I've been obsessing over North Korea for years now. I'm talking the "read every damn book available on Amazon" type of obsessed. So when I heard there was a North Korea owned restaurant chain within a mile of our hostel in Siem Reap I kind of freaked out. It seemed too good to be true, like there's no way they'd actually have real citizens of the DPRK working in some dingy restaurant in the middle of Cambodia right? But after a few reviews on TripAdvisor I realized this was it, my one chance to witness a small taste of the notoriously reclusive country. Tamara and I rented some $1 bikes and were off, my hands shaking from nerves as we rode.
This all may sound over dramatic but if you know anything about North Korea you too may have felt a pang of wonder. What goes on in this country where no information leaves or comes, where the leader is literally viewed as god and where technological advancement is literally stuck in the 60's. There really is nothing else like it in the world.
As we approached we would have nearly missed it if we weren't actively looking for it. The building itself reminds of a jail cell or military base. Large concrete walls with completely black tinted windows. For some reason at this point I got a bit nervous. It would be wrong to say I was scared but rather just very put off. There were no cars at all in the parking lot, no people coming in or out just a brick of a building with the words "Pyongyang Restaurant" etched in a dull gold font. We hesitated a bit before going in, sitting on the curb waiting (begging) for a tour bus to come and take away some of the attention from us. After half an hour with absolutely no one coming I just had to go in, embracing the fact that we were likely the only people in the entire restaurant. It couldn't be that awkward, right?
Right as we walk through the doors we're overwhelmed with the sheer size of this place; able to seat approx 400 people with large ornate tables and multiple tacky chandeliers akin to what your grandma might have had in the 80’s. It felt like what a restaurant would look like if it were designed by someone that had only ever read about restaurants without ever seeing one. There was a large stage for performances but today they simply had a tv playing what looked like a news channel straight from NK, propaganda and all. Without much time to think we're suddenly swarmed by eight tall pale slender girls smiling with hands outstretched towards a table surrounded by four small wooden walls. As we're seated in what can be called a 'cubicle' we have large menu's shoved in front of us. I'm personally used to having a bit of time to browse through the menu but it became apparent that these 8 waitresses were not going to leave. The cubicle nature of our table has us all crammed together, all the girls hovering over our shoulders breaching every square inch of my personal space. So, I'm sitting there rushing, trying to make a decision with 8 pairs of eyes diligently watching my every move. Experiencing some new levels of awkward, I just randomly choose something trying to end it all but Tamara takes her god damn time. I can feel them all growing impatient, the girl immediately behind me tapping her fingers on my chair. One girl tries to help and aggressively points to a $30 pot of meat which Tamara brushes off and finally makes her choice lifting the strange tension off my shoulders.
But just when I thought we were in the clear...it got weirder.
Having chosen our respective meals I assumed that this pile of North Korean women would file out of our cubicle-table area leaving us to silently laugh at the ridiculousness happening to us. But no, not at Pyongyang Restaurant. All eight of them just... stood there, crowded around us watching our every move. I didn't know what to do, having never been in a situation like this. I could feel their eyes burning into the back of my head and as each second passed I felt progressively more and more unsettled. I started babbling random sentences to Tamara, making up conversation trying to ease the tension and break silence. As we were bullshitting to one another talking about (stocks?) one of the NK women at the head of our table started making mumbling sounds like she wanted to talk. I stopped talking and waited for her to speak, assuming this was the point they tried up selling alcohol to us. But instead of a sales pitch we got a question, a genuine question.
In very broken and timid english she mutters
"Ar..are you a couple?"
I look up to her and see she's half smiling and eagerly awaiting my response.
"Yes! Yes we are."
I laugh a little, realizing now that the tension I've been feeling may not have been as heavy as I had thought. They were all smiling, all the women in this 10x10 sq. foot box were looking to us with interest not judgement. In that second, all my compounding anxiety turns into excitement. I realize that I have a captivated group of North Korean women wanting to just… talk with me. This is a moment I’ve literally been dreaming of for years, it honestly felt akin to meeting a celebrity and I was star struck for the first time in my life. Like having JK Rowling across a dinner table, it felt once in a lifetime so I dived in head first.
“Are you married?” She asks next, her eyes opening a bit wider smile growing a bit larger
We both laugh and say no. We tell her that it’s not usual for our cultures to marry this young. I then ask her if she’s married and the entire group laughs loudly.
“No no no” she laughs as she buries her head into her shirt.
We all smile, tension completely gone at this point the questions just come flowing out.
“How long are you in Cambodia?”
“About a week. How long have you worked here?”
“Two years” she says very matter of factly, a tinge of sad palpable in her voice.
Our appetizer arrives. We’re then put through the wildly unique experience of attempting to eat slippery dumplings with chopsticks with 8 people eagerly watching .
“What do you call these in english?” She asks
We teach her and she then teaches us how to say it in Korean. I can feel her wanting to connect with us and it excites me to no end.
We ask her her name.
“Ju Anh Sin. And you are?”
“Alex and she’s Tamara.” She says she likes our names and smiles.
A girl standing right behind Tamara speaks up, she seems nervous and talks louder than normal.
“WHAT ARE YOUR JOBS?”
I tell her I’m in business (didn’t know how to describe digital marketing in a way they’d understand) and tamara told them she translates languages. We then tried to tell them that we work online on our computers. They really didn’t seem to understand this concept at all and Ju Anh Sin made a sour look as if she wanted to ask more but didn’t know how.
As we’re devouring the dumplings (which were actually quite good) my brain is going wild, trying to think of questions I could ask her without offending / potentially endangering her. I’d read online that the waitresses are heavily monitored by North Korean officials to make sure they don’t talk too much about the regime or try escaping. There was even an instance in China where they shut down an entire restaurant when one of the waitresses tried to escape into the city. So I decided to be careful with my words and wait for her to ask the questions.
“Where are you from?”
“We’re from Denmark” Tamara says. I agree with her, although I’m actually from the USA. I didn’t know how this information would form her opinion of me and opted to go the safe route. However, for the remainder of our conversation she kept referring to us as English and our hometown as England. We assumed that this was because of her not knowing Denmark as a country and only understanding the part where we said ‘In Europe’. She then tells us she’s from Pyongyang and used to study ‘Beauty’ there. I’m still not sure what she meant by Beauty.
“Do you speak Chinese?”
I laugh and tell her no, only English. She seemed genuinely confused by this.
I asked her how she knows Chinese and English and she says she learned while in Pyongyang, that it was very hard to learn and took her a lot of work. She’s been teaching herself English since she got the job at the restaurant and it’s been even harder to learn.
We eat a bit more in silence, all the while still surrounded by the entire staff of this restaurant. They talk to one another in Korean, I’m assuming debating on questions to ask us. Out of no where she hits us with a weird one
“Do you like Badminton?”
“Yeah! We love sports like volleyball and football” She smiled at volleyball but made a sour face when I said football. Probably the most sour face she makes during our entire conversation.
The dumplings were running out at this point. I’m still debating what to ask her but can’t come up with many safe questions.
“Do you miss home?” I finally ask. She tells us to wait a minute and runs off for a few moments. She does this each time we ask her direct questions about her home or living conditions.
“Yes very much” she says in an extremely genuine voice when she returns. There was even an ounce of longing in the way she said it.
I follow this with “Have you travelled much?”
“Only to China.” She says a bit sad. She tells us it’s her dream to travel more and see England.
“Have you seen much of Cambodia?” I ask
“Only Angkor Wat” she says. I’d read online that they’re forced to live on the restaurant premises and are very restricted with what they’re allowed to do. It was at this point I began to feel sad for her, living in this country for two years and only ever having seen one small part of it outside of this prison cell of a restaurant.
Dumplings finished and the main courses come out. Both are actually very good dishes, mine tasted like a giant bowl of Kim Chi with fish and Tamara’s was a plate of pork and tofu with a roasted pepper sauce that actually blew me away. She told us that the recipes come from North Korea and are highly secretive. Surprise surprise. This restaurant is like a small personification of the country in so many ways.
“Have you ever eaten Dog?” she asks out of nowhere as we’re taking our first bites. Tamara’s face sinks as she considers the possibility that she may have a chunk of puppy heading towards her lips.
“Is…is this dog meat?” We ask collectively. They all laugh and tell us it’s pork. She clarifies that she was asking if we would eat dog meat to which we say maybe. The waitresses can’t stop laughing at this question, I think they’re used to tourists freaking out at the concept but we played it cool…or at least tried to.
A bit more silence as we start eating
“English Men usually eat with knife and fork,” she points out as I’m awkwardly fumbling with chopsticks. We all laugh at this, I joke about how I’m still practicing. This was the point we began to become much more casual with one another. She seemed unafraid to just ask us anything that came to mind and didn’t feel like our server anymore but more of a friend.
She tells us she’s 20 years old. We tell her her English is very good and she blushes giggling and saying thank you over and over. This is the typical response she gives when complimented, huge thank you’s as she sinks her head into her chest and touches her heart like I’d just proposed.
After the compliment she opens up a book she’d been holding the entire time and shows it to me. I had just thought it was a wine list but it was actually a note book she had been keeping for two years. It included thousands of English phrases, neatly written in rows of three with their corresponding Korean and Chinese translations next to them. I see the phrase “Can I get you water sir?” among many other service based phrases. The notebook was worn out and old looking and it was made in such a way that I believe she was literally just collecting english words from various customers coming into the restaurant. Perhaps this is why she asked me how to say Dumpling before.
“Wow this is…Amazing! Did you do all of this?”
She blushes again and says yes, telling us she loves learning English. Her passion for learning really impressed me, the way she goes so out of her way to learn and the perfection of the notebook took me off guard. She’s truly driven.
“Do you have any hobbies?” She asks.
“Yes Tamara plays ukulele and I play drums.” She smiles huge and tells us she plays drums as well. She goes on to tell us she plays in the restaurant’s band and that it’s why she was chosen to work here. She plays every Sunday and invites us to come see her play this Sunday. We agree and I plan to hold up the agreement. She smiles very large and says,
“It was so so good to meet you”
It felt amazing when she said this, like we had genuinely made her day.
“It was so good to meet you too, Ju Anh Sin.” I respond trying to emphasize how much I actually meant it.
“You should come back in one year to Cambodia to visit me again.”
I didn’t really know how to respond to this. In my heart I know I almost would come back here just to see her again. This girl, from a society I could never imagine, I had endless questions for her. What I would give to get her out of these walls and just speak as two humans.
“Maybe we will! We love Cambodia and we’d love to see you again if we can” She seems disappointed by my non-direct answer but satisfied.
Tamara asks for the check, I’d totally forgotten she was our waitress and it felt unnatural to ask her for something like that. I realize at this point that I had been eating way more than my body could handle, trying to extend our time together with Ju Anh Sin as much as possible.
She comes back with the check and we’re leaving way too early. I could have spent the entire night at this table. She’s laughing and keeps saying how good it was to meet us. She even put her hand on Tamara’s shoulder as we walked out, we promise we’ll see her again on Sunday for her performance. I’ll make sure I’m there to see her again.
As we’re leaving the restaurant I’m walking on air. I’ve never felt this feeling before, complete surrealism and disbelief. Just a few days earlier I’d finished reading Nothing to Envy on a beach in Vietnam, wondering what I would say if I could talk to someone from the DPRK and suddenly there it is - an opportunity that I’d never imagined could exist without somehow getting into the reclusive country itself. I’ll always cherish this experience as long as I live and use it to help me humanize the millions suffering in the country to this day.
Photo credits: Eatingtheworld