How I Became a North Korean: Book Review

I’ve been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It’s an “automatic read” category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years.

The cover of "How I Became a North Korean" by Krys Lee

 

Author: Krys Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.5

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Danny, Jangmi, and Yongju are three young people unexpectedly caught up in the complicated web of North Korean refugee movement along the Chinese/North Korea border.

Content warning: There is an unwanted abortion that happens outside the story, and a couple of murders that happen right on the page, though not particularly gruesome or extended.

Recommended audience: Those interested in Korean politics and North Korean defectors

In-depth thoughts: The book summary promises a “found family” sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn’t really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don’t interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.

There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you’re writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I’m not—I really only know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.

Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee’s writing style is fluid, so it’s a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.

Asymptote: April 2018

The cover of the April 2018 issue of Asymptote. A blue ink drawing of an urban landscape and a red ink drawing of a jungle landscape intersect, like a Venn diagram, in a purple tree with a bird sitting in its branches.
Image courtesy Asymptote

One of the online publications I subscribe to is the journal Asymptote.  It puts out quarterly editions (plus regular blog posts) that center on English translations of international writing: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and even art. Asymptote first came to my attention by way of the equally excellent (and perfectly named) Lit Hub newsletter. They aspire to be truly international in scope, it seems; the list of “original languages” you can search from is remarkable. My roster of publications that I’m supporting financially is currently full up, but if and when my budget allows, I’ll definitely be subscribing. The good news is that Asymptote doesn’t fuss with paywalls or otherwise restricting its content, so everything is free for you to peruse if you so desire!

Since I also think that short-form writing  is great reading practice for people who are short on time, I’ll link to some of my favorite pieces from the latest issue here. Or maybe you can just browse Asymptote’s archives yourself and see if there are any writers or stories from your mother tongue(s) that have already been translated!

Anyway, my favorites from the April 2018 issue!

There were two short stories I enjoyed a lot, Taklamakan Misdelivery (part of their special feature focusing on Korean literature) and Tick Constellations (part of the issue’s regular offerings).

As far as the reviews go, this take on Little Reunions made me really curious about Eileen Chang, a writer I’d never heard of before. The story behind how No Place To Lay One’s Head was nearly lost to time and then not is, on its own, a compelling case for making space for the book on your to-read list.

And finally, in nonfiction, Unhappiness is Other People may or may not be channeling Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” on the sly, but it’s raw and primal and relateable. And as the descendant of Poles who immigrated to the US from Galicia at the turn of the 20th century, I found the understated and matter-of-fact The Emperor of America nonetheless arresting (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Friday 5: The Shine of a Thousand Spotlights

A dozen blazing spotlights focusing on a distant figure on a stage, framed by darkness and dark silhouettes.
Image courtesy Jacob Morch on Unsplash

What physical trait are you (or have you been) self-conscious about?

Hi guys, I could write a whole novel on being fat! But so many other writers handle it better, so rather than go into it myself I’ll just post links to two writers whose perspectives helped me get right with Fat Jesus.

Dances With Fat

Jill Grunenwald (and her memoirs Running With a Police Escort)

Even though I’ve gotten right with Fat Jesus, small things remain. Mostly my nose. I don’t hate it enough to go under the knife, and my human brain recognizes that it’s a perfectly normal nose, but my lizard brain can’t stop comparing it to adorable ski jump button noses. Even actresses who are constantly put on “quirky beauties” or “big noses” or whatever lists don’t have the same kind of nose I do.

When did you last do something risking injury?

I guess going for a run always risks injury, right? So depending on when this post goes up, either Wednesday or today.

Why do critics and the general movie-going public never seem to agree?

I’d say the operative word is “seem.” I suspect most of the time critical opinions and the public’s opinions are generally in line. Otherwise I imagine that the contributing factor is that movie critics are a self-selecting group of people who gravitate towards the arts and appreciate, even crave, novelty in the form and as a result they’re generally more appreciate of movies that are subtle or unusual. Most people watch movies for comfort or entertainment rather than critical engagement, and so they’re more drawn towards predictable (or surprising-within-predictable-schemas) and comforting rather than challenging or difficult.

