Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nothing to Envy and Why I'm a Total Jerk



This is one of those photographs that catches you off guard. 

 There I am, posing across the table in a sunny patio cafe with my cute little cocktail, decorated iphone, and  big sunglasses like a picture from a bad dating profile.
Now I'll be the first to admit that I look like another shallow diva, but there's just one thing amiss with this image. 
The little tote bag resting on my lap unintentionally reveals a book inside, with the words "to Envy" printed on the cover. No, this isn't a fashion magazine, it's Babara Demick's biographical account of several North Koreans. Here's the cover:



I became absolutely enamored with this book while in Hawaii. When I travel I always bring something to read. No, not just to combat boredom on the plane, I truly love reading in unfamiliar places. Once I spent an entire week in Hong Kong reading The Windup Bird Chronicle. Usually I prefer fiction, but just before I left for Hawaii I had seriously OD'ed on North Korea. To give you an idea, these were my indulgences before I left:

Books I read:
The Tears of My Soul by Kim Hyun-Hee
Long Road Home by Kim Suk-Young
Aquariums of Phyongyang
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
The Reluctant  Communist by  Charles Robert Jenkins


Documentaries I watched:
Crossing the Line
Seoul Train
Vice Guide to North Korea
Kimjongilia
State of Mind
National Geographic: Inside North Korea


I was knee deep in everything North Korea. 
I suppose that, as an East Asian Studies major, I realized what an alarming gap I had  towards the end of my academic career. Our classes focused primarily on countries of "economic and cultural importance" to the U.S., ahem, I'm talking about China, Japan, and South Korea. I'm sure it would be quite challenging to cover everything "Asian," given the ethic, linguistic, cultural, economic, geographical diversity in what we call "Asia," but come on people, the fact that everything I know about North Korea I had to learn from the above mentioned books and documentaries is just sad. North Korea is every bit as important as South Korea, and but I suppose that it's not taught in many colleges because we just simply don't know enough about North Korea. Pretty much everything we know is what we are told by those North Koreans who escaped. And what we do know is horribly depressing, at best.

So, as I was reading about censorship, brainwashing, starvation, and forced labor from a lawn chair on the beach in Wailea, or sometimes from the balcony of my condo, or often at Coffee Bean where I usually had an afternoon read, I realized that the juxtaposition of the lives of the people in the book to my own life was just too absurd:

People eating bark off of a tree; me fretting over my weight after binging on spam musubis.

People being forced to do manual labor for 16 hours a day; me sleeping into until 2:00 pm then wondering what to do for the rest of the day.

How can we both be living on the same planet? It's all too unreal to comprehend. Because of the stark contrast in what I was reading and what I was doing, I had a major existentialistic crisis in Hawaii.  
What do I do with my life now, knowing that so many people are suffering? 
Am I just going to go on drinking cocktails, getting fat, and goofing off on my iPhone until the end of time?

Well, obviously not. But then what?

Maybe I'll mull over this question tonight at the bar, or the gym. What the hell else am I going to do? Life here goes on the same here, even if I am changed. But sooner or later,  after those cocktails, I've got to do my part to improve the quality of life in this world. Gotta give a little after taking a lot. 

This has actually prompted me to look at several volunteer/internship opportunities abroad.  I don't know where this will lead, but somehow, in some way, I want to improve the quality of life for my fellow human beings. Got any ideas? Send 'em my way!

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