The other day I had dinner with a friend. Actually, she’s a girl I’ve met thrice. A common friend introduced us and quite typically for HK, the girl suggested we meet up for dinner.

The next time we met up was probably after a year. She had recently been on a trip to North Korea and so showed me the video the tourist department put together. It’s pretty hard to get into North Korea but they open to tourists a couple of times a year. The tours are highly regulated so one gets to experience a very controlled version of what the country is like.

Nevertheless, while the tour guides can regulate where you go and what you hear, they can’t blindfold you or completely control what you see. So I asked her if the North Koreans were really as unhappy as the world media makes them out to be.

She started to give me a spiel on the various controls that were put on them as tourists. I clarified that what I was asking was not about visitors but about how people looked going about their daily lives. Did they, quite simply, look like they were going about their lives in complete misery?

Now, I know it’s hard to tell from just looking. But then again, one can tell a lot from just looking. Unless people are primed beforehand to look cheerful at all times because visitors are coming, one could gauge some sort of impression from looking at people on the streets. Were they uniformly grim, for example? Did they sit around lunch chatting? Did they laugh and joke with each other?

I say this because the Western media would have people believe that people’s lives in China are dire and grim. But having been to China, I can tell you that city people there look pretty much the same as city people elsewhere in Asia. They smile more than people in Hong Kong in fact. Of course, the countryside is another matter but I don’t imagine the countryside in India is very different. Granted China has opened up a lot over the past decade but till three years ago, the media was still talking about it as if everyone there lived in fear of being lined up and shot.

My point is that the political is only a part of people’s lives, a part they confront only occasionally. Yes, in places like China (and North Korea) there arguably may be more chance of daily life being dictated to by the political regime but at least from what I’ve seen in China, in actual practice, it’s not as much as the West makes out.

My friend pointed out how in her video kids were made to participate in mass drills and do very tiring looking things (like riding unicyles). And that Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il, has been propogated in their minds as a god so that the people there consider the water of a well near his childhood home to be miraculous.

Frankly, I don’t see these as particularly telling examples. Even in India, kids are made to do stupid drills. Yes, the North Korean kids in the video were pushed much harder but this in itself does not constitute grounds for determining an unhappy childhood.” Similarly, people in India are prone to finding godliness in every corner. Again, I see this as a function of poverty and the need to find salves and explanations for ones troubles more than an example of indoctrination. Of course, there is indoctrination. But with religion and quazi-religion it’s works because people want it to. And is it really so bad if people want to go to a magical well?

I realised that my problem with this girl’s comments was that they presupposed agreement with a Western democratic ideology. Now, this is someone who has two Master’s degrees in the Humanities. It’s hard to imagine that she’s not read Orientalism. But the message doesn’t seem to have permeated.

Similarly, listening to her comments on how the North Koreans seem to have replaced God by Kim Il Sung reminded me immediately of Roland Barthes “Death of the Author” and Foucault’s response to that essay. [Do google both essays because I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase them] But for her, it was amazing that people would consider a political leader God. Coming from a country where people immolate themselves for film stars, I don’t find this particularly surprising. Part of Foucault’s argument is simply abolishing one all-powerful figure (the author, or God) is not really a solution because another will grow to take its place.

What’s got me irritable is not really whether people in North Korea are repressed or not. I’m not saying that life there is wonderful or supporting the absurdities of Dear Leader and their consequences.

It’s just that someone who’s studied at a university that I wished I had gone to, one of the best universities in the world still has such a blinkered world view, one that is not in keeping with the currents in intellectual thought at all. It would be fine if she acknowledged the counter-argument, then denounced it. But it was like she wasn’t aware at all that there might be an acceptable system that was not pretty much the one she’d grown up with. That while many aspects of what is happening in North Korea are problematic, not everything about it is.

And it’s not just her. The friend who introduced us had also gone there and has knocked off the same sort of remarks. It seems like the universities harden this kind of “west as the centre” attitude layered with the arrogance of the university’s brand and sugar-coated with cultural sensitivity.

One of my Chinese friend pointed out that universities in the UK tend to be very traditional in their curricula. That they are just coming to grips with Judith Butler. I guess I had never realised how this plays out in real life.

It’s scary.