Thursday, May 31, 2012

South Korea: Annoying Things that Foreigners do, written by a Foreigner

On this last day of Asian Heritage month, I bring you another episode of "Annoying things that Foreigners do, written by a Foreigner", the South Korean edition. This segment was guest written by my good friend Ryan Patey, founder and editor of T.O.F.U. Magazine and about a zillion other projects. Currently, he lives in Daegu, South Korea, as a children's book editor. As a side note, I would like his job.

Here's what Ryan has to say:

By no means am I a seasoned traveller, but sadly after spending six months in South Korea, and taking two trips to Thailand, I believe I've seen enough instances of foreigners doing annoying things that I can write about it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not pulling a "holier than thou" routine here. I'm just as guilty as anyone else on most of these things, but I think calling everyone, including myself, out on this shit could do us all a world of good. Or it might at least help to avoid giving the people that live/work/play in the countries we have the privilege of visiting another headache from our shenanigans.

So, in no particular order, here are a few pet peeves I've come to develop over my time outside of my homeland:

1) Assuming the person you need to talk to understands English, or any other native tongue outside of the one their country has been using before and after you graced them with your presence.

Despite the efforts of various powers, and perhaps even your fine teaching skills, English has not wiped out every other language. It's done a great job of erasing a lot of them, but there are still a number of them to keep things interesting enough to make you walking into a Burger King a minor cultural experience for all involved (I’ll admit the lack of a veggie burger was no major shock, but I’m still not sure what a bulgogi burger is!). Don't start it off on the wrong foot by assaulting someone with the language you think everyone should know simply because you do.

Simply asking if the person knows English can go a long way. If they’re comfortable with using English, then you’re good to go. If they are not, then break out the guidebooks, online translator, or whatever else you can think of to find a common ground. Just don’t act like the onus is on them to cater to you. It’s not.

2) Assuming the people around you do not know English and thus you can judge them, their country, their culture, or some other element of their lives even while they're within earshot.

Even though it may sometimes seem to you like everyone you need to communicate with lacks a basic understanding of English, assuming that the people next to you at the cafe, bar, or bus do not know what you're saying while you express to your friend how funny it is that the locals do this, their food tastes like that, or their country smells like something you'd rather forget is just ignorant. If it ever puts you in an awkward situation of having to apologize to someone, I hope they know enough English to truly put you in your place.

3) Disrespecting authority figures and/or local rules and customs.

Just because they may not be able to communicate easily with you in English does not mean those with authority deserve any less respect than a similar figure in your home country. Similarly, if you don't understand a rule or custom, it doesn't mean you should ignore or ridicule it. Granted, there are some things that are simply wrong and deserve to be questioned, but I’m thinking more in terms of the little things like keeping quiet on a train or not taking pictures of temples, important monuments, etc…

If the locals are not thankful for your actions, or you’re doing it covertly and giggling at the same time, chances are you fall under this pet peeve.

4) Complaining about how you would kill for a "normal" anything.

You're in a foreign country. What you grew up with is not "normal". It's all relative, and acting as if the things you know are the universal standard reeks of far too much bullshit to dissect here. If you're going to travel, soak in the world around you. It's all "normal" to someone, and having you whine about how "backwards" something is because it's not like your country is just a sign that you’re probably not really ready to “see the world” yet.

5) Spending your time out with friends (both local and foreign) by talking about how strange something is compared to back home, and how silly it was for it to be different from what you have grown to expect.

You don't enjoy sitting and listening to someone criticize your culture, pastimes, neighbourhood, etc… How do you think someone else would feel about it? Not to mention the fact that you're most likely alienating some folks in the group when you could be including them by talking about a million other things. You have common interests between all of you; don’t make the evening be about how great maple syrup and back bacon is compared to fermented cabbage.

6) Complaining about the price of something or arguing/bartering with someone to lower a price when it amounts to a simple dollar or two less out of your pocket.

I know there are a million and one arguments for and against this whole cultural experience, but I think I'm still mainly on the side of the fence that thinks privilege should be heavily considered in any transaction like this. Personally, if someone wants to ask a higher price of me based on my appearance, and it really only means another $1 or so out of my pocket, I'm fine with that. They’ll probably get more value out of that money than I would in a country I don’t know.

7) Not taking the time to learn a few simple and polite pieces of the local language.

Chances are, if you're able to handle jumping from hostel to hostel, and working out the coolest spots to eat, drink, and play, you can probably take the time to learn how to be polite in any given country. A lot of times, even though you may sound like a small child with poor grammar, simply showing that you made the effort can help to improve your experience with the people around you. Plus, it helps smooth things over for all the times when you do the other things on this list.

8) Complaining about a lack of respect from the locals and believing it’s because you're a foreigner.

See all of the above for reasons to keep your mouth shut about this one. Maybe you’re just being a jerk.

So, let's leave it at that, shall we? I'm sure I can probably think of more, but I'd rather not dig up other memories of my past experiences, as well as my mistakes. At least, if you keep these in mind you'll be doing everyone a favour, and we can all enjoy the experience of being able to see what this world has to offer without pissing off everyone along the way. We've got politicians for that, right?


Other "Annoying Things Foreigners Do" posts:
Namibia, by Gloria

Monday, May 28, 2012

adventures in ottawa

I was told, "Show up at South Keys at 8PM for an adventure."

What kind of adventure?

Answer: "It's a secret."

I like adventures, so I did as I was told. My night then took me down the wrong way down a one way lane of a Catholic school, and into the industrial park where the Merivale Bowling Centre hides. Aliens then tried to communicate with us through the scoreboard.

People ask if I find life boring, returning to my hometown Ottawa after having travelled around Africa for the last year. It's true that I'm not being chased by baboons or facing death and desolation in the desert anymore, but I feel like life is only boring if you let it be boring. Now that Ottawa's shaken off the last of winter, and residents can finally enjoy Ottawa's beautiful green spaces there hasn't been a shortage of adventures to be found.

Two weekends ago, my band played a show in the basement of an art gallery. It was a bizarre space, a dimly lit basement with no furniture and walls completely covered in graffiti. I felt like I was in some art video in a parking garage, or an underground punk club in Brooklyn, except with folk music.
photo credit: mike curley

On Sunday, we performed again at a special music series called 4in1 Live in an Ottawa Park, where musicians perform in beautiful settings in front of a zillion photographers. This time we were at the Dundonald Park, an urban park right in the middle of Centretown. We played our favourite songs, followed by some spectacular spoken word poetry, folk musicians covering Austra, and my favourite new Ottawa discovery, Fevers, playing an acoustic set. It seemed like all of Ottawa's music-loving young people showed up. People sprawled out in picnic blankets and blew bubbles. Babies wandered around. Homemade cookies were passed around. There were several dozen photos taken of us, mostly by guys we don't know, which I assume means that we're famous now. It was a magical afternoon. This event was also one of the last things that the Ottawa Xpress ever reported on before going out of print, making things seem bittersweet.

photo credit: lenny wu

photo credit: mike curley

(Look, there's another live music in the park session coming up.)

Last weekend was the Ottawa Race Weekend, where I ran the 5k with ten thousand other runners. There is really nothing quite as claustrophobia-inducing as lining up tightly with ten thousand people all ready to run faster than you. There is also really nothing as heart-warming as watching people lined up all along the streets cheering you on as you run, even though you haven't a clue who they are. I finished in 40th place in my category, running the race in 26 minutes and 53 seconds, which isn't that bad considering that I had been up late the night before, having discovered that the X Men vs. Street Fighter arcade game at Babylon Nightclub was on freeplay. That did explain why I had so many small children passing me for the whole race. Next time I'll get more sleep the night before. Or maybe not. There's so much to do this summer....

Friday, May 25, 2012

Annoying things that foreigners do in Namibia that annoy me

Happy Africa Day! Today I've been missing Namibia and the amazing times that I had there, so I am putting up this post.

When I was in Namibia, I was a foreigner. I’m sure I committed all sorts of faux-pas and offended all sorts of people unconsciously. But so did a lot of other people. I’ve compiled a list of things that foreigners do that annoy me, as a foreigner, so undoubtedly they probably annoy Namibians even more.

Being vegetarian and moving to a meat-based desert country with very little agriculture and then complaining that Namibian food is no good.. Don’t read me wrong here. You can be a vegetarian. You can move to Namibia. You can wish that there were more vegetarian options in Namibia. But if you didn’t do your research on the country beforehand and are shocked that there aren’t veggie burgers being sold at every take-away stand...well, you should have done the research before moving there. And if you constantly complain to Namibians that their food is inferior, well, you’re an ass.

Spending all your time at home and then complaining that there is nothing to do in Windhoek. Actually, there’s plenty of cool and interesting things happening in Windhoek. You just have to look for it and be willing to try new things. If you find it boring, chances are it’s because you are a boring person.

Treating shebeens like a tourist attraction. This is someone’s hang-out spot. This are where guys like to get together after work and chill out. This is where girls want to grab a drink and catch up with their friends. They do not want to be confronted by a bunch of foreigners treating them like exotic zoo animals. I’m not saying don’t go to shebeens. Shebeens can be fun. But be sensitive, and treat other people the way you would want to be treated in a regular North American bar. Don’t covertly take photos of random people without their permission. Don’t stare. Don’t ask stupid racist questions. Also, don’t be shocked by the feeling that you stand out. As a foreigner in an all-black bar, you totally do stand out. What did you expect?
This is actually a really good guide on how to properly behave when you're in a bar where you stand out.

Treating churches like a tourist attraction. This is someone’s holy place. This is where Namibians go to be closer to God. Maybe you don’t believe in God, and you’re only there because you want to hear the choir sing because you hear the “Africans all sing really well.” Fine. Be respectful and remember that you’re in a place of worship. Don’t take photos while everyone is praying. Don’t take photos of the paster while he or she is preaching. Don’t record the church choir. In fact, why are you taking photos of the church service anyway?

Insisting that Afrikaners who have lived here for decades are not real Africans because they are white. I know there is a lot of political tension between black Namibians and white Namibians, but it is not in your place as a foreigner to consider white Namibians to be “not real Africans”. Some white Africans have been living in Africa for centuries, longer than Americans have been living in America. Most of the ethnic groups in Namibia, actually, have moved to Namibia from other parts of Africa over the centuries. To insist that white Namibians are not true Namibians because they are white and haven’t lived in Namibia forever would mean that I as an Asian Canadian am not a real Canadian – and let’s not go there.

Taking pictures of children without asking their permission (or their parents’ permission.) Think about it. You’re in Central Park in Manhattan. You notice some small kids playing on a playground. You inch up really near to them and start taking intrusive close up photos of them. Somebody is going to think that you’re really creepy. Why would you act differently in Namibia? It doesn’t hurt to ask permission to take someone’s photo first. Chances are they’ll be flattered anyway.

Calling things that are unusual and different from back home “uncivilized”. This especially applies, in my view, if you come from a former colonial power like England or Germany. The way things are run in Namibia may be different from what you’re used to, and you might see it as less efficient than the way you’d personally like to run it, but using a word like “uncivilized” betrays a lack of understanding of the former colonial history of Africa, and a terrible attitude on your part.

Refusing to hang out with anyone but other foreigners, and then complaining that Namibians are unfriendly. Actually, Namibians are people, just like anyone else. Some of them are friendly. Some of them are not. Chances are though, if your only interaction with them are at the checkout line at the grocery store or in taxis, you probably won’t develop a meaningful relationship with any Namibians. Also, if you constantly repeat the faux-pas in this list, they probably won’t find you very friendly either.

Remember, kids: it’s all about building bridges to their cultural iceberg. Although there aren’t a lot of icebergs in Namibia.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

everyone's gotta play the Manhattan tourist at least once

Manhattan. Horrifyingly crowded Manhattan. Where the bridge tolls cost $12 each way. Where the neon signs everywhere fill your senses with excitement and flash CAPITALISM CAPITALISM CAPITALISM. Where traffic gridlock is a permanent part of the urban landscape, and where the sound of taxis angrily honking and people swearing at each other is every bit a part of the city soundtrack as an Avenue Q musical or an Alicia Keys/Jay-Z collaboration. Where the delicious smell of street emat follows you everywhere. Where Elmo walks through the crowd carrying a purse, giving hugs. Nobody stands out as weird in Manhattan because everyone is weird.

so many people in my personal space

the empire state building, without King Kong.

\ Times Square is terrifying
The top of the Empire State building was hidden in clouds the day we pulled into Manhattan. It had been a long time since my family had last been in the city. The last time we were here, the towers were still standing, and my sister and I used to ride to the top and put a quarter into the telescopes to go look at the Statute of Liberty, and wonder why the Americans would erect such a big statute of a woman holding an ice cream cone. Then we would eat chajangmyun at a Korean restaurant.

the new tower

a 9/11 memorial

This time, we were hanging around NBC studio, because my sister was intensely trying to catch a glimpse of Kenneth the Page. NBC is housed at 30 Rockefeller, of course, the iconic hyper corporate building with huge murals and slogans that kind of remind me of something the Soviets would have constructed. We got a tour of the studio, by real live pages (but not Kenneth, sadly), and got to see the set of a bunch of TV shows that I don`t watch. I think the magic of the studio tour was somewhat lost on me, as a person who doesn`t watch TV.

me, trying to be liz lemon.

those are some crazy idealistic overtones

My parents wanted to do touristy things, so I spent my weekend trying to figure out what touristy stuff was actually worth the money and what was not. I`m not convinced the ride to the top of 30 Rockefeller (30 Rock) was worth 25 bones. Madame Tussaud's House of Wax, sure. And the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum was worth it, if not to just tell people you were hanging out on a giant military aircraft carrier in Manhattan. You could have pretended you were in the sky, in the Avengers movie. The Skyride was cool, but for $42? I'm not sure, not even to hear Kevin Bacon narrate the voyage in his usual cool style. Luckily we had the New York pass, and didn't actually spent all that dough.

i guess you could pay $25 to get to the Top of the Rock to take photos like this.

the intrepid. an aircraft carrier. in manhattan. p cool.

spy plane! it looked so sleek, i half expected it to gain sentience.

when you go to the wax museum, you can live out delusions like this. Can you imagine a world? How frightening.

What was totally worth it, of course, was the Korean food in Korea Town. Of course. It's what we used to do when we lived in upstate New York, drive in on the weekends to eat some good food. This time we went to Cho Dang Gol, a restaurant so popular the lineup was out the door. Ottawa people would have never put up with such a line. They served us excessive amounts of banchan side dishes, and seafood soondubu chigae, dishes you don't want to eat in front of white people because you feel embarrassed to dip your fingers into the stew to grab the crab legs and get all messy. It was divine.

After dinner, I met up with my friends at the Wayland, a bar that my buddy Gartenberg had chosen because "it hadn't quite been discovered yet, so we could have a quiet place to talk on a Saturday night in Manhattan". It was still crowded, at least for Ottawa standards. It was a lovely bar though, where they played country blues, the bartenders wore plaid shirts, and they served spicy margaritas and dishes like shaved brussel sprouts. I ended up staying over at my girlfriend Olivia's that night in Brooklyn. I like Brooklyn.

The next morning, we took a boat tour around the harbour to see the Stateu of Liberty. We had been to the World Trade Centres a dozen times to look at the Statute of Liberty, but we had never actually been to the Statute of Liberty. It was pretty big. I guess. I mean, it used to seem bigger when I peered at it through the telescope at the Twin Towers. I thought it would be bigger though.

do you ever wonder how many photos there are out in the world that are exactly the same as this?

Central Park! I love Central Park. Also, unlike the Skyride, it's free.

i love this building designed by Frank Gehry. I love all of Franky Gehry's buildings. I have gone as far as Barcelona, Prague, Chicago, and Seattle to see his work.

world's awesomest driving range. why didn't i bring my clubs?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Asian Heritage Month...and free food.

May is Asian Heritage Month! We're all celebrating in our own way. Lenny played an entire show of Canadian bands featuring Asian-Canadian musicians (including yours truly) for his CKCU FM radio show WildWorks. My band released a music video for a song about Asian fetishists. As for the government, last week, the federal government launched Asian Heritage Month with a reception at the War Museum hosted by Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney. As a member of the Kimchi Club, Otawa's only networking organization for Korean-Canadian professionals, I received an invitation to the reception. As a fan of free food, I decided to go.

The halls outside the Barney Danson Theatre were adorned with displays showing the various first Asian-Canadians in history. Some of the famous figures were attending the event. I saw Adrienne Clarkson and Senator Viveienne Poy, the first Asian-Canadian senator, who was the one who got Canada to adopt May as Asian Heritage Month. Also, there were more ambassadors and dignitaries than you could shake a stick at. The displays were very inspirational. I decided I'd like to become the first Korean-Canadian something. I'm not quite sure what (first Korean-Canadian rock star? First Korean Canadian roller derby champion? First Korean-Canadian rock star roller derby champion?) but I like to think that I've still got some time.

The emcee of the event was Senator Yonah Martin, the first Korean Canadian Senator and founder of the Kimchi Club. We heard several speeches from Minister Jason Kenney, Director General of the War Museum Mark O'Neill, and the President of the Ottawa Asian Heritage Month Society. They told us stories of the various accomplishments of Asian-Canadians throughout Canadian history, even in the face of injustice. After having spent so much time in post-apartheid South Africa and Namibia, I had forgotten about the discrimination that Asians had experienced in Canada, since Canadians like to think of Canada as a pretty cool human-rightsy multicultural country. But we forget that not too long ago, Asian immigrants couldn't vote or go into certain public buildings, and that when a group of Japanese men tried to join the military during World War I, the BC government wouldn't let them so they had to go to Calgary to join. That's right. They had to go to Alberta because it was less racist there than BC. And let's not forget that business with the interning of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, or the Chinese head tax. That was not cool at all.

In other news, as mentioned, my band Scary Bear Soundtrack has released a new single called "Asian Fetishist", which is, in a nutshell, is a collection of bizarre things guys say when they're trying to pick up Asian women. It's sort of a response to the excellent Jezebel article about ironic hipster racism, where people think they are far too enlightened to be racist and so it's okay to make racist jokes because they're just being ironic. My sister and I made a music video for the single using paper dolls that my sister skilfully made for the video and then shooting them in stop-motion. It's lo-fi, homemade, DIY, and everything that ironic hipsters should love. Enjoy!

You can also download the single for free here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Road Trip through Upstate New York

New York City is such a giant vacuum-sucking black hole of attention-seeking (for Canadian equivalent, see Toronto) that all other parts of New York state are often referred to as Upstate New York, even if it's not actually that far up the state (for an example, see my hometown in Ulster County).

We took the long way down to downstate New York, stopping off at various spots upstate. On the first night, we pulled into Syracuse to stop for the night. This was the first time we've come here for a non-shopping purpose. My dad had found a deal on a really nice hotel room in a quiet and uneventful part of town. I was dying for a beer but the only thing around here are three strip clubs, a Chucky Cheese's, and the highway. Like the last time I stayed in Syracuse, there is no other place to go.  The tuck shop does not sell beer but it does have Korean kimchi ramen noodles. I slept early.

In the morning, we hit the road and moved on. We stopped for lunch near Albany, which was unremarkable as usual.

Finally, we arrived in Highland, Ulster County, the town where we used to live, twenty years ago.

Broke into the old apartment
This is where we used to live
Broken glass, broke and hungry
Broken hearts and broken bones
This is where we used to live

Why did you paint the walls?
Why did you clean the floor?
Why did you plaster over the hole I punched in the door?
This is where we used to live

-Barenaked Ladies, "The Old Apartment"

Gloria's grade 1 class at Highland Elementary School. I'm sitting next to Michael Massetti, my first boyfriend.

September, 1991: On the other side of the country, Nirvana released the pivotal album Nevermind, with lyrics that caught the spirit of the age, like: "Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us." Meanwhile, elementary schoolgirl Gloria wrote in her journal:

"today is the first day at school. I'm learning that it's ok if we make mistakes. I like my teacher! I want to be an artest."

Dear little Gloria, it's not okay to make mistakes - that's when you get sued. By the way, you grow up and decide that artists are hippies and you'd rather be a lawyer. But what do you know? On November 4, 1992, you wrote: "Today we have a new president. Name: Bill Clinton. How I feel: bad. What he's gona do: rase taxes." Oh, little Republican Gloria.

Highland, Ulster Country, New York, is a tiny dot on the American landscape. Its current population is 5000, who knows what it was twenty years ago. It often serves as a commuter town for people working in the big exciting city of Poughkeepsie across the Hudson River. For me, it was sweet carefree childhood years of playing with rocks by myself outside of my isolated home, hating Democrats, walking to the grocery store, borrowing Baby-Sitters Club books from the old public library, and dreaming that one day we would have neighbours.

Re-visiting my old childhood stomping grounds now, I barely recognized our old home. The old neighbourhood had finally been developed, like crazy. We finally had neighbours! Lots of them! Also, our old house had been renovated and extended.

Consider the difference:

sometime in the 90s

also sometime in the 90s: my old backyard.

May, 2012

my backyard: someone else's swingset!

What the what.

We took a drive through "downtown" Highland, which is kind of like saying "downtown" Carp. My old elementary school was still there, as my favourite library housed in an old house. We saw Madeleine's Dance School, where I'd had my very, very, very short ballet career. I'd missed the beautiful hills of Highland, having lived in flat Ottawa since. I couldn't help but think about how different my life would have been if we had stayed here instead of moving to Ottawa. I might have been one of those teenagers loitering in front of the gambling hall. Living in such a small town in the middle of nowhere, I might have felt even more like a Bruce Springsteen song (Canadian teens growing in Canadian suburbs relate to the Arcade Fire instead). I might have turned out to be Republican.

small town highland

my old school!

my favourite library

the old chinese restaurant we used to go to was still there.

this playground was NOT there when I was a kid. Back then, we had more hardcore playgrounds made out of woodplanks that kids got their limbs and heads stuck in. Now it's all about safe plastic play structures. Today's kids are wimps.

Broke into the old apartment
Tore the phone out of the wall
Only memories, fading memories
Blending into dull tableaux
I want them back

-Barenaked Ladies

Afterwards, we still had one more stop to make: Woodbury Commons. Because our family can't go a whole trip without shopping.

Woodbury Commons is a bizarre land of capitalist dreams designed to look like a quaint small American town, but instead of Ye Olde Hardware Shoppes and diners, the stores are Gucci, Burberry, and an "Armani General Store", whatever that is. All this consumerist culture felt weird coming from Africa.

The Coach store was full of Korean ajumas as usual. I felt lost. I already have a Coach wallet, clutch, purse, handbag, and scarf, so would else could I possibly need? Coach should start making Coach brand guitar cases and gig bags. Because realistically, how many Coach purses does a girl need? So I bought an Armani exchange handbag, on which I immediately spilled Yoohoo. Remember Yoohoo drinks? Of course you don't. You didn't grow up in 'Merica. Ah, the memories.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fort Lee, New Jersey, or, How To Find Korean Food Anywhere

Usually when I think about New Jersey, I think about Bruce Springsteen and small sized industrial towns where the factories are closing down, leaving big manly men out of work and other big manly men feeling despair in the bottom of their glass of whiskey, imploring their girlfriends with American names like Wendy or Kate to get in their fast cars and get the hell out of this small town. For my dad though, and countless other Koreans, New Jersey is Fort Lee, and Fort Lee is Korean food.

"Really?" I said. "Wouldn't you rather go to Korea Town in Manhattan?"

"Nah, let's go to Fort Lee," he said.

I was skeptical, but curious. My favourite Korean joint in Manhattan, Buk Chang Dong, had been closed down and I was devastated. I asked Twitter: "My dad thinks that there will be better Korean food in Fort Lee than Manhattan. Is this true?"

"YES," replied Twitter with much certainty.

So we went to Fort Lee for Korean food.

This blog should be renamed "How To Find Korean Food Anywhere."

If you want to know what downtown Fort Lee looks like, picture a cute quaint small American town, narrow streets and friendly storefronts, the kind that Bruce Springsteen would write about...but full of Koreans. And Korean banks. And Korean salons. And restaurants. And the highest per capita Korean American county population in the United States. And the second largest population of ethnic Koreans outside of Korea. I was home.

downtown Fort Lee

We pulled into Fort Lee just as the sun went down. We headed over to So Kong Dong, a soondubu restaurant that had been given a lot of great reviews on the Interweb. The restaurant's parking lot was full of Audis, BMW and Mercedes Benz. We parked our shameful Hyundai SUV in the public parking lot across the street.

I was starving. After eating at McDonald's twice in one day, I wanted to eat something so Korean that I was going ooze Korean stereotypes. I wanted to burn my tongue with red chili so bad that I would exhale spice for a week, like a hot spicy prayer to the kochujang gods. I wanted a place that would serve at least three different types of kimchi as banchan, and weird plants that would freak out North Americans with feeble appetites. In Fort Lee, it could not have been too much to ask for. I was also dying for a beer.

Luckily, So Kong Dong hit the spot. It was every bit as Korean as I was hungering for. There were all sorts of kimchi. There was all sorts of banchan. The sizzling kalbi was served with scissors on the side, because that`s how Koreans cut our meat, if not with our teeth, BECAUSE STEAK KNIVES ARE FOR WIMPS. We got our egg to drop into our stew. We got our bizarre noorongjee made from pouring bouricha water into a bowl with leftover rice. Bam.

All sorts of banchan.


But there was no beer. So on our way home, Dad and I stopped by a liquor store. In Fort Lee, the liquor stores sell Koerna booze liek soju and makoli. We bought a six pack of OB, which incidentally is also the brand name for North American tampons.

There's something wonderful about going to cities like this and eating Korean food. People find it difficult to understand, but no matter how big a city might be, the quality of its Korean cuisine scene is dictated by the size of its Korean population. If Korean restaurants are forced to cater to non-Korean tastes to make money, like the way Ottawa does, then their menus tend to be limited and simplified, sticking to the safe, non-scary popular dishes that North American people will order, like bimbimbap, sushi, or all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ like galbi or bulgogi. If, on the other hand, Korean restaurants don't have to give a damn about explaining what kimchi is to non-Koreans because most of their clientele are Koreans, then they can expand their menu to all sorts of things like soft tofu squeezed out of a tube and poured into a stew that you drop an egg into. or boshintang, or bundagee, things that would make the average North American run away screaming.

On our last night in Fort Lee, New Jersey, we tried out Gam Mi Ok, a place that my friend Jack had assured me had the best kimchi I`d ever tasted. It was only a few streets away from So Kong Dong, and was a very unique Korean restaurant, the kind of thing you`d only see in a city with a large Korean population. As my dad commented, it was like a Korean restuarant trying to go for a modern upscale feel, but still serving traditional un-upscale Korean food....because let`s face it, authentic Korean food just isn`t upscale. It`s home cooking, soul food.

But this restaurant sure was going for upscale. There was valet parking, a live jazz band (have you ever seen a jazz band in a Korean restaurant?), and modern interior decor, including the one long table in the middle of the room. Lettuce and kochujang sauce were brought out as "starters". But despite these Western touches, the restaurant still remained Korean at heart. There was still the option to eat ondol bang style, on the floor off a low table. The menu weas hardcore Korean, not the kind of stuff you'd give to North Americans trying Korean food for the first time, but the dishes that real Koreans love to eat, like beef tongue soup, oxtail stew, tripe, and whatever other vegetarian's nightmare concoctions we Koreans like to come up with. Sadly, they only brought out one banchan (side dish), kimchi...but it was, as promised, really good kimchi. Cut with scissors. Because, as I mentioned, only wimps use knives.

low tables are hardcore

Dad and my sister ordered yoo-ke-jang, a shredded beef stew that was delicious but ferociously devilishly spicey that my sister compared them to suicide wings. This dish should be called suicide yookejang, my sister said. I was intrigued, but feeling less experimental, so I ordered bibimbap, the epitome of Korean cliches. Mom had the seul leung tang, ox tail soup.

After a filling meal and an unexpected night of jazz music, we headed back to our hotel, which was an adventure in itself. We stayed at a peculiarly located Hampton Inn that was basically situated on the side of an on-ramp of a highway, so that the only way to get to the hotel was if you were coming from one direction and on that on ramp specifically. Otherwise, you had to pull over the shoulder on the side of the highway, wait till there was a break in the highway traffic of oncoming cars, and then dart across several lanes of traffic. It's like a video game, only involving death. I didn't quite understand why anyone would ever build a hotel there. Hotel guests generally don't want to risk death in a horrible car accident every time they drive back to their hotel. But whatever. There's something about the whole thing that sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song. Baby, we almost died / on the New Jersey turnpike / toniiiiiight. Pretty much anything you do in New Jersey could sound like a Springsteen song. Even eating Korean food.

oh baby, the smell of yoo-ke-jang on your breath tonight
could slay a hundred sad crack addicts waiting by the Turnpike
and i could kiss those kimchi stained lips of yours
because the factory's finally closed its doors
so lets get in your car and ride...

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

who am i in North York

Like any Ottawa resident, I always pretend to hate Toronto, but I did feel a genuine sense of relief as my bus pulled into North York, with this strange feeling of arriving home, or at least one of my homes. After all, I did live in Toronto for three years, and I do have more family in Toronto than I do in Ottawa. Combine that with the fact that I'd spent the last seven months living in Namibia, where being Korean is a factual anomaly, and then the month after that in my hometown where 99% of my friends are white, and it was definitely refreshing to be spending some time in a city that has not one but TWO Koreatowns. There's something lovely about being lost in a sea of anonymity.

Also, it was sunny and 13 degrees, which is pretty good for Canada these days.

There were three Toronto Korean things that I missed the most while I was overseas in Africa. One was my grandmother's jangjorim (장조림), a shredded beef dish, which she fed me as soon as I walked through her door. The second was soondubu chigae(순두부찌개), soft tofu stew, particularly the stuff served at Buk Chang Dong.

Buk Chang Dong is by far my favourite Korean restaurant in Toronto. It's not the best place to sample an array of Korean dishes, since the menu only offers soon dubu chigae and bibimbap. It's not the best place bring a non-Korean to try Korean food for the best time, because soft sofu (which literally comes out of a tube) is a bit freaky to people who aren't accustomed to hard core ethnic food. But it is by far the most authentic Korean experience, and, in my personal opinion, the yummiest.

Buk Chang Dong has two locations, one in "South" Koreatown (Bloor and Christie)and "North" Koreatown (Yonge and Finch). I like the Yonge and Finch location better, because its distant location ensures the presence of less hipsters with Asian fetishes. The restaurant is not very big, and often there are lineups out the door. The patrons are mostly Koreans, although some open-minded white folks have started to hear about the place. Because the patrons are mostly Korean, it means they all park in the alleyway in the back, in front of the DO NOT PARK signs and blocking in other cars. The restaurant folks are used to this. The servers ask you for your licence plate number as they seat you, so that when the car you're blocking wants to leave, they can interrupt you in the middle of dinner to move your damn car.

You sit down, and order either bibimbap or soondubu chigae. I almost always order the soondubu chigae with mandu (만두), dumplings. You choose your level of spicyness. I usually choose botong mepgae which in my head means "how spicy you are supposed to get it, dammit", which tends to sit slightly above the rest of Canada's comfort level. There is, for the record, the "White" level of spice, which is no spice. I don't think they mean to be racist.

As you wait for your meal to arrive, the server gives you a bunch of banchan (반찬), side dishes. Unlike Canadian restaurants, Korean restaurants usually don't charge you extra for side dishes and give you free refills. Banchan often includes kimchi, beans, and bean sprouts. You set your own table with spoons and chopsticks.

Then the chigae arrives! Still boiling hot in its black pot. You smell it and you feel like you're in heaven. The server hands you an egg to crack and pour into your stew. While you're doing this, the server brings over a stone pot of rice and does the most curious thing. He scoops the rice out of the stone pot and puts it in another bowl. And then he pours boiling water into the stone pot which still has bits of rice in it. You think, and every first-timer does think this, "Okay, they want to soak the dish before the rice hardens and is impossible to wash off. Why do they have to do that at the table?" But then you realize that it's noorongji, the meal that comes AFTER your meal.

Like I said, it tastes heavenly. I love this place.

The third Toronto Korean thing that I missed the most was a good bowl of chajangmyun (짜장면). It's Chinese style noodles with black bean sauce. Marco Polo discovered this dish during his travels to Asia, and then brought it back to Italy, and now Italians claim they invented pasta. When I moved to Africa, I brought one packet of instant chajangmyun noodles (brand "Chappaghetti") and saved it for a special occasion - when I got robbed. I was eager now to have some of the real stuff.

For changjangmyun, I met up with my family and we went to Seoul Gwan, which is about a stone's throw from Yorkdale Mall. I am not sure if this is the best place in Toronto but my parents certainly love it and they always go there. The owner of the restaurant greets us warmly and brings out a special banchan dish of kimchi. We always get free stuff whenever we dine with my family in Korean restaurants in Toronto, due to the fact that we are related to a well-known Korean in the Korean community. I dislike fame, but I like free stuff.

Afterwards, we stopped by a Korean butchery, where I found myself talking to a huge goat's leg hanging on a hook, while my parents bought obscene amounts of meat. Then, in case we didn't have enough food, we headed over to the Galleria Supermarket, which is probably one of the largest Korean grocery stores in Canada. It's kind of like the T&T, which already amazes Ottawa residents, but instead of being pan-Asian, it's all Korean stuff, with brands like "Bu Bee" and all the kimchi you could ever hope for. It's the main reason why my parents go to Toronto every month.
Korean grocery stores are the reason why I stopped eating seafood for ten years. I'm not sure why the sight of various sea animals bother me so much when clearly pushing lambs through bandsaws and hanging goats on hooks do not faze me at all. There was a bucket of mudfish at the back of the store, under a sign that said "LET'S EAT MUDFISH STEW" and for some reason it grossed me out again and I thought maybe I was going to give up eating fish for another decade.

Going to Galleria Supermarket, which seems like a little Korea inside Canada, always inevitably leaves me with a mini-identity crisis, as staying in North York inevitably always does. There are many ways to describe myself: Korean-Canadian, second gen or "ee-seh", banana, or if you're feeling mean, whitewashed. But none of them really address the core of who I am. One one hand, despite being raised in Canada all my life, there are very definite Korean aspects to my identity. My deep respect for hierarchy and deference to elders. My ability to sing karaoke while stone cold sober. My inability to call my friends' parents by their first name. My genuine love for tofu squeezed out of a tube. The way I pronounce "salmon" phonetically as "sal-mon" (why the heck not?). My tendency to fight to pay for the bill, and correspondingly, my sense of feeling slightly put out when my white friends take out calculators to split the bill.

On the other hand, there are other aspects of me that are very un-Korean. It comes out when Korean store clerks speak to me in English, because they somehow know. My piercings and tattoos. The way I do certain things that really put off Koreans, like speaking too loudly or not covering my mouth when I laugh. It comes out especially when I am in Korea or with Koreans from Korea. Koreans are much more forgiving about these social faux-pas when it comes to white foreigners; with someone like me, however, they consider it bizarre and socially embarrassing.

My Korean-Canadian identity is even different from other Korean-Canadians in Toronto. With so many other Korean-Canadians around (and TWO Koreatowns), it seems easier for other kids to be in touch with their culture, to maintain their language and to know the latest tv shows and musicians coming out of Korea. I, on the other hand, grew up as the only person of colour in a small American town with a population of 5000 people, and then moved to Ottawa, which has no Koreatown and at the time had only two small Korean grocery stores, two Korean restaurants, and two Korean churches. I grew up with the odd feeling of being different from all my white friends, only to find that when I was actually in Korean society, they also thought that I was really weird too. I am, arguably, "whiter" than the average Korean-Canadian in Toronto. On the other hand, I did grow up in the Korean church. My grandmother lived with us throughout my teenage years, and when I moved to Toronto, I did my best to immerse myself in my lost culture.

My parents, who arrived in Canada when they were teens and therefore have the label of being 1.5 generation, tell me that the result of having a hybrid identity is not that you feel at home in both cultures, but rather a sense of slight alienation no matter where you go. You feel a bit out of place in either social circle. What I find interesting is that Canada is made up of people with these hybrid identities and existential confusion, and I wonder how it shapes the way we interact with each other as a society.

In the evening, I met up with some of my Korean-Canadian friends from law school and we headed over to a noraebang, a Korean-style Karaoke place, called Y.K. in the same Yonge-Finch area. As politically incorrect as it may sound, I think Korean karaoke places are far superior than the North American style karaoke that everyone's used to. The latter involves signing up for songs that you will sing, maybe two or three times in the whole evening, in front of a bar full of strangers. The Korean version involves renting a small private room with your friends and, while sipping soju (Korean liquor) and bar snacks (anju), belting out all of your favourite songs all night long. With lots of reverb. And tambourines. That night, I discovered that I can't read Korean fast enough to rap in Korean, but that Radiohead does actually sound pretty awesome in karaoke. And there is never an inappropriate time to sing "O Holy Night." It's a fun night.

As a "banana", I used to feel frustrated with what I perceived as a limited range of personality within Korean Canadians, who I believed tended to be overly politically conservative, socially introverted, predominantly Christian, and preoccupied with pop culture. I've begun to accept now that there are infinite variations within the hybrid identity of "Korean Canadians". Some are "more Canadian", and some are "more Korean". More interestingly though, it's not a one dimensional spectrum. I hold on to certain Korean values more than some of my "more Korean" friends. Also, some aspects of me that are "weird" (like hanging out at the edge of waterfalls) have nothing to do with the fact that I'm Korean or Canadian, but more because I just am weird. Hybrid identities are complex, fluid, and dynamic. At some point, I like to think that I'll speak better Korean. Also, at some point I'll be able to rap in Korean. One day.