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.


grocery stores in 95 degree heat

23 May

walking out of the “korean world” of my guesthouse and it’s night and day. weather is oppressive and hot but the freedom to roam is terrific. it reminds me of why i love traveling so much. i don’t care so much for the touristy sights and sounds, although those are always very nice. it’s the mundane, everyday stuff. that’s what gets me.

walked around a bit and thought, this isn’t so bad. it was around 10 a.m. and probably 85. by 12:30 it would hit 95. surprisingly, it’s actually bearable enough to walk around, although you’d be hard pressed to do it without some water on you. for me, it was two cokes, bought at a mcdonalds nearby. less than half a mile really. they really are everywhere aren’t they? moreover, food here is cheap. a small coke costs around 80 cents. 3 dirhams to be exact. but with 3.6 dirhams equaling a dollar my math says i bought a drink for less than a dollar.

i’ve always loved grocery stores in locations i’m not familiar with. based on this criteria, almost any grocery store will interest me, including ones even in “remote” places in “rural” parts of california far from what i’m used to in southern california. all the more so for grocery stores in dubai. after about 10 minutes of walking around here and there in the small suburban area that is the guesthouse’s surroundings, i found a supermarket/”stripmall” area within walking distance of the residence. by the time i got there, the heat got so bad i felt desperate for relief. interestingly, all the while i recall saying to myself, “this isn’t so bad.”

similar food with the addition of more “exotic” ones here and there, like “ALL HALAL” food signs and interesting candies. then there’s the arabic on the boxes. and plenty of women completely in black from head (and face) to toe. minus that, it’s pretty mundane, normal stuff. just at the grocery to shop. the local is foreign. the foreign local. all it takes is a plane trip, a bus trip, or a walk to blur this border.


first morning in dubai

23 May

9:04 am

slept around 5 am – surfing the net, one of the few familiar things i had in this strange new land – not necessarily dubai mind you but living in another person’s ‘house,’ back in the grind with having to speak korean constantly, minding my forms of speech, and always adding the obligatory, “i’m sorry my korean is so bad” at the beginning of each social interaction. already off to a slightly crappy foot. the airline, dutch, didn’t bring my bags. there was a line of other similarly sorry souls like myself yesterday. i like them have to wait until tonight or maybe even tomorrow morning for the basics. no chargers, leaving me with this new mini-notebook whose advertised “10 hours of battery life” is more of a lie than anything else. i’m lucky if i get 5 hours. meanwhile, yesterday after so much commuting, hours on a bus, hours waiting at o’hare, hours on a flight to amsterdam than the same in the airport, to dubai, to customs lines, baggage claim (then lost), to commutes and awkward meetings with my new guest house “owner.” tired.

had to do my laundry by hand in the sink and left it to dry last night i had no clothes. better to do it by hand lest i wanna stink all day today from my travels yesterday.

rudely awakened around 8 am. “food. eat and then you can sleep” was the owners few words. i heard he’s from gyeongsando, a region my mom’s from where the men, in particular are stereotyped as gruff and monosyllabic. he’s not helping the stereotype. still, he seems kind enough, helping me with the basics – a phone, etc. still, at 8 am hoping to get more shut-eye, hardly hungry i thought, shit you gotta be kidding me. i am not in the mood to wake up this early.

coming down, i was in a sour mood. but i knew i had to be “on” immediately. at the table were two korean guys, probably in their 30s to 40s. apparently, both work in the construction industry, although my koraen vocabularly is too rusty to have caught exactly where they worked. i said hello as the korean owner introduced me gruffly. “this is a guy from the u.s. studying here in dubai.” the two guys give me their best korean guy welcome–sort of a korean version of the male “head nod” thing in the u.s. only less obvious. i sit thinking, shit, i gotta formulate questions in my head now. i still find myself translating things in my head, filtering them, and then making an attempt in korean. i guess for the most part i did alright. one of them was more chatty than the others, frequently asking me where i was from, how old i was, etc. the other kept asking the chatty one questions, while making less of an attempt to say anything to me. it’s the first morning, i thought. plus, i’m still a zombie so don’t expect too much. still, i just wanted to eat my food, be cordial, and then do my thing later. not really too much in the mood to be ‘on’ at 8 in the morning.

