2018年1月12日 星期五

Mother


Every afternoon was nap time for inmates in the nursing home but mother rarely slept during the day. She was reclining in bed holding a glossy magazine as I walked in the room. "Mama," I called out. She turned round and looked me in the face. Then for a brief moment, her eyes smiled. Mother hadn't recognized me for a few years now, but her soul still knew me. 

Oh how I desperately needed to believe her soul would always know me.......
 
Mother had Alzheimer's Disease. Like many sufferers, she had struggled alone against the gathering fog that slowly clouded her mind long before any of us realized. On one of my visits to the US, I accompanied her to her family doctor. Dr L was held in awe and high esteem by both my parents, even though he had consistently failed them. " Mother's not well, she might be depressed" I said. " Nothing untoward's happened, right? There's no reason why she should be" he shrugged away the absurd idea." You do know that my brother and his family have moved out to be nearer to my niece's school ?And old people can get depressed for so many reasons" I realized then he knew nothing about my parents, moreover, was not interested. We were swiftly ushered out by a nurse because the big doctor's busy. Depression is extremely common in early Alzheimer's.

A couple of years later, on another visit I noted drastic personality changes. My normally gentle affable mother was irritable, combative, and when questioned on misplaced items responded with uncharacteristic angry outburst and childlike pouting. Father complained about her forgetfulness and irrational ire which unfortunately I instantly brushed aside, as he's been complaining about her for exactly the same offence all my life. For sometime now father had became so frail that when they went grocery shopping, he had to walk behind mother and lean on her as a walking stick, while she relied on him for direction to the shops; but even then Dr L refused to sign the form to grant father a handicapped parking space because filling the form would take up too much of his precious time - exactly why I gave up on him and took charge myself about mother : I sent my sister-in-law a Chinese version of the Mimi-Mental State Examination(MMSE) from Hong Kong to try on mother. She failed dismally. Only armed with the test result that mother was prescribed acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, except it's too little too late.
 
Following a series of incidents at home the local authorities deemed parents unsafe to stay by themselves and they were forcibly put in a nursing home. Mother proved to be a real handful. She was constantly agitated, fought the staff and attempted escape on a daily basis, even managed to break not one but two of the fairly expensive electronic tracking devices securely clapped on her wrist ( I inspected the devise and not sure I could break them !). On one occasion the police was called and when she was found wandering aimlessly a few blocks away, she put up a fight as a matter of course. The 6 ft tall Hispanic police looked down on this 4 ft 10 skinny old lady gesticulating and shouting wildly "I know Kung FU" and burst out laughing, his laugh tickled mother who readily joined in. Thus was how the nursing home staff found them later, an odd couple doubled over with laughter. 
On hindsight maybe I shouldn't be surprised by mother's antics. Alzheimer's might stripe away memory and comprehension, but it also releases the sufferer from the socially expected speech and behavior, and once free of the particular facade that we've chosen to present ourselves to the world, something of the essential quality and character trait that constitutes and defines a person sometimes shines through brighter, if we'd only care to look. Mother never talked about her past, but my 4th aunt had plenty of stories, and I learnt there's another side to the docile mother I knew. 
Mother was born into a typical Chiu Chow family which discouraged higher education for girls, all her sisters had arranged marriages right after high school, but mother wanted to have a career of her own, so at 16 she ran away from home in Hong Kong all the way to Beijing to do nursing. It must have taken a lot of pluck and determination to break out of the mould, particularly in Old China - it's exactly this core of steel in her character which sustained her through a life filled with hardships.
 
The years in Beijing were probably among the happiest in mother's life. Mother was warm and sociable, and the large number of friends she made in the hospital was the only reason I'm alive today. I was born premature at 28 weeks, totally flat with no crying or suckling reflex. There was no neonatal ICU and medical support was primitive in those days, but a stream of nurses volunteered to tend to me round the clock in their free time, feeding me milk drop by drop using an eye dropper. Mother was the first among her peers to have a child, possibly also because of the care they took of me, a special bond formed between me and these "aunties" and I became a daughter to them all, so that later when we had to leave Beijing they were heart broken. Being from Hong Kong mother was also much admired for her fashion sense by her northern colleagues. Mother's always good with her hands, even as a teenager she was making her own clothes, including off shoulder dresses with full skirt copied from Western movie magazines. Years later she'd make dresses for me and my sister because we were too poor to buy shop clothes - you see, poverty is no excuse not to look chic ! Following her lead, while in England I borrowed a sewing machine from my friend Irene and made most of my dresses and skirts, and to this day I still design most of my clothes. 
 
Parents met in Beijing quite by fate, as they were from different worlds. Father, from a rich family in Indonesia, was studying Law in Shanghai, while mother, hailing from Hong Kong, was shut away in a Beijing hospital. After 1949 in the New China, they were both assigned to work in the same commune in Beijing. After marriage father was appointed a senior post in the Chinese Embassy in India, and we were given a house in the Embassy Staff Quarters, a car, a big dog and 2 maids to take care of me and my sisters. We had 3 short good years before the storm broke.
 
Father was a naiveté in politics and was made to pay heavily for speaking his mind. When he was sentenced to a labor camp in Inner Mongolia for rehabilitation, the Authorities told mother as she's non-political she could stay on in Beijing, but she would have none of it. She's as loyal as she's stubborn, and would endure anything to be with father. ( An exact replay occurred years later when the US informed mother they'd accept her immigration application to America only if she agreed to divorce father). So began the year of exile for the whole family in a barren wilderness where temperature in winter drops to -32 °C and in summer soars to 43°C. 
A year later grandfather died in Hong Kong, and because of mother's good relationship with the officials, special permission was granted for her to go to the funeral, taking my sister and I, on the condition that we all must return after the funeral. We never went back. Life in Hong Kong was hard in the late 1950s, especially for a single parent with 2 young children. The RN (registered nurse) qualification mother had from China was not recognized in Hong Kong and she could only work as an EN ( enrolled nurse) making meagre wages, until she re-sat the exams some years later (1960s) and regained RN status. Mother's immensely proud of this and even in her later stage of Alzheimer's she was most happy when addressed as "Nurse Yiu" (姚姑娘). We were given a room at the back of one of the shops belonging to mother's family, which meant we lived under the same roof as her sharp-tongued step-mother. It didn't help that I was an unruly child, and with mother away working so much of the time, I ran wild and frequently got into trouble. Even though I didn't understand the Chiu Chow dialect, but with a child's intuition I could sense disparage, and step-grandma was super-fluent in derogatory rhetoric : how we would never amount to anything, how hopeless mother was for only having girls and for marrying father, how useless father was. Those were not happy years. I remember woken up nights to find mother weeping by the dim bedside lamp. Unsurprisingly step-grandma and I were forever at loggerheads, I was the only one in the whole extended family who dared to stand up to her and gave her as good as she dished out - if she shouted I would scream louder, drowning out her words. Poor mother, I'd never know what my hot-head must have put her through ! 
5 years later father was given special pardon by Premier Zhou Enlai personally and allowed to join us in Hong Kong. We moved away immediately. Times were tough as father couldn't fit in in capitalist Hong Kong and had tremendous difficulty keeping a job. Essentially mother's was the reliable income, all of $300 HK. I've no idea how she managed because we were never hungry, always properly dressed; she even forked out $10 each for my sister and I for piano lessons every month, until she despaired and stopped my classes (at my request) a few months later because I couldn't sit still for even the half hour session. My hyperactivity and impatience also led to my first hair-cut at age 7. My hair was thick and exuberant, and following the northern custom, my hair was never cut from birth and it grew to waist length, but the daily morning chore of braiding it and my incessant complaint of pain while untangling the mess finally got to mother and I was marched to the hair dresser's. I was excited and intrigued by the novelty of it all so I was astonished by mother's tears when the hair fell off, covering half the shop floor. I never knew what the hair meant to mother, I did know it's later sold to a wig-making factory in Diamond Hill and fetched a pretty penny. For myself I was just glad to be rid of it. From then on to save money mother cut my hair for me until I left for England, after that I took over cutting my hair myself, which I still do to this day.
In her younger days mother loved dancing, Cha-Cha being her favorite. Right after father came to HK he hooked up with his former Shanghainese college friends, most of them millionaire textile tycoons. For the first year we were frequently invited to prestigious country clubs and fancy parties. I found a few pictures of parents in the only X'mas ball mother's ever been to, she in her simple black cheongsam ( the only nice dress she had), sitting at the same table with bejeweled tai-tais in their embroidered brocade dresses, I could sense how she must had felt totally out of place. All the talks at every table were circled around money. Father was gripped by a giant inferiority complex, and quickly we stopped going to anymore dos. So at age 10 I'd had a glimpse of High Society and I was not impressed, I was only happy it's over so I didn't have to wear itchy party dresses anymore !
Back to cold harsh reality. We moved home every year in search of cheaper lodgings, so often that one time after school I went back to the old address, clean forgotten we'd moved again. In the course of our nomadic migration, we had lived in some pretty run down shitty places, but mother could make a home under any circumstance. Observing mother, I understood subliminally early on that in adverse situations, flexibility and adaptation are the keys to survival. There was a year we lived on a balcony on the second floor of a building right by the high street. The noise and light pollution was horrendous. There were about 10 households in the same unit sharing one small kitchen, so to avoid the crowding and squabbling mother did all her cooking on a small kerosene stove in our balcony room, squatting on a low stool; and all her washing up in a bucket.
 
