Everyone loves a Kiwi

Kiwis are, in the eternal words of Douglas Adams, considered ‘mostly harmless’. We come from a small island and are outnumbered by sheep. We are oppressively friendly and intriguingly optimistic (with a sprinkling of naïvety). This isn’t a bad thing – it could be much worse; we could be American. Testament to this are the number of American friends I met in China and South Korea who claim to be Kiwis so as not to get into long discussions about ‘warmongering’ or mad-cow disease.

I have countless stories of when being a Kiwi ‘worked’ for me but my favourite experience happened in 2010. I was sitting alone in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, China eating 랭면 (ice noodles). At a neighbouring table I saw a fellow patron eating alone, he looked very Korean but this did not make sense as Koreans hardly never eat alone in public (it just isn’t done!). I asked him if I could join him and he nodded. Using Chinese I asked him if he was Korean(韩国人). He replied in English that he was. He asked where I was from, and after telling him I was from New Zealand he seemed to relax. We exchanged stories of why we were living in Beijing. He told me his dad worked in the Embassy and he was a student. At the end of dinner, we exchanged contact details including ‘kakao’ (a Korean messaging app).

A few days later I received a message from him asking if I want to visit his apartment. I accepted and he send me the address.

I lived in Korea for three years and there appear to be three common themes when visiting a Korean household: firstly, when the door opens the smell of Kimchi will hit you; secondly, the shoes are neatly lined up inside the door; and thirdly, in the living room there is always a game show, gag show or drama playing on the TV.

When I arrived at his house my stereotypical assumptions were initially confirmed: I smelt kimchi, I saw neatly arranged shoes, however…. No game-show, no gag-show or drama on the television, instead there was a very formal looking news anchor talking about Kim Jong Ill. I looked about the TV and saw two pictures hanging on the wall, the first was of Kim Ill Sung, the second was Kim Jong Ill.

I looked at my new friend and said “You’re not Korean!!!” He almost indignantly insisted he was Korean. I rephrased the statement. “You’re not South Korean.” He shook his head. “You’re not Korean Chinese?” He shook his head again. “You’re North Korean!” He nodded. I asked him if it was alright that a foreigner was in his apartment, and he looked at me in a puzzled way, and asked “why should it be a problem?” We talked more about Beijing life, tactfully avoiding any controversial issues. When his dad came home he looked at me and simply asked sternly, “American?” My friend told him “No, New Zealand!” He smiled and said welcome. New Zealand – mostly harmless (even for North Korea)!

by Simon Appleton