Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Other Koreans

I write this post merely as an observer.  I am by no means an expert on North Korea nor North Koreans, however for some reason, the universe has placed me in a school in South Korea which happens to have a high percentage of orphans and North Korean defectors.  These are some thoughts I've had while dealing with these students over the course of the last six months.

North Korea conjures up all kinds of images. It is haunting and mysterious and yet fascinating.  A place I've grown increasingly interested in since moving to South Korea.  Seoul is less than 190km (118 miles) away from the last Stalinist state in the entire world.  South Korea one of the most wired nations in the world, is butting elbows with a nation where people don't even know what the Internet is.

That dark blog mass there is North Korea.

The stories and the rumors can easily flood your mind with negative images and I remember the first week of school, before I met the students, how curious I was about these defectors from North Korea.  What would they be like?  Would they be like soldiers?  Would they talk with a funny accent?  Would they hate me as an American?  Had they been brainwashed to hate their South Korean counterparts too? 

But when the first week of classes came and went, I realized that I had been unable to identify who had been born on which side of the 38th parallel.  It hadn't been as obvious as I had thought.  As time passed, I started to learn who came from where due to two factors, 1) NKs often speak Chinese and 2) they usually have a much lower level of English than the other kids in their class.

My co-teachers often say the students coming from NK tend to get angry more quickly than others, however as the foreign teacher I don't feel I'm qualified to agree or disagree with that statement.  I don't see them acting all that different from the other kids. We have some loud ones and some quiet ones, some very polite ones and some rather rude ones, but what I've come to see is that once you strip the labels, they are indeed still children.  They do not seem to be ashamed of the fact that they came from North Korea, but they are ashamed of the fact that they cannot speak English as well as their peers, but that is the same case for the students coming from the orphanage.  

I do have a soft spot for them.  When I see them, I often wonder what they have already experienced in their young lives.  What a contrast of worlds!  Maybe some don't remember, but probably many do.  One new student who arrived last week came to South Korea by "crossing over a mountain in the middle of the night and then waiting in an orphanage with her sister until her mother could join her". And there are so many more stories.  Stories that aren't mine to tell, however if you are interested in reading a book that can give you a glimpse into the lives of other NK defectors, I want to recommend to you this book, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick.  Different from other books or documentaries about the Hermit Kingdom, this writer doesn't just give facts and stats on the regime, she tells the stories of  real people living in that dark mass you saw above.  People with hopes for happiness and love and prosperity the same as everywhere else.  A page turner and a good read.

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