I Wasn’t Born in North Korea

Eight months ago, I read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. I found it incredibly depressing. I don’t perceive myself as a super optimistic person but, maybe because of that, I do not enjoy books with bleak endings.

So I decided to follow it with Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live – not exactly a sunshine-and-rainbows story either, considering that it’s the memoir of a girl who grew up in North Korea, but one that I knew had a happy ending. Insofar as a memoir can have a happy ending when the person is still alive and their story not actually ended.

I expected the experience of reading it to be a little like reading the story of a Holocaust survivor; I expected to feel horror and pity and respect.

I did not expect to find her experiences relatable.


Two disclaimers:

First, there’s an enormous variety of Mennonite churches. Not all are as closed and dictatorial as the one I grew up in. I will use the word ‘Mennonites’ freely, but this is about my experience, not about Mennonitism as a whole.  

Second, obviously, I did not grow up in North Korea and so there is much that she experienced that I cannot imagine. I never went to bed hungry. I think I saw four dead bodies before I was ten years old, and they were all neatly arranged in coffins. And I experienced nothing that remotely compares with what she lived through in China. 

But still, there were lines in this book that just made sense to me, lines that made me go “same”, lines that I could have written. 

These lines.

I was taught never to express my opinion, never to question anything. 

Yeonmi Park

Yeah. People who asked questions were automatically rebellious. And especially as a small girl, I was confident that my opinions were completely irrelevant.

It’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave…by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world. 

Yeonmi Park

Replace ‘government’ with ‘church’, and it’s not inaccurate. Individuality is ungodly, you see. We must strive for uniformity – I mean, unity, and unity means no one is allowed to shine. Shining is also ungodly. Just submit. And shut up. And smile. 

The government was obsessed with preventing corrupt ideas from penetrating our borders, so all foreign media was totally forbidden. 

yeonmi park

Sounds dramatic, but this is literally why we weren’t supposed to watch movies or tv, or listen to the radio/songs that might have been played on a radio station, or read ‘ungodly’ books – although my parents did allow us to read widely, for which I am forever grateful to them. But generally the goal was to “protect our people”, especially the children and teenagers, because the rest of the world is dangerous and filled with corrupt ideas and God knows we can’t risk teaching them to think and filter things for themselves. 

My friends and I would watch these incredible things and understand that the Chinese had more, but it never really occurred to us that our lives could be different. 

yeonmi park

This was me, specifically, as a child. I was aware that other people weren’t Mennonite but I didn’t think it would ever be an option for me to be anything else – unless I was willing to literally go to hell. 

Because of an order by Kim Jong Il, all the women had to wear skirts. 

yeonmi park

Fun fact: I have no idea who first decided that Mennonite women are only allowed to wear skirts – or actually, dresses. In my childhood, in that specific version of Mennonitism, there was a specific and fairly recent man-whose-words-are-God’s-law-especially-for-us and a lot of our specific rules came from him, but many other versions of Mennonites require their women to wear skirts so I believe that’s an older rule. 

North Koreans have always been told that the rest of the world was an impure, disgusting, and dangerous place. 

yeonmi park

Yeah, pretty much. Most people I grew up with wouldn’t actually use the word disgusting though. It’s ridiculous to me now, how they can be so big on protecting from the impure influences of the outside world and yet tolerate so much abuse and evil in their own camp.

And we weren’t really capable of critical thinking because we had been trained not to ask questions. 

yeonmi park

Yeah. Once again, the “questions are rebellion against the church and therefore God” thing. We were strongly taught not to trust our own thoughts and opinions and beliefs. Sometimes I think “how could I have believed something so obviously wrong?” and sometimes it still feels incredibly dangerous for me to put my thoughts and beliefs out here, let alone live by them. 

It’s not easy to give up a worldview that is built into your bones and imprinted on your brain like the sound of your father’s voice. 

yeonmi park

This was one of the lines that made me want to reach through the pages and grab Yeonmi Park’s hand and say, “I know.”

Besides, if everything I had been taught before was a lie, how could I know these people weren’t lying, too? It was impossible to trust anyone in authority. 

yeonmi park

It’s the most bewildering feeling to have your worldview shattered. I have seen many people who left that kind of background and quickly found something else to attach to that would give them a whole worldview ready-made to replace the one they lost, and it’s not hard for me to understand why. Building your own is difficult and scary and takes much time and willingness to think.

If you’ve been groomed all your life to follow, it’s much easier to replace your leader than it is to lead your self. 

And even if you learn how to, there are scars. Still to this day, anyone who too loudly proclaims a “this is what people shouldn’t do” kind of belief gives me the squirmies. 

And why would anyone care about what “I” wanted to be when I grew up? There was no “I” in North Korea-only “we”. 

yeonmi park

This one grabbed me because I was the type to not reach for the stars anyway; I was the type to settle for what I was taught was possible and subconsciously convince myself that that was what I wanted all along. I still remember being a child, sitting outside our school building with a friend and listening to her talk about dreaming of being an actress or a singer or something amazing, and me being like the only thing I want to be is a mom. 

Here’s the thing: I never really stopped wanting to be a mom, and now that I am one I think it’s wonderful. The problem is that child-me didn’t think about all the things I could be and decide that being a mom would be the best. Child-me thought that the only thing I could be was a mom, so that’s all I dared to think I would want to be.

I’m still working on that. On daring to ask for more than I already have. On believing in abundance. 

In North Korea, we are usually taught to memorize everything, and most of the time there is only one correct answer to each question. So when the teacher asked for my favorite color, I thought hard to come up with the “right” answer. I had never been taught to use the “critical thinking” part of my brain, the part that makes reasoned judgements about why one thing seems better than another. 

yeonmi park

So much of my life was this! Always trying to find the “right” answer for everything. The answer that wouldn’t get me in trouble, the answer that would buy me safety and protect me from regret.

I never knew freedom could be such a cruel and difficult thing. Until now, I had always thought freedom meant being able to wear jeans and watch whatever movies I wanted without worrying about being arrested. Now I realized that I had to think all the time – and it was exhausting. There were times when I wondered whether…I would be better off in North Korea, where all my thinking and all my choices were taken care of for me. 

yeonmi park

This is the big one, the one that smacked me in the face with how precisely I could have written it myself (except I wasn’t concerned about being arrested, just about being rejected by everyone I knew and condemned to hell. A different vibe).

I actually would have thought of myself as a thinking type of person ever since I was a teenager, but I also deeply believed that what I thought did not matter because I was a Mennonite girl who would be a Mennonite woman, and that, in my view, was not a person who had much agency. I really thought that my life would be easier and happier if I had no opinions since they would only make the eventual inevitable submission more annoying. 

After we left, I had no church dictating all my choices from my profession to the color of my shoes, and my husband didn’t go in for the idea of being my god. Suddenly, what I thought mattered. And there were a lot of things I hadn’t thought about that much. There was a lot of thinking that needed doing.

I actually had this exact conversation more than once with my husband and with others who left – how sometimes it felt like it would be easier to be Mennonite again and have someone telling you what to think, what to wear, what to do. The decision fatigue was real. 

But it did pass. Now I think my life is simpler than it has ever been, and it becomes more and more so – clear and natural – as I learn more and more to make my choices not from fear but from faith in and desire for something better. 

I wasn’t born in North Korea, and I don’t wish that I was. If I hadn’t been born in the Mennonites, I don’t think I would wish I had been, either. But despite that, I like who I have become and growing up Mennonite is an undeniable part of what shaped me. Once again, there’s a line from Yeonmi Park for this:

I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea. 

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