When we entered the subway at Spring Street, the students joked that it looked like they were back in North Korea.
Yeong Cheol and Bong Choon* had a brief layover in New York on their way back to South Korea, where they’ve lived since 2007. The two students had just finished a two-week visit to the United States hosted by Duke. The students had spoken (a lot, they said) to people there about their childhood in North Korea, their experiences leaving it, and their lives since coming to South Korea. Their visit to the United States had been arranged by fellow MOU-intern Kelly Heo, and she invited me and a few others to help show them the big-city sights before they had to go back to Seoul.
It’s true that New York’s subway is no match for Seoul’s. Rats scurry in the tunnels, and you can jump down from the platform to the rails below, which are littered with trash and abandoned construction materials. Seoul’s stations are clean, well-lit, and they have WiFi on all the trains. WiFi on the trains!
So we ate dinner with them and then saw the sights. I was very happy to see how well they were doing. I had met Yeong Cheol two years before when I briefly taught English at his high school (you can read about some of my experiences there in this article). Yeong Cheol, 21, has just graduated from the high school and is about to start his first year at university in March (the Korean school year begins in the spring, not fall). Bong Choon, 19, is still in high school. Both students are older than most South Koreans of their school year, a consequence of very different educational systems in North Korea and time lost with no chance for school in transit to South Korea.
Yeong Cheol had lived in North Hamgyong province, near the border with China; Bong Choon was from a small city just south of Pyongyang. Bong Choon had watched a lot of foreign TV when he lived there; he said many people in his area had been able to watch TV shows and films from South Korea, China, and even the United States.
Yeong Cheol told me that my former mentee James, who I wrote about in a former post, is doing well. Although James graduated before Yeong Cheol, they keep up with each other through KakaoTalk, a popular mobile messaging application. James is at university in Seoul, studying political science–my old major. He’s specializing in international relations.
We gave them what we hoped were good tastes of New York: pizza at Lombardi’s for dinner and then some good old-fashioned sightseeing in Times Square. They took pictures of the tall buildings, the glaring billboards, and the street musicians. They particularly liked seeing the ads for Samsung, LG, and Hyundai—reminders of home, now.
* Their names have been changed in this article.