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.

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.

One Night In Beijing

I kind of dread going to Beijing these days because my brother Roger (who lives there) always makes it sound so dystopian. But my one-night trip was actually quite lovely. Even though I was there less than 24 hours, I was able to:

a) See my brother’s new office headquarters. He’s the founder of a tech startup in Beijing and they just moved from the tech district (by Tsinghua University) to center city. It was great seeing rows of developers working hard, just as I’ve seen in numerous American tech offices. Only twist was all these guys were employed by my scrappy little bro. Weird! (Also cool.)

b) Have drinks and dinner with Kinsey, a VIP on my “personal board of directors,” people to whom I go when seeking life advice or a centering when I feel off course. Kinsey also happens to be one of the biggest brains and most overprogrammed people I know, so getting any catch-up time with him is a delight. In Beijing, we continued our tradition of hanging out together only in cities where neither of us live and work, because that’s the only time he has time. Roger came along for dinner, and I love it when people from various parts of my life connect, so that was lovely.

the gourd pedicab. (there were several of these hanging from the vehicle. they were not lights, just gourds.)
The Gourd Pedicab. (There were several of these hanging from the vehicle. They were not lights, just gourds.)

c) Night-capped in a whiskey bar in the alleys of Beijing’s traditional hutongs with my Beijing-dwelling friend from Washington, Ben Dooley, who some of my pals may know from an inside joke as “Sad Eyes.”* Roger and I took a sketchy and too-risky-for-my-age pedicab ride in a pedicab adorned with hanging gourds (no idea why) to get there, and it was already past 10pm when we arrived. But the three of us sat talking and joking around, having a great time. Ben loved Roger’s jacket, and now Roger will take Ben to meet his tailor. EVERYONE IS CONNECTING, THIS IS WONDERFUL.

d) The best part came at the end of my trip: a forty minute cab ride to the airport and the driver astoundingly chatted me up (they usually aren’t chatty or are down right assholes). He asked about my family, told me about the context of China in the pre-Mao 1940s when my grandpa was sent to study abroad in the U.S. on a government scholarship, demonstrated nuanced understanding of the complex China-North Korea relationship, waxed philosophical about how we come into the world with nothing and leave with nothing, so just to make the most memories we can, and talked about U.S. politics a bit. His take on Trump? “His popularity makes it clear that Americans don’t have equal access to education and information.” ZING!

*The “Sad Eyes” story is one of my favorite and funniest stories of my five years in Washington. Someday I will have to relay it on this here blog.

Tokyo-Seoul-Beijing-Seoul-Taipei

the cameras in the people's square.
The cameras in the People’s Square.

This month, I am going from South Korea to Japan to China and then finally to Taiwan, spending about a week in each place. Each place has its own unique culture, despite being connected as a region. And now that we’re halfway through these journeys (only Taiwan is left) I’m not only feeling culture-whiplash, but a severe pain in my throat and a nagging cough known in the expat community as “Beijing Cough.”

These are some things I remember about Beijing:

Brother Roger took care of a lot of hospitality even though we were only seeing him as a secondary reason; the reason we went to Beijing was to help train students as part of the Sam Houston State University’s Global Journalism Center, which had partnered with Tsinghua University, my grandpa’s alma mater. Roger being the host he is, he made sure we had drivers anytime we needed, which helped a lot but all the car time also showed us how traffic really is murder in Beijing.

The girls were awesome. We stayed in a Marriott “executive apartment” for a few nights because the facility had a giant lap pool and a kids play room, both of which Eva took advantage of. There was also a giant closet that fit Isabel’s co-sleeper so Isa had a “room” of her own.

The duck was second to none, of course, but Roger introduced us to his favorite Japanese restaurant in Beijing and they knew how to make Japanese food, no joke. Tasted like a really quality joint in Tokyo, where we’d been just the week before.

Due to a windstorm, the smog got blown out of town for the first few days of our trip. It was straight up BLUE skies, which I didn’t expect. But the smog eventually returned and was so severe that I got recurring headaches, the tickle in my throat turned into a full-on cough, and when walking from our hotel to a coffee shop to meet my friend Ben, it straight-up smelled like everything was on fire. It was just the air.

I had forgotten about squatter toilets, which have largely been phased out of Seoul but remain in a lot of public bathrooms in Beijing. Squatters were a big feature of life when I spent a few summers in Taipei in the 1990s. Except in the 1990s I was in middle school, about 100lbs and hadn’t delivered two babies, so squatting wasn’t so physically burdensome. I was basically anxious every time I was away from the hotel and felt the need to pee.

This led to a discussion about squatters with the aforementioned Ben. He pointed out that squatters are actually more sanitary, in his mind. I think they’re gross because I have to be so close to the ground while squatting and you see the mix of shoe grime and wetness on the ground while you’re down there. But Ben said it’s much better to squat and NOT have your legs on a toilet seat that so many others have sat on. The solution of course is just to squat over a toilet seat, but toilet seats weren’t an option.

Since we’re on the topic of squatting, something else happened. Matty was outside our hotel one night and saw a cabbie turn his flashers on, get out of the car, drop trou, crouch behind some bushes and take a dump near the curb, get back up with his pants still open, tuck-in his shirt and return to the cab. No shame. Kind of amazing.

You know what else was kind of amazing? The valets who drive you home in your own car.

Roger Gifs, Day 2: Roger Wears Suits On Long Flights

For the latest in my series poking fun at my little brother (but also not-so-secretly being jealous at his lifestyle), I chose a clip of Roger flying to Indonesia with a camera crew in tow. He seems to lounge and sleep with his bespoke suit on. This seems crazy to us lay people, but it’s become a joke in our family that every time we pick up Roger at the airport, even if it’s a flight from Beijing to Washington, he comes off the plane in a suit.

those noodles look good, actually.
Those noodles look good, actually.

Introducing Roger Gifs!

roger gif 1: i am roger
Roger Gif 1: I am Roger

The most random and unintentionally amusing person I know is my little brother, Roger Hu. He’s also an expat in East Asia, working as the CEO of a tech startup he founded in China, TeeKart. It’s like Open Table but for booking golf tee times.

TeeKart is partnered with golf resorts in China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, and for some reason he got asked to host a handful of marketing vids to introduce the Indonesian courses he works with. The videos are ridiculous.

THIS IS GREAT NEWS FOR ME, because now I am going to start making a series of “ROGER GIFS!” This is “Roger Gif 1: I am Roger.”

These are going to get more insane, I promise.

Here Are Photos of My Brother Looking Ridiculous

Even though I gave him a hard time for, oh, our entire childhood, I’m really proud of my little brother, Roger Hu. He is risking his lungs to live in frighteningly-polluted Beijing for the sake of his startup, TeeKart. TeeKart is teaming up with golf courses across China to allow golfers to book tee times online. (I’m told that’s not a widely available service in China right now.)

TeeKart held a big launch event this week at a gorgeous course on Hainan Island, China. Cousin Cary, who is the company’s CTO, took a bunch of pictures. For some reason, Roger Hu and team decided to look UTTERLY RIDICULOUS in almost all of them. I had to share a few — he’s in the orange:

i don't even...
I don’t even…
maybe they were being ironic?
Maybe they were being ironic?
i guess this is to show they were tired after a long day of golfing.
I guess this is to show they were tired after a long day of golfing.