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]

Museum Month: The Tenement Museum In New York’s Lower East Side

Often, the sights that are just around the corner are the ones that you somehow never get around to exploring. You say that you’ll go one day, but there’s never a real rush. You tell yourself that it will always be there.

For me, that sight is the Tenement Museum, located in the heart of New York City‘s Lower East Side, a block and a half from the apartment I’ve called home for the past three years.

The Tenement Museum celebrates New York’s immigrants by exploring the history of a single tenement building at 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863. From the outside, the museum doesn’t look too different from the other apartment buildings on the block, including my own. But inside lies a rich tapestry of stories tracking the major immigration waves of the 19th- and 20th- centuries, starting with the Germans and followed by Eastern European Jews and Italians.

lower east side tenement museum

There are three ways to experience the Tenement Museum: by exploring the carefully restored apartments at 97 Orchard; by taking walking tours of the neighborhood; or by attending a “meet the residents” session, which allows guests to interact with costumed interpreters depicting people who once lived in the building.

On a recent Sunday, I opted for a building tour that was focused on the experience of sweatshop workers. At one time, the Lower East Side was the center of the American garment industry, particularly in the 1860s when the neighborhood was bustling with workers churning out Civil War military uniforms. Most work was completed in small home-based garment workshops, in cramped and often overheated quarters.

The tour started with a visit to the garment workshop of Harris Levine, a Russian tailor whose 1900 census data provided the basis for the space’s recreation. The guide explained how workers would work an average of 70 hours per week, crammed into tiny quarters along with the boss’s wife and children.

lower east side tenement museum

Once garment factories were introduced at the turn of the century, units at 97 Orchard became slightly more spacious and tailored for family living. A visit to the Rogarshevsky apartment, which was inhabited in the 1910s and 1920s, provided a look at the changing nature of the neighborhood as immigrants started to assimilate and economic conditions started to improve.

The building was condemned in 1935, which is where the museum’s focus ends. But stepping out into the traffic and construction of Allen Street, it was evident that life in today’s Lower East Side isn’t too different from the world depicted inside the Tenement Museum. It is still a neighborhood of immigrants, crammed together in tiny apartments, working like maniacs to survive… just today with higher rents and more espresso bars.

[Images via Tenement Museum]

Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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Watching bullfights with my five-year-old

bullfight, bullfights
One of the facts an immigrant has to accept is that your children aren’t going to grow up in the same culture you did.

When I want to give my five-year-old son a treat, I take him to dinner at El Brillante here in Madrid. You can’t get more traditional than El Brillante–an old-school cafeteria/bar that hasn’t had a remodel since forever, with hefty waiters who scream your order back to the kitchen. All the traditional dishes are on offer, and people throw their napkins on the floor. This may sound gross, but it’s more hygienic than putting your chorizo-grease-stained napkins on the same surface as the plates. Adapting to a new culture involves lots of little shifts in perception.

We walked in the other night and a bullfight was on the television. My son was immediately transfixed, not because of the program but because he got to see a TV. We don’t own one. Spanish TV is as dumb as American TV, and with fewer channels.

I hesitated, wondering whether we should stay. I don’t like bullfights but I also don’t like breaking promises to my kid, and this is one of his favorite places to eat.Then I began to think. Bullfights are controversial here in Spain. Last year the region of Catalonia banned bullfights and many Spaniards see them as a national embarrassment, my wife included. They’re still popular, though, and get lots of coverage. If he hasn’t seen a bullfight already, he’s bound to see one on TV sooner or later–at his grandmother’s house, another restaurant, or a friend’s place. I’d rather he saw it with me than someone whose judgment I may or may not trust. So we sat down and ordered.

Is five too young to see a bullfight? Yes and no. I’m his father. My job isn’t to shelter him from the ugliness of the world, my job is to prepare him for the ugliness of the world. Bullfighting is part of Spanish culture and we’re both going to have to deal with it. He sees bad stuff every day, like the homeless guys drinking themselves to death in the park. There are limits to what I’ll let him see, though. When the news showed the carnage of a suicide bombing in Pakistan, I covered his eyes. I should have covered mine too.

While a bullfight is a needless display of cruelty, there are at least two sides to every issue. After it’s killed the bull is eaten. Bulls live a free-range and well-fed existence, unlike the factory cows penned into stalls so tiny they can’t even turn around. I’ve always been amused by people who get righteously indignant about bullfights and then go eat a hamburger.

A bull has a pleasant life until the last fifteen minutes, when it suffers pain and terror before being killed and eaten. In other words, it has much the same life it would have in the natural world. If I was to be reborn as a bovine, I’d choose a bull’s life hands down.

We ordered our food and my son perched on his stool and watched TV. The last time we were here he was equally entranced by a reality show about a 73 year-old man learning how to cook. But this was no cooking show. As usual, the bull had to be goaded into a killing frenzy. Horsemen called picadores speared the bull, and three banderilleros run out with pairs of spikes and jabbed them into its back. Bloodied, weakened, and enraged, the bull was ready to meet torero or matador. A young man in an elaborate suit walks towards the animals wielding a cape and sword.

“Do you know why he carries a sword?” I asked my son.

“No.”

“Because he’s going to kill the bull.”

He turned to me with surprise. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“But sometimes the bull kills the torero,” he said.

“Sometimes.”

He turned back to watch. I wondered again whether this was a good idea. Farm kids see animals killed, as do children in the developing world, so really it’s our urban, First World culture that’s in the minority with this.

The torero had a tough time. After making a few impressive passes, the bull got wise and stopped just in front of the cape and sideswiped the torero. The guy retreated behind a barrier while two assistants distracted the bull. After a minute he summoned enough courage to go back out. He’d lost his confidence, though, and only made the bull do a few passes before using his sword to finish it off. It was a pointless spectacle, not nearly as entertaining as most bloodless sports. I get the impression that in another generation bullfighting will die. The average age of the spectators almost guarantees it.

By this time my son wasn’t so entranced. He was paying more attention to his salchicas del pais con pimientos and was treating the slaughter on the screen with very Spanish indifference. Being Canadian, I could never be that indifferent to a bullfight.

“So what do you think of bullfighting?” I asked.

“It’s OK,” he shrugged. “Not as good as football, though.”

And by football, of course, he means soccer. Chalk up another difference between him and his old man.

[Image courtesy Marcus Obal]

Gallery: More travel sketches from BBC’s Tim Baynes

travel sketches
We wrote yesterday about Tim Baynes’ delightful travel sketches from around the world on BBC and liked them so much we came back for more. You can (and should!) get lost for hours looking at his drawings on Flickr with fun anecdotes and scribbles bringing depth and humor to his slice-of-life artwork.

Check out some of our favorites in the gallery below, from a look inside the BBC Starbucks to the madness of Dubai immigration during the ash cloud to a quiet barbershop in Tripoli.

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See more of Tim Baynes’ work on the BBC, his personal Flickr stream, or order a copy of his book Doors to Automatic and Cross Check, direct from the artist.



All photos courtesy of Tim Baynes.