Hyeonseo Lee tells her harrowing story in The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. Growing up in the Northern region of her country, the Chinese border was quite close. Her mother had connections there, and her father had some family. One day, Lee just crossed the river that delineated the border and began her life in China.
This makes it seem simple, but it is certainly not that. Lee must survive without documentation and find a way to support herself. She’s barely more than a kid and didn’t prepare for this journey at all. Her voyage takes many years, during which she’s given five new names. Each time, there’s a different reason for the change, mostly centered on staying safe from the various authorities.
Lee is resourceful and incredibly brave. She tells her story simply, even though each change is fraught with risk to herself and others. Mostly she’s trying to work hard and save enough money for the next step in her journey. But she has all the desires you expect from a young woman. Lee wants an education, to have trusted friends, maybe even a boyfriend, and to be safe. Most of all, she misses her mother and younger brother.
This is a well-told dramatic escapade. Lee propels the story forward with every unexpected twist she encounters. So much of her experience is just one gut punch after another. But she persists through it all, despite the hardships.
Many thoughts crossed my mind as I read Lee’s story. Most importantly, Lee helps her readers understand an average person’s life in North Korea and China. Life in authoritarian regimes includes many disadvantages like daily hunger, constant fear, and forced patriotism. Citizens know that neighbors inform the government if they do even the slightest thing wrong. And when you escape, like Lee did, from one authoritarian regime to another, it’s a rough road to find true freedom.
If life seems “difficult” here in the United States, thinking back to Lee and her journey gives me perspective. I recommend this memoir if you need a dose of the brutal realities of authoritarian regimes. But even more so, if you need a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.
Pair with On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder for a step-by-step view of how freedoms change.