A Letter from North Korea

A graphic letter from North Korea, washed upon the shore, was found recently and translated to English.

A graphic letter from North Korea, washed upon the shore, was found recently and translated to English.

This shockingly revealing message was recently found in an old Soju bottle, washed up on the shores of Incheon, South Korea and later translated by local Korean authorities. We have attained it through our numerous Korean connections and have taken the liberty to publish it in its entirety, unedited and unabridged, here on Eat with your right. The author’s views are solely his own and do not represent the views of this website or its publisher.

Dear outside world,

It is just past 4:30am here and I am struggling to see these scraps of paper under my dim candle light. You see, I had to collect these scraps for weeks, clandestinely crawling the back alleys of the city, in an attempt to gather enough for this letter. Paper was banned long ago by our Supreme Leader and declared a tool of Western imperialism. We all faithfully agreed – paper must be banished! But now I need some, and I am not so much inclined to agree anymore.

It took me almost one year to attain this pen, which was smuggled in with our country’s last briefcase of cash (which I understand to be our only means of trading with the outside world). Luckily, my cousin’s best friend knew the brother of the courier in charge of one of the transfers. It is a Bic pen – the most luxurious of pens one could imagine.

I do not have much time to write this – our daily drills begin in one hour. I am not quite sure what we are preparing for. Everyone is hungry, tired and week. I do feel, however, this burning desire to get my, our, message out to the world, and so here I am, quivering in the dark, praying not to be seen with this contraband material and expounding these strange thoughts we have only heard about through hushed rumours and bits of sentences drifting quietly from strangers passing by.

You see, this is the first time I have tried to write it all down – we are told that only belligerent terrorists and criminals have an inclination to think without first consulting the wisdom of the Supreme Leader. Yet I feel compelled to write this, whichever label shall be thrust upon me. I am not sure why. Perhaps I have gone mad.

I have roamed the sallow streets of Pyongyang since I was a little boy. I was a child of the state, without mother or father. The Supreme Leader was my father, as well as the father of us all. I graduated from the School of the Will of the People with a concentration in Safely Securing Information and then worked as a clerk in the Department of Information and Secrecy (DIS). I cannot tell you my name for fear for my safety.

I have been working at the DIS for eight years now, every day almost identical to the last. I arrive at the large, grey, ghoulish building at 6:30am, after an hour of public exercise drills in the city centre.  I proceed to walk in step with my fellow colleagues up to my desk on the eighth floor (one of the tallest buildings in our country’s history!), where my small stool sits among a sea of blank faces.

Sometimes I sit at that desk, wondering what it would be like to see out of the other side of the concrete slab which divides us from the outside world, but then I quickly look down, ashamed at my dangerous outburst and perplexed at its sinful origins.

We are each given a small typing machine, in which we re-type letters handed to us from our superiors, which are handed down to them in a long chain, all the way up from the Supreme Leader. Each day we get a new letter and we are tasked to type hundreds of them before the sun sets and we make our way to mandatory night training. Yesterday’s letter was titled, “Foreign aggressors trying to destroy our great country” and outlined a plan for nuclear attack upon our evil foes.

I am not sure why we have so many foes, always looking to destroy us. We are a simple and stoic people, similar to many of our neighbours, yet we are not allowed to live in peace. At least that is what I have been typing for eight years. Now, I am not so sure.

You see, this pang of perplexity, driven by the plight of our people, has come over me lately, like the subtle smells of a warm hanjeongsik drifting through the air.

It all started with this Dennis Rodman character and his gang of basketball players who visited our country for the first time. Or maybe it was when word of the Google people came with their imperial plots – of which there were many a letter typed over the following months.

This Rodman character seems very strange indeed and he has been on display as a symbol of all of the people living in other countries, sullied by unrivaled capitalism, lack of morals, and greed. But at the same time, his brazen disregard for normality intrigues me. The Harlem Globetrotters’ smooth skills amaze me. I have been won over by their blatant rejection of conformity.

