The latest interview in our Motherhood Around the World series features Elise Hu-Stiles, who lives in Seoul with her husband and two young daughters (as well as their dog and two cats). Here, Elise describes her family’s life abroad, including what it feels like to live in one of the world’s fastest-paced cities, and her experience giving birth to her second daughter earlier this month…
Above: Elise and Matt at a Paul McCartney concert in Seoul’s Olympic stadium.
On moving abroad: Even though I’d never been to South Korea before, when I was given the opportunity to move here for work, the first question I asked myself was, “Does this sound exciting?” The answer was definitely yes! I’ve loved to travel internationally since I was very young and this is the first time I’ve truly lived abroad. I’m a correspondent for National Public Radio. Here in Seoul, I’m in charge of reporting on events in South Korea, North Korea and Japan.
My husband’s role in the decision-making process can’t be understated. Without hesitation, he really championed the idea of us moving from Washington D.C. to Seoul, and raising our family here, uprooting himself from his job so we could pursue my career opportunity. I know spouses do this for one another all the time, but I’m so grateful to him. It’s a huge testament to his feminism that he came here joyfully, not reluctantly!
Above: The dark building in the foreground is her building, located in the Yongsan district.
On skyscraper living: We moved into a three-bedroom apartment on the 35th floor of a typical modern high-rise here. On a clear day, the views of Seoul’s many mountains are incredible. Our 16-year-old beagle, Saidee, is the only member of our family who’s bothered by this; it’s a long elevator ride downstairs for an elderly animal when nature calls.
On respecting floors: According to Korean custom, everyone must take their shoes off as soon as they come indoors. Koreans traditionally used floors for sitting or even sleeping, so the idea of a dirty floor is culturally unacceptable. Two-year-old Eva has become an expert at taking off her shoes off everywhere she goes and putting them away in the right place. Our apartment has built in shoe cabinets and a centralized vacuum system, both of which are common here, to cater to the clean floor obsession. At first, we didn’t understand why our Korean vacuum only had a hose and a head, not any sort of tank! But, there are vacuum outlets in every room and hallway. You simply plug the hose into the wall and the dirt miraculously gets sucked away.
Our building also has radiant floor heating called ondol, a tradition in Korean homes for centuries, so your feet are never cold. Delightful.
On living in a bustling city: The pace of life in East Asian cities is astonishing, especially when you first arrive. It doesn’t matter if it’s Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong — these capitals are just on a different frequency. They are dizzying.
One thing I’ve noticed is that people in this city aren’t as space-conscious on sidewalks or in crowded spaces as they are in the U.S., so I’m always nearly bumping into someone or getting stuck behind painfully slow walkers who are totally unaware of me. All of this contributes to the feeling that you’re a small speck in a massive sea of humanity.
Also, the speed of vehicles initially made me feel unsafe as a pedestrian. Cars and buses drive really close to the curb, and people ride motor scooters fast on the sidewalks. Eva nearly got pummeled by a moped one time in front of a grocery store, and the rider threw us serious shade for it, like it was our fault that he barely missed hitting a toddler while speeding on the sidewalk! But now we do as Korean parents do and let tiny Eva stand out on the street to help hail cabs whizzing by at a million miles an hour. I’ve come to realize that drivers here know how to flow safely around pedestrians.
Despite the hectic pace, we feel very safe from crime here. People leave their apartment doors unlocked in Seoul, including us, and park their bikes on the street without locks.
On adjusting: Eva is the family member who adapted the most seamlessly to her new life here. She had jet lag for about a week and then she moved on. Korea is her home. We gave her U.S. map puzzle where she points out the states where mom grew up (Texas), Dad grew up (Florida) and where she was born (Washington, D.C.), but she knows she’s not there anymore. She also remembers her friends and our friends from the U.S. and points them out in pictures, but she doesn’t seem to think it’s out of the ordinary that they don’t come around.
On learning a new language: Being here without knowing the language yet makes me feel like a newborn! Everything is so foreign and overwhelming to your senses; you can’t read and you can’t understand the sounds coming out of people’s mouths.
