North Korean Career Hopes

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1455-1466:

You would expect between school friends a more honest conversation about our hopes for the future, and what we wanted to do with our lives, and that did happen, to an extent. But by the time we were ready to graduate, we had learned to trim our expectations in line with our songbun. Our choices fell within a certain range. In my class, the few of us with good songbun either took the university entrance exam or, if they were boys, went straight to military service. A few were able, through family connections, to land good jobs with the police or the Bowibu. More than half the students in my class were in the songbun ‘hostile’ category. A list of their names was sent to a government office in Hyesan, where officials assigned them to mines and farms. One girl from this group took the test to enter university, and passed, but was not permitted to go.

My good songbun meant I could plan. My dreams were private and modest. I wanted to be an accordionist. It’s a popular instrument in North Korea and a woman who could play it well had no difficulty making a living. That would be my official career, but, like my mother, I also wanted to trade, start an illicit business, and make money. I thought this would be exciting. I also knew that it would be the only way to ensure that my own family, when one day I had children of my own, would have enough to eat.

My mother fully supported the accordion career choice, and found a musician from the theatre in Hyesan to give me tuition. She said my father would have been pleased, as he’d always enjoyed accordion music. This made me cry.

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A Child’s First Execution

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1216-1239:

‘Look.’ In a voice full of wonder the teacher said: ‘Even the dragonflies are sad at the Great Leader’s death.’

She was being serious, and we took the comment uncritically.

After the mourning period, as I’d feared might happen, punishment awaited those who had shed too few tears. On the day classes resumed the entire student body gathered in front of the school to hurl criticism and abuse at a girl accused of faking her tears. The girl was terrified, and this time really crying. I felt sorry for her, but my main emotion was relief. As a fake crier myself, I was just glad no one had seen through my performance.

Many adults across the city were similarly accused and the Bowibu made a spate of arrests. It wasn’t long before notices began appearing, giving the time and place for clusters of public executions.

It is mandatory from elementary school to attend public executions. Often classes would be cancelled so students could go. Factories would send their workers, to ensure a large crowd. I always tried to avoid attending, but on one occasion that summer I made an exception, because I knew one of the men being killed. Many people in Hyesan knew him. You might think the execution of an acquaintance is the last thing you’d want to see. In fact, people made excuses not to go if they didn’t know the victim. But if they knew the victim, they felt obliged to go, as they would to a funeral.

He was in his twenties and always seemed to have money. He was popular with the girls, and had followers among the city’s hoodlums. His crime was helping people to escape to China and selling banned goods. But his real offence was to continue his illegal activity during the mourning period following Kim Il-sung’s death.

He was to be shot along with three others at Hyesan Airport, a common site for executions. The three men were brought out of a van before a large crowd waiting in the glaring heat. Immediately, people around me began to whisper. The popular guy had to be lifted up and dragged to the post by a group of police, with the tips of his feet scraping along in the dust. He seemed half dead already.

Each of the three had his head, chest and waist tied to a stake. His hands and feet were tied together behind the stake. A perfunctory people’s trial opened, in which the judge announced that the criminals had confessed their crimes. He asked if they had any last words. He wasn’t expecting a response, since all three had been gagged and had stones pushed into their mouths to stop them cursing the regime with their final breath.

Three uniformed marksmen then lined up opposite each of them, and took aim. The marksmen’s faces were flushed, I noticed. Executioners were known to drink alcohol beforehand. The noise of the reports ricocheted in the dry air – three shots, the first in the head; the second in the chest; the third in the stomach. When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist. His family had been forced to watch from the front row.

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Life in a North Korean Border City, 1990s

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 296-306:

When I was growing up Hyesan was an exciting place to be. Not because it was lively – nowhere in the country was noted for its theatre scene, restaurants or fashionable subcultures. The city’s appeal lay in its proximity to the narrow Yalu River, Korea’s ancient border with China. In a closed country like North Korea, Hyesan seemed like a city at the edge of the world. To the citizens who lived there it was a portal through which all manner of marvellous foreign-made goods – legal, illegal and highly illegal – entered the country. This made it a thriving hub of trade and smuggling, which brought many benefits and advantages to the locals, not least of which were opportunities to form lucrative partnerships with Chinese merchants on the other side of the river, and make hard currency. At times it could seem like a semi-lawless place where the government’s iron rule was not so strong. This was because almost everyone, from the municipal Party chief to the lowliest border guard, wanted a share of the riches. Occasionally, however, there were crackdowns ordered by Pyongyang, and they could be brutal.

People from Hyesan were therefore more business-minded and often better off than people elsewhere in North Korea. The grown-ups would tell me that we were fortunate to live there. It was the best place in the whole country after Pyongyang, they said.

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‘It was exploitation, but it worked’

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2690-2710:

Ethel Mannin, the daughter of a postal sorter in Clapham, was a socialist, a feminist, a pacifist, and a leading supporter of progressive theories of education, family and sexuality. In 1920 she was just setting out in life, aged nineteen and married to John Porteous, an advertising copywriter. The couple had set up home in a small semi-detached house in the London suburb of Strawberry Hill. Ethel had a new baby and was a busy writer, at large in the first years of Modernism: ‘Living My Life’, was how she described it in her energetic capitals. A steady stream of romantic novelettes, churned out at a guinea per thousand words, provided Ethel’s income. The household kept a cook-general at thirty shillings a week, a sum Ethel considered generous (the going rate being twenty-five shillings). ‘Cap and apron, of course; blue cotton dress in the mornings; black cloth in the afternoons – and coffee-coloured caps and aprons were just that much smarter than plain white ones.’ Her socialist principles were apparently untroubled by the maid, who called her ‘Madam’ and who referred to her husband as ‘the Master’. As Mannin saw it, domestic help was a necessary component of her freedom. ‘It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,’ she wrote fifty years later. Educated, perceptive, imaginative, free-thinking, questioning, below the frenetic glitter of ‘the amoral decade, the Sweet and Twenties, the Bitter-Sweet Twenties, the gay Twenties, the Bright Twenties, the Roaring Twenties’, Ethel was more conventional than she had imagined herself at the time: ‘I probably gave [the maid] ten bob at Christmas and the occasional dress I was tired of. Quite intensely I dislike the memory of myself when young; but it’s the way I was. I was of my times; quintessentially.’

Though Ethel Mannin was later to write that ‘the war dealt a great blow to snobbishness’, the old awkwardness, the looming divide between women living under the same roof continued to be considered not just normal but necessary. When Rose Harrison first went to work as a lady’s-maid in the mid-twenties, her charge was Patricia Tufton, who was eighteen, the same age as Rose. ‘My relationship with Miss Patricia isn’t easy for me to describe. We weren’t friends, though if she were asked today she might deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us closer; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music, or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at the time.’

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The Psychology of the Servant Problem

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2733-2769:

The author Ronald Blythe has suggested that in the years after the end of the First World War, a terrible shame and guilt crept over people at the sight of ‘unemployed ex-servicemen and their families, these hordes of shabby young men and women made spiritless, drab and ugly by broken promises, malnutrition and loss of hope’. It produced, Blythe went on, in the middle classes, a ‘contempt for working-class people of a kind quite unknown before the war began’….

Helen Campbell, American author of Household Economics, in 1907 defined one of the central paradoxes of the servant-master relationship, certainly as it was played out in the small home: ‘The condition of domestic servitude allows only the development of a certain degree of ability, not sufficient to perform our complex domestic industries. So there we are. When we find a person able to carry on modern household industries, that person will not be our servant. And when we find a person willing to be our servant, that person is unable to carry on modern household industries.’ Most people preferred not to look closely at the relationship, with its awkwardness and its responsibilities. One woman writer in the early twenties, however, was brave enough to address it full on, and with a refreshing determination to look its contradictions straight in the eye. Under the pseudonym Dion Fortune, Violet Firth went on to became a theosophist, occultist, psychic, a founder of the esoteric society, ‘The Fraternity of the Inner Light’, and the author of now long-forgotten works such as The Goat-Foot God and The Cosmic Doctrine. In the years immediately after the war, however, Firth was also a student of psychoanalysis, practising (under her own name) as a lay psychotherapist in London.

In 1925, she published a remarkable short polemic entitled The Psychology of the Servant Problem, which would be a work of radicalism in any age. Drawing on her years of war work as a gardener for a big country house, Firth examined what lay behind the intractable and inexplicable problem of what domestic service meant to those who had to perform it. She recognised, crucially, that what made service so difficult to define, and therefore to legislate for, was the hazy nature of the relationships in the home. ‘Because I was also a servant and had to come in at the back door, I got to know the minds and feelings of those girls I met during those three years,’ wrote Firth, pointing out that the disinclination of girls to become maids was not a matter only of wages but of something deeper: ‘being a servant is very painful to one’s self-respect and no amount of money will compensate that injury to anyone who has independence of spirit’.

Being a servant was an ‘identity’, not just a job. The Psychology of the Servant Problem was a call to the renewal of education for all women, of all classes, for domestic work to be regarded without sentimentality but with the same respect accorded to any other form of work. Firth actually looked forward to a time ‘when the home-help might freely be able to choose a husband from the family she serves’. The ‘servant problem’, as Firth saw it, was not one simply of demand outstripping supply, or of a failure in the ‘quality’ of the servants available, but of deeply held attitudes, of unexamined habits masquerading as unbreachable social certainties.

Violet Firth was far ahead of her time, grasping the knotty contradictions of domestic labour that were to characterise the theme during the rest of the century. How are women to enjoy the fruits of education and liberation if they are not relieved of the burden of domestic work in the person of another woman? When Frances Marshall, intellectual and Bloomsbury set member, set up home with Ralph Partridge in their first flat in Bloomsbury in the late 1920s, she employed a maid, a ‘frightened, middle-aged spinster’, who came to ‘do for us’: poor shadowy Mabel, one of the lonely civilian casualties of war. Frances took care not to tell her that she and Ralph were unmarried lest her respectable sensibilities be shocked. ‘Who bought the bacon, the butter, the fish? I suspect it was our faithful Mabel. I’ve no recollection of doing it myself.’

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Wordcatcher Tales: lych gate, barley-sugar chimney, bloater

Here are some more English words new to me that I found in Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013).

Kindle Loc. 2975:

Designed by a happy lucky-dip [grab bag] of architectural elements taken from all periods – a bit of Queen Anne, some Tudor beams, a stained-glass window over the door, a lych-gate [originally the covered gate into a churchyard (litchfield, from Old English lic ‘corpse’)], a novelty turret or a barley-sugar [corkscrew-shaped (or Solomonic)] chimney – still represented the oldest English ideal of all: the image of the cottage, nestling secure within its own small piece of land.

Kindle Loc. 3019:

Other alternative residential setups included hostels, such as the one where young Bronwen Morris worked as a kitchen-maid, helping to produce three daily meals for ‘young businesswomen’, just off Sloane Square, London. Bronwen was kept busy cleaning the kitchen and peeling vegetables and was later upgraded to the post of cook, producing three large hot meals a day for seventy-two young women who came back for lunch: ‘bacon, bloaters [whole smoked herring] or kippers [split smoked herring] and boiled eggs for breakfast, rabbit stew or rabbit pie for lunch and dinner, or pork, beef with vegetables – also always steam or rice puddings and suet puds‘. By the 1920s there was a proliferation of these residences for girls working as stenographers, typists or clerks or generally what E. M. Forster’s anxious Mrs Honeychurch called ‘messing with typewriters and latchkeys’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kedgeree, Koshary

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3187:

For Helen Mildmay White, whose family lived at Flete House, breakfast was, without fail, ‘bacon and eggs and when there were visitors, four different kinds of eggs and bacon, sausages, kidneys and always a kedgeree, cold ham and cold tongue and scones with butter and Devonshire cream.’

I read this passage a few days after having had my first—very pleasant—taste of an Egyptian dish spelled “koshary” at a restaurant named for that very dish in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. It turns out that British (Anglo-Indian) kedgeree and Egyptian kushari are from the same Sanskrit source, transliterated kichdi in English Wikipedia. Its basis is rice with legumes, like rice and beans in so many other cultures, but the added ingredients vary greatly around the world. A relatively recent addition to the Egyptian version is macaroni.

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