Yunji de Nies is a journalist that has covered many stories over the span of her career including the presidencies of both President Bush and President Obama as a White House correspondent.
She also lived and worked in New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
Yunji is currently an ABC News correspondent based in Atlanta, Georgia covering stories from throughout the Southeast region for a variety of ABC’s news programs including “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.”
We were able to cover Yunji’s background and journalism career and are pleased to present this interview with her.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on Yunji
Where and when were you born?
I was born in San Francisco, California on February 12. A lady never reveals her age. Ha ha!
How did your parents meet?
My parents met in Pusan, South Korea. My dad is from Holland and mom from Pusan. My dad was on a bus and my mom was on the same bus with her best friend. My dad had a shaved head and, because of that, my mom thought he was a GI. So they were joking around trying to practice their English but his English was also terrible because he was from Holland. Long story short, they liked each other. He was living in Japan at the time and after a year of coming back and forth they decided to get together and move to San Francisco. I was born shortly after that. When I was two, we moved to Hawaii and I grew up mainly in Hawaii. We lived on Oahu until I was about six. My parents separated and then I went to live with my mom on the Big Island. I later went to high school in San Francisco.
Do you have any siblings?
I was the only child from my parents. I have two stepbrothers from my mother’s second marriage. They are not half Korean though, they are white.
How well do you speak and understand Korean?
It is so-so, at best. I took Korean for four years at Yale. I took a semester abroad and a summer abroad for six months in Korea. I lived with my grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousin. All of my mother’s family still lives in Korea. So, I was with them for six months and my Korean was really good. But, after I got back home I was out of practice. I can still call my grandma and ask her how she is doing and all of that. I can order at a restaurant but that is about it. But, I could never do an interview in Korean. It is really shameful and hopefully at some point I can.
What is your favorite Korean food?
I love Korean food. When I get sick, I always get samgyetang (삼계탕). That just heals me. I’m very much into Korean food and can eat it every day.
How big is the Korean community in Atlanta, where you currently work/reside?
There is a huge Korean community out here with lots of great restaurants. We also have this wonderful place called Jeju Spa. It is this place where you can get the Korean scrub and all of the saunas. It is just amazing.
Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans?
Hawaii is full of hapas so you never really feel out of place. It wasn’t really until I moved to San Francisco Bay Area that I even had more of that awareness. The San Francisco Bay Area is also incredibly diverse. I’ve been lucky to have grown up with people who look like me and have a similar background. I think that made it really easy for me.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
I think that for me the hardest thing actually came later. I was really motivated to learn how to speak Korean in college. It was something I wanted to do because I didn’t grow up speaking Korean at all. My mom only yelled at me in Korean when she was really angry but other than that there was not a lot of Korean in our house. Minus the Korean dramas, those were always on. So, when I was taking the Korean classes in college I had a lot of regret that she hadn’t spoken to me in Korean as a child growing up. It was really nice for me when I finally did go to Korea and live with my family for six months and really had this infusion of that part of my identity in a way that I had never had before. It was really meaningful and a very transformative experience for me and got me a lot closer to my mother. It really changed everything because I so understood where she was coming from in a way that when I was much younger I didn’t understand at all.
My mother is that classic Korean mom. When I would start a new school year she would go
to the teacher and would say, “Yunji is not challenged enough and make sure she gets extra homework.” It was never enough according to her standards. I remember one summer in the third grade, I had to sit down for two hours a day for the entire summer and copy an entire children’s dictionary word for word. I had to write the whole thing out. My mother is amazing but I had a lot of resentment because she was so hard on me. It was like I would get an A- and she would ask why it wasn’t an A. I never sort of understood that drive. But then went I went there and spent more time with my family and saw their education system and how hard they are pushed. What we go through compared to what my cousin’s go through in terms of education are like light and day. They are so challenged and work so hard and are studying constantly. Then I understood a lot more about why my mom was so tough on me and I appreciated it a little more.
Was your family in Korea accepting of you?
My grandma has always been open. I remember the first time I went to Korea was when I was in the fourth grade and visited periodically after that. But that was when we had gotten the closest.
When was the last time that you have been to Korea?
I was lucky enough to go when President went, not this last time but the time before. Before this assignment in Atlanta, I was a White House correspondent for three years. It was in the fall of 2009. I was with the President because he was on an Asian tour and on that trip we went to Japan, Singapore, and China and then ended in Seoul. I ended up dropping off and staying for a little while with my family, which was nice. I got to go to the Blue House, which is their equivalent of our White House.
