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Eureka: Review of Kim Suki's "without you there is no us"
by Jay Gutman
2018-09-19 07:40:07
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In 2013 Kim Suki published her North Korean memoir “without you there is no us.” A journalist undercover as a missionary teacher in North Korea, she taught English as a Foreign Language at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and gave a rare glimpse into everyday life in the reclusive regime.

suki01Without spoiling her book, here's a brief summary. Pyongyang University of Science and Technology opened in 2009 as a university that aims to teach all classes in English, undergraduate and graduate, while focusing on science and technology. Suki Kim joined the university in 2011, having waited almost a year for her application and visa to be approved. The university is at its nascent stages and students study two hours of English a day and disappear for the rest of the day. Students either perform all kinds of chores (from cutting weeds to cleaning the university) or study the country's official ideology, Juche. Suki Kim teaches English reading and writing, and goes through different phases of culture shock. First she is amazed at her student's obedience and discipline. Then she is annoyed by their obedience and discipline, and her students' tendency to tell too many lies. Then she adjusts, and gets to know her students better. Her students gradually get used to her, at times get annoyed with her, at times engage in political debates with her. In sum, a fascinating book, perhaps a must read for those interested in North Korea.

Now to my review, which will be random points, some criticism first, then all the praise the book deserves.

-Suki Kim mentions having taught creative writing at Ewha Women's University in South Korea, yet seems completely surprised by the student's excessive obedience, group think, tendency to lie, tendency to cheat at exams and tendency not to do their homework. Having myself taught in South Korea, South Korean students tend to be quite similar. I'm surprised that she was surprised, unless she acted surprised to avoid confusing the reader. 

-Suki Kim blames North Korean students' lack of knowledge about foreign culture on the fact that they don't have access to the Internet. South Korea is the world's most connected and wired country when it comes to the Internet, yet many are completely disconnected with world events, global events, geography, world sports, global culture. North Korean students seem to ask questions about the rest of the world. South Korean students, including in some cases Ph.D. students in international relations, could not care to ask questions about global affairs. An Ivy League graduate South Korean professor in international relations once confessed to me that he had never heard of those countries when I mentioned Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. When I asked him if he knew Georgia or Armenia, he changed the topic. I know middle class South Koreans tend to be well travelled and tend to have seen the world though. Americans are not a lot better when it comes to knowledge about the rest of the world. 

-Suki Kim does a mistake that a lot of foreign EFL teachers make, which is to try to teach creative writing to English language learners because “they will have to write papers in the future” or “they will have to publish in the future.” What I usually tell EFL teachers who teach writing is to start with short drills, questions like “where is the store?” or “what did you do yesterday?” or such, tell the students to write a couple of lines before the essays gradually get longer, especially when they have no exposure to English like in North Korea.

-Suki Kim's mere presence in North Korea says a lot about the North Korean regime not being so closed and being weird at times. She had been to North Korea several times as a journalist, North Koreans of course knew about her former visits as a journalist, yet they allowed her to teach at PUST. They probably at some point found out that she had some kind of intention to publish some kind of paper about her trip. Apart from a minder who bullied her a few times, Korean staff seemed rather permissive with her. In South Korea, as a teacher, I could not walk three steps without being bullied by Korean staff, which was often paranoid with my ability to speak Korean.

-Perhaps the final and more general criticism of the book. The book would leave the reader hanging about South Korea. Suki Kim tries to write the book like her narrator is 100% American, rarely mentions the fact that her first language is Korean and that she somewhat grew up in a Korean family, and that she spent time in South Korea. South Korean culture in many ways resembles the North. South Korean universities are also designed in ways that there is no privacy. South Korean universities also monitor professors, especially foreign professors, although more discreetly. In South Korea, foreign professors tend to be strongly discouraged from interacting with Korean students, and in many cases are not allowed to eat with them at the cafeteria. Although technically you can discuss politics in South Korea and there is no dear leader to speak of, any hint of criticism at Korean culture, politics, the economy, society can arouse “bestiality” from some South Koreans. You probably won't go to prison, but you could certainly lose your job, or be pushed into resignation. There's other stuff in South Korea that I won't get into.

Now to praise of the book. An incredibly well written book, easy to read, flows perfectly. The only part I disliked was that about the narrator's boyfriend. Either talk about him clearly or avoid the topic completely, as it is almost irrelevant. The narrator's distance-relationship boyfriend is mentioned rather frequently and is the only hazy part of the book. We don't know if they're dating or if it's just platonic, it's not clear where he's from or what he does or how they met or where their future lies together or what role he plays in the book.

Now to the praise.

-I actually applied for a job at PUST in 2014 but never really followed through. First, I did not know I was eligible as teachers come from different parts of the world. I thought only Americans could get in. I did not really know it was a Christian university. Nor did I know that alcohol was almost banned on campus. Nor did I know that teachers weren't paid and that teachers actually spent a lot of their own personal money on the job. Nor did I know that breakfast was porridge and eggs and that lunch and dinner was white rice and soup and marinated vegetables with no meat. Nor did I know that there was no heating on campus in the Siberian winter, that power cuts were frequent, that it was an all-boy university, that all teachers were missionaries and that there was little else to do but read the Bible and attend Sunday service with other teachers. Nor did I know that there were rabid dogs on campus. I expected more like drink lots of North Korean beer and get paid 2,000 bucks a month and have Korean barbecue every now and then, and to be honest, I thought it would be lots of fried chicken and beer. I didn't expect the place to be so boring.

-I did not know North Korean students were also expected to do farm work, construction work, gardening work and cleaning work, not just every once in a while, but very frequently, all year around, even when they are from the social elite.

-I did not know military service in North Korea was 10 years for men and 7 years for women.

-I did not know North Koreans sat on the side of the road because there are no cafés or pubs in their towns.

-I did not know something as simple as boiling water for a cup of instant coffee demanded such gymnastics, twisting and turning in North Korea, as you have to wrestle with power cuts, and half the time you can't have your warm morning coffee. I think Kim Suki should have elaborated more on coffee being North Korea's unofficial currency.

-Maybe Kim Suki was so close to her students either because the university is small, only 270 students, and because there is nothing to do on campus. In South Korea, most, if not all my students completely ignored me, probably never asked me questions, and never came to my office for much of anything, except perhaps for a make-up test.

-Kim Suki does not really understand why all of North Korea's students were ordered to stop going to class and to work in construction fields instead. Let me clarify. In 2011, North Korean officials knew that Kim Jong Il was ill, and that Kim Jong Eun would soon take over. In North Korea as in many Socialist countries, when there is a new leader, it is believed that the new leader should find clean cities, so naturally there was a lot of construction work and fix what needs to be fixed. Then the new leader eventually gets used to the city and they can let go of things a bit.

-I think Kim Suki should have described a little bit more how disorganized the university was although I understand she did not want to reveal too much about her workplace. She dropped a few hints though. The school had not started science classes yet. Teachers could not agree on what movie to show on movie day, and had a huge fight because of such a trivial thing. Something as simple as making chocolate cake is an impossible task. There is only one photocopier that often doesn't work because of power cuts. Students are science majors from elite universities yet do not know who Steve Jobs is, and in some cases have never seen a computer and can't use a keyboard to type. And Suki Kim did not discuss how she took showers. I hope it was not with water she boiled in the kettle, but I presume it was. 

There's a lot more to the book, which I strongly invite you to read.

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