The other night while waiting in line for fried foods at a holiday party, I chatted with a stranger lined up in front of me. Later I introduced myself and it turned out she had been wanting to meet me FOR MONTHS, as in, she goes, “Me and my husband were talking about how we were bound to eventually meet you just this morning!” At that point I was humiliated that our first conversation was about how much I was looking forward to all the fried food at the buffet. But if you know me, that’s pretty much the extent of all my “authentic” conversations with my friends anyway.
Five For Fighting
My oldest daughter, Eva, turns five on Friday. We celebrated by inviting her entire class to the Vaunce Trampoline Park in Gangnam for bouncing and ball pits and food. They were running around like whirling dervishes and we parents scavenged for leftovers afterward because the kids didn’t eat any of the plates of ribs that were served, instead going for fried chicken, fries, pasta and pizza. (Silly kids, they didn’t realize the ribs were the best.)
My mom talks about how she still remembers the day I was born like it was yesterday, so I guess it’s completely normal to feel like no time has gone by since the day baby Eva and I cooperated to bring her into the world in 2012. Time is so elastic — it feels both near and far, depending on how you look at it.
I remember Eva nursing until she got “milk drunk” and her big head flopping back into my arm nook. I remember watching a presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney while doing laundry while Eva was just a few weeks old, and Obama seeming so unprepared that pundits flipped out, thinking he was going to lose the election. I remember taking baby Eva to Costco in a Moby wrap, which I only use when the newborns are less than four weeks old because it’s the only time those wraps are comfortable. I remember how confident she made me feel about motherhood because she was just a really easy baby.
Eva is a much more high maintenance kindergartner, now. She is a natural artist and creative with her imagination and play, she is loud and boisterous and constantly irritated by her sister, Isa, who really has a sly way of getting under Eva’s skin. She loves to explore Google maps, particularly the Street View feature, and, owing to a lot of travel, is really at home in hotels. When she plays make believe, we often have to make believe we are at the gate of an airport, going on a trip to Japan. Eva also loves meetings and a certain order to things, and my mom thinks this is because she’s a Virgo. She likes agendas and lists and checking items off on lists. It doesn’t matter if it’s a to-do list, a grocery list, ingredients for muffins, the girl loves lists.
Happiest of Birthdays to Eva. Just like that, she’s five years old.
My Dude OBGYNs, In Vignettes
Yesterday I listened to a podcast episode about pelvic health, inspired by the uneasy experiences some women have had with their gynecologists. They advocated and featured nurse-midwives, who tend to be more feminist, holistic and just badass ladies. As someone who birthed all three children with midwives, I totally agree they are awesome. Midwives should be considered as a go-to option for regular exams whether you want/have children or not. But I’m also quite cool with my dude OBGYNS.
Three of my dude lady-part docs stand out in particular, mainly because I shared some unconventional experiences with them. The experiences are not graphic, they’re just … unique.
While on a semester-long break from the University of Missouri, I went to live in Houston with my mom, who was diplomating down there at the time. To occupy myself, I took a rather irregular schedule of classes at U of H and trained for a marathon. I also decided to work a side job as the front-desk check-in girl at the 24 Hour Fitness at San Felipe and Voss, mainly just to get a free gym membership.* What I remember about that time in my life is eating a lot of Whataburger (same intersection) and working alongside a few real roided-out sales guys who liked to guess womens’ weight when they came in.
Every morning, a genial, portly, tan, white-haired guy checked in to ride the recumbent bicycle for a good 45 minutes before maybe lifting some weights, showering and going to work. Since he was a regular, we began chatting and eventually I learned he was a well-known lady doc in H-town. As I had grown up in Dallas, I didn’t have a gynecologist in Houston. So I decided, hey, Dr. Katz is cool, I’ll make an appointment! And that’s how he became my practitioner as well as a gym buddy with whom I’d ride recumbent bikes on occasion. He’s stuck in my memory because we spent the morning of September 11 together. After a marathon training run at Memorial Park, I went to the gym to cool down by riding the bike while watching TV with Dr. Katz. That’s when we saw the plane hit the first tower.
My two years as a reporter in upstate South Carolina (the foothills of Appalachia) felt far more like foreign correspondence than being out here in East Asia. I was exposed to more absurd, utterly unfamiliar situations than I was able to fully appreciate at the time.
This place was the buckle of the Bible belt, home to Bob Jones University (where women are still not allowed to wear pants) and the only place I’ve ever witnessed a KKK cross burning. While in Spartanburg, I went to a family physician for birth control, which should be noncontroversial, but Dr. Sanctimonious told me he was proud of the fact that he did not prescribe birth control because he didn’t believe in it, his faith guided him and la la la la. This surprised me but not that much, and instead of reporting him I just found an actual OBGYN, whose first name was Hugh. I’ll call him Dr. Hugh. He spoke softly and also had white hair, but unlike Katz, was thin and wiry. He was very sweet, like a southern Mr. Rogers.
