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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