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
Dear NK News readers,
I assume that you would be wondering how I have been recently. I have not written essays for a while because a few weeks ago, I went back to my country of citizenship, South Korea, where my beloved mother lives. It was actually much earlier than I had planned. Since I was supposed to take a summer course to graduate from my university, I had to fly back earlier even though I really wanted to stay in New York City longer.
I have been missing my life in New York City. One thing that I missed about it is the food. I really enjoyed Mexican and Indian food in New York City. I went to Chipotle at least twice a week when I was there. Brown rice with chicken was my favorite. If dark green guacamole was on top of the rice it could not have been better. There was an Indian restaurant near my school so I went there many times. When it served lunch (from 12-3 p.m.), the price per person was only $12, including tips and taxes. It was the cheapest Indian restaurant I had ever been to. The good news was that its food was as good as its prices. I feel so depressed when I think of and talk about the food I had in New York City. I will not be able to try them again until I go back to the States.
I have been thinking that I had been so lucky and blessed over the past eight months. As I wrote in my previous essays, I had met many warm-hearted and brave people in the U.S. who were determined to help North Koreans be free. Some of them invited me into their homes and treated me as one of their family members; some of them helped me with my English so I was able to share my stories. All of them gave me a sense of love that made me believe we, North Koreans, were not alone anymore. Also, I had been traveling to many great places, such as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Niagara Falls. All my living and traveling expenses came from my supporters. They did not ask me to do anything. All they expected from me was that I experience and learn about the broader, better world.
My life has been extremely busy, but also really simple. I went back to school as soon as I got home. I did not have time to adjust to the “new life” because the classes had just started the day after my arrival. On top of that, I work part-time tutoring two students. I have been independent of my mother since two years ago, so I really need to make money in order to pay my bills for living and studying. I am a sociable person, but I have not met many people recently. A busy life does not allow me to communicate with people.
One thing I have discovered is life in Seoul is much more difficult and stressful than in New York City. South Korea is a small country, but it is incredibly strong. The secret is competition. Everybody competes with each other in order to attain their goals. They work so hard that they almost never go home before 10 p.m. during the weekdays. University students, for example, would register for TOEIC or TOEFL classes even before the summer and winter vacations come. The library is full of students now even though it is summer vacation. Every student is studying something. If they did not do anything, they would feel insecure and left behind. Although New York City is viewed as one of the most bustling and busy cities in the world, what I had noticed was that New Yorkers had more room to be relaxed and do whatever they wanted. It is true that their society is really competitive, but they do not really force themselves to win every time they compete.
Working hard is definitely a good thing, but sometimes I feel like I am walking on thin ice because I am continuously told I need to work more, otherwise I would be the loser. Yesterday, I talked to one of my classmates. She has been an excellent student since we were freshman, so her parents have high expectations for her. They are anticipating that she can work in a prestigious company, but she wants to go to a smaller company because it is really hard to get into a big corporation. On the one hand, she does not want to disappoint her parents; on the other, she wants to choose a less-stressed life. I had no idea what I should say because what she is going through is our reality. I am going to face it sooner or later. However, I am sure my situation will be much more positive than hers because at least my mother will not force me to achieve something for her. She has been really supportive of me. Like most North Korean parents, all she wants is my safety and happiness. I can decide what kind of job I should get without asking for anybody’s approval. In this regard, I am really grateful for being a North Korean.
Another thing that I have noticed about South Koreans is that they do not smile much, especially when they face a stranger. However, Americans smile all the time. I remember when I walked in the street, if my eyes met others’ eyes; most of them gave me a friendly smile. At first, it felt really strange and awkward because I was not good at smiling at strangers. However, as time passed, I realized a smile could make me happy all day. I tried to give happy smiles to people as much as I could. The sad thing is that when I try to do the same thing in Seoul, people avoid looking me in the face. One day I was taking the train to school. A man who looked like he was around my age was nodding off badly. When he raised his head and opened his eyes, my eyes met his. I gave him a friendly smile, but surprisingly, he was really mad at me because he thought I was laughing at him. I felt really terrible. Since that morning, I would never smile at any strangers.
One thing I like about South Korea is that we do not have a tipping culture. To be honest, I did not like giving tips when I was in the U.S. I did not want to tip at all, but because it is part of American culture I had to respect the rules. In Seoul, sometimes I realize I am thinking about how much of a tip I should give. When I buy something, sometimes I add more money than the original price because I think I should pay the tax. Are these things evidence that I have been Americanized? Since I do not have to pay any tips and taxes, I feel everything is really cheap in South Korea. It makes me truly happy, but I think I am going to adjust to South Korean prices soon because my income is relatively lower than what Americans make.
Consequently, there are some strong points and weak points in both South Korea and New York City. They are all precious to me. However, I prefer the U.S. to South Korea. The most critical reason is that living in the U.S. makes me feel equal to others. In other words, in the U.S., I am one of the Asian girls who has yellow skin and dark hair, or one of immigrants who still believes in the American dream. I am not categorized by where I come from. However, in South Korea I am supposed to be deferential to others – native South Koreans. Although we are all part of the Korean race (한민족), which means we share the same blood, I am called a “defector.” I do not refuse to be a defector. I have to confess that this status has given me numerous benefits socially and economically. I have never been ashamed of being a defector. But what hurts me the most is the attitude of South Koreans toward defectors. Not all South Koreans, but the majority are not interested in defectors’ lives. They view defectors as second class-citizens or outsiders. Therefore, I have been telling my stories to my friends as much as I could because I hope many South Koreans can understand defectors’ lives better and as a result North and South Koreans can become good friends.
I would like to go to graduate school in the U.S. Not only because I like America’s diverse culture, but also because studying abroad helps me understand the two Koreas better. In South Korea, I can only concentrate on the limited information that is spread by the media. I am not able to see the big picture on the Korean Peninsula. Undoubtedly, finding the big picture is extremely important for me as a political science student.
It has not been easy for me to write about my experiences and thoughts in English, which is my second language. I also had hard time sharing my stories with others because sometimes my past hurts me a lot as I try to bring it up. However, I have overcome it since I started writing my stories for NK News. Thanks to my editor, Nara Han, for encouraging me every time I faced problems; thanks to my readers for being interested in my stories and in North Koreans’ lives. It has been a healing time for me.
Editing by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick