*Throughout this piece, dialogue originally spoken in Korean will be italicized while English dialogue will not.
This semester, I participated in a truly special choir made up of both North and South Koreans. I first heard of this group through participation in the North Korean Defectors Program [NKD]. NKD is a program where Fulbright ETAs throughout South Korea have the opportunity to teach English to children from North Korea by way of local Hana Centers. Once a week, a few other ETAs and I practice English with four absolutely precious middle school students. Before seeing the students, I met with the Hana Center director in person to discuss schedule and the nature of teaching the children. When we exchanged info for posterity’s sake, she noticed that I was a pianist, vocalist, and former choral director from my business card and we got to talking about music. Turns out, she was a singer as well and wished to invite me her choir with members from both South and North Korea.
“I think it will be good if you come, especially since you like music,” she said, so excited that she found songs the choir was working on on YouTube to show me. They were melodious and quite vehemently sung.
“It’s so beautiful,” I told her.
“This is actually a North Korean song. A lot of the music that we sing is North Korean literature, so I think it would be something you might enjoy.”
I thanked her profusely for her invitation.
“But, we are not professional level,” she continued.
“No! I would love to come and hear everyone.”
The following week, I attended my first rehearsal.
This choir was much like any choir in that there were plenty of different personalities: some bubbly choir types and some that were a shade quieter. I tried to be my usual, obedient foreign self, a role I’ve got down pat at this point. I do as I’m told, am polite, and ask nicely for things if there is a need. People left me alone for the most part. Before rehearsal began, we all passed around the kimbap! This might be a typical choir-in-Korea thing, because I noticed the same ritual in the two choirs I participated in last year. The strong scent of sesame oil put a smile on my face before I was thrust back into sight-reading in Korean, no easy task, but I was pleased to find my ability much improved since the previous year!
The following week, a new member came up to me and introduced himself to me as we waited for the conductor to arrive. He acted surprised to see me. I guess I do stick out like a sore thumb in a choir of North and South Koreans.
“Oh!” he exclaimed loudly. “Where are you from?” When I hear someone address me in solid English, I still try to answer in Korea for fun. ‘They can handle it,’ I think. ‘He doesn’t need any extra help from me.’ I want Korean people to know that I am not waiting for someone to swoop in and rescue me.
“I am from Piladelpia,” I respond, Koreanizing both “ph” sounds. I saw a smile creep across the corners of his mouth.
During break time, we had the chance to talk more. I learned that he and his family were from North Korea. I had just assumed that he and his wife were from South Korea, when his wife told me that she lived in Incheon before moving to Jeju. I assumed she was a mainlander! Even in a country that purports being 97% ethnically Korean, it is easy to make assumptions about ‘all Koreans’ or ‘all people in Korea.’ In fact, though rarely mentioned, there are large numbers of North Korean defectors living in South Korea – six hundred some on Jeju Island alone. The stigma surrounding being North Korean keeps many defectors from freely offering up information about their backgrounds. They may even try to mask their North Korean accent. I made a point not to ask them about their circumstances but relate over music, Jeju, and other relatively neutral topics while ‘listening like mad,’ advice from my university choir director that will stick with me for life.
This man told me he has three daughters.
“Same with my family! I am one of three girls!”
He said that they have all moved out of the house and live on the mainland. He and his wife are lonely at times, because the girls have moved away. At this moment, I feel a pang of guilt for whatever pain I have caused my own family through my absence.
“I know what you mean.”
Then, suddenly he said, “you are my daughter.”
It caught me off guard and I didn’t know what to say.
I could tell this man was genuine and he said it maybe two or three times more before I could muster a pitiful response like, “thank you. I appreciate your help.”
I had understood him the first time he said it. I was just another instance where I am taken aback by the kindness of Korean people. It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say something like this. If fact, sometimes it seems that Koreans are eager to offer me care. In all honesty, Korean people owe me nothing. I chose to come here and be a foreigner in their country. I am an adult and responsible for my own happiness. Their generosity can be so much it stuns me and with no outlet for my gratitude or the linguistic ability to express it, my heart is left to contort uncomfortably in its cage.
During a later rehearsal, I voiced a minor issue as discreetly as possible, “my page is missing...”
He switched his entire score with mine to resolve the issue and allow me to go right along rehearsing.
“Thank you so much,” I offer this response wishing my presence hadn’t inconvenienced him.
“It’s ok. You are my daughter.” There it was again.