I started seeing him during a time I was single. I remember this because right after the pelvic exam, while I was still in those gyno table stirrups, he whirled around and ASKED ME IF I WAS SINGLE, as he had a young medical resident that he really wanted to introduce me to. (To this day, I still wonder what it is that he saw down there that made him think, I should play matchmaker!) Two weeks later, when the hospital sent me my pap smear results, Dr. Hugh had handwritten a message on it. It said something like, “Turns out the resident I told you about is actually engaged! So sorry.”
Dr. Chung helped deliver Isa and Luna, our two girls born in South Korea. He’s a Korean who speaks pretty good English, as he caters to a lot of Western clients and is an advocate of natural birth, which is rare and perhaps considered a little hippie-ish among South Koreans. He is so chill that he barely examined me throughout my two pregnancies here. But he has a knack for saying and doing things that would definitely be considered inappropriate in Western medical settings. Like when I ran into him six weeks after birthing Luna in the packed waiting room of his practice and he started in on how smoothly my birth went. In front of everyone, he goes, “When she came out, didn’t it feel like an orgasm to you? It’s orgasmic, right?” I stood in silence for a few beats, trying not to acknowledge the roomful of people around us, and said something about how it certainly was a relief to deliver a healthy baby. (BUT THE ANSWER IS NO.)
A few weeks later, my assistant and I were nervously sitting at one of those processing windows at the Seoul Immigration Office, where I was applying for an Alien Registration Card for Luna. The issue at the immigration office is even though its clients are not Korean, the staff there barely speak any English. And it’s bureaucracy-laden. So between the lack of language and the layers of paperwork, I almost always get rejected there the first time I try to apply for registration or renewal. It was going to happen again, when Dr. Chung saved me! The rather stern lady at our window was going over our papers and noticed Luna’s birth certificate from the birthing clinic and immediately softened.
“Oh, I also gave birth at the same center,” she told us. “Wow,” I said. “Did you have Dr. Chung? He’s great, right? Very chill.”
“And very handsome,” she says, with no expression.** (Assistant Jihye had to translate this, with a chuckle.) The immigration officer approved Luna’s registration.
In conclusion, I barely know these guys but in some ways they know me quite well. And I’m grateful for each for taking good care of me, being a friend to the extent a doctor is a friend, and for the, uh, memories.
*This was my second job at a gym. In high school I did a stint as the smoothie girl at the Q Fitness Club in Plano, where I would get $20 tips for making $3 smoothies, so, clearly I was led to believe working at gyms was lucrative.
** Dr. Chung himself once told me he was considered very good-looking in Korea, which was helped by his height. I’m gonna say he’s about 6’2″.
We were walking home from dinner one night when Friend Mike picked up a glossy, full-color business card with a woman’s gigantic posterior on it and a phone number. As we continued walking, it was clear that was just one of many cards like that which had rained on the street.
Upon more investigation (read: asking more experienced Korea dwellers), it turns out we live pretty close to an area with many “love motels,” which are hotels you can rent for an hour at a time. Many young South Koreans who still live with their parents use these as a place to hook it up, but they would also be convenient for entrepreneurial exchanges, I assume.
At one party a few weeks ago, a group of us started talking about these cards and how the women you get probably do not look like the ones advertised on the business cards. That’s when one of my Korean-speaking American friends called up the number. There wasn’t a long exchange, so the main things we learned were logistics and pricing.
You book a room, then tell the service where it is. The woman will show up at the love motel at the appointed time and location, and you must pay the equivalent of $150 per hour. There was no elaboration as to what you can do with your hour, so presumably it depends on the professional who is sent to you. There have been other advertisements around that use the Korean “tteok” or “dok” (depending on how you want to romanize) to describe these ladies … Dok is the word for a white, doughy rice cake. I’m not sure if that’s the reason why they’re called dok girls, but this is the kind of question I still have about the ol’ love motel sex business.
Odyssey to Bali
Eva has this exaggerated, four-year-old way of asking “what’s happening” by punching each word out: “What. Is. Happening.” She never uttered it yesterday, but it would have been appropriate for every travel snafu we ran into starting from the moment we arrived at the airport check-in counter at 10 in the morning. First, our noon flight had been pushed back by four hours. Then, I realized I left baby Luna’s passport at home, because I packed passports still thinking we were a family of four. Whoops. Then, a more severe passport snafu for her dad: Matty didn’t have six months left on his passport before its expiration date, so the airline straight up would not let him fly. The Matty situation required a lift from the embassy (which, thanks to having friends who are in consular affairs at the embassy, got him on the access list to get a new passport within hours). But even still, we had to leave him behind.