You see, these thoughts could have me jailed instantly, with the death penalty a very possibly threat. I have never thought this way. Indeed, I was trained the opposite in my studies, especially at the DIS, which consisted mainly of burning and destroying documents when we weren’t copying them. Never did I realize that something could be created by my own hand.

I have released this message in hopes that the outside world will understand us a little bit more. You see, we are people, just like you.

This talk of a nuclear war scares us. I am not sure why or how or what it is all about. All I know is that now I want to play basketball, wear tattoos, and die my hair in leopard print. Is this simply a deranged, illegal and unclean fantasy, or is there life outside of these concrete walls?

In solidarity,

A curious North Korean

Advertisements

New lunar year, same old fears

2013_snake_year_of-2

According to traditional Chinese lore, the Chinese New Year would begin each year with a horrific start. A terrifying creature would swoop in on the first day of the year with the sole mission to eat each village’s crops, livestock, and helpless children. This brazen beast named Nian would consume everything in its path as the villagers hovelling away in fear, waited for the horror to pass. One day a little boy was confronted by the beast, no doubt every mother’s worst nightmare, but something miraculous happened – the creature took flight in fear of the child’s red shirt. From that New Year on, red cut-outs, lanterns, and decorations were hung up on doors and windows to fend off the mighty Nian and protect the villagers from its wrath.

Yesterday, over one billion people around the world celebrated the birth of a new lunar year, as lion dances, fireworks, and family gatherings marked the ushering in of the year of the snake. As the world’s most populous country, with an economy that is projected to overtake the United States by 2016, there is little doubt that China’s global influence will continue to climb. This Chinese New Year, however, marks some interesting new twists, while paranoid pundits continue to view China as a terrifying beast.

While Donald Trump and other equally short-sighted individuals profess hysterical claims that China is “raping America”, others  view it as a cunning snake, an intelligent but deceitful creature lurking in the tall grass, waiting to spring its fangs on whatever is in its path. Both of these viewpoints are of course paranoid delusions, bordering on a mental instability that usually results in long-term care.

As China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, comes to grips with his newfound responsibilities after a bizarre two weak hiatus last fall, the potential new foreign policy of “Marching West” into Central Asia and the Middle East, and continued expansion into Africa, China’s perceived direction demonstrates that it could be snaking its way into territory that it hasn’t explored for centuries, carefully carving out influence where the US and Europe have abandoned. The villagers of Danton, Ohio, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Leipzig, Germany, can rest assured that the Pakistanis and Ethiopians are the ones on the front lines.

So why has China been associated with the imagery of Nian, poised to eat our babies?  It could be pointed out that China’s modernizing military capabilities will potentially equal Russia’s by 2020. It could also be pointed out, with just cause, that China’s regime continues to suppress human rights and political freedoms, desperately hanging onto the grip of power as its population continues to benefit from modern technology and communication. The pollution caused by China’s rapid expansion has also left many of its cities under hazy, smog-filled clouds of chemicals that will have long-term negative health impacts on its population.

The impacts of these issues could indeed be devastating, however, we should also be aware that the world is a messy place, even in the West. Violent gun crimes, heavy-handed bureaucratic muzzling of employees, homophobic and racially-targeted violence, growing household and student debt, stagnating economies, and overblown government budgets are all causes for concern.

Without trying to sound like an alarmist, these are all real issues. It is easy to blame our problems on unknown foreign agents, but this Chinese New Year, perhaps we should take a look at ourselves before scape-goating our problems any further. The “G2” era is set to emerge, with neither side perfect, ideal, or supreme. It may sound like dreamy idealism, but both sides will have to embrace each others’ positives and work together to solve their challenges.

Happy Chinese New Year!

What the *#%$ is international development?

International Development Week – otherwise known as post-Groundhog Day party time!