How do you feel about Hugh Jackman as an actor?

#NotMyWolverine

Who is the best singer you’ve seen in live performance?

I don’t really go to live music performances that often. (Aside from the odd years where I can make it to Musikfest.) I guess two come to mind:

Ssingssing, with lead singer Lee Hee-moon

 

Black Masala, with singer Kristen Long (though my memory of their Musikfest performance seems to have a different singer?)

Friday 5: Korea Guidance

I see your pun, Friday 5. Well played.

What would be a better name for the color of goldenrod-colored paper?

What’s wrong with “goldenrod”?

Where did you get your silverware?

Either IKEA or the grocery store downstairs.

It is a weird tradition in America (and possibly elsewhere) for parents to have their children’s baby shoes bronzed. What artifact from this past week would you have bronzed as a keepsake and heirloom?

Last week was pretty unremarkable. If I had to pick anything, it might be the toy dinosaur that lives with Chuck, one of my snake plants.

I have no sentimental attachment to the dinosaur or anything. (I bought as part of a Jurassic Park costume a few years ago.) I just think it would be funny to have it bronzed. Maybe I’ll just spray paint instead?

What was the most recent ceremony you attended?

The wedding I went to in August.

What east Asian cuisine is good for your Seoul?

I lived and taught in South Korea for over two years, as I’ve probably mentioned before, and one of the (many) things I miss big time is the food. The Korean diaspora means that Korean barbecue is familiar to most non-Koreans who live in any metropolitan area that approaches international; it seems that bibimbap is also gaining traction thanks to the recent health food obsession with “Buddha bowls.”

But that is only the tip of the iceberg, my friend.

Korean street food is the best, hands down. (Apologies to all of the gatuköks and Philly pretzel carts out there, but it’s true.) My favorite in this genre is tteokbokki: dense rice cakes in a sweet and spicy sauce. It wasn’t uncommon for teachers at my first school to spring for a whole tray of these for a “snack party” after a particular class finished a level test, since they were cheap, tasty, and filling. It helped that we had a little snack shack in the first floor of our building.

A step up from street food are the ubiquitous gimbap restaurants. I don’t know enough about Korean food history to know whether or not these restaurants predate the appearance of American-style fast food chains in the peninsula, but I would guess that they did. These places specialize in cheap, easy-to-make meals and are popular with broke students and people with criminally short lunch breaks. (This is also the kind of restaurant built into Korean spas.) The backbone dish of these restaurants is gimbap (rice, veggies, and sometimes meat rolled in a sheet of dried black seaweed) and all of its varieties, but the menus always include a wide assortment of variations on jjigaes, larger portions of popular street food, and a few odds and ends. Anything off the menu here will be fantastic, though my personal favorites are dolsot bibimbap, rabokki (a combination of the aforementioned tteokbokki and ramen), and cheesy ramen. I actually don’t care that much for gimbap, ironically enough, because I’m not a huge fan of black seaweed.

When it comes to “real” restaurants, places start to narrow down their menus to a handful of specialty dishes (or a handful of variations on one particular dish). Now you have your Korean barbecue restaurants, with various cuts of pork or beef to grill at your table. I preferred the chicken stir-fry equivalent, the marinated version known as  dak galbi; sometimes my coworkers and I even went out for duck. You have seafood restaurants, with raw fish, squid, and octopus. You have, borrowed from Japan, shabu-shabu. On a slightly lesser tier, you have chicken-and-beer joints. You have what are theoretically restaurants but are really bars with obligatory anju (bar snacks, or bar more-than-a-snack-less-than-a-meal), like stir-fried rice or seafood or kimchi pancake-fritters. (These bars are usually famous for the quality of their anju, though, so having to order to be allowed to drink isn’t a problem at all.)