turns out the one guy was here only temporarily–the company sent him, he said. then he kept asking me if educational dorminatories (dorms for students?) were available only in “big cities.” how expensive they were and the like. i told him it depended on the city and proceeded to ask if he had ever been the u.s. he said no but that he had hoped to send his kids there for school. whether champaign, ilinois or dubai, ua koreans don’t seem al that different. the same concerns throughout – education, hopes to go to the u.s. then the guy went on about his daughter wanting to attend some fancy school on the east coast. somewhere near north carolina i think. he said it was prestigious and asked if i had heard of it. i hadn’t but feigned that i did to maintain some semblance of rapport. then the two guys continued talking to each other. a lot more side dishes than i had expected. fried shrimp tempora, seafood, seafood dwengjang soup. the works – and still only 8 am. shit, hope lunch isn’t this heavy, i thought. “eat eat” was the owner’s wifes words to me. not before asking if i ever had eaten korean food before. i smiled and said, of course. this, i’ve also experienced in abundance while living in korea – a sense that if you’re a korean american – you might never eat korean food. i guess they can’t make the distinction between us and adoptees. yes, i eat koraen food. but oh well, not a big deal – just smile and say thank you, the food was delicious–which, thankfully, was actually the case.

i asked the quieter guy how life was in dubai. he said it was very different. the weather for one. but i got the impression that he planned on going back first thing he could to korea. such a liminal state here, i thought. made me think of my folks back home. the owner of the guesthouse also waxing nostalgic about their own son abroad in australia… i’m using his cell phone now. it made me wonder what their lives really are here – or any of the “displaced” or “mobile.” i remember asking the owner in the car yesterday as we drove quietly past the amazing dubai skyline (much more expansive than i had thought it be – not so unlike new york in its CONCRETEness) how he ended up in dubai. he said he originally had come for work in saudi arabia. according to him, saudi arabia is much more conservative than it is here in dubai. it’s “freer” here in dubai, if my korean serves me correctly.

back to the theme on aspirations… i wonder why it’s not “my son is attending school in abu dhabi” or “africa” or what not. but back to the familiar places in the west. i live here in dubai – now going on 20 years, but my son is in australia. is this space in the middle east still so liminal. do they imagine it as such? i wonder. also, how much of it is gendered, as i chat hesitently with those two men not so much older than me–but who joke i look much younger than i do. which i know and should expect, especially after practically shaving my head – in a style most korean men would associate with a new recruit in the army.

the owner of the korean guesthouse sits in his couch as we eat – just like a scene out of a dozen back home in ca, chicago, or new york around relatives or acquaintances. the man, the king of the castle, on his couch watching KBS – this time an animal special on sloths. something my dad probably would be watching alone himself back in california. indeed, the diaspora continues almost wholesale across time and space. but what doesn’t? I noticed calendars on the wall, the kind i find in my own home. cheesy koraen decorations or artwork with korean text and the name of a company on the bottom. this time the address said, DUBAI, though. funny how different it feels reading that, and yet the actually “text” itself is virtually the same as something i’d find in koreatown in california.

my bathroom – hell even the toilet and showerhead are something out of korea. the single channel i have in my room, complete with JVC brand tv  and samsung vcr/dvd player – “KBS world” with korean dramas on loop. guess i don’t have to worry about where i can get my korean fix everyday. i wonder if the korean women i’ll meet are any different? if they express less a longing to go back to korea – although this is less an open sentiment i’ve heard than one i’ve assumed – than a sense of satisfaction here.

only my first day, but i’m already feeling a bit confined. not even sure if i can just walk around outside, save for the background with pool and lawn–again, something not so different than what i might find in chino hills or riverside (the latter more so with the intense heat already in the morning).

thinking back to tariq and nadra, the two kind dubayyans i met yesterday. how different their narrative and affect was compared to the korean folks i’m meeting so far. of course, this seems gendered as well. nadra was more than happy to keep chatting – the happy-go-lucky emirati woman more than happy to inform me on this new land, its people, and how so many people outside still get it wrong. her husband, himself a bit gruff, but increasingly so–i started to infer–because his english actually is not as good as that of his wife. but still in the quiter moments as we sat next to each other on the plane – he’d give a warm smile or a gesture that if i needed anything while i was here, not to hesitate to contact them–two people i just met for the first time. are they the “natives” putting on a good face for me the “anthropologist” here to study them and their ways, to put a different spin on this place most koreans-like the construction working men i met this morning-say don’t really know about or actually follow through on coming to visit; instead coming only as tourists on holiday or honeymoon STOPPING OVER ON THEIR WAY to another destination like europe?

