Treading On Barbed Wires
GoGo Tomago sat under the shade of Wasabi's lime green beach umbrella, clad in a V-neck cover-up and flare jeans. With a straight face and eyes half-hooded behind a pair of shades, she suffered in silence under the sweltering heat. She folded her hands in front of her tucked knees and shifted her weight for the umpteenth time, watching the rest of her friends play on the shores of Venice Beach. Honey Lemon acted as the referee of a volleyball match. Fred and Wasabi squared off against Hiro and Baymax. The match proved to be hilariously one-sided, with the latter team scoring one win after another as an unstoppable duo.
Hiro whooped as Baymax sent the ball flying over the net once again. "Nice shot, buddy! C'mon, Baymax, gimme another fistbump."
The medical healthcare robot complied. "Ba-la-la-la-la."
Wasabi was far from amused. He groaned as the ball landed a good distance behind him. He huffed and puffed to run after it and retrieve it. Fred's erratic and clumsy movements were to blame, since they botched much of Wasabi's strategies. Still, everyone had loads of fun.
Honey kept glancing back at GoGo all the while, and though the rest of the boys kept romping and playing, they had the same thought of concern crossing their minds. GoGo looked...well, very un-GoGo-like. She just sat there, static and motionless. It wasn't like her. She shouldn't have to miss out on fun in the sun, and all but Honey couldn't understand why.
It all started on GoGo's birthday, when Honey had bought a bikini for her. GoGo unwrapped the gift box with her usual quick deftness, but as soon as she laid eyes on the gift, she froze. She had no idea how to respond. She didn't want to curb Honey's enthusiasm and hurt her friend's feelings, but she felt uncomfortable at the thought of having to wear it for the upcoming beach party. After much encouragement from Honey to try out the bikini, GoGo reluctantly complied. Upon seeing her, Honey both instantly regretted buying it and understood why GoGo had been uncomfortable in the first place. It was awkward, to say the least. Fortunately, one bikini (especially a very cute one Honey had painstakingly picked for GoGo) wasn't enough to ruin their friendship. The two managed to work things out, even if tentative at best, when GoGo decided to wear the bikini to the party anyway. Self-consciousness compelled her to wear an extra layer, hence the cover-up and jeans.
In an obvious move to back out of a rematch he knew he couldn't win, Fred grabbed his surfboard and made a break for the waves.
Hiro laughed and took off after his friend, stripping down to his swimming trunks and tossing his shirt away as he ran. Baymax reached up to grab it, saving his young master the trouble of heading home without a shirt.
Wasabi was left hesitant and frowning as Hiro and Fred charged into the water. "Isn't it freezing cold out there?"
"It's like ripping off a band-aid," Honey replied. "Make it quick and it won't seem so bad afterwards."
He bit his lip. "Okay, I'll take your word for it." Wasabi shrugged out of his shirt, folded it into a neat square, and politely handed it over to Baymax. Then he squeezed his eyes shut, puffed his chest to let in a deep breath, and made a headlong charge into the water. Hiro and Fred were stretched out on the sand with the waves lapping over them; their eyes flew wide when Wasabi sailed over their heads in a spectacular jump. The frigid seawater made him let loose a high-pitched scream. Everyone burst out laughing. Even GoGo cracked a smile and chuckled. Shirts still in hand, Baymax toddled off to pass the time gazing at critters in the tidal pools.
Honey bent down to scoop up the volleyball Wasabi had left behind. She made her way inland to where GoGo sat among their things under the umbrella.
"Hey, are you okay? I feel bad leaving you here like this."
"I'm fine, Honey. Don't worry about me." GoGo tried to reassure her friend with a smile, but due to sitting in tight clothes and the heat, her smile came out more as a wry grimace.
"Come join us in the water," Honey insisted. "Even with Wasabi's umbrella, you must be sweating like crazy. You look like you could use some cooling down."
Honey wasn't wrong. GoGo's clothes, damp with sweat, clung to her skin. Her entire body seemed to pulse and throb from the stifling heat. Finally, GoGo relented. She peeled off her cover-up and pulled down her jeans, freeing herself of the clothes that made her feel like a human oven. A sudden shyness overcame her as she stepped away from the green umbrella. The feeling was fleeting; GoGo wasted no time making a break for the shore to join her friends. They welcomed her surprise arrival with smiles and laughter.
Like Wasabi before her, GoGo dunked herself into the waves and broke out into a grin as the coldness relieved her. "Much better," she exclaimed.
"I knew it'd do you some good coming out here with us," Honey said.
After passing the time having a romp with her friends, GoGo stretched out on a towel to dry herself under the sun. Hiro took a seat next to her, soaking wet and out of breath from swimming against the waves. For a moment he thought she'd chase him away and tell him to leave her alone. At least, that was the impression he got when he'd see her sitting in the shade.
"What's wrong, Hiro? Sit here, if you want."
"Uh, sure. Thanks." Hiro didn't dare to let his gaze linger on her. To his mixed amazement and embarrassment, he thought she looked very cute wearing that bikini. At the same time he didn't want her to think he ogled at her due to raging teenage hormones. He found himself tongue-tied when he tried to speak up. "So, um...what happened? Suit practice gone bad?"
"Huh? Oh, you must be talking about these." GoGo looked down at the scars on her body. "Don't apologize. It's natural to feel that way. No, it's not from the suit...these go way back. Before you were born, I think." She chanced a glance at him and didn't fail to notice the inquiring look in his eyes. "I suppose I owe you a story."
Silence feel between the two of them, then GoGo finally mustered her courage and composure. "I'm a refugee from Pyongyang, North Korea."
Hiro couldn't hide his shock. Despite the friendship he shared with GoGo, his conversations with her rarely went beyond matters concerning the Big Hero 6. More often than not he hoped and dreamed of getting closer to her, though it seemed unlikely to happen, which was why they went on as mere hopes and dreams. Besides the fact she was Tadashi's friend, and by extension his friend, he hardly knew anything about her, let alone what seemed to be the dark recesses of the little childhood she had. He knew she had Korean descent, but assumed she came from the south like most Koreans. Her confession proved him wrong.
GoGo continued, "My parents and I didn't have much, but we made the best with the little we had. My mom stayed at home to take care of me. My dad was a writer." She let a fond smile spread across her face. "He had a way with words. Sometimes he made up some stories on the fly just for me before I went to bed. I liked those the best. I used to pester him all the time about one, two, or three more stories so I could go to sleep." GoGo's smile faded. "His job, however, was to write articles for the national newspaper."
"Like...propaganda and that kind of stuff?" Hiro asked.
"Exactly. A duty to express nothing but the highest praises for our great leader, as the government put it. But we commoners knew the truth. Those at the top didn't give a damn about those below them." GoGo tightened a fist a the sand-flecked towel beneath her. "Even their pets got more care and attention than the people scraping for food and a roof over their depravity and poverty crippling our country was something we couldn't ignore. We lived it every day, after all. Dad got fed up. He was done with spinning lies on behalf of the regime. Naturally he got into big trouble with the government. They arrested him and threw me and my mom into a detention center. My dad was sentenced to 'correctional training.' In other words, torture. The jailers beat him for every word uttered and written against the regime." She paused, then said quietly, "He died in a pool of his own blood."
Shock and sadness overcame him. "I...I'm so sorry, GoGo."
"If it's any small comfort, we knew from word of a jailer rather than seeing him for ourselves. I don't think Mom would've wanted me to look even if they'd let us see the body."
Though sitting at a beach, Hiro's thoughts were elsewhere, imagining himself where GoGo once stood, or knelt, or sat, but without a doubt suffered. Somewhere sunless, and gray, and miserable. Even the loudness of Fred and Wasabi's laughter didn't jerk him out of his reverie.