We are more than one month into the New Year and nothing says “first full week of February” quite like International Development Week! It’s a good chance to shake off those post Groundhog Day blues, after realizing the fate of millions of people living in the cold North is decided by one seemingly unaware and benign creature. Coincidentally, and unfortunately, many international development projects and misconceptions are created from similarly rash conclusions.

Over the years I’ve often found it difficult to explain to friends, family, and whoever asks, what international development is. I spent years trying to come up with a short, simple answer, which for the most part generally left my interrogator with glossy eyes and a disconnected stare, slowly backing away under an awkward silence while peaking over their shoulder for an opportunity to run. These uncomfortable encounters continued when I got a job in a development-related position after graduate school and the dance which I have become so accustomed to, like Victor Cruz  after a touchdown, kicked back into gear. “So what is it exactly that you do?“ Wait, wait, let me explain before you slowly back away.

Since the development jargon between those who study/work/write/live in “the field” (developing countries) is pretty much harder to understand than a hung-over Scotsman the day after Robbie Burns day, it is easiest to frame the question of what is international development by stating what it isn’t  Therefore, I have come up with a list of five things that international development is not. Hopefully it doesn’t result in glazed-eyes, awkward silences, and slowly backing away from your computer.

International Development isn’t:

1. A bunch of hungry looking African children sitting outside of mud huts with flies swarming around their dreary faces, waiting for the generous charity of Westerners who feel guilty for what they see during commercial breaks of American Idol. I’m sure many of these faith-driven charities think they are promoting a good cause, however they are mainly promoting a false image of helpless people who just need a few bucks because they are too downtrodden to even enjoy life. I think in all the days I spent in Africa, I saw more smiles and laughter than any day walking the streets of Toronto, Halifax, or Calgary. Moreover, this model does nothing for long-term, community-led development initiatives. It has been termed poverty-pornography by critics for it’s shallow use of imagery to portray a skewed reality.

2. Volunteering for a couple of weeks to build a school/house/clinic/well and/or watch over orphan children. This is one of the most general misconceptions about international development – that it is simply a matter of pullin’ up the ol’ socks, gettin’ your hands dirty and diggin’ in to some good old construction work or babysitting. Regardless of the well intentions, these activities can actually contribute more harm than good. As Samantha Nutt describes it, the trips “make a spectacle out of poverty and expose overseas communities, especially children, to exploitation and abuse,” often leading to abandonment issues by vulnerable children as communities are left with more burdens than benefits.  Development has to be driven by the local community and involves a lasting, long-term effort by those most impacted.

3. What Madonna, Oprah, Bono, or any other celebrity thinks is best. Although you can’t discredit some of the good work being done by some, it’s hard to shed the shining white knight imagery. This map reeks of colonialism, when European countries divided up African territory like a loot to be divvied out.

4. A waste of time/money/energy. Good projects with good plans, strong local community support, and innovative ideas can change lives for the better. Despite the many arguments being thrown against aid these days, some with good merit, there are lives that are fundamentally improved because of international development projects. Maggie’s story is a great example.

5. A straight forward process leading from point A to point B without complications. The real world is messy. People respond to situations for a host of different reasons and incentives, whether they’re political, cultural, historical, financial, or for even for seemingly irrational reasons. The more actors and money involved, the more complicated projects can get. This podcast on the complexity of development offers an excellent overview.

So that’s it! If this list has left you with more questions than answers then we’re on the right track. After all  there’s no “magic bullet” solution in development, nor is there a magic answer to what it is. Unlike the bizarre tradition of following the sage weather pattern wisdom of a marmot, and despite all of its misconceptions, development makes a bit more sense.

Why LeBron James is like a Vietnamese labourer

A barn-burner of street court foot-badminton (jianzi) game drew a few spectators - mostly the guys on the bench and myself.

A barn-burner of a street court foot-badminton (jianzi) game drew a few spectators – mostly the guys on the benches and myself.

I was aimlessly roaming through Tao Dan Park in Ho Chi Minh City’s busy District 1 at the end of the rainy season in October last year when I stumbled across something I had never seen before.