What do people who meet/see you think your ethnicity is?
Oh, I get all kinds of things. Filipino, Hispanic, Native American, but most often I get Filipino. Sometimes I get South Asian. People can never really figure it out. I went to Peru with my mom in October and everyone was speaking to me in Spanish because they all thought I was.
When did you know that you wanted to become a journalist?
I was always interested in performance and did a lot of theater when I was in high school. But, I didn’t really want to be an actress. I always had a real deep interest in news and when I was in college I interned at “Nightline.” That was very inspirational for me in terms of what I wanted to do immediately after that summer and so I decided that I wanted to be a reporter. I finished at Yale with a political science degree. All the programs at Yale are very traditional as they didn’t have a communications degree. They have economics, philosophy, political science and your basic majors. So, I chose political science. It is a great major but just you can’t just read a lot of books and get a job. I then went to U.C. Berkeley for grad school at the Journalism school there. I went to Georgia after that and worked as a producer at a local station and was freelancing short stories for CNN. I then made a tape and sent it to New Orleans and that was where I got my first on-air job. That was in 2004. I had been working there for a year and then Hurricane Katrina hit and worked there for a year after that. It was like an amazing story, personally terrible and professionally, obviously, a huge opportunity. From there, I went to ABC’s NewsOne. It is basically where we do reports for all of ABC’s affiliates. For example, we would do a story from Washington and then all of the stations would use it. We were sort of like their national correspondents. ABC has about five people who do that. So, I did that for about a year and a half and then I became a White House correspondent. I was there for the last year of President Bush and the first year and a half of President Obama. I then moved down to Atlanta to general assignment reporting. I love politics, that was my undergrad, and was what I always wanted to do but I really love field reporting and wanted to do that more. So, I moved down here and have done it ever since. I cover 13 states from the border of Texas and Louisiana to Florida and up to North Carolina and everything in-between. I’m on an airplane two to three times a week. We have a rule in this business; no pets, no plants and no produce. That is really how you have to live if you want to do this job. It never fails, I’ll go to the farmers market and my fridge is full and then I’ll get a call for some news break and I’ll have to go. You really live this kind of transient lifestyle. It is stressful and is really horrible for your social life because you are the most unavailable type of person and you are never around. But, it is an exciting job and you get to meet a lot of interesting people and cover a lot of huge stories. It is a lot of fun.
What was it like being a White House correspondent?
I loved covering the White House and it is the crown jewel of reporting in terms of reporting because the President is always doing something important. You are never bored there. It was a really interesting time because it was the last year of the Bush administration so you had the height of the financial collapse and things really started to fall apart as his presidency was ending. That was a tremendous education for me in economics with Fannie, Freddie and all of the housing authorities and everything that was going on there. You just saw everything crumbling. Then the bailout came, so there was a lot of policy in that last year. And then you had President Obama coming in and there was so much excitement because of the historic nature of his presidency. There was also so much pressure on him because of the enormous financial crisis and a lot of expectation. Not to mention all the interest in the First Family. I did so much work for “Good Morning America” and did a lot of stories on the First Lady and on Malia and Sasha. I did a ton of stories on the dog and what kind they were going to get. Was it going to be a shelter dog or a hypoallergenic dog; the amount of dog stories was ridiculous because people were so interested. Americans apparently love their pets and they are very interested to see what the First Family would select as their pet. That was actually a lot of fun and I had a great time in DC.
As a White House correspondent you were able to cover both President Bush and President Obama. Do you feel there was any difference in covering them?