"That was the only beginning of our hell. I'll spare you the details." A chill ran up her spine despite the heat. "Work accidents, starvation, illness, torture. So many people died in the worst ways imaginable. How their remains were disposed of was just as bad. You know that stereotype about Koreans eating dogs? Over there, in the prisons of North Korea, it was the other way around."
Hiro drew his knees together and audibly gulped. GoGo didn't fail to notice his reaction.
"I said I'd spare you the details, but I just mentally scarred you, didn't I?" She looked away and sighed. "This is why I keep quiet about stuff like this. No one deserves to hear what I've been through."
"Don't say that, GoGo. You totally deserve to be heard out. It doesn't do any good to keep such heavy stuff bottled up inside. You have to let it out, and have someone listen to you. Please, I want to hear more. I'm listening."
The look she gave him was one of unspoken surprise and gratitude. Skinny legs folded and hands on his shins, Hiro looked genuinely interested in hearing the rest of her story as he leaned a little in his seat. Somehow, just hearing his willingness to listen made her relax the tension pent up within her. In what seemed like a smooth, casual move to lean back and prop her palms on the sand, GoGo stretched out her arms and legs. Hiro got a better look of her scars this way. His stomach tightened to a knot. Jagged crescents, some long and others short, some white and others pink, marred her arms and legs. She was a fighter, a survivor. That showed in wounds that didn't need to bleed to prove how much pain she had endured.
"You must be thinking that since I'm here talking to you now, I must've escaped somehow." She gestured to a prominent old wound on her shoulder with a shrug. "Well, that's how I got most of this. From escaping."
GoGo furrowed her brow, digging up shreds of memories from the abyss of horrors seen and endured. "Mom had connections with people who had the guts and brains to sneak out of prison. She must've learned a thing or two from Dad, on how to forge and fabricate all kinds of information so we could slip past the authorities." She raised a hand to shield her eyes as her gaze followed a couple of seagulls flying overhead. "Night was the best time to leave. We stole away like thieves, making off with our lives. We prayed with all our might that we'd still have them by the time the sun came up. Until then, we had to get around without any kind of light. The camp had barbed wire strewn everywhere, to deter escaping prisoners. I got myself tangled in it a couple of times. It hurt like hell, of course, especially when they snagged on my skin like hooks. But for my own sake and for my mom's, I stemmed the flow of blood with my clothes and kept quiet."
Hiro inwardly winced.
"Mom and I wasted no time staying in North Korea. We managed to escape to the Inner Mongolian province in eastern China. We had to get past the border patrol, but they demanded a high price. They wanted my mom. She was so scared...I knew because she trembled head to toe when those big men pressed in. But when she looked at me, the trembling stopped. I was the only family she had left, and she did only what a good mom would do for her child. She gave me everything...her shoes, her rations, the clothes on her back. She didn't need them when the soldiers had their way with her. I was free to go. Mom never made it."
If Hiro's heart went on beating, he couldn't feel or hear it. Emotion welled in her throat and rendered her speechless for a long stretch of time. GoGo dashed the back of her hand across her eyes. She kept them closed, and despite the sun that pressed its light and heat on the beach, a shadow crossed her face as she relived the painful memory. Hiro could barely hear her voice over the waves.
"All I could do was run," she murmured. "I couldn't turn back, not even look over my shoulder. I clamped my hands over my ears so I wouldn't hear her scream. I ran as fast as I could. I didn't care where my feet took me. I just ran. I kept going until I ran out of breath and out of tears. Somehow I made it to a rural outpost that housed refugees like me." She made a little wave of her hand. "The rest was a blur. Like cargo, we refugees were handed over from one person to the next, across many provinces and possibly many countries I couldn't keep track of. Before I knew it, I left the hell that was North Korea and landed in San Fransokyo."
