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
Steamy July is just around the corner. Some New Yorkers have told me about how terrible the weather is in New York City during the summer. They also taught me an expression – “it’s so hot, you could fry an egg!” What a wonderful description. Yes, New York City is truly hot in the summer. It is the middle of June, but I have already tasted the intense heat. New York City is becoming a real “melting pot.” When I think of summers in North Korea, it was very hot too, but it was not as humid as New York City.
In New York City, I am not afraid of the summer heat at all because of the air conditioners. In North Korea I had never seen an air conditioner; I had never even heard of it. In New York City, air conditioners are everywhere. Many stores and offices turn them on all day so I usually feel chilled when I walk into the stores. The classrooms are always cold because of the air conditioner, but the outside is really hot and humid. I have to carry a cardigan every day and put on it during my classes just so that I don’t catch a cold. Sometimes I think having the air conditioner on all day is a waste of energy.
In North Korea, an electric fan is the most precious home appliance during the summer, but most of people did not have one. I remember my grandparents had a small brown electronic fan. My grandfather brought it home from the Soviet Union because in 1970s, he went to Vladivostok to work. The North Korean government has been sending skilled and intelligent men to Russia (before it was Soviet Union) as skilled workers. It is an export of labor. My grandfather was one of them. He worked there as a tailor for over ten years. He also brought some other electronics, such as a television and electric heater, but he sold them all during the famine except for the electronic fan. I do not know why he did not sell it, because I remember he barely used it during the summers. Since most of time we did not have electricity, the electric fan was really just for decoration.
Even though there were no electric fans or air conditioners in North Korea, we could still cool down with paper fans or fanning ourselves with newspapers. They were helpful to stir up some wind, but as time went on, they usually created much more warm wind. As a result, it made us hotter. In August, especially during the nights, it was hellishly hot. Can you imagine sleeping in over 95 F° temperatures without electric fans or air conditioners? Besides, we could not open the windows during the hot nights because there were so many thieves watching for opportunities to rob houses. Our house was just like a sauna. My father would shower three times a night. My younger sister and I would play outside with friends until 11 PM.
I remember after sun set we usually played rubber band skipping games. It was really popular among North Korean children. I liked playing it so much because it was really entertaining and we could play it anytime. All we needed was only a long and strong rubber band. While the performers danced on the rubber band, the rest of us would sing songs for them. There were so many different types of dances and routines with different songs, but most of the songs were related to revolutions. I was not very good at the rubber band game, so my job always was to sing for the players. I resented them because they moved so freely and pliably. They just looked like beautiful butterflies.
Once it became darker, we had to stop playing the rubber band. Since there were no lights out, it was a total blackout; the world was just like a huge black hole that could swallow everything. Nevertheless, there were some activities we could do during the dark and hot nights. The most interesting one was hide-and-seek. Sometimes adults would join us to play. Trees and roofs were perfect places to hide. Since I was not good at climbing, I usually stuck to hiding behind the walls. When the seeker came close to me, I was so frightened that I could not breathe. It was really thrilling.
When there was bright moonlight, we would have a concert. We only had two musical instruments: a guitar and an accordion. But they were great enough for us to hold a pleasant concert. We would start with some cheerful songs, which were not about the greatness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. These songs described the people’s lives. Of course, most of them praised how wonderful the North Korean people’s lives were. Once the mood started to heighten, we would dance together. I was too shy to dance so I preferred to sing, but my younger sister was really outgoing and she was a good dancer. Sometimes we were so excited that we forgot about the heat.
Compared to North Korea, New York City is full of activities that people can do during the summer. Mostly, people would go to the beach to enjoy some water sports. One interesting thing that I have been noticing is that New Yorkers really like sunbathing. A few weeks ago, I went to the Hudson River Park. It was an extremely hot day. I saw many people lying on the grass. What surprised me most was that those people were wearing only underwear or bikinis! Their bodies were totally exposed.
When I was in South Korea, I only wore bikinis when I was in the beaches. Also, I have never seen anyone who is wearing only their underwear in a public space, like the park. I felt really uncomfortable so I could not look at those people. But later, somehow I got used to this weird sight. I was finally able to observe those people, although shyly. Some of them were reading books; some of them were napping. But most of them were talking with friends while they were eating some food. They looked so relaxed and peaceful. I will definitely experience sunbathing before I leave from New York City.
In North Korea, there are no bikinis and sunbathing, but we like going to river. There is a long river in my home town. It is called Hyeryeong cheon and flaws through the entire city. During the summer, we went there to swim. Nobody wore bikinis or hot pants. Since I do not know how to swim, I just dipped my feet into the river. Not only do people go to the river for swimming, but also people go there to wash clothes. Sometimes I saw people cooking with coal stoves at the riverside. Undoubtedly, it was a perfect place for the homeless people to live during the summer.
Eating ice creams is probably one of the best things to do during the summer. There were so many kinds of ice creams in both South Korea and New York City. In North Korea I had never tried those milky ice creams, but we did have different kinds of ice candy (얼음과자). Most of them were made out of water and saccharine. People put food coloring into the water in order to make them look more desirable. They were usually pink and blue. Although it was really sweet, it was really difficult to bite, just as hard as a rock. Another one was Ga-ga-o (까까오), which was made out of water and sugar. It was much softer and tastier than ice candy, but too expensive to buy. I think I had it only three or four times in my life.
In my opinion, there is no certain type of food that New Yorkers eat during the summer. When I was in North Korea, we often had seaweed cold soup (냉국) for dinner. It was really easy and simple to make. All it required were seaweed, vinegar, scallion, sliced cucumbers and cold water. The main point was that the water should be extremely cold. Since we did not have refrigerator at home, my mother would use the cold water from the tap. Once the soup was done, we had to drink it immediately. It was so cool that it could ease the heat instantly. That was the best moment during the summer.
Looking back on the summers in North Korea, it was not really horrible. We were really poor. We did not have enough food and electricity, but the poverty and hunger could not keep us from dancing and singing. We tried very hard to make our lives better as much as we could.
When I pass by Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Store on 39th street, it keeps reminding me how much I wish I could share my favorite ice cream – green tea – with my younger sister. I am sure she still goes out to join the concerts in order to beat the heat on those hot North Korean summer nights. After she finished dancing, a scoop of green tea ice cream would make the night perfect; as if she were in paradise.