Archive | June, 2012


16 Jun

it’s been a busy week. about a week ago i woke up early in the morning, having slept maybe only two hours the moments before. i had to wake up before my flight around 5 a.m. packing that early in the morning, so tired, is not easy.

then it was off to the airport in dubai. check-in. security. on a plane for a few hours. i find myself in istanbul. layover for a few hours. the tiredness creeping again in my bones.

then i end up in paris. i have to take the metro to the hostel. a transfer between the way.


ethics of fieldwork

6 Jun

My “ride” came to pick me up early this afternoon. I thought this entire time I was heading to the church for a service. Better that it be a big congregation so that I could just hide in the background. Instead, it was much more than that. The two people greeted me the same warm smiles and cheer they had shown me a week earlier. The minister, in particular, had the same charming, boyish style that left such an impression on me from before. Despite my stuttering Korean, these two, I recalled still were incredibly friendly and understanding. The Korean Church abroad: friendliness just a phone call a way. But wait, I soon discovered we weren’t going to the church. Instead, we headed straight back to my guest house. “Is the owner a believer?” they both asked me, their tone becoming suddenly, and unexpectedly, serious. “Um… I think she said she didn’t really go but I’m not entirely sure.” “We could go in, but then it might be awkward,” the minister who was driving told his “partner” behind me quietly. The two deliberated some more as I wondered… What situation am I in right now?


New folks have arrived. It appears to be a short stay, maybe only a day or so for each of the three. And yet, I’m happy just to have company. Been alone too long with the old fogie guesthouse owners. The ahjuma (older woman) is a sweetheart with her constant chattiness, smile, and general concern for my well-being. It’s enough, almost, for me to see past the unabashedly racist and “classist” things she tends to say about “dirty Chinese,” “low-class Indians,” and the like. However, as a reluctant “social scientist” I’m learning to take such comments in stride. It should always be less about having an “my god!” reaction than it is sincerely asking (only to oneself more often than not) WHY and HOW they came to feel that way. That is how change occurs, after all, doesn’t it? But I digress.


The man of the house, however, is a figure in gruffness.

it’s june and i’m blue

2 Jun

found something of a routine here finally. it’s been an intense week and a half throughout. i’m realizing i’ve been here only since last wednesday and yet i’ve already done so much. and yet i feel there is still so much i need to do. for refuge:


2 Jun

if the history of a concept or practice is different from one context to another, how appropriate are certain “local” words in trying to define it? when my korean guesthouse owner says “koreans in the middle east do ‘high-class’ work–not like the chinese or filipinos,” what gets gained and lost by labeling her disturbing comment, “racist?” for one, it glosses overly the highly classed nature of her outlook. class, race, and gender tend to be chicken and egg concepts, of course. they intersect, mess, and scatter out with one another in different moments and under different conditions. her logic appears equally complex, i’m presuming. nevertheless, it may look like the following: people she sees outside her (she admits) sheltered life indoors are different. somehow they fit her basic of categories of difference: korean and non-korean. within this binary is another level of stratification: emiratis, white europeans, and other arabs on top. koreans and japanese (the few that are here) occupy the UPPER middle rungs, and everyone else not worth mentioning are below (read: filipina/os, indians, sri lankans, and other brown folks). next.

can i call what’s happening here “tribal?” where things get reduced very quickly. you’re dark so i think you’re this. you’re chinky looking so you’re this. but wait, don’t call me chinese because i’m with LG and SAMSUNG “you know, the tvs! lcds! not chinese! not low-class!”

it’s rampant. somehow the 95 degree heat outside only magnifies the spatial isolation and “tribal” thinking. it seems always under the surface. to the point where when i see white “ex-pats”–inevitably almost always european or from down under–that i think automatically, “man, i wonder if you even HAVE bad experiences cuz of your color here. or are you just oblivious to it?” maybe too harsh, but it’s there for sure. and i’m certainly not exempt from it–although i fight actively to confront my prejudices. more often than not i suffer from a kind of naive HOPE that we can just get past that shit and relate on some level, have a conversation. but here (although perhaps not so different than any other city) most people seem content to be drones in their routines: i get in the taxi cab and the driver is indian–standard at this point. “indian music” in the background. i think, i should try to make use of these “ethnographic moments.” “you drive a long time?” i ask. “huh?” he turns around, lazily startled that someone in the back seat doesn’t just sit mute. then he looks confused. he probably doesn’t understand what i’m saying, something i’ve encountered more often than not among the foreigners i meet here who are not automatically distinguishable as “western” from their accents, sartorial styles, or pigmentation. “14 years,” he says curtly and then keeps driving turning the radio volume up again. “you like dubai?” i ask. he looks tired, as though even more speech would exert too much undue effort. “yes, i like,” he says unenthusiastically. keeps driving.

so much for conversation, i think. yes, i’m the privileged (asian) american “grad student” here to “study people,” instead of the hard-knock experience of driving a cab, serving mcdonalds burgers, or greeting people with samples at the grocery store. i’m highly sheltered in that sense. and yet, the experience is still highly alienating. and i still have feelings. days like the last few have been blue for sure.

i go into the local lebanese bakery nearby. there are plenty of foreigners, white euros, south asians, arabs, and even the full-body-clad emirati women and white-adorned emirati men in the general neighborhood. why would the lebanese bakery down the street be any different? and even if it were, they’d probably be generally friendly to me, no? i walk in. looks like only arabs go in this bakery, i think. oh well, let ‘s see what happens if *I* go inside. can’t be too bad. besides, i love arabic sweets.

the first thing i sense are the stares behind the counters by the bakers. i look around quietly. it appears i am the only person noticeably, visibly different. play it cool, i think. i look at the sweets behind the counter. mmm, i think. then i gesture for the lebanese guy behind the counter to get this and that. he seems frustrated by my requests. again, he doesn’t seem to understand. a faux pas on my part, no question–this i’m not afraid to admit. i walk into a store with my ugly american english. better if i were to try to at least attempt arabic. nevermind. he begrudgingly gets me my order. later, as i pay, another cashier behind the register nearly throws me back my change. i say thank you and leave feeling empty.

still, even those “social rejections” are important to experience, telling, educational. is it possible they read me as a “dirty chinese” or filipino in the vein of my sweet but unredeemably racist korean guest house owners? i wonder.

finally, i stop by for a burger at mcdonalds thinking, this is the litmus test when abroad. how does THEIR big mac fair? (as i “cheat” again against my better nature to avoid meat–here, unfortunately, it’s a near impossibility). i order the big mac meal while the filipino responds in tagalog-infused english, “do you want beef or chicken?” wha? i’m thinking. what does a CHICKEN big mac look like? gotta try that next time, i think. “thank you, come again,” he says with a broad smile. don’t mean to overanalyze this, but here i’m treated like gold. i’m the east asian, he’s the southeast asian filipino. for better or worse, the “latino” of the middle east and east asia. clearly a power dynamic here i think, that or it’s mcdonalds and their culture of happy fakeness. but contrast that with the lebanese who seemed to send me the clear message that i wasn’t welcome made me wonder again… in this place, the hierarchies very well be as clearly defined as my guesthouse owners have implied. perhaps they speak such badly of indians, chinese, and filipinos because they’ve experienced the humiliation, confusion, or discomfort of being targeted because of how they look? i get a taste of it here and there here. but, of course, it’s never completely bad. at the end of the day, my privilege will probably always protect me. can’t say the same for everyone here.

i’ve been reading “a handbook for social science field research” lately in preparation for my workshop in france next week. one scholar wrote how one universal of fieldwork is that it is hard. i’m reminded yet again of how true this is.