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I knew I must not speak, though the night was dark and I was
afraid. I clung to my mother’s tattered skirt as she walked quietly and quickly
toward the river. I knew where we were going. Oma (Korean for “mother”) had softly
explained it to me earlier as we did our chores.
Baby Brother, who should have been able to walk, couldn’t.
Starvation had stunted his growth. I was so hungry, too. My mother carried my
brother close to her breast, using a single piece of cloth as a makeshift sling.
He was the reason for our journey.
The water was cold. Oma and I stepped in together, but it
was so cold I hesitated. My shoes did nothing to protect my feet from the icy
water. Oma rebuked me quietly but harshly.
“Hurry,” she whispered, “we must go quickly.”
I took a few tentative steps. The water came to my ankles,
then my knees. Soon it reached my chin, and my body went numb. I couldn’t swim.
My mother knew that, but she’d heard the river was shallow enough for wading at
My hand clung to Oma’s skirt. Baby Brother was too listless
to notice the cold. Oma bent low so the border guards would not see us.
Carefully, we moved across the river together.
Our lives had always been difficult, but I didn’t know that.
Opa, my father, had died the year before. At least that’s what Oma said. The
guards may have taken him away as they had taken others. I’m not sure. The
village people would not speak of him.
A few months after Opa died, the famine came, and difficult
times grew worse. I knew then we were suffering. Rumors spread, though muttered
softly, that food was being diverted to the North Korean army. All I knew was
that we had no rice in our village. Oma taught us to enjoy the taste of tree
bark, leaves, and grass.
But when Younger Sister grew sick and died, Oma decided we
should cross the river.
“Opa would be ashamed of me,” she said. “I will not allow
another of his children to starve.”
So, on the first moonless night after the spring thaw, our
journey began. Just when I thought the water and the cold and the hunger
would swallow me, we reached the shore. Dripping wet, freezing and covered in
mud, we climbed out. Oma let us rest for a moment before she rose again.
“Where do we go now?” I asked.
She said nothing, but we started walking. I was shivering
from the cold. She pulled me close with one arm.
I didn’t know how to measure time then. I don’t know how
long we walked, but we finally arrived at a small village. This village was
different from ours. Lights burned in some of the windows. Now, I know this
happens because of electricity. Then, I did not know the word.
We came to a building and went down an alley to a side door.
My mother knocked lightly in a rhythm we had used when chopping wood in the
village. The door opened slightly, and an elderly woman peered out. She was
Korean, just like me.
She ushered us inside, shutting the door quickly behind us.
A handful of men, women, and children sat against the walls, wearing the same
type of ragged clothing as us.
The elderly woman gave me a towel and lifted Baby Brother
from Oma’s tired arms. A younger woman led me to the kerosene heater in the
center of the room. She placed a bowl of hot soup in my hands—soup with real
vegetables, vegetables I hadn’t seen since before the famine.
I drank it slowly at first. It was hot and delicious. Though
it burned my tongue, my stomach cried for it, and I gulped it greedily. Later I
would regret eating it so quickly. My first taste of freedom was a bowl of hot
soup that I vomited moments later.
“What happened then?” the official asked.
I blink. I have forgotten where I am. The memories of those
first moments in China are still so vivid, though they happened years ago. I
stare at the official. I trust her, somewhat reluctantly. But I know I need her
help to complete my journey.
I tell her about our first few days in China, of being
helped by those who called themselves Christians.
“They were Korean people like us and some Chinese people,” I
explain. “I did not know what a Christian was, and when I learned, I was
surprised. I had always been taught that there was no God, that the Dear Leader
was our God. These people said nothing about our Dear Leader, but they spoke of
God as if they knew Him. They were kind to us. They fed and clothed us. Baby Brother
and I began growing stronger. Oma still did not smile much, but she didn’t seem
as worried or as old as she once seemed.”
I stop speaking. I do not want to talk anymore. I do not
want to talk about the struggles I experienced on the way to South Korea. They
had been many, and I had met both good and bad people. It had taken me years to
reach this point.
Now, I am sitting in a small cubicle at the American Embassy
in Seoul. I have struggled to learn English, and I still struggle to be
understood. My sponsor is with me, and she is kind. But, I still feel alone
without Oma and Baby Brother. I do not want to talk about them or about what
happened to them.
“Where is your mother now?” the official asks.
