I was fortunate enough to meet the group of five North Koreans who came to Singapore as part of Choson Exchange's cultural exchange programme.
They were here for a month and in that time we tried to instil in them a culture of independence and self-sufficiency, while showing them the sights and sounds of Singapore.
On the first day, after they arrived, my colleague and I went to meet them and show them around the area. The first thing we noticed was that each of the two men were sporting lapel pins bearing the face of the supreme leader of the DPRK - Kim Jong-un. Aside from that distinctive piece of jewellery the ladies were dressed quite fashionably and the men looked ready for a round of Sunday golf.
The question we had asked ourselves was how would we introduce them to Singapore (and by extension Western) culture? In the end we decided to start with a tour of (what else?)a mall Vivocity, followed by lunch at Marché. The women were astounded by the selection of shoes, bags, perfume, make-up, and clothes, while the men couldn’t stop drinking the beer! We had to keep reminding them that they were here for a month and they didn’t have to drink everything down on the very first day!
After a hearty meal we all stood looking out across the bridge at Sentosa and one of the gentleman remarked that the view reminded him a lot of Pyongyang and he immediately extended an invitation to come visit him.
Over the course of the next month we inducted them to life at our company. We gave each of them one project to work on, including things like video production, social media marketing, social enterprise, and we also asked them to prepare a presentation on the DPRK for the employees. In addition to the daily grind, we gave them presentations of a number of projects we were working on, took them on trips to visit a variety of companies, and of course we took them to sights like Universal Studios and Jurong Island!
They were all extremely enthusiastic about working at a social media startup and put in a lot of effort in trying to meet our expectations. Despite not being well-versed in the likes of Facebook, they all managed to create accounts and start testing out some of its features, including uploading photos and sharing links.
It wasn’t an easy month for them or for us. At times it felt like I was shepherding around a group of children in a toy store, all eager to run off in different directions. They also had a penchant for asking questions which would not normally be socially acceptable. For example, they were particularly interested in learning about my colleagues and my salaries and made repeated attempts until I rebuffed them completely.
However I can only imagine how trying it was for the five of them to be surrounded by luxuries they had never really had the chance to see. A couple of them had ventured outside the DPRK before (on studies or tours), but by and large this was a culture shock.