North Korean Ducks

A version of this was published on SouthEastAsiaBackpacker, some time ago. It’s featured in my upcoming book, Pyrenean Wild Life, available on, 21st April.

It finds me wherever I go, but this weekend I’m breaking free of routine. 

It’s a sneaky fox and it always gets me, hiding under the veil of freshness, but wherever I go, no matter how excitinng they might be to begin with, things settle, they become ordinary, and it’s back, routine, Routine, it’s back and it’s got me right where it wants me. 

I guess that’s the thing with this ESL teacher life of mine, of ours, this life away from life: you go somewhere, you see new things and learn new things, you explore and expand, time slows down, and then you turn up at the school, you meet the students, you get your timetable, you clock on, and you fall into the working pattern, and then bam, it’s back, Routine, it’s found you again, and time speeds up. 

But not this weekend.

It’s early morning and we’re on the high speed train, Dalian to Dandong. I’m sleepy, but not tired. Outside the window all there is and all there has been for the last two hours is Siberia: just a vast painting of brown, parched dirt and arid nothingness, a bleak landscape. This is Dongbei, the austere, unwelcoming and cold north eastern Chinese expanse. Nothing grows in Dongbei. There’s the occasional little village of scattered little houses, gone in a few seconds, zipped by the window, but not much besides a whole widescreen view of barren wasteland, nothing to look at, so I close my eyes and dream of North Korea. 

My friend Isaac is in the seat next to me with his eyes shut and earphones in. He’s a fellow expeditioner in this life of pretending to be a teacher in different parts of the world, and we’ve heard stories from some of the Lifers at our school, mythical tales of the quiet little town of Dandong, a little town just sitting there on the border to that most mysterious and exclusive of lands, separated from the rest of the world not by hostile checkpoints with armed guards and barking dogs and barbed wire, but just by a few hundred metres of open river. From a safe vantage point, or so we’ve been told, we can stand and gaze at the hermit kingdom, check it out, see what the fuss is about, even look through a telescope and, if we’re lucky, catch sight of a real live North Korean citizen, going about their day as if everything’s normal. 

I open my eyes again and look out the window for a little while, 

watching the starved view speed by in the same way that time speeds by when Routine finds it and has its way with it. 

I get bored of looking out the window again, so turn my attention to the book I brought along with me, When We Were Orphans, and read for a bit. 

And then, after a little while, there’s the announcement overhead. Next stop: Dandong.

I nudge Isaac awake. The train stops and we grab our bags and rush out the doors. 

Outside the train station, in the cold morning, the first thing we see is an enormous bronze statue of Mao, in the middle of a town square. It’s still early, the place is sparsely populated, just a few passers-by, huddled and well clothed, in the frosty, workday air. Isaac, still bleary eyed, gets out his phone and opens Maps.Me, the faithful offline GPS app that’s been with him and with us for a long time, that almost equates to something like a partner, a familiar screen of little red starred bookmarks, each one a little memory.

“Alright, North Korea’s this way.”

And we’re walking. 

We haven’t looked up anything else about this town. We’re here for one thing. We’re here for our own personal histories, we’re here because we want to sit in a bar someday, crusty old men, and say, ‘Hey, I went to the North Korean border once.’

Stories: they are our currency.

We pass a concrete table, around which sits a group of wily old men, drinking baiju and playing checkers. They’re all shouting at each other, and we enjoy watching them as we pass them, wondering what it must feel like to live like them, to be as together and impassioned and angry and alive.

together and impassioned and angry and alive.

We’ve been in this country for a few months now, pretending to be teachers in an International School in the city of Dalian (well, not really in the city, a solid hour away from the city, in a little beach town, but such is the vastness of China that it doesn’t feel like that far away). Before coming here I was trapped at home, in the greyness of the UK, after stints in Thailand, Vietnam, and it was all temporary, just a few weeks, weeks of pretending to teach online instead of pretending to teach in person, which was pretty much talking to Chinese children through a webcam, some of whom were interested only in parroting whatever sounds I made back at me, some of whom were actual babies in nappies plonked in front of the computer by their parents who had more money than sense and screamed at them to listen to the funny white man in the screen. I was living with my declining father, not making anywhere near enough money to give myself some options, to find some escape route out, feeling miserable. This is a familiar pattern for me, finding myself in new holes, looking for a shovel. 

And so I came here, to the Middle Kingdom, almost solely on the basis that ESL teachers are paid well here, ridiculously well, actually, with free flights and free accommodation and free food all thrown in, and while it’s obviously because recruiting and retaining teachers in this enclosed, oppressive country is difficult, I don’t care. I’m not here for long. I’m here to save up all that China money, give me some options, maybe do a master’s and add to the one pointless degree I already have, or maybe go to South America, to Welsh Patagonia, or who knows, it doesn’t matter, but having the money gives me the freedom to choose.  

And the job isn’t so bad here. It’s easy. We teach in a boarding school, with two split campuses, one for boys, one for girls. This is ostensibly a strategic educational decision, but the Lifers here tell me it’s a simple marketing ploy, and it works. The parents of these children have more money than just about every previous generation of this country put together, and they lap it up, the whole spiel, the whole rhetoric about keeping horny teenagers away from each other so they can focus on their studies, they love it, paying their eighty thousand Yuan a year, plus boarding, plus uniform, plus resources, and so the kids we pretend teach live in their separated worlds, locked off from each other, yearning.

I’m on Boys, teaching P.E. My class is an international bunch: Daniel’s from Belgium, with his European face and Mandarin mother tongue combination, and Lee’s actually from where we’re heading right now, North Korea, where his father’s connected to the elite and wealthy, so can leave without being shot. Brian, Victor, Ingram and Mark are all South Korean, Fiore is half Japanese, Alex is from Xinjiang, the police state in the North West which is basically like a different country to the rest of China, Zak spends his summers in Australia and Chris was born in New Jersey. I mean they all have their real names, like Zhang Ruihong, Jixing Bo, Wang Llewen, but prefer to go by their English monikers, even amongst themselves.

With me as their teacher they started out maintaining the diligent student act that’s been drilled into them throughout their whole educational careers, being all polite and subservient and even taking notes in class, but soon, as they realised I don’t care, that act faded, and I learned a pleasant thing: teenage boys are more or less exactly the same everywhere in the world. Now our classes are pretty much just hang out sessions, in which we talk, just talk about whatever, watch football videos on YouTube, play games, just hang out. I can justify this by saying I’m fulfilling my job duties by getting the boys to practise English with a native speaker, but this is just a line, as cynical as the marketing literature produced by the school. I just don’t care.

And I’m still basically a teenage boy myself, just in a slightly older man’s body, so I can tap into this side of myself, act like them, make jokes with them, and I wouldn’t admit this, not even to Isaac, but I like it when the boys think I’m cool, when they think I’m one of them. 

I remember there was one afternoon during class, when some of the students were pretending to do a pointless worksheet I’d given them, the others were talking or playing games on their phones, and there was a pleasant ambient hum of conversation in the room, when Daniel asked me, “Teacher, you like yellow movie?”

And I said, “Yellow movie?”

And the rest of the class overheard this snippet and all started laughing, and I reddened, and said, “I don’t get it?”

One of them said, “Bad movie, teacher. Naughty movie. Sexy movie. Movie not for children.”

“Oh.” I chuckled. “Why do you ask, Dan? Do you like yellow movies?”

Daniel laughed and rubbed his hands together, “Heh, you know me, teacher.”

Then Fiore joined in, “Teacher, Brian have! Brian have yellow movie! On his phone, teacher!”

All the boys turned to look at Brian, grins bared. Brian’s pretty much an oversized baby, a great big lump of a kid with the personality of a toddler, and he instantly started cracking up under the pressure, throwing his long arms all over the place. I moved over to him and offered out my hand.

“Yeah? Show me, Brian.”

“No! Don’t have! Teacher!”

“Should I believe him, boys?”


“On his phone, teacher! He send to everyone, on WeChat.”

“Nice of you to share, Brian.”


And then I noticed, in the corner of the classroom, there was Walden, the nerdy, bespectacled kid, the only one to have kept up the hard working respectful student act this whole time, who the others leave out of their basketball games and whose girlish voice they torment, and he was sitting there, quiet, sorrowful, looking at the floor. 

I feel sorry for these kids, a lot of the time. I can’t imagine the life they live: waking up at school, going to classes all day, then going back to their dorms, still at school, doing homework, and then going to sleep, then the same again, all while constantly surrounded by stinky, horny boys their own age. Some of them see their parents during holidays, some see them twice a year, some never see them at all. 

It’s no wonder I’ve heard rumours from the Lifers of boys sneaking out of their dorms at night, climbing over the school fences and going over to the girls’ campus for secret, illicit rendezvous. Resorting to covert like extremes is their only choice. 

And poor old Walden’s exclusion hits even harder in such a close-knit community, where all the boys sleep, eat, wash and masturbate together. 

Anyway, Isaac and I are walking through the cold, grey little town, which looks very much like a product of communism, the numbered, near identical streets, the rows of bland, identical buildings, and the general harshness to everything. I think about how it’s weird: in communist societies, they want all the buildings to look the same, to be stripped of any bourgeois decadence, and in a capitalist society, they want big chain stories on every street in every town, McDonald’s and Starbucks and Greggs everywhere, and it’s pretty much the same, they want it all to be identical. 

Communism and capitalism, when they go far enough, end up in the same place.

And then we get to the Sino-Korean friendship bridge. It’s right there, standing over the Yalu river, broken in half. We spare the obvious comments on the irony of the bridge being named for friendship and also being blown up. It’s just like its neighbour, another bridge a few hundred yards down the river, attacked by the Americans in the war and out of use, more a spectacle than a transport utility. 

And then, there, just the other side of the river, like any other piece of land, is North Korea. 

Isaac takes some pictures, the bridge, the river, a war monument, a fence displaying the two nations’ flags, proudly adjacent. Even though we did exactly what we planned to do, we can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.

Isaac asks, “Is this it, then?”

It seems it is.

This does not seem so much like a story worth telling. 

We want more. We always want more. 

And then we get it, a minute later, when an old lady approaches us and smiles and gives us a seemingly rehearsed phrase, “Hello you want go North Korea?”

he points to a van on the side of the road with tourists loading into it. 

We’ve heard nothing about this, not on any of the anecdotal travel blogs, nor from any of the Lifers at school. 

We ask the lady how much it costs to get in her van and go to North Korea, and I don’t even listen to the price. Twenty seconds later we’re taking our seats in the back of the minivan, which is packed with tourists, all of them Chinese, which is normal, but makes us sensitive, heightens our sense of being visible, on display, even more so than the times when people openly stare at us on the streets or stop us and ask for selfies. 

The Chinese tourists look at us with amusement as we sit down. One of them whispers something to their neighbour and they laugh. 

The old woman talks to the driver for a minute, gives him some money, and then we’re off, speeding away from the bridge, out of the town, onto a long stretch of country road. I look to Isaac, next to me. He looks nervous. 

“I’m thinking, like, what did she mean? ‘Go to North Korea?’ Since when could we just ‘go’ there?”

“Well we did just agree to it.”

“What if we just volunteered to go to a slave labour camp or something?”

I laugh, and then Isaac does too, but there’s still this lingering unease. His nose twitches. I look around at the other people, who all seem relaxed. 

Then Isaac gets up and goes to the driver and asks him where we’re going, to which he, the driver, responds with only a laugh. 

We’re in the van now. There’s no going back.

Isaac sits down again and the Chinese tourists laugh at us some more, and then, after half an hour of driving, we pull over next to an old looking wooden pier, where there’s a boat, sitting in the brown and frigid river water, waiting for us. 

We get out and notice the temperature has plummeted, even further, hitting us with that cold that hits you in the teeth, makes your back seize up. 

The van driver meets with the boat driver, and they talk, while the boat driver turns the engine on and waits for it to warm up. We have a little time to kill, so we go into the little shop on the side of the pier. We look around inside, seeing all the normal things we see in every Chinese shop, and we’re ready to turn around and go back outside when Isaac notices the glass cabinet, behind the counter, the glass cabinet full of North Korean brand cigarettes and whiskey.

We stop and look at the North Korean cigarettes for a moment.

I mean it’s not like either of us has ever been into collecting souvenirs before, but we give each other a little look, right here, which says clearly that we agree this a worthy memento. 