I do not want to think about it. I do not want to tell her,
but I do.
“I do not know. When we were still living in the border
town, Oma went out late one afternoon to buy a few things from the market. It
was dusk. She carried Baby Brother with her as she always did. She still did
not trust him with me or with the others in our small apartment. I waited for
her, but she never returned.”
“Was she taken back across the border?” the official asks.
“I do not know, but I think so. Some say she was captured
and sent to a prison camp. I cannot think about it. If she was captured, she
may have been executed. I watched an execution once in my village of one who
had crossed the border. The young woman was blindfolded and shot by firing
squad in front of us. They made us watch so we would learn the penalty. I can
still hear the sobs of her family; they haunt my dreams. But Oma, I do not want
to think about it. She only wanted to save us from starving. She was a good
“How old were you when you crossed the river with your
“I was ten years old.”
“And how old are you now?”
“I am eighteen.”
“Are you sure about that? You look younger than that to me.”
Truthfully, I do not know how old I am. I do not want to say
this, but I say it anyway.
I also say, “I know that eighteen is considered an adult in
the United States. I want to be able to enter the United States. In my home
country, I heard many bad things about Americans, but I think they were mostly
lies. After I arrived in South Korea, I learned that many of the things I was
taught as a child were lies. I’ve met some Americans since I’ve been living in
Seoul and going to school. Most of them have been kind to me, especially those
who work at my school. Sometimes near the bars I’ve seen other Americans, too,
soldiers or teachers. Some of them drink too much and talk too loud, but they
still have the smell of freedom about them.”
“What does freedom smell like?”
I answer quickly, “It smells like soured milk.”
The official blinks. She looks confused. “Why does freedom
smell like soured milk?” she asks.
I hesitate. I don’t know how to answer this in English. I
realize I should not have said it because I can’t explain it. I hesitate again,
trying to force the English words into my head.
My sponsor has been silent throughout the interview. Before
the interview, she told me to speak for myself and to look the official in the
eye. She said Americans like that. I do not want to disappoint her.
Now, she chuckles softly and speaks for me, “I’m not sure
she means that freedom smells like soured milk. I think she may have confused
some of the words.”
But I had not confused the words. Americans do smell like
soured milk. I am told this is because they eat lots of cheese and milk. They
do not smell like Koreans who eat lots of garlic and onions and red pepper
paste. I have talked with Americans in my school, and I have watched American
television and movies. I have noticed that Americans come and go as they like.
They eat what they want, and they say what they think. They live every day
without fear. To me, this is freedom, and it smells like soured milk.
Still, I keep silent. Perhaps Americans do not know they
smell like soured milk, and maybe I will offend the official if I explain it.
My sponsor continues speaking, “She is eighteen. The
malnutrition of her early years makes her look younger. She was in China for
three years before arriving in South Korea. She has been in South Korea for
five years, learning English and improving her education. She is a smart one,
one of our most promising students. I told her that if she studied well, I
would help her attend university in the United States.”
“Where do you intend to study?”
This is an easy question. I will not offer any more of my
thoughts on freedom. I will stick to the facts. I look the official in the eye.
“I want to go to the
University of Georgia. I want to study nutrition and medicine. I think it is a
crime that children should starve.”
The official nods, and for a moment, tears fill her eyes.
She blinks, and they are gone. I do not know what this means. I am afraid that
I have spoken badly again. I was supposed to stick to the facts, but I keep
giving my opinions.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You do not need to be sorry. Tell me how you will support
yourself and pay for your education in America.”
“I will work. I will scrub floors and clean toilets and
empty trash. I will find a job. I will do whatever it takes. I am a good
My sponsor speaks again, “I will support her. I have
included my financial statements along with the application. I will pay her
tuition and room and board in advance. She has been accepted at the University
of Georgia, and I have a family living near there that is willing to look after
her. If we obtain a work-study permit, she may find a part-time job as well,
but I will be her primary means of support.”
The official closes the file. “Very well. This interview is
complete. We will notify you within two weeks of the status of your
The official nods and stands. I notice for the first time
that she is very tall. I look up into her eyes. She looks as if she
understands. I pray, if there is a God to pray to, that she does.
By Ann Lovell, copyright 2013, all rights reserved.
This story is fictional. Any similarity to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Labels: citizenship, Fiction, Human needs, immigration, orphans, poverty