Written by Carolyn Carpenter in collaboration with Amy Oh
The following is written from the perspective of one of my students. The events are all real although some of the details have been altered.
“七顚八起(칠전팔기): 七(칠) seven, 顚(전) to lie face down, 八(팔) eight, 起(기) to stand up.” To fall down seven times but to rise up again eight, to relentlessly persevere despite facing numerous obstacles. At last after hours of copying ancient proverbs, I wrote my name, Oh Eun Soon, on my homework and drifted off to sleep.
The next morning is all a daze. At first, I did not recognize her but in my heart I knew she was my sister. We made small talk because the conversation we were really having was too dangerous to be spoken out loud. The truth is that I was living in China with a Chinese family, eating Chinese food, and going to a Chinese school. However, I am not Chinese. I was born in North Korea. Eight years ago my parents placed me under the care of a family in China. I pretended to be their child but it did not take long before the five of us were all part of the same family. Now the time had come for me to go and reunite with my biological parents. They were beckoning for me and so I followed them.
That day I skipped school and vanished without a trace. Just like that I was gone, on my way to South Korea. After growing so close to my family in China, we were afraid they would try to prevent me from leaving. This meant that I could not even say thank you or goodbye to the only family I had known for eight years. I want them to know that I love them, that I am doing well, and that none of this was my choice. However, I do not believe there will ever come a day when I can relay my message to them.
I am not the only one who could not say goodbye like this. My story is not an anomaly. Most people like me who migrate from North Korea to China, to a third country like Thailand and then finally to South Korea spend a long time doing so. With no passport, traveling through airport security becomes as dangerous as trekking through the jungle. The journey from North Korea to South Korea can take months or even years but for me I was simply whisked away, thrust back into the care of my long lost family. Before I knew it I was on a plane to South Korea.
Almost immediately after our plane landed, government officials were questioning me about my hometown. This is a common practice for the South Korean government in order to gather intelligence on North Korea. However in my case, this was a futile exercise. I honestly do not remember anything. I can speak Korean but I left when I was too young to comprehend anything that was going on around me, much less anything useful nearly a decade later. After relentlessly asking me questions and realizing that I did not have any valuable information, the officers desperately wanted to end the interview. They proceeded to ask a question anyone would know the answer to. It happened to be everyone except for me.
“Do you look more like your mother or your father?” they inquired.
“I look more like my father,” I replied randomly guessing.
The next day my parents joined us. It was then the officers joked,“You look more like your mother, you don’t even know that!” I guess randomness was not on my side. Later that night I reexamined my face in the mirror and I realized they were right. I do look more like my mother. This incident reflected our reality. For the first time in nearly 10 years my family was all together, yet we felt more like strangers.
Over time we began to function more like a normal family. Everyday we spent time together as we shared our meals, our possessions, and our lives. However, we also shared the complicated experience of being a North Korean Defector living in the South. While we were beginning to assimilate into South Korean society, something always felt wrong. Instead of helping us be ourselves, the world around us constantly reminded us that we will always be different.
Then one day everything took a turn for the worse. My brother, who was working at a chicken restaurant as a delivery man, died when his motorcycle collided with a car. The witnesses say that it was not his fault but the police refused to let us see the CCTV footage. They made it clear that he was to blame, and by extension we were too, not because of any evidence but because of our background. They asked us to compensate the driver of the car who hit him. We could not afford to do this. Before my brother’s accident my older sister had moved to England so when our problems with the insurance company became insurmountable we decided to join her. Then there were four of us. Once again I was not properly able to say goodbye.
In order to get a visa to go to England we had to file for asylum from North Korea. However, this was complicated because we came to South Korea first. Nevertheless we arrived safely and were reunited with my sister, eager for a fresh start. I look back on my time spent in England fondly. My older sister got married and I became an aunt. I made many friends and the local church was hospitable to my family. I started going by Amy. I learned English by going to high school. My parents on the other hand were not as successful at picking up English. They relied heavily upon me to help them communicate with the world around them. Blocked in by the language barrier that surrounded them and with me as the only gateway between themselves and the rest of the world, my parents were struggling but surviving.
