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Reporter's Notebook: Settling In In Seoul

Reporting from a Seoul cat cafe, one of the many themed cafes in Japan and Korea.
Haeryun Kang
for NPR
Reporting from a Seoul cat cafe, one of the many themed cafes in Japan and Korea.

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.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.