Remembering North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on June 25, 2013

So it was my fault obviously for drinking that medium Sumatra from Peet’s after bootcamp class, but you should know before you read this post that I’m more jittery than Kenneth Bae waiting to be sentenced for handing out bibles doing some vaguely weird shit in the DPRK. (You should also know that I just pronounced DPRK as “D-P-R-K!!!” like it’s a Kesha chorus or something. Unsure why.)

But surrusly, something about too much caffeine, man. Pulsing raging yummy sunny Montana Avenue brew coursing through my veins, and I’m like — flashbacks. Yanggakdo 34th floor, what? View of the Taedong and I’m rolling Communist chic once again.

Fun fact: Yanggakdo is the name of the island on which the eponymous hotel stands. Means “sheep’s horn,” like the shape of the island, and that’s where they put the foreigners who visit the capital. Unless you’re balling State Dept or give-me-all-the-NoKo-frills style, in which case you’re holing up at the Koryo Hotel closer to the center of town. Haven’t had the pleasure of staying there yet (it’s not a Starwood property, lol j/k) but I picture lots of Brooks Brothers suits and early bedtimes and none of that signature lobby bar madness that makes Pyongyang what it is.

Fading lately, though. Happens every time. The DPRK is like a dream still dancing on your eyelids when you awake, fighting to break out of your mouth and into the ear of anyone who will listen — without asking you why, of course — why did you go? why did you risk it? why would you even? — then never really hearing the answer, never really wanting to hear it, because they’re on their own monologue of Drudge Report headlines. The memory of the trip of your life is still vibrating on the flight back to Beijing, but when those Air Koryo wheels touch down just 90 minutes later, even though you have all the evidence — your propaganda lit, your kitsch stamps, your copy of the Pyongyang Times — the dream is already drying like glow-in-the-dark paint, and now you’re gonna need a blacklight to see it again, and it’s hard to find a blacklight strong enough to make out those messy neon words dripping down the walls of your mind.

Keeping the DPRK alive, that’s the hard part. That’s why I keep up this blog, I suppose. Look back and remember how I saw it. Or didn’t see it. I was a little put off the first time round, trying to make sense of it, pin it down — the biggest mistake for the first-time DPRKer. Because trying to categorize North Korea is like keeping a tiger as a pet in a one-bedroom apartment. I was confused, and I couldn’t see that the confusion is a symptom of the DPRK paradox, that getting comfy with the contradictions (not easy) is the beginning of understanding the place. (Cf: Orwell. Pin him down at your own risk.) That’s the fun.

And so the early posts on this blog got it wrong. They captured only half — probably less than half — definitely less than half — even if it was, in moments, accurate. Take the Mass Games. It was the first time I’ve ever been entertainted (that’s “entertained” and “tainted,” you can use it if you want, but I recognize they’re not all winners). I was working for a circus at the time, so it was hard to get into the spirit of a hundred-thousand-person compulsory rain dance. I’m all for the occasional curtsey, but a one-hour mass genuflection gets weird fast. It was beautiful in its way,

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I suppose. I mean it was. I just couldn’t capture both sides of that particular coin at the time, so it came out as a post that could have been summed up as mehmeh to the performance, and meh to that particular post.

The memories are aftershocks. You get comfortable with the fact of the DPRK experience pretty quickly. Yep, went there. As if “there” were an appropriate preposition for live-action 1984. (n.b.: Merriam Webster says that “there” is an adverb. Seems more like a preposition, though, right? As in, “I went to North Korea, so I went there” — but M to the Dub suggests that “there” modifies the “went” rather than replacing the place. Guilty then on two counts: Impersonating the DPRK in a sentence and short-changing the experience of going there, neither of which can possibly live in a sentence as prosaic as “Yep, went there.” Glad we had this talk? Me too.) So you start using words like “fascinating” and “crazy” and “mind-blowing” because they hint at the enormity without committing to any actual detail. Try to explain it properly, and you just sound flat and textbook and more often than not a little braggy. Again, you need that blacklight. Nowhere to be found. So… whaddyou do there? Questions they don’t really want answers to/you couldn’t possibly answer anyway. The room stays dark. The walls say nothing.

Where does it live? I’ve got a phone full of the best Vines from North Korea and they won’t upload because there’s no Internet in the DPRK (there was some mobile broadband in North Korea for a minute there, total 3G tease), and apparently if you Vine without a connection the videos just get stuck in a grey upload purgatory. I watch them every now and again on my phone, almost to remind myself I was there, and I’m mindfucked all over again, but a Vine does not a life experience make. Memory gets me the closest…

Flashes of the bachelorette party we threw in the lobby of the Yanggakdo, Korean homegirl in bunny ears (a la hen party tradition), automaton waitresses gliding across the bar to calls of Yogiooooo! Maekju sed-byong jushipshyo! and getting the order right every time

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(how do they do that?) while the old guys in tweed jackets smoke pipes indoors (their definition of a cultural advantage) then shuffle off to bed early while I get the locals nice and sloppy so we can hear some real talk about life in North Korea, talk that becomes so real in fact that the best bits I can’t even publish on the blog — literally — so the memories drag themselves across the floors of my sun-drenched LA mind, a million miles and a few thick chapters in history away from the peninsula where a Korean rocket might or might not be able to reach (hint: probs not). And if I let myself, I can taste the sweet cardboard Taedonggang on draft, smell the Yanggakdo musk in the red carpet hallways of the guest floors snapped together like Tetris pieces, feel the blue buttons and the red buttons and the buttons that don’t light up when you hit them because you’ve got to hit all of them to play the elevator lottery and catch the first lift passing by; and then there are the smiles — man, the smiles — the peninsula eyes narrowed and mouths agape, the looks you shouldn’t have gotten for saying things you shouldn’t have said, and the sadness at the airport when you know you’re friends with these awesome people but you’re not really friends — not in the Facebook-me-and-see-you-next-week sort of way, so what are we doing here? — we’re living, man, and seeing what it’s like to live like this, maybe for the first time, and probably for the last — and all that May Day love and bus shenanigans and imperialist smiles are unfolding into color, expanding from a six-second Vine forever waiting to upload into the whiskey orange midnight and I’m there, and I’m there, and I’m there, and suddenly it’s Pyongyang all over again in my head.

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