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No wonder, then, that so much is in a permanent state of disrepair. Everything in North Korea is shabby. Everything. To point out a problem is only a hair away from a complaint, and that brands you as a troublemaker. So all the money goes to construction, with nothing for maintenance. Every carpet had a stain, every wall had a crack. The hotel elevator buttons were mismatched. More than one bathroom during the tour had a faucet that was rusted through. Everywhere there was at least one fly—even on the plane.
The Shabby Propaganda Machine
The central focus of Pyongyang is the two leviathan statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, where citizens cheerfully sweep the area clean with brooms set aside nearby. But directly adjacent to this political Mecca and wedding destination was Mansudae Fountain Park. The shabbiness extended there as well.
The park, Kim let us know, is where couples and families went for “gentle walking.” I could not help but wince when I heard her say that. I realized that dozens of Westerners had heard Kim use that expression, and not one of them had told her how silly it sounded. I thought back to my family members pleading with me to correct their English if they made mistakes. The cost to speak correctly was zero, but the benefits of communicating clearly were high. I myself speak three languages, and know how important it is to learn idiom.
I pulled Kim aside in the park and let her know. “The word we use is ‘stroll,’ ” I said. “You take your wife for a stroll in nice weather.”
“Oh! OK! ‘Stroll.’ How do you spell that?” As I spelled it out she mimicked writing with her finger, the better to commit the term to memory. “Thank you. Thank you very much!” Her gratitude felt out of proportion, until I realized that the only access she had to non-textbook English was encounters like these. The guides had a list of Western media that was permitted to them—Titanic, Jennie Gerhardt, Jane Eyre, and Dickens—but anything else would bring severe consequences. No matter how conscientious, they couldn’t really improve at their job.
I thereby made it a point to teach Kim as much as I could, without correcting her in front of other people. She would pull out a frayed notepad and write down what I said, while asking me to corroborate what others had told her. I had not heard of a chatterbox being referred to as “having a monkey in your ear,” for example. Neither could she understand why “having a monkey on your back” meant being in the throes of addiction (or what addiction was, for that matter).
I wanted the expressions I taught her to be jarring to hear in North Korea. I hoped that the tourists who came after me would do a double-take, and stop seeing Kim as a North Korean robot but as what she was: a young woman growing up in a country governed by a very dated ideology. If any future tourist to North Korea hears expressions like “bestie” or “frenemy,” I’m the one to blame. There was also “get it together,” “you’re a mess,” and “you’re a hot mess.” I admit my delight to teaching Kim “get on my level” only to have her mischievously respond, “Don’t you mean for someone to get down to your level?”
“You should be a teacher,” she told me. I bit my tongue, for I was embarrassed to imagine what she would say if she knew the truth. Part of my reason for going was to do research. I co-author books for celebrities by trade, and was toying with the idea of writing Kim Jong Il’s “autobiography” based on what is presented as fact in the DPRK. I wanted people in the West to understand what the North Koreans really thought, and I wanted to do it in an entertaining pop way. (One successful Kickstarter campaign later, and the book will be ready by the fall.)
The next day we drove to a location in the countryside. There we heard a soldier give us a lecture about the secret concrete wall that divides the two Koreas, allegedly built flush with the countryside so it would only be visible from the north. According to the brochure—yes, there was a brochure—the concrete wall “was built by the south Korean puppet clique at the instigation of the U.S. imperialists, their masters, in order to divide the territory and nation in two for ever” [sic].
Then we were taken outside to look through mounted binoculars at the wall. Whether we saw a wall, a path, or just some dirt was impossible to say.
As my tourmates struggled to figure out how to take a photograph through binocular lenses, I caught sight of a mantis swaying in the wind. The insect reminded me of a fable which I thought Kim would appreciate. “Do you know the story of the fox and the scorpion?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “What’s that, a ‘scorpion?’ ”
“A scorpion,” I repeated, making a stinging gesture with my fingers.
“I don’t know,” she said, still not following the term. I wasn’t that surprised; once when I asked my grandmother how to say “stingray” in Russian it ended up becoming a conference call with the whole family wracking their memories.