After a couple of days of mulling over the necessary strategies on crossing the scooter-filled streets and exploring the savoury street foods of Vietnam, I was getting used to experiencing new things. The trend continued when I stumbled across something that seemed to be familiar but with a crazy new twist – foot badminton (otherwise known as jianzi).

It was a hot, sticky, and humid Saturday afternoon in the park. Like any typical park on a weekend in most places of the world, couples strolled together and mothers watched their kids run around in the sand. What wasn’t typical, in my eyes, were a group of middle-aged Vietnamese men kicking around a shuttlecock on an outdoor badminton court, in a two-on-two, all-out, street-court throw down.  A couple of older spectators watched on a bench. I conspicuously tried to catch the action on my camera, trying not to look too much like a typical Western tourist, as young Vietnamese friends walked by laughing at something I couldn’t understand (or perhaps me).

It seemed so simple and so familiar but at the same time I thought I was witnessing a crazy new sport – like the first sight of slamball. Somehow for me this two-on-two foot badminton game was captivating and bewildering at the same time. To them, it was a normal Saturday afternoon in the park.

Wherever one seems to go in the world, sports or some version of it will creep up when you least expect it. It connects people from different cultures, transcending incomprehensible languages, built-in assumptions, and strange customs.

A rickshaw driver in India rushes to the cricket field after a hard day of running the roads. A coffee farmer in Colombia dashes to the soccer pitch after sweating through a few sacks of coffee berries. A group of young Ugandans kick around a soccer ball made out of stuffed plastic bags tied together with rope.  A businessman in Japan forgets about his company’s poor earnings at the baseball diamond on a Sunday afternoon. Wherever you seem to go, people are playing or watching some kind of sport.

Of course, huge differences exist in the multibillion dollar, celebrity, glitz and glamour, gong-show of professional sports in North America and Europe. LeBron James made $44.5 million in 2011 alone and he was only third in total American athlete earnings. The same year the average worker in Vietnam earned $1,270. That’s over 35,000 average Vietnamese salaries! In other words, you would have to fill up American Airlines Arena in Miami, where the Heat play, two times to get a comparable level of incomes.

You may be saying to yourself at this point, “How on earth are these people alike? This title is stupid.” Touché my friend, touché, however, let me explain.

Their incomes may be universes apart, but the labourers at Tao Dan Park†, competing against each other, laughing, and getting lost in the game, while forgetting about the doldrums of daily life – somehow compare to LeBron driving to hoop through three defenders, twisting his body, throwing up a shot in traffic, and winning the game. They both love being part of it and getting caught up in the moment, the competition, and the camaraderie.

Perhaps it is part of the human condition. Or maybe it has been ingrained in our DNA after thousands of years of dancing around fires to take a break in the fighting, hunting, and gathering for survival. Whatever it is, you’re sure to find a pickup game of basketball or soccer/football or possibly foot badminton, or some crazy sport, wherever you venture to next – from Texas to Timbuktu.  

†  I can only assume they were labourers, given their dress and the economic realities, although perhaps they were a few of the emerging millionaire class in Ho Chi Minh City, which I guess would bring them even closer in similarity to LBJ.

Living the Mountain Culture

A pristine mountain lake in the Kootenay region of the Rocky Mountains.

A pristine mountain lake in the Kootenay region of the Rocky Mountains.

We twist along the two-lane highway. The white-capped peaks of the sky-scraping slopes glisten under winter’s cold, blue sky.  It’s hard to pay attention to the road and gaze at their brilliance but you’re able to steal a glance every now and then. High bridges traverse long, winding rivers – like the mountain’s veins pumping life throughout the land. They appear naked in their glory – massive, majestic beasts, calling to be conquered, and reminding us of their power when they begin to slide. They command respect and amazement in their presence alone. The highway winds along, through stunned silence you drive.