Now we can grow old, sit in that bar, pull out an unopened box of DKPR smokes, and say, ‘Hey, I went to the North Korean border once, and look, I have evidence.’

We’re both pretty sure the cigarettes are fake but we’re willing to suspend our disbelief for this one. 

We buy a pack of cigarettes each and exit the shop and see the Chinese tourists all loading onto the boat, so we hop on and join them, and then we’re off, again, on the water, to where exactly, we’re unsure, but we’re sailing, sailing on faith, faith in whatever has pushed us this far. The boat chugs its way across the Yalu River, and I start to daydream.

It took a while for Jacob, a Lifer at the International School, a forty something overweight American with glasses and a wardrobe of ill-fitting plaid shirts, to even talk to us. He was the first one to tell us about this place and what it could offer, but that was after, like, at least six weeks of regarding us sceptically, as if we posed some vague threat. I’ve seen this mistrusting look in westerners in faraway places a bunch of times, a look that’s, like, ‘Hey, why are you here, go away, this is my experience, not yours, there can only be so many bold explorers in one place, it’s getting crowded, come on, who’s going to read my travel writing if there’s thousands of other pieces just like it?’

And he, Jacob, was actually the first one to use the term Lifer. 

It was at lunch, in the school canteen, where an all you can eat buffet was just six kwai a day. 

“People around here fall into two categories: Newbies and Lifers. People who just got here and think it’s amazing, then leave after two months, or people who’ve been here for years, got a wife and kids here, you know. Nothing in between.”

Isaac asked, after manoeuvring a bit of chicken from his metal dinner tray with his chopsticks, “How long have you been here?”

“Far too long.”

Someone else at the table, some South African girl, interjected with, “What about me? I’m not new anymore.”

Jacob laughed and said, “You’re still in your first year. You’re an infant.” 

Isaac thought about it and made his point, “Well, that’s a positive sign for me. If people still work here after years, then it can’t be that bad”, and to this, Jacob laughed out loud, spilling a bit of potato down his chin. 

“That’s cute.” 

“I mean, I think it’s alright here. The students are respectful, to absurd levels. The bosses are friendly. Good resources. Clean buildings. It’s not bad.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It all looks nice. It’s packaged together, all neat and pretty. They’re good at that. Listen”, and here he took a bite of his food and chewed, deliberately taking his time, relishing the fresh-faced attention, “every year, they have this speech contest. The whole school. Boys and girls. The winner gets a prize, you wanna know what it is? A plastic trophy, in the shape of a scrolled-up diploma. That’s it. They work for weeks on these speeches, and they get a plastic qualification. Worthless. That’s a metaphor for this whole place. It looks pretty from a distance but look closer and you see none of it’s real. It’s plastic, hollow. The Empty Diploma Fallacy, that’s what I call it.” 

“Wow.” This was all Isaac could say.

“This place is more like a cardboard cut-out of a school. One gust of wind and it all blows over.”

Jacob’s a steady regular at the canteen, and so, after a while, and after more conversations similar to that one, he eventually told us to come here, to Dandong, to get a sneak peek, but he didn’t say anything about this, about vans and boats and crossing the river.

And neither did Derrick, another Lifer, a fifty-something, ginger haired guy with a mongrel accent, somewhere between East Coast Canadian and Highland Scottish. He was like the rest of them, in that he didn’t talk to us for a while, and the only thing we knew about him was that he had a Russian wife who lived in Russia and hadn’t seen him in years, and that he spent every weekend getting blind drunk in one of the local village restaurants. 

The first time he spoke to me was in one of the little coffee shops, where I’d just ordered a hazelnut latte to have with a cigarette and play a word game on my phone. Isaac was in class and I had a break, so I was by myself. 

“How’s it going?”

He sat down across from me on the table, and I looked up, surprised to see the intensely concentrated face of the man I’d given up trying to greet when we passed in the corridors. 

“Uh, yeah all good, yourself?”

“Same old shit.”

“You’re Derrick, right?

“That’s me.”


“They got you on Boys, right? Language arts?”


“How’s that going?”

“Oh yeah. A breeze. The boys stopped pretending to care after the first week.”

“Yeah. That’ll happen. I remember when I pretended to care.”

