I have been away from home for a while now but this week, home feels a little further away.
For those who have managed to miss it or who aren’t from Singapore, here’s the gist of it. Local actor Shrey Bhargava wrote in a Facebook post how he was asked to exaggerate an Indian accent when auditioning for a role in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 4, which is a local film about army life for male Singaporeans. He was offended, but he did it, and felt disgusted after.
Side note: I’ve been asked to ‘perform’ a Singlish accent among foreign friends before. I did it once, everyone laughed in delight, and I felt that same disgust immediately after. My ethnicity, my nationality, the way I speak in the company of friends and family, is not a party trick. An exaggeration of your identity is not for anyone else’s amusement. Even among foreign friends I sometimes spontaneously break out the Singlish but here’s the difference: doing it because you want to and doing it on request are worlds apart.
Shrey subsequently wrote this post. Many fellow minorities have come out to share similar experiences. Many Chinese Singaporeans have expressed regret, shame, anger. But so many people. SO many people. Have now come out of the woodwork waving a “LOL guess what everyone I’m kinda racist” flag, previously hidden under their beds, previously only taken out in the company of like-minded friends.
I write this as a minority. I write this as someone who has only ever known what it is to be a minority. I have written about racism in Singapore before, and like any minority, I have a lifetime of experiences and examples I could share.
But this week, my heart hangs heavier than it ever has before. For the first time, people I’ve known for years have come out to rant about the validity of Shrey’s experience. “It’s just comedy,” they say.
And you know what? It’s fine if you, as someone who has enjoyed the privilege of being the majority, don’t know what it’s like, or if you can’t imagine why it hurts. But no one who has decided to join the angry mob dedicated to the very public lowering of our flag has stopped to first ask – “Is that how it feels? I had no idea.” And I really wish they had asked; I still hope some will.
You don’t get to decide that just because you don’t know how it feels, the rejection, shame, fear and occasional self-loathing that often comes with being a minority is invalid or should be invisible. Make an effort to understand instead of denying the deep-rooted racism our allegedly racially harmonious country has.
Today, I am especially grateful for my Chinese friends who have stood up tall against other members of the majority race who demean and invalidate the experiences they will never have the misfortune of knowing. In the same way I believe men are a key part of feminism and equality, the ethnic majority has a voice they can use for good. Not like xiaxue. Please don’t be like xiaxue.
But we need to look at the fact that it took one Facebook post to tear a nation in two. It took one man saying, “This is what happened. This is how I feel and it sucks,” before thousands jumped on his words to loudly invalidate them. I get it. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the discomfort of others. But if for the sake of our continued comfort we disallow room for honesty, for discussion, for understanding, then our racial harmony is a sham, and a shallow one too.
It feels like this week we, as a country, have failed to live by what we recite in our pledge, what we claim to celebrate as a multi-ethnic nation.
Think of it this way: If it’s uncomfortable for someone in the majority to acknowledge that our country
is racist AF has a long way to go, imagine how it feels for the those who have lived it their whole lives. It isn’t just national pride or illusions of harmony at stake. It’s the dull thud that comes with realisation that in your home country, your identity has been deemed worth less than the entertainment of others, that your real experiences have been voted unfavourable, unworthy of further discussion and understanding. We’ll be ok just don’t talk about it shhhhhh.
I don’t write this in anger, or in hatred. I write this as a member of the minority whose heart hurts this week because the spotlight has at last been shone on the deep-rooted racism many of us tried to pretend wasn’t there, and now there’ s no denying it.
The part that hurts the most is this: Even after all this time and all my own experiences, part of me still desperately wanted to believe in Singapore’s racial harmony, too.
It’s one of those things where the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. Learning a couple of new words in Chinese makes me painfully aware of how far I am from basic competency in the language. And even with some conversational skills, I can’t read a word. Not one. Well, except for 1, 2, 3, but that doesn’t count. I’m constantly impressed by the many expats here who speak, read and write Mandarin.
After a few clearer days, the pollution is back in the Very Unhealthy range. Somehow it always seeps into the flat. Dust settles so quickly in this city; sweeping is an everyday affair. Thinking about children and the elderly is especially sad. How much I whined about the haze in Singapore is now a bit embarrassing to think about; the worst of it would be a relatively clear day here. #perspective
One thing that the pollution has taught me is why spitting, nose-picking and other such unfavourable habits are so common here. I mean, your nose is always full of stuff. The dust that lines the floor is likely making itself comfortable in your throat. Obviously these things are still frowned upon in Singapore and many other cities, but I sort of understand it now. People have to breathe and all that. So when someone hacks up a nice load of phlegm, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Just go
away from with it.
