The North Korean girl

In September 2009 I was starting my second year in Beiwai (Beijing Foreign Studies University). It was a couple of days before classes started and I was with other returning students in the administrative building helping the new students buy their textbooks and register for elective subjects. I noticed four new students that were together. Two guys and two girls. They were older than the average and waited patiently for their turn to purchase their books. I tried to guess where they came from. Their faces were East Asian but didn’t look like Japanese or South Korean. Their clothes were Chinese style. Then I saw that the four of them had a small red badge with a guy’s face on their jackets. Then I knew they were North Koreans.

When classes started I found out that one of the North Korean girls was in my group. Her Chinese name was Lianmei (莲美)and she spoke perfect Chinese with no accent at all. I could have totally believed that she was Chinese. She also spoke a very good English. In our class there were several South Koreans and when Lianmei introduced herself I could see the look on their faces: they were astonished and stared at her like if she had just said that she was from Mars.

The four North Koreans in our university were a little bit odd. One of the guys seemed to be the “boss” and controlled them all. They didn’t go out, owned mobile phones or used email. I got the impression that the “boss” was in charge of administering the money for the four of them. They tried to spend as little as possible. I didn’t know for sure, but I imagined that they worked for the government and their country had send them abroad to polish their Mandarin.

At first Lianmei was quite introvert but as the days went by she started opening up in class. Sometimes she would express opinions that were… different to ours, to say the least. Once, one of the teachers said that he liked how in Western countries you could criticize the government on tv and nothing happened. Lianmei expressed her objections and said that she didn’t think it was right to criticize your country’s president because it was like insulting your own father. The teacher asked her: “What happens if the president does something wrong? Would you criticize him?”. And she said: “Our president never does anything wrong”.

Another time the teacher had us giving presentations about movies we could choose ourselves. One American guy talked about “The Wedding Banquet”, directed by Ang Lee. This movie is about a Taiwanese gay man living in New York and marrying a girl who needs a green card so that his parents don’t find out that he is gay. Lianmei’s comment was: “I didn’t know there were movies about gay people, I have never watched or heard of one”.

In one subject we would arrange debates every day. The topics were selected by each student. The topic chosen by a South Korean guy was: What would you do if your girlfriend gets pregnant and you are not married? Lianmei’s answer: “But… I don’t understand, if you are not married, how is it possible that the girl gets pregnant?”. (She was around 28). And talking about couples that preferred adopting instead of having their own kids: “But how can you love a kid that is not yours?”.

Lianmei was a good girl, very kind and polite. It was just that her opinions and the way of life she was used to were too different to ours. But in the class everybody liked her. Even the South Koreans, after getting to know her and seeing that she was a normal person and not the monsters they think North Koreans are, were calling her Onni (elder sister in Korean). But when the semester ended and she went back home we never heard about her again.

Lianmei is the one with the green and grey sweater.

Lianmei is the one with the green and grey sweater.