Tuesday, September 27, 2022

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons


Oh dear. I remember getting approved for an ARC of this when it first came out but then I gave it a pass because all of my friends said it was seriously problematic. When I saw that the hard copy was on sale for $2.99 on Kindle, though, temptation took hold. I'm fascinated by books about North Korea and the thought of reading a book about a Westerner who was able to go on a tour in NK was really interesting to me. And while there were things that I really liked about this book, there were also a lot of things that were, indeed, problematic.

So Ms. Simmons was able to go on a tour to North Korea (which she refers to as "NoKo," like it's a trendy neighborhood in SF or something), and it definitely seems like she went on this trip with an agenda in mind (i.e. write a book). I would not be surprised if she were a fan of J. Maarten Troost, because she seems to be trying to emulate his overly sarcastic and incredulous style, but it doesn't really work here because she doesn't have Troost's charm or willingness to play along. She says she loves travel because it makes her feel like an ambassador for U.S. culture, and all I have to say is, "please don't be my ambassador." Especially since she also claims to have a high emotional IQ. I was not there for her trip, but it was apparent, even to me, how uncomfortable she was making some of these North Korean employees, putting them in positions where it was impossible to save face, or asking them questions that could compromise their employment. I really, really hope that some of these scenarios were exaggerated for comedy.

I don't know how much of this is exaggeration, but reading this book, I kind of feel sorry for her guides, because it seems like she went out of her way to give them a really hard time. Sneaking photos of things she wasn't supposed to, poking her nose around, staring at native Korean citizens, making fun of cultural centers (at one point, they take her to a sort of museum where gifts of state are stored, and she starts telling the guides why the gifts aren't as cool as they think they are), etc. Her running gag with this book is that everything in North Korea is a sort of Potemkin village, and she recounts multiple situations where she tried to pull a "gotcha" on the guides, and get them to admit that the pageantry isn't real, and then acting frustrated or annoyed when the guides deflect or refuse. My jaw actually dropped when she said she hit one of the drivers for killing a bug for her (after he already saw her freak out about a bug earlier). She claimed it was a joke and was apparently incredulous to find out that this hurt the driver's feelings, since in her mind, they were BFFs.

The pictures were great but I wish she had given them real captions instead of Alice in Wonderland quotes (seeming to underscore her idea that this was all some sort of fantasy world or game?). I don't think that Wendy E. Simmons is a bad writer and she took a trip of a lifetime that is incredibly very difficult to get, but I wish that she had written it from less of an ethnocentric perspective. Most of the memoir is just "ha ha, how RIDICULOUS" and it would have been cool to have more descriptions about the tour itself and what she saw and less about making fun of them. Look, I'm not exactly sympathetic to the North Korean regime, but at the end of the day, the people taking her on the tour are just trying to work their 9-5 and take care of their families, like anyone else. Why make their job difficult?

2.5 out of 5 stars

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