“Essay” was a much-dreaded word among my students. It was the fall of 2011, and I was teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. Two hundred and seventy young men, and about 30 teachers, all Christian evangelicals besides me, were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock. Each lesson had to be approved by a group of North Korean staff known to us as the “counterparts.” Hoping to slip in information about the outside world, which we were not allowed to discuss, I had devised a lesson on essay writing, and it had been approved.
I had told my students that the essay would be as important as the final exam in calculating their grade for the semester, and they were very stressed. They were supposed to come up with their own topic and hand in a thesis and outline. When I asked them how it was going, they would sigh and say, “Disaster.”
They lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence 主張を証明するという事の欠落
I emphasized the importance of essays since, as scientists, they would one day have to write papers to prove their theories. But in reality, nothing was ever proven in their world, since everything was at the whim of the Great Leader. Their writing skills were as stunted as their research skills. Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of his achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence. A quick look at the articles in the daily paper revealed the exact same tone from start to finish, with neither progression nor pacing. There was no beginning and no end.
So the basic three- or five-paragraph essay ― with a thesis, an introduction, a body paragraph with supporting details, and a conclusion ― was entirely foreign to them. The idea they had the most difficulty comprehending was the introduction. I would tell them that it was like waving hello. How do you say hello in an interesting way, so that the reader is “hooked”? I offered many different examples, but still they would show up during office hours, shaking their heads and asking, “So this hook … what is it?”
Instead of a lesson on sources, which was not possible there, I asked that they read a simple essay from 1997 that quoted President Bill Clinton on how important it was to make all schools wired. The counterparts had approved it because it related to our current textbook theme of college education. I hoped that they would grasp the significance of the Internet and how behind they were. I also gave them four recent articles ― from the Princeton Review, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Harvard Magazine ― that mentioned Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook and Twitter. None of the pieces evoked a response. Not even the sentence about Zuckerberg earning $100 billion from something he dreamed up in his college dorm seemed to interest them. It was possible that they viewed the reading as lies. Or perhaps the capitalist angle repelled them.
“So what kind of food does McDonald’s make?” 「それで、マクドナルドってどんな食べ物を作るの？」
The next day, several students stopped by during office hours. They all wanted to change their essay topics. Curiously, the new topics they proposed all had to do with the ills of American society. One said he wanted to write about corporal punishment in American and Japanese middle schools. Another handed me a revised thesis: “Despite the harmful effect of nuclear weapons, some countries such as the United States keep developing nuclear weapons.” A third student wanted to write about the evils of allowing people to own guns so freely, in America. A fourth student asked me which country produced the most computer hackers; he had been taught that it was America. A fifth wanted to change his topic to divorce. There was no divorce in the DPRK, but in America the rate was more than 50 percent, and divorce led to crime and mental illness, according to him. “So what happens when people are unhappy here after being married for a while?” I asked. The student looked at me blankly. Still another student wanted to write about how McDonald’s was horrible. The same student then asked me, “So what kind of food does McDonald’s make?
One thing was clear. Their collective decision to switch their essay topics to condemn America seemed to have been compelled by the articles about Zuckerberg. What I had intended as inspirational, they must have viewed as boasting and felt slighted. The nationalism that had been instilled in them for so many generations had produced a citizenry whose ego was so fragile that they refused to acknowledge the rest of the world.