You had one administration winding down and another one ramping up so I think that the interest level was different. Normally there would have been a lot less interest because there was one person leading and so much focus on that election. If you’ll remember, the primary period when you had Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama and there was so much attention on the Democrats. And then on the Republican side, you had John McCain and Sarah Palin. The primary politics and election politics that year were so interesting that, as would be expected, there was less focus on the White House. And then you had the financial crisis. As the President was leaving he is still responsible. You had Hank Paulson coming to him telling him we have to fix this or the whole stock market is going to collapse. That was the news drive and coverage, so I was always busy. With the Bush administration, as would be expected, after seven plus years by the time I got there, America’s questions about who President Bush was had already been asked and answered. But, when the Obama family came in, it was the first time in a long time that there were children in the White House. You had all this interest in who they were. I don’t think you have that as much anymore. I remember all the interest in the First Lady’s fashion and the fact that she wore a sleeveless dress for the official White House photo and how it was this big deal. Also how she worked out. Everything about them to the public was so fascinating. People are also fascinated by the President’s personal story and the fact that he is from Hawaii. That was a big deal for me because for the last four years he goes home every Christmas and I’ve been fortunate enough to be assigned that story every year. Even after I moved down here to Atlanta, I was lucky to still get that assignment. Because I’m from there! It’s been awesome because you get to go home and see a different side of the President. See him body surf and have a good time and becomes the local boy that he is. People go crazy for that, if he goes to get shave ice or whatever, they love it. At the same time, a big story could be breaking. It is an interesting balance. I remember three years ago when you had the underwear bomber on Christmas. He’s in Hawaii but still has to respond to that as President. That’s the thing about the White House, you are never off. You never turn your Blackberry off and never turn your phone off. You can never have more than two drinks because you never know when something is going to happen and you always have to be able to go live.
It must have been great to be able to cover President Obama’s trips back to Hawaii, right?
Yes, it is always nice to get a free trip home especially when you live so far away. But they are definitely working vacations as you are not really on vacation. It’s nice to see my family.
How do you like being based in Atlanta covering the Southeast region now?
I love being down here. As I was moving down here we had the Gulf oil crisis two years ago. That was a huge story to cover and brought me back to New Orleans where I had worked before. That story was particularly close to my heart just because I love that region and it was devastating to see all that oil and damage that happened during that time. Last year around this time we were covering Tuscaloosa and the terrible tornadoes that hit there. I’ve covered a lot of tragedy and a lot of fun in between. It’s exciting and a fun job.
In your professional career, you’ve been mainly based in the South. Do you consider any specific location as your favorite?
I would say New Orleans always has a special place in my heart. I love that city, the music, the culture, the food and the people. It’s just an amazing place. If you ever have the opportunity to go there, do it, because you will always have a good time. When I lived down there for my first reporting job, I was broke and made no money. I shopped at Goodwill and Marshalls. I had the best time I think that I’ll ever have. There is always good music, the people are very open and warm. They’ll feed you, have a good time with you, and get you a drink, whatever. You could have no money and still have a great time. It was the best town to be in to start out. The news is amazing because it is a relatively midsize city but you still have national level news because you have amazing characters. You could go to a city council meeting and normally those are boring, but not in New Orleans.
Would you ever want to be based elsewhere?
Yes, Honolulu sounds good! My mom sent me to high school on the mainland because she wanted me to go to college and she felt like the schools were going to be better. I’m from a very small town on the Big Island, Waimea, which is even smaller than Kona. So she thought there would be more opportunities for me on the mainland which is why she sent me away. But, I always say that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to get back.
Is there anybody in particular that you have worked with over the years that you would consider your favorite colleague or person to work with?
I think the best writer, in terms of a reporter, is John Donvan. He’s a correspondent with us here at ABC News. He is an amazing writer and was the correspondent at “Nightline” when I was an intern. His pieces moved me and had the ability to make you cry. Nobody can write like John Donvan. He is far and away the model of what a correspondent is.
What is a typical work day like for you?
Every day is so different that there is no real typical day. I wake up in the morning and then I work out. We have an editorial call at 9 o’clock that I listen to that kind of get the sense of what the organization, ABC News, is doing for the day. I listen to that and get an idea of what stories they are interested in and what should I be looking for. At the same time, I’m reading a paper. I’m also looking at news across the region because I do cover such a wide area that I have to keep up with whatever is going on. I read a lot of wire stories for the Southeast about what is happening here. I also keep an eye on what is happening nationally because there may be a good story about something trending in really any area. You could always bring it down to Atlanta or make it relevant to the city you are in. And then I’m either researching a story or sending up an idea to producers in New York and see if they are interested in something that I am working on. It’s really open. You could be having some friends over and all of a sudden you might get a phone call. Like a few weeks ago, I was driving home and then I got a call that we need to get on a plane as soon as possible. There was this terrible story in Houston of a woman who shot a mother leaving a pediatrician’s office with a three day old baby and kidnapped the baby. It’s a very complicated story but, the point is I had to get on the next flight to Houston, go there, figure out the story and then I was live the next morning. I slept two hours. You get used to not sleeping and you learn some tricks like how to nap whenever you can. The way I rationalize it for myself is that you are only live on television for a couple of minutes so even if you have had no sleep, you can fake it for a couple of minutes and make it through.
