My efforts to expand their awareness kept backfiring. When I had them write a paragraph about kimjang (the annual kimchi-making tradition), I was handed a pile of preachy, self-righteous tirades. Almost half the students claimed that kimchi was the most famous food in the world, and that all other nations were envious of it. One student wrote that the American government had named it the official food of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. When I questioned him, he said everyone knew this fact, and that he could even prove it since his Korean textbook said so. A quick Internet search revealed that a Japanese manufacturer had claimed that kimchi was a Japanese dish and proposed it as an official Olympic food, but had been denied. Somehow this news item had been relayed to them in twisted form and was now treated as general knowledge.
To correct my students on each bit of misinformation was taxing and sometimes meant straying into dangerous territory. Another teacher said, “No way. Don’t touch that. If their book said it was true, you can’t tell them that it’s a lie.”
“Why is it not possible to like both spaghetti and kimchi?” 「なぜスパゲッティとキムチの両方を好きになる事が出来ないの?」
Sometimes they would ask why I never ate much white rice. They piled their trays with huge heaps of it at every meal, whereas I always put just a little on my tray. I explained that I liked white rice but did not care for it all the time. They asked what kinds of food I ate other than rice and naengmyun, their national dish. I couldn’t exactly go on about fresh fruit smoothies and eggs Benedict, so I named two Western dishes I knew they had heard of: spaghetti and hot dogs. I knew that North Koreans enjoyed their own version of sausage because I had seen them lining up for it at the International Trade Fair. One of the students then wrote in his kimjanghomework, “Those Koreans who prefer hot dogs and spaghetti over kimchi bring shame on their motherland by forgetting the superiority of kimchi.” Nothing, it seemed, could break through their belligerent isolation; moreover, this attitude left no room for any argument, since all roads led to just one
conclusion. I returned the paper to him with a comment: “Why is it not possible to like both spaghetti and kimchi?”
After several lessons on the essay, a student said to me at dinner, “A strange thing happened during our social science class this afternoon.”
They never volunteered information about their Juche class, so I listened intently.
The student continued, “We had to write an essay!” He explained that they normally wrote short compositions in Korean and he had never thought of them as essays before, but now he did, and it made him feel strange.
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing thoughtfully. “I looked at it as an essay, and I realized that it was different now. Writing in English and writing in Korean are so different, but then it is also the same, and I kept thinking of the essay structure as I was writing it, and it made me feel strange.”
Here, opposition was not an option ここには反論という選択肢は無い
I did not question him further, but I thought I understood. It must have been deeply confusing to approach his writing on Juche like an essay. In his country there was no proof, no checks and balances ― unless, of course, they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things. Their entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking. So the form of an essay, in which a thesis had to be proven, was antithetical to their entire system. The writer of an essay acknowledges the arguments opposing his thesis and refutes them. Here, opposition was not an option.
I stared across at him and felt a familiar sick feeling. Perhaps this was only the beginning. The questions they would have. The questions they should be asking. The questions they would realize they had not been asking because they did not imagine they could, or because asking meant that they could no longer exist in their system.