“You’re on Girls?”


“What’s that like?”

“Cleaner. But sneakier. You know, the boys are animals, but they’re simple. They might wreck your classroom or spit on your floor or whatever, but there’s no hidden agenda. Girls are more subtle. They mess with your head. And some of those girls aren’t children anymore, they’re eighteen, you know. They know what they’ve got, and they know how to use it. Sometimes I wish I was on Boys, really. Feels like I’m teetering a tightrope, at times.”

And I couldn’t tell if this was some kind of weird joke. I looked at his face and it was dead, unblinking. I didn’t know what to say so made some excuse and left and went to my class in which me and the boys watched Premier League highlights on YouTube for a full hour.

It was some other morning, I think, not too long after that, in my little apartment on campus where we all live and sometimes complain that we live where we work, although we certainly don’t dislike it enough to move out and pay rent, that I woke up to hear the Soviet national anthem being belted out from a balcony across the grass. 

I looked out my window and saw Derrick, in his underwear, singing his heart out. 

Apparently, his wife was coming home. 

And now, the boat is still chugging, and unconsciously Isaac and me’ve moved closer together, both in excitement and in combat of the slapping cold, and we’re edging towards that famous land, we’re so close we can almost reach out and touch it, and it’s still striking how ordinary it all looks, even though this should be what we expected, it’s just grass, rocks, trees, hills, the same life as everyone else’s. 

Across the river, I see a car drive past. A real person driving it, as if everything is normal. 

And then we’re boldly crossing the waters. Isaac gets out his phone and checks Maps.Me. We’re an inch away from the North Korean border and not stopping. This is it, this is it, we’re going to cross, undeniable, any minute now.

Isaac points at his screen and shouts, “Shit, we’re going to cross!”

We watch the little blue cursor, moving along, playfully, as if it’s looking right back and grinning, and we’re watching, we’re watching, just a little, yep, come on, come on now, almost, yep, and there it is! 

There will be no passport stamp. No official documentation. But we’ve crossed the border, we are now geographically in a new place, a place we’ve never been before, a place no one we know has ever been before. Isaac screenshots the map on his phone. Actually, he does it about fifty times. 

Now, we can grow old, sit in that bar, and say, ‘Hey, I actually went to North Korea once.’

I see some birds perched on the riverside, just sitting there, having a nice time, and I say, “Look man, some North Korean ducks.”

And the moment I say it, the birds flap and fly away, over our heads, over the border, into China. 

“They’re defecting!”

An old man approaches us on the boat, holding out crispy clean banknotes. He offers them to us to study. Isaac holds it up, the perfect, uncrinkled North Korean currency. 

“Can’t be real.”

“But, you never know?”

“It’s illegal for their currency to exit the country.”

“I dunno, maybe it’s old, out of circulation.”

“Look at it. It’s brand new.”

He hands it to me. It’s obviously fake, but I want to believe. We decide to just buy it, and when the guy charges us the small sum of eight yuan, we have our confirmation that the notes were clearly printed by some guy in a basement, but it still feels worthy, a valuable unit of our real currency. 

Everyone on the boat is smiling, their eyes full of colour. The Chinese tourists approach and ask us for around four hundred selfies. We’re in a celebratory mood, so we agree, and huddle together, even though we’re no longer cold. 

Then it’s time for the boat to turn around and trundle back to the real world. 

That’s a place I’m very familiar with, just like the boys in my class. They live in their little real world all the time, no escape. 

There’s no escape for people like Walden. 

I remember one day, just another day at school, the boys were pretending to work while talking at an agreeable noise level about who from the girls’ campus they should invite to their secret end of semester party.

I was standing at the classroom window, watching a boy sneakily approach the school gates, where a man on a moped awaited him, carrying a bag of fried chicken. They exchanged the bag of chicken for some money, then the boy tiptoed his way back.

I got the attention of Lee and pointed out the window. Lee saw the moped driver snake away, saw the boy carrying his bag of food, and shrugged. 

I turned my attention back to the class and noticed the noise had risen to more obstructive levels. The temperature of the room had increased. Tones had stiffened. A few of the infamous S-words got thrown around, the “sha bi” insult the kids muttered under their breaths when they were grumpy, the meaning of which I didn’t know, exactly, but I knew it was bad. 