I had never imagined in my life that I would be making music with people from North Korea and that I would be the recipient of their kindness, openness, and acceptance. I get choked up thinking about it. To be honest, I was a little nervous the first week. I had expectations about where they were from and how they might behave and what their attitudes toward me might be considering the weight that the word ‘American’ carries. There’s never been a single issue. Granted, at this point, I know how to blend in as much as a person who looks like me can in this place thanks to Fulbright Orientation and one year in Korea already under my belt. I know the right things to say. I know the right way to bow. I know when to speak and when not too. But, geeze! Sometimes the consideration for others here is overwhelming. It’s pretty cool that I am able to make art with these amazing people with stories, lives, and strength, and courage.
The repertoire has been a treat to sing! I practice by turning my one room apartment into a norae-bang, or karaoke room, and singing along to YouTube. When my students overheard me in the school halls, they asked, “Ms. Beavers, where do you learn these old songs?” Half of the songs are South Korean ka-yo, or folk songs, staples that my Korean friends easily recognize. I guess I better be sure to make sure I get them right! The North Korean songs are gorgeous and very passionately sung. They have the same sweeping melodic phrases and slight pentatonicism as the South Korean songs, but with an additional layer of communist China buttercream on top.
One week, a choir member leaned over to ask, “do you understand what these lyrics mean?” These kinds of questions can be patronizing, but this time, they really wanted to make sure I understood the meaning of the song.
“Hmm, it sounds like it’s about a small island in the ocean…a boulder…and the waves are crashing around…and seagulls are flying by.” This wasn’t wrong, but I was clearly missing some greater metaphor.
“The song is about Gwangju Sa-tae,” he said.
I didn’t understand the second word but tried to further engage, “I have been to Gwangju before. I hiked Mudeungsan Mountain. I like Gwangju!”
“Oh. Do you know sa-tae?” he searched my face, then continued in English, “sad time. Many students died.”
“Hmm, maybe the Gwangju Uprising?” Now, I search his face for recognition. Nope. I resort to the translator on my phone, confirming that he was indeed referring to the Gwangju Uprising.
He continued, “this is a very sad song, not a happy song. Every Korean feels this song. When this happened I was in high school and many students died.”
From that point on, I couldn’t get images of the sixhundred-some dead police, citizens, and students out of my mind and found it difficult to sing the song. I looked around and the Koreans seemed to be having no problems. Now, I am by nature a sensitive person, but what I often find with Koreans, is that even though there’s been some truly horrific history, they don’t let their emotions interfere with what work needs to be done. Kdramas and pop culture aside, when there’s work to be done, Koreans step up and do it, no complaints, no questions asked. In another song we sing the words, “my hometown is on Northern land. Kagopa!” Kagopa means ‘I want to go so badly it hurts.’ Even singing these heartbreaking lyrics, no one let their emotions get in the way of their singing. I really admire Korean people for this. It is not the suppression of emotions, but the resilience of Korean people that I find so beautiful.
I am humbled by my experience singing with these people. I have been offered food and rides home. They ask simple questions about my Fulbright teaching, which shows that they care. It is this kind of genuine compassion that can knock the wind out of you. I hate to admit that I wondered, “how? How are they so selfless and so kind after being through whatever hardships they’ve been through?” Of course, I have made way too many assumptions about them, knowing close to nothing at all.
When I look around the room, I see one member’s child playing games on a smart phone while another member tries to offer him a large piece of kimbap. I hear the ring leader, a sixty plus year old woman with a strong voice, cracking jokes as others chip in.
“Oh, no unnie*.”
“Oh yes, unnie.”
“No unnie, it’s like this!”
Boisterous laughter erupts.
I clearly can’t make my way around their use of language, but usually it goes something like this and I feel their joy, grateful to be allowed to be a part of their world each Tuesday night.
Singing with this choir feels like important work, not just from a musical standpoint, which does help fulfill some need in my soul, but to foster feelings of connectedness. We are all brought together by music and I feel like I am getting way more from them then they are from me. I live for moments like this where everybody realizes that they all share some commonalities. The North Koreans may be fluent in the Korean, but I also have an accent that I seek to minimize. We are all trying to find our way here. So, while it may be true that we are coming from wildly different places, all we really need is the music, to bring us together. Thanks to the creators of this group, a special community has been born.
*Unnie literally means older sister for women. However, it is often used by women to address other women with whom they are close and of a similar age.