Q&A with Elise Hu, NPR’s Korea/Japan Correspondent

by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee

If you’ve tuned into NPR in recent months, chances are you’ve noticed the number of on-air pieces out of Korea, whether about the mokbang craze, or viral online broadcasts of people eating copious amounts of food; Asian Americans who are headlining K-pop groups; one-year anniversary of the Sewol ferry sinking; or social stigma surrounding South Korea’s single mothers. The rise in coverage on stories and issues about the Korean peninsula is no coincidence—NPR earlier this year opened its first-ever Seoul bureau, with correspondent Elise Hu at its helm.

Hu, who previously covered the intersection of technology and culture for NPR, moved to Seoul from Washington, D.C. with her husband and their two-year-old daughter in March. In the midst of reporting about politics, business, culture and life in both Koreas and Japan, Hu has been adapting to expat life in Seoul like a pro—just follow her hugely popular Tumblr, Elise Goes East!.

KoreAm recently caught up with the Texas native over email to learn more about her transition to life overseas, her impressions of Korean culture, her favorite food and drink in Seoul and the quirks of Korean cab drivers. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Can you give us a little background on why NPR decided to open a bureau in Seoul and how you came to take the assignment? Did you jump at the opportunity?

Elise Hu: First off, thanks for asking me to take part in this when I don’t get to claim status as a Korean American (though I’m kind of “Korean-adjacent” in that I’m Chinese American, and my younger daughter will be born in Seoul). That hasn’t stopped cabbies in Seoul from assuming that I’m Korean and making me feel bad for not speaking the language.

On the assignment: NPR has had an ongoing commitment to coverage around the globe—it’s one of our badges of honor as a news organization. For a long time our management recognized the influence and importance of Asia, where half the world’s population is concentrated, and the need to have more bodies here. I know adding a Japan/Korea bureau had been a priority for a while; it was just a matter of getting resources to open a new outpost. The dynamism of South Korea, as well as the Korean peninsula’s geography—sandwiched between China and Japan with a neighboring Russia to the North—made Seoul an ideal choice.

When the opportunity was floated by me, I asked myself the same question I do about any job change: Does it sound exciting? The answer was ‘Yes,’ so I signed on for a two-year stint. If they don’t fire me, I imagine I might want to stay longer.

Had you always wanted to work as an overseas correspondent?

I’ve always had the exploring and wandering bug. I wanted to report from a far-flung post my entire adult life, but at various points—especially with the shrinking of the journalism industry over the past decade—I didn’t think it would be a viable path. That I get to do it, and do it while backed by a major national news organization, is an awesome opportunity and that’s not lost on me.

I’m also pretty familiar with Asianness, as I am the daughter of Chinese/Taiwanese immigrants. My mother is restless, loves to travel and works in the Foreign Service, so I’ve been globe trotting since I was quite young. My mom thinks getting out of your comfort zones and constantly exposing yourself to change and other parts and peoples of the world is invaluable. So that kind of philosophy is really ingrained in my brother and me. Plus, the challenge of bringing alive a story or simply explaining what might seem unfamiliar to others is one of the best parts of my job. This is what I’m paid to do and I love it.

How familiar were you with Korean culture before you moved to Korea?

I hadn’t visited Korea before I moved here in March. So my exposure to Korean culture was primarily through my Korean American friends at home in the U.S. and in Taipei, where I studied abroad. I have to admit I hadn’t seen much Korean film or K-drama, either, though I did catch Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring in the theater, no joke. On the food front, before coming here, I had consumed plenty of Korean BBQ, mandu and stews, and drank a lot of soju (I LOVE soju). And culturally, given that Korea was long ago a “little brother” to the Confucian-led Chinese dynasties, the Confucian-inspired elements of Korean customs aren’t too different from the Chinese culture, of which I am a part.

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You’ve been living in Seoul for roughly four months. How would you describe your experience thus far as a) a journalist and b) as part of an expat family?

I was eating a meal with some Korean journalists the other day and they all spent time in Columbia, Missouri, studying at Mizzou, our shared alma mater. They said that Koreans describe America as a “boring heaven” and they call Korea an “exciting hell.” Basically, life here is fast-paced, weird and somewhat chaotic, but never boring.

I’ve loved learning about Korean people, its history, its culture and oddities and venturing into more serious topics such as geopolitics and economics in my reporting. It’s a perfect place for anyone who is curious and excited about the world, but even better for reporters, who get to learn and then share what they learned with millions of people, for a living.  

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 4.37.14 PMAs for parenting here, our toddler has thrived even though we keep forcing her to adjust to new surroundings, new schools and new friends. Seoul is a great city for little ones. The major museums have separate “children’s museums” so the kids can explore the same topic. Koreans seem to love little kids; people are always giving Eva random treats and ice cream cones and what not. And there are numerous play facilities like ‘Kid Cafes’’ here, which are themed cafes where parents can let their kids go wander, supervised by someone else, while mom/dad enjoy coffee or catch up on work.

You had a pretty eventful first week in Seoul. Can you describe what that was like?

I opened the bureau the same day the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was knifed in the face. The Internet guy from Olleh was literally setting up my Internet when the news broke. Suffice to say, I had a fast start and things never really slowed down from there.

My initial impression that first week, because we arrived in March, was surprise about the pollution. Seoul has rough pollution, especially in the spring when it’s “yellow dust” season. Yellow dust is made up of industrial particulate matter that comes over from Mongolia and China, mixed in with the pollution from cars in the city. It’s nice now that it’s summer, but the particulate matter levels in the spring are sometimes five, six times over what the World Health Organization recommendations.

What have been the most challenging adjustments to life in Seoul? And as a non-native Korean speaker, has it been tough to get around?

