we can experiment with, without breaking.
And A Partridge In A Pear Tree
Not twelve hours after I landed in Seoul to open NPR’s first ever Korea/Japan bureau in 2015, the US Ambassador to South Korea was knifed in the face by a North Korean sympathizer. My internet wasn’t even set up, so I started by filing spots by phone.
The pace never slowed down. Over these past three years, I birthed the bureau, two humans and our video series Elise Tries, a labor of love and experimentation. All the while, North Korea news was relentless.
Outside the Koreas, I shuttled back-and-forth to Japan 35 times, filed from nine Asian countries, one US territory and twice from Hawaii. Covered three presidential trips to Asia, the G7, the aforementioned Olympics, a few ASEANs, the now-defunct S&ED in Beijing, followed the 17-week candlelight revolution which brought down the South Korean president, the changeover to a liberal Korean leader, the ups-and-downs of Japan’s Prime Minister and peeled back a host of social issues and curiosities. The curiouser of the curiosities became grist for our bootstrapped Elise Tries vids, which somehow got seven million Facebook views in its first season and just won a Gracie Award.
The youngest, Luna, is walking and talking now, but her infanthood’s memorialized forever. Isa came here in my belly and now stands on street corners hailing her own cabs. Our oldest, Eva, arrived here as a goofy two-year-old and will leave a month shy of her sixth birthday — literate, and missing her bottom front teeth.
Eva somehow got into a badass Mandarin immersion kindergarten in Venice, and being fluent in a second language is something I’ve wanted to give her since she was born.
With Special Thanks…
Expat life is the kind of free-form existence that suits my Aquarian tendencies. And it’s a rare privilege these days to get to work overseas with the support of a large, well-funded news organization. But in addition to being a itinerant foreign correspondent, I’m also a partner and mom, and my spouse is ready to move on. A fairly woke feminist, he left his full time journalism job to join me on this adventure abroad. Women do this for men all the time, so neither he nor I think he deserves applause, but in the context of East Asia’s highly-gendered societies, Matty becoming a trailing spouse and the lead parent was radical. He — and our all around helper/housekeeper/nanny Yani — are the heroes of this Asia stint.
At Matty’s first PTA meeting at Eva’s international preschool, the PTA president learned he’d just left his job as a Wall Street Journal reporter.
“She said, oh, you’re a reporter, you can probably take good notes,” he recalled. And that is how he became PTA secretary for the 2016-2017 school year. He downgraded to room parent the next year, because while still lead-parenting, he filed prolifically for the Los Angeles Times.
We both covered the summit spectacle to end all summit spectacles, in Singapore. The whole fam had to go because news rules our lives. We came full circle from last August, when the Party of Five went to Guam because Kim Jong Un threatened the territory and Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury.”
Now “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” if the President of the United States can be believed [clears throat].
Peace in the Far East. What better way to leave this beat?
The lead parent of our children is off in America so I have been really getting my momming on over the past few days. (Y’all know how that usually goes for me. VERY laissez faire.) Being in charge of my two children and a baby while also working from home was already going to be daunting in it of itself, but the despot Kim Jong Un decided to throw in an extra challenge! He invited President Trump to meet face-to-face, and Trump accepted, in an announcement that came down at 9am yesterday morning. A bona fide news bomb.
This is what I remember: I thankfully awakened slowly rather than suddenly because somehow there were no screaming fits or random sibling throw-downs to break up at the break of dawn. Since November 2016 I have avoided news inputs until I am fully awake and ready to take in whatever inevitably shocking alert is on my phone. Yesterday was distinct in that news hadn’t actually broken at 7:30am when I woke up. News ABOUT news was filling my inbox because POTUS DJT had popped his head in the White House Briefing Room (a room he’s never been seen in) and said there was a “major announcement” coming in 90 minutes. The countdown began.
Our helper Yani served breakfast and braided hair. I made sure the girls got on their buses. Baby Luna slept through all the way until 8:30am when both older girls were off for school. I hate having to feed her and read at the same time a furious feed-and-read situation followed in order to finish both in time for the announcement. By then, we knew that the news had to do with North Korea, and that the South Korean envoys who had just met with KJU on Monday went to Washington an invitation from Kim to Trump, to meet. This would be unprecedented and incredible on many, many levels. The craziest thing was that, at the 9am/7pm EST announcement, we learned Trump just accepted this invite immediately! It breaks with decades of U.S. practice but this is Trump and really, are there norms anymore?
