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My surreal-life encounter with “The North”


All this talk of North Korea, and especially Diane Sawyer’s surreal reports from that country, have reminded me of my own brush with the North.

While visiting my friend Corinne in Cambodia, one night we had dinner at the North Korean embassy in Phnom Penh. It was a fantastic experience (using the “extremely strange or weird in appearance” definition).

Let me offer up front that I am a child of the Cold War era. I can remember World News Tonight broadcasts (you know, the ones with the red location banner framing one corner of the screen – Afghanistan was always up in the corner, it seems). Growing up, Cuba and Cubans were a huge mystery to me. Who were they? Why was their country trapped in time? I dunno, I always figured Cuba was a place where everything was in black and white, without any color whatsoever.

Wasn’t I surprised, then, when I went to Little Havana in Miami for the first time? Let’s just say there is plenty of color in Cuba!

But dining with the North Koreans was different. The food was typical Korean fare, although no effort was made at presentation. The facilities, too, were pretty typical for what one would find in Phnom Penh – maybe even a little cleaner. And I seem to recall that they had real napkins (in Cambodia, there is only one form of paper products for napkins, Kleenex, paper towels and toilet paper: actual rolls of thin pink toilet paper. At restaurants, there is already a roll sitting on your table. And it was the same stuff you’d use for more, er, personal uses).

The highlight of the event, for me at least, was the beverage. I’ll have to ask Corinne or Jen for the name of the “national North Korean beverage” we had, but it tasted like alcoholic moped fuel in a bottle.

Oh, and the women who served us weren’t allowed to leave the compound. Ever. They were pretty reserved, but polite just the same.

Lastly, there’s the omnipresent karoke station at the front of the room. I was blown away by the North Korean embassy workers/businessmen’s ability to sing. And not just in Korean – the lyrics for some of the songs were in Mandarin and Japanese, and as they flashed up on the screen, the workers plowed right through them.

I wish I had taken notes during dinner (which, of course, would have been confiscated before I left) in order to really capture the scene. All in all, it was a decent and memorable (and inexpensive) dinner.

Author: Sean

I am Sean, a writer/PR guy originally from the Rural South who grew up and settled down in Washington, D.C. My interests include local politics, Eastern philosophy, languages and reality television.

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