Happy Birthday, Yeonmi Park!
We worked together for much of 2014. She started the year as a minor celebrity in South Korea because she was a regular guest on a Korean-language TV show. By the end of the year, she was internationally known, even named one of the BBC’s Top 100 Women of the Year.
Yeonmi has moved on to bigger and better things, I hate to be the guy always saying, “Remember when!” But I can’t resist today on her birthday.
* Last year, Yeonmi worked on her birthday. We met that afternoon to discuss several projects, then had dinner with her lovely mother and sister and her mother’s partner. Then after that, with her family celebrating at Yeonmi’s place, Yeonmi and I went back to work! It was so much fun, it was a special time for me being able to join them for dinner.
* In the back of my mind, I knew the end was near. It was 12 days before Yeonmi’s One Young World speech that captured the world’s attention. I knew that speech would be really big–and would end our working relationship. I would be like Michael Jordan’s high school coach, who people sometimes remember in passing, sometimes even by name. 🙂
We had started working together in February 2014, when I told her that she had the potential to be a leading spokesperson. It was like a chapter out of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.” I just knew. But she said she didn’t think her story was worth telling and didn’t think she was qualified to be a human rights activist.
After her One Young World speech, friends of mine who never paid attention to North (or South) Korea were asking me if I had heard about the North Korean girl who had given that big speech.
* We were both so busy then, we were trying to record the final Casey and Yeon Mi Show, but she then had three big speeches coming up (One Young World, Oslo Freedom Forum, TEDx Uk-Bath), all with different expectations in terms of duration and focus. She did make time to join a (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees session, her final time, in November 2014.
* Without going into detail, I will only say that Yeonmi terrorized me during that time. 🙂 People don’t know how much she reads, studies and thinks about the world and her place in it. She also has incredibly high expectations. During that busy time, she was drafting her book, working on her speeches, and answering so many messages from around the world that her iPhone was often lit up like a Christmas tree because of the many notifications. I was honored because we worked on many things together, it was great knowing what was coming.
Later, the world will find out that how much she has learned the last few years devouring Ted talks and reading voraciously. I tell people–“If you want to buy her a gift, make sure you include a book.” That little lady wants to learn!
* Last year on her birthday, there was a huge story about Yeonmi and her mom in one of the U.K. newspapers, reporting personal things that Yeonmi had told me months before. But with the publication of her book, I have learned the rest of the story, details so personal that she couldn’t share them with me, even though I was like a big brother to her last year.
* Boss: We worked together for 8 wonderful months last year. Back then, she called me “Boss.” Last March, even though we had no budget, I hired her as “Media Fellow” at Freedom Factory, she became the first Ambassador of Teach North Korean Refugees, and we had a podcast together, although we were often so busy that it was a miracle that we recorded 11 podcasts together. For three years, Kim Chung-Ho at Freedom Factory had encouraged me even before we started working together to have a podcast. It wasn’t until I realized how magical Yeonmi was that I finally told him, “Okay. I’m ready to have a podcast. But I want a co-host.” Who, he asked. I said, “Her name is Yeonmi Park. She’s going to be an international star.”
I have since had other invitations to do a podcast ,TV show or documentary, but I haven’t come across the right situation as I did last year with Yeonmi.
* TNKR: She had 18 tutors that she studied with in (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees. Some people who know about that give us too much credit for her English development. She studied like crazy on her own, she deserves the credit.
Where I don’t mind taking credit: Her volunteer tutors gave her opportunities to practice what she was learning on her own and to help her advance a bit faster. I attended some of her marathon study sessions–often lasting three hours, sometimes up to five or six hours. She was always engaging, a student who expressed her thanks to her tutors by being a hyperactive participant in her own learning. She listened to everything they said like her life depending on it, processing it in her brain, practicing, comparing it to what she already knew. Her tutors often remarked that the hours tutoring her often passed by like it had only been minutes. She never asked to take a break, she would even ignore her phone during those study sessions.
* The Casey and Yeon Mi Show started off as “The Casey Lartigue Show with Yeonmi Park,” but as I was predicting early on, she would be the key to the show and would become an international spokesperson. I later promoted her as full co-host with equal billing, but that would have been like Robin telling Batman that they had equal billing. During the first show I had pretended to ignore her, to which she complained, insisting she “wasn’t invisible.”
She definitely isn’t invisible now!
I have so many funny stories about Yeonmi, if she has a birthday party in the future with friends and collagues talking about her, I will tell some of those stories!
I’m still waiting for the signed copy of her book. That has special significance for me: I’m the one who taught her to sign her name. As I told her in April 2014: You’re going to write a book one day, so you need to be ready with your signature. She barely attended school and had never learned cursive writing, so I pushed her to learn to sign her name. I also told her that she needs to have a quote or pithy saying ready, or to personalize it to people. So I am waiting to see what she signed to me, and how good/lousy her signature is! 🙂
Happy birthday, Yeonmi! You know that I’m proud of you and continue to wish you well.