About This Fundraiser
When I was in North Korea, I never went to school. When I tell people that, they think I mean that I rarely went to school, or that perhaps I dropped out of school. It takes some time for them to understand that I mean: I never went to school in North Korea, not even once.
My family was struggling to eat and survive. My aunt is the one who raised me, but my mother later rescued me from North Korea. I was so happy to have arrived here, but my introduction was so scary when I was interviewed by the National Intelligence Service. The female inspector was nice, her voice was gentle, but she was strict and watching me closely. She asked me so many questions, I could see that she was an expert about North Korea, she knew more about it than I did.
Her job was to check that I wasn't a spy. I had a chance to talk with my mother on the phone, we hadn't seen each other in 10 years. She told me to tell the truth about everything, not to be scared; but I couldn't help it. I told the truth about everything, although the atmosphere was tense.
I know that some North Korean refugees don't like Hanawon (the adjustment center for North Korean refugees), but I enjoyed my time there. For the first time, I could study. I could read Korean but I had not learned how to write when I was in North Korea. The Hanawon instructors were so strict, they pushed us to learn about South Korea so we could be prepared for life here. I really appreciate that time, I learned how to write Korean, learned some basic English and mathematics for the first time.
After I was released from Hanawon, I was able to attend a real school for the first time in my life. I studied and got a GED, my mom was my helper during the process. I felt so good, for the first time I could study. However, I quickly felt that life here would be difficult.
I applied for a university but I had to give up immediately. English was part of the application process, I was not prepared. I had never studied English when I was in North Korea.
I kept seeing words that I could not understand. "Mart." What is mart? I had no idea. South Koreans would laugh at me when they realized that I didn't understand basic things.
One day in an English class, I wanted to go to the bathroom, I called the female teacher "sir." Of course, other students laughed. Then I got it wrong again in a different class, I called a male teacher "Mrs." I didn't feel bad about it, I knew that I was a newcomer to both English and this country.
My accent was also a problem. But I was okay with that, there was nothing to hide. I wasn't ashamed of it.
I was okay being ignorant about things, but there is one thing I still have not overcome. I have bad teeth. Some South Koreans call me "vampire." In North Korea, there was nothing strange about my teeth, but here, South Koreans laugh about them. I love taking photos, but I learned how to smile without ever opening my mouth. Sometimes I don't want to talk to people because I know some South Koreans may ridicule my teeth.
I hope to get over the complex so I can smile one day without being embarrassed.
Sometimes it is a struggle here, there are so many things I don't know, so many things I need to learn. There are many things that I want to do here. Getting an office job is like a dream. It might seem like a simple thing for most people, but that kind of thing could make me feel normal here.
I have now learned some conversational English, but I still lack enough vocabulary to hold deeper conversations. Another dream I had was to become a translator. When I was in North Korea, I heard one of my neighbors sing the ABCs. For some reason, at that moment I thought about a career as a translator, even though I couldn't speak English.
When I was getting the GED, I was bored with most of the classes, but I was fascinated with English. I knew almost nothing, but I enjoyed speaking what I had learned. When I had a chance to travel abroad, I struggled so much because I could barely understand anyone and they couldn't understand me either. I was working part-time and taking an ESL class. I would just follow what the others did.
I stopped studying for 5 years, I was trying to have a normal life here, working, and struggling with some personal things. I realized without education that I couldn't get a good job. Education is really important. I wanted to restart my experience here, then I got lucky when one of my friends told me about a place where I could study English for free.
That place made me feel the warmth of a world at a time that I really needed it. The volunteer teachers gave their time to make sure I learned and the organization's co-founders treated me like family, not like a client or customer. The experience taught me how precious and special each of us is. I felt the warmth of the whole world. The whole world had seemed so scary and difficult to live, from struggling to survive in North Korea to struggling to adjust here, but then everything seemed so beautiful.
Recently my life mentor at FSI, Mr. Casey, gave me a challenge ― he arranged for me to make phone calls to some of the organization's supporters. He made the supporters promise 1) to only use English with me 2) to make it a professional call, not chatting, as part of my training 3) to try to teach me at least one thing about English before we ended the call.
I struggled so much talking in English with two Americans and one lady from France. When I finished, my life mentor was in a meeting, so I wrote him a message: "WOW! I did it!" I am sure I made so many mistakes, but the supporters were so patient. I have more confidence that I can do it next time and that I can continue to learn. The important thing I am learning is to try, even if I am not sure, and to learn from the experiences.
I didn't go to school in North Korea, every day was a struggle for survival and to eat. Now in South Korea, I am not struggling for basic survival, but it has felt difficult at times.
I now feel that I have people around me who are with me so I can enjoy a good life here. The world now seems so beautiful to me, one day I hope I can show a big smile without anyone calling me a vampire.
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Yena is a part-time assistant at Freedom Speakers International during her winter and summer breaks and a first-year student at a university in Seoul.
The article was assisted with and edited by Casey Lartigue Jr., the editor of "Voices from the North."
About Greenlight to Freedom
North Korean refugee Songmi Han will be publishing the book "Greenlight to Freedom" in February 2022. She has told her story to only three people, but her inspiring story will now be told.
Pledge US$ 15 or more: Receive a digital copy of the book.
Pledge US$ 25 or more: (Shipping within the USA) Receive a paperback copy, ebook, plus a North Korean refugee postcard and bookmark both featuring North Korean refugee art.
Pledge US$ 35 or more (Shipping outside the USA): Receive a paperback copy, ebook, plus a North Korean refugee postcard and bookmark both featuring North Korean refugee art.
Pledge US$ 75 or more: Receive a signed copy of the paperback, signed by co-authors Songmi Han and Casey Lartigue. Plus, a free e-book and both a North Korean refugee postcard and bookmark featuring North Korean refugee art
* The book is scheduled for release in February 2022, this is an announcement about the book and for those who want to order it in advance.
* The title is a working title and will be finalized soon, and will be available on Amazon and other sites later.
* By buying the paperback version of the book, you will automatically be entered into various drawings for gifts.