The Luna situation required calling back the driver who brought us to the airport, driving an hour+ through typical maddening Seoul traffic back HOME to get the passport, turning around and taking a train to the airport, get to the security checkpoint and have Eva’s boarding pass not clear due to a hyphen, walking her BACK to the counter on the other side of the departure hall, getting the hyphen fixed, going through security as a family of five (since Matt’s left behind, I have our helper Yani THANK GOD), then getting to the airport tram.
We had Isa in a stroller so this required an elevator. After attempts to take three different elevators — none of them air conditioned — all were out. We finally get to the gate via escalators and tram and that’s when Eva starts tantruming out because she’s hot and tired from all the walking. Our flight’s delayed another hour, Isa needs snacks, I have three-month-old baby Luna pressed on me the entire time with a look of “What. Is. Happening.” We finally get on the plane and amazing, have two empty seats next to us in our row, but before we can snag them to allow Isa and Eva to stretch out across them to sleep, Koreans rush up like they’re fleeing a war and belt themselves in them, leaving Yani stuck holding 30 pound Isa in a single seat while Isa sleeps for HALF THE FLIGHT. By the time we arrived at midnight, after first leaving the house for the airport at 9am, the girls were frayed but holding it together, I was sweatier than I’ve ever been and sleepy, Yani was just relieved to have Isa’s hot body not pressed against her and Luna was wishing she was back in the womb, I imagine.
Anyway I’m writing this down so I won’t forget yesterday. It was our first trip as a family of five and only four of us actually made it on the journey. (Yani became our fifth yesterday, and it was and is absolutely critical to our functioning.) And while we ran into annoying frustrations, it comes with the territory. (Ahem, like how our flight to leave the US and move to Seoul became several flights after the first attempt to move from our home country was aborted after we’d boarded and sat on a tarmac in Dulles for six hours. And still not nearly as bad as the night I slept in the baggage claim of DFW Airport.) Frankly it was an awesome day depending on how you look at it. But for that super long delay, we wouldn’t have had time to get Luna’s passport. But for our amazing friend at the embassy who we could just call up and get on the American Citizen Services access list, Matty wouldn’t have a new passport so fast, fast enough to get on a flight tonight to see us tomorrow.
And the destination after our arduous march was Bali — paradise! Over mango juice this morning at breakfast al fresco, Eva said to me unprompted, “Momma, Bali is so beautiful. Like 100 beautiful,” awarding imaginary points to it on her arbitrary (but valid) Eva scale.
The #HyoJam Nuptials At The British Embassy
I love a good wedding and I try to blog about them afterward, emphasis on try. There are some years where we attend so many weddings that I end up without the clearheadedness (cough sobriety cough) to remember to do so. Since I am of reasonably clear mind right now, a few thoughts about this one:
1.) It was a perfect day weatherwise and pollution-wise in Seoul for James and Hyojin (#hyojam) to get married. They’re both English-language journalists in Korea with a lot of international study and work in their backgrounds, so this afforded an opportunity for 200 of their loving family, wisecracking friends and whip-smart coworkers from all corners of the globe to witness their union AND party together on the lawn of the British Ambassador’s residence (which is on the same compound as the Embassy). “This just proves how far you all will come for free booze,” James quipped.
2.) Given James and Hyojin’s vocations, their wedding meant 90% of all the primarily English-speaking people who cover or research North Korea for a living were in the same place. “Thank you to Kim Jong Un for not conducting a nuclear test,” James said, in remarks at the reception. “Because had he done so, half of you wouldn’t be here.” (Tis true.)
3.) Four-year-old Eva went as my date because Matty has a well-documented history of preferring stand-ins for events that require heavy-socializing. Eva got to wear her Korean hanbok, which is what Koreans traditionally wear to weddings. She loved getting dressed up but was not great about sitting still during the ceremony. Thank god my assistant and friend Jihye came to sit with us and entertained Eva with Snapchat face filters during the ceremony’s second-half.
4.) In the time before we headed to the reception on the Embassy compound and after the ceremony, it got super hot and Eva wanted shade. So we found a bench near a tree and sat down. That’s when a random Korean dude came up and asked me to sit still because he wanted to sketch me in profile. My friend Nat, who was in town from D.C., witnessed the whole exchange and said it would make for a great story: “Oh hey remember that time we were sitting outside the Anglican church on the diplomatic compound when a sketchy dude came up and wanted to sketch you Titanic-style?” The drawing only took two minutes and was … all right, I guess?
