Just a Phone Call away

It’s almost two am and I can’t sleep. I have a dentist appointment tomorrow morning and I’m not ashamed to say I squeak in alarm when things get too rough.

I overheard my grandmother say the most tragic thing this morning. She calls my dad multiple times a day and sometimes, I wake up to them arguing over the phone.

On this particular morning, my father was dropping me off when the phone rang (the conversation was in Korean).

Dad: hello?
Grandma: who is this?
Dad: hyoungwoo-
Grandma: who?
Dad: hyoungwoo, who else? What are you saying?
Grandma: you’re not the person I wanted to call. Your name is above the other name. (Something something, she said a name but I couldn’t catch it)
Dad: Mom! You can’t call them. You can’t call your younger sibling. They’re in that bad country.
Grandma (meanwhile, she’s disagreeing with my father)
Dad: Mom! You can’t call them! They’re in that bad country with that evil man. They won’t let you call. The nurses can’t find the number for you to call them. You can’t contact them. That country has no phone service.

My grandmother used to reside in 강원도, a province that was split by the 38th parallel at the end of the Korean War. My mother told me my grandmother lost her two siblings to the north. To date, that is by far the most upsetting conversation I have ever overheard between her and my father.

Once, when I was in 4th grade, we had a project where we were instructed to interview our grandparents and write a report. I asked her about the war and she shut down and told me she didn’t want to talk about it. She said there was nothing that could be done and that it had been so long that it was as if they were dead. As disturbing as that conversation must have been for her, it also frightened me and for weeks I had nightmares of being separated from my younger brother. I respected her wishes and stopped asking about it and lied on my school report.

Oftentimes, I wonder about them. The ones lost to the north. I wonder if they had kids and if they would have doted on me had we known each other. My grandmother was very traditional in many ways and coddled my younger brother. She still took care of me but I was often left to my own devices. I wonder if I have a counterpart on the other side. A twenty something year old boy or girl with the same blood coursing through his or her veins. I wonder if they look to the south and wonder the same thing… I wonder if I would have thrived in that environment or if I would have been sentenced to forced labor camps for any number of treasonous acts.

I once thought of reuniting my grandmother and her lost siblings but she told me it was a horrible idea. She said she had accepted they were lost to her. The task seemed too gargantuan to pursue and it was over before it even began.

Two and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the 38th parallel and as I toed the yellow line, forbidding me to cross, I craned my neck for any sign of life on the other side. Of course there was none to be found since I was several kilometers away and staring at Propaganda Village, a mock city set up to persuade us into thinking there is a good life to be found over the border.

But if life was so great over the border, would hordes of people be trying to escape? Even when they know they are sentencing their loved ones back home to a horrible fate? When I was in college, I managed to watch a few videos sneaked out from North Korea. Not the ones of the almost bare capital or the staged greetings but the ones of starving feral children and aerial footage of people running for the border. The last video I watched was of two men trying to slip through a gate. The first one managed to rush out. The second was close on his heels until a soldier grabbed his sleeve as he was halfway out the gate. I screamed alone in my dorm room as he was dragged back. You could see the first man reaching back for the second but you know they are both doomed. A shred of humanity in a jab of futility.

I stopped watching those things after that. And now I’m even more awake than I was before.

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