“Reporting From Home,” with Peter Choi ’17
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. Our guest today is Peter Choi. He came to SPU as an international student from Korea to study journalism. His career took off immediately after graduation, and he was working as an international correspondent for the Korean National News during the pandemic, which left Peter and his new wife quarantining on opposite sides of the globe. They were recently reunited when Peter became a local multimedia reporter for KXLY in Spokane. Peter, thank you so much for joining us today.
Peter Choi: Thanks for having me.
Amanda: Well, let’s start with what feels like an obvious first question to me: Why journalism? Why is that something that you crossed the globe to study? Why did you want to be a reporter?
Peter: You know, that’s a question that I always ask myself in the morning. Why journalism?
Amanda: (laughs) Why am I doing this?
Peter: (laughs) But I want to go back to when I was a little boy. Basically, I always loved speaking in front of the public. But the year I really wanted to pursue journalism was when SPU had a campus shooting in 2014. I remember sitting in my dorm in the Emerson building, and the only way to stay connected with what was actually happening outside my room was the news. And at that time, I was living in my single room, so I didn’t have a roommate like anybody else, so I was really scared. I really didn’t know what was actually going on and my RA was running up and down and, “Close the door. Stay inside.” I was very scared at the time.
But watching TV news really helped me stay informed at that time. That was the moment I realized the importance of the news. I remember telling myself, “I want to be like that reporter on the scene. I want to be like that guy on TV helping viewers like me who may not know what’s going on.” I think that was the pivotal moment at that time, yeah.
Amanda: So, you graduate. You get married. You land your dream job as an international reporter for a large, state-run TV station in Korea. I mean, to me it seems like exactly what you’re saying. You were a student in your dorm room. You’re watching TV saying, “That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to be.” And then right after graduation, that’s what you were doing.
Peter: Yeah, which is a crazy thing to think about. But actually, after my graduation and my first job, I went into the military. I started military in Korea for a couple years. And then I was trying to go back to the States, but I didn’t know how to do that because my visa process was actually pretty slow because of COVID and I had to find my job. Then this job in Korea, a TV station in Korea, it’s the only English-speaking TV station in Korea. Arirang, that’s what it’s called. And I applied and I got the job and, yeah.
Amanda: So here you were, your first job post-military. Your first job doing exactly what you were talking about, being on the front lines of the pandemic and trying to share information with viewers. Even if you’re not calming their fears, knowing is always better than not knowing, right?
Amanda: So giving people information. Give us a picture of what that was like.
Peter: It was definitely an interesting time for sure, because nobody knew what was happening. I mean, I remember hearing the first case in Korea, and I thought it was going to be just like another disease. It kind of comes and goes. But it really hit Korea so hard that we ended up covering, I ended up being a designated COVID reporter in Korea. I witnessed the first time the South Korean government implemented a mask mandatory, to administer the first COVID shot. It was definitely an interesting time, because I reported not only how the pandemic impacted South Korea but also North Korea, which was a very, very rare opportunity as a first-year reporter. So that was interesting.
Amanda: Do you have any specific moments that you look back on and think, “Oh my goodness, I was right in the middle of history?”
Peter: I think it was the time when the Pfizer COVID arrived in Korea for the first time. I remember seeing that in an airport to deliver the COVID vaccine, the bus ride and all that and seeing that. I’m surrounded by 20 different reporters saying, “Hey, the first COVID vaccine just arrived right here in Incheon International Airport.” Doing that report was amazing, as a first-year reporter, too, because everyone is watching at home. I’m in the middle of history. That was an interesting moment, yeah.
“I’m surrounded by 20 different reporters saying, ‘Hey, the first COVID vaccine just arrived right here in Incheon International Airport.’ Doing that report was amazing, as a first-year reporter, too, because everyone is watching at home. I’m in the middle of history. That was an interesting moment, yeah.”
Amanda: Was there a moment where you knew things that you couldn’t report, that you wished you could tell the public?
Peter: That’s a good question. I mean, we are a state-run news service, but I wouldn’t say there was much information we couldn’t share with the public. But I think the way we said it was different than other outlets, for sure. Let’s say if Korea’s having trouble getting enough COVID vaccines, we do say that the Korean government is struggling, but at the same time we emphasize that what the government’s doing at that time to fix the issue. So the way we say things is a little bit different, but I wouldn’t say that there was information that we couldn’t share with the world.
Amanda: It was just the spin. That’s the right word, right, for news? The spin you put on it.
Peter: Right, exactly.
Amanda: It has to be positive. And so on a personal note, explain to me how this works. When you got married, how you two ended up quarantining on opposite sides of the globe. That could not have been easy.
Peter: Thanks to internet … (laughs)
Amanda: (laughs) Modern technology.
Peter: Thanks to Zoom, exactly. Thinking back, if it was 1970, 1960, we’d probably have to mail our letters and things like that, but thanks to internet, we actually felt like we were in the same country because we were talking on the phone or texting spontaneously and things like that. So it wasn’t as hard as I was expecting, but we did know that we had to focus on our work. We both knew that we needed to do our best to focus on our careers at that time so that we … Yeah, I mean, it was hard. It was a difficult time, but at the same time I think our jobs really helped us out at that time.
