“Do you ever want to go back?”
Without hesitation, Sungchul replied, “Of course I want to go back. I dream about my hometown every single day.”
I was shocked by his response, mainly because he was referring to his home in the poverty-stricken, totalitarian society of North Korea. This was 2014, and Sungchul and I had just met in Baltimore, where we were both visiting. I was directing a video project profiling people who had escaped that country.
Having spent my post-college life working for a human rights organization for North Koreans and an NGO that provides humanitarian and medical services there, I thought I knew enough about the country to conclude that it was not a desirable place to live. It was particularly shocking to hear that he, of all people, would want to return to that dreadful place. In the 1990s, Sungchul survived the famine that killed at least two million North Koreans. Before escaping, he suffered four imprisonments and draconian torture for previous attempts. He watched as the guards mistreated his mother and made her crawl on the floor of the detention center. Perhaps because I knew his history with this country, it was hard for me to grasp why.
“North Korea—I hate it, but I long for my home,” Sungchul said. “It’s a place I want to abandon but also embrace. I want to go back.”
I still remember the tender look on his face as he described how the apricot flowers, forsythia, and azaleas in his village would blossom so big they colored the whole mountain into a painting in springtime. “If only I were gifted in art, I would draw it for you to see.” Clearly, words were not enough. Lifting his index finger, Sungchul drew an imaginary map of his hometown in the air. He looked like a little boy as he reminisced, recounting how he and his friends used to run up and down the mountain with paper guns and wooden swords.
In spite of all the atrocities committed by the Kim regime, home was still the small North Korean village where he grew up, the meals shared with his neighbors, and the memories of his friends.
This was not a North Korea I had considered. With phrases such as “extraordinary threat” and images of nuclear weapons, governments and the media have engraved in the international consciousness an over-simplified image of North Korea as a warmongering, dystopian nation run by a dynasty of dictators. Well-meaning NGOs, in an attempt to encourage public response to the dire humanitarian situation, stamp pictures of starved North Korean children with high cheekbones and orphans wandering barefoot onto mailers. The image rarely presented is one of home.
Unfortunately, Sungchul will never return nor even visit his hometown—not unless something radical happens. Defectors are always punished. Moreover, in the years since he resettled in South Korea, he has spoken too much about the regime’s human rights violations to go back. The closest thing he can do to visiting his hometown is meet up with other defectors living in South Korea and cook their comfort food such as rice-stuffed tofu, also known as “imitation meat rice.”
The night I met Sungchul, I went home and thought about what he had shared. I began to wonder where my home was. Was I supposed to think of home as the South Korean high-rise where my family once lived? Or was it the two-bedroom duplex we moved to in the United States? Who were my people—childhood friends in Korea or my Korean American friends? It seemed as though there were far too many homes for me to consider, or that maybe, and depressingly, I had no real home at all.
My family moved to the States while I was in elementary school, but since the day we left, I had dreamed of returning to South Korea. I was bullied at school for not speaking English fluently. Being one of only three East Asians at the school, I was a stranger inside and out. I was no longer the class clown but rather a quiet foreigner, not because I was naturally timid but because I was embarrassed by my accent.
I often reminded my mom of all the cool places she and I used to visit, like the Seoul Arts Center and local theaters—oh, and the food, especially my grandma’s signature soybean soup and soy sauce-marinated crab! I would describe them with enthusiasm. I could name all my favorite ice creams and candies by their brand and the color of their wrapper, and I dreamt that one day, sooner than later, I would go back, eat every single item on my to-eat list, and see all my friends and relatives.
Due to visa issues, it was not until seventeen years later that I got to go “home.” In 2018, I arrived in Seoul with so much excitement but quickly realized it was not the place I remembered as a child. It did not match the memories I had replayed in my head. I could speak in my mother tongue as loudly as I wanted, no one asked me where I was from, and there was no stranger coming up to me to tell me that they liked Korean BBQ and the K-Pop band BTS. But things just didn’t feel the same. The coffee milk that comes (and should only come) in this unique triangular packaging didn’t taste the way I remembered it. My friends back in the States who had heard me talk incessantly about the motherland eagerly sent me messages asking about how much fun I was having. I told one of them, “It feels strange. This place has changed. I’ve changed. I don’t feel at home.”
The place I had called home for seventeen years was long gone. I missed a place that no longer existed. And during my stay in South Korea, I also found myself missing another home that I had not considered my home before: the United States. I missed Chipotle, toilet seat covers in public restrooms, my mom’s kimchi stew, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
This was deeply frustrating. I had needed South Korea, my hometown, to be my home and feel like home. I had wanted to experience a glorious homecoming like a soldier returned from deployment. But the bitter reality was that I no longer belonged. Even in South Korea, I was a stranger, as if the perpetual foreigner label was now part of who I was, wherever I lived.
On the last day of my South Korea trip, I met up with Sungchul and another North Korean friend for dinner. Sungchul took us to a Chinese-owned restaurant in Seoul’s Chinatown that specializes in lamb skewers. Everyone spoke Chinese, so I felt like a stranger in a different way. Sungchul ordered lamb skewers and Tsingtao beer for us, saying he first tried these two when he was living in China as an undocumented worker. Our faces red from the heat of the grill in front of us—or maybe just the “Asian glow”—we talked for hours about how we had arrived at where we were, geographically and spiritually. On our way out of Chinatown, Sungchul pulled me toward a street vendor and forced me to take some Chinese pastries. “Whenever I miss home, I come here and get this bread.”
What? Chinese bread—not even North Korean—reminded him of home? He had confused me again. I told him I was full, but he said I should still take it, just in case I got hungry later.
I have moved five times since this last meeting with Sungchul, and this has given me a chance to reflect. As I revisit the memory of that last evening, I often wonder whether it’s not that complicated after all. Maybe for Sungchul, and many others, home is not bound by geography or nationality, or whether one belongs or should belong. Maybe each time Sungchul got chased out of the place he lived, he learned more and more to grab a part of it, knowing he might not get the chance to come back.
Maybe that’s why we all take the bread with us even when we are full—in case we need it later—as bits of longing that remind us where we come from, memories that reassure us that no matter where we are, we are home if we call it home.
Rachel J. Lee works for the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. She has previously worked with North Korean refugee resettlement and human rights issues. She hopes to visit North Korea when it opens up to meet her friends’ family members and share a meal.