The quick answer is YES, it is challenging to live in Seoul if you don’t speak Korean. We have no idea what people are saying to us most of the time. There aren’t as many English speakers here as I expected and that has made things really difficult—but things have gotten better. Through my Korean tutor, I very quickly learned to give taxi drivers directions like “right turn” or “straight” and everyone in my family, including my 2-year-old, knows how to tell cabbies the name of the subway stop closest to our home. So the basics are OK, but I still have serious issues getting my coffee or food orders correctly filled, and rely on our NPR bureau interpreter, HaeRyun, for embarrassingly simple tasks like ordering things online or talking to the AC repairman.

How does the language barrier spill over into your professional life?

It prevents me from being as useful and independent as I was when I was a journalist in the U.S. For example, in the U.S. I set up all my own interviews and conducted them, too. Here in Korea, my interpreter/news assistant, has to do that work for me. I conduct interviews but through someone else who is asking the questions on my behalf. That is a huge change. I really have to trust HaeRyun—not only in her translations but also when she updates me with news that comes from Korean language primary sources. I really have to drill down to better understand what’s being said by a Korean source, or reported by Korean media, because I can’t read or understand it for myself.

What about Seoul makes living there easy for an expat?

The delivery culture! You can basically get anything delivered—even a pint of milk—with almost no delivery charge. Plus, the scooter-riding drivers get to your place within 20 minutes. I have days where I don’t have to leave the home office at all because I just place orders for food and/or a quick smoothie, and bam, they’re there.

Also, Seoul’s public transportation system is pristine and the taxis are abundant as well as cheap, so those perks are quite wonderful.

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What have you been most surprised to learn about Korea, the culture or its people so far?

I’m most surprised by how much history and feelings about history play into not just the psyche of Koreans but also modern society. For example, the prevalence of anti-Japanese sentiment today is obviously colored by the colonization of Korea in the early-20th century, and the subsequent sourness stems from lack of what Koreans consider are sufficient apologies from the Japanese. That those kinds of feelings are so ingrained in Korean society continues to surprise me, because as an American, I think our ethos is to have a shorter-term memory, or just paper over things and move on (which may explain all our knotty issues with race in America that have exploded in the past year).

What’s your craziest story of living in Seoul thus far?

It’s a tie between the street fight that broke out below our apartment and the time a cabbie just left us alone in his cab with the keys in the ignition. The fight was crazy because 35 floors below us, outside a gate to the Yongsan U.S. military base, two black sedans pulled over and the drivers got out. They were screaming at each other when the big guy shoves the smaller guy. Then the smaller guy leans back and straight up HEAD BUTTS the bigger guy and knocks him down to the ground. The big guy gets up and he’s all wobbly, then just gets in his car. The head-butter gets in HIS car, and they both speed off.

Another time, my husband and I were in the backseat of a cab riding to a doctor’s appointment. Suddenly, our cabbie pulls over, stops the meter and gets out of the car, leaving the car running with the keys in the ignition. We watched him walk into a Citibank, walk back out, and then go to a neighboring office building. It turned out he needed to go to the hwajangshil (bathroom). Thank god I understood enough Korean to figure that out, but we were stunned he just left us in his cab. We joked around about whether we should move the car a little bit, to see if he noticed.

From your perspective, what’s the biggest misconception of Korea after having lived there several months?

You know, I don’t really know the stereotypes about Koreans so I don’t know which ones are most off-base. On the foreign policy side, I guess there was a perception of Koreans as being defensive or inward-looking because of the peninsula’s size and history of annexation and colonization. I don’t think modern South Korea is anything like that—it’s embraced globalization, international communities and the younger generations are quite outward-looking.

Which of your on-air pieces have generated the most reaction or feedback among listeners?

The piece that most resonated with folks—or at least led to the most engagement and emails—was about the stigma faced by single mothers in Korea, who in the 1980s at least, were often forced to give their babies up for adoption. Since the 1980s, when adoption numbers were highest, nonprofit groups have formed and the government has tried to provide more resources for unwed mothers. But the fact that single moms still face such social pariah status in this highly developed nation was really stunning for many of our American readers and listeners. An author I admire, Junot Diaz, even shared the piece on his personal Facebook page! Amazing. And a handful of readers reached out asking how they could help these moms directly.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about Korea?

Best things:

‌• Superfast Internet
Near-instant delivery of everything
The mountains/hiking culture
Makgeoli, soju, the drinking culture in general
All the awesome skincare/makeup stores and their products: Innisfree, Missha, SkinFood, etc.
Korean food—I am a big fan of chadol bagi in particular.
The street markets—there’s a market for everything. Old books, dried fish, used things, etc. etc.

The not so great things:

‌• Scooters on sidewalks! My daughter nearly got run over one time.
The lack of acceptance for LGBT lifestyles
Learning Korean language is SUPER hard
Women wear long sleeves even in the summer. So I feel really out of place when I’m not covered up.
Koreans aren’t very space-conscious on sidewalks or in crowded spaces, so I’m always nearly running into people or stuck behind really slow walkers, etc.

Finally, your Tumblr of your experiences in Seoul/Korea/Asia seems just a terrific way of keeping people informed about stuff that won’t always make it into your on-air pieces. What kind of role does the blog play in your overall reporting/living experience abroad?

It’s special to me in that it’s a living, breathing document of my impressions and experiences during a time when it’s all sorta new. I hope I’ll be able to look back on it one day and come to some new understanding and reflection. But more importantly, it’s been tremendous to grow a community of readers/watchers who are interested in what’s happening out “East,” (as the blog name goes) and gather their questions and impressions along the way. The blog emphasizes that this journey is one we’re going on together, in a sense, and I feel a responsibility to keep sharing and listening through it.


Follow Elise Hu on Twitter @elisewho. All photos courtesy of Elise Hu.

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