About the Author
View more articles by Park Ui-sung
Park Ui-sung is a North Korean defector now living in the South. He grew up in the country's coastal regions.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question: What was your first Christmas in South Korea like?
I hear Christmas carols all around me. My third Christmas is coming up. Now, I can hum to Christmas tunes, and from time to time, the thought of putting up a Christmas tree pops into my mind.
Just two years ago, the holiday known as Christmas felt awkward to me, and it was not easy to enjoy the Christmas mood. Perhaps this makes sense for someone who never waited for Santa Clause who brings gifts with Rudolf the reindeer.
In general, a holiday celebrates traditions and history that have become a part of society. It is hard to enjoy a holiday without understanding the cultural context. A Korean person would find it difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. just as an American would struggle to enjoy Korea’s Chuseok holiday.
Even though North Korea has walled itself off from the rest of the world, in the end, Christmas is not an unfamiliar holiday. Works of world literature like Hans Christian Anderson’s sad story “The Little Match Girl” and O. Henry’s heartwarming tale of Jim and Della in “The Gift of the Magi” have introduced Christmas to North Korea.
I will introduce how my first Christmas day went, but I must apologize: this is not the most delightful story
Still, for someone who has never waited for gifts from Santa prepared by devoted parents, or for someone who never spent his adolescence falling into romantic imaginations before the Christmas season, it takes some time to naturally and fully enjoy this holiday.
Then how was my first Christmas? I will introduce how my first Christmas day went, but I must apologize: this is not the most delightful story. Despite this, the reason I decided to tell this story is that I felt that maybe I could encourage people to feel a responsibility to make Christmas warm for others and for themselves.
In December 2015, I was turning the sixth page of my calendar in South Korea. Defection had done more than just change my physical location. I felt as though I had traveled to South Korea on a defection time machine, arriving in a world some thirty years ahead.
My humor was more effective with older people than people my age, and I mostly enjoyed old songs from the 70s and 80s. And how time passed so fast! Even after I sharply reduced the number of hours I slept each night by four to five hours, I was still always running through the subway.
South Korea’s “hurry hurry” (빨리빨리) culture seemed to fan into flame a spark of hastiness in my mind as I played catch up from thirty years behind. I had the marvelous experience of feeling the relativity of time, even though I had not actually traveled to another planet on a spaceship close to light speed.
A qualitative transformation occurred in my way of thinking from a socialist perspective toward a capitalist one. I would finish my day thinking that yesterday’s thoughts had been infinitely foolish while hoping that tomorrow I would laugh at my thoughts from today.
I felt with my whole body that six months living under capitalism was like my daily life under socialism. This was how much I felt that life in South Korea, at a physical level, demanded a lot.
I am sorry to people around the world who celebrate Christmas, but that day, I cursed Christmas
Amidst all this, I couldn’t decide how to accept everything, and I greeted Christmas abruptly, unready for its arrival.
It felt as if Christmas’s family atmosphere pushed against me ceaselessly. All this time, I had been busy and surrounded by numerous people, but suddenly, there was time to spare and I felt lonely. Paradoxically, I felt the same way as I had when I was desperate to leave North Korea.
To get rid of this feeling, I went to a movie theater alone. But with all the noise of people around me, my sense of alienation multiplied. I felt diminished as some couples around me secretively threw sharp glances.
In the end, I walked out in the middle of the movie – which I don’t even remember the name of – went home, and drank beer while watching soccer.
I am sorry to people around the world who celebrate Christmas, but that day, I cursed Christmas. Truthfully, it was probably deep down a curse at the North Korean regime, which pushes so many of its ordinary citizens out of the country and makes them refugees.
I decided then: I would never foolishly spend holidays at home alone.
After that, I traveled whenever a holiday approached – alone or together with someone. It is one way to enjoy a holiday. But even the prescription of traveling was inadequate to completely fill the emptiness that was hidden deep inside of me.
One day, it occurred to me that there must be people other than myself who do not like Christmas or holidays. I asked friends who had come from North Korea like me. I was right. They felt the same pain that I felt, but they had simply not expressed it out loud.
Now I can shout “Merry Christmas!” and it does not feel awkward
We spent last Christmas together, and it was fun. We became family for one another. The toast we made while listening to Christmas bells together was not at all frivolous in meaning. We drank to the health of parents and siblings who were left in North Korea and to their happiness in the new year. We shared memories.
Then we promised that we would spend the next Christmas together.
This year, we have a new plan. This Christmas, we want to visit schools that defector children attend. Among these children, there are many who came to South Korea alone, without parents or relatives.
We want to go to these schools and give and receive comfort. We are going to sing Christmas carols and share delicious food together. If the snow has deeply piled up, we are going to make a snowman.
The friends with whom I spent last Christmas and their boyfriends or girlfriends will join. New friends will also be there. All these hearts will envelop and hold one another.
Now I can shout “Merry Christmas!” and it does not feel awkward. And I am looking forward to Christmas this year.
I am looking forward as well to the day when North Korean children can happily imagine Santa Claus riding a sleigh led by Rudolf and coming down the chimney carrying gifts.
Translation by Rose Kwak
Edited by Bryan Betts