Nonverbal Communication

I have previously said on the blog that you can get by nearly anywhere in the world using just English, but of course that’s not wholly accurate–yes, you can get by, but you’ll still find yourself in situations where you or a local will want to say something that the other will not be able to understand. Fortunately, for those instances, there are unlimited possibilities in circumlocution and pantomime, in order to communicate. I thought that it might be fun to note some of the more amusing examples of nonverbal communication that we have encountered on our travels–if you have any you’ve enjoyed, be sure to add them as comments.

The Moose Call. Traveling in Muslim countries, one often (but perhaps not as often as one might think) runs into people’s prayer schedules. Our passenger train, in Iran, stopped for the evening prayer so that people could alight, properly orient themselves, and pray. We have had buses and share taxis do the same, although not as often as we might have thought. Or, a shop may be unattended for a few minutes, while the proprietor or employee is praying. In order to convey to us, the foreign infidels, what exactly is going on–why the bus is stopping or why the counter is empty–locals will raise two hands, palms open, to the sides of their heads, sometimes with their thumbs in or very near their ears, and make a small bowing gesture. Of course, this is intended to mimic the act of bowing for prayer, but to us it looks like a moose imitation, which is why we call it the moose call. It can also be used to find a nearby mosque.

Anticlerical Gestures of Iran. Discontent with Iran’s government, or more generally Iran’s system of government, is rife in Iran, and we encountered several different gestures used to mock or criticize the religious hierarchy used by Iranians eager to communicate their grievances to us. The most common was a hand tracing an imaginary turban on one’s head, a symbol for the theocratic elite of the country. Repeatedly, people would make the gesture, sometimes accompanied by the other hand stroking an imaginary beard, when trying to signify that it is the mullahs who have control and are mismanaging the country and restricting freedoms. The second was the throat-cutting gesture, hand across the neck, which was used surprisingly often not only to describe what would happen to you if you tried to exercise a freedom that was not provided under local law, but also as a general symbol for the government–nowhere else have we seen people associate their government so closely and so repeatedly with execution/murder. One person told us that the only thing stopping the Islamic government from restoring stoning as a form of punishment is international pressure. (We were also once given the throat-cutting gesture as a sort of threat in Nizwa, Oman–surprising given the highly respectful and hospitable treatment we otherwise got from the Omanis.)

Cluck of Approval. We first noticed this from our hoteliers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, who would click their tongue against the roof of their mouth to signify approval, in our case appreciation of our photographs. Once we noticed it there, we heard it over and over again, particularly in Turkic regions from Turkey to Xinjiang, China.

Picture Please. People around the world vary an incredible amount from wanting their pictures taken to not wanting their pictures taken. In parts of West and North Africa, people can act like you’re trying to steal their soul; in Turkic countries and India, people will chase you for a photo. Especially in the Subcontinent, but elsewhere too, we frequently saw an odd gesture for “Take a picture of me, please”–something like a person looking through an imaginary pair of binoculars formed by their thumbs and pointer fingers.

Mixing Tea. Mauritania and Morocco (and the Tuareg parts of Mali) have a tea tradition that is somewhat peculiar, especially in the way that it is prepared. The tea leaves are boiled on a fire for a very long time, and then sugar is mixed in by pouring the tea back and forth from the pot to a glass, until long after the tea is blended, frothy and ready to drink. In those countries, this mixing gesture–that of pouring a liquid between two vessels repeatedly–was used to indicate tea (whether we would like to drink tea, that someone is about to make tea, etc.).

Sex. There is of course no shortage of hand and other gestures that one can use to mean having sex, but we find that the most common one–used all around the world from an Uzbek explaining Ramadan’s many restrictions to a Moroccan boy apparently selling sex services (!)–is a closed fist pounding the air, with the thumb toward the body (so that it’s somewhat different from the usual masturbation gesture).

Diving Gestures. We learned to dive a couple of years ago before a trip to the island republic of Palau, and now occasionally use diving gestures–a standardized system of underwater and surface communication for when words are not an option–to communicate with each other nonverbally. We find the “surface” versions of the “ok” and “not ok” gestures (arms forming a large circle or a large “X,” respectively, above the head) quite handy when we are distant from each other, because they are highly visible from far away. Diving gestures also constitute a nonverbal language that people around us are not likely to understand.

Wind-Induced Headache. This is a rather odd one that we encountered in Ethiopia. Although it can get quite warm in parts of Ethiopia, locals do not like to open windows on buses because they seem to believe that the wind pressure on their ears causes some sort of pain or headache. If you try to open a window, they will ask you to close it by placing the palms of their hands a couple of inches from each ear and shaking them a bit.

Hunger. Now, you’d think that putting your hands on your stomach or putting imaginary food into your mouth would be a pretty simple and effective way to demonstrate hunger, right? It’s certainly worked for us in the past, but when we were in Khiva, Uzbekistan in 2008, a cab driver took us not to a restaurant but to a clinic, thinking that we had gotten some sort of food poisoning! Imagine our confusion and then amuseument when we pulled up to an unmarked building we thought would be a restaurant and all of the servers were wearing white hopsital coats.

Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)


In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)



The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).




Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).




But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Walled Cities of the Muslim World

Walls of Taroudannt, Morocco

Encircling walls have been, historically, a common feature of cities around the world. Beijing’s and Paris’s old walls may have been replaced by ring roads quaintly maintaining references to the old gates, and few big cities have maintained their walls (Istanbul comes to mind), but most of the cities of the world were at all point surrounded by walls protecting the urbane and civilized from the relative lawlessness of the hinterlands as well as foreign invaders. Walls distinguished what was inside, the developed density of organized city life, and what was out.

I don’t want to get into causes–an interesting discussion, no doubt–but many of the greatest walled cities that survive into the present day seem to be in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem are some of the most fabled, while smaller but still notable examples include Khiva in Uzbekistan, Lefkosa/Nicosia in Cyprus and Meknes in Morocco. Even among the Muslim cities that have lost their walls, many such as Old Delhi and Kashgar have retained much of that old walled atmosphere.

Walls of Cairo

Walls of Lefkosa/Nicosia

Walls of Khiva

That old walled city atmosphere–what is it? It has a lot to do with density–when walls constrain the growth of a city, urban life is forced to develop inward and upward, and life of every sort fills the alleys. Commerce and markets–the souqs so characteristic of Muslim cities–consume much of the urban core. Families are seen strolling from home to workshop to restaurant to hammam. And just as safety was one of the main reasons for building walls, to be able to maintain the order of civilized life inside, safety still reigns in these cities. Children run in the side streets, and scale and proximity somehow prevents the anonymity of city life from developing, every neighbor a constant presence.

We thought that we had a pretty thorough experience of Muslim walled cities by the time we got to Morocco, but we were pleasantly surprised. Of all the walled cities that we have visited, none equals the atmosphere of Fez–probably the most genuine, authentic and atmospheric walled city in our travels. More than any place else, one feels a continuity in Fez–a sense that the same people have occupied the same homes and narrow alleys for hundreds of years, