North Korea is still a big mystery to me. I have read books about its history and peered across the 38th parallel, but that makes me far from an expert.
A couple of weeks ago we met friends for dinner. As these friends are Chinese, we take turns choosing the restaurant and paying – this time it was their turn. The night before we were supposed to meet my friend sent me a note asking if Korean food was ok. We both like Korean food and so agreed to meet at a subway stop and then walk to the restaurant together.
I didn’t recognize all the characters in the name, so didn’t pay much attention, but when we got there we realized it was a North Korean restaurant. We were in for an interesting night!
The waitresses were all from North Korea and they were dressed in the traditional long formal Korean dress – a combination of a qipao and a kimono. At the beginning we took a couple of photos but they quickly asked us to put our cameras away. It appeared that some things are still not free in North Korea – even when you are in China.
Doing some research – it appears that the North Korean government provides the waitresses and they are from families with “good backgrounds” and all college educated – so a step above a typical waitresses in China. The owner of the restaurant is a Chinese national, but if any of the waitresses “disappears” – then the North Korean government will immediately pull all the waitresses and bankrupt the owner. Typically they would take 50% of the profit from the endeavor. Pretty surreal.
The food was similar to food that I have had at many other Korean restaurants. The kimchi was excellent and they had a special drink that was made of rice. It was non-alcoholic and reminded me a little bit of Mexican orchata – but a slightly different flavor profile. The beef they cooked for you instead of having a grill on the middle of the table which meant that you weren’t overwhelmed by the smoke which was also a nice touch.
After eating – we waited for the highlight of the evening – the performance by the waitresses. They had changed out of their traditional clothes and were wearing more modern outfits as they serenaded us for a good 30 minutes. It was a surreal experience – the entire time they performed they had these plastic smiles pasted on their faces and the song choices were random – to say the least. There were songs in Korean and Chinese and at one point they started passing out flowers and formed a conga line. I enjoyed it – but it was just plain strange.
At one point as I was clapping Li looked at me and said, “You really shouldn’t clap to this song.” He then explained that the song was cheering the entry of Chinese soldiers into the Korean War (which meant against the Americans). I didn’t know, but I did stop for the duration of that event.
Our discussion during dinner was very wide ranging and included the question – “If Mao’s son hadn’t died – would China look like North Korea now?” It was an interesting question that my friends and Li debated for a long time. I just listened.
After having some time to digest the meal (mentally and physically) I am not sure if I had known it was a North Korean restaurant that I would have gone, but having had the chance it did give me a glimpse into another world that I would very rarely see. What do you think?
Would you have gone?