So far I’ve managed to successfully order vegetarian meals most times, and tried to haggle with a tout for football tickets at the famed Worker’s Stadium. It ended abruptly when I said Wǔshí kwai (50 yuan, SGD5) and was met with Wǔbǎi kwai (500 yuan, SGD50) and much scorn. At least I made everyone laugh. Just go with it.
And, sex shops. Sex shops everywhere.
Meanwhile on the streets, in the music, and in the people, bits of rebellion are just around the corner, springing up like stubborn weeds in the Big Smoke that is Beijing.
[This is the 4th post in a series of blog posts about my adventures in the DPRK from 11 August – 17 August 2013. You can find previous posts here.]
Rolling green hills and peaceful lakes aren’t quite what comes to mind for most people when you think of the DPRK. With all that’s in the news, we often forget about what else the country has to offer. Much of my time in the DPRK was spent travelling between cities and towns, and we saw plenty of beautiful scenes and nature’s touch everywhere.
Getting in quite late, our first clear view of the city was from our hotel. Our hotel, the Yanggakdo Hotel, is on an island and is an impressive 47 floors high. Here’s the foggy view from the top floor. It only got better from here.
If you prefer moving pictures:
This was a stopping point on our way from Pyongyang to Wonsan. Gorgeous mountains and lakes!
If you prefer moving pictures:
One of my favourite parts of the trip: A walk along this long pier which proved to be a spectacular view in itself. Locals come here to set up DIY barbecue sets and chill out with their friends. #nofilter
I sat by the beach and wrote instead, but the water must’ve been a good escape for my friends who were unused to the weather. Singapore had me well-trained for the North Korean sun.
Ulim waterfalls. Also a good spot for a swim and a picnic lunch.
Again, really nice view from up here. I attempted to get up to the lighthouse but was spotted by guards.
The road on the way to the DMZ.
Way up high in the middle of Pyongyang city:
A look at the streets on the way out of Pyongyang:
And a reminder: 1 Korea. Reunification1
Previous: The People of Pyongyang
For your own DPRK adventure, get in touch with Young Pioneer Tours and check out their schedule for next year.
[This is the 3rd post in a series of blog posts about my adventures in the DPRK from 11 August – 17 August 2013. You can find previous posts here.]
One thing I was entirely unsure of when entering the DPRK was what the people would be like. We hear so much about the government and rulers, but what of the people, the everyday children, women and men on the street?
One thing that’s for certain, there’s a very dominant military presence in DPRK; about 20% of the population is part of the military.
Some of them were really nice, lots of them even forthcoming and friendly. Like this lovely lady, who gave us a tour of the War Museum.
We got to interact with members of the military quite a bit. Some of them were fierce, like the ones looking out for tourists when we weren’t supposed to be taking photos, but in general they’re like everyone else is. Give them respect and they’ll ease up a bit, even take some photos with you.
We were brought to a maternity hospital, where we met the local doctors. I was quite excited to meet their head gynecologist, female and very confident. She was born in the hospital, too!
And just like most boys, if there’s a game, they will play. Our bus driver is a bit of a Ping Pong legend.
We got to the library, where we had a seach intranet – the closest connection we had all week. Lots of people looking for their books.
Fun fact: They have Animal Farm by George Orwell in the library.
Up in the tower! This girl and I had an awesome connection, and we chatted lots. Most of them are really lovely people 🙂
On Liberation Day, we were taken to a park where locals have picnics and lots of dancing.
Some dancing was very gracefully done by a big group of old ladies, and was lovely to watch.
And some of it was more spontaneous. I wandered off a bit and found this crazy group of people doing some Harlem-shake style dancing. The guy in the cap is an absolute legend.
My favourite was this old man. I was pulled up by one of the ladies and danced with him! :’)
More of our people:
We spent a night in Wonsan, and the few of us who survived the night after a bottle of vodka partied up with some locals, who were up to some SERIOUS karaoke action.
More fun times living like the locals.
Picnics on the Pier in Wonsan.
[This is the 2nd installment of a series of blog posts about my adventures in the DPRK from August 11 – August 17 2013. You can read the first here.]