Then one day our pasts once again caught up with us. Due to the complications with claiming asylum the government decided to deport us. The police came to our apartment, arrested us and sent us to prison. At this time they strip searched us to the point where we were completely naked, vulnerable, and exposed. This is the first time I had ever experienced shame and humiliation so fully. The police confiscated all of the money my family had worked hard to earn when we were in South Korea. They told us that if we had evidence that the money was ours and that we had earned it in South Korea they would return it to us. Then without so much as a pound in our pockets we were shipped back to South Korea. Now there were only three of us. At least this time our goodbye did not have to be forever.
When we arrived in South Korea a second time we didn’t have a house, money or a support system. We had nothing. The first thing we did was borrow money and go to the bank and get documents to send back to England. Even though we submitted all the evidence the British government requested, adequately proving we had earned the money in South Korea, they did not keep their promise. Whatever we did was utterly useless and futile. Perhaps the money was not objectively a huge amount, but for our family this was our lifeline, our last hope. Just like that it was gone, perpetually trapped in the English bureaucracy.
We survived off of hospitality. To an extent we still do. We were couch surfing, drifting from one part time job to another. No matter how many of us were cramped into a tiny apartment it was hard not to feel alone, even though we had each other. At least here my family can communicate with people on the surface, but whether they can really understand each other is something else entirely. I am the ultimate interloper. I am ceaselessly caught between all the places and people I once called home but can never return to, and the better future I dream of. I cannot focus enough to really enjoy the present.
Currently, I go to a boarding school for students like me, students with the intrinsically complicated history that being North Korean demands. While we are all different, each of my classmates and I have a story with commonalities that can comfort us. There are beautiful mountains and hills surrounding our small campus. When I gaze upon these vast landscapes I cannot help but feel suffocated because of the strict rules. It is a Christian school but even though I sometimes pray I do not consider myself religious. Recently, I got caught drinking beer. I am old enough to legally drink alcohol but now I must copy two chapters of the Bible every day for two weeks.
It is a fact that I am 23, but in moments like this it is hard to figure out what age I really am. If my life was a clock, its hands would be simultaneously trying to push me forward and pull me back. Sometimes I feel like I am aging at a glacially slow pace. Even though I have not graduated from high school, Facebook reminds me that my English friends and former classmates are enjoying their college lives, even getting married. It is like I am suspended in adolescence as those around me get to grow up. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I am aging rapidly. In many ways, the manner in which I grew up never let me be a child. I was always forced to deal with things way beyond my maturity level. Even now my mother insists that I stay in school but in reality I am already the breadwinner of my family.
Although my family wishes to support me their health prevents them from doing so. I must support them. The last school vacation I went home and found that my dad was too injured to work. I would not have even known this unless I went home. My parents did not tell me because they did not want me to worry. Over vacation I worked at an electronics factory for 10 hours a day. The work was tediously boring but my family needs the money and I have obligations. As I watched the shining scraps of metal methodically make their way down the assembly line, I had to prevent myself from day dreaming. For a while, my dream was to be a translator but I lack all the qualifications necessary to get a job, even though I can speak Chinese, Korean, and English naturally. These days I feel conflicted. I am conflicted because I do not know what kind of career I should pursue. Moreover, I am conflicted because I must work hard to support my family financially, but I also must study hard to become better equipped to support them in the future. Once again my past and my dreams for the future are fighting to monopolize my present.
I live in a world of paradoxes. My life is perpetually plagued by the home I cannot remember, but whose influence I can never forget. I am able to blend in everywhere I go but I am never fully able to fit in anywhere. My present perception of age and what my future holds are inseparable from my past. Recently, I realized I am nostalgic for all of the places I have spent time in. However because of the one place that I do not remember living, I have also spent my life searching for a place to stay. As soon as I get close to someone we are forced to separate. Somehow it never gets easier either to disappear or to say goodbye. Somehow I inch closer and closer to building myself a new home and abandoning the home that never truly was one. Even if I fall down seven times I will always rise an eighth.
Carolyn Carpenter is a 2013-2015 ETA at Cheonan Cheongsu High School in Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do.
Amy Oh is a student at Drim School in Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do.