Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo Lee

THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES is an amazing memoir written by a woman who defected from North Korea into China and then, later, into South Korea. The book starts with her family life in North Korea, which could be uncomfortable but was still livable. Then her father was arrested and later died, and the infamous famine following the collapse of the Soviet Union made things very difficult for her family. They moved several times, until finally, after coming full circle to Hyesan, a small city across the river from China, Hyeonseo Lee decided impulsively to leave.

China wasn't much easier. Hyeonseo had to hide her identity. Her aunt and uncle wanted her to marry a slacker who played video games all day, so she fled before the wedding and was nearly forced into prostitution on the pretense of working at a "salon." At one point, she was reported as a North Korean, and since China deports and repatriates people who flee there from North Korea, she had to convince the authorities that she was a citizen.

Once in South Korea, her life should have settled. She had a rich South Korean boyfriend and a much better job than she did in China, working off the books. But she had gotten so good at speaking Mandarin that they thought she was actually Chinese, trying to live in Seoul illegally, so this time, she had to convince the authorities that she was North Korean, seeking asylum. In the meantime, she was kept in a jail with women who were abusive and mean.

When she brings her mother and brother over, things get even more tense. Initially only her mother was supposed to stay, but then her brother got a call from his wife that the authorities were looking for him and knew he'd brought a woman over. They gave him a choice: he could come back with both women and get off lightly, but if he came back alone he would be in huge trouble. With a heavy heart, Hyeonseo's brother decided that he probably shouldn't come back at all, leaving his wife behind. But then, while trying to get them into South Korea from China via Laos, her family ended up getting arrested and imprisoned in an absolutely disgusting jail while Hyeonseo was stalled by corruption and red tape from the process of getting them out. It was absolutely heartbreaking.

The book does end happily. Hyeonseo, after breaking up with her Korean boyfriend due to differences in station, ends up dating an American man she met at an event. Her brother and mother eventually get over their homesickness and stop asking to return to North Korea. They overcome their racial biases towards Hyeonseo's new boyfriend/eventual husband, and all become closer because of it. Hyeonseo starts giving lots of talks about North Korea and defection and reconnects with the man who helped get her family out of Laos. It does end happily, but there is so much tragedy and suffering on the road to that happy ending that it feels absolutely exhausting.

I can't imagine what this woman went through. Her memoir is simply amazing. I loved her descriptions of the day to day life in North Korea, and could understand why her family didn't want to leave. Here in the U.S., we tend to only hear about a certain side of North Korea, and that country does have serious problems, but to the people who live there, it's home. The many small kindnesses people did her and her family, no matter where she was, will give you faith in humanity. And as for Hyeonseo herself, her quick-thinking and street smarts got her-- and her loved ones-- out of so many potentially hazardous situations that I really admired her all the more because of it.

Read this book if you want an inside look at North Korea and what it's like to live there, as well as what it's like to defect. This is one of the best memoirs I've read in a while and it would be a perfect book to pick up for Asian Pacific American Heritage month.

5 out of 5 stars

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