Who comes up with the majority of stories that you cover? Do you have the ability to create your own stories or personalize assigned stories?
Yes, they want us to pitch. Part of my job in being down here is to keep an eye on the region and to let them know what I think is heating up. I have 11 televisions in my office. They are tuned to all the local affiliates here and to MSNBC, CNN and also the Weather Channel. I’m just keeping an eye on everything that is going on. Sometimes it is a lot of noise, so I turn them off. So I’m submitting a lot of ideas. But, breaking news is what drives our business so a lot of it is assigned.
You’ve covered a lot of major stories during your career. Has there been any particular story that has stood out or affected you most?
You can never discount the privilege and amazing witness to history that you are when you are covering the White House because you are seeing so many world events happen before your eyes. Especially when you are traveling and you get to see the Kremlin or the Blue House and all the places that important decisions are made. So I think that stands for something that was very meaningful to me. But, in terms of story itself, Katrina will always be the benchmark for me. So many stories that I cover now I just parachute in and then I get to go home. The difference is that was my home. My neighborhood was under water. My station got destroyed. Most of my friends and coworkers lost everything or were severely impacted. Now, I can go there and sympathize with the story but it is not nearly the same. Also, in terms of the commitment; I had been living in that city for a year, the storm hit and then I lived for a year after. I got to see the city come back to life in that span of a year. Even when I left it wasn’t fully back on its feet, so that was very powerful. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it happened really early in my life. I would probably have a little more perspective if I covered it now, but it was really meaningful to me.
Do you think that being of mixed Korean descent has had any effect on your career?
I don’t necessarily think that it makes me a better journalist or anything like that. I do think that having a diverse background is useful. For me, living in so many different places is useful too because you are able to see people from so many different sides. I love being exposed to two very different cultures and to have that wide perspective. At the same time that I visit my family in Korea, I grew up also visiting my dad’s family in Holland. I was exposed to a lot of different things. I think it is an asset for sure. People are always troubled by my name so that is always a good conversation starter.
Ah, you brought up your Korean first name, Yunji. So do people have a hard time pronouncing it?
Oh my God, it is awful. It was especially when I worked for NewsOne, which is where you are working for all the affiliates. We had a pronouncer because for stations that didn’t know you and they run your story so they have to know how to say your name. Finally, I got so frustrated because the anchors and all of these different stations were saying it so wrong. So we put up a pronouncer that I wrote that said Yunji rhymes with spongy. That was the only frustrating thing. But, you know, at least it is a name that no one would forget!
Had you ever thought of changing your name?
It is interesting. I think it is not something that happens as much now but is definitely something that happened a lot in television. I did have a news director when I was first starting out, not in New Orleans, but when I was first making my tape and who shall remain nameless, that suggested I change my name because they said it was too hard to pronounce. No way. That’s who I am and I’m not going to do that. That is what makes this country so interesting, we have a lot of people who are different and have funny sounding and interesting names. I’m really glad that I didn’t change it.
My grandma’s name is Jiyun and that is why my name is Yunji. And Yun means lotus and Ji means wisdom. It is a very deliberate name and I think I would break my mother’s heart if I ever changed it.
Have you met or had the opportunity to get to know any other fellow mixed Korean journalists such as Liz Cho or Sonya Crawford?
Yes. After I interned at “Nightline,” I was a desk assistant for “World News” and Liz was anchoring the overnight show. I went and met her and watched her anchor. She’s just as pretty in person as she is on TV. Sonya and I worked together more closely in DC as we were both in Washington at the same time. I followed a similar career path as she did as she did with NewsOne and then over to the network side. I did the same thing. We are still friends on Facebook. She lives in the Midwest now and I don’t see her as much. She was always great in giving me career advice and being a big sister. I appreciate her a lot.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a journalist?
Have an open mind and pursue whatever interests you. Do the stories that you are passionate about and be bold. When I was here in Atlanta before working as a producer for the station, I approached CNN and said, “Hey, I can give you political stories from a young person’s perspective. You don’t have this on your air.” Just go and ask for opportunities. If you are going to be a journalist I don’t think you can be shy so you probably won’t have any trouble doing that. Reach out to people who you admire. It’s amazing how much they’ll help you. I had some producers that I really thought were fantastic and helped me in my career in giving me advice on where to go.