Two-year-old Eva speaks English at school and with her dad. Her nanny and I speak with her in Mandarin Chinese. And then, of course, she encounters Korean in her daily life. Lately, we’ve noticed she sometimes speaks a made-up language that sounds like Korean. It’s a mystery what exactly is happening in her brain. Even though I’m studying with a tutor, Eva’s unstudied Korean is the same level as mine. She proudly says hello to strangers, tells the cab driver each morning the name of the subway stop closest to school and asks for receipts in Korean.
On being Chinese-American in Korea: My parents immigrated to the U.S. from China and Taiwan before I was born, so I grew up with one foot in each culture — American and Chinese. Growing up in largely white America, I never felt like I was considered truly “normal” because I was often “the Asian” in school or at work, part of a minority. I sometimes got backhanded compliments from schoolmates like “you’re hot, for an Asian.”
But here, where my appearance should help me fit in, I’m also part of an outgroup because there’s some tribalism among East Asians. Korea, Japan, and China have long histories of political and cultural differences, so my Asian background doesn’t mean people in Seoul automatically think of me as one of them.
On Korean foods: Koreans believe that kimchi (fermented vegetables such as cabbage and radishes) can cure anything and that spicier is better. The tiniest children in Seoul have a remarkable ability to eat spicy foods, even at at the age of one. I can’t believe it. Eva hasn’t tried kimchi yet because she looks at it, sees that it’s red, and proclaims, “Too La!” That’s Chinese-English for “too spicy.”
Our apartment came with two refrigerators: one for daily food, the other for making kimchi, which is typically done in the winter. So far, we use our kimchi fridge to store extra groceries from Costco! I don’t think we’re ready to attempt making kimchi yet, but I’ve learned to make a few different types of banchan, the small Korean side dishes that are served in little dishes alongside main courses.
There’s also a Honey Butter craze going on here right now. Honey Butter potato chips, the hottest South Korean junk food, are a flavor of a popular chip brand that first came out last summer and are now sold out everywhere (you can buy them on eBay for more than $100 a bag!), but there are also now many spinoffs that have nothing to do with the original chip: honey butter pretzels, honey butter macadamia nuts, honey butter flavored chicken… it’s endless.
Above: Elise captured the view from her apartment on a high pollution day, as compared to a normal day.
On air quality: The pollution here is something I was unprepared for. Seoul gets “yellow dust” and “microdust,” industrial particulate that comes over from China and Mongolia. There’s also smog from all the diesel cars in Seoul. Now that it’s summer, it’s been better, but on some days last spring, the pollution count was five or six times as high as the World Health Organization recommends. I’ve had to put on a mask while out in the city.
Eva refuses to wear one, though, no matter what we do. It’s a toddler challenge I’d never imagined back home. The only choice we have on heavily polluted days is to keep her inside and keep the air purifier on.
On academic intensity: Parents in Seoul typically take their kids’ educations very seriously and the technology craze here has developed around that. Smartphone apps let parents track their children’s activities during the school day and see their progress in class in real-time. Eva’s too young for this, but, for example, many parents use KakaoTalk, the leading messaging app in South Korea, to have instant dialogue with teachers, like “How did they do on the test today?” Teachers are used to hearing from students’ parents that way. Also, on a reporting trip, I visited a high school study hall where the students do homework until 11 p.m. every night.
On the culture of work: The South Korean work day is way beyond 9 to 5. The country didn’t get rid of the six-day workweek until 2004! People here are extremely hardworking and pride themselves on that ethic.
People will often stay out with their colleagues until 1 or 2 a.m. having drinks and then still have to be back at work at 7 a.m. There was a survey published recently showing that many Korean kids almost never talk with their dads on weekdays, since they come home too late. When we visited Eva’s pediatrician for the first time, she wanted to know how frequently we eat dinner together as a family, which surprised me so I asked why. She said it’s so unusual for dads to be home in time for dinner here that she asks about it as an overall measure of family togetherness.
Above: Elise, 6 months pregnant at the time, with a South Korean soldier at the North Korea border, where she was covering a story for NPR.
On local fashion: Most people in Seoul place a lot of importance on their fashion and grooming or beauty routines. Men wear full suits, even if it’s 90 degrees outside. Women always wear makeup in public and always wear long sleeves, though I’ve noticed their skirts are often really short. The dead giveaway that I’m not from here is when I’m walking around in a maxi dress or anything that shows my shoulders but is long on the bottom. The biggest fashion difference I’ve experienced is maternity clothes. What’s available here are sacklike dresses or HUGE tent-like tops, nothing belly-hugging. I noticed people doing double takes when I wore an outfit that would be considered typical during pregnancy back home.
