Last week the list of my most surreal moments got topped off in an old Pyongyang park when I caught a Firsbee from a North Korean woman and then ran over for a big hug.
We had scored a point in the country’s first ever ultimate Frisbee match. Everything about that moment shook my understanding of the world.
Ultimate Frisbee, which features a flying disc and rules similar to football, is unique in that even at the highest levels of competition, there aren’t any referees. Players call their own fouls under mutual respect and sportsmanship in what’s known as the “spirit of the game.”
Some foreigners, with the help of the British-owned Koryo Tours, thought that bringing the sport and that spirit into the country would be a service to international relations. And because last year it became possible for Americans to enter North Korea (without needing a former president to get them out) it wasn’t hard to sign me up.
About 10 Koreans were recruited to play in mixed teams with the foreigners, but as the tournament went on some onlookers got in on the action too. Kids, parents and elderly walkers started meandering over to learn the novel new game.
Like any tour going into the country, we were on a set schedule to only the most impressive sites and chaperoned at all times. But contrary to what I expected, we weren’t kept on a very short leash. Wandering away to talk to random people wasn’t ever a problem.
At one point, a young waitress cleaning tables nearby our game seemed to look down longingly at a disc on the ground. I threw it to her and it bounced off her arm as she scolded me jokingly.
“Haiya!” she screamed as she chucked it back at me. We spent the next 15 minutes perfecting her throw and playfully chastising each other through facial expressions.
That night in the hotel, after I had a few beers with one of the North Korean guides, I asked something that I’d always wondered. In a country where anti-American nationalism is a pillar of government legitimacy, what do the people think of Americans? “It’s complicated,” he said flatly. He wasn’t being evasive. It was the only honest answer he could give.
“This is what we need though,” he continued while pointing between himself and me. “Forget the Six-Party Talks or the leaders. We just need more people-to-people.” Agreeing with our government-approved guides so greatly was also something I hadn’t anticipated.
Aside from the irrational fear for safety many have of visiting North Korea, some refuse to go because the expensive tour puts money in the government’s pocket. But when I compared the image I’d previously built up in my head of the country to the reality of what I saw, whatever modest revenue I gave the government seemed pitifully insignificant.
To be sure, there were plenty of negative aspects, and it would be naive to think a strictly guided four-day experience could come close to representing the country as a whole. But it was the small things that were the most enlightening and chipped away at what I had mistakenly regarded as common knowledge.
People had cell phones, many girls wore short skirts, and the streets were always bustling with activity. Those I tried to communicate with were charming and hardly resembled the synchronized hermits I’d imagined.
I can only hope that I left an equally significant impression on them.
People-to-people exchanges, on whatever terms, do a great service to humanity. They sift out the nonsense that leaders tout for political gain and that the media sensationalizes for ratings.
It would be truly wonderful if those guiding international relations could incorporate more “spirit of the game,” and just enable the people on the ground to interact and bond freely without interference from officials.
As we were having our goodbye dinner and watching the tournament video, our guide laughed and said, “I felt ashamed watching that since I dropped the disc so much. Come back next year and I’ll be professional.”
We left a stack of Frisbees and said we couldn’t wait to return. I just hope plenty more will follow.
The author is a master’s candidate of Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University. firstname.lastname@example.org