Lady Gaga Meets Tunnel Warfare: Chronicling Chinese Educational Experiences in Pyongyang
Transnational educational linkages take time to develop, and they require steady cultivation. After thirty years of such exchanges in the US-China relationship, students and faculty on both sides of the Pacific still find themselves confronting immense cultural and expectation gaps. How one navigates (or celebrates) such divides, in large measure, determines the value of the experience.
China’s relationship with North Korea has its own unique dynamic for higher-education exchange. In the wake of Premier Wen Jiabao’s October 2009 visit to Pyongyang, analysis of PRC-DPRK educational exchanges has most often focused on North Korean students working on their Mandarin and voyaging west, portrayed as the eager pupils of Chinese modernity. For is not China (rather than Stanford) the prism through which the North Korean future is foretold?
Against the outflow of Korean students, a smaller and lesser noticed influx of Chinese students have made their way to Pyongyang. How the latter group has responded to the experience is the topic of the following essay in what is almost certainly mainland China’s finest newspaper, the Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend); it is ably rendered by Charles Kraus, reprising his former role as a translator of Chinese materials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
Translated for SinoNK.com by Charles Kraus.
Korean recreational activities are limited, [so] the staff of the Chinese Ambassador organized for international students in Korea to come to Pyongyang’s “Arc de Triomphe” for a competition. (Photo: Jia Zhihang)
The Two Elite Schools named “Kim”
“In the dream, the Great Leader gave me guidance that we must overcome the challenges in our research!
“Did you know? I dreamed!”
“I dreamed about the Great Leader General Kim!”
As Bai Xiaoyi [白潇祎], a graduate of the Korean Language Department of Peking University, recalled her life studying abroad in North Korea five years ago, the most vivid scene was when one morning [her] roommate Gil Seol-kyeong [吉雪景] excitedly talking about her “happy dream.”
Bai Xiaoyi knew that her roommate had a deep affection for General Kim Il Sung, but at 6 or 7 [in the morning], still drowsy from only just waking up, hearing of this dream was quite a shock. Gil Seol-kyeong said, “in the dream, the Great Leader gave me guidance that we must overcome the challenges in our research!” Bai Xiaoyi will never forget how Gil Seol-kyeong described this dream: “It felt just like seeing a light in the night!”
Several months later in October 2006, North Korea completed its first nuclear test in Kilju, North Hamgyong, shocking the world. The Chinese Ambassador in North Korea convened repeated meetings to pacify the Chinese students, but also asked that everyone store water and noodles in their dormitory as preparation if a tense situation occurred.
Bai Xiaoyi’s shock layered on, because she clearly remembered her roommate Gil Seol-kyeong’s “Great Leader Dream.” Gil Seol-kyeong’s father is a scientist in North Korea, and her own research was in a field related to nuclear physics. “But she was only 20 years old, surely she couldn’t have had any connection to the nuclear test? Right?”
In all of North Korea, there are [only] two universities which accept Chinese international students: Kim Il Sung University and Kim Hyong Jik University of Education. Kim Hyong Jik was the name of Kim Il Sung’s father. In the dorms for Chinese international students, arrangements are made for varying amounts of Koreans to become their roommates.
The previous year, Bai Xiaoyi and 50 other Chinese students went to Pyongyang together, participating in the China Scholarship Council’s (CSC) Korea Study Abroad Program. The CSC’s Program is basically 8-10 months [in duration], but for Chinese international students, it is not easy to make friends with locals. Bai Xiaoyi recalls that once when [she] was sitting on the train she saw a grandmother carrying a heavy bag, [so] she and one other Chinese student went to help her. [She] did not expect, [however], that the grandmother would become frightened and run away.
The activities of the Chinese students are completely unrestrained. “If you go out, you are unaccompanied. They know you won’t do anything bad, that you wouldn’t dare.” Zhao Song [赵嵩] (pseudonym) was very sure of this.
Zhao Song was a Korean language student from a university in Beijing, and he studied in North Korea from April through October 2011. He said “all of the Korean students [we] lived with weren’t ordinary people, most of their families were red.”
Most Chinese international students only chatted with their roommates about language, [but] Zhao Song was different, sometimes deliberately attempting to explore more in-depth issues, such as [Korea’s] view of the outside world. But the Korean students by his side tended to automatically avoid this type of conversation.