before i came, i wondered “how i’d be read” here. save for tariq and nadra, some customs folks at the airport, and a handful of “expats” i met crossing customs, i’ve been read like i was back in korea or in italy – at times american, korean american, and perhaps sometimes east asian. something i noticed in the airport. there are so many more men here than women, in general, and mostly south asian, indian or pakistani (althoguh i can only guess). i was probably the only “east asian” guy around 30 in the airport. there were only a few i saw, either as tourists or perhaps on business i assumed. but the demographic makeup of this place certainly is something to think about. maybe i will check out one of those “expat” spaces to see what else is out there. if one of the most common laments i hear about this place is how spatially segregated and hard it is to meet people, then i’m sure i’ll get a taste of that in time.

meanwhile, more korean studying to do in the interim. it’s the only way i might get a little more comfortable with these people i’m still reluctant to “study.”

brad pitt again and pigeons

13 May

saw an early interview on-line with brad pitt. he said he arrived in hollywood from his hometown of st. louis with something like 100 bucks in his pants. and now he’s a STAH! yet another example of the “waiter-to-actor” mystique, i thought. makes me wonder, for all the harold and kumars (problematic films, of course), female-directed “hurt locker”‘s, POC mira nair’s or margaret cho’s out there… how UNviable if not utterly suicidal is it still for someone who doesn’t remotely look, resemble, or mimic (i.e., is male, white, straight,” speaks non-accented euro-american english) a brad pitt (or angelina jolie… yes she’s still scary, but she’d be the “female” counterpart in this equation) to just come to hollywood on a whim, hoping to land a part and make it big?

change has happened for the better, no doubt. but hollywood remains a pretty crap place for the unconventional. at the same time, placing too much blame on it probably isn’t so helpful. after all, hollywood still indexes as much what most americans–if not most of the world–continues to equate as the west:  hip, cool, modern, and desirable remains whatever incarnation of human edges closer and closer to what looks and talks like (ug) brangelina. then again, chicken and egg. does hollywood produce this image? or do audiences? more likely, the relationship is  dialectical, back and forth. so blame both and not just one for staying sexist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic.

switching gears to a lighter topic, i heard that they still eat pidgeons as a delicacy in most countries, including france and egypt. apparently these flying rats are quite tasty. i’ve never had a particular aversion to them (alive, that is) unlike many people i know. in fact, i’ve always appreciated their presence, usually in whatever big city i’ve visited. for me, they serve as a kind of “control” group for analyzing particular cities i visit as tourist. for instance, if they’re real fat and plump, like i’ve seen them in paris and chicago, i think, “these cities must have a lot of food lying around cuz of tourists. that, or the pigeons are just more resourceful at getting food when they need it.” on the flip side, some of the saddest, thinnest pigeons i saw were in prague in december.

saw in another clip that some saudis like to eat camels. the fresher the better. that means the younger the better. that means picking out of the crop baby camels still weaning off their mothers. seems particularly cruel, if you ask me. then again, guess it’s not so different than the cows we eat with our hamburgers. different strokes. gotta be careful not to get on our high horses with these comparisons.

does genius exist?

11 May

i had a lively discussion with someone i know about the idea of genius. it was quite mind-expanding, i must say. then again, it also was a bit frustrating but only insomuch as it made me wonder what other prejudices i might still harbor (and need to continually confront). so it was probably a “good kind of pain.”

it all started when i said my dad had been described as a “genius” throughout his life–by relatives, my mom, other folks i’ve known. while i’ve always found this descriptor somewhat suspect, i would be lying if i didn’t find the comment at least somewhat pleasant (in the kind of grudgingly arrogant way you think, “yeah, that’s where my gene pool’s at!” i am smart!”. then again, minus the ego fluff, i actually did think my dad still was a “genius” in many ways–if we’re to use the term in its broadest sense. for the purposes of this discussion, i’d define it mostly as an INNATE ability/capacity/propensity (maybe not all the same thing?) to do CERTAIN (admittedly not ALL) tasks at a level the vast majority of other people cannot do. if i think of my dad, i’d say, sure why not. he fits this definition: his problem-solving abilities, knack for fixing nearly anything in the house, and general uber-intelligence with math still impresses. but how fair is it to call all this “genius?”