Mother was a simple woman and didn't ask much from life. Family and friends were everything to her. She had an easy way with people, and particularly enjoyed meeting my friends. She's happiest at family reunions and family outings. 

 
Mother was a wonderful cook but father was stingy in his praises. The years of internment and psychological torture had broken him, he's become neurotic, paranoid and distrustful. The constant worry and pressure of making ends meet had left him bitter and disillusioned. Like so many other men frustrated by life, father took to venting his disappointment and anger on mother. The verbal abuse was relentless: mother was stupid, uneducated, coarse, a peasant, none of her family members were any good, all of them looked down on us........ Mother bore it all in silence. I'd almost never heard her answer back. She'd just carry on with her sewing, knitting, cleaning or food preparation, she's always doing something- all these on top of a full time nursing job. Mother's the most hard working person I know, or maybe it's just her way to avoid confrontation. Or maybe she knew as I suspected that father was sick. Regrettably I never got to find out what she really felt. The little time we lived together each one of us was so engrossed in getting through our days we had very little meaningful conversation, then we were separated by geography. 

Back to HK for a brief holiday, wearing a skirt I made myself.

It's evidently not in mother's nature to bear grudges, however mean father might have treated her. In the big scheme of things maybe settling scores is at best juvenile, for in the end her loving nature won out. By the time father died, mother was in the middle stage of Alzheimer's. I didn't see any point in telling her of father's passing, so every time mother asked about father we'd say "he's gone to see Dr L" and she'd be visibly relieved "Oh, then he's all right" At long last we'd found some use for Dr L ! Then whenever we went out for a meal she'd ask to pack some food for father." Ah Old Kwok likes this "she'd say ; even in the nursing home she's been caught taken food from the meal tray and hid it in the bedside drawers for when father returned from the doctor. Interestingly, mother, who had been slighted and looked down on all her life, in her dementia world, had created for herself an uncle who's the Police Chief in LA, who cherished her and would stand up for her in all matters. And mother, who didn't do much exercise even in the days when she was well, assigned herself the role of a well respected Kung Fu expert ! She was no longer the downtrodden one running around attending to everybody else's needs, now at last she's someone important even if it's all make-believe !
 

 
Funny thing is, growing up I seldom ever saw mother with a book, reading was the prerogative of father and us the children, but in her declining years, she finally had the leisure to thumb through newspapers and magazines, though by then it's difficult to say what she could still take in. Mother might not be an intellectual, but she's not averse to learning. When we were planning immigration to Canada in the late 60s, she did a course with Mr Josiah Lau (劉家傑), the most famous teacher in conversational English in Hong Kong. Every evening she'd diligently practice writing the new words she's learnt. A few years ago when I cleaned out her house after she was admitted to the nursing home I found pieces of paper with names of vegetables and food items written in her big clear handwriting, it seemed that after all these years she's been practicing writing English again. Unfortunately all the papers were lost in spring cleaning in my apartment, all that remained is the envelope she used to give me my gold wedding bracelet, which I also promptly lost ! In preparing for immigration mother also did a cookery course, in both Chinese and Western cuisine. There're still Chinese recipes in her handwriting at the bottom of the drawer, and for someone who didn't write much, mother had beautiful penmanship (both English and Chinese), so much better than mine.
 
After father died mother was transferred to a second nursing home. The first year in the new home was mainly about adjustment, mother was not eating well and lost quite a bit of weight. The nursing home doctor missed her anemia and slightly raised blood sugar, which he made amend after I pointed them out to him. I also cut down her poly-pharmacy (over a dozen drugs !) to about 3. After we hired a Hong Kong lady, Ester, to sit with her a couple of hours every day, she gradually settled in. Ester was a God sent, loving and patient, she quickly formed a special bond with mother. The next couple of years were good years. Mother was taking walks in the park, visited the mall, making friends with all she met, though she could remember none of them. She particularly loved children, whenever she saw them her face would lit up, and beaming happily, her eyes would follow their every move. Her kindly, cheerful disposition was on full display. There was an amusing episode : mother had a green thumb and loved plants. In the nursing home garden there was a small rose bush mother took to watering, problem was she over-watered it as she kept forgetting she's already done so, and the plant died. So the nursing staff put a plastic rose in its place, mother didn't know the difference and watered it to her heart's content !

 
 
 
 
March 2016 while Ester was on leave mother fell and fractured her right arm in the nursing home. The subsequent 2 years unfolded the horror of American medical and nursing care. The fracture was badly managed, resulting in deformity and severe hypertrophic spurring of the humeral head. From then on mother couldn't lift her right arm without pain, so she didn't. The nursing home was so fearful of another fall they insisted on keeping mother in a wheelchair, very quickly mother lost the ability to walk and the use of her legs. 
In mid 2017, mother was dropped accidentally in the home and sustained a right inter-trochanteric fracture. The nursing home tried to hide the fact but Ester noticed mother wincing everything her right hip was moved, so we requested an XR, which proved the fracture. Mother was sent to hospital in July 2017 for fixture. On discharge mother deteriorated rapidly, she became dull, off food. Incredibly no follow up XR was ever done. Five months on in Nov when mother again appeared to have pain in the right hip, we requested a check up. XR this time showed the pin was put in so badly it protruded through the head of femur into the hip joint, causing infection and damage that rendered the previously normal hip joint completely and irreparably destroyed. The reason for mother's deterioration was because she's been sitting in a pool of pus all this time, the infection resulted in anemia, lethargy, anorexia and poor mental state, not to mention pain and suffering which of course she's unable to communicate. Mother also had right lower leg edema on and off for a few months. The nursing home doctor made light of it but I impressed on him the need for a Doppler ultrasound, particularly with pending surgery. An ultrasound was finally arranged the following week and voila, there's a blood clot in the calf ! She was started on anticoagulant. In mid Dec mother developed fever and septicemia and only then was the pin removed and the pus drained. I'd no idea if the surgeon knew about her DVT (deep vein thrombosis), or what was done about the anticoagulant. There appeared to be complete communication breakdown between the nursing home doctor and hospital surgeon. She was put on IV antibiotics, and the moment the fever subsided, she was rushed back to the nursing home.
A few days after discharge mother was wheeled to the dining room at lunch time, where she vomited blood then collapsed and died. Mother had never had stomach problem before: it's possible she's been given anticoagulant and analgesics with no stomach protection medication, what's certain was INR was never checked.  Mother was certified dead at 2:10 PM, 26 Dec 2017 San Francisco time . Am I incorrect to think this is a wrongful death ? Much of what happened should never have happened. Old demented people apparently have no rights in America. There was not one word of apology from the nursing home, the hospital or the doctor responsible, in fact everyone's been double quick to shy away from mother's case. 
On the 7th day after death the soul returns to earth for a last visit, mother came to me in a dream. She said nothing , only smiled, but gave me a chance to apologize for not being the good daughter she deserved. On the 7th day over 7000 miles in Memphis Tennessee, Emily Dai Mui, mother's favorite niece, also had a dream. She dreamed of her parents, Big Uncle and Big Aunt who passed a number of years ago, but in her dream they were both young, energetic and happy. They nodded briefly at her then turned to run towards someone she couldn't see. She woke up and wondered " Who were they running to meet ?"
" Emily," I told her "they were running to meet my mum" 

2017年7月19日 星期三

Saying nice things about North Korea


" When you return home please say nice things about North Korea to your friends 
and relatives , " Madam Lee our North Korean tour guide implored as she bade us 
goodbye at the airport , and my heart ached .

The North Korean trip almost didn't come about . I was in the North West of 
China chasing the Big Buddha Statues when I chanced to talk to our HK tour 
guide about North Korean tours which had been suspended for a few years.
" But the tour's back on, " he said , " and if you go in the first week of May 
you might catch the annual Flower Show which features the Kim ll Sung and Kim 
Jong il flowers "

Unfortunately the tour was scheduled for the second week of May and I never got 
to see the Great Leaders' flowers.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the easiest ( and for South Koreans the 
only ) way to enter North Korea is through China. Boarding the plane at 
Shenyang Airport bound for Pyongyang I ran into hordes of Koreans . The North 
Koreans were all officials returning home after visits in China , distinguished 
by their Kim ll Sung lapel pins and closed faces, while most of the South 
Koreans appeared to be missionaries en route to a religious convention in North 
Korea . 

" Golly ! " I was astonished, " Is that allowed ? " Yes, the smiling clergies 
assured me, in fact there's been regular meetings between the men of cloth from 
both sides for the past few years , but of course all meetings had to be held 
in North Korea, as the Northerners are not permitted to go to the South . 
This encounter proved to be just the first of many surprises North Korea 
unfolded .

Apart from our party, all the Chinese on the plane were businessmen bent on 
making a buck in North Korea . I wasted no time in pumping them for 
information.

" What's it like to do business with the North Koreans ?" Easy ! they said . 
" What ! No bribes ? No under-table dealings ? No wine and dine the officials? 
" My eyes were wide as saucers . Nope, they replied snugly, they like your 
product then it's a sale . North Korea's so short of everything almost anything 
you bring in they want . There were exhibition fairs every week on different 
merchandise, and for that particular week it was medical supplies . I 
remembered the boxes of Penicillin and medical instruments at the airport 
terminal. Apparently North Korea is one of the best kept secrets of business 
opportunities !

I was intrigued by a couple of agricultural scientists . " What exactly is it 
that you sell to the North Koreans ?" Well, American technology on improving 
grain stock and production. The Americans won't teach it to them so we learn 
from the Americans and then we teach them !

