Without pride in his/her people, a writer will never be regarded by them as a great writer, and a people that has no pride in its members will soon disappear from the stage of history. This has been true in the past and is equally true today.
Where I live, in the northern Jiandao region of China, bordering North Korea to the south and Russia to the northeast, there are memorial stones in every village, on every hill. They serve as a final resting place for the Korean people who settled down in northern Jiandao. Ninety-eight percent of anti-Japanese fighters and 93 percent of those who participated in the National Liberation War are buried in this place. As such, northern Jiandao was once red with the blood of countless Koreans who had fought for their nation on Chinese land.
I am first and foremost a Korean writer, a proud descendant of the Korean people.
The stories I write reflect the entire history of Koreans in Jiandao, how we were uprooted and displaced, how we settled down in a foreign land, and how we continued to fight for our people. That is, I would not be a writer if not for that history, and now I hope to speak for my fellow Koreans.
In 1984, chosen to receive a state prize for my short story “Ragged Skirt,” I was faced with the dilemma of deciding what to wear to one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in Beijing. I wanted it to be obvious that I was Chaoxianzu, that is, an ethnic Korean in China. The three Chinese characters that form my name, if not pronounced in Korean, were not enough to convey that fact. To make it known across China, and throughout the world—that a Chaoxianzu has won a prestigious award alongside members of the 1.3 billion Han Chinese majority—I had to wear a hanbok. At the time, however, it was difficult to find anyone dressed in traditional Korean clothes in Yanbian Prefecture, except when worn as a stage costume. I searched every single performance group and art school in Yanbian. There was not enough time to order one made from scratch, and it was difficult to find a hanbok that would fit me, but in the end I managed to borr...