Author’s Korean Connections

FAQ: Have you ever been to North Korea?

Posted by on Jun 27, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process, On Travel to Asia | 0 comments

No… and yes.

I’ve never officially visited the DPRK, but I have been in a speedboat cruising along the border with China — in North Korean waters!

I didn’t intend to do this.

In 2015, I was invited to speak at a school in Mongolia and a teachers conference in Malaysia. In between, I took myself to two Chinese cities, Beijing and Dandong. I wanted to see the Great Wall — the regular one, and the piece of it that’s in my novel: Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain Great Wall.

When I got to my hotel in Dandong and stepped to the window of my room, I discovered that I had a view straight across the river to North Korea, just half a mile away.

Two days later, I set off on my journey to see Hu Shan Great Wall, a 20-minute drive east from Dandong. Through a series of unexpected developments, I ended up in this speedboat with a pilot and two Chinese tourists, cruising west on the Amnok/Yalu River. To the right (north) in this photo is China. To the left (south) is North Korea.

When we got near the North Korean coast, our boat pilot told us to stop taking photos. This is the closest one I got.

To the north, Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain, from the river. You can barely make out the Wall, climbing the slope.

 

We got close to this island, to the north of us. I don’t speak Chinese, but I’d picked up the names of the two countries: “China?” I asked, pointing to the island. The pilot shook his head. “North Korea,” he said. So if it was North Korea to our right, and to our left… then we were technically in North Korea!

I waved to the woman on the shore tending goats, and called a greeting to her in Korean. She beamed and waved back.

On the way back to the boat dock, we pulled up to this sandbar where a couple of North Koreans had a boat with products for sale — cigarettes, preserved eggs. When the Chinese men didn’t buy anything, the entrepreneurs muttered curses about them in Korean.

A few hours later, I was sitting on Tiger Mountain Great Wall, looking out over the North Korean countryside (the straight line cutting diagonally through the middle of the photo is the border; beyond is the North Korean island, then the river where we cruised, and finally the North Korean mainland).

So that was it, my trip to North Korea.

Read More

How I Came to Write This Book

Posted by on Jan 20, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process | Comments Off on How I Came to Write This Book

Writing this novel has been a ten-year journey of research, hard work, conversation, and reflection, especially on the subject of identity. I’m a white American whose own identity was profoundly shaped by moving from New Hampshire to South Korea in 1960, when I was seven years old. Korea, where my parents worked as medical missionaries, was our family’s home base for twenty-one years.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

I speak fluent conversational Korean, spent my junior year of college at a Korean university, and have returned to Korea many times throughout my adulthood. Korea is “home” to me, even as my connection remains that of an outsider-insider. But prior to this book, my sphere of personal knowledge, experience, and interest in Korea had never included the North. Even when I was a child and teenager in South Korea, the country occupying the other half of the peninsula seemed unknowable, foreign and menacing — a feeling exacerbated by the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK, and its 1968 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.

Ten years ago, a chance interview question about reunification led to the idea for a novel about two American kids on the run in North Korea. I did some reading and daydreaming, but I felt uncertain about my connection to the material until I met Reverend Peter Yoon, a member of the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University. In 2007 he had traveled into the DPRK from China by train and had an hour and a half of video footage of the countryside between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. The images were spellbinding, and to my surprise, they were familiar.

Rural North Korea in 2007 — wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, clunky concrete apartment buildings painted pink and blue — looked exactly like the South Korean countryside of the 1960s where I grew up. I realized the DPRK was not unknowable and foreign; despite its government, it was part of a land I knew and loved. Over the years of research and writing that followed, North Korea came into focus more and more as a place of enormous complexity and contradiction, and most of all a place full of real people.

Indeed, contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found an extensive amount of information available about the DPRK.

 

More About Growing Up in Korea:

Of Longing and Belonging (Korean American Story)
Considering North Korea (Korean American Story)

Read More

When Books & Real Life Overlap

Posted by on Apr 5, 2015 in Author's Korean Connections, Author's Other Korean Books | 2 comments

What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, which I illustrated, was published five years ago. It tells the story of a Korean American baby’s first birthday through the eyes of her older brother, Chong.

One of the most charming aspects of a traditional Korean first birthday, or tol, is the toljabee, in which objects are placed in front of the baby and the one chosen is thought to be a predictor of what the child might become.

Illustration © Anne Sibley O’Brien from WHAT WILL YOU BE, SARA MEE?

Yesterday I got to be part of my grandson’s tol. Taemin was splendid in a first birthday outfit that our daughter Yunhee’s godparents, Marsha Greenberg and Steve Schuit, had brought last year from Korea.

 

When a table of objects was placed on the floor in front of him, Taemin practically ran to pick up the rice spoon – the sign of a chef-to-be.

What fun when an event you’ve illustrated comes to life!

Read More

The Reason…

Posted by on Apr 7, 2014 in Author's Korean Connections | 6 comments

I haven’t been blogging lately:

 

Taemin Anthony Keough, born April 3 to our daughter Yunhee and her husband Josh.
I’m a grandmother – and besotted!

Read More

Korea, Again

Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Author's Korean Connections, On Korean Books & Culture | Comments Off on Korea, Again

I’m writing from Seoul where I’m connecting with old friends as well as doing a few presentations, including talking about my graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, with a classroom of Korean 6th graders  – in Korean! Quite a stretch for my language skills, requiring learning/trying to recall a whole set of vocabulary: editor, research, picture book, manuscript, theme, final art, etc. (Another group of vocabulary is easier because it’s just a Korean pronunciation of the English word: sketch = su-keh-chi; character = keh-rik-tuh, and so on.)

Next week I’ll be joined by my mother and siblings, to take some of my father’s ashes to Geoje Island for a memorial service and reunion with former staff members, colleagues and friends. (Dad was the director of the Kojedo Community Health Project from 1969-1978.)

Read More

Parenting Across Race

Posted by on Apr 5, 2013 in Author's Korean Connections, On Other Resources for Educators, On Transracial Adoption | Comments Off on Parenting Across Race

A new essay I wrote,”Raising Yunhee” on transracial adoption and parenting across race, has just been published at Korean American Story.

 

“Adopting Yunhee was one journey; raising her was another. My own passion for Korea, which became my second homeland and the source of my second culture and second language, made me determined to give Yunhee a sense of her birth legacy. But how does a white American, even one who grew up in Korea, raise a Korean American – on an island in Maine?

 
Yunhee was the model for Brianna in Brianna, Jamaica and the Dance of Spring

The essay examines how we attempted to give our daughter not just a sense of where she came from, but also encouragement to voice her experience of growing up as an American of color, and the challenge that posed for us as white parents:

“Talking about race gave Yunhee permission and language to unpack her own observations and experiences, and a structure for understanding the nuances of racial identity in America. At various ages and stages, it helped her find her voice to express her grief, her rage, her confusion (at age six, “Why couldn’t somebody in Korea take care of me?”)… It was essential for me not just to convey that all her thoughts and feelings were welcome, but also to become aware enough of the filter of my own white and non-adopted privilege that I could respect Yunhee’s authority in naming realities as she perceived them. I had to work to not inadvertently discount her observations and difficulties just because I wished they weren’t true.”

Korean American Story is building a fine and useful archive of narratives across the spectrum of Korean American identity, a significant contribution to exploring what it means to be American.
Go take a look.

Read More