One of the questions I’ve been asked most when someone hears I’ve gone to the DPRK is, “Did you have to bow to statues?”
I bowed. A lot. Initially reluctant about bowing to statues (a Catholic upbringing didn’t help) it was immediately clear at the Grand Monument, the first of the bows, that it wasn’t really about me, or the great and supreme Leaders. It was about the locals around us, and if it was customary for them to bow and present flowers, then I, as a foreigner, would do the same. It was about respect. And that’s something I would definitely do without hesitation.
It was a surreal experience to see hoards of locals – school children, the military (who make up about 20% of the population) and everyone else – filing in to pay their respects to the massive bronze statues that stood before us.
We were told about the statues, and got in on some stories and legends about one of Pyongyang’s biggest attractions.
“How much do the statues weigh?” you might ask.
“As much as the hearts of the people of Korea,” might be your eyebrow-raising answer.
So, we stood in line and, some of us bearing flowers, approached the dominating figures before us. Get back in line, and then we bow. It was probably at this point that the questions really started pouring in for me.
Why are all these people here? Do they really want to be here, or were they sent here? Do they do this all the time – every day, every week? What do they really believe?
I went to the DPRK with loads of questions. And I left with twice as many.
These are questions that I still don’t have the answers to, and I don’t know if I ever will.
On the way to the DMZ, the Demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, is the extremely pretty Reunification Monument. Constructed in 2001 to commemorate the Reunification proposals put forth by Kim Il Sung, these arches tower over the Reunification Highway which leads you all the way to the DMZ.
It’s slightly ironic that something so seemingly peaceful leads you to what is known as the tensest place on earth.
In the time leading up to the trip, I had been most excited about going to the DMZ. I’d heard all about it – the numerous checkpoints along the way, the flags of the North and South that seem to constantly challenge each other in the wind.
Before we got there, we got a bit of a lesson on where the boundaries are by this gentleman.
And then I hung out with these guys.
And here it is, the DMZ. If you look in between the blue houses (which reminded me of Monopoly) you’ll see concrete, a line, then gravel. That little bit in between is the official demarcation between North and South.
On one side, we had DPRK military holding the fort on our side. I imagine on the South side, they’d have exactly the same. Rows of cameras pointing at each other from both ends.
Funnily enough, for such an allegedly tense place, we got a few smiles from the guards, and I even got a photo with this friendly dude. Sure there was tension. But there were lots of smiles too.
One thing you’ll see in the DPRK: lots of artwork featuring weapons, weapons being used violently against their enemies, weapons placed quite randomly onto another picture, and more weapons.
In this War Museum, a real treat for anyone who’s into war history, we see lots of tanks, helicopters, and damaged artillery. What’s even eerier: real and very gruesome photos to complement the remains. No photos from inside, though we had an insanely cool panoramic revolving platform audio visual experience. These guys sure know how to do a museum.
What’s most interesting is hearing the North Korean side of the story, which is remarkably different from the American or South Korean side of the story. There are 2 sides to choose from: North Korea as being cornered into putting up a fearsome defence, or North Korea as the full on aggressors.
Within our group, we talked a lot about where the truth lies between two sides that stand by their story; most of us agreed, the truth is always somewhere in between.
USS Pueblo (AGER-2) is a US navy intelligence ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968. Another story where the truth isn’t really known. Was the ship on international waters, or had it crossed into Korean territory?
Either way, the ship remains along the Taedong River, currently used as a museum. You can have your soldiers back, DPRK said, but we’re keeping the ship. Still a commissioned vessel of the US, Pueblo is the only US Navy ship currently in captivity.
Now, this. This was probably the most surreal experience of all. And unfortunately, not a single photo to show for it – no photography allowed in this building. And when you’re in this building, you don’t mess about.
I’ll do my best to describe it. Everyone had to dress up a bit more today, so we all looked like we’d transformed from tourists to expats who were headed to the office. It’s a massive building, and on the way to the tombs, you’re put on this really long travellator that moves at snail’s pace towards Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body. Along the sides of the walls are photographs and paintings of the Eternal President in various moments of success and happiness. Because of how slow you’re moving, you’ve got time to look at and appreciate all these photos. To set the mood, rousing Korean music is played, all in a great lead-up to what you will soon experience.
Enter a impressive but sparse room – the way many things are in the DPRK – and you’ve got to line up in rows of three. Line by line, you step forward to the foot of the tomb, where you will bow. In silence, you walk over to the Great Leader’s right side, and bow again. Silently walking past the head of the tomb, you come around to the left. And that’s where you bow again.