Another thing that was really useful for me was the Asian American Journalist Association. It is an amazing network of professionals who are really committed to helping other Asians in media. That can be online, print, radio, TV, what have you. I had some mentors through that program and I also mentor others through that program. It is a really good resource. A lot of times in this job you just want someone to bounce ideas off of and say, “Hey, am I doing the right thing.” It helps to talk with someone with a similar background as you. It was really good to have someone outside of my friends and family as those people will tell you the truth. Reaching out to other professionals that are in your field is really helpful and AAJA was a great way to do that.
How supportive have your parents been with your career?
My parents have always been very supportive. They are like any parents and like seeing me on TV. My mom says she doesn’t miss me as much because she gets to see me on TV. But I tell her that is not really fair as it is kind of a one way street.
How do you utilize social networking?
I am on Twitter more than on Facebook. I think it is a little more personal and instant. I used to be really into it. I kind of go through cycles. I do post stories on Facebook and I like to see some of the comments, if they are related to the story. But, I really like Twitter a lot because it gives you the immediate ability to converse back and forth with people. It’s a lot of fun and I get endless amusement from it.
Do you think that the social networking has changed the way news is presented to the public?
Yes, we can connect with people a lot easier and get instant feedback. People are not afraid to tell you what they think. If they don’t like something they will let you know right away. It’s great for us because sometimes if I’m looking for something, I can put a call out on Twitter. Inevitably somebody will respond that way and that is cool. The nice thing about Twitter is that everyone is an equal. I’m following celebrities and then I’m following people who I just think are funny and amusing or have something interesting to say.
Have you ever been contacted by Korean media?
When I was still a reporter in New Orleans, I was featured, along with a number of Korean American journalists, in Korean Vogue. It was definitely a highlight for family over there to see!
Do you have any thoughts on the recent South/North Korean tension and/or the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un?
I watch those politics very closely because I have family in South Korea and I’m concerned about that instability. My heart goes out to the people of North Korea living under that regime. I hope that things change for the better there soon.
Do you have any thoughts on the 2012 Presidential election?
I love politics – how much time do you have? Elections are also exciting, especially on the national level because they force us to consider our community and choose how we want to be governed. I hate the negative ads, they can get so ridiculous! But I really enjoy a good debate – can’t wait to see the nominee and the President go head to head.
Have you had any embarrassing moments on live TV?
Of course! That is the beauty and the curse of live television. The best part is that if you missed it, it’s gone forever! Give me some soju, and I’ll tell you many stories.
What are some career goals that you’d like to achieve that you haven’t already? Would you want to become a full-time anchor at some point?
You never know… let me get back to you on this one.
What are some of your hobbies and interests?
My dad is a yoga teacher, so I like to do yoga. I love the beach, but I live in landlocked Atlanta. That is not very helpful. I love biking. I like to read but half the time I’m just reading Twitter instead of a book. I think growing up on an island that I just like being outside. I love hiking and like going running even though I’m not very good at it and run very slowly. I’m a terrible cook so I don’t like to cook but I do love to eat though!
Is there anybody in particular that you respect/look up to?
I think that my parents are amazing. They were both immigrants who came to the US with almost no money. They are both successful and honorable people and before any big decision I always talk to them first. They couldn’t be more different but they are both wonderful.
Do you like soju?
I do, but it is dangerous.
How did you find out about HalfKorean.com and what did you think about it when you first saw it?
I’m going to be honest and sound like such a schmuck. Since you never know what people are writing about every couple months I vanity Google, where you Google yourself. This is terrible that I’m admitting this. Because people will slam your stories or people will write nice things, you are just sort of curious about what is going on. So, I found myself on the site and then I started to look around. I was really interested in seeing all the other people. I was especially intrigued by the athletes. I think the most interesting part of the site is where you can see pictures of people and to see how different we all look. There is something familiar and similar in all of the faces but we all look so different. It is beautiful to see all those different faces and mixes together. It is wonderful.
Any words that you would like to pass on to the mixed Korean community?
I’m really excited about the site. I think it is great and I’m excited to read the other interviews. I wish you the best of luck in hunting down all the half Koreans out there. You have your work cut out for you!
We want to thank Yunji for doing this interview with us and wish her much continued success!
You can follow and connect with Yunji via her official Facebook or Twitter.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders