About the Author
View more articles by Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo is author of the "North Korean in New York" series. She left North Korea in the mid 2000s and is now living in New York City, New York.
Editing by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
My first Broadway show was “Spider-Man, Turn off the dark”. Although there are lots of shows on Broadway, getting a ticket has been really difficult for me. Like most people in the world, I had been dreaming of watching Broadway shows; however, in my first day in New York City, I discovered that the Broadway shows tickets were more expensive than my monthly subway pass. It made me really sad because even though I was in New York, I could not afford to watch my favorite musicals: Mamma Mia and The Phantom of the Opera.
I saw some of my classmates going to see Broadway shows; I heard them talking about them. I wondered how they could afford to buy those pricey tickets. “Maybe their parents are rich or maybe because they work and they get paid. I cannot work due to student visa reasons, so that is why I do not have enough money to buy a ticket.” I had a little chat with myself, trying to console myself. But it was not really helpful. So-called relative deprivation came across my mind. That was my first time to be truly jealous of someone.
When I was in the first year of elementary school in North Korea, I did envy other kids. Sometimes because they wore beautiful clothes that my parents could not afford to buy for me but most of time because they had rice for their lunch and I had to eat my corn. It was a little embarrassing since eating corn for lunch meant my family was poorer than theirs. I remember one day I told my mother that I did not want to eat corn in front of those girls who would bring rice for their lunch. My mother was silent for a while, then said, “Comparing is not the right thing to do.”
My lunch never changed, but I was fine with that because most of my friends had corn every meal as I did. Since it was before the North Korean famine, most kids in my class were at least able to eat corn. One year later when the horrible famine began, things changed completely. The kids who could eat rice for their lunch were usually from high status families. Their fathers worked in the Public Security Offices or government branches, so they had preferential treatment, receiving rice and other food from the government. However, during the famine, the government did not distribute food at all. Like most North Koreans, people in high social status had no idea how to get food for themselves. Their kids started bringing corn instead of rice for lunch.
However, things in New York are totally different from North Korea. I have met so many really well-off friends in New York City and sometimes I felt very jealous of them. It was not because my meals are worse than theirs; it is because they have more choices to do what they want. They do not have to wait for things to go on sale or wait in long lines for discounts, they can buy everything on their shopping list, when they want.
For example, my Vietnamese friend is one of the wealthiest friends that I have met in New York City. He wears Louis Vuitton shoes, Burberry coats and pants. His attire shocked me when I saw him for the first time. Last December, he asked me to go shopping with him, so I did. I thought we would go to some shops like Zara or Uniqlo on Fifth Avenue, but he went straight to one of the Burberry shops on Park Avenue. I had never been to a Burberry shop, so I was terrified when I discovered the prices. However, he bought two Burberry coats and one scarf without any hesitation. His purchase totaled almost $3,000, which was worth two months of my mother’s wages. I could not believe that an 18-year-old boy could spend two months of my mother’s wages at once. When he excitedly swiped the little blue credit card, I felt a pain in my heart.
One day, I discovered a good way to get cheaper Broadway tickets. My Saudi Arabian friend, who has lived in this city for one year, told me that we could go to the TKTS in Times Square and get a decent discount for any musical. So we went there several times, but it turned out the prices were still too high for us. Finally, one of my friends got a 30% discount for Spider-Man. I was so excited that I would have danced if my roommates had not been home. I have watched the Spider-Man movies and I really liked them. I could not imagine that Spider-Man would jump and dance in front of me. “That must be really cool” I thought.
As the theater became darker and darker, the Spider-Man finally showed up. In the beginning, my eyes followed every single movement he made and I could not stop saying “wow!” He turned and flew like a real spider, but I did not like his songs. I didn’t like his or the main actress’ voice. I expected a musical that would have strong beats and well-trained singers. Spider-Man did not have very good songs, but it had excellent physical performances. So I was satisfied with my first Broadway show.
After Spider-Man, I tried really hard to get Mamma Mia ticket because I wanted to watch this show desperately; however, I have not gotten it yet. I am waiting for the price to go down. I also had a chance to see an opera in Metropolitan Opera House. One of my American friends works there, so we got free tickets. I always wanted to see an opera because I wanted to explore the culture in New York City as much as I can. However, I hardly liked my first opera, Don Carlos. I did not know it was in Italian. I understood nothing even though there were subtitles on the backs of the seats. I ended up sleeping the whole time. I was surprised by how everyone in the room concentrated on the show and looked so happy. To be honest, I hated the opera. Probably it is because I was not able to understand the lyrics, but I also am sure that operas are not my thing.
I think I would rather watch North Korean operas because at least I can understand them. I only remember the two operas which were really famous in North Korea. One is called The Sea of Blood another one is called The Flower Girl. The stories are all based on the period of Japanese occupation in Korea. I remember them most because they were written by Kim Il Sung; when the holidays came, the two operas were always televised. Another reason why I remember them so clearly is that the stories made me so sad that I cried most of time I watched them. They showed how badly Japanese people treated Korean people. They were exploited and scarcely had food to eat. The songs and the performances were so real that I felt like I lived in the age of Japanese occupation.
Obviously, when I was young I really hated Japanese people. I thought they were the worst people in the world, even worse than Americans. My teacher told me that if Japanese people had not occupied Korea, our country would not have divided by American people. I also thought if the Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung, had not fought with Japanese people and liberalized two Koreas, I could not have lived such a “happy life”. However, sometimes I was so confused because of my grandparents. All their stories were totally opposite of the ones in the operas. When my grandmother talked about her childhood, I was able to see that she missed her life under Japanese occupation. She always told me that she had enough food to eat; she also described all delicious food that she ate at that time. Sometimes it made me so hungry but I really loved to listen to her stories.
Now I have some Japanese classmates, so I finally have had a chance to get to know Japanese people. Most of them do not talk much and they study really hard. They have feelings, just like I do. Some of them struggle with the same issues as I do. Now I have to confess that I like them, but sometimes I am still uncomfortable when we talk about the history. I really appreciate having this opportunity to live in New York City. If I did not come to the U.S., I would still dislike Japanese people.
I wonder how I would feel if I were to watch the two North Korean operas again. I think I might not like them as much as I did when I was young. Now that I’ve gained some distance and objectivity, I am aware that the North Korean operas are not just for people’s entertainment, but created to praise Kim Il Sung’s greatness. I hardly ever watched the operas with a peaceful mind, but I still missed those times that I watched them with my parents and younger sisters. I wish one day I could bring my father and my younger sister to a theater in Seoul. They deserve to watch an entertaining show and not just propaganda.