Amanda: I would imagine you have to really throw yourself into your work. And I think you mentioned to me earlier that you really felt like your colleagues, your co-reporters who took you under their wings kind of felt like family.
Peter: Yeah, really. I mean, obviously I lived with my parents at that time, but I barely saw them. So yeah, the colleagues at work, they were my family. We still stay connected. As a matter of fact, when I go back to Korea I do see them still, which is good.
Amanda: So you’re here now. Yay! You’re back in the States, reunited in the same city as your spouse. Tell us about your current role.
Peter: My current job is called multimedia reporter. A lot of people ask me what that is. What is the difference from just reporter? Multimedia reporter or multi-skill reporter is kind of like a one-man band. We shoot videos, edit videos too, say it in front of camera, write articles. We do everything. That’s what my job is right now. We cover local crimes to any other feature stories and things like that every day.
Amanda: You went from being thrown in, the tiny fish in the big pond of international, front-line reporting, and now you’re doing all of it yourself in a little bubble for a local station.
Amanda: Was that change difficult for you to make?
Peter: It was, I’m not going to lie. It was, because our targeting audience was definitely different. International news, our target audience is the world, versus local journalism is people who are living in Spokane, in the inland Northwest. So making the change and covering stories focusing on that specific target audience was quite the change, to be honest. Yeah, it was.
Amanda: Which do you like better?
Peter: It’s hard to say which one I like better, but since I’m in local journalism right now, I’d say if I have to pick one, I would say local journalism. (laughs) But there are multiple reasons, though. I’m making a difference every day. People come up to me on the street, saying, “Hey, you’re Peter Choi! Welcome to Spokane. We love to have you. I loved the story that you did a couple days ago.” People do watch, and the things I say on air matter to them, the things I cover. So yeah, a lot of people come up to me and thank me and things like that, which I think is a blessing.
Amanda: Yes, I can imagine. That’s such a blessing. It’s what gets you up in the morning. But does that also put more pressure on what you do?
Peter: I think so. I remember this guy Mike, he came up to me and said, “Hey, welcome to Spokane. We love to have you here, and the things that you say matter.” He just really appreciated what I do. So when I wake up in the morning, I think of Mike. “What can I do for Mike today?”
Amanda: Yeah, and it’s you, right? You’re Mike.
Amanda: It was you in your dorm room. It’s like, what can I do for me/Mike to get them what they need?
Peter: Exactly, yeah.
Amanda: Can you tell us about a story that you did recently that you felt really good about?
Peter: It was a stalking awareness story. It was about how you go about stalking, if somebody is stalking you, what to do and things like that. It was last month when it was National Stalking Awareness Month. I talked to a stalking survivor and then went from there. What are some resources available in the public for the community? And what’s really interesting was I got a voicemail from a viewer saying, “Hey, I want to talk to Peter Choi. I have a question for him.” I thought it was going to be just another criticism or advice or things like that, but she said, “Hey, I’m a stalking victim. Somebody’s been stalking me since 1980.”
Amanda: Oh my goodness.
Peter: “And I don’t know what to do with it. Do you have any resources you could provide? Any people you can direct me to?” At that moment, I realized, “Wow, that lady watched my story and she had the courage to reach out to me and share her story,” which I thought was amazing. So that really stood out to me.
Amanda: Okay, now I’m curious. If I had a stalker, what’s the first thing I should do?
Peter: The main thing you could do is collect all the evidence you can have, let’s say the texts, pictures that he sent or she sent or the letters that you got so far, the voicemail, all the things that, if you can just take pictures of collect into one file. That becomes actual evidence for police to investigate. You might not be able to do that if you don’t have enough evidence. In the meantime, yes, you could call police and say, “Hey, somebody’s stalking me. Can you find out what’s happening?” But at the same time, what you could do in the meantime is gather all that information, all the evidence. That’s the first thing you have to do.
Amanda: That’s great. I’m sure there’s many stories like that that feel just kind of like a normal day at the office, right? You’re compiling information. You’re putting it out there. But it might be exactly what someone needs in that moment.
Amanda: Yeah, there has to be a lot of joy in that, to know you’re helping people. I love that you went into journalism as a helping-people choice, right? You wanted to help people, and that’s what you’re doing.
Peter: Sometimes I wake up in the morning or sometimes I’m in the middle of a studio and thinking, “Wow, I’m really doing the job I always wanted to do.” But at the same time, I’m helping people in the community. I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes I cry.
Peter: When somebody reaches out to me like that, “Wow, I’m making a difference.” That was a huge feeling, yeah.
Amanda: Well, we’re all unique. One of my favorite quotes ever is a Margaret Mead quote: “You are completely and totally unique, just like everyone else.” I think that story brings that back to mind, that you’re getting to do what you love. You’re doing what you’re good at, and yet you’re serving those around you in your community. I mean, I feel like if we’re all doing what God has created us to do, then we’re all, to some extent, making our community a better place, even though we’re fulfilled in our own work.
