Monthly Archives: January 2013


Gao Wen was up early. He collected the bristlebroom from downstairs and swept his room clean. He repeated for the upstairs walkway and then went down to the bathroom.

They had running water in a pump beside the bathroom. Cold water. He got the water heater and a large bowl from beside the coal stove in the kitchen and cranked the pump until it filled the bowl full. Then he ran a cord from the kitchen and connected this to another cord that he ran into the bathroom. He plugged in the heater, lowering it to the water’s surface. It hung there. He’d heard from his classmates that a boy across town had electrocuted himself using one of these, not to mention that fire in Shanghai. Gao Wen’s cheeks puffed. He dipped the heater in. They swelled.

Then they relaxed. He lowered the rest of the heater in and waited. When the water started bubbling, he pulled out the heater and undressed and flung the dead mosquitos off the soapbar and lathered up. He tipped the bowl over himself. Then he dried off, put his clothes back on and put everything away.

He headed out. Migrant workers were busy on some newlyweds’ home and a man in gray clothes with a lit cigarette in his mouth heaped spoonfuls of concrete mixture into a tray and carted it over to a brick wall while above him his coworkers lathered bricks. Further down, a woman sat holding a baby to whom she sang in Putonghua as her other child pushed a pebble across their broken porch and crawled after it chirping.

He took a right. Merchants lined the backstreet. Some had been here since before sunrise. From their homes down the road, from cots in the back. They propped bland tarps and tarps cut from the rainbow and other tarps cut from the blind man’s rainbow on bamboo poles and some outside smoking and chatting and a woman knitted a quilt a puppy at her feet and a lean man in blue tugged a metal cart along, stopping to load garbage into it.

Gao Wen cut a path through the dawnbreak crowds to his parents’ store. Father was talking to that same uncle. Gao Wen got some money from mother, along with this: one of the uncles planning to buy the house had gone to the abandoned structure already there and broken everything he could find.

Now that uncle was out of the picture. And this uncle was trying to get his parents in. The boy listened. As before, father did not say yes or no, and soon, Gao Wen went to school.

While his teachers read from their books, he thought of the foreigner but kept their meeting to himself. If he didn’t, his classmates would ask him questions. They would expect answers the boy just couldn’t give.

During recess, Gao Wen and his classmates played a few games of he hua he hua ji yue kai. Five of them circled around one kid. He counted off the months and finished on one, any month he liked, and then they all chased the kid who would be next to kneel in the center, next to count.

After recess, he went to English class. In his grammar book there was a picture of a small boy fishing on a lake. And as the teacher lectured in Chinese about English grammar and all the students copied down everything he said, the boy’s eyes kept drifting over to that picture, to the boy trapped in it. And a question kept popping up: could he turn into a fish? If so, where would he go?

Gao Wen thought about this the rest of the day.

Book Review: ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’, by Barbara Demick

What [Mi-ran] didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.

Nothing to Envy  follows the lives of “ordinary” (i.e., suffering, i.e. everyone not Kim Jong-Il) North Koreans. The title comes from a North Korean propaganda song. When it comes to patriotic songs in the hermit kingdom, what’s featured of it in the book seems fairly tame when it comes to xenophobia. Others, not so much:

One of the songs taught in music class was “Shoot the Yankee Bastards”:

Our enemies are the American bastards

Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.

With guns that I make with my own hands

I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG.

The author does a fine job in setting up the most horrifying aspects of life in a country whose ruler proclaims that his people live in paradise, a paradise in which they must grind treebark until it’s edible just to have a meal that day. The enforced belief in this place is that they are not unlucky — quite the opposite, they are taught that they are the luckiest people in the world:

In the years before her defection, [Mi-ran] had worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town. In South Korea she was working toward a graduate degree in education. It was a serious conversation, at times grim. The food on our table went uneaten as she described watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean.

There were a few moments, here and there, which it seems the author is dramatizing. Hard to say, since she is apparently taking these stories from people who have defected, and was not present most (if anything) that happened.

A minor issue with an otherwise fine book. I would have been interested in a longer exploration of the problems North Korean refugees face when integrating to the South, as well as the attitudes South Koreans have towards them.

Highly recommended. 4/5 stars.