Hmmm........What would the world do without the Chinese ?

Pyongyang's the quintessential showcase city . It's neat and clean , the 
buildings well maintained , the streets wide and the roads good . While there's 
no trace of luxury to be seen, there's no sign of poverty either : the dirt and 
tattered clothing , the gaunt listlessness born of deprivation so evident in 
India and rural China. The people though mostly in somber colors, were well 
dressed , clean and well nourished . 

Coming from busy bustling Hong Kong the immediate strangeness one experienced 
on arrival in Pyongyang was the eerie quietness of the city. There's very 
little traffic as most people commute by public transport ( buses, trams and 
underground ), private cars were few and totally banned from roads on Sundays 
to save energy . Apart from the rush hour when people travel to and fro from 
work , the streets were almost deserted. The locals when they're about mostly 
walked in stony silence, rarely did I catch them talking to each other in muted 
voices.

Energy saving seemed high on the agenda .Though all the intersections were 
fitted with perfect sets of traffic lights , they were only in use when there's 
visits from dignitaries . The every day traffic was directed by young and 
pretty ( mostly female ) traffic police which had became a hallmark of North 
Korea , and was considered one of the tourist attractions. In all museums and 
hotels that we went to , intelligent lighting was installed in all rooms, 
corridors , even escalators and lifts , which flipped on and off in response to 
people movement , in a bid to conserve energy . There were few street lights 
and the whole city sunk into darkness after sunset . If only all countries 
would follow suit the world might see much less energy crises ! All these 
measures however did not stall off power cuts which we experienced 3 times 
during our short stay, and gave some credence to the North Korean claim that 
the development of nuclear power was ( at least in parts ) for energy . 

All tours into North Korea had to go through the State Tourist Agency , even 
for single traveler ; and tour guides were imposed on the tourists by the 
Agency with no exception . The tour guides we were assigned with were Madam Lee 
, an experienced guide fluent in Mandarin , and Mr Kim , a younger guy who's 
supposedly still in training . We were warned by our Hong Kong tour company to 
stay off sensitive topics and not to take pictures of the locals. 

I smiled, obviously they didn't know me !

I broke the ice by interrogating the tour guides about their personal life . 
Madam Lee was 50 , a college graduate in language and history, married with 2 
grown up children who though already working, still lived with her. It was 
fortunate one of the children was a boy, or she'd hear no end of it from her 
mother-in-law who lived with the family and ruled the house . Mr Kim was 37, 
and also only had 2 kids despite the push from the State to have larger family 
. Apparently in the cities most families stopped at 2-3 kids, but in the 
countryside they might have a couple more . After the famine, the population 
stood at 20,000,000 ( the population of Taiwan ) , and the North Korean 
Government's been desperately trying to step up population growth .

" I heard that Korean men boss over their women , is it true ?" I teased Mr Kim 
. Not true ! He shook his head sadly, at least not in his household . In 
accordance with the Confucianism teaching , seniority of age was bestowed 
paramount respect and filial piety was the inherent duty, so in any family 
conference the oldest member, usually the mother / mother-in-law, had the last 
say . The North Korean family's extremely close- knit and the emotional tie 
strong, so by regarding Kim ll Sung as their father or grandfather to their 
children, they'd in fact symbolically given their Great Leader their ultimate 
affection and deference . 

Because family's so central to the Korean culture, nearly everybody's married 
in North Korea . While the young people had free choice in courtship , parental 
consent was still the final deciding factor . 
" Do you've teenage pregnancies here ?" I was curious . Of course not ! Well, at 
least not much ; which wasn't so unbelievable as everyone seemed to know 
everyone else , the tight family unit and the community surveillance network 
probably made teenage sexual rendezvous near impossible .
" What do young people do for fun after school ?" Well, after school they study 
more, either at home or in tutorial classes , I was told solemnly. 
" Do they go to the pictures ?" I bit my tongue before I finished the question 
: there're no cinema that I could see in Pyongyang, only a Grand Theatre ! I 
hurriedly changed the question, "Do they get together for parties, you know , 
singing or dancing ? " Well , they could learn musical instruments or Korean 
folk dance, there're free classes in the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace , 
they could also learn sports there if they liked sports . I kind of gave up 
that line of questioning there and then .

We visited the Schoolchildren's Palace and it was such a joy to see real 
children again ! Compared with kids in westernized countries where they're 
essentially miniature adults and loaded with notions and desires well beyond 
their years, these kids were naive, unaffected , unspoiled and unpolluted , 
and I just adored them ! We were taken to see the painting and embroidery 
classes where all the students' works were on sale to bolster funding of the 
school . I gladly bought 2 pieces of embroidery, one of which now adorns my 
office wall . In the musical classes we were treated to some beautiful Korean 
folk songs , but come the computer class I was indignant . " How come there're 
no girls in the computer class ? " I asked accusingly. Madam Lee drew me to one 
side and whispered conspiratorially : "Our country needs more babies and the 
computer might damage the reproductive organs of the girls, that's why they're 
kept away ! " For once I was stunned into silence ! 

