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Gawking… at North Korea

The best thing about the Internet is the fact that there is so much information at our exposure now. What used to be top secret a few decades ago is now absolutely accessible with a simple Google search. The Internet draws cultures closer to each other. It does not matter where a person lives anymore; if one has access to the Internet, he/she is capable of being informed. I speak on this matter from personal experience. I traveled to Ghana, West Africa and left in May 2007. Access to the Internet was very rare and, as such, no day went by where I did not feel a strong separation from the United States. I was pretty uninformed on what was going on back home in the U.S. since the TV channels I could watch focused more on local news. Television networks dedicated about five minutes at the end of nightly news to international stories; these stories mainly focused on what was going on in other African countries, however. My only interaction with the United States during this period were the phone calls I would receive from my family from time to time, and these phone calls were pretty much focused on how I was doing and updates on what my brothers and parents were up to.

Internet Cafes were gaining popularity in Ghana around this time; there was actually one on my block. I lived in Accra, the capital city, so kids in this area were the hip ones who knew how to operate computers and were somewhat familiar with foreign culture. Being in tune with foreign culture, however, for kids my age involved playing the latest video games and sometimes watching hip hop videos that were released in the US months before they reached us. Most of my trips to the Internet Cafe were due to my yearn to play the latest FIFA game with my friends. This was not how I lived when I was in the US; I was working with what I was provided and had to adopt a whole new lifestyle because I was living on another continent. There was an obvious distinction between my life back home in New York and the way I was living in Ghana.
While 2007 was just a few years ago, the magnitude of changes that have transpired between then and now cannot be understated. In this very short period, the world has grown closer and closer. I left Ghana right when the Internet was becoming less exclusive. The social media culture had just begun its surge and my Ghanaian friends were now not going to Internet Cafes to play FIFA; there were now exchanging emails with their pen-pals and checking their Hi5 (a social networking site) accounts. I remember creating a Hi5 account as soon as I came back to NY to stay in contact with my Ghanaian friends. My friends now had an insight into the life of a peer living in America, thanks to my photos and other posts. I did not have this at my exposure when I lived in Ghana; the only time I could interact with a non-Ghanaian was over the phone with my family. In 2007, my Ghanaian friends went to Internet Cafes weekly to respond to my Hi5 messages and check out my MySpace posts; today, they tweet at me daily from their iPhones and comment on my Facebook posts five seconds after I upload them.

George Zimmerman the International Celebrity?
This level of connectivity today makes the world smaller and smaller by the minute. Thanks to Twitter updates, my Ghanaian friends sometimes find out about what happens here in the US before I do. I observed something very interesting last year; I read a lot of tweets my Ghanaian friends posted on the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman trial. This case went from a Florida incident to a national headline to an international discussion.

A Ghanaian friend's tweet on the Trayvon-Zimmerman case

A Ghanaian friend’s tweet on the Trayvon-Zimmerman case

While I had already seen instances where my Ghanaian friends interacted on social media with their favorite American celebrities, the fact that they were informed on the Trayvon-Zimmerman case from start to finish and shared their opinions on the verdict was the moment I realized the world was now smaller than ever.

Just a few years ago, there were certain information and experiences meant for a chosen few. Divisions based on nationality, race, gender, social class, etc, determined the extent to which people knew about certain things. That is not the absolute case anymore. We all now know about things that do not necessarily pertain to us. Years ago, we only saw celebrities in magazines or at concerts; now, we can communicate with them directly on Twitter and Instagram. In addition to gawking at celebrities on social media, we get extra looks into their lives through reality shows. Many fans are now able to see how their favorite celebrities’ daily activities; their marriages, trips to the doctor, family disputes, and birthday parties are captured on tape for the general public to view. These shows portray celebrities as normal people and help fans draw similarities between them and these people they put on a pedestal. The same applies to our ability to now gawk at people and cultures in all parts of the world. Just as my Ghanaian friends are able to live-tweet the Grammys and watch the Royal Wedding live on TV, I am able to follow the Ghanaian presidential elections and watch Vladimir Putin’s live press conferences on Ukraine.

Dennis Rodman + Kim Jong-un = LOVE
VICE on HBO takes gawking to a whole new level with its documentary on Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea.

This is special in the sense that what happens in North Korea is almost a myth to people in the western world. It is one thing to hear that North Koreans worship their political leaders and another to actually see video footage of people bowing to Kim Jong-un and chanting “Live 10,000 years” for about five straight minutes when he walks into an arena. It is quite a spectacle witnessing how North Koreans (“the other”) live. They love basketball, too. As a matter of fact, a basketball signed my Michael Jordan is kept as one of the nation’s most cherished artifacts in a national museum. Most Americans cannot picture what life in North Korea must feel like, but VICE’s documentary on basketball diplomacy opens up this whole new world.

Kevin in North Korea

Kevin in North Korea

I got my first look into life in North Korea in 2012 when one of my best friends, Kevin, went to North Korea. As crazy as that sounds, Kevin went on a summer-long trip around Asia and managed to sneak into North Korea. He posted hundreds of pictures and a video of thousands of North Koreans dancing at the Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Facebook. The fact that I was able to see something Americans had no access to was quite an amazing feeling and hearing stories about Kevin’s experience in North Korea was very refreshing.

This is how small the world has become today. We see things we were blind to just a few years ago and are now able to participate in activities that were reserved for only certain people. There are still limits to what some cultures are exposed to; not all websites are accessible in certain countries. There are ways around these limitations, however; Facebook is illegal in China but I have a few friends in China today who are still able to log on Facebook through other backdoor websites. The Internet does away with almost all the limitations to what the people can know. We are able to gawk at government secrets thanks to wikileaks – Snowden and Manning examples. People feel the need to know everything, and as long as the Internet exists, information – from dash-cam recordings of Russian drivers fighting to pictures of Dennis Rodman performing with an all-female North Korean band at Kim Jong-un’s private party – will be available to the general public.



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