[How they] evaded [these conversations] was comical. “They’d often say that they have to leave for a phone call, but once they left, they wouldn’t come back.”
After returning to China, Bai Xiaoyi made several attempts to write to Gil Seol-kyeong and Lotus, sometimes entrusting students who were participating in the program to take the letters. But she has never received a letter in response, “as if everyone has disappeared.”
A Gift: Lady Gaga
Inside of Korea’s campuses right now, boys and girls can walk hand in hand. Before, they couldn’t.
After the plane landed and while on the road to the campus, Bai Xiaoyi began to shed tears. In her eyes, all of Pyongyang was covered in a layer of gray and there was not one building which was bright.
When [she] reached the campus, slowly Bai Xiaoyi began to think that the people here were alright. “They were all very simple, without any [bad] intentions.” She even discovered that one student, “Lotus,” was especially pretty, “like a South Korean movie star.”
Zhao Song’s feelings are that the lives of the North Korean people are not constrained. Many of the Korean people near [Zhao] were cheerful and spirited, “as if they hadn’t anything bothering them—the state provided them with food, so life was carefree.”
The “material” Chinese students always brought computers, digital cameras, some people even brought eBooks. All of these items made the North Korean students envious. Some Chinese international students even brought back big bags of snacks, milk powder, and ham from China.
From the memories of Chinese students, most Korean roommates were proud and had self-respect, but they were also polite. “When giving them snacks, they happily ate some,” Bai Xiaoyi said. “But they wouldn’t take much, they would ask first and they definitely wouldn’t take any if you were away,” Zhao Song remarked. His classmates often proudly told him that, thanks to the Great Leader General Kim, Koreans have a happy life.
The Leader did create happiness and glory, but if there were any bleak spots, such as material shortages, the Korean students would solemnly tell the Chinese people that it was certainly because “the harm of American imperialism.” The slogans “down with U.S. imperialism” and “unity to defend the motherland” were all over Pyongyang’s streets.
In order to improve relations with Korean teachers and students, the Chinese international students would often prepare some gifts. Bai Xiaoyi prepared some scarfs for women. One of her classmates gave a teacher whom she was close to an electric blanket. She remembers that, after receiving the electric blanket, the teacher’s eyes became red.
Zhao Song found fancier gifts: Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, the former is a dynamic and hot rock and roll girl from America, the latter is the most influential pop start in Europe and America today. He even recommended the American show “Project Runway.” This is a fashion design reality show hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum. “I told them that western fashion is like this. They surprisingly said what’s so good about this, not as nice as what we wear!” Remembering this, Zhao Song laughed a little.
A “senior” international student on session taught Zhao Song’s male roommates about the [Chinese show] “Dumen miji.”
Besides the American film “Avatar” and Korean dramas with Jang Dong Dun, he also acted according to the tips of the seniors and stored a ton of Japanese pornography on his computer’s hard drive. “Of course they wouldn’t ask directly, but hinted pretty clearly to ‘give me the movies on your computer, all of them!’”
What was especially interesting to Zhao Song is that these boys were serious during the week, but they were like kids at that moment, “very naïve.” He attributed the demand [for the pornography] to sexual repression. “Now boys and girls can walk and hold hands, before this wasn’t okay. There shouldn’t be any premarital sex, and the malls and markets do not sell condoms.”
After the roommates copied “all of” Zhao Song’s movies, after a couple of days some of them began to dodge eye contact with him; some told him confidently that the movies were not good and they deleted them.
Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia
A music teacher arranged for the Chinese international students to sing “Korean red songs” which praised the leaders. Some Chinese students were not excited about this enough, causing the music teachers to become quite annoyed.
More or less, [the Chinese students] gave the North Korean students a breath of the outside world, [but] every Chinese student in North Korea also learned a lot which he or she did not know before.
Before going to North Korea, Bai Xiaoyi didn’t know that there was a flower in the world known as “Kimilsungia” and that there was another called “Kimjongilia.” The former is red, while the latter is purple. “Kimilsungia is a little prettier,” she thought.
The Chinese international students were divided into two classes, and along with students from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Mongolia, and Vietnam, they received private lessons together. The classes did not have any North Korean students.
