The Kimchi-ite: Life As A Foreigner In Asia

As a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white American living in Asia, I tend to stand out in a crowd. It’s an interesting and bizarre thing that has become a part of my everyday life. Even living in Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world, where more and more people of different ethnicities come every year, children on the subway stare at me unabashedly, store employees sometimes get visibly nervous when I come to pay at the counter and my students frequently ask me why I have gold hair.

When I was living in the smaller Fuji City, Japan, my presence as a foreigner was much more pronounced. While waiting at a crosswalk one day, a high school girl beside me turned and jumped, screeching “ah! Gaijin da!” “Ah! A foreigner!” I remember once at a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan, a middle-aged Japanese woman was asking the staff for directions to a certain temple when I popped into the conversation and told her, in Japanese, what train station it is near. The woman gave me a confused look, then asked the receptionist, “did he just speak Japanese?” To which I responded, “Yes, that’s right.” Again, to the receptionist, she replied “Wow, that’s interesting.”

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.No matter which Asian country you live in, there seems to be a certain subset of questions and comments that the foreign community constantly received. People will ask if you are capable of using chopsticks. Any use of the local language will yield extremely flattering praise, regardless if you simply said “hello” or if you gave an in depth appraisal of surgical medical equipment. Sometimes, white Westerners may get a little bit of superstar treatment, people coming up to them at bars, buying them drinks and saying that how much the Westerner looks like a movie star with a “small face” (the above photo is the result of a night like that).

But, the good comes with the bad. Once a friend of mine here in Seoul tried to set me up on a blind date with his female friends, and more than a couple turned me down simply because of the fact that I am a foreigner, saying that I am simply passing through Korea and not looking for something serious. Also, a foreigner can live in an Asian country for the majority of their life, get married, have kids, obtain citizenship, but to the public at large, they will always be seen as an outsider first. This comes with the territory. It’s important to know that people are often not intentionally being rude or discriminatory; they are just unfamiliar with foreigners. This possibly being one of the few times they have ever had to interact with one, having grown up in a homogenous society where 99% of people are of the same ethnic or racial background.

Growing up, I remember more than a few times when my teachers told the class, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world were everyone was the same race, with the same hair, skin and eye color, would you?” The truth is, not everywhere is a soup of diversity, even within the United States. The world is certainly heading in a much more connected, multi-cultural direction and it’s exciting to be bridging that gap between east and west.

[Photos by Jonathan Kramer]

Knocked up abroad: prenatal care and pregnancy advice in a foreign country

pregnancy foreign country See part 1 of Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country here.

One of the best parts of my experience so far with pregnancy in a foreign country has been the excellent medical care I have in Istanbul. Like many other expats before me, as soon as I took a positive pregnancy test, I called up the American Hospital for an appointment. The hospital treats many foreigners each year, is renowned for infertility treatment as well as other quality medical care, and is popular as part of Turkey’s growing medical tourism (the cow pictured at right is in the hospital lobby; you can tell how serious he is because of the glasses).

My first prenatal appointment was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, and while many Americans were getting up to stuff the turkey, I confirmed I was six weeks’ pregnant (you’re welcome for sparing the “bun in the oven” puns). My very charming and English-speaking Turkish doctor gave me the usual pregnancy advice/warnings*, all peppered with only-in-Turkey bits:

  • Eat lots of dairy like ayran (yogurt drink Westerners often hate because it’s not sweet), yogurt, and cheese. While pregnant women should avoid unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses, you won’t find many of either in Turkey (or in the U.S.) unless you are looking for them.
  • No undercooked or raw meat like çiğ köfte, a popular raw meat and bulger-wheat snack served all over Istanbul (I first tried it outside a trannie bar here). I’ve discovered that the primary concern with sushi is an elevated risk for food poisoning; there is no additional or specific risk to the fetus. Sushi fish is often flash-frozen when caught, therefore it contains lower levels of bacteria. Use your judgment when ordering raw sushi, or stick to California rolls.
  • It would “be a crime to not eat fish in Turkey,” according to my doctor, but stay away from the big ones like shark which have high mercury levels. 1-2 servings of salmon or tuna per week is fine.
  • Sadly, especially in a country with excellent produce, eating unpeeled vegetables or salads in restaurants is a no-no, due to the hepatitis risk. While most restaurants are very clean in Turkey, when you are in a country with some traditional “natural-position” (aka squat) toilets still in use, you run the risk of some food contamination that’s riskier for expectant women than the general public.
  • Like many Europeans, I was told that 1 or 2 alcoholic drinks a week is okay, such as a glass of wine with dinner. Moderation and common sense are key, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
  • Caffeine is also fine in moderation: 1-2 cups of coffee, tea, or sodas are allowed per day, though I’m not convinced that a piping hot, two-sugars-no-milk glass of Turkish çay isn’t higher in caffeine than your average cup of tea.
  • Light exercise like yoga, pilates, and swimming are fine, but no “jumping exercises.”

