Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting fed up with food (in a good way), security theatre and particulates in Beijing

I just got back from Beijing from the fourth time, though two of those trips have been 24-hour layovers. I don't claim to know much about China, but having spent a little bit of time there in 2009, 2011, 2013 and now 2014 allows me to see superficial changes in the city over my time in Asia. Visiting Beijing for the first time after 2008 is a bit like starting to watch baseball in the mid-90s, you get to assume that a 70-home-run season is normal and that someone leading the league with 47 home runs implies that everyone collectively sucked.

The food is great, though I presume that it was great before as well. Beijing is one of the two cities (the other is Paris) in the world I've been where I became conscious of the fact that I could only eat three, maybe four meals a day. There are many terrible restaurants in Beijing, the sort that are $100 per person and are featured prominently in tourist maps, a lot of which presume that every person who finds themselves in Beijing is a Western executive looking for the most obnoxious and pretentious meal possible. There is no shortage of such places in Seoul as well, places that take Korean dishes, triple the price and make the decor and atmosphere as uncomfortable and uninviting as possible.

I had dinner and lunch in Beijing at great restaurants, but having run and showered by 6:20 in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, I gave up and went to my hotel's buffet for breakfast, reasoning that part of experiencing China and Beijing was to eat at a hotel buffet. You don't want to come to China and eat only at McDonald's, but you also don't want to go out of your way to do things that no one else would do, such as going to the Chinese opera, which I presume is more popular with tourists than with Chinese people (if I'm wrong, replace 'Chinese' and 'opera' with 'Korean' and 'pansori'). 

The food at the buffet was decent, and my model of over-authentic overcompensation was vindicated by Chinese people who went for toast, bacon and sausages while I went for cabbage and porridge. The food was good, but some of the vegetables and one of the drinks almost caused me to vomit. There's no shortage of bad food either in China, but I ate very well, even at a tourist trap such as Wangfujing.

Beijing installed metal detectors at subway stations prior to the 2008 Olympics to scan bags for explosives and weapons and I don't remember there being metal detectors for me to walk through, supplemented by disinterested guards with handheld metal detectors, and this article agrees with me. I've also seen the progression of security at Tiananmen Square, where I ran 800 metres to see the flag-raising ceremony at dawn. There was a big crowd of several thousand people there, but it seemed to be in the tens of thousands by the way we all came to a stop hundreds of metres from the square.

The crowd was already slowed by the barricades that divide the sidewalks, bike lanes and streets in this area in complex ways, and then funneled by one of the barricades into three metal detectors. If you can imagine the door of an elevator jammed with people functioning as a metal detector, you'll understand what this metal detector was like. This was required to be in the vicinity of Tiananmen, the gate with the famous picture of Mao Zedong. To enter the square itself required another, similarly crowded metal detector. The crowding is worst for people with bags, as 99% of the people in this area are Chinese tourists who all carry some sort of bag with them and have to take it off, put it on a belt and then retrieve it.

Like restrictions on liquids being carried onto planes, the trouble with security theatre, things done for show to make people feel safe, is that it's never undone. Metal detectors in the Beijing subway were expanded, not removed. The police presence has increased. I was once surprised enough by a group of soldiers marching down the street to take a picture of it, but yesterday I saw a jeep of soldiers with machine guns. The barricades in the area have increased. My impression yesterday, because I didn't spend time walking in Tiananmen Square, is that visitors are now restricted more to the sides of the square with much of its heart restricted, though I might well be wrong on this, and I hope I am.

I used to say that air quality wasn't really that bad in Beijing, but I haven't seen something resembling the sky in my last three trips to China, with PM 2.5 air quality readings ranging from 200-800 (anything over 100 is unhealthy, Toronto is usually around 30). I run and have no trouble breathing walking around, but I feel filthy and don't like touching anything. I can't see anything more than a kilometre away. I don't blame China for this in particular, no more than I blame myself or anyone else who owns Chinese-made products, drives a car or uses electricity, but China has this problem, and it's a fact. It adds a disgusting, depressing backdrop to any visit, and I would debate going back again.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Summarizing a 2011 Hankyoreh series on Muslims in Korea

Various sources claim that there are tens of thousands of ethnic Korean Muslims in Korea. Wikipedia puts it at just under 30,000, while the Korea Muslim Federation puts it at 35,000. The way I try to understand these numbers in my head is that this means if you meet 1,500 Koreans, you could expect one to be Muslim, higher than what I've seen in my six years here, though just because you don't see something doesn't mean it's there (if you never go south of the Han River, you wouldn't know how much money was in this city). Googling for more precise numbers, especially numbers in Korean, led me to a four-part series of articles from the Hankyoreh on Islam in Korea. Like much of the best journalism done in Korea, it never made its way into English (at least not that I can see on Google).

Part 1: "난 한국인 무슬림이다" ("I'm a Korean Muslim")
Part 2: '코슬림' 알리 "내 나라 코리아야" ('Koslim' Ali: "Korea is my country")
Part 3: 젊은 영혼들 ‘샤하다’와 접속하다 (Young souls take the shahada)
Part 4: 이슬람 예배당 바로 위 교회 예배당 (The church above the mosque)

Part 1 begins with the story of Yoon Aliyah, a 36-year-old who converted to Islam in New York in the summer of 2001 after being moved by the faith of a Moroccan friend. Although she described being stared at for wearing a hijab and long sleeves and a long skirt even in the summer, she also described comparable experiences in New York. Eight years after returning to Korea, Yoon was married with two kids and said that all of her friends were Muslim, most of them Korean.

However, she married a Turkish man, now a naturalized Korean citizen, who ran an online community aimed at introducing Islam to Koreans. When becoming a Korean citizen, her husband chose the last name Jang for its history. During the reign of King Cheungnyeol of the Goryeo dynasty near the end of the 13th century, a Yuan dynasty official sent to Korea stayed, took a Korean name (Jang) and started a clan, the Deoksu Jangs, that today has 20,000 descendants.

Two other couples are profiled in part 1. The first, a pair of newlyweds, is Muhammad Asim, a 36-year-old Pakistani, and Shin Miseon, a 29-year-old Korean. Asim, a Korean citizen, trades carpets. What makes their marriage unusual is that Asim is already married and Shin is his second wife. Asim's first wife, also a Korean, lives in Pakistan, where she went to ensure that their four children were sent for a Muslim education. What this means for Shin, however, is that she legally isn't marired, which is just as well for her father, who refers to his son-in-law as "that Pakistani son of a bitch".

Though Shin admits that there is some jealousy in marrying a man who is already married, she claims that she sees Asim's first wife, who will eventually return to Korea as, "family", new family that she has gained. Although Shin and Asim don't have kids, they might well have kids by now, three years later, a reality that, as the Hankyoreh puts it, "test the boundaries of Korean law, culture and society."

The second couple is Jang Dong-hyeon, 35, and his Indonesian wife, 31-year-old Ariana Tari (due to the fact that the names are only written in Korean and I'm not familiar with Indonesian names, I can only guess at their Romanization). Jang and Tari met at the auto parts factory where Jang works and Tari was a trainee. Although Tari didn't speak much Korean and Jang spoke no Indonesian, Jang says that they found a way to make it work. Jang initially gave up eating pork for the woman he loved, but would eventually convert to Islam and now even fasts during Ramadan.

Given that part 1 focuses on Muslim couples in Korea, part 2 of the series is about Muslim children who have grown up in Korea. There were roughly 143,000 foreigners married to Koreans living in Korea as of March 2011, and of those, about 4,000 were from Muslim countries, numbers that have surely grown in the last three years. As of 2009, the number of children born in such families was 4,000, with most of them being too young to attend school. The children of these 4,000 households will naturally be more significant than the generation before them, in part because unlike at least one of their parents, they will have known no other home.

The children profiled in part 2 are Pakistanis born to Pakistani parents who have lived in Korea for eight years. Ali, 16, came to Korea with his younger brother and sister (their sister, 12, is not featured or named in the article). Ali considers Korea to be home, not Pakistan, and says that he plans to live here in the future. His brother, Mohas, 14, speaks Korean just like a Korean, the Hankyoreh says, while Ali, who speaks it well, speaks it as a foreign language.

The brothers, however, struggle mightily at school, both socially and academically, being two years behind their peers even after eight years in Korea. Part of this is due to the fact that they started school late, but part of this is the fact that unlike in a Korean household, there is no one to help them with their homework. Their mother apparently speaks no Korean beyond "do you have any potatoes?" Their father, who works long hours, struggles to pass the elementary school-level Korean proficiency requirement on the citizenship test. Not aiding matters is the fact that there is not a single book in their house except for copies of the Quran.

Mohas, who wants to do his homework, can never manage to do it. The impression given by the Hankyoreh is that his parents care mostly about him reading the Quran and aren't too perturbed by him not doing his homework. For Ali, and presumably also for Mohas, their struggles are compounded by race and religion. His fellow students consider him dirty and make a point to avoid even brushing against him. They bully him and tell him to go back to his country, particularly painful to boys who consider Korea to be their home.

Also featured in part 2 is Jiyoung, the three-year-old daughter of Jang and Tari from part 1. They recited the azan, the call to prayer, in her ear at birth, taught her to tell the teachers at her daycare that she doesn't eat pork, to recognize when it is time for one of their five daily prayers. Jang, Tari and their daughter also don't eat any other meat that isn't certififed halal, any brands of ramen except for one, as well as Choco pies, the latter two because they contain small amounts of pork and gelatin.

Finally, the article looks at Zina (젠나), the older daughter of Yoon Aliyah and Jang Hussein. Sending five-year-old Zina to a Korean school worries Yoon, who says doing so would be "like throwing away Zina's soul", adding that "Koreans don't respect those who are different. For now, Zina attends a hagwon run by the Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon. Of the 50 kids Zina's age, most are the children of Muslim families residing in Seoul for the short or medium-term. However, seven were born to Korean parents and for four of those seven, both of their parents are Muslim.

"These days, there are a lot more young Korean Muslims," says Yoon. These young Koreans practice Islam in ways that are very different from the way its traditionally practiced in Asia and the Middle East, as well as immigrant communities in Europe and North America. In doing so, they are 'Koreanizing' Islam, adapting it in ways that fits the Korean context, particularly their specific context, which is of individuals practicing a religion in comparative isolation. The way that they practice is, in many ways, similar to the way that Koreans take up other activities, which is through on and offline groups, both geared towards Koreans by Koreans.

One way to understanding this is to understand that three of the four Korean Muslims profiled in part 3 did not use their real names. Most of them do not live openly as Muslims, meaning that they have told only some people about their identity, and do not necessarily act in ways that would identify themselves as Muslims in public. To do so openly as referred to as 'coming out' by the Hankyoreh.

Jo Younghee, a 24-year-old university student, converted to Islam because she wanted an alternative to living in a highly-competitive society such as Korea. "There's more to life than just getting a good job." Her experience is typical for Park Dongshin, a 26-year-old who started with an online community for Koreans interested in Islam and now runs an office near the Itaewon mosque that does the same thing. "Most [of those who convert] are university students," he says.

Similar to how Jo was introduced to Islam by a German she met while volunteering in Japan, Moon Heeseob, 23, learned about Islam online from a Malaysian. After studying Islam online, Moon converted. Moon's story is similar to that of Lee Seungmi, a 15-year-old high school student, who began by making an Indonesian friend online. From there, she joined an online community for Korean Muslims and then, with two Korean Muslims who live in America looking on as witnesses, she converted to Islam. Jo also converted in front of other witnesses that she met online, although the article isn't clear on whether this happened online or offline.

Islam, for Jo, is free and personal. "It's a flexible religion," she explained. "There are no commandments saying that if you don't follow it, you're going to be punished. There are no leaders that force you to obey. Everyone can follow it with the level of devotion that suits their circumstances."

The others profiled in this story appear to feel similarly about Islam, which is markedly different from the more traditional Muslims profiled in the first two parts, ones with a greater connection to those born as Muslims. Those in the first two parts have their lives revolve around their faith, but not so for the young Koreans in part 3.

Jo only prays four times a day because she can't get up in the morning. Moon only observes Ramadan, the month of daily fasting from pre-dawn to sunset, for a week. Lee doesn't eat pork, but will eat non-halal beef or chicken. Although Jo wears the hijab regularly and has endured some abuse for it, Lee The Koreanized Islam practiced by Jo, Moon and Lee is more of a belief system undertaken by individuals instead of an organized religion practiced as part of a physical community.

Part 4 covers the predictable backlash faced generally by unknown cultures, ways of life and ways of dressing. It covers the generally positive relationship between different religious groups at KAIST, as well as the existence of anti-Islamic sentiment, which exists mostly online and is vastly disproportional to the number of Muslims in this country and the sort of power they have (most are transient migrant workers or students, interviewees with roots and families here are by far the exception).

As is generally the case in Korea when it comes to racial issues, the official and institutional treatment of Korea is good, but there is a minority of small voices that speak very loudly, and often incoherently, about how Korea will became a Muslim country by 2020 or 2030 if present trends are left unchecked. The Hankyoreh, in soliciting feedback on the series, noted that it received insults, slurs, as well as threats alongside both positive and critical feedback on the stories.

All of this is to say that while I enjoyed reading about the lives of both Korean Muslims as well as immigrant Muslims in Korea, I remain thoroughly unconvinced as to the existence of tens of thousands of Korean Muslims. While Park reports 40 conventions in the last 4 months and many of the online communities (Naver or Daum cafes) have more than a thousand members each, it seems hard to believe that the number of Korean Muslims is several times greater than that of the number of Muslims living in families where one parent comes from another country. There are 4,000 foreigners from predominantly Muslim countries married to Koreans and they have 4,000 children, implying a population of 12,000. This would seem to be the vast majority of Korean Muslims, not the minority, but I remain open to being corrected.