Somberly filing out of the room, you’re led to a grand hall full of gifts and accomplishments of Kim Il Sung. Gifts from other countries and people, including Che Guevera and US ex-president Jimmy Carter. Some of his belongings and personal accomplishments are also on display, such as a certificate from Kensington University in California.
But there is another leader to see, and you’re soon ushered out to go through the same steps, this time for Kim Jong Il.
As I said. I bowed. A lot.
Tower of the Juche Idea
The Juche idea could be loosely described as a variation of Marxism-Leninism (but better, of course).
It promotes a culture of self-sufficiency non-reliance on external forces.
Resemblant of the Eye of Sauron, the Tower of the Juche Idea stands proudly in the middle of Pyongyang. Completed in 1982, the Tower stands at 170 metres. According to Wikipedia, it is made of 25,550 blocks (365 × 70, one for each day of Kim Il Sung’s life, excluding supplementary days).
All over, there are friendship plaques, and I was
not surprised surprised to find quite a few from Singapore. I asked the Korean guides about it, and they said there were Juche supporters in Singapore. I’m now on a quest to find them.
Right by the Tower is another statue – the peasant, the worker, the intellectual. Their tools form the Worker’s Party of Korea sign.
And those are some of the insanely epic sights and must-see attractions of the DPRK. I’m almost glad I wasn’t able to get as many photos as I wanted to – it wouldn’t even come close to the experience of being there, beholding the grand monuments, the mausoleum, the dignity bestowed, the great big halls. The hoards of people lining up to pay their respects and present flowers.
To be honest, I’m still trying to piece it all together in my head.
Previous: [Getting In]
For your own DPRK adventure, get in touch with Young Pioneer Tours and check out their schedule for next year.
[This is the 1st part in a series of blog posts about my adventures in DPRK from August 11 – August 17 2013]
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has a reputation few countries can compete with.
Perhaps it is because we understand so little that we speak so much; DPRK has one of the lowest tourism rates in the world, but possibly the highest number of armchair critics and experts. Numerous times this week I’ve been assured that my now first-hand observations and opinions are flawed because they contradict Documentary XYZ your friend’s brother’s girlfriend watched in 1982.
The low but increasing tourism rates, made possible by travel companies like Young Pioneers Tours (whom I would highly recommend for an amazing adventure, but more about that later) is the first indication of changing times in the DPRK. It is no longer a far-fetched and almost impossible feat to enter the less-visited side of Korea. In fact, you’re almost assured of a visa (Unless of course you’re South Korean or a journalist).
Americans needn’t worry either – there were plenty of US citizens around, and your visa (slipped into your passport) is taken at the airport when you leave the country so your passport remains unmarked. (Unless you’re me, who insisted on a big sticker in my passport at the SG embassy. )
The adventure began right here in Singapore; we’re one of only a few countries that has a DPRK embassy. Coincidentally, the embassy is a few minutes from where I live, and my first (known) experience with a North Korean local to pick up my visa was surprisingly friendly and warm – an indication of what was to come over the next week.
It was with great excitement and slight apprehension that I made my way to KL, where I met a group of people I’d quickly become connected to in this adventure we were about to take on. Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, France, USA, Indonesia – 20 somewhat mismatched strangers about to take on a most feared and mysterious land.
Part of the draw for this trip, for me, was the direct flight from KL to Pyongyang. Somewhere so far away suddenly seems so accessible when it’s just across the border (KL is a 1-hour flight from Singapore).
Now, I’d heard a bit about Air Koryo, but I wasn’t expecting 7 hours of Korean cartoons and fish burgers disguised as vegetarian meals. My Advice: Bring energy bars and snacks, and bring your own in-flight entertainment. Some in my group say no electronic devices were allowed, but I didn’t have any issues with an MP3 player, subject to the usual flight rules.
The highlight of the flight was definitely getting a copy of the Pyongyang Times, a local English newspaper. Reading about the “crafty tricks of Japan” kept me severely amused for some time.
The plane lands and you’re in – you’re officially in what many have called a Hermit Kingdom, and this is where your surreal experience really takes off.
Our Korean guides, part of the KITC (Korea International Travel Company) group, gave us a genuinely warm welcome, hospitality that would last through the next 7 days. In just the first few hours, what Mr. Huxley said was already proving to be true.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley