An excerpt from Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,
“When adults go to bed, sometimes as early as 7:00 p.m. in winter, it is easy enough to slip out of the house. The darkness confers measures of privacy and freedom as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity. Wrapped in a magic cloak of invisibility, you can do what you like without worrying about the prying eyes of parents, neighbors, or secret police.
I met many North Koreans who told me how much they learned to love the darkness, but it was the story of one teenage girl and her boyfriend that impressed me most. She was twelve years old when she met a young man three years older from a neighboring town. Her family was low-ranking in the byzantine system of social controls in place in North Korea. To be seen in public together would damage the boy’s career prospects as well as her reputation as a virtuous young woman. So their dates consisted entirely of long walks in the dark. There was nothing else to do anyway; by the time they started dating in earnest in the early 1990s, none of the restaurants or cinemas were operating because of the lack of power.
They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her older sisters, younger brother, or the nosy neighbors. They lived squeezed together in a long, narrow building behind which was a common outhouse shared by a dozen families. The houses were set off from the street by a white wall, just above eye level in height. The boy found a spot behind the wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. The clatter of the neighbors washing the dishes or using the toilet masked the sound of his footsteps. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn’t matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.
The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself from the family. Stepping outside, she would peer into the darkness, unable to see him at first but sensing with certainty his presence. She wouldn’t bother with makeup—no one needs it in the dark. Sometimes she just wore her school uniform: a royal blue skirt cut modestly below the knees, a white blouse and red bow tie, all of it made from a crinkly synthetic material. She was young enough not to fret about her appearance.
At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted.
Just outside the town, the road headed into a thicket of trees to the grounds of a hot-spring resort. It was once a resort of some renown; its 130-degree waters used to draw busloads of Chinese tourists in search of cures for arthritis and diabetes, but by now it rarely operated. The entrance featured a rectangular reflecting pond rimmed by a stone wall. The paths cutting through the grounds were lined with pine trees, Japanese maples, and the girl’s favorites—the ginkgo trees that in autumn shed delicate mustard-yellow leaves in the shape of perfect Oriental fans. On the surrounding hills, the trees had been decimated by people foraging for firewood, but the trees at the hot springs were so beautiful that the locals respected them and left them alone.
Otherwise the grounds were poorly maintained. The trees were untrimmed, stone benches cracked, paving stones missing like rotten teeth. By the mid-1990s, nearly everything in North Korea was worn out, broken, malfunctioning. The country had seen better days. But the imperfections were not so glaring at night. The hot-springs pool, murky and choked with weeds, was luminous with the reflection of the sky above.
The night sky in North Korea is a sight to behold. It might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. In the old days, North Korean factories contributed their share to the cloud cover, but no longer. No artificial lighting competes with the intensity of the stars etched into its sky.
The young couple would walk through the night, scattering ginkgo leaves in their wake. What did they talk about? Their families, their classmates, books they had read—whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.
This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyze North Korea from afar. They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.
Aha so meaningful, read it at Kinokuniya at JEM with the spare time I had on my hands this morning. Haven’t picked up a book since eons ago, be it English or Chinese books boo. I exceptionally love the last sentence of this excerpt haha.
Met up with my siblings and cousin afterwards and headed to City Square at JB to shop, eat and catch a movie hehe. I was the only one that put on a mask- and even though the hospital mask has been proven to be useless in times of haze, psychologically it makes me feel so much more comfortable breathing through it hehe.
I don’t even need to smile for cameras anymore HAHAHA.
It’s a day well spent again I guess, played the arcade like mad because the rates were crazily cheap HAHA RM1 for an arcade basketball game, that’s like $0.40 LOL. Even with the Gold Timezone card in Singapore we only get each game at like $1.10…? LOL. After Earth was pretty good too hehe 🙂 Very inspiring for my sister, who has been repeating the quote by Will Smith to no end HAHA. This short day trip allowed us to kinda escape from the haze and at the same time for me, stress from the upcoming examinations 😦
Earnestly waiting for the day when I would be readily allowed to cross the Malaysian borders with my friends only 🙂 Probably quite soon since I’m already getting older…. 😦 Till then, I’ll enjoy my youth hehe. Ah, I should really be more productive in my revision, time is seriously running out and the common tests will definitely not be postponed as a result of the haze anyway.