Although their appearances are not much different, it is fairly easy to distinguish between the North Korean and Chinese students. North Korean students all wear white and blue uniforms, and everyone wears a pin of the leader. “[I] heard that in the past they issued badges to the international students [as well], but that the international students didn’t seem to treasure them, causing the North Koreans to think that they did not respect their leader. So they don’t give them anymore,” Song Hanbing [宋寒冰] said.
Besides pins, their jeans were also one of the most obvious “exotic qualities” of this country. Near the schools, the police who maintain order have a trained eye to tell who is a foreigner and for whom “grooming” is not required. Male international students have long hair, female international students have sleeveless garments, [but] they are tolerated by the North Koreans. “There are a lot of foreigners nearby. They [the North Koreans] are accustomed to it.”
Language is the main [subject] in the courses, and includes listening, detailed and extensive readings, grammar, and writing, as well as simple lessons on history and North Korean culture. Bai Xiaoyi remembered her history textbook said that “the origins of mankind rest on the Korean Peninsula” and that when speaking of “the birth of the Great Leader,” the text went to great lengths to [describe] the sky at the time. “Another time when watching TV, it said that tunnel warfare and mine warfare were tactics invented by the Great Leader General Kim Il Sung.”
The buildings in Pyongyang are gray, but the sky is watt-blue. The streets are plastered with banners and posters, and besides portraits of the leaders, [pictures of] soldiers and medical personnel are also common. The streets are spacious and clean with few cars, and people orderly wait in line for buses.
During his study abroad in North Korea, Jia Zhihang of the Korean Language Department at Beijing Language and Culture University took classes at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education. He remembered that during the 2010 Korean National Day Celebrations, the school’s music teacher arranged for the Chinese students to sing “North Korean red songs” in praise of the leaders. Some Chinese students were not excited about this enough, causing the music teachers to become quite annoyed. “Our leader once helped you Chinese to win the Anti-Japanese War!”
The Chinese international students’ impression was that Pyongyang’s residents really like picnics and outings, often bringing guitars and accordions and impulsively singing and dancing. And they always seem to be rehearsing, there is always one festival after another to perform at, such as the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, or the day in which they began to work in the Korean Workers’ Party.
On September 9, 2012, Jia Zhihang was made to go to Kim Il Sung Square to watch the “Workers and Peasants Red Guard Parade,” even receiving a notice that instructed him to “maintain the required expression.”
At last, Kim Jong Il appeared in a tower some fifty or sixty meters away. Kim Jong Un stood by his father’s side. Jia Zhihang recalls that Kim Jong Il frequently waved and smiled to the crowed. On the square, the [Korean] People’s Army jumped forward and a wave of people followed, and [Jia] couldn’t even see its end.
South Korean Dramas under the Blankets
If Chinese students use their own computer to watch movies, the “strong-willed” Korean students will take the initiative to leave.
Apart from school work, Bai Xiaoyi’s favorite place to go are zoos and amusement parks. Fifty Korean won can get you one ride on a roller coaster. In 2006, North Korea had not yet implemented the currency reform, and at the official exchange rate, one Renminbi equaled 12 Korean won, but on the black market, one Renminbi could fetch as high as 300 Korean won. A 50 won roller coaster ride would come out to only a few cents, that’s “value.”
Or she shouted to the other Chinese international students to go together to book the entire Koryo Hotel revolving restaurant, where 150 Renminbi was enough for two people to eat a meal.
Besides going to the market for a stroll, Zhao Song also liked to watch North Korean TV on campus. “There were only three channels, the one broadcasting revolutionary ideology was called Korean Central Television, and only on the weekend could you watch Mansudae TV. There was another channel, mostly for holiday play only, the name I have forgotten, though.”
The most fascinating channel for Zhao was Mansudae, [as] this station had international news reports.
8:00 on Saturday and Sunday were the best times. At these times, Mansudae Television would start to play Chinese TV shows! “Latent” and “Sword” attracted large North Korean audiences, while also allowing Chinese international students to find a feeling of home. Occasionally there were even Chinese movies broadcasted, including “Hero” and “Ip Man.” “There were ancient and modern revolutionary themed [shows], but no contemporary [shows].”