Which brings me to a question I love asking SPU alumni, because I don’t think I’ve ever run into one who didn’t have an answer to this question. Is there an SPU professor, something they said or did that just really got hold of you and you think about to this day?
Peter: Well, as you know, I was born and raised in Korea. I moved to the US when I was, I think, 2011 when I was 16. I couldn’t really speak English that well. My English wasn’t that good, so I was really self-conscious about my accent all the time. When I was in a public high school, just raising my hand and asking questions was always hard because what if they don’t understand what I say when I ask that question? I was always self-conscious about my accent, and I’ve got this dream that I want to be a broadcast journalist in the States, but that was the biggest hurdle, being self-conscious about my accent. But my communication professors, Debbie Pope and Peg Achterman, they were the biggest supporters when I was in college. They always told me, “Peter, you can do this job. It doesn’t matter. If you have a dream to pursue, just do it.” It always sticks in my head, even right now. That really helped me out, so thank you.
Amanda: Yeah, it’s hard. When you’re a kid, anything that makes you stick out as different is difficult and it doesn’t feel good. And yet, we grow up and become adults and in the marketplace, what makes us unique is what works for you, right? Like, finally what makes you unique is the good thing that’s selling you and setting you apart from others.
Peter: Yeah. I think that was the main thing that they really taught me in college — I mean, yes, all the great topics and subjects and all that — but I think the biggest thing was confidence. They really taught me how to be confident in what I do, basically. That was a big thing. Yeah.
“I think that was the main thing that they really taught me in college — I mean, yes, all the great topics and subjects and all that — but I think the biggest thing was confidence. They really taught me how to be confident in what I do, basically. That was a big thing.”
Amanda: If you were speaking in front of current college students right now and there was just one thing you could get across to them, what would you want them to know?
Peter: That’s a hard question. (laughs) I would say trust yourself. Trust your gut. If you have things that you want to do, it doesn’t matter what other people say. It doesn’t matter what the world is telling you, really. I mean, it sounds a little cheesy, but it really matters. I mean, I remember in high school, my English teacher telling me that, “What, you want to be a CNN reporter? No. You have an accent. You barely speak English.” But look where I am right now. I’m one step closer. So if you have a dream or things that you want to do and you continue to just pursue it every day, then you’re waking up in the middle of the things that you like.
Amanda: Yeah, and the joy is in the hard things, right? The joy isn’t usually in the things that come really easily. The joy is in making those dreams come true. So what is the dream? You said CNN reporter. What’s the ultimate goal for your career?
Peter: (laughs) Well, back in high school, CNN was just the biggest TV station that I knew. You know, that’s a good question. I’m still finding what I want to do, but wherever I end up being, I think the biggest thing I really care about is Asian representation in America, especially Asian males like me. We don’t get to see someone that looks like me often on TV, and I want to change that. I want to inspire other international students and maybe Asian male students who want to do broadcast journalism. I want to tell them, “Hey, you can do this job too.” I think that’s the dream that I want to do. But, I mean, I don’t know, if I want to be a CNN reporter, if they ask me to be one, I’ll do it. (laughs) But I’m working my way up and we’ll see where God takes us.
Amanda: I can see it now, an Asian American sitting in his or her dorm room saying, “Look, if Peter Choi can do it, so can I.”
Peter: Yeah, and I think that inspiring international students, that’s the biggest thing. The people who might be struggling with financial challenges when they’re in college, I would love to help them. My dream would be creating a scholarship based on my name and helping international students. That would be a fantastic dream.
“My dream would be creating a scholarship based on my name and helping international students. That would be a fantastic dream…. Because that really helped me out when I was in college. Someone who donated that money, they kept me going, really. And I don’t know who they are, but if I could see them, I would love to just shake their hands and, ‘Hey, you changed my life and you helped me get where I am right now.’ And I want to do the same thing for another student.”
Amanda: Wow. All right, well, call me tomorrow and we’ll get that set up. We’ll get that started for you.
Peter: Because that really helped me out when I was in college. Someone who donated that money, they kept me going, really. And I don’t know who they are, but if I could see them, I would love to just shake their hands and, “Hey, you changed my life and you helped me get where I am right now.” And I want to do the same thing for another student.
Amanda: Well, you’re well on your way. It’s so much fun talking to you, Peter, and I hope you’ll come back and visit us again when you’re a Nightly News anchor or CNN or wherever you land.
Amanda: But let’s wrap up with our favorite last question we ask all of our guests. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Peter: Trust yourself. I said it before, but I remember having so many things I used to say to myself. “Can I do this job? Can I do this job as a non-native speaker?” If you have something you want to do, go get it, really. Wake up in the morning and tell yourself that you can do it, and one day you’ll realize you’re in the middle of things that you always wanted to do. So trust yourself and trust others as well and love your neighbors. I mean, that’s really the main thing I want to say.
Amanda: Perfect. All right, well, best of luck. Blessings to you and your wife as you re-learn how to live together in the same city. I can imagine that’s very tricky. But we will be following your career, and I know before you know it, you’ll be back on campus establishing that Peter Choi Scholarship.
Peter: That would be fantastic.
Amanda: Thank you so much.
Peter: Thank you. Thanks for having me.