About the Author
View more articles by Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo is author of the "North Korean in New York" series. She left North Korea in the mid 2000s and is now living in New York City, New York.
Editing by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
One thing l love about New York City is its diversity. There are different people from all over the globe sharing their culture and building their communities.
For example, New York’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community in the western hemisphere. When I feel like having Chinese street food, I go to Chinatown with my Chinese friends. A few weeks ago, I tried Shanghai soup dumpling for the very first time. After escaping from North Korea, I used to live in the northern part of China, so I had no chance to try southern Chinese food. Besides, we were so poor that we could not afford to go to a Shanghai restaurant in China. I only heard about how delicious Shanghai soup dumplings were. Finally I had a chance to try it and it was more delicious than I imagined! Not only does the food make me excited, but also Chinese people attract me greatly. They play traditional Chinese instruments, such as Er hu. If I am lucky, sometimes I can see people singing traditional Chinese songs in the streets. It makes me feel like I am in China again.
Harlem is another example of diversity in New York. Actually, Harlem is the most amazing place I have ever visited in New York City. That is because the people and the culture in Harlem completely changed my prejudice against African-American people. I have to admit that I had a big racial bias before coming to New York City. When I thought of African people, the first thing that came to mind was poverty and crime. When I was in North Korea I had never seen or met African-American people. All I knew was that the white people treated African people badly. I thought all Americans had white skin, blonde hair, and a long, strong nose. In South Korea, I saw African people several times but I scarcely had the chance to speak with them. In American movies, African-American people always represented the criminals or the poor. As a result, I hardly imagined that I could be friends with African-American people.
Now I have three African friends from my classes in New York. They are brilliant and cheerful. They like singing and dancing; they have great senses of humor that makes me laugh all the time. One of my African friends – who is from Abidjan – recommended that I visit Harlem, so the other day I went. In Harlem, I found out that African-American people were everywhere. I visited the Studio Museum and learned about African-American art and music for the first time. Full of the spirit of Africa, it gave me a sense of freedom. I love Harlem the most in New York City and I no longer have any prejudices towards African-American people.
This is New York City, the largest cultural melting pot of the Earth. Had I never come here I know I would not have been able to experience such cultural diversity and would never have got a chance to get to know people from all over the world. I am learning a valuable lesson in New York: we are all same. No matter where we come from, which language we speak, we are all equal.
North Korea, on the other hand, is truly the opposite of New York City. As I wrote in a previous post, I only met two ethnic groups (Han-Chinese and Korean- Japanese) in North Korea. I never saw any other foreigners in North Korea except Chinese people. Most people might think North Korea and China have good relationship, so North Korean people must like Chinese people. However, most North Korean people do not really like Chinese people because they think Chinese people take advantage of North Korea.
I remember in North Korea that for quite awhile there were some rumors about Chinese products. Some people said that after using Chinese cleaners, they found more lice in their clothes; others said that Chinese candies contained some kind of harmful poison that could kill people. These rumors scared me for a while, but we had to buy Chinese clothes and food since most food and items in North Korea came from China. Of course, I never met anyone who was poisoned by Chinese food and we did not get more lice by using Chinese cleaners.
I do not really know where and how these rumors came from, but I do know that since 2000 they gradually disappeared. Because there were so many North Korean people coming and going between North Korea and China continuously, people stopped complaining about Chinese products as much. In a way the Chinese delivered not only products, but also information about the outside world. More and more people knew how China prosperous was.
While the North Korean economy has grown to rely heavily on China, many North Korean people still do not really like Chinese people, feeling the Chinese people have treated North Koreans badly. However, I have noticed that in New York people respect each other’s culture, beliefs and personalities: although I tell people I was born in North Korea, no one treats me differently. That is what makes this city so diverse. In contrast, North Korea has strong nationalism. Even though North Koreans have little, they are still proud of their culture and customs. I think this characteristic could be one of the reasons why some North Korean people do not like Chinese people.
Because we have relatives in China, my family – especially my grandparents – liked Chinese people. My grandfather was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea, so when he was young he used to work in Manchuria (만주), because at that time there wasn’t a strict border between North Korea and China. Before going to elementary school, I stayed in my grandparents’ house for two years. I loved my grandfather so much and I really enjoyed his stories about China.
In China grandfather told me that he never went hungry and that there had always been jobs available there. When he told me these stories I was only about six or seven years old, so I did not really understand why he repeated them so many times. Now I am old enough to understand my grandfather – he missed his life in China. At some point he thought that North Korean society had become worse than Korea during the Japanese occupation, because at least not too many people starved to death back then.
My grandfather passed away in 2003. That was our second time to be sent back to North Korea. Thank God my mother and I were able to close the eyes of my grandfather. I remember that when he saw my mother and me, he grabbed our hands so strongly that I can still feel his strength. He seemed to have been waiting for us for a long time and his face looked so peaceful under the candlelight, even though he had been suffering from diabetes for many years. He only said two sentences in the night, which I will never forget in my life. The first sentence was “I want to eat eggs”. The last sentence was “I want to go to China…” My mother gave him 400 won and said “Dad, go to the Janmadang and buy eggs tomorrow.” My mother and I cried a lot on our way to my aunt’s house. One week later, my grandfather passed away and we found some eggshell beneath his bed.
One day, my mother suddenly said that she was happy because my grandfather had his last eggs before passing away. It meant that she granted her father’s last wish as a dutiful daughter. However, his second wish – to go to China – remains in my mind, reminding me how precious freedom is. If my grandfather had the right to travel to foreign countries, he could have gone to China and had the delicious food that he used to eat when he was young. Had he done that, he might have lived longer.
I am not going to tell you that living in a diverse metropolis like New York is always good or easy, but I want to say that freedom is precious. North Korean people are suffering from poverty, not because they are lazy, but because the North Korean government does not allow them travel to other countries to seek food or jobs. I know that if North Korean people were able to come to the U.S. to work, they would work extremely hard and eventually be successful. They have proved their power and effort by establishing the Jangmadang market in North Korea and adapting to outdoor life no matter how harsh the conditions are. So why do we not just give them chance to come to the U.S. to work and study?