Zhao Song also discovered that on the streets had small pavilions which sold old movies from the North Korean Magnolia Audio-Visual Publishing House and the Soviet Union, usually for only several hundred or thousand Korean won. The better off families of Pyongyang usually have a DVD player.
If Chinese students are in groups together they will use their own computers to watch movies. The “strong-willed” North Korean students will take the initiative to leave. But as Bai Xiaoyi discovered, the roommates from some of the better off families will have their own DVD players or computers, and some people would hide beneath blankets to watch South Korean dramas!
The economy for Chinese students is no problem. In North Korea, every Chinese international student can receive 250 USD each month from the Chinese [government], while the North Korean side offers an allowance of 40 Euros each month. “The subway costs about 2 cents, and ice cream is not even one yuan,” Zhao Song said.
Most people spend their money on phone calls. International calls can only be made at the Office of Communications or at the Koryo Hotel, and the fee is about 13 Renminbi per minute. Jia Zhihang once made 3 calls and went to check out, only to discover that the charge was 78 USD!
Besides teachers and roommates, Chinese international students generally interact the most with use restaurant owners and market peddlers. When Zhao Song was studying abroad, one student from Kim Hyong Jik University of Education took a picture at the market of a ragged old woman, which “may be was considered to have damaged the image of the Korean people,” so Public Security took the camera and confiscated it. It was only returned when the Ambassador went forward. This was probably the biggest incident that year.
“I’m afraid we won’t see each other!”
When young people are brought together in one place, love is unavoidable.
On August 1, 2006, the school organized for the Chinese international students to visit the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower. Bai Xiaoyi, who had not eaten breakfast, stood in the bright sun listening to the teacher explain the heroic struggle of the Chinese [People’s] Volunteers. As she listened, she began to faint.
When she awoke, Bai Xiaoyi was already lying in a hospital. The Embassy and Chinese teachers and other student friends came to visit her, bringing her lots of snacks and fruit.
In Pyongyang, a small watermelon costs about 20-30 Renminbi to purchase. The Embassy gave Bai Xiaoyi a huge watermelon, which must have cost about 100 Renminbi, an astronomical number to the North Korean people. Bai Xiaoyi quickly cut the watermelon, and shared it with the doctors and nurses.
When young people are brought together in one place, love is unavoidable. Even among the Chinese students, the feeling is not uncommon. Zhao Song feels that it is truly rare, [but] a girl from South China had “a favorable impression” of one North Korean roommate.
The “favorable impressions” and “dubious relationships” between Chinese and North Korean young people is open among the international students. North Korean men will secretly give snacks to Chinese girls—in this environment, this is the most simple and best way to confess [one’s feelings].
“But everyone knows there will not be an outcome,” Zhao Song said, “they keep this relationship, but there is no deviant behavior, maybe not even a kiss…very good.”
Bai Xiaoyi clearly remembers when she returned to Beijing on December 29, 2006. Her mother came to meet her, and brought her cell phone, telling her to text her friends and tell them that you have returned. Bai Xiaoyi was happy to take [the cell phone], “it was a Panasonic flip phone, but I thought I almost do not know how to send text messages!”
From March through December, Bai Xiaoyi unexpectedly discovered that nine months without internet makes the world strange. For example, her classmates were all playing “Xiaonei.” Before she left, she had heard of this, but what was it?
Jia Zhihang remembers quite clearly that on October 19, 2011, his classmates returned to Beijing. When the plane landed, he and his friends could not help but applaud inside of the cabin.
After Jia Zhihang reached Beijing, sometimes when it was quiet he would think of the last night [in North Korea. The music teacher who was once annoyed that the Chinese students were not enthusiastically singing the North Korean red songs unexpectedly began to cry.
Everyone comforted him, [saying] we will see each other again. He looked 60, but he was only 40 years old and had drank a lot of wine. With tears coming down his face, he said “I’m afraid we won’t see each other!”
It was unexpected that within just two months after returning home, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il, whom the [scholarship] recipients had just cheered, was dead. North Korea stopped all foreign activities and the Chinese-Korean border tours were stopped. Jia Zhihang feels that the music teacher might not see him after all.
(Southern Weekend reporter Liu Jun and intern Xu Li also contributed to this article)
On October 25, 2011, following graduation the international students and their Korean teachers are photographed together. Jia Zhihang believes that he might never see these teachers again.