From a windowless, carpeted room that serves as a perfect home “studio,” got on live with our program All Things Considered right after the announcement, at 9:30am Korea time. But my kindergartner Eva’s monthly school assembly was at 10am! I am her only parent in the country right now. She expected me to be there and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I rushed to her school by cab, stayed through to her performance (last because they’re the oldest) and then made sure she saw that I was there and had to go, then ran to hail another cab to take me home, making it with four minutes to spare before my next live conversation with All Things Considered, at 11am. That could have really gone the other way for me so, thank you God.
Later I delivered a stroller to a friend who needed to borrow it, ate lunch on base with some USGOV guys who joked around about this rather stunning news with me (I’m leaving the jokes out of this blog post), and because I don’t like to cancel appointments at the last minute, I took a cab all the way to my pedicure place only to realize that because I jumped into the cab while conducting a phone interview*, I forgot to bring any forms of payment! We had to turn around and return to my home, get my wallet, drive back to pedicure place only for me to realize, by then, that I didn’t have time for the appointment because there were many more live conversations to have and the web post to write-through. At some point I needed to sit down and speed read and correspond with more people, which is what those of us in the biz call “reporting.” In the evening when the girls had to be bathed and put down for bed, I was on Morning Edition twice. In between the two hits, Eva, who is starting to read, read to me (this felt interminable because I was on deadline) and we completed the True/False questions in the back because she loves True/False. Then I recall putting a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on for them in lieu of any more books.
I got the girls tucked in and put down for bed and then got my ass to a friend’s Pyeongchang Paralympics Opening Ceremony Watch Party, because YES THAT WAS YESTERDAY, too.
Here are the conversations, as they appeared in the course of this string of events:
All Things Considered after the feed-and-read with Luna (no link because it was replaced with the next one) All Things Considered in the nick-of-time after making it back from Eva’s assembly Morning Edition/Up First podcast after my failed pedicure attempt but got a giant cookie for Isa (she loves cookies) Morning Edition after the True/False questions All Things Considered after being awakened this morning with a 6:30am call to talk again. My voice is noticeably lower here because I’d just woken up. Sorry.
Not included in this post: All the stress eating and Starbucks green iced teas. By the end of the day there were just plastic Starbucks drink vessels strewn all over my desk.
*It was John, a friend/source of mine who is a China historian and North Korea watcher based here in Seoul. We spend half of our phone calls just mercilessly making fun of each other. A running gag is we our phone conversations by performing the phone greetings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese obnoxiously: (Roboseyo? Roboseyo! // Wei? Wei? // Moshi Moshi!? Moshi Mosh.)
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.
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.
The toughest thing about being a reporter in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is that functionally, you’re a child. I work without a key tool for reporting — the ability to communicate. That makes my interpreter and assistants in Korea and Japan as important and arguably MORE important than me to tell compelling stories.
For the past two years (almost to the day), Haeryun has been my right-hand woman. On her first day, when I had only been off the plane from the US for about 10 hours, the US Ambassador to Seoul was stabbed in the face. So there was no easing into the job. Korea news has essentially been non-stop since then. (Perhaps you’ve read about the missile tests, lethal poisoning deaths and impeachments on my patch lately.) To put together coherent pieces for air, not only does Haeryun do critical backgrounding and research, she also broaches sources and lines up interviews and concurrently translates them as I conduct interviews, she also works on her own when I’m traveling and goes out in the field when I can’t.
She acts as my Korean-speaking proxy, making the important human connections with sources that allow us to tell stories for our English-speaking audiences. On top of that, Haeryun also makes sure things run: That our driver Mr. Kim always picks me up at the airport on time, and that our office water delivery comes reliably and that our Foreign Correspondents Club dues are paid, etc etc.
This week, Haeryun starts a new journalism adventure! She is going to the site Korea Expose, where she will be an editor and help oversee their staff of hungry writers who are diving into stories about Korean society and culture. We are all really excited to see what they will do there.
She is also my friend (one of my closest Korean ones, at that), shares my endless appetite (so she’s always a reliable eating partner) and has always been there for my entire family. So we will continue to hang and see each other, of course. But it’s the end of a chapter, so I wanted to make sure to give her a little blogpost tribute to say goodbye and thank you.
And a funny footnote: Despite all our time together, I still can’t pronounce her name right. This scene from Sisters pretty much sums up me and Haeryun, anytime I try to say her name:
Anyway… None of the Korea stories would have been shaped and told without you, Haeryun! We love you and will miss you.