I’ve been delaying the writing of this letter for a while now not just because I have so many feelings regarding Without You, There Is No Us but because I try not to publicize my teaching trips.
When I first read your memoir, I was amused; your anecdotes and experiences made me miss the students more. You did capture PUST and having heard some of the stories firsthand and known your colleagues, I had the luxury of being able to sift fact from fiction. I didn’t particularly enjoy all the fluff that you added about yourself- because honestly, almost every first/second gen Korean-American I know has a relative with a fascinating Korean War story… but whatever. I understood that you needed to do this for pathos and maybe validation. However, I was irritated. Regardless of the fact that the publishing of your book has endangered students and the future of PUST (the government wants to shut the whole university down!), to me, your book was just annoying because, lady, you are just super shady!
This book is not journalism at all, and furthermore, it was so easy – your book is the epitome of “taking candy from a baby.”
Let me elaborate.
1. Anyone of us could have written this book. Although North Korea is closed, so many people have come in and out of this country and any one of the professors who’ve taught at PUST could have written this. Many of us have our OWN relatives who were affected by the Korean War (I’m not going to elaborate for obvious reasons) and some of their stories are frankly more fascinating than yours. I’m not trying to get into any competition of experience-waving, but I’m just trying to prove that, literally, any one of us could have written a novel that weaves personal experiences and pathos into this unique, unique experience of teaching our students. The reason why none of us did (and the reason for why MOST of us keep our work there under wraps and rarely talk about it) is because we care about the welfare of the school, the students, and the country. This brings me to my next point.
2. You sensationalize your experience.
“Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher.”
“For the first time in my life, thinking was dangerous to my survival.”
Give me a break. I came the summer after you left. I knew many of the colleagues you met. Students all asked me if I knew you since we share the same surname. Those same students know we go to “Sunday meetings” and they know that some of us (not all) are Christian. In fact, when I was there, about half of us weren’t Christian. I’m pretty certain these aren’t changes that occurred overnight. Also, Christians can also pretty much tell the difference among those who say they follow the Lord, who actually follow the Lord, and who don’t. That chapter where you were “fearful of exposure” is such poppycock I scoffed out loud. (If someone asks you not to take communion, it’s not because they suspect you may not be a Christian – it’s because they know you’re not and out of care for you, they urge you not to.) Lastly, PUST is super trusting of their teachers. I’m not going to give personal examples, but the whole book’s “hush hush” attitude about your notes and USB… Oh please. You’re taking advantage of your audience and their fears and ignorance concerning NK. You sensationalized facts of life there that become matter-of-fact after even just a few weeks. I’m not justifying our circumstances (because, yes, certain things of daily life there are more than disconcerting) but the fact that you tried to add fake risk to your memoir is disgusting. You were not close to danger at all. At the worst, they would have not invited you back… whiiich I guess would have endangered your writing career, so nevermind, maybe it was dangerous for you.
3. This book is shoddy journalism! I love journalists. I am amazed by people like Jon Krakauer and Nick Kristof and Samuel Blow and Lara Logan. What you wrote is not journalism. Nick Kristof, for example, doesn’t write so that the covers of his contacts are blown. He also double checks his facts. Here’s one light case of how your fact-checking sucks.
“In the morning, Martha handed me a sheet that read, “Love _ kind. Love _ patient …” with blanks to fill in for the verbs— a grammar exercise that had been approved by the counterparts. I glanced at it quickly.”
“Martha” (a person that you portrayed as this quasi-brainless uber conservative) and I were discussing your book randomly and she quipped, “The problem I have with my portrayal is when she described my activity, basically, everyone will now think I created an activity requiring the students to write, “is”, “is”, “is”.” I laughed in sympathy because that does suck. What else sucks is that you receive money for every copy people read. You’re practically like the Three Cups of Tea/Deceit guy – except you don’t have to worry about fact-checkers. Oh and I guess because you call it a “memoir”, you’re not required to ensure things are true?
4. You’re profiting off of lies and backstabbing. I guess I can’t expect people not to, but it just sucks. You wrote in your book that you were given the guideline to “avoid all interviews with press. Make sure you know whom you share things with afterward. Do not give press any information about PUST.” You then went ahead and wrote a book based off of private letters students wrote to you and conversations you had with them. That kills me! Not all students will spill so much and the ones who do are the ones that give me hope for this country. You took advantage of the kindest, most caring ones. Then you thinly “disguised” people, but didn’t really. Sure, there were no deliberate lies – just a fancy web of stylized truths. Ick!
I’m surprised at how gently people discuss this at PUST. The university is trying to figure out damage control because the government is furious (as you would expect). Yet at the same time, people talk about the book and they don’t defame you.
In all this, I’m amazed because I would just say it as it is- which is, you profited off betrayal and yet you try to backpedal and justify it. On one Q&A, you said, “Deliberately lying, especially when you know it might hurt other people, doesn’t feel good, but I’m comfortable with the choices I made. I did feel guilty letting my Christian missionary believe I was one of them, but my priority was telling the story of my students’ lives. And in truth my missionary colleagues also lied, since their greater goal was not to educate the students but to convert North Koreans to Christianity in the future.”
You can’t justifying your lying by pointing to someone else’s lie, and even that claim is a lie (and points again to shoddy journalism where you feed a stereotypical view of missionaries (trying to “convert”)). Ack, this is annoying. I’d stop reading your stuff except, people keep sending it to me all the time. Because I went to PUST, they now connect me with you, and I don’t like it!
5. What teacher continually chooses to profit off their students? Please stop calling them “my students.” Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, lawyers have attorney-client privilege, and I thought teachers would go beyond that. You are speaking about your biased experience and profiting off my students. Your Ted Talk doesn’t share anything new about North Korea and is filled with direct, deliberate statements sans qualifiers. (Also, aren’t you a bit embarrassed to have music in the background to sway your listeners?). I have colleagues who’ve asked you if you’d donate any of your proceeds to PUST – you said no. Or what you would do if your students read this book, – you said, “it doesn’t matter since they don’t have access to the internet” (which is actually not true). All these things show me that you don’t care about them. Just like you claimed to pose as a teacher and a missionary, I’d claim you’re still posing as a teacher and a journalist. So if anything, stop calling them your students and your gentlemen, because that’s the most sickening of all.
Frankly, Sincerely, Truthfully,