Saturday, September 3, 2016

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, by Wendy E. Simmons

I have read many books written by North Korean refugees or journalists visiting North Korea under cover or journalists captured and held by North Korea. Each book had something unique to offer, and each was an important book. "My Holiday in North Korea," however, may be the most unique of the unique because Wendy Simmons brings such a love of people and joyousness to this story about her short visit to North Korea. Throughout the book, we are treated to the best and worst of North Korea: the empty, "new," Women's Maternity Hospital filled with antiquated technology; the barely edible food that was luxurious under the standard of living that most North Koreans endure; the wedding where the bride did not welcome a western tourist; the lack of stores and traffic in Pyongyang; the multiple, "spontaneous" encounters with students in classrooms, factory workers and others- all staged and pre-choreographed; and the two minders and driver who were with Ms. Simmons every waking minute.

Three of her visits, however, stand out as the most poignant. While at the Women's Maternity Hospital, Simmons learns that twins and triplets are rare and they are raised in orphanages. We then meet these children at an orphanage. Simmons includes photos that show how beautiful they are. Although they appear healthy, my heart hurt at the idea of children taken from their family simply because they are twins or triplets. The second poignant visit involved a trip to a high school. While there, Simmons was impressed at how smart and accessible the students were, especially one young man who smiled at her and allowed her to take his picture. Looking at the photo and seeing the engaging smiles of the students, most caught off guard, it's hard to believe that they won't, somehow, change the direction of their country for the better. The third poignant visit involves the DMZ and the delight of the North Korean soldiers when they have their photos taken with Simmons's instant camera. Later that day, an older general takes Simmons to see (via binoculars) the wall built along the DMZ by South Korea. A gentle soul, he asks about her life, sings to her, and calls her a "brave girl" for visiting a dangerous place.

I have to admit that I was taken aback at first by Simmons's light hearted, and at times snarky, approach to her minders and North Korea. It is a dictatorship and the population lives in an isolated bubble. There is still famine in parts of the country, there are still brutal labor camps and gulags, and life spans are shorter than the west. Simmons reminds us, however, that the population of that brutal country is composed of humans. They laugh, they dream, they live their lives. While they may believe that America is the great enemy, most did not view Simmons as their enemy. She writes of crowds of school children at one stop who swarmed around her, so happy to see her, yelling "hello" and "good bye." Simmons's writing made me think and laugh and cry. The people she describes are the people we should think about when we think of North Korea, and these are the people who need us to work hard to make sure they have a future. I give this book four well-deserved stars.

(I received this copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Print Length: 312 pages
Publisher: RosettaBooks (May 3, 2016)
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

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