But for me, the crown jewel of Korean cuisine is something else entirely. The city where I lived, Uijeongbu, is famous for budae jjigae, a relatively modern invention that takes a traditional jjigae and incorporates the kind of meat found in American military MREs: sausages, hot dogs and (of course) SPAM. Unlike other jjigaes, it’s usually served with ramen and glass noodles right in the dish.

A bowl of budae jjigae.
By LWY at flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwy/2184707139/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3402989

As far as I can tell, Korean entrepreneurs haven’t brought budae jjigae abroad yet. I guess the immediate connection with scraps and cast-offs from American military bases doesn’t really jibe with the image Korea wants to present to the rest of the world? But that’s a tragedy, because budae jjigae is so damn good. I’ve learned to make a lot of Korean food myself, to scratch my Koreastalgia itch, but the one thing that you can never just make yourself is budae jjigae. It’s a dish best cooked in huge heaping batches, tended by a watchful restaurant employee, and enjoyed in the company of others. Like, if I were fabulously, obscenely wealthy, I would open a budae jjigae restaurant in Stockholm. That is how much I love this dish. One day…!

Friday 5: Functions

What are you holding your breath in anticipation of?

I’m really looking forward to WorldCon Dublin and going to Korea for a wedding in 2019!

A thatch-roofed pavilion framed by autumn foliage in Soswaemun Gardens in Gwangju, South Korea.

 

What most recently gave you goosebumps?

Probably just straight-up being cold, because it’s December in Stockholm.

 

What’s giving you that pain in the neck?

My work setup is less than ideal. I have my beast of a laptop, Regan, to the left and my work notebook (Samwise) in the middle. But since I do all of my blogging from Regan, I have to contort my neck and back to get anything done. Or just scoot my chair over, which I just did.

 

What’s making your heart ache?

I miss so many people and places, but that’s the neo-liberal cosmopolitan life, I guess: nowhere and everywhere feels like home; you’re always missing someone.

 

What are you yawning at?

Just trying to get my ears to pop because my head is full of fluid. Hurray, being sick. =/

Friday 5: October 6 Through 10

The first week of October is National Customer Service Week in the United States and Kenya. Where have you received especially good customer service?

Flying Scandinavian Air Services (or whatever SAS actually stands for) is always a treat. But that said, I value price over comfort in air travel, and Norwegian wins on that front. And they’re pretty good for a budget airline. Skimpy meal service (but I hate eating on planes anyway—the food is okay but it’s just so cramped), but the planes are new and comfortable.

People having a really good time at a noraebang in South Korea.
Noraebang! // PBS News Hour

Noraebangs (karaoke boxes) in Korea also are really good at customer service. One more than one occasion my friends and I received “service” items from the noraebang we were partying it up at: free beer, ice cream, or an extra half-hour of room rental.

 

The second Saturday in October was National Tree-Planting Day in Mongolia. When did you last do anything resembling tree-planting?

When you’re a teacher, every lesson is like planting a tree!


October 4 was World Animal Day (the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals). What’s an obscure animal you know a thing or two about?

Okapi2

Okapis are related to giraffes and, just like giraffes, have blue-black tongues. They’re also endangered, so maybe consider supporting okapi preservation as a holiday gift to yourself or others?

October 6 was National Poetry Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom. What’s a line of poetry that springs to mind now that you’re thinking about poetry?

I’ve been thinking about Karin Boye recently, so here:

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan  
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer
                              och det som stänger.

Ja nog är det svårt när droppar faller.
Skälvande av ängslan tungt de hänger,
klamrar sig vid kvisten, sväller, glider  -
tyngden drar dem neråt, hur de klänger.
Svårt att vara oviss, rädd och delad,
svårt att känna djupet dra och kalla,
ändå sitta kvar och bara darra  -
svårt att vilja stanna
                              och vilja falla.

Då, när det är värst och inget hjälper,
Brister som i jubel trädets knoppar.
Då, när ingen rädsla längre håller,
faller i ett glitter kvistens droppar
glömmer att de skrämdes av det nya
glömmer att de ängslades för färden  -
känner en sekund sin största trygghet,
vilar i den tillit
                              som skapar världen.

