Once upon a time, while I was procrastinating some works by browsing random videos on Youtube, I came across this video by a North Korean girl. She talked about her experience crossing the China-North Korea border. Her mother was raped trying to save her. She cried as she was saying that, while the world was laughing at the Kims, the North Korean leaders are doing terrible things to the nation and its people. Toward the end, there was a short introduction to her book, and I immediately was interested to read it – especially as someone who loves reading autobiography myself.
The book is filled with a lot of quotes that, though are not the most literary beautiful, are very honest and touching. They somehow resonate with me at so many levels, especially as a perfect reflection of life at my current stage of life. I trust also that this will stay true for my other life stages. Therefore, rather than writing a review or opinion on this book, I would rather write my own reflection as I finished reading through some of these quotes.
“Without the whole truth, my life would have no power – no real meaning”
This was mentioned as she narrates her experience, as she began writing this book, uncovering her past that was buried deep by the traumas and her own effort. As her bare and honest story flashes back, she had this realization.
I resonated with this very much. I used to keep a journal that I religiously wrote nearly every day as I went through tough times. The journal was written in cursive so that no one else in my family would be able to read it. There, I can be as honest as it gets knowing that no one else but me will be reading it. It was a big relief every time that I finish putting all those worries and thoughts onto the paper. It gave me the power to push myself back up from all the weight in the world.
Another instance was when I was forced to dig deep in my past as I went through therapy and my psychologist asked me to think and reflect on my past experience and childhood. The experience of flashing all those blurry scenes back told me that the past actually shaped us into who we are today. However, through reading this and surviving those phases, I also realized that we can’t change the past but we can learn to live and deal with it in the present moment.
Coming back to the book, I found this part amplified how powerful the book is. As I read through the book, I found that not only was Yeonmi honest about her own story, but also her past attempt to hide these stories and facts and her decision to bring them back to light. Big applause to her for that!
“It is important to let someone you care about hear that word from you”
Written this way, the quote is someone ambiguous, but it is really about expressing your love and care to the person that is important to you. In other circumstances, this seems like a very generic quote – even to me. However, at the point, when my dad is hospitalized and is unreachable for some reason, I found this quote having a profound meaning to me. After reading this, I decided that I need to do something to let him know my care and love for him. This ended up with me painting a card for him and I hope he received my messages.
“It amazed me how quickly a lie loses its power in the face of truth”
This was mentioned when she talked about her transformative experience as she explicitly learned about what actually happened in North Korea as she takes courses in South Korea. Her old perception of her used-to-be “Dear Leader” and “North Korea” started to change as she faced the facts.
My reflection on this is under a different context, however. I felt that this transformative experience of her can also double down the importance of honesty in our own lives as well. We all have lies and biased justifications that we repeated in our own minds as well. It is important, at least for me, that, as much as possible, I am an objective judge of my own thought. Whenever I experience a tough decision or tough time in life, I felt that it is useful for me to step out of my own shoes and try to be an outsider looking in – in a similar manner to South Korea looking at North Korea. By doing so, I can bring back some peace of mind as I ward off some random negative thoughts.
“Through helping others, I learned that I had always had compassion in me”
Yeonmi’s experience of going through a mission transformed her from a girl who doesn’t understand the concept of love and compassion to someone who embodied it completely. In North Korea, she was someone who could just look at the homeless and starving people and not feeling any sympathy. After the mission, she turned into an activist and wrote a book that actually brought me to tears. She wrote this part of her book in a way that almost said that helping others actually turned out to help her in a unique way.
Once again, this experience resonates with me in a unique way. There were times that people told me that I am a very kind and caring person, and they really appreciated my support and help in so many circumstances. The truth is helping others actually helps me feel that I’m a better person – not in the sense that I’m a superior human being, but rather the sense of accomplishment, belong, and self-worth. As much as, I hope, those that I helped gained something from my support, I gained a lot from the experience as well. Perhaps, it is not the realization of compassion like Yeonmi, but it is a similar sense of net-positive exchange.
“We all have our own deserts. We all have to cross them to find a purpose in life and be free.”
In her journey from China to South Korea, Yeonmi has to cross a desert from China to Mongolia. It was an excruciating experience physically and mentally. She has to face the cold of desert winter as well as the fear of being caught by the Chinese border patrol and being sent back to be executed in North Korea. She was prepared to die rather being sent back. After crossing the border, she finally was able to start to live a free life and found many purposes in her life.
The deserts in this case are not in the literal sense. They symbolize personal struggles and challenges that we eventually will or have already faced in life. Through the experience of facing it with all our might and willpower, surviving them – by just being alive at the end of the struggle, we will be transformed with new realization and many other doors of choices for us to choose from.
For me, having survived the severe depression through the point of nearly suicidal, I have learned the importance of life beyond works and professional progression, and human connection. I also believe that if I think through more of my experiences walking through my personal deserts, I would find more realizations that have shaped me into who I am today.
The last few chapters of this book are very touching. It almost as if you are reading a novel where the protagonists, after excruciating experience finally tasted a glimpse of happiness. Yeonmi’s life, though is not a novel where the main characters are living happily ever after struggle-free, is finally much better than those pit-dark time. I was happy for her and touched by her final transformation to the girl we saw in the One Young World summit.
Her experience also humbled me in a way. It made me question how I made such a big mess out of some of my struggles as if it was the biggest thing in the world. Yeonmi has gone through so much in her life when she was less than 20 years old, yet she still found others’ experiences even more challenging than hers. Who am I to make such a big demand to the world? Having said this, I’m pretty sure at some point, I would still make a big deal about things I will have to go through – though, I hope, to the lesser degree.
In Order to Live, though not the most beautifully written autobiography, is a book filled with honesty and the reality of the world. It offers a lot of points for personal reflections. Although this is not a self-help book, it really lifted my spirit up in a profound way.