*Today’s article comes from Vanessa who is currently teaching English in Korea along with her husband Dan – and they get to work together, aww! Take it away, Vanessa!*
When I first told my co-workers that my husband and I were going to be moving to Korea to teach English, their first reaction was worry. “But isn’t it dangerous over there?” “You’re not going to North Korea, are you?” “What if you get taken hostage?” For seasoned travelers, these questions are quite normal. The world is a scary place to many people who have never left their own country, and I must admit, the name “Korea” hasn’t exactly had a good reputation in the news until Psy came along. Unfortunately, the kind, open-minded South Korea, is often overshadowed by his demanding, psychopathic brother, North Korea.
Ready for whatever Korea has to offer
During our first few months in Korea, I came across the book Aquariums of Pyongyang, a true story of a Korean family living in Japan who chose to move back home to North Korea, only to be sentenced to treason and life in a torturous gulag. The author had lived 10 precious years of his adolescence being isolated, beaten, and starved only to eventually be let out of the gulag, escape North Korea, and sneak his way through China to South Korea. With his book, I became slightly obsessed with learning about North Korea. I couldn’t believe that a man with such a life story now lived only one hour away! (Heck, all of North Korea lived about 2 hours from my house.) I became fascinated with the idea that the language, history, and personalities of the Koreans who were a part of my daily life mirrored those imprisoned within their own country a few miles north.
When I mentioned my interest in North Korea to one of my Korean co-workers, she told me, “Hey, you know that there’s an apartment building behind this school that is especially for North Koreans, right?” Why hadn’t I thought about it before?! Even though I (most likely) couldn’t meet the now-famous author of Aquariums, dozens of incredible North Korean men and women surrounded my everyday life. But how could I meet them? My Korean language skills were too embarrassingly small, and you can’t quite walk up to a stranger and ask them if they are from North Korea!
One does not simply ask, “Are you from North Korea?”
Quite easily, actually, I found a church service specifically for North Koreans within walking distance of my apartment. With almost freaky timing, one of my co-workers approached me and asked if she could help translate whenever I was ready to go to the service. I finished a giant tome about North Korean history and culture, and my co-worker studied up on some words specific only to North Korea. We were ready.
With some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies as a “thank you for having us” gift, Gina, my husband, and I were seated at a table with four other Koreans. In total, the room was filled with at least 50 people in groups of six sitting around fold-out tables. The service began right when we arrived, so there was little time for introductions beforehand. As we sat down, I was keenly aware of the whispers and heads turning towards us, worried what they were thinking about us. Americans definitely aren’t shown in a good light in North Korea, but these were the people who boldly refused to believe… right? As the service started, I suddenly heard the word waegookin (foreigner) and cookies, and everyone began to clap. Gina turned to me and said, “They’re thanking us for coming and especially for the cookies.” Nothing like food to make new friends!
Because I didn’t understand much of what was said during the service, I had plenty of time to subtly look around and wonder about each person in the room. Where had they come from? Who had they left behind? What kind of emotional struggles were they going through? What did they think of South Korea? What did they think of us? And selfishly I worried that my cookies were too buttery.
Welcoming two North Korean women who had just arrived in the south
After the service, we were instantly surrounded by pretty much everyone present. Gina transformed into a translating machine… seriously, she was incredible. Everyone was throwing questions at us left and right, and through Gina, we shared some about ourselves, and soaked in every last word they said. One middle-aged man said he’d left his family and come alone to Korea via China and Laos as a teenager; another woman timidly said (in English), “I’m taking English classes at the university”; another heavily-aged man came over and just sat at our table saying nothing.
Over our time in Korea, I was gradually becoming accustomed to being the minority in an overwhelmingly homogenous population. Here in this room, we were again the minority, but the minority amongst North Koreans. That realization was shocking to me. A mere few months ago, I had been only reading about those who had fought all terrors to survive. Now here we were, being showered with graciousness and thankfulness by those very same people. And they were thanking us.
“Thank you for being interested in our country.”
“Thank you for not discriminating against us because of the government.”
“Thank you for going out of your way to come here.”
“Thank you for simply caring.”
If our time with North Koreans has taught me one thing, it’s that, no matter how incredible the story, those who have suffered unthinkable horrors and braved insurmountable obstacles look just the same as you or me. While it may seem obvious, the kindly 14-year-old girl clad in jeans and Converse, the dainty 60-year-old woman with tightly permed hair, the 40-year-old man smartly dressed in a business suit could-have-been-anyone. I could have unknowingly bumped shoulders with any of these people throughout the past year. You could have.
How the world should be: North and South Koreans helping each other through the ups and downs of life
These seemingly ordinary looking people had enough stories (and suffering) to fill countless books. But not just those who lived through extreme situations have stories worth hearing. So does the lady who works at the coffee shop. The man beside you on the subway. So does my grandma. My dad. So does yours. Our relationship with those at the North Korean church service led to an afternoon-long video interview which Gina is currently translating.
Despite the incredible fortune of being accepted by the North Korean community, I was left wondering, ”Why would I ask to find out a stranger’s life story before knowing my own family’s?” But that’s the odd thing about story-seekers, we reach out to learn more about others before learning about our own history. I want to challenge myself to take that curiosity and turn it inwards. If these strangers are bursting with rich stories, I can only imagine what treasures my family has packed away.
Hi, I’m Vanessa from the travel blog Sautéed Happy Family! If you like to laugh at silly Engrish, explore the world outside your home, and be generally awesome, feel free to connect with our blog, Facebook, and Twitter! I’d love to hear from you!