5.) Mainly this wedding rocked. There was all kinds of free boozing super-interesting guests, owing to the foreign correspondenting and diplomat-sourcing of James and Hyojin. James, for example, is a British national who studied in China and can speak Korean, English and Mandarin, which is an eclectic mix of expertise that can describe much of the crowd assembled.
6.) Some people run in the Las Vegas party circuit, some in the Hollywood party crowd, mine is the diplomatic/journalist/North Korea specialist crowd. It is decidedly wonky and heavy-drinking. Sometime last night at the wedding after-party and after several shots, I wandered to four different clusters of people milling about around on the patio, drinking and smoking. I kid you not, all FOUR groups were talking about sanctions and the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on North Korea, albeit taking different angles in their chatter. I mean, WTF.
Harper’s Bazaar Junior
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.
Little Luna Lee Is Here
We brought the two-day old newborn home from the birthing center and I’m splayed out in my bed while smells of deliciousness waft into the bedroom from the kitchen, where my mom is here taking care of me and cooking up a storm. The baby’s bassinet has pictures taped on it, drawn in washable marker featuring hearts and palm trees and tulips, creations of her oldest sister to welcome Luna into the world.
Luna’s birth story started at 11 o’clock on Thursday night, when I was ready for bed. A contraction came, and then fairly quickly, another. I called my midwife and she said to go ahead and get to the birthing center, since third babies tend to come faster. We told our helper, Yani, to take care of the older girls in the morning and brought our stuff and checked in. I don’t remember the conversation we had in the car except that I kept having to pause whatever we were talking about in order to endure contractions.
At first check after getting to the clinic, I was only four centimeters, so we thought we were in for a long haul. But the contractions were surprisingly strong, and when I spent some time in the birthing pool, they got super strong and the baby felt low … almost to the point where I felt the urge to push.
At one point I had to institute a moratorium on jokes because in between contractions that were so strong I could hardly breathe, Matty checked his phone and goes, “Hey, did you know Don Rickles died?” [GROAN.]
Out of the tub and still in my purple bikini top like I was just a giant person on spring break or something, I asked the midwife, Selina, to check me again and suddenly I was 10cm dilated (which is to say, fully dilated), meaning the baby was already ready to make her entrance. Babies descend with each contraction, so the final half hour of labor is the hardest (at least it’s been true for my unmedicated births, which is all I know about).
Then came the dreaded “I-Feel-Like-I-Might-Die” part, or as the birthing educators call it, “The Transition“. My mom wasn’t here yet (she wouldn’t arrive until lunch time on Friday, and it was only 4a.m.), and I was terrified without her. Matty was there to “coach,” and so was Selina the midwife, and an intern named Daniel who my OBGYN had suggested attend my birth to see the experience from start to finish. I’m not sure what he was thinking, being there for such a crazy occasion while on his summer break from the University of Kentucky, but Daniel ended up being awesome to have there because he got an experience out of it, but we did, too. He took photos of Luna entering the world. (It’s all pretty ‘National Geographic’ so you won’t see it on this blog.)
Selina guided me along, making sure I didn’t push too hard or too soon, which prevents any down-there tears. But I could feel Luna coming like a powerful storm, and even though my face was buried in a pillow since I was screaming and I didn’t want to scare people, somehow miraculously I heard the voice of my OBGYN Dr. Chung, telling me the baby would be out soon. I guess he had made it to the birth from his home just in the nick of time, which is impressive.
Three pushes, and Luna came out surfing a wave, since Selina broke my water for me as she emerged. Luna cried out for a remarkably short amount of time — five seconds — then was suddenly quiet for a wipe down and time on my chest, which is what we do after birth to help regulate the baby’s temperature and help her feel secure. She stayed on my chest for an hour — for the final stage of delivery (pushing out her “condo,” the placenta), until the umbilical cord stopped pulsing and Matty could cut it, and through her first nursing.
Then homegirl got weighed and measured! She’s 8lbs, 6oz and 20.5 inches long. She’s sleeping and eating like a champ. You can find her blog at LunaLee.blog.
Farewell To My Right-Hand Woman
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.
But that means she is bidding farewell to NPR’s Seoul bureau, the foreign post which she was instrumental in helping found. Together we have binge-eaten in front of thousands of strangers, crashed a Korean wedding, gotten lost on Jeju Island with the worst navigation device ever issued, witnessed the sorry state of caged, endangered bears, consoled grieving moms, followed alongside Korea’s marching single moms, covered way too many missile tests to count and spent way too many hours at the Seoul Immigration Office to make sure I could legally stay in this bureaucracy-loving country.
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.
Random Dinners: The One At The Japanese Ambassador’s Residence
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.