In my continued communication with Choi (최한수) from dmztours, he always addresses me in this way:
Dear, Nancy Bercaw
I know it’s probably just auto formatting, but it pleases me because I am the dear one. What’s more, the incorrect placement of the comment is downright charming. It seems to emphasize my dearness.
After four email exchanges, “Choi from dmztours” (as he always refers to himself) has confirmed that my date and time are set. In each message, he reminds me not to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with a national flag when I visit the DMZ.
Considering that the 38th Parallel is known as a frigid no man’s land, I am not inclined to wear a t-shirt of any kind. I will be dressed in layers to protect myself from the icy Siberian wind that whips across that barren land. Don’t worry, dear Choi from dmztours, I will not wear a t-shirt with an American flag on it.
Truth be told, I did take a run through the streets of London on July 4, 1994 wearing a shirt that said, “America Revolt.” I didn’t do it on purpose, though, I just had a few t-shirts to my name. That was one of them. And I ran everyday. I was half-way down Kensington High Street, before realizing the message I was wearing.
But dear Choi, I do have a more pertinent confession to make. Tattooed on my lower right leg is the latitude and longitude of the exact location where Military Demarcation Line runs through the conference room in the Joint Security Area.
That’s kind of crazy, I know. But thanks to that bitter wind, I’ll be wearing long johns and wool socks. No one else will know. Just us.
Dear Choi, since we’re on the subject, I’d like to share something with my dear readers about the DMZ. Something about the whole flag business that must play into to the heightened sensitivity on this matter.
There was a time when North and South Korea were engaged in a Cold Flag War at the border. When the North realized that the South’s flag was standing taller than their own, the North errected a taller pole. Then the South built a taller pole. Then the North countered. So on and so forth until diplomatic efforts had to intervene. The divided countries were spending small fortune in a game of one-upmanhip in the middle no man’s land. With the intervention of the UN, the decision was made to allow North Korea to have the taller flag, and South Korea could boast the larger flag.
My dears, as well as my dear Choi from dmztours, guess where that negotiation took place?
At the table in the conference room in the Joint Security Area–the coordinates of which are represented in my tattoo.
Oh, our 38th Parallel lives.
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As you plan your forthcoming trip to your past I am certain that you will encounter more characters like Choi, who have a singular purpose in life (probably just to keep their families and lives afloat). I am suggesting that you embrace all these people that you will meet, who have such diverse focuses in their lives for their own reasons, as it is they who allow us to understand their cultures. During our recent trip to Panama I was so impressed by my and your reaction to a place and a people, who did not seem to make any effort to be more than what they were, to us. There was no eagerness to please or impress, like I have witnessed in other cultures, they were just themselves…in a world where “self” is going through big changes!
By the way thank you for encouraging and enabling me to see these other cultures that I never would have done without you!