Watershed Moments in the DPRK

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What is the feeling of receiving a genuine smile from a stranger, where the eyes light up and there is no mistaking the emotions of wonderment, curiosity and delight?

A watershed moment in the DPRK.  It is strange, it was one of those off-chance smiles from a local walking along the street with nothing particular happening.  A spur of the moment release of joy and wonderment as with all smiles, but it also contained a little more – something that could bridge two very different cultures.  If there were a photograph that could do it justice, it would be the greatest photo ever taken.

Beautiful moments and smiles can certainly be photographed.  Everyday, many tremendous smiles are photographed around the world with children the greatest source; from pure minds come pure smiles.  Capturing the glory of such photos usually happens within a friendly atmosphere, and a camera is a mere afterthought.  Photos to be treasured.

In an environment where there is no such familiarity and warmth, it is difficult.

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There in lies the rub, the introduction of a camera steals a bit of the purity away from the spell.  The shots are still admirable, but the sparkle in the eyes may lose some of its mystical glow.

Why I mention this is that while I have photographed nice smiles of people and children in the DPRK, nothing could match the off-chance reactions of first ‘the glance’ followed by ‘a glimmer in the eye’ and finally a ‘world-winning smile’ of a local worker we passed by on the streets.  If I had to describe such a smile, picture the Mona Lisa breaking out in laughter after Da Vinci told her a racy joke…that type of electricity.

There is nothing I have that can come close to such expressions.

It took a few days in the DPRK for these “watershed moments” to arrive, all of which have taken me by surprise.   In my previous posts, I have mentioned several times that there is a forced stoic look on just about everyone – a veneer that upon arrival seemed impossible to penetrate.  Coming from places where smiles are common (China and the USA), this was a strange thing to witness.

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On the DPRK streets it may be that it is not easy to express ‘friendship’ or ‘happiness’ with the locals because of the barriers I have touched on in earlier posts.  Nevertheless, after a few of these sincere smiles, I wonder if this has as much to do with myself as with them.

The theory being that my unconscious biases and expectations I had when I arrived in the DPRK were getting in the way and it took a bit of time to unconsciously wipe away the ‘built-in’ negativity and realize we are all human with similar emotions, albeit with a vast abyss separating the cultures.

There was a post by a fellow blogger Jessica last year that touched on such a thought: http://jesscy.com/2012/10/23/people-are-people/, a nice read.

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Catching the eye, the gleam and then the smile…it is an easy way humans communicate.  Conceivably, it is the most basic primitive instinct that humans not only still have engrained in their genetics, but a primitive instinct that still serves the very same purpose from our beginning: to demonstrate there is no animosity, nothing to be feared and most importantly, friendship.

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While I still think ‘free expression’ is somewhat rare in the DPRK compared to other countries, it is here in some form.  Being in the DPRK has heighten my awareness, so it possible that the fact of just being here in this country makes a ‘simple form of self-expression’ seem more dramatic.  

If this is the case, then it just serves as a reminder that a smile is a mutual sharing of joy that can make any day a little bit better.  If such smiles are unexpected, then it is something I believe we can all relate with, knowing it is a bit more special.  Something so simple that can brighten the day is priceless.

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Sunset in the DPRK…Surprising and as Beautiful as a Smile

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When I first had this watershed moment, I thought that it was a singular event, even when followed by a few more the following day.  Uplifting.  In the afternoon as we visited a local brewery, and over a few mugs of the local brew, this very topic came up and the table turned electric with varying stories of connections.  Each story containing one common thread: everyone had been hit in some form by a genuine smile.  Simple and sweet.

My theory regarding this, is that it takes two to tango.  Being a little shell-shocked on arrival, it was difficult to have been on the same plane of understanding with our Korean brethren.  Be it culture shock or an unconscious bias.

Then again, perhaps not and it is the local brew doing the talking – never a bad thing at least until the morning after.

Regardless, joyous smiles from the heart are universal.

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The revelation of such a simple act and connection with people confirms that we are all home.  Regardless of where we are in our travels, good people are everywhere.

If there is a highlight of the trip regarding the sites we have visited, the children’s activity center (Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace) and the performances afterwards would rank at or near the top.  Still, I think that while the children’s smiles are incredibly special, the rare genuine smiles surprisingly received on the streets are the ones that I will always remember.

