His entire future depended on his ability to cry

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-il is dead. There are the usual pictures coming out of North Korea of people mourning his death. I was reminded of a passage in the book Nothing to Envy. The book, written by Barbara Demick, recounts the stories of six defectors from North Korea. One of them, a university student named Jun-sang, learned of Kim Il-sung's death while at school:
In the courtyard, nearly three thousand students and faculty were lined up in formation, ranked by their year, major, and dormitory affiliation. The sun beat down with full force, and they were sweating in their short-sleeved summer uniforms. At noon a disembodied female voice, tremulous and sorrowful, came booming through the loudspeakers. The loudspeakers were old and produced scratchy sounds that Jun-sang could barely understand, but he picked up a few words -- "passed away" and "illness" -- and he grasped the meaning of them from the murmur going through the crowd.  There were gasps and moans. One student collapsed in a heap. Nobody quite knew what to do. So one by one each of the three thousand students sat down on the pavement, heads in hands.

Jun-sang sat down too, unsure of what else to do. Keeping his head down so nobody could read the confusion on his face, he listened to the rhythm of the sobbing around him. He stole glances at his grief-stricken classmates. He found it curious that for once the wasn't the one crying. To his great embarrassment, he often felt tears welling up in his eyes at the end of movies or novels, which provoked no end of teasing from his younger brother, as well as criticism from his father, who always told him he was "soft like a girl." He rubbed his eyes just to make sure. They were dry. He wasn't crying. What was wrong with him? Why wasn't he sad that Kim Il-sung was dead? Didn't he love Kim Il-sung?

As a twenty-one year old university student Jun-sang was naturally skeptical of all authority, including the North Korean government. He prided himself in his questioning intellect. But he didn't think of himself as seditious or in any way an enemy of the state. He believed in communism, or at least believed that whatever its faults, it was a more equitable and humane system than capitalism. He had imagined he would eventually join the Worker's Party and dedicate his life to the betterment of the fatherland. That was what was expected of all those who graduated from the top universities.

Now, surrounded by sobbing students, Jun-sang wondered: If everybody else felt such genuine love for Kim Il-sung  and he did not, how would he possibly fit in? He had been contemplating his own reaction, or lack thereof, with an intellectual detachment, but suddenly he was gripped with fear. He was alone, completely alone in his indifference. He always thought he had close friends at the university, but now he realized he didn't know them at all. And certainly they didn't know him. If they did, he would be in trouble.

This revelation was followed by another, equally momentous: his entire future depended on his ability to cry. Not just his career and his membership in the Worker's Party, his very survival was at stake. It was a matter of life and death. Jun-sang was terrified.

At first he kept his head down so nobody could see his eyes. Then he figured out that if he kept his eyes open long enough, they would burn and tear up. It was like a staring contest. Stare. Cry. Stare. Cry. Eventually it became mechanical. The body took over where the mind left off and suddenly he was really crying. He felt himself falling to his knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing just like everyone else. Nobody would be the wiser.


OMMAG said...

I too ... wept great rivers of tears.........

ambisinistral said...

I know i shed so many tears I had to mop the floor afterwards. :-(