Start Reading the Memoir Critics Call “Strangely Terrifying”
Excerpt from Without You, There Is No Us
Now back in New York, I sometimes find myself yearning for that time when my old life was no longer relevant and I knew exactly what each day would bring. Those moments of nostalgia are fleeting, though. When I say my life in Pyongyang was simple, that was only true on the surface. By the third week, something had changed within me regarding my students.
In those first few weeks, they seemed too good to be true. They were eager, polite, and hard working. “Teacher’s paradise” (as some teachers called it) was not an exaggeration. No American students were ever this obedient. As a group, they rose in unison the minute I entered the classroom, not sitting down until I told them to do so. They shouted out each answer together, hung on my every word, and demanded more homework.
I almost felt like a military sergeant rather than an English teacher. I had never been revered so absolutely. Sarah even said that she wanted to stay there permanently. Another Korean-American teacher exclaimed that if it were not for the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in the classroom, you could almost believe that these were South Korean students, although even they were not as well behaved.
He was deeply mistaken. I still adored them, and the sight of their faces warmed me instantly, and during the meals we shared, the conversation flew so effortlessly that we were often scolded by the Korean Chinese woman in charge of the cafeteria for being the last ones there. But I was growing increasingly disturbed by the ease with which they lied.
Once, a student asked me whether I liked flowers. “Yes,” I answered, “but I don’t have a garden back in New York, so I usually buy flowers from shops.” The student immediately said, “Me too, until I came to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, I never planted flowers. I always bought them at supermarkets.” I had never seen fresh flowers at any Pyongyang stores.
Another time, a student got up from the table at lunch and said, “Oh well, off to a shop. We have to get ready for a birthday party, so we need to go buy some things.” There was no shop on campus yet (PUST would open one later that semester), and Katie asked if he was allowed to go shopping outside the campus, at which point he pretended not to understand English and walked away.
On several occasions, I had to mark a student absent from a class or a meal. Each time, the whole class told me that the missing student had a stomachache, as though no other illness existed. After I began to pre-assign the students who would eat with me at each meal, I would sometimes find one replaced by another. One time, when I inquired about the whereabouts of the missing student, his two classmates answered immediately, in unison.
“Oh, he has a stomachache,” one said, just as the other said, “Oh, he went to get a haircut.”
“Which is it, is he getting a haircut or is he sick?” I asked.
“Oh, he went to get a haircut but got a stomachache,” both answered, with no hesitation.
A few minutes later, I saw the allegedly sick student playing basketball, seemingly unaware that his classmates had covered for him so fervently. It dawned on me that it was entirely pos¬sible he had no idea. I realized that the whole group had no¬ticed he was missing and immediately filled his place at my table and made up an excuse for his absence.
There was something touching about such fraternity, but at the same time, the speed with which they lied was unnerving. It came too naturally to them—such as the moment when a student told me that he had cloned a rabbit as a fifth grader, or when another said that a scientist in his country had discovered a way to change blood type A to blood type B, or when the whole class insisted that playing basketball caused a person to grow taller. I was not sure if, having been told such lies as children, they could not dif¬ferentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was a survival method they had mastered.
One student, whose English was nearly fluent and who handed in homework with nearly perfect grammar, claimed that he had never learned a word of English until just a few months before, when he arrived at PUST. Unlike his classmates, most of whom had had at least four years of English at middle school, he had studied Chinese as a second language and had to start from scratch. This sounded remarkable. Having learned English as a second language, I knew that it was virtually impossible for a twenty-year-old to become fluent in a foreign language in just three months’ time.
On some mornings, the entire class looked unusually tired, but when I asked them what they had done the night before, they answered, “Nothing special.” I wondered whether they had gotten in trouble during their Juche lessons. Sometimes they would announce as a group that they would not be attending the office hour that day, saying that there was a meeting.
The textbook theme for the third week was “honesty,” so we decided to play Truth or Lie again. Among other things, we hoped it would encourage them to be more open. When we wrote a sentence on the board about a woman dating a man four years her junior, all the students immediately shouted out “Lie!” They said, “Impossible. Women don’t date men who are younger.” From this we concluded that it must be a taboo, at least among their peers. The idea of a beauty pageant was also completely new to them. For example, they had never heard of the Miss Korea pageant.
I found this ironic, considering that until then I had seen only women employed as guides and traffic controllers, or servers at restaurants and hotels, and they were uniformly young and attractive. Also, the government itself reportedly maintained a group of beautiful young women known as gippumjo (Pleasure Brigade), whose sole responsibility was to pleasure and entertain Kim Jong-il and the party leaders. Required to be virgins, the women were said to be groomed for this role from a young age.
On the other hand, concepts such as “protest” and “student newspaper” did not seem to surprise them. From the way they responded, you would have thought that it was perfectly ordinary for them to gather for political protests, publish student newspapers, and say anything they wanted.
Then Katie wrote on the board “I love to visit the mountains in New York and ski.”
“What is ski?” some of the students whispered to one another in Korean.
When Katie asked them how many of them knew what skiing was and whether people skied in North Korea, most of them nodded. A student, whom I later learned was the class secretary, raised his hand and said that he had gone skiing, but when I asked him where, he fell silent. Once Katie explained what skiing was, however, a few students shouted, “Lie!” It was not possible for Katie to be a skier, they said, since there was no snow in New York. They knew nothing about New York’s climate, or even where New York was, but most noteworthy was the fact that they did not know about fake snow, so I doubted they knew what skiing was at all. And all of that would have been fine had they not so fervently pretended to know what they didn’t.
But this is not to suggest that all of them lied at all times. Had they always been devious, I would have found it hard to love them. But they were not always devious, and our daily lives were almost merged together. From morning until sundown, I ate three meals with them, read their letters about their lives, watched them play Pictionary or basketball or soccer. Even though I was becoming disillusioned with their behavior, it was still very easy to love them, not only because we shared so much but also because I came from a world where we trusted more easily.
Excerpted from WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim. Copyright © 2014 by Suki Kim. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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