What’s in your pocket?

Nothing, because my pajamas don’t have pockets!

Friday 5: More Questions About Buildings and Food

Smorgatarta

What’s the best layered food?

Lasagna, for me, is basically the only layered food. I may be Swedish, but smörgåstårtar (pictured above) freak me out.

What’s the best rolled food?

There are so many options, aren’t there? Enchiladas (and I would say burritos count, too), cannoli, gimbap, California rolls, kanelbullar…the list goes on! But for nostalgia purposes, I’ll have to say it’s a tie between cannoli and gimbap.

Gimbap: commonly confused with sushi, but actually not.

What’s the most recent cuisine you’ve tried for the first time from an ethnicity not your own?

I had some Turkish pistachio candy at a student’s house on Monday.

What’s a food that scares you?

San-nakji: octopus arms. While the octopus is technically dead by the time it’s on your plate, octopus anatomy means that the nerves in the arms and tentacles are still doing their squirmy, moving thing by the time they’re on your plate. The Japanese puffer fish won’t kill you if it’s prepared correctly, but even if san-nakji is prepared correctly, the very nature of the dish makes it a potentially deadly choking hazard.

What’s something you eat solely because it’s good for you?

Even the healthy food I eat, I eat because it’s tasty. The only thing I consume purely for health reasons are vitamins.

Friday 5: Nonstrosity

What’s a good movie for October that has nothing to do with monsters or Halloween?

Back when I worked in South Korea, I spent a few months at a hagwon that was not a good fit for me. At all. I started in June, and by August I was starting to fantasize about tragedy befalling my family so I would have an excuse to leave early and go back home.

For real.

So for the first time in my life, I quit a job. And for the last two weeks of October, I was between jobs, free to wander around Seoul as I liked.

In honor of those weeks of freedom (and the amazing job I was able to take instead because I quit that one), I would say Little Miss Sunshine. Watching it with a friend was what convinced me to carpe diem and quit the damn job.

What’s a good couple of songs for October that have nothing to do with monsters or Halloween?

I kind of want to continue on my “two-week knockabout in Seoul” theme, so here are some selections from Korean indie musicians that I really, really like.

Danpyunsun and the Sailors, “Yellow Room”
Hyun Lee Yang, “Is Help on the Way?”
Floating Island, “Parade”
Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans, “Seven Year Itch”

What are some reasons to love October?

The foliage is gorgeous, but it’s not quite the grim winter wasteland that is November or December. There’s a nice balance between “still enough daylight” and “cozy weather.” Also, apples are in season! Apple crisp, apple pie, apple cider…

Radio stations sometimes call this month Rocktober, doing special playlists or giveaways in celebration of rock music. What would be a better rhyming name for this month, and how might it be celebrated?

I’m fine with it being Rocktober, but celebrating geology and rocks and minerals as well as rock music. Second to that, Schlocktober, and you celebrate by watching terrible movies.

What would be a good holiday to establish in October for those U.S. states not commemorating Columbus Day?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day seems a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Friday 5: In Your Head! In Your Head!

First of all, I’d like the world to know that this song is one of my go-to karaoke songs. I can’t tell you why. It’s certainly not because I can sing a killer rendition or rival Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals. Just a habit, I guess?

Which mythical monster would you most enjoy discovering (first- or second-hand) is real?

I guess it depends on whether or not it counts as a monster in your book, but how cool would it be to have your own pegasus? Or a griffin? Extremely cool, I think.

When did you last exhibit monstrous behavior?

I try really hard not be monstrous, but I’m sure I’ve been less than ideal in fights with people. But not very recently, I don’t think.

What do you think of monster trucks?

I try not to think about how much fossil fuel monster trucks, NASCAR, and  Formula One racing must use up.

If you like monster movies, what’s a monster movie you dislike? And if you dislike them, what’s a monster movie you like?

