Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick, is one of my favorite books this year. Perhaps it’s my history as a cold-war kid that made it particularly interesting to me.

The world has changed so much since I was a child during the Cold War. Then, it seemed as though half the world was shrouded in mystery, much like North Korea is today.

My dad was an Air Force pilot, and after my parents got divorced, my mom got a job with the Army teaching military kids – thus during the last part of the Cold War my life was pretty entwined with the military. Our mission – I always saw myself as part of it somehow – was to stop the Russians should they ever attack. They were the “Evil Empire.”

I remember being 12 years old and laying on my bed in the heat of the Kansas summer listening to Radio Moscow on my shortwave radio. I’d been told that everything I heard was propaganda, yet still, somehow it humanized the people on the other side of the world – the ones who supposedly might want to kill us.

When we moved to Germany, and I actually got a chance to travel behind the Iron Curtain, I couldn’t help but be intensely curious about every little aspect of life. Forget the monuments and the scenery – I wanted to know about the people. I wanted to know whether I’d also been fed propaganda from my own country. I wanted to know what their apartments looked like, or where they went to school.

I am extremely embarrassed to admit this today, but I share this story simply to illustrate the intensity of my curiosity. Now, the whole notion seems so silly and far away.

During my junior year my dream came true – our family traveled to the Soviet Union (as it was then) on a cultural teacher exchange. The first night we stayed at a gigantic hotel in Moscow. It was what I’d been told to expect. We were clearly being watched. Each floor had a little desk where a very somber old woman sat and seemed to keep an eye on things.

My mother let me bring a friend on the trip. My friend Michele and I sat in our hotel room that first night about to burst. We could hardly wait to glimpse this supposed “Evil Empire.” We wanted so much to see how people lived for ourselves.

We sat in the dark looking out our hotel window at the city and trying to notice every little thing we could. Across the way was an apartment block. Few of the windows had curtains so you could see inside the apartments – only they were a bit far away.

This is the embarrassing part….

I got the idea to try to look through the window with my monocular. Michele and I sat in the dark, two American peeping toms, watching the families in their apartments doing very ordinary things like cooking dinner or watching television.

Can you imagine that?

Yet when you have little if any real information about a place or its people, it’s hard to resist the urge to take every detail in, any way possible!

Such is the case now with North Korea. There is so much mystery about the place that you can’t help but develop an intense curiosity.

Demick’s book is the closest I can get to my monocular out the hotel window. She interviewed hundreds of North Koreans that have left their country about everyday life. In the book, she follows six of them for 15 years, reconstructing the details of their lives before they left North Korea.

It’s the ordinary life stories that are so intriguing – the observations of a kindergarten teacher or a doctor or a mother who works in a factory. These are not high profile defectors but rather regular people. I was impressed with how much detail she was able to gather from each person she profiled, from the way their houses looked to dating in North Korea. The interviewing process must have been fascinating.

If you’re looking for an informative, but also entertaining book, this one is a keeper.

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