Leo, a kid with a monobrow who failed the English entrance exam with a ten per cent score but who was admitted after his father made a timely donation, jumped to his feet. He pointed at Walden, hurling abuse at him. All the boys laughed. Then, out of nowhere, with years of quietened rage turned loud, Walden exploded. He shrieked and threw himself at Leo, knocking him to the floor, mounting him like an animal. 

Then he put his hands around his throat and squeezed. 

They were not playing. This was real.

Several boys jumped to their feet, hooting. Daniel and Brian jumped in and started swinging fists. They tore Walden away from Leo, threw him to the floor, but he was not about to lie down and take it. He jumped up, grabbed a chair and smashed Daniel in the face with its steel legs. Daniel’s head started bleeding and he fell to the floor. 

And then the mosh pit started. Every boy in the class was up, screaming, grappling, shoving, escalating the violence under the thin pretence of stopping it.

I stood still for way too long. I didn’t even try to move. I just stood there and watched the spectacle, the dust cloud of flailing limbs. I saw the blood from Daniel’s head dripping on the floor, I saw the red in Walden’s eyes, him against everyone, and he didn’t look like he was about to back down. He could take them all on if he needed to. 

Then I managed to bring myself to life, threw myself in the scramble and parted the tides. I grabbed hold of the thrashing Leo and dragged him out of the classroom. Walden, who was still being screamed at by the others, screamed some vicious sounding words at Leo, who kicked and screamed, broke free of my grip and launched himself back at Walden, all nails and teeth and spit. More punches were thrown, as was another chair, this one bouncing off the wall, the legs shattering.

The commotion caused the neighbouring classes to emerge and gawp. Kathy, a Lifer, and devout catholic who spent her classes reading the bible aloud and trying to convert her students to the light, appeared from behind a throng of awed, grinning students, with their phones whipped out, ready to document the massacre. 

She asked me what on earth was going on but I was too busy trying to manhandle Leo into submission. 

At some point Daniel rose to his feet, tentatively dabbing at the sticky spot on his head, wondering what happened.

While I flimsily tried to restrain the violence, the principal, the stoic, matronly Miss Wang appeared, as if from a cloud of smoke. I’d only met her once previously, in my first week when she told me she’d visit my class for an observation, something which has never even slightly happened. I figured after a while that it was a simple managerial tactic designed to keep me on my toes, but it hasn’t worked. 

Miss Wang spoke. Her voice cut through everything. The rumble came to a halt. 

She told the boys to line up outside her office and await damnation. Like soldiers they trudged their way out of the classroom and down the corridor, breathing heavily, bloody and bruised, muttering curses. Their counsellor would hear about this, maybe even their parents. Mixed versions of the story would be given, blurred outlines of events. In some versions, Walden instantly cowered and cried on the floor begging for mercy, while an overly muscular Daniel deflected a chair with his face and laughed. In other versions, sharp knives were involved.  

Kathy looked at the whole scene judgmentally, then crossed her heart, appalled that a fellow teacher could allow such sinful behaviour in the classroom. 

Then everyone went back inside, and left me alone in the corridor, to pick up the battered chairs with my shaking hands.

As far as I know, nothing much ever happened as a result. Miss Wang dealt with Leo and Walden privately, their parents never found out anything. Walden got temporarily moved to a new class, but still was sought out by the boys in the corridors, looking for round two. He was still trapped, just the way he was. And I went back to not caring.

And now, fresh off the boat and back in the grey town of Dandong, Isaac and I eat in a North Korean cuisine restaurant, complete with genuine magazine literature and a weak but visible signal of the nation’s televisual broadcast from across the river. We watch the TV while eating something which I think might be sheep intestines (the menu had no English, only pictures, I just pointed at what I thought was chicken), all grey and long and stringy bits of meat. It’s playing a soap opera show. There’s a woman crying a lot on it,  

It sure has been a memorable morning, and we’re both still high off it, thinking about how many different times we’re going to tell this story in the future, how many different little details we’ll add on, how some will be false but will become part of the full story. 

But on Monday morning, we’ll be back in school. 

Back to the Routine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s