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As for the children’s activity center, an amazing place filled with the magic of children and their ability to bring hope & smiles to us now and in the future.

Daoist philosophy explains the essence of children very well: a goal to ‘return to the mind of a child.’  The purpose being the mind of a child holds clarity and purity.  The child’s mind is closely connected to nature, not yet encumbered by the biases and cynicism that we collect as we move on in life.  If we can capture this essence, we can achieve a sense of self.  Unfortunately, as an adult, it is a place we can never return.  Sigh, at least we do get to enjoy the innocent wisdom of children before watching them grow up like us, into grouchy, cynical adults…(kidding of course).

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If you ever want to understand what is the epitome of happiness, watch a child at play when they are impervious to everything around them except the joy of laughter.

I hope the photos in this post prove to be a better messenger than the scrambled set of words I have already laid out.

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It occurs to me that while I describe the watershed moment as a breakout, I suppose the moment was slowly building.  Traveling to a new area and a new culture can expose the soul to incredibly different customs and it takes time to get acquainted with the place.  To understand its ambiance.

An old friend of mine once told me: “Travel, because when you teach your soul to accept new surroundings, you become more human and more compassionate towards the world.  So go out and live in it fully.”  At the time, he was simply talking about the different cultures you find in one city.  It is important to explore.

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With a few days under the belt, the DPRK has began to feel more human and, shockingly, a place I could definitely spend a fair amount of time to experience and learn more of their culture and the people.  While it still remains distant from any society I have lived or experienced, I guess it is the potential that has me feeling optimistic.  It all falls back to that watershed moment.

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As I think back to my first response to seeing people on the streets, watching them with a stoic veneer that seemed to be plastered on their face as they looked straight ahead, I thought that nothing could break through this frozen barrier.  Soldiers of a continuing Cold War.

Looking back, though, I should have seen the positives and great character right away.  My first experience to the personalities of the North Koreans was brought about by our guide (Ms. Kim), who was incredibly quick-witted.

Dan Levitsky and Ms. Kim Un Hui

Dan Levitsky and Ms. Kim Un Hui

What surprised me was how very quick she was to become wary of my wit.  Her hilarious replies and rebuttal for any smart comment I made often left me stammering for an answer, and the group in laughter.  She become a highlight of the trip herself…really a great personality.

It sounds foolish now, but I did not think such a personality could exist in the DPRK.  In all likelihood, I think I may have even thought such genuine smiles were impossible as well.  Where did these biases come from…?

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As for Ms. Kim, while we were at the Schoolchildren’s Palace (activity center), I did create a little stress for her as I got “disassociated” with the group and did a little exploring and met up with some great kids.  I think the students were as shocked as I was running into each other, and after their laughter at my horrible Korean, one of them broke into English.

It was simple small talk about where we were from, what we did and then description of classes and whether or not I was going to attend the performance that was just about to take place.  A couple of teachers came over to listen and enjoyed the conversation, although each of them looked at each other as if to say “where the hell did he come from?!?”  Again, simple and sweet.

However, when I did make it back to the group, I was warned that Ms. Kim was quite stressed, and the scolding I took confirmed this… even though both her and the group enjoyed the critique of my troublesomeness.

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As for the activity center, it was a lively and beautiful place where children studied extra-curricular activities such as ballet, musical instruments, and craft works.  It was difficult to say what was more inspiring – the art that was created, or the children who were putting their time into learning such skills.

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Travel rarely disappoints, for if you allow and seek it out, at some level there will be a connection with the locals along with a new set of experiences.  Experiences that can diversify the path you’re on and be incorporated into new dreams.  The experience may be a trip across town to a new ethnic restaurant, into another community or a different country.  A place where the mind and soul opens up to new ideas and adventure.

In regards to the DPRK, I am still disappointed with the politics that surrounds the country, but it feels strangely irrelevant compared to the past two days, as the beauty of its people overshadowed the politics.  The warmth of the smiles and the understanding that we are all a part of this adventure together has been the true highlight.

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17 Comments on “Watershed Moments in the DPRK

  1. “Travel rarely disappoints, for if you allow and seek it out, at some level there will be a connection with the locals along with a new set of experiences.” I think this about sums it up. I am somewhat surprised that you would have been surprised to find smiles and a few great personalities such as Ms. Kim’s in the DPRK. Sure, the government is oppressive and the people cut off from the rest of the world in a very real sense, but no government has quite achieved Orwell’s Big Brother status (1984). Even in North Korea, I wouldn’t have expected the people to be robots.

    I know exactly what you mean about the innocence and spontaneity of children, though. I loved the photos of the kids throughout this post. It’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time now—how kids, even more than adults, are just kids, no matter where you go. There is an enthusiasm that cannot be contained, not even in the DPRK—at least not all of the time.

    Thanks so much for linking to my post. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had fun writing it. 🙂

    • The reference to Orwell and 1984 cast a dark shadow on this one for me,lol I laugh without mirth though.The entire world is caught up in something that somehow makes folks forget that life should be taken very lightly. It’s sad that only in our youth does innocence and true freedom still remains.

      • Now this really is a serendipitous moment for this post. There were two inspirations, the ‘people are people’ from Jessica and then with Dotta discussing the magic of smiles a few days ago! And then you both connect here – pretty cool.

        I do wonder why as we grow older, we tend to complicate things so much more. Some of it is necessary (dealing with taxes, tech and modern wonders), but stressing over work and irrelevant issues that weigh folks down is very disheartening. Still, from experience, I know that it is tough not to feel this way. However, the innocence of youth and freedom they have (and need to have) is the right attitude. Wish you a great weekend!

    • Good point. I think unconsciously, I had some build in biases of the DPRK and while I figured I would find smiles – I was not sure how genuine they would be… While I know all populations to have great characters & personalities, for some reason I figured access to such people would be impossible (as such people are usually the ones curious about freedom, creativity…). The DPRK government really does march to a different beat, and given a choice to restrict, restrict and restrict any access and chance of connections. It was beautiful to see people push through all this, and still connect. It is that feeling I did not expect to have.

  2. Your words lead like a cinema reel and I see along through your eyes. I loved every bit of observation,Ms Kim and wit inclusive 🙂
    Even if to capture that watershed delight is often difficult in an unfriendly and cold environment,I can’t help but still smile at these images of little girls doing ballet. Under strict tutoring yet the delight is so glaring in their faces and even the teachers if you look hard enough.The photographs are beautiful and once more another wonderful subject.

    • Thank you very much Dotta, that is beautiful thing to hear (and it you wrote it so eloquently). The delight in the eyes of children even while being under strict tutoring…that is a great and accurate observation. Part of the joy of learning and also the magic of being young (or young at heart!).

  3. I love the fact that they still use Korean traditional gourd dippers in the well, here in South Korea red and blue plastics are put, which are ugly.

    • That is interesting, one of the best things I found in the DPRK is that although they used simple items and methods, they were very effective. As you can tell, I really enjoyed my time there. 🙂

  4. Ahwz… the girl playing the butterfly harp (okay.. translating from Dutch.. it’s probably called something different in English.. or it might not even be a butterfly harp) is smiling so utterly lovely. Music does to the soul what spring does to the trees.

    • Excellent analogy, music cuts right through and nourishes the soul. Smiles too! Thanks.

  5. Thanks for the amazing post. I love the photo where the girl is playing an instrument, has her eyes shut and is smiling. It looks like her soul is completely enjoying the moment and in one with her music.
    It reminds me of when I was small. I did ballet. But everytime I was asked what I liked in ballet, my answer was: the lady that plays the piano 🙂 So my mum realised my thing was to play the piano. And that makes me smile to this day – unless I’m playing something ultra hard, then I don’t even breathe 😉

  6. It is so good that you like the girl playing with her eyes shut, it was my favorite photo (and moment) of this series…I had the exact same feeling: she is blissfully at one with her music. It is wonderful that you play the piano, to be there is always something mystical and beautiful about music…I sure wish I could play 🙂 While growing up, while all my sisters can play the piano, for me it was just sports 🙂 It is always a dream to play an instrument, and while I cannot it seems to make me enjoy the music all the much more (and the people who do have that gift). From your past post where you mentioned Yujia Wang, she is coming out here next spring (March)…so hopefully I can see her play out here. Now…if you have time in March, wouldn’t it be nice to see her play out here 🙂

  7. Once again I enjoy your report from DPRK. You always bring in the human aspect into view – which don’t often get to know. Thanks for the taking us along on this journey – and thank you for the great images – as always.

    • Thanks Otto, the DPRK, while quite strange, contains the same excitement/curiosity of populations everywhere…hope to go back some day.

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