On childbirth: In Seoul, at hospitals catering to Koreans, fathers aren’t usually part of the labor and delivery process and the C-section rate is high, comparable to the U.S., if not higher. The midwife I used for Eva, in Washington, coincidentally lived and worked in Seoul for a few years and she told me before I moved here that at age 35 or up, C-sections are almost automatic. She observed that there’s such deference to doctors here that there isn’t always a lot of choice when it comes to how you want your birth to go.
We opted for a natural birthing center that serves a lot of Westerners, but there were many Korean customs evident, even from the moment we arrived and saw the wide array of slippers on racks available in every birthing suite, because everyone must take off their shoes upon entrance.
Also, something I’d never imagined was the intense attention to making sure laboring women and their partners are well fed! Immediately after we checked in to the birthing center, we were presented with an extensive menu for lunch, even though I was already six centimeters dilated. For lunch, I got to eat a giant cheeseburger between contractions. They even served me an easy-to-digest chicken congee dish when I was in serious despair, about an hour before push time…
We were amused and charmed that Isabel’s birthing center offered a full-on photoshoot for all newborns, complete with lights, styling and a studio set.
After delivery, Koreans do not believe in air conditioning or fans in a mother’s hospital room. So I think I sweated out about six pounds the night we stayed in the hospital. From what I understand, this custom is based on a Korean belief that exposing your recovering body to cold can result in “saan-hoo-poong,” or unexplained body aches and joint pain. (How are aches and pains avoidable after delivering a small human, though?)
On breastfeeding: Koreans believe that miyeokguk, seaweed soup, is the elixir of life and can cure everything postpartum. The iron, iodine and other nutrients supposedly detoxify you, help your uterus contract and bring in your milk supply. Miyeokguk is available at every meal in labor and delivery wards. I went for it, and made sure to eat all the seaweed soup offered to me. My mom learned how to make me some when she was visiting after we came home from the hospital, too. I liked it, and so far, so good on the nursing front!
One thing I’ve observed is that while many women breastfeed, I don’t usually see people nursing in public. Women here tend to pump at home and then bottle feed babies in public more often than not.
On childcare: This is a pretty traditional society on the childcare front. Within most families, the dads work and the moms stay home. Extended family members are a huge part of the child-rearing “village” in Seoul, though, a cultural tradition that I really love and something that feels familiar to me as a Chinese-American, because my family approaches children with the same attitude. The Korean mothers I know really welcome their moms, siblings, mothers-in-law or women friends to help shoulder the burden of childcare.
One troubling aspect of childcare in South Korea, which I’ve reported on for NPR, is the shame that comes with being a single mom here because the two-parent, nuclear family tradition is so dominant. It’s so intense that single mothers can feel forced to place their kids up for adoption.
On catering to kids: Seoul is a great city for little ones. People all over South Korea love children. My daughter will yell Annyeonghaseyo!, meaning “Hello!”, to any and all strangers and they adore it. She earns smiles and responses every time, and people are always giving her treats or free ice cream cones when we’re out and about. At grocery stores and malls, there are also play zones, Chuck E. Cheese-style, where you can drop your kid off with babysitters, for free, while you shop. There’s even a national children’s day celebrating kids each May. No work, no school, just fun.
Our favorite piece of kid-culture, though, are the amazing kid-themed “cafés.” There’s a Hello Kitty café, a jungle-themed café, even a sheep café (Eva’s favorite so far; she is in love)… For the price of a meal, your kid can go explore jungle gyms, toys, play kitchens, and arts and crafts. There are caretakers in the play areas, so you can work or hang out with friends.
On parenting abroad: My favorite thing about being here is having an opportunity to discover a new place with our children. By living abroad, Eva and Isabel are interacting with character-building unpredictability and serendipity.
T.S. Eliot has a great quote about how the people who really know a place are the ones who leave it and come back: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I hope leaving the U.S. gives us a new perspective that we didn’t have before, which is priceless.
Thank you so much, Elise!
(All photos courtesy of Elise Hu-Stiles.)