2016-03-18 “Bear Hugs in Texas” Korea Times column

Bear hugs in Texas By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

My previous column was about celebrating every day I am alive. Later that day, my grandaunt passed away in Texas and the grandmother of a North Korean refugee friend passed away in North Korea.

I last saw my grandaunt two years ago when I flew from Seoul to Texas to attend my paternal grandmother’s funeral. The people who were already adults when I was born, probably changed my diapers when I was baby, and celebrated my achievements during my formative years are passing from the scene.

While grieving for my grandaunt passing away, I got the bad news from my North Korean refugee friend. She later said her mother and aunt, who also escaped from North Korea, cried non-stop for days.

Even in death, your country of birth can determine your freedom to “seize the day.” Two years ago before she became a leading spokesperson about North Korea, Yeonmi Park said to me, in anger and disgust: “I have the right to see my family. Why does Kim Jong-Un have the right to block me from seeing my family?”

I think about that whenever I hear people talk about the “good” allegedly done by Kim Jong-Un and his dirty regime. They are kidnappers blocking people from the freedom to enjoy their lives as they wish, to see their family in good or bad times, to find their way in the world.

My North Korean refugee friend and her family could not return to North Korea to attend the funeral of her grandmother. Certainly they are happy to have escaped from North Korea, but who could blame them if they reflected on their choice to escape from North Korea?

I hesitate to say this because people are shocked to hear North Korean refugees say they miss being in North Korea. Some friends (South Korean as well as Westerners) who started paying attention to the stories of North Koreans rather than just headlines sometimes express outrage or bewilderment about refugees saying they want to return to or miss North Korea. I tell them to slow down about judging people who had to make life-or-death, all-or-nothing decisions to escape from a regime determined to keep them from escaping.

Unlike my North Korean friend who could not hop on a plane or even make a phone call to North Korea without being cautious, I dropped everything to fly to Texas to attend my grandaunt’s funeral. I thought back to last year when I didn’t attend an aunt’s funeral _ I still can’t remember what those important activities were that kept me in Seoul then. I see the Facebook posts by my cousins still grieving about their mom and brother passing away within weeks of one another. She was a sweet lady who had a tough life. When I was young she would threaten to “whoop” us when we were bad, but thankfully her threats never became reality.

I am sure that next year I won’t remember which activities I skipped this time in order to attend my grandaunt’s funeral. I reasoned that good colleagues wouldn’t mind postponing a bit (“Those who matter, don’t mind; those who mind, don’t matter”). We can seize the moment among many choices, in this case, family over work.

One of my uncles picked me up at the airport. When I told him I would be attending the funeral, he let me know that he couldn’t wait to give me a “big bear hug.” He calls me “son” and tells me that he loves me every time we message or call.

It isn’t just him. One of his burly sons will give you a bear hug, while he is trash talking how he should finish you off. The other burly son will give you a bear hug, telling you how much he loves and misses you. You are still trying to catch your breath from the tag team of life-draining bear hugs, and dad is already ready for round two of bear hugs.

I knew it would mean a lot to my aunts and uncles for me to attend the funeral because my own father abandoned the family more than two decades ago. He was not there to say a final goodbye to his aunt, but his oldest son was. For a few days, I was “Casey Jr.” My relatives are happy about my activities helping North Korean refugees, but I know they are first of all concerned with my happiness. They would be as thrilled if I were saving whales or collecting stamps.

Before I left Seoul for Texas, I made sure to give a big bear hug to my North Korean refugee friend, lifting her off the ground, mixing both trash talk and words of praise. She didn’t quite understand why I did that, but that’s fine with me.

The writer is co-editor of “Educational Freedom in Urban America: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education.” He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.