I don’t typically like monster moves, though there is a certain level of over-the-top camp involved in some mid-century ones that I really love, whether they’re giant creatures laying waste to entire cities or merely humanoid creatures going on killing sprees. There’s a whole stable of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes featuring both of these conceits (though not in the same movie!) and that’s where most of my favorites are from: The Horror of Party BeachThe Wasp Woman, Gamera, and so on.

A more recent offering that I like because of its merits as a good movie (rather than my personal taste for camp) is The Host, which until recently was the highest-grossing South Korean movie of all time. (Now it’s in fourth place.) I’m generally a big fan of Bong Joon-ho’s movies and wish his output were a little more prolific. The Host also features my favorite Korean actress (and maybe one of my favorite actresses hands-down), Bae Doona.

What song about a monster (or with the word monster in the title) do you really like?

I have “The Monster Mash” and Kanye West’s “Monster” in my music library and of course I like them well enough, but for this question I’ll recommend what is a slightly more obscure song: Drunken Tiger’s “Monster.”

This Friday Five got pretty Korean-themed towards the end, but not really surprising, I guess.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Copenhagen and NYC

It takes forever to get out of the Copenhagen airport, or at least it feels like forever. My flight was supposed to arrive at 12:30; when I check the time on the surprisingly dingy subway, it’s already 13:40. Oops. I had grand, if brief, plans for my layover in Copenhagen: see The Little Mermaid statue, grab a smorbrod at Aarman’s, and top it off with a beer at Cafe Malmo. I chop the list down to Cafe Malmo (beer above all else). It pours down intermittently during my walk there, but by the time I find the basement bar (Cafe Malmo is emphatically NOT a cafe), the weather has broken for the better.

I take a seat right opposite the open door, enjoying the cool breeze and the blue-gray patch of sky projecting into the dark wood paneling. The fresh air is good because there are ashtrays everywhere and the unmistakable smell of cigarette smoke—smoking in restaurants, a memory of a bygone era.

The exterior of Cafe Malmo.
The exterior of Cafe Malmo.

At the bar I struggle with whether to use English or Swedish. I switch uncomfortably between both, if finally skewing more towards the Swedish end of the spectrum. The bartender understands me just fine and truthfully I can’t tell if he uses Swedish or very slow and deliberate Danish with me in return. I know that I can read Danish okay, but trying to listen to snatches of overheard conversation is impossible. It’s all gargling.

Is it extra appropriate for a dive bar to have a nautical theme? I can’t decide. In one window, a copper(?) bathysphere is surrounded by potted cactuses. The duality of man, or nature. The wall opposite me features a collage of faded photos and the title “BUGISSTREET SINGAPORE” in that font used exclusively for saloons in the Wild West on crayon-bright yellow paper. The photos are of women, glamour shots and candids alike, and many feature exposed breasts.

The interior of Cafe Malmo.
The interior of Cafe Malmo.

The sign outside the bar promises live music, but I’m skeptical that you could comfortably fit the accouterments necessary for even your basic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter. There would be floor space between my seat and the door, but it’s dominated by a heavy five-pin billiards table. Or maybe the billiards table doubles as a stage as necessary?

While I sip my beer, the thought strikes me of “third places,” or maybe it’s called “third spaces.” The idea is that we crave places that are neither work (obviously stressful for most, or at least oversaturated, even if you like your job) and home (often its own brand of oppressive), so we go to places like bars, parks, and cafes. I suppose my third place of preference is bars; I’d like them even without drinks. Even the cutest, quirkiest cafe can feel performative and formal. But everyone relaxes in bars. Especially during off-peak hours, it’s a place to relax and be around-but-not-with other people. They have no expectations of me (except to, say, pay for my drink, not to leave a mess, etc.) and likewise I have no expectations of them. I have space to think.