Suddenly GoGo let out a wry chuckle. "Adjusting to a new life in the States didn't go well. I was such a punk back then. I drove my poor foster family up the roof. School life wasn't much better. My English was terrible and I didn't want to learn anything. I badmouthed teachers and vandalized school grounds. I got into fights with the local kids who made fun of me. I even joined a gang. And of course, I made a bad name for myself as soon as I got my own car. I was a speed demon, tearing up the roads in my grief and rage and desire to run away from everything."
Somehow none of this surprised Hiro. He thought of his own brief stint with Bot-Fighting. At least he had Tadashi to guide him, to inspire him to do right instead of go on doing wrong. Far away from the home and family she knew, GoGo had no one to help her...only her mother, who lived on in her memories and in her aching heart, kept her going. Hiro wanted to reach out with his arm to pull her into a one-sided hug, but he didn't know if she'd welcome the gesture.
"One day I stopped, parked in the middle of nowhere, and took a good look at myself. Was this what my mom died for? What would she think if she saw me like this? Was I right to run away cursing hell and cursing paradise the next? These were the questions I asked myself, and helped pull me away from the dark path I hurtled down. Luckily for me, I got my rough edges smoothed out. I found my passion in studying physics. I straightened out and graduated from high school with honors." GoGo tried to lighten the somber mood by cracking a grin. "So here I am, an enrolled student at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, with you guys as the best friends I could ever ask for."
She felt like the weight of a thousand pains and regrets lifted from her shoulders. "Sorry, Hiro. I didn't mean to ruin a nice day on the beach with my sob story."
"GoGo, you did not ruin anything," he insisted. He felt overwhelmed, to say the least, by what he thought was the most amazing story he ever heard. "Thank you so much for telling me all this. I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart."
She smiled at him. "The others know about my crazy teen years, but until now...I've never opened up to anyone about my time in North Korea. Not even to your brother."
Curiosity spurred him to ask, "What made you want to open up to me, then?"
GoGo blinked in surprise. "I...I don't know, really. I guess since you lost your family too, you'd understand."
"I'm honored you think that way about me. You know, I think your mom and dad would be really proud to see you now, at a good school, with good friends, not to mention an awesome career."
His reassurance made her feel the L.A. sunlight warming her again; the whole time she'd been telling her story she was cold and tense. She mustered her gratitude in the form of a gentle smile.
Suddenly a high-pitched, whining balloon-like sound made Hiro throw a glance over his shoulder. Baymax had been fiddling with a crab and it got its pincers jabbed into his arm. Hiro grimaced. "Uh-oh. I better help him."
But before he dashed to the robot's rescue, he flushed red at GoGo as he fumbled for the next words to say. "Um...if you ever feel ashamed about your scars, don't be. I think you're beautiful." Then, in an absurd rush of bravery and possibly foolishness, Hiro gave her something he felt was the appropriate thank-you gift: a quick peck on her cheek. It took her completely off guard. He dashed away before she could reply.
She stared after him with wide eyes even after she relaxed her stiff shoulders. Then she couldn't help but smile. How long had he felt that way for her? Turned out she wasn't the only one keeping secrets and opening up.
This oneshot was inspired, of course, by experiences from real North Korean refugees. I also couldn't help but stick in an anecdotal element: one from my own family. My parents were Vietnam War refugees. My grandfather was both a journalist and a medic for the south Vietnamese army. He got in trouble for writing articles protesting the Vietnam War and communist occupation, so he got sent to a "re-education camp" and died there. I've always liked diaspora stories. The voices of those who tell them deserve to be heard, and should not be forgotten. My parents aren't writers and their English isn't very good, but I'd love to get their story out someday.
Anyways, thanks for reading! If I got you down in the dumps due to the angst, feel free to indulge in my other BH6 oneshots, most of which are humor:
-Crazy Asian Driver
-In the Hospital
-No More Cold Doctors