Reporter's Notebook: Settling In In Seoul | KERA News

Reporter's Notebook: Settling In In Seoul

Dec 29, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 9:10 pm

Editor's Note: NPR opened a South Korea bureau in March. Correspondent Elise Hu takes a look at the wonder and the wackiness of life and journalism in East Asia.

After a K-pop-themed sendoff and an unexpected flight delay, my family and I arrived on a freezing night in early March to open NPR's newest bureau, in Seoul, South Korea. News greeted me on my first day — the Internet was just getting set up at the bureau when an activist slashed the face of the U.S. ambassador to Korea, Mark Lippert. Before our bureau assistant and I had even seen one another, she was off to a press conference at the police station.

Since then, we've covered a summer of MERS, North Korea's various provocations and South Korea's responses, the frenemy relationship between Japan and Korea, weird wedding culture, binge eating broadcasts, the dark side of PSY and I've made half a dozen trips to Japan and back to report from there, as Japan is this bureau's coverage area.

The biggest difference between reporting in my native language and working through interpreters is the extent to which I've had to learn to rely on others. My interpreters, or fixers, as they're often called, end up making the source relationships that I used to make on my own, and really acting as my proxy. It's tough but I've learned a lot about effective communication across language barriers by working with them.

It's taken nearly a year, but I finally feel like I have my feet under me. Expat life is both magical and challenging, and the challenges show up in sometimes hilarious ways.

We have a Japanese toilet with a remote for multiple functions like the bidet and seat warming. Before we learned all about our commode, my then 2-year-old pressed a random button on the remote, sending surprise water shooting up at me, leading me to start screaming. She then started screaming and crying, and both of us found ourselves standing over the toilet, screaming, crying and unable to stop a water geyser meant to cleanse.

Despite their historic differences, Japan and South Korea do have similar futures in common. That is, both nations struggle with figuring out the next act for their export-driven economies and as a related challenge, big demographic shifts.

East Asia is aging faster than any other global region in history, according to the World Bank. If current fertility rates continue, by 2040, South Korea's population will be down 15 percent from what it is today. That means huge questions and stresses for the labor markets, health care systems and social welfare schemes like pensions in both South Korea and the rapidly aging Japan.

I'll be watching, and reporting, in 2016 and beyond.

To follow behind-the-scenes of our reporting from East Asia, check out our Tumblr, Elise Goes East.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


And as we mark the end of the year, we've been catching up with our correspondents on some of the big stories of 2015. NPR's Elise Hu opened our South Korea bureau earlier this year. One of her biggest stories came just yesterday when Japan announced it's paying more than $8 million in restitution plus apologizing to the South Korean women who were forced into sex slavery during World War II. Elise caught up with some earlier stories with our colleague David Greene.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So the news, let's start with that. This deal between Japan and South Korea about comfort women. Does this surprise you?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It did surprise me. This has been such a painful moment in history, and both sides have sort of dug in their heels until finally this week. Comfort women - that term describes women who were forced to service Japanese soldiers during World War II.

GREENE: South Korean women and girls.

HU: That's right. And really one of my huge surprises after moving to South Korea was that history issues just haven't died. There's a sense among Koreans that there wasn't a proper reckoning of the colonization of Korea by Japan. And then Japan, on the flipside, had said, you know, we've done a lot of apologizing. That sort of animosity really played out in all sorts of interesting ways. For example, I got a Samsung phone in Tokyo. Samsung, obviously, is a big Korean company. And if you get a Samsung phone in Tokyo you do not see the Samsung logo on that phone at all, and part of the reason is because of the mistrust between these two countries and the people of both countries.

GREENE: Wow. So the tension really just plays out in everyday life. You, if I remember, really hit the ground running when you arrived. You had no time to sort of settle in.

HU: That's right. I landed late at night at Incheon Airport, which is the main airport for Seoul. And the next morning, the Internet guy was getting me hooked up and there's news that the U.S. ambassador to Korea, Mark Lippert, had been slashed in the face by a North Korea sympathizer.

GREENE: I remember that.

HU: My Internet was not set up yet, and my interpreter and assistant, we hadn't met face to face yet and she was sent to a press conference at the police station right at the start.

GREENE: With no Internet even working yet. That's amazing. So what's it been like in general, opening up a bureau, moving your family abroad for the first time?

HU: It's bewildering and exciting at the same time, right? It's very different to live in a foreign country and sort of move your family there rather than just visit. For example, we're renting an apartment and we got one of those fancy Japanese toilets, which is very normal there which has all sorts of functions and buttons, and the first time my then 2-year-old daughter was in the bathroom, she pressed one of the random buttons. That activated the bidet, water starts shooting up, it starts shooting up at me, it hits me. I start screaming. She starts screaming. And it's just because the toilet was working properly.

GREENE: (Laughter) Doing the right thing. Adjusting to life in South Korea. That's NPR's Elise Hu, who is based in South Korea. She opened the bureau in Seoul this year.

Great to have you back for at least a few days Elise.

HU: Great, thanks David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.