North Korean People

I didn’t know she was North Korean when I first saw her. I mean, I had never met a North Korean before volunteering with TNKR—which stands for Teach North Korean Refugees—so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought they would look more refugee-ish. People whose hardship urged them to risk their lives by running away from a tyrant. I expected conservative, homely people. I did not expect this beauty. The kind of beauty that could disrupt a quiet room.

I thought she was a South Korean intern until an awkward handshake—imagine shaking hands without knowing what a handshake is—and a greeting that fell flat because she didn’t know what “how are you” means.

Eleven other volunteer tutors and seven North Korean students were in this room for TNKR’s matching session. The goal is to allow the volunteers and students to meet face to face in order to try to make the best, most comfortable matches possible. Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee, who founded TNKR in 2013, want the students to choose their own tutors because they believe in student-led education.

They don’t learn much English in North Korea, but the refugees need English to survive in the competitive job market of Seoul. Even after surviving hunger, escaping the regime, getting into South Korea, and adjusting to life here, their journey still isn’t over because they need to learn a new language. The work TNKR does is critical and no one else provides it. This is a very young non-profit. You can support their growth here.

Here’s how the matching sessions works. First the volunteers introduce themselves, talk about their teaching strengths, and say how many students they’re willing to accept. Then the students introduce themselves and say what their goals are.

After introductions are finished, Casey and Eunkoo call out the students one by one so they can choose a tutor. When all the students have chosen one, they can continue choosing more until they’re satisfied. Some students chose up to seven tutors and some only chose one.

Three students chose me. One of them got a job and had to quit the program after only one meeting. I’ve never met the second because she was busy with university final exams. The third student who chose me was the room disrupting beauty.

I can’t say her name or show any pictures. Most of the students want to remain anonymous. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t want North Korea to know they’ve escaped or because they don’t want to be outed as a North Korean in South Korean society. A mix of both, most likely. Still, we need something to call her because “the beauty” is reductive. I’m going to call her “C.” Not “A” because “A” can be a full word and not “B” because then you’d think it stands for “beauty.” Come on, let’s be adults here.

“C” and I had our first class the day after the matching session.

In the first class, I didn’t even think about where she was from. It was just fun. C is an absolute beginner in English, so we just played games. I brought colored erasers with me and taught her how to say, “The pink eraser is on the black eraser. The red eraser is next to the blue eraser” and so on. We spent an hour playing with erasers. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, this was fun.

The second time, it bubbled to the surface. She got a call from her father during the lesson. Her parents are still in North Korea.

It’s illegal for a North Korean to call South Korea. C told me the call goes from North Korea to China, then is transferred to South Korea. When the call finished, she apologized for the interruption and told me that her mother has been sick for a while. Her father was giving her an update. She said it’s going okay, so we continued with the lesson.

Learning a language is a painful process and can be infuriating, especially for beginners. I had been impressed with C’s patience and positive attitude. But I saw her get frustrated for the first time after the call.

When the lesson finished, we walked back to the subway station. Her phone rang again. When the call finished, she said, “My father…. give me money.”

For a moment I thought that must be the secret to this unlikely beauty. She’s a refugee, but from the North Korean upper-class. She caught the first class underground railroad out of the North.

But I knew she hadn’t learned reported speech (“he said..” “they told me…”), so I pursued it. “You mean, he gives you money or he wants you to give him money?”

She said, “I give him money. North Korea people…” she patted her belly. “Hungry.”

“I see.”

“But I have no money.”

We said goodbye in the subway station. She went west and I went east. I watched her board her train. No one realized she was from the North. No one even turned their head. She sat down under an advertisement for plastic surgery and next to a college aged girl captivated by texting—probably about plans for going out. Business men walked by, talking about business plans in their business suits. But C was thinking about how she could make money for her hungry parents in North Korea.

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