That said, I don’t think about much. I just let the weird mix of classic American top 40 and European schlager I don’t know and Danish covers of American songs wash over me. There is a surprising amount of country music. Selections include:

  • A Danish cover of James Taylor
  • “Fly By Night”
  • “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
  • “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”
  • A loungey version of “Revolution”
  • A country version of “O Holy Night”

Eventually other patrons appear, or maybe friends of the young busboy. They set up the five-pin billiards game. The box with the pins and the chalk for the scoreboard had been sitting on a shelf behind me the whole time and the thought had earlier occurred to me that one of the small, finely carved pins would have made a nice souvenir. Now I’m glad I didn’t pinch one. I watch a game play through, not understanding any of the rules, and then return to the airport for the most important flight: from Copenhagen to New York.

That flight itself is uneventful. I read a lot and sleep a lot. The real fun begins when I land at JFK and try to get to my lodgings for the night: King Sauna in Palisades Park, NJ. In the process I wrangle a cheap burner sim card and some allergy medicine (my hosts in Austin have cats), but getting to the sauna is more of an adventure than I would have bargained for. I get there nonetheless.

King Sauna is a Korean-American version of a jjimjilbang, a particular kind of sauna. There’s not really anything that’s different between one in Korea and one in the US except, maybe, context: in the US they’re a luxury and a reward; in Korea they are (or were for me) as a reliable part of travel as highway rest stops or Motel 6. In some neighborhoods they’re a place to spend a few hours with the family; in others they’re a cheap place to crash if you missed the last subway home.

In retrospect, my view of jjimjilbangs as the latter is maybe incompatible with the semi-luxurious status they enjoy in the US (would a hostel or AirBnB for the night be cheaper?), but there’s something to be said for 24-hour entry, saunas, and hot tubs when you trudge out of JFK at 10 in the evening.

Unfortunately, the “lagom” pool—not boiling hot, not tepid or ice cold—is drained to just a few inches, I guess for cleaning? So I can’t indulge in my favorite warm-cold-warm ritual, but I enjoy having a luxurious hot shower and sweating it out in the steam saunas.

The other nice thing about jjimjilbangs generally, and this one in particular, is the freely available computer access. Without that, it would have been impossible to get my budget sim card started. I could have flown into Austin semi-blind, relying on the crapshoot that is free wifi, but that would be cutting it a little close, even for me. I also take the time to order online NJ transit and airport shuttle tickets. Phone tickets. The future is now!

There were other intangible benefits to staying at the sauna, mostly related to sense memories. There’s a smell to jjimjilbangs—is it damp bamboo mats? tea?—that I will eternally associate with relief, safety, and relaxation. And the second it hits my nose, all the tension from traveling leaves my body.

Truthfully, my favorite jjimjilbangs in Korea were much more budget and much less luxurious than this one; basically places for drunk patrons to sleep it off. But I like the touches here: the delicate white-and-pink upholstered fancy chairs and matching tables, with intricate leaves and curves carved into the arms and legs; the overwhelming presence of flowers, real and artificial; vases, geodes, and crystals set in decorative tableaus (maybe for obscure feng shui benefits?). The net effect is one of repose in a fairy forest bower, and it’s surprisingly calming.

My original sleeping plan was to avoid the coed fairy bower area, to minimize the risk of encountering a pervert, but when I get exiled out of the private rest/sleep area in the women’s-only side for wearing the jjimjilbang uniform (“clothes outside!” the attendant tells me and the other woman in there), I notice that in the co-ed corner devoted to sleeping has little wooden barriers to cordon off “private” space—random dudes won’t be able to comfortably roll over and try to spoon with me. Satisfied, I put my glasses on a nearby shelf and set a series of alarms on my phone to make sure I don’t miss my flight to Austin.

Yours truly, sweating it out.
Yours truly, sweating it out.

As it turns out, I don’t need the complex series of wake-up calls. Whether it’s jet lag or anticipation, I only sleep for a couple of hours and wake up at around 4 am. I peek in the saunas to see if the lagom pool has been refilled yet, but no dice. I relax in a few of the different infrared saunas in the coed fairy bower section, then leave a little before 7 so I can get the NJ transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in good time.