My other concern was, of course, travel, but that was given the green light as long as I have no complications. Most airlines allow travel up to 28 weeks without a doctor’s note and up to 35 weeks with medical clearance. Whether your flight is short or long-haul, it’s advised to get up and move around every hour or so (good advice even for non-preggos) and choose the aisle seat. As I get bigger, I find puffing out my stomach as much as possible helps to get baggage assistance, and seats on the subway is good too.

The costs of prenatal care in Turkey are low: each of my appointments to a top-end private hospital cost just over $100 USD even with NO insurance (my U.S. insurance treats all international care as out-of-network and thus, out-of-pocket), even with ultrasounds at every visit–most American women get only a few over the course of the pregnancy. I’ll pay less for childbirth with a private room and catered meals for the family than I would for a shared room in a New York hospital. I rarely wait more than a few minutes to see the doctor, and the facilities and equipment are new and clean.

So far, Turkey has proved fairly easy to navigate as a pregnant person. I’ve never had a doctor who I could easily email with problems (such as which cold medicines were okay to take when I was sick in Russia), and everyone I meet is helpful with my concerns and questions. Istanbul is built on hills, so walking to the store can mean a fairly strenuous hike, but modern Turkey accommodates with online food and grocery delivery. Organic food is cheaper than at home, and nearly all of my cravings have been satisfied so far (though I could go for some American mac-and-cheese). I’m not yet halfway through the pregnancy but wouldn’t hesitate to reassure another expat that Turkey is a fine place to have a baby.

*Note: none of this is intended to be taken as medical advice, but rather my personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Talk to your own doctor about warnings and concerns before traveling to a foreign country, pregnant or otherwise.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

Weekending: Bodrum/Greece


As an expat in Istanbul, I am very fortunate to have awesome opportunities for short trips around Europe and the Middle East. My previous weekend jaunt was to Beirut, Lebanon. Though the current 90+ degree weather is ruling out a lot of domestic travel for now, for my next getaway, I made like the locals and headed south to the beach.

The place: Bodrum, Turkey

The Bodrum peninsula fancies itself the Turkish Riviera, though the town proper feels a bit more like the Jersey Shore, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Bodrum coast (like the Jersey Shore) has great beaches and fun nightlife, though it lacks the sophistication of other European beach towns and the coastline is getting more developed each season. Still, there’s charm left in Bodrum town, beautiful castle and harbor views, and easy boat access to more secluded spots in Turkey and even Greece. Big and boutique resorts with private beaches (many of them jetties) line the sea though you may have to rent a car or rely on taxis and dolmuses (minibuses) to get around. As we wanted to stay in a walkable area with restaurants nearby, we chose the Su Hotel in town, on a quiet street close to the harbor, with a good-sized pool and friendly service.
%Gallery-99196%Upgrades

  • Water is the big draw to Bodrum, though the town itself has only a few small strips of beach, with most of the beach clubs and resorts in neighboring towns like Bitez and Gümbet. The few town beaches are small but serviceable, as well as convenient and most often free, though you may be obliged to buy a drink from one of the adjoining cafes. If you’re after the wide, sandy beach experience, you’re better off in a resort outside of town or taking day trips.
  • Hop on a boat and be in Greece in an hour. From the ferry, you can walk to a beach where 5 euro will get you two chairs, some bottled water, and an umbrella. Pleasant Kos Town doesn’t have a wealth of tourist attractions, but does remind you how NOT European Turkey is, if only for the good wine, availability of pork, and sensible city planning. Alternatively, boat trips are offered all over town to nearby islands and coves in Turkey.

Downgrades

  • While sometimes it’s pleasant to visit a foreigner-friendly city where English is widely spoken and familiar foods are available, after seeing the third cafe in a row serving a full English breakfast, Bodrum’s popularity with Brits and Australians becomes overwhelming and almost demoralizing. I happened to be in town during the England-Germany World Cup match, and the English loss could be heard up and down the streets. On the plus side, a nice book market on Cumhuriyet Caddesi towards the east end sells English books for as little as 5 TL.
  • You don’t come to Bodrum for sightseeing, but the main attractions can still be a little disappointing. The Castle of St. Peter holds the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (admittedly, I hoped it would actually BE underwater) and while the views from the castle are spectacular and several of the exhibits are interesting, the highlights (the cool-sounding Glass Shipwreck and remains of a Carian princess) are only open Tuesday – Friday. Imagine if New York’s Met Museum closed the Temple of Dendur on weekends or the Louvre limited days to see the Mona Lisa?! Likewise, the Mausoleum might have once been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but not much of it remains.

Getting there

Bodrum is an hour flight from Istanbul, with sporadic direct flights from continental Europe in season. The airport is 60 kilometers from town and a pricey 90 TL taxi ride, but a shuttle bus connects with domestic flights for 17 TL. If you have early or late flights, be sure to factor in the round-trip taxi fare to the cost of your travel. Ferries depart for Kos (also Rhodes) in the morning and return late afternoon for around 55 TL.

Make it a week

Get your bearings in Bodrum town and then sail a gulet yacht for a cruise along the Aegean. Booking a cabin will cost from 400 euro per person including meals (but not alcohol), crew, fuel, and taxes for a week, chartering the whole yacht can run thousands of euro but can work for a group of friends or family. Do your homework and shop around; Turkey Travel Planner is a good primer.