according to my friend, to do so is a load of bull. in the context of koreans/korean americans, the myth or “fetish” (as she put it) surrounding discourses of genius are as problematic as they are pervasive. what do i think of such an assessment? she convinced me–for the most part, at least. more on that later, though–in depth. the short of it, the granting of “genius” is still not divorced from larger SOCIAL processes, namely those that remain highly sexist, classist, and racist. case in point, all the “genuises” of the world who are famous… yeah, like 90% men. can’t think of hardly any i’m aware of who are not of the “west,” either. so, that’s one thing…

more on this later.

5:57 PM CST

9 May

sometimes i think i am technologically unsavvy. this is a point a number of people have teased me about. but i am getting better. case in point, i figured out how to work out certain parts of web design (http://ips.illinois.edu/ifuss/Exchanges.html)–an emphasis on SOME.

i bet there ARE studies out there that actually try to quantify how someone with more ‘tech’ skills makes more money than those without. but i’m wondering where the line is drawn among those with moderate tech skills–say, your average grad student. all of us know microsoft. printing, scanning, and light web-design operations. power point, of course. then there are the mac people who always seem to know a little more. that or they just have programs they use on their computers that seem cooler and more sophisticated. so within this pool of “generally adequate in tech skills” people, who wins out? when, where, why, and how?

according to someone i know, the way i write on this blog is not so different than how i speak in real life. how much does our ‘voice’ internally match that of our voice eternally? how often do we wonder this? maybe never.

there might be something to this given that so many amazing writers i have met also appear to have been socially awkward–at least in person. in what ways might the cultivation of one diminish or enhance the other? of course, it probably isn’t this cut and dry. just the same, it’s an interesting point to dwell on. when i’ve read student’s papers in the past as a t.a., oftentimes i was struck by just how different the person on paper seemed versus the person in the class. for instance, whereas some students came across as quiet, inarticulate, or even clueless during class, there voices ON PAPER, very often, shined. one female student, in particular, was an amazingly coherent, eloquent writer. i believe i gave her an a+. yet, in person, she never spoke and always seemed grumpy. so, yes, this probably has more to do with issues of personality, vulnerability (i.e., how much you want to express, when and in what situations/forums), but i still wonder. makes you think about those actors on screen who might sound so eloquent, worldly, or smart only to crumble when there’s no script during an interview. robert deniro comes to mind. i wonder if the opposite happens, as well. someone who’s a “terrible writer” but an amazing speaker?


10:04 PM CST

9 May

had a old “roll” of peanut butter cookies you get in the “cold section” of the market. what’s that brand with that white, creepy figure? pilsbury, no? right, that’s the version i got. anyway, been sitting there for weeks now. after my very humble dinner of white bread and turkey (yes, this blog post is confessional–i’m cheating! – my version of smoking… but we all relapse, no? i’ll get “back on the path,” i swear, after the pain of this semester ends in 2 weeks… i promise, alex) i had the craving for desert. wonder what that urge is all about. the need to “complete” a meal. this is ironic given how irregular my meals tend to be. i might eat at 9 or 10 PM at night but still have the need for some sort of regularity, completion. eat veggies or fruits first, then the heavier meal. polish off with “desert.” hmmm… 

speaking of food, looked for old clips of bourdain in dubai–since i’ll be heading there soon. i brought up this point to others but it bears repeating. the dude seriously has imperialist nostalgia issues. this is interesting in that he constantly frames himself as the anti-imperialist–more culturally sensitive and in-tune with the “locals/natives” than his shadow foils: other (inevitably non-new yorker) ugly americans. examples: a whole special on the wonders of street food or food porn. the vast majority of features – always on the same locales: vietnam, singapore, shanghai, and repeat shots of japan this, japan that. korea doesn’t even get a mention. not trying to go the korean nationalist route here but it is still telling that the one episode he featured of my “motherland” left him unabashedly unimpressed. south korea’s crime? it was too “western.” not pristine enough in its nativeness, instead just another cheap imitation, a “periphery” knock-off from the more sophisticated, albeit culturally and morally debased “core,” i.e., the u.s. (save, of course, new york). and yet, i still like the guy. guy’s a good writer, what can i say. even chauvinists can be marvelous company, in moderation.