I live in the mountains. I’m not from here originally but one thing I’ve noticed since moving to this amazing place and travelling around the region is a distinct mountain culture. It is tied to the rocky faces, the deep deer-filled forests, and the clean crisp air. It is shown on the smiling faces and in the subtle tone of local voices, who know deep down they are luckier than most to call this place home.

You start to drift to the shoulder of the road.

“Watch where you’re driving.”

“Oh shit, yeah. Sorry.”

It’s too easy to get caught up in the mountain scenery on the road.

It’s a hard thing to pin down – a culture that has changed over the years as the Rockies remain frozen in their realm. Skiers and snowboards mix with hillbillies in pick-up trucks, as new age hippies and thrill seekers live among nature lovers and outdoors-men  The local pubs and cafes offer an interesting scene. Locals come together for a brief break in their lives, a short distraction from mountain living, a time to digest it all and plan the next move.

This is the great frontier, where the sun makes its last journey of the day, where the Pacific ends and begins, and where hopes and dreams are lost and found.

The history of the West is filled with cowboys, guns, rum-running, and gold. For 10,000 years, Indigenous peoples have lived on this land, until European settlers converged among the lush valleys, where the heavens meet the earth, on the cold hunt for riches and glory.

Sometimes you become jealous of the birds soaring above. They must see what the stories tell, as they glide from peak to peak, watching the scenes below.

So what do you have to do to fit in, in this mountain culture, in God’s backyard?

There are some publications that make it easier to discover. I guess that’s what I’m still trying to figure out. It’s not a strenuous task though. Sitting on patios or in the pubs, drinking the delicious variety of locally brewed beer while staring at the mountains, provides a good to time to think about this. Then again, there’s probably no need for further contemplation – if you’re doing this you’re already fitting in.

The Journey Begins

We’re sitting around a small table made of wood planks in a dimly lit home. The African sun slowly makes its passage across the Atlantic, much like we will do in a few days’ time. We’ve been invited by our friend to eat a meal cooked by him and his family before we part. The Swahili spices and warm smells of chapatti, a delicious pancake-like flat bread, drift into the room.

Why are we here? What are they doing? What should I do?

These questions surely came about thousands of years ago, amid long voyages to trade goods and conquer distant lands, but times have changed dramatically. According to a recent book on world travel, we are only 20 generations removed from when the world began to understand the true massive nature of our planet and the myriad of different cultures living within it – a world that now encompasses over seven billion people.

These days it is fairly simple, for those with enough resources or a job that lets them, to enjoy a traditional Swahili meal in the central Kenyan highlands with a gracious friend and host one day and find yourself sipping on a fresh bowl of tasty Vietnamese pho in the serene streets of Hanoi the next.

The road begins here

The road begins here

The ability to travel long-distances in short periods of time has unleashed the adventurous desire to see and feel what our ancestors could only dream of on the other side of the world. The quest to try new foods, meet new people and explore different ways of living is within the reach of many.

With these new experiences, however, come challenges. Challenges in understanding each other. Challenges in understanding ourselves. Challenges in understanding why we are here – or there.

Of course, for anyone who has done a bit of traveling, particularly in developing countries, the access to travel has opened the door to a landslide of ignorance from well-off Westerners looking to catch a peak into the “native’s” way of life or escape into a secluded enclave for the elite.

Tourists can now take part in organized trips through some of the world’s most poverty-stricken areas in what has been dubbed “slum tourism”. Fenced-in luxury resorts attract vacationers to their pristine sandy beaches while locals are locked out and confronted by their daily struggles to survive.

In short, traveling is a messy business. It is one that unites, divides, subjugates, inspires, bonds, and excludes. And if you are traveling, you are interacting with other cultures – whether it’s the bartender at your resort or a local friend you have come to know.

This page is an attempt to capture a glimpse into the complexity of cultural interactions in our travels. Eat with your right stands for the cultural tradition of only eating with your right hand in many parts of the world.

Hopefully we all learn something. There are too many travelers out there who don’t.