Editing and translation by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
Since there are so many cultural differences between New York City and North Korea, it is truly challenging for me to pick only one or two to compare them. Nonetheless, I think holiday customs might be the most significant difference between New York and North Korea.
Christmas and Thanksgiving are the two most popular holidays in the U.S.
As an international city, New York attracts hundreds of thousands people around the world during the holidays. People come here to see the skyscrapers, try the foods from diverse cultures, and visit the wonderful museums. But from my observation, most people come here during the holidays to shop because many stores offer special holiday discounts. Last December, I saw lots of red “SALE” signs posted on the windows and tons of people digging for bargains. Actually I tried to go shopping several times during the holidays, but it was so crowded that I was disoriented and had no idea which sections in the store I should go to first. I also felt very annoyed because some shoppers were very aggressive. The most interesting thing was that most of the shoppers were actually not New Yorkers, but tourists! Despite the fact that they were from different countries and spoke different languages, they had common interests in fashion and shopping. New York is really a global marketplace.
I really enjoyed the parades on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day in New York. Early in the morning on Columbus Day, I walked to the Fifth Avenue with my friend and watched the whole parade. I was so impressed because I have never seen a public parade in my life. I mean, sure, when I was child in North Korea, I watched North Korean military parades many times on the television. I felt they were very boring since I had been watching them for many years and it never changed. The soldiers, both male and female, walked rigidly with a very intense look on their faces. Their voice and weapons sometimes scared me. However, in New York City, when I saw lots of people dressed up in special costumes and freely expressing their joy, I was really happy and relaxed. The atmosphere was completely different from on the parades in North Korea.
In North Korea, I never even heard about Christmas and Thanksgiving since the North Korean government did not allow religion. Of course, we never celebrated any great people’s birthday except the Kim family’s birthdays.
There are two most important holidays in North Korea. One is Kim Il Sung’s birthday, called “The Day of the Sun,” which is on April 15th; another one is Kim Jong Il’s birthday, called “The Day of Shining Star,” which is on February 16th. Sometimes I would forget my parents’ birthday, but I could never forget the two holidays because I had learned about their “amazing stories” and memorized their birthdays since the first day of the kindergarten. Therefore, when I was child, I thought Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il were the greatest people in the whole world. Nobody told me that there were many other extraordinary people in human history, such as Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, and Martin Luther King.
In our two North Korean holidays, the first thing we were required to do was to lay a bouquet of flowers and bow down to the statues or to portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, to show our utmost respect. I remember that I always had difficulties getting flowers because in February no flowers bloomed – not even the buds had come out by then. Instead, we made artificial flowers with colorful papers. My cousins or my grandmother would help me make flowers so that every holiday I was able to bring my flowers to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Some people might think most North Korean people must love the two dear leaders since they have been celebrating the two holidays for over 60 years. However, in my opinion, laying flowers and bowing to the statues or portraits was nothing more than custom for many North Koreans. They don’t think much about why they are doing it. They do it just because they have done it in their whole life. It is kind of a automatic habit.
The best part of the two North Korean holidays was the “gift” from the government. It was a bag of snacks, such as candies, cookies, gum, and dried persimmon. I loved the “gift” so much and I would eagerly wait for it the whole year. We always received it in school two or three days before the holidays. The teacher would stand in front of the portrait of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and call every student’s name on the list alphabetically. When she called my name, I was incredibly happy and I bowed to the portraits said, “The Dearest and Greatest leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, thank you for your gift and kindness!” Then I would excitedly race home with the “gift.” Although I had been waiting for it the whole year, I could not eat it right away and I had to wait until my father came home from work. I always begged my mother and said, “Please just let me have one candy, mom!” But she never allowed me to eat because we couldn’t open it without my father’s permission. That was the custom in North Korea.
When my father came home, he would open the “gift” quickly and divide it into three equal parts. One was for my grandmother; another one was for my teacher; the last one was for our family. He would ask me to go to my teacher’s place and give the small part of the “gift” to her. On my way to her house, I was very tempted by the small “gift”. It tortured me to give it up, but I never once ate it. Technically, the “gift” should be around 1Kg (about 2.2lbs) and every child in North Korea can receive it until age 11, but since 1996 the “gift” became lighter and lighter and finally reduced to 0.5Kg (1.1lbs). My last “gift” in 1998 was the worst one I had ever received because it was barely 0.5Kg and there were only a small bag of cookies and candies. That time my father didn’t divide it and allowed us to eat it all.
My mother told me that when she was young, the “gift” was much bigger and better than the one we received. The government also gave out eggs and meat before the holidays. She said she missed those days so much. However, for my generation, my mother’s experiences were like fairy tales since we had never received any other “gift” except the tiny bags of snacks.
In the holidays in North Korea, we usually had a big breakfast. Compared to the dinners in New York City, it was a simple meal, but it was wonderful to us. The main dish was boiled pork with soybean sauce. My mother usually bought 1Kg of pork for the holidays and we completely devoured it. My parents woke up earlier than usual in the morning in order to boil the pork. The delicious smell from the hot pot would wake me up. I always stayed right by the cooking fire, waiting for the pork to be done. My mother would shoo me away several times, but every time I came right back. Finally she gave up and my parents looked at each other, then they laughed loudly.
On the other hand, I had really amazing dinners in New York City both on Thanksgiving Day and on Christmas Eve. A beautiful Korean-American family invited my two roommates and me and they cooked over ten types of delicious dishes for us. I didn’t know what I should eat first. The stuffed peppers with turkey and fried shrimp were my favorite. After dinner, we had a really fun party. We drank red wine, talked to each other and danced until midnight. In North Korea, I remember my father sometimes would invite his co-worker or friends to come over. Instead of drinking red wine, they drunk North Korean style Soju which contained as high as 50% alcohol! Since there was no electricity at night, my father and his guests talked and laughed by candlelight. If they were feeling lively, they sang and danced with my younger sister and me. In fact, my father was a great singer and he played the guitar, so he taught me many interesting traditional North Korean songs.
On my way home from the wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners in New York City, I thought of my father and my younger sister back in North Korea. I miss the foods we ate and the songs we sang by candlelight like crazy. I felt crushed by indescribably sad feelings. I was not surprised since I have these kind of feelings every holiday. Missing them is my holiday custom.