Daily Archives: 25 October 2005

A New Homeland Lost to Each New Generation

Growing up, I was never aware of my uncles’ disaffection with Kim Il-sung: I was too young to imagine such a thing was possible. Looking back now, their transformation seems telling: the silence of one, the alcoholism of the other, my father’s sudden obsession with music. They were each running away from reality, avoiding the words that might indict the political system or, worse yet, the parents who had brought them to live in it. My father was learning all the popular international songs by heart. He knew “Nathalie” and “La Paloma.” To our great joy, he also sang us the famous “O Sole Mio.” I now realize this was his way of escaping the military marching music and the glory hymns to Kim Il-sung.

I mentioned that he had been married to a woman whose family also had returned from Japan. Many marriages took place within this immigrant community, which proves just how difficult integrating into Korean society really was. The former Japanese residents, especially the young ones, had grown up in a different culture. This made communication with North Koreans difficult. Neighbors and security agents never let slip an opportunity to remind them that they were no longer in Japan, that they should express less originality, that they should show more respect for the laws.

Having been exposed to the wider world, my parents, like most former Japanese residents, felt superior to the people who never left North Korea. Their payback was being viewed as strangers. The old enmity between Korea and Japan also played against us. To many people, my family’s former immigration to Japan seemed more important than its decision to come back. The family’s material advantages were also the cause of barely veiled jealousy. As part of the next generation, I always felt profoundly and unequivocally Korean–indeed, North Korean. Yet, even as a young child, I sensed the chasm that separated my parents from their neighbors. My mother’s accent, which bore traces of her years in Japan, was the cause of constant laughter among my friends. Every time she got home from work and called me back inside, they would mimic her voice, making me blush with embarrassment. Finally I asked her not to do it anymore. I think I hurt her feelings, but she didn’t say anything, and from then on, whenever she wanted me to come home, she walked over to where I was playing and gave me a little tap on the shoulder….

As the family’s situation worsened, Japan became an ever-expanding reservoir of idealized memories, nostalgic images, favorable dispositions. My family was once again a family of uprooted emigrants. That feeling of nostalgia is still in the family, but with every generation its object continues to shift. My grandfather lived in Japan full of longing for his native Cheju Island. My father lived in North Korea and was nostalgic for Japan. And me, I sit recalling my life’s story in Seoul, gnawed at by the Pyongyang of my youth.

SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 32-34

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