|A Difficult but Unrepentant Choice|
A Difficult but Unrepentant Choice
Hui-Jin BAE (Born in 1982)
Arrived in South Korea: 27th November, 2003
I was born in Chungjin, North Hamgyong province. My mother was not good at trade, we lived in poverty, even going without a meal for several days. Since I was 15 years old, I started to sell goods in market places. I had to both study and support the family until I was 17 years old. The money I made was so small that I could not even afford a meal everyday.worked in households and fields in order to get paid with rice or other food instead of money.was able to learn skills in trading through my experiences in market. Moreover, I got better at borrowing and managing money as I got older. I became more confident in making livings.
One day I unexpectedly heard from my stepsister, who resides in China. I decided to cross the border to see her. I was initially planning to go back to North Korea after spending a few days with her. However, the plan changed after an encounter with a South Korean broker (helping North Koreans wishing to go to South Korea). He visited my stepsister's place and asked me if I wanted to go to South Korea. I said 'Yes' without a hesitation because I was aware of the benefits of the capitalist society. South Koreans had wealthier and freer lives relative to the north. I saw it as an opportunity. The broker explained me how to enter South Korea. I got into the South Korean consulate in Beijing without much preparation or big difficulties. After spending four months at the consulate, I arrived to South Korea on November 27th of 2003.
I arrived to South Korea with a strong determination to work hard for a better life compare to the North. I was examined at the National Intelligence Service for about 40 days and stayed at Hanawon for another two months. My life was easy and fun; I was provided with meals and met new people. Hanawon gave me various lessons, including, modern cultures and foreign words of South Korea. Furthermore, it discouraged the refugees from joining of pyramid selling scheme. However, my life in Hanawon had become vain. The lessons with overwhelming information started to bore me. Other young people sympathized with me. Working appeared to be a better way to learn and adapt to the Korean society.
Process of Adaptation
I found a job at a gas station soon after I left Hanawon. The fact that I was fluent in Korean, many people asked me if I were a Korean Chinese or a foreigner because of my accent. However, no one has guessed that I was a North Korean. I thought telling my North Korean background is an honest thing to do so that I informed people about my origin. The way people treated me changed significantly. They gave me strange looks and attacked me with various questions about the north. I could tolerate most of the questions, except for the question about why I have come to South Korea. It left me speechless and displeased. I could not understand why people asked such question. I loved my home but had no choice but to leave because of the poor living conditions. They were often my customers or co-workers that I repressed to my anger and desire to ask what they had done for me when I decide to come to the South.
Last year, I was employed to a mobile phone assembly factory with a help from an employment agency. During the interview, I answered honestly that I was from North Korea. Few days later, I was fired without any explanation. I learned through the agency staff that the coworkers complained that I was too young and difficult to talk to. The coworkers assumed that I had a different mindset from them, only because I was from the north. Since then, I decided not to tell my background, especially in occasions that I am looking for a job or meeting new people. It made things a lot easier for me. Once people discover that I am from the north, they looked at me differently with a prejudice. Whenever people noticed my accent and asked me about my origin, I answered, Kangwondo.
With a stubborn determination for hardworking, I have tried working for gas stations and restaurants. Getting jobs was not too difficult; maybe because the employers saw sincerity in my hardworking intention. The larger problem was the communication. I had hard time understanding the foreign words that are common in the south. When I was serving in a restaurant, a customer asked me for a napkin. I did not know what a napkin was. I wandered around, finally asked in the kitchen and gave it the customer. In another occasion, a customer asked me for a refill. I did not understand what refill was but I finally understood after asking people in the kitchen. My employer and coworkers often explained the meanings without much hesitance. However, when the restaurant was busy, they scolded me for not knowing these words and blamed me for delays in their labor.
When I did not know something, not necessarily the foreign words, South Korean men around me accounted it as obvious because I was from the north. On the other hand, when I knew something, they looked at me with amazement. When South Koreans did not know what I did not know was interpreted differently. My feelings were hurt: when South Korean people do not know something, their shortages were easily understandable, while mine was inevitably picked on and stereotyped as a shortage of a North Korean. They need to widen the perspectives a bit and try to understand different ways of people mind. I thought I would be well off by working hard to earn money but I continuously encountered these problems that challenged me even more. However, I decided to work harder by not using my North Korean accent as much as possible and learning foreign words faster.
