Sungju Lee’s amazing survival story of his childhood in North Korea, how he escaped bitter, harsh circumstances, and found new life in South Korea.
Sungju’s family had it all; a nice home, prestige, a bright future. His father was a rising star in the military and people bowed to him as they passed him on the street. Until he did something wrong (that the author could not safely write about), fell out of favor, and the entire family is suddenly banished to the north and to rural poverty.
Sungju ends up on the street, forming a gang with his school friends, robbing others at the food market and train stations just to survive.
“Every Day, Young-bum and I stole twisted bread sticks, candies, dububab (rice wrapped with tofu), and won (currency). With the won, we bought his grandmother’s medicine and then white rice and soybean paste, which he would cook into meals for his grandmother. With all the food she was now eating and the proper doses of medicine she was getting, her health slowly improved. By the start of harvest season, she started spending her days sitting up, and soon she was standing. By the middle of the fall, she’d even awake before Young-bum and me and prepare us a meal of corn rice and vegetable porridge. As we’d eat, she’d tell us stories about what Joseon was like before Kim Il-sung. ‘It was a terrible time when the Japanese made slaves of us all. If you think now is tough…’ she would always say…”
This is not a pretty story but it does bring home to the reader the incredible tenacity of the human will to live and the needs we all have. Everyone needs companionship and belonging and a family, and these young boys find a way to fill the gaps in their lives and support one another in their quest to simply survive.
Reading this book brings home the bleak reality of life for so many; the struggle to survive, to find enough to eat from day to day, and the emotional upheaval coping with the disappearances of family members. The author does not try to gloss over what life really was like for him but he does hold out hope. “I had learned a valuable lesson as a street boy: ‘You can’t wait for hope to find you. You have to go out and grab it.”
This book is not only educational illustrating the experiences of life in a foreign land, it is also crucial for our times. Unfortunately, we live in a time when America’s freedoms are often taken lightly. How easy it is to forget what we have!
“I realized that to achieve my dream, I had to study and find some way to enjoy studying. I knew, after everything I’d been through and how far I had come, I couldn’t drop out. I learned how to deal with the stress, and soon I came to love school. The more I study, the more I see what I don’t know and want to learn.”
All I can say is, the next time you are tempted to complain about the long lines at the supermarket, read this book.