While touring the The Monument to Party Founding I spotted a group of 
schoolgirls at a bus stop at the far end of the square . I'm a pretty good 50m 
sprinter and I was 3/4 way across the square when I heard Madam Lee shouted 
after me to stop . Out of the corner of my eye I saw her and Mr Kim exchanged 
glances then shook their heads in resignation . I chatted with the girls for a 
little bit then took some pictures with them . The day we visited Fountain Park 
it was filled with wedding couples , many graciously agreed to have their 
pictures taken with us. So went the myth about never taking pictures of the 
locals !

After the initial warm up, I slowly edged towards the social and political 
questions .

As in all communist countries North Korea has full employment . 
" What happens when a person's sick and can't work ?" For people medically 
certificated to be sick or handicapped , they're exempted from work and given a 
pension. But when they recover they're expected to join the work force again .
" Can people choose what they want to do ?" Yes, but they're given an aptitude 
test so the State can pick the right person for the right job. 
" What happens if a person's lazy or not doing his job properly ?" His superior 
would talk to him and try to educate him , but such cases're rare because all 
North Koreans love their country and want to serve their country as best as 
they can . 
" What's the incentive to do well ?" For people who had significant 
contribution to the country, e.g. scientists , they'd be rewarded with perhaps 
a car or a nicer apartment, but the rewards were not theirs to keep, only to 
use during their time of service .

With great deliberation I moved on to the central issues :
"What happens with people who don't agree with the Government policies ? " 
Disagreements can be worked out and a final compromise reached .
" Can people publish dissenting view points ? " That's a non issue because 
nobody would read them here !
" Are there political prisoners in North Korea ? " "Maybe, but not many ." I 
sensed a little displeasure from Madam Lee .
" North Korea had received a lot of bad press, all that I've learnt about North 
Korea were from books written by dissenters who's left the country. Why 
doesn't North Korea clear the rumors by coming out and telling the world the 
true story ?" "Because we've too much else to worry about right now ! " Madam 
Lee almost snapped at me . She stopped to recompose herself, then continued ," 
We don't care about what the world thinks of us, we only care about how our 
people are living. Food is the main concern with us. We've to make sure our 
people have enough to eat and we don't have time for anything else , nothing is 
more important than this . Every North Korean's a farmer, during plantation and 
harvest times , all schools and offices are closed in the cities and everyone 
goes down to the farms to help. We're humans too and we appreciate comfort and 
and an easy life just like any other people, but our country's going through a 
hard time right now and we can't be thinking of ourselves . "
I'd hit a nerve and decided to back off .

Both Madam Lee and Mr Kim had made multiple trips to China. " What's your 
impression of China and what do you think about the changes there since the 
market reform ?" Madam Lee spoke cautiously, "Of course there's progress 
economically, but there're problems that came of it that we wouldn't like to 
see happening in our country, that's why we want to change slowly in an orderly 
fashion."

Mr Kim's more jaunty and more open when Madam Lee's out of earshot , so I 
cornered him one day while Madam Lee was busy with arranging our schedules .
" Is there corruption in the Government ?" "There might be but I shouldn't 
think very much ." Mr Kim said after a brief consideration. "The administrative 
authorities are made up by many different sections with built-in check and 
balance, it'd be difficult to get away with large scale corruption ." He looked 
me straight in the eye . " I'm not saying our system's perfect, there's no 
perfect system in the world. Can anyone honestly say there's absolutely no 
corruption in the American Government ?"
" What about nepotism ? If there's a good position that, say, the nephew of a 
high ranking official wants, would he get it over some other more deserving 
people ?" "Unlikely, because for any Government position the applicants have to 
first sit an exam, then interviewed by a panel of people from different 
sections , and it'd be difficult to get all of them to agree ." Come to think 
of it, even in the small Clinic where I work favoritism and unfairness abound 
! Maybe we shouldn't demand standards from others that we cannot attain 
ourselves .

I was very impressed by our North Korean tour guides, they were well trained , 
friendly and helpful, and obviously coaxed with model answers to all questions, 
but there's also a prevalent feeling they did actually believe in what they 
said . Not withstanding the seeming openness, there's one topic even I didn't 
dare broach : the Kim Jong il extravaganza !

The Korean guides were particularly attentive to our meals, which were adequate 
but for some reason, always cold. " The North Koreans like their food 
cold " Mr Kim said, then made a joke : " A South Korean Spy sneaked in and was 
doing quite well until he made the mistake of asking for a hot meal! " To this 
day I'm still not sure whether they really like cold rice or if it's just a 
pretext because of fuel shortage . 

