I found most of the adult students endearing in spite of their heavy smoking in their ambitious attempts to speak English. Everyone wanted to speak English. One day on the subway, I was so tired of people approaching me and wanting to practice English that I pretended to be of Russian descent which turned out to let some of the Koreans express other assumptions about my stay in Korea. I think some winked at me. And some simply believed that with my blonde hair eyes that I didn’t speak any English but instead French, maybe Russian, and moved on.
Finally the bus stopped. We had approached a wall and above that wall was a wire fence that reminded me of the farm in the Catskills where I grew up. Our 14 acres were surrounded by barb wire to keep the cows, horses, and an erratic bull in. I can still remember when my father put in an electric fence and with my friends, I played a game. We would tease the bull and then as he charged, we would duck under the electric fence. Crazy, we were but it seemed safer than the sneaking of cigarettes in the back of the barn which my brothers were doing or the stealing of road signs by their friends to be placed on our front yard. Crazy and bored we were! There were policemen riding alongside the wall with helmets. The driver yelled at us, “No pictures, yet. We must be careful.” So, I took a picture when he wasn’t looking. I was in the back of the bus and photographed the wall capturing the coldness of the area. One of the older gentlemen smiled at me and nodded as if in approval. I didn’t expect that I would pass this way often so I had every intention of making the most of it.
As we solemnly descended from the bus, there was little conversation and we watched the soldiers from North Korea and the American soldier’s steps from one another watching and measuring each other carefully. Neither spoke to one another as we stood watching, I became aware of an electrifying coldness which ran through my veins like ice water. I felt very psychologically drained and I glanced around at the other visitors wondering if they felt the same. One of the men muttered, “Man, I could use a drink.” I was not a heavy drinker other than a glass of wine but suddenly at the age of 32, I understood what a “good stiff drink” meant at that moment. It was exactly what I wanted. As we filed back onto the bus, we went some kind of a lodge nearby and I ordered whisky. As the other gentleman watched, I threw the shot back and said, “Wow. That was interesting.” He laughed and we all agreed as we returned to our point of embankment that it was the coldest place we had even visited. Some of the service members were swapping stories about relatives, parents, friends who had been in the Korean War and others were remembering cold places they had been stationed in including Alaska. I was sitting by myself listening as we all became closer because of the trip to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. The bus driver didn’t say one word. I think he was just thinking that Americans just don’t understand that they can’t take pictures and they must be careful as he had watched as some of us snapped pictures furtively. Who knew the stories he kept and would never tell with his limited English?
That was the day the DMZ became a place I visited. I don’t understand why I felt the coldness but I do understand that something in my body reacted quite strongly to what it saw, what it felt, and what it perceived. I was glad to get back on that bus again and head to Seoul! Over the years, I have followed the stories of North Korea’s new ruler, Kim Jong-Un who inherited the post from the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. From the story of Dennis Rodman visiting him to sing him Happy Birthday …..fascinated me along with the secret photos of water slides and roller coasters in North Korea. I was really curious as to what that bus driver from years ago thinks about the youngest son of Kim Jong-Il (educated in Switzerland) who took over in 2011 when his father passed away. I wonder many things.
Then I remember the pictures of the boys with the pants hanging down and suddenly wonder about what is reality?