Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day 4

Actually I didn't wake up any more rested than I went to sleep. We were on a quite unrelaxing schedule for the whole trip, starting out every day at about 8 - 7 Chinese time. Today our destination was - shit, some mountain resort. Actually, this was more than a mountain resort, it housed a collection of all the gifts given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. But I didn't really come away from that with any really insightful things to say. Other blogs have adequately made fun of the quality of gifts on display, especially from capitalist countries. For lunch, we had bread with goat butter, which was randomly the best bread and butter I've had for a really long time. The whole thing ate up like 5 hours of driving, so we didn't get back to Pyongyang until about 3, which gave me adequate time to catch up on sleep. By this point, I was starting to realize that the Koreans weren't concerned in the least about photos being used for propaganda purposes, as they were really letting us take pictures of just about anything. This was one of the more interesting insights of the trip for me, that they did the photo thing just to establish a sense of authority. And it basically worked, because no matter how free I was I was still feeling like I should look over my shoulder every time I took a picture...anyway I won't post all the pictures I took, you can see them on my Flickr page. I still didn't manage to get pictures of many of the most interesting things, for more boring technical reasons. There was even a single billboard advertisement, likely in the entire country, near Pyongyang. One side was for an SUV, and the other showed a lady smiling. That would definitely be a good shot, if my stupid camera didn't have like a 5-second wake-up time...

Our other stop that afternoon was at a middle school, which I was definitely looking forward to. We weren't going to get to teach the students, which would have been really cool. Actually school wasn't in session for the wonders if they would have taken us there if it were. When we got off the bus, the first thing we were in for was a tour. Here is a mural in the lobby of the school, showing what looks like both Kims with some children, in a futuristic looking vehicle:

Our guide at the school took us around to some of the classrooms. This is from the biology lab, a biological map of Korea, where they can apparently also simultaneously learn historical revisionism:

We also saw some other rooms, including a room full of various kinds of stuffed animals (as in dead animals) that had been donated by some Kim or something. It was hard to see what kind of educational purpose they had. We also saw a room where they learn the Revolutionary History of Kim Jong Il. This is apparently a subject unto itself, like math or Korean - and shouldn't be confused with the Revolutionary History of Kim Il Sung.

Next, we went to a little auditorium to see a student performance. I was the first one in the room, and the music started as soon as I set foot inside. There were some kids singing - with very strong voices - and a little band in the back.

The whole thing was done in typical North Korean style - choreographed down to the smallest detail. I began to get the sense that they not only would have acted it off if we didn't like it, but genuinely not have even cared. I stopped clapping inbetween the numbers; later there wasn't even enough time between them.

After the music was finished, the students came down to greet us, and actually invite us to dance. The tour guides grabbed our cameras and took pictures.

I don't know how stiff I look in that picture, but I was definitely trying to figure out this situation. I noticed that my girl never made eye contact with me the entire time we were out there - I was watching - but only sometimes with her classmates, with little giggles. The whole thing was fun, a final picture,

and then it was time to go. The only thing was a little scheduling snag, so we ended up having to stay at the school for a few minutes to wait to meet somebody. We were out in front of the school, and there were a few students around. There was a group of girls behind us, doing something, and also some boys practicing gymnastics - all pretending not to notice us.

We were there for about ten or fifteen minutes, and it seemed like there was just the Great Wall between us and the students. The divide was so great that the guides even let some of us smoke right there while we were waiting, on the school grounds. You can't smoke on school grounds even in China, which has to be one of the worst countries for that. (Most things in North Korea are actually cleaner than in China.) The students were obviously trained that anything the foreigners do just doesn't have anything to do with them. Finally, the whole thing got to be too much. One of us had been trained in gymnastics, and had been talking about walking on her hands in some kind of strange situation, just to see what the Koreans would do. There couldn't have been a better time or a weirder situation than now. I challenged her to it. (Actually, before that I didn't really know I could walk on my hands.)

I looked around to see the reaction. The students who before were standing around, mostly doing their own thing with maybe one or two looking at us, were now standing straight at attention, each one staring at us. They weren't talking - they don't usually seem to talk amongst themselves when they see something interesting - they were just all looking at us. Apparently it takes the sight of us dancing like monkeys to get them to take any notice. Finally getting any sort of reaction out of them stands out in my mind as one of the more interesting unscripted interactions I was able to have with Korean people over the course of my trip. But the coldness of the students, and in general basically everybody I was able to talk to, definitely left an impression on me.

...Later, our last night at the hotel, was our night for Karaoke with our Korean guides.

After that, I subjected myself to a few games of Ping-pong with some other North Koreans (and I really wasn't in a state to be playing ping-pong at that point) - and then went to bed for the last time on the trip.


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