Unification was one topic Madam Lee and Mr Kim were both most enthused about ."
Certainly it's the ardent yearning of both North and South Korean people for 
reunification, the Korean people's one family , it's the Americans who's making 
difficulties and trying to stop the process ! "
" But if you look at the reunification of East and West Germany, it's brought 
out a lot of problems ; besides, would you be worried that your young people 
might be seduced by the Western glitters and change their values ?" I was 
worried for them. 
"That's why we want to go slow and assimilate gradually, the reunification 
could be a process that might take 10 or even more years to complete, but we 
still have to start somewhere . "

The echo of the wound inflicted by the forced division of their country rang 
deep in the psychic of the North Koreans and was most evident when we visited 
the War Museum and Panmunjom , the Demilitarized Zone. As an armistice and not 
a peace treaty was signed in 1953 , the 2 Korean countries are technically 
still at war to this day. 
" You know, my father actually served in the Korean War, " I told the young 
Museum guide . "Our country thank your father," and she bowed . " But he wasn't 
in the front line," I hastily added, " he was an interpreter in the 
interrogation of the captured American GIs " . "No matter, he came so he's our 
friend ."
Many Chinese did come , and it's estimated that at least half a million Chinese 
volunteer fighters died in the Korean War , including the eldest son of Mao 
Zedong . 

Visitors to North Korea all had different agendas . A young Indian guy from 
Dehli was travelling alone, it turned out he was a student in Business Studies 
in Beijing , and his theses was on North Korea. Two Italians from Milan came to 
assess business opportunities, Italy being the first major Western country to 
open ties with North Korea . The English and Scottish couples I met in our 
hotel were retired folks, they came to verify what they'd read about North 
Korea. The verdict for the experience was " surreal " but they nevertheless 
enjoyed their stay. 

A woman in our group was a reporter for a HK magazine of somewhat disrepute. I 
read her piece after we got back : it was shallow, cliche and bigoted, full of 
preconceived prejudicial ideas which did nothing but reinforce the 
stereotypical narrow precepts of the North Korean People . This was perhaps not 
surprising, as in the whole trip she asked less than 6 questions , in contrast 
to the 600 I hurled at anyone who would talk to me. It's as though she's 
already formulated her ideas of the country even before she came ! One time 
while I was talking to some schoolgirls, she rushed up and started talking to 
them in Mandarin . I glared at her. They might look Chinese but they're 
Koreans, Stupid ! If this woman had done ANY homework she'd know the second 
language taught in all North Korean schools was English ! 

I noted with sorrow this woman's not alone, almost all reporters coming into 
North Korea only wanted scandals and dirt , and they would look at everything 
through colored lenses , ready to sneer, jeer and snicker at any thoughts or 
deeds dissimilar to their own , scrutinizing the people as if they were zoo 
animals . Precious few would make any attempt to touch the real people, to see 
things from their perspective, to try to understand the social fabric and 
ideology that tie these people together , which in its way gave sense and 
meaning to their harsh life . Having been poor for half of my life, I totally 
despise people who'd look down on and make fun of others simply because they're 
poor, which appears to be what some visitors do . Regardless of what one might 
think of the Regime , the reality is against all odds North Korea is still 
functioning ! 

Korean patriotism is legendary. During the Asian Economic Crises hordes of 
Koreans brought forth their family jewelry to help out their country, and 
that was in South Korea ! It's just possible the love most North Koreans ( 
particularly the older generation ) proclaimed for Kim ll Sung is genuine ; 
unlike China , North Korean never suffered any major political upheavals, and 
the intellectuals fared much better than their counterparts in China . Korea 
had been under foreign domination for generations, the older Koreans still 
remember the hardship and humiliation they endured under the brutal Japanese 
rule, as well as the years of war before they gained independence ; it's an 
indisputable fact the new Republic gave them a new lease of life and a new 
pride . Lest we forget, in the 60's and early 70's before the economy of South 
Korea took off, North Korea was infinitely the more progressive of the 2 Koreas 
in every way . People were well fed , industries boomed and literacy was 99% , 
thanks in part to the aids from the Communist Big Brothers . 
The nightmare only began after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 
disintegration of the Eastern Block, suddenly there was no market for the 
minerals which was their chief export , and the subsidized food and energy 
supply ceased . The withdrawal of aids coincided with catastrophic draught and 
floods which led to severe food shortage just around the time Kim ll Sung died 
, so the memory of Kim's Realm was associated only with good times . 

Juche is the official ideology of North Korea, the philosophy of socialist self-
reliance that the whole nation embraces. The Juche idea states that man is the 
master of his own destiny, he dose not rely on others and it's through his own 
effort that he changes nature as well as environment, and ultimately shape his 
own destiny . North Koreans are intensely proud people , and they extract 
donations in subtle ways. At every place we stopped we're invited to buy 
bouquets of flowers to lay at the foot of a Monument ( Pyongyang's the City of 
Monuments ), the bouquets were removed the moment we left to be re-sold to the 
next lot of visitors. I was more than happy to buy the bouquets as a small way 
to help out . Madam Lee was relieved there's at least one taker of the bouquets 
in the tour group and enthusiastically recommended other sale items, with the 
result suddenly I found myself the proud owner of a copy of " Kim ll Sung, The 
early years " !

At Madam Lee's suggestion we broke away from the official itinerary and spent a 
night at a Spa in the countryside . Madam Lee told me we could have arranged 
more out- of- itinerary outings if our HK tour guide were a little smarter , but 
unfortunately we were given a Potato as a guide. I wanted to see the Kumgang 
Mountains and some other cities and I was assured that provided I inform them 
early it's absolutely possible .

At the end of the journey everybody left with the guides whatever snacks they 
didn't finish in the trip.
I gave Madam Lee a bag of mixed dried fruit ."It's all organic, so really good 
for you", then added apologetically "But it's from America ." 
"It's unopened," she muttered softly ."It's a gift," I gave her a hug, "I'd 
never give you leftovers !" then stuffed 300 dollars in her hands : for her, Mr 
Kim and the driver. " You must accept this," I urged as Madam Lee hesitated, " 
this is a small token of thanks from my heart ! " 

The trip reinforced my conviction that people are just people whatever country 
or culture they're from . One lunch time I wandered off by myself a little way 
off the hotel premises and was accosted by a group of young men and women . 
Through a lot of body language and broken English I surmised they were workers 
on a day trip. The guys crowded round me and all tried to finger my Canon 
camera , holding their thumbs up and nodding their heads vigorously.They wanted 
me to take pictures of them and laughed and jostled each other for a better 
position . Flying in the face of socialist decorum , some of the guys were 
drunk, in midday ! Guys would be guys and these young people were just trying 
to have a good time on their day off and do young people things . I remembered 
too the middle aged lady at the Arc de Triumph, who blushed with pleasure when 
I complimented her on her beautiful Korean dress . Strip off the thin veneer of 
unfamiliar languages and customs and we see ourselves and our friends . 
While I have great reservation about the Korean Government ( actually all 
Governments in general ! ) , I couldn't help but feel a great warmth for the 
people, and admiration for their dignity and courage in dire circumstances . 
What stirred me most was despite their daily hardship, all that the North 
Koreans wanted from me was to think well of them ; all that they wanted was a 
little respect for them as a people . 

I certainly have no problem saying nice things about the North Koreans.

The painting :
Flag of South Korea is called the Taegeukgi, the symbol came from the Chinese 
book I Ching, representing the four Chinese philosophical ideas about the 
universe : harmony, symmetry, balance and circulation ; the Taegeuk holds the 
two principles of " Eum ", the negative aspect rendered in blue, and "yang ", 
the positive aspect in red, in perfect balance . The white background 
symbolizes " cleanliness of the people ".

Flag of North Korea was adopted on 8th Sept 1948. It consists of three stripes 
- blue, red, blue - separated from each other by two narrow white lines .
The hoist of the red stripe is charged with a white disc containing a red five-
pointed star. 
The color red represents revolutionary patriotism. The blue stripes connote 
"The aspiration of the Korean people to unite with the revolutionary people of 
the whole world and fight for the victory of the idea of independence, 
friendship and peace." .The white - a traditional Korean color - represents the 
purity of the ideals of (North) Korea and national sovereignty. The five-
pointed star signifies the happy prospects of the people building socialism 
under the leadership of the Korean Worker's Party.

Hibiscus Syriacus, the Rose of Sharon, is the national flower of South Korea. 
Legend had it a rich landlord coveted a beautiful village woman who was married 
to a blind man . The landlord kidnapped and later killed the woman who 
stuck fast by her virtue. Brokenhearted the husband cried and mourned over his 
wife's grave, and his tears brought forth the Rose of Sharon all around the 
grave . 

Kim ll Sung flower ( Kimilsungia ) is a species of orchid, bred by an 
Indonesian botanist and presented to Sukarno to Kim ll Sung in 1965 when the 
latter visited Indonesia . 

Kim Jong il flower ( Kimjonglia ) is a variety of South American begonia, bred 
by a Japanese botanist in 1988 . 

China and North Korea had traditionally been close . Kim ll Sung spent his 
formative years in China and was much influenced by Mao Zedong . China has been 
a bridge between North Korea and the the rest of the world ever since the 
dissolution of the Soviet Block . A direct railway line linking South and North 
Korea was due to open this year, hopefully would bring the two peoples closer 
together in the future .