Lessons in Xenophobia (from an expert)

I can’t be surprised that I get some very concerned reactions when I tell people that next on my travel agenda is South Korea. The American news media has over-hyped the danger excessively. The simple fact is this: if war breaks out I won’t go, but I have a feeling things will have died down in a few weeks. If the events in Boston last week have shown us anything, it’s that there are no ~safe~ places where we can hide ourselves away from conflict and danger.

By crime statistics alone, I’m more likely to be stabbed or shot in New York City, Washington D.C. or Chicago than I am in Seoul. Besides, I like to tell people, women are more likely to be murdered in their own homes, I so I should really get out more.

It seems to be an issue of xenophobia in most cases. The flack I’m getting is mainly from people who have never left the United States before. I had an infuriating discussion with my friend’s mother-in-law over the weekend. She’s a woman very set in how she thinks things should be done, on what is “proper,” especially regarding how women should behave. She lives ten miles from the spot she was born and has rarely ventured farther.

I told her that basically, South Koreans aren’t that worried about the North Korea threat, as evidenced in this video from Seoulistic:

She told me, “I wouldn’t trust anything a Korean has to say at this moment.”

I stared at her. “You realize North Korea and South Korea are two different countries who don’t get along? South Korea is allied with the United States?”

“Well they hate Americans everywhere,” she insisted, “We’re the ugly Americans, everyone hates us.”

I couldn’t help but (unkindly) think that in her case, the ‘ugly American’ image of ignorance and intolerance might not be too far off the mark.

She went on to tell me how her friend who went to England was ‘only alright’ because she had a local take her to places where she wouldn’t be harassed.

“I went to England and Italy and I didn’t have issues,” I told her.

“Well you didn’t, but you will– we are hated all over the world,” she kept insisting.

It must be a very scary world to her. She must imagine that people wait with sticks to beat Americans in the streets. Indeed it stands to reason that there are jerks everywhere, that there may be a few locals who won’t like you or more likely, will over-charge you. But when we meet someone from another country, for the most part, we are curious for them to share their experiences with us. We want to know about them, we want to share our culture and learn about their’s. I think that’s largely the same in most places. I mean, there are places where it is more dangerous. There are certain  countries I wouldn’t be comfortable going to at this time, South Korea isn’t one of them.

It just seems to me that most Americans have this warped idea that everywhere outside the fifty states is wild and uncivilized and scary. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of places in the states that are just those things. When I used my brother as evidence of a tranquil living abroad experience, the inevitable, “But he’s a man, you’re just a little girl, it’s different,” argument came up. I resented being told I was a child, and that my gender was somehow a handicap. I suppose it must seems strange though. When she was my age she was married to the boy next door and having babies. She doesn’t understand wanting something different.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. Our media is flooded by things like “Locked up Abroad” (which this woman assures me will be my fate), and Taken. We aren’t well educated about the world around us. Even England, a country that has (basically) the same language and similar culture isn’t understood. I compiled this post last summer before I left for Oxford citing a few of the weirdest misconceptions I heard people spout when I told them about my trip.

The funny thing is, the only people who seem all that fussed are people who have never traveled out of the country, or at least not beyond a resort in the Bahamas or something. The people who have traveled, who actually know about the world are more excited for me than scared. And to be fair, not all my friends who haven’t traveled are giving me a hard time, just a noisy few who see fit to act like they are experts on cultural relations. The only thing they are experts on is xenophobia.

New to the Agenda: Taiwan

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Photo courtesy of the Ge Ge

My brother is an English teacher in Taiwan. Due to this fact, I rarely see him, but he was in town last week and we met for coffee. This brother is one of 4 that I am in possession of, so to distinguish him from the others, I’ll refer to him as “Ge Ge” (a poor phonetic translation of the Mandarin term for brother- he refers to me as “Mei Mei”- the Mandarin for little sister).

He has extended the invitation to me to come stay with him in Taiwan either before or after my visit to South Korea. I’m thinking before– August in Taiwan is brutal. My brother showed me some pictures of him and his roommates with some horrible heat rash on their backs. “Have you ever had heat stroke?” he asked me, showing me a chart of temperatures from August in Taiwan marking days of full sun, high humidity, and 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

“How’s June?” I asked him.

“About 90 degrees.”

So, I think I’ll go for the last week of June and then fly into Seoul for the program. To be fair, the heat rash picture not the strangest photo my brother showed me. Ge Ge likes to keep a running collection of photos and videos of oddities he encounters. His specialty is public restrooms that are especially gross or strange. He makes discreet videos of people picking their nose on the subway, takes photos of burnt out factories and piles of garbage in the street. He could probably exhibit in a gallery– if you have enough photos of related themes, someone will give you wall space.

So I have no illusions about Taiwan being full of untouched, exotic beauty. However, wherever Ge Ge goes he seems to find bizarre adventures that make for excellent stories. I expect to have plenty of oddities of my own to relate. He will probably go out of his way to give me culture shock and moderately endanger my life, because that’s the kind of brother he is.  The best kind.

Of course, my visit may take some further arrangement. He tells me I only need to give him a few weeks notice, that I’m “welcome any time.” Then he tells me that he currently has four roommates squashed into his tiny apartment.

“So where would I be… you know, sleeping?” I ask him.

“Oh. Hmmm… I’m sure we’ll sort it out before you come stay.”

I’m sure of all else fails, some youth hostel or other might have me. Though, that may ruin my brothers’ matchmaking plans. He apparently has selected one of his roommates as my future husband. Arranged marriages? I’m not so sure about that. But I’m very excited to go adventuring in parts unknown with my insane brother.

“Like Riding a Bike”

No one ever use that analogy in front of me again. I’m serious.

This post is only vaguely travel-related, but in the interest of being open about my lack of sophistication, I feel like it may lay some important ground-work for the future. I will explain this once, but I fear it may haunt me in years to come.

The summer I was eight, I finally learned how to ride a bike after may weeks of picking gravel from the driveway out of my knees. I loved it. It was a little hint of freedom I could have after school while my mother’s patience for sitting on the porch held out. We moved again when I was twelve and the bike was given away because there was nowhere for me to ride. A few years later we were (you guessed it) moving yet again and I found a used bike with high hopes that now since I was older, I would be able to find the time and place to ride.

My bike found itself sequestered away in my mother’s shed until a few months ago when I rescued it, refilled the tires and prepared myself for hours of exploring and adventuring. How naive I was. I assumed that because I rode quite well ten years ago, I would be fine. 

Part of me hopes it is just because the bike needs everything tightened and the seat lowered, that the experience was so demoralizing. Another part of me is pretty sure that it is just a humiliating failure and yet another example of how inaccurate old adages are. The front tire well started wobbling and basically I fell into a thorn bush.

It worries me that I have apparently lost all my bike riding skills. The prospect of having a car in another country or even a large American city is an expensive hassle. Walking, public transit, and bicycling are a preferable way to get around. Last summer I was completely in awe of the bicycling skills of people in Oxford. It’s true they nearly ran me down a few times, but I saw one woman elegantly swing one leg off her bike and make a standing glide up to a bike rack. This is obviously a necessary ex-pat skill I need to work on.

Or I could learn to drive a moped.