My mother’s last words to us as we stood in the middle of the empty potato field, her voice carrying above the razor-sharp wind that seemed to carve away at our flesh, still ring in my ears. “You’re on your own now. I don’t have the strength to go any farther with you two.” Despite the howling wind that ripped and tore at my body, I felt no pain. Even when my frostbitten toes began to rot and ooze with pus, it did not hurt. Nothing could have hurt more than her words…
As I watched her say those heartless words and walk away coldly, never once looking back, I was too shocked to even cry. “How can a mother leave her babies in the middle of an empty field and just walk away? How can she call herself a mother?” Each word that I uttered in my head was a flame, a burning arrow of hatred toward my mother. With no desire to comfort my younger brother and stop his crying, I lay flat on the ground and stared up at the sky. How could it be such a vibrant blue at a time like this…
After that day, I had no mother. I took my little brother and sought shelter in train station waiting rooms, marketplaces, and on the steps of freight trains. I thought that was how things were going to be for the rest of our lives. We nearly died once after eating rotten-smelling food that had been discarded in the corner of the marketplace, but with the help of an older homeless boy, we ate some toothpaste and just barely survived. I was at my wits’ end when my brother’s face swelled up and turned blue from eating a poisonous amount of ragweed, but fortunately he did not die. It was as if he were meant to live. We stayed alive long enough through the bitter hardship, and luck eventually returned to our godforsaken lives. After all, escaping that hell where we were as good as dead was itself a heaven-sent stroke of luck.
Eight years have passed since we came to South Korea after five years of wandering around China. Over the years, I did my best to erase all memory of my mother, but lately, my longing for her has been growing with each passing day for reasons I don’t understand. Thoughts of her pop into my mind unbidden and reduce me to many sleepless nights spent with tears spilling from my eyes, much to my embarrassment. What became of her after we parted ways? Is she alive somewhere? If she is still alive, then where is she and what is she doing? I hated her so much, and yet now I miss her so much that I can barely stand it. Is this what they mean by “blood ties”?
After coming to South Korea, I met many North Korean defectors who had been through worse hardships than I have. They were all torn and broken and shattered, left with nothing but scars. By the time I realized that my mother was not to blame for my suffering, I was already carrying her deep inside my heart. All at once, the hatred and ugliness I had harbored toward her turned to longing and flooded my heart. How she must have suffered! How bad things must have been for her to abandon her babies! When I think back on that potato field all those years ago, the image of my mother removing all of her clothes, dressing me and my younger sibling in them, and keeping nothing but a layer of tattered rags for herself fills me with such pain. Now, as I picture her hands, blistered and scratched from digging through the frozen earth in search of even a single potato no bigger than a bean, the memory tears at my heart.
I will stop resenting you. I will stop hating you. I will cast aside all of the bitterness and call you Mother again. Mother! O, Mother! Where are you now? Are you still alive? If you had to abandon your children to save yourself, then you must live to see a hundred. You must live long enough for your abandoned son to return home to you. Because I cannot erase you from my heart no matter how hard I try. Even if the world turns upside down and the sky crumbles, you will always be my one and only mother, the one who gave birth to me. Your son that you abandoned when he was thirteen now calls out to you at the top of his lungs. Mother! Mother . . .
Cast Away Your Empty Dreams
Somehow, five years have already passed since that overwhelming moment when I first stepped foot on South Korean soil. Now, that moment of excitement, my heart buoyant with expectation, when I completed the resettlement program at Hanawon and stepped out into society on my own, and even the moment I felt as anxious and lonely as a motherless bird, are nothing but old memories.
It makes me laugh now to think about how I spent those three months at Hanawon floating around with my head filled with wild dreams, only to find myself at wit’s end, confronted by the cold light of reality. When our teachers at Hanawon exclaimed over the defectors who could sing or dance or play musical instruments really well, I had preened inwardly, thinking, “With our talent, we’ll all make good money out there!” I was such a fool. Though I had become disillusioned about the North and defected, I still felt pride in my hometown, and was like the grasshopper that climbs to the top of a stalk of mugwort and crows of his accomplishment. It shames me to think about it now. Surely I was not the only defector who thought this way back then? Frankly, I imagine we all had similar thoughts.
Even after leaving Hanawon, I spent my days and nights pondering how I could make it as a pop singer. I would lie under my blanket, watching pop music shows on TV day and night and quacking along with the pop stars on the screen. Once, I even spotted a sign on the street for a music school and went in to inquire about lessons, only to leave in disgrace. I did everything I could to try to make my lifelong dream of being an artist come true in South Korea, but all that came my way was harsh reality. Two and a half million of the three million won (approx. 3,000 USD) that I received from Hanawon went to the broker who led me to South Korea, and since I spent a month at home doing nothing but singing with only the 500,000 that was left, I had no idea how to make a living for myself, or even where to go to buy things I needed. All too often, I would get on the subway only to go the wrong direction and spend the entire day wandering around, lost, not finding my way home until late at night. And if I so much as mentioned my pop star ambitions to anyone, I had to suffer through their ridicule and derision.
Now, five years later, those days are just a fond memory. On TV, I once saw the television newscaster Jun Hyun-moo say, “If you can’t make your dream come true, then cast it away bravely. If you cling to the impossible, you’ll only waste your time and exhaust yourself. When you let things go, you make room for new things to come in.”
It is true that dreams are precious to everyone. But you must see reality for what it is and cast things aside bravely. I think the reason I am here today is because I faced reality and threw out that dream. I was deluded to think that I might have competed with those baby-faced South Korean singers who spend their teens enduring ferocious training and sweating blood to make their debuts. No matter how precious that dream was to me, it was already as unsuited to me as a sock to a dog.
I no longer dream of becoming a pop singer. I feel no envy whatsoever for pop stars. I know that if I find something else I am good at and work hard at it, I will be able to live as happily as any pop star. Over the past five years, I have dedicated myself assiduously to proving my talents. I applied my strength—namely, my ability to apply myself to any task at hand—to working for a company and taking college courses at the same time. Since getting a job with a company and learning the business, I can now handle any task proficiently. Also, as a result of studying hard every night after returning home from work, I am now set to graduate from the four-year Korea Open National University. I also managed to pass the notoriously difficult top-level national exam in Chinese characters on my first try.
Now I know this for certain. The future of North Korean society, which has focused on strange “arts” for the sake of idolizing its leaders rather than encouraging science, is already set. It is not a rich and powerful country to be envied for its many artists who can sing and play the guitar or the accordion well, but rather a society that is rotten to the core. Instead, South Korea has become a rich and powerful nation, a world leader, by exercising all of the skills and potential that people possess.
Today, I head to work as always. Lately I am so tired that it is hard to open my eyes in the morning, but each time I feel that way, I pull myself together and jump out of bed. It is with this energy, which has kept me moving all this time, that I will continue to work toward the goals I have set for myself, one step at a time. Dreaming of a unified homeland, I prepare for another day so that I might do my part.
© Park Gui-ok. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.