How Living and Breathing In An Asian Megacity Has Changed My Notions of Freedom

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing on my smartphone. “How to live freely” was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire freedom construct has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of other “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when speaking through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the Chinese internet famous for its ‘Great Firewall’ than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

But my main anxiety is the environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

Eva figures out how to roll down a grassy knoll. Okinawa, March 2016.

In March, my husband, daughters and parents joined me for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later, when they caught up with us, my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down it for fun. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

On balance, I think what we gain from my posting in Seoul and traveling around the region outweighs staying close to the shoreline back home. But this urban existence in an Asian megacity has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next.

When I was 20, I imagined I’d someday want to cover China, from China. It’s my ancestral homeland and I thought I should put my Mandarin to good use. These days, given the alarming pollution levels there, I’m not so sure. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse than those of us in Seoul when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are the stuff of a job as a foreign correspondent, they’ll shape me, amuse me and give me a little edginess, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious. Its effects may not be known for a while, and it may never be clear how or if they do.

The privileges of my life and work have so far spared me a “I can’t have it all” moment, until now. I think this is it. I want my children to be able to play outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story outside a war zone. I don’t think I get to have both.

(Cross-posted at


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