My husband and I were economical and able to make decent livings. However, when the baby was born the spending had increased dramatically. The government had provided 500 thousand won (about $500 USD) for child delivery and 200 thousand won (about $200) monthly for the baby. However, it was still very short. My husband was still a student and had no consistent income that I had to work in a gas station for living. Since I was responsible to family income; I had to send my child to a daycare. A daycare costs 370 thousand won ($370) and baby food and snack costs at least 200 thousand won ($200)per month. When the child is sick, hospital cost poses further difficulty. I thought that a health insurance have various benefits, yet it does not include gynecology,dentistry, etc.. Insurance does not cover expensive health care, which is burdensome for me. For example, prevenar, one of children's vaccinations, costs over one hundred thousand won ($100) and need four separate vaccinations when a child is two, four, six and fifteen months old. Moreover, listeria and hepatitis shots are over 30 thousand won ($30). Such vaccinations are also not covered by the insurance. Like all mothers, I am worried about the risks and have tried to get all the vaccinations that the child need. Unfortunately, I am unable to afford all of the medical care. My daughter is two years old, but she was vaccinated once for prevenar when she was two months old. Therefore, people who with disabilities or children need more governmental aid because they tend to have harder time working. Even if they work the hardest it is difficult to overcome poverty with such limited income.
If I have any concern today, it would the money for my daughter's education, who is growing rapidly. I want to offer her everything, as a parental greed. However, the educational fee is extremely high in South Korea. I was busy with paying for day-to-day based needs that have no savings. Furthermore, I cannot work limitlessly; because of I have to take care of the child. Although I might not be able to give everything she wants but I am going to give her everything I that I have, for her education. I think that is the best I can do as a parent. Since my daughter is young, she does not know anything. However, when she enters elementary school I am going to tell her that her mom and dad's are from North Korea. I am worried her classmate might bully her because of her parents' background. However, I cannot follow her around and protect her. I believe she would grow up courageous if she knows her parents tried their best.
I was not interested in getting an education before my marriage. However, I desperately desire to learn something after my daughter was born. I want to learn skills instead of attending a university. I do not have concrete idea what I want to learn yet but I want to learn something that relates to accounting. The gas station where I work offered me an accounting occupation. I could not take the offer. Since I do not know much about computer thus the occupation appeared overwhelming. I want to take my time to think over the offer while I learn about computer and the work.
The Necessity for Optimistic Attitude and Effort
Many North Korean refugees who had come to the South Korea appear to have difficult time. However, coming to south is a kind of adjustment to a new place which makes coming to the south naturally hard. The government's improved support for North Korean refugees through learning about the uneasy situations would be very beneficial. However, I believe that the best answer for happier lives depends on the refugees' own attempt for improvement. I feel sad when I see the people, who expect help from others instead of trying to be independent and optimistic. I also had rough time getting adjust to the new society, just as any other North Korean refugee. However, I have never regretted or questioned my decision to come to the south. I tell myself that I have become fortunate by coming to the south, to strengthen my persistence.
Maybe because I am used to poverty since my life in north. I knew that marrying a rich man was only way to get out of poverty and not worry about each meal. Most of all, I am very glad to have freedom to work whenever I want and do not work whenever I don't want. Moreover, get wages that are equivalent to my labors. When I move my body to work in South Korea, then I receive money, even if it is a small amount. For example, I can work as a housekeeper in someone else's home and still get wages in the south; but I would receive a handful of rice or other grains for same amount of labor in the north. I guess it really depends on ways people think, but I have not had much difficulties in working; because everything I did came with compensations. In fact, it motivated me to work harder. Everywhere, people clash against each other, which cannot be great everyday. Therefore, I interpret any difficulty as a part of life and try to live with optimistic mindset. Maybe I am simplifying too many things but I do not mind small wages. I receive a wage that was promised in contract with satisfaction. I received higher wages if the employers offer with grace.
Reflecting from my own experiences, I would like to advise arriving North Korean refugees: in order to work hard and live well in the south, learning foreign words and reducing North Korean accents are crucial. Moreover, optimism and serenity are important. Previously, I was unable to understand why people around me had depression. However, I also experienced postnatal depression after the childbirth and dormant life with the child. People get greedy for easy and happy life. However, I believe happiness comes from hard-working and moderation.
Translated by Moonyoung Kim and Hyun Nam