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.
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:Read More
On September 30, in the midst of torrential rains and flash flooding in the city, I still managed to get in from the island to hang an exhibit of illustrations in the Children’s Room of Portland Public Library.
The exhibit, “Picturing New Neighbors,” features selected original artwork from these four books, all of which feature immigrant children:
My stellar intern, Caitlyn Hubbard, made the whole day work; I never would have made it without her. Thanks, Katie!
The exhibit will be up through November, and will culminate with a November 19th reception and workshop, “‘That’s My Story!’ Images of Immigrant Children in Picture Books,” for teachers, librarians, parents and community members.
Once again I participated in a National Association of Korean Schools teachers conference – the second in a week – this one the New England chapter, in North Andover, MA. (It’s a complete coincidence that I did them back-to-back; this invitation came through another Korean acquaintance.) Annual gatherings like the two I attended offer teachers (mostly volunteers) from across a region the chance to connect and to gain new knowledge, skills and inspiration to improve the effectiveness of their instruction.
My presentation (in Korean again, but this one benefited from last week’s warm-up) focused on using books in Korean language school classrooms to help children absorb culture, strengthening their connection to Korea and their bicultural identities. I featured two of my titles, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, and What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, which I illustrated, as examples of how books can be used, and shared a list of titles, most by Korean American authors, for further exploration.
Some recommended books on Korean culturePreschool – 2nd gradeBae, Hyun-Ju, New Clothes for New Year’s DayPark, Linda Sue, Bee-bim Bop!Schoettler, Joan, Good Fortune in a Wrapping ClothOlder Elementary (3rd-6th grade)Park, Linda Sue, A Single Shard; Seesaw Girl; The Kite Fighters; & Archer’s QuestMiddle/High SchoolKim Dong Hwa, The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven (graphic novels)
Some recommended books on the Korean American experiencePreschool – 2nd gradePark, Frances, Good-Bye, 382 Shin Dang DongOlder Elementary (3rd-6th grade)Han, Jenny, Clara Lee and the Apple Pie DreamYoo, Paula, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee StoryMiddle/High SchoolLee, Marie G., Necessary Roughness & Finding My VoiceNa, An, Wait for MeWoo, Sung J., Everything AsianYoo, David, Girls for BreakfastYoo, Paula, Good EnoughQuestions for discussion:How are the characters like you? Different from you?How was being Korean an asset for the character? A challenge?Did you learn anything cool about Korean culture or about being Korean?
Agnes and I keynoted at the National Association of Korean Schools, Mid-Atlantic Chapter meeting. We each shared an overview of our life stories and our work: on Agnes’ mission to get Korea and Korean history into the Common Core, and on my book, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, as a tool to explore Korean history, culture and positive bicultural identity.
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.
What fun when an event you’ve illustrated comes to life!Read More
I presented a keynote, “Mirrors & Lenses: Exploring Racial and Cultural Identity,” sharing my story as a “3rd culture kid” (TCK) growing up in Korea, interspersed with some of the latest findings I’ve gleaned from neuroscience on the formation of racial identity and unconscious bias.
The conference schedule was packed, so I didn’t get a chance to discover the wonders of Sabah, from Mount Kinabalu to tropical rain forests to snorkeling off islands, but a group of us did get to downtown KK for dinner and souvenir shopping: painted masks, sarongs, batik, percussion instruments, and other beautiful crafts.
This area of downtown Kota Kinabalu, selling clothing, souvenirs and food, is called the “Filipino Market.”
Laima with pineapple fried rice, at a Thai restaurant on the harbor.
There’s a Chinese folk tale, variously called “Fortunately, Unfortunately,” or “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” A farmer loses his horse – bad fortune! But soon the horse returns, with a stallion – good fortune! The farmer’s son is thrown off the stallion and breaks his leg – bad fortune! But then military officers arrive in the village to conscript every able-bodied man and the farmer’s son isn’t taken because of his leg… And so on.
My five-day solo trip in China felt like a version of this tale. The first piece of seemingly bad fortune was the discovery upon arrival in Beijing that the reservation confirmation receipt for my Chinese hutong inn (a hutong is an alleyway or narrow side street) didn’t have enough information on it for the average Chinese person to be able to tell where it was located. The good fortune was finding one person after another, most of whom didn’t speak any English – and I speak no Chinese – to help piece together the next step of my journey, from airport to express train to subway to street. My final angel of mercy was Peng, who did speak some English and told me to call him Elton. He helped me with my heavy luggage, guiding me down the correct street to the front door of the inn, a welcome sight.
We exchanged enough information, with the help of my iPad photos, to discover that the city my grandfather grew up in in the early 1900s is Elton’s hometown! To have bumped into each other in one of the largest cities in the world seemed quite remarkable.
My grandfather, Horace Norman Sibley, center, with his parents and sisters, approx 1906.
The next day was a trip to the Great Wall, which I’ve wanted to see ever since I painted it for the book Talking Walls by Margy Burns Knight.
I’d chosen a tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, supposed to be one of the most scenic. I spent the day with an international group of tourists from Pakistan, Canada and the Philippines, our driver, and our guide, a young woman called Eva. Eva is married, with a 2-year-old son, and commutes two hours each way from her suburban apartment, because housing closer to the city center is unaffordable. The tour included some Ming tombs, a jade factory, lunch in a restaurant at the foot of the mountain (about an hour northeast of Beijing), and finally, the Wall!
No photos can do justice to the scale and sheer magnificence of the Great Wall. Seeing the height and steepness of these rocky mountains, it stuns the mind to think of the engineering feat that created this Wonder of the World – and of the millions of lives lost in its construction. The Wall is so high up that almost everyone opts for the cable car or chairlift up – with the option of a tobbagan ride down! It’s a real physical workout, just ascending and descending the stairs and walkways on top of the Wall itself.
Saturday I flew to Dandong, on the northern banks of the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea. In addition to growing up in South Korea, for the last eight years I’ve been working on a young adult novel set in North Korea. (The day I was leaving on this trip, I received some very exciting news about this novel – TBA in a future post!) I wanted to travel to this part of China to trace the steps of my fictional characters, who in the book’s climax end up on a section of the Great Wall, called Hu Shan (Tiger Mountain), not far from Dandong.
I was tremendously excited to discover upon arrival that my 6th floor hotel room looked out over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the North Korean city of Sinuiju, barely visible in the smoggy mist:
A North Korean village on an island in the Yalu River. We are traveling between the island and mainland DPRK – clearly in North Korean waters. The woman herding goats waved and smiled when I called hello to her in Korean.
When I did finally get out of the taxi on the way back to Hu Shan, the entrance to the Wall was indeed closed; inside, a grounds crew was gathering and burning brush. Exploring around the edges on my own – including scrambling up one steep slope, hanging onto branches to keep from slipping in the sandy soil – I stumbled upon paths and views that I never would have found if I’d been on top of the Wall.
And on the south side, there is no gate!
I was able to climb part way up the Wall, just as I’d imagined, and sit to paint a panoramic view of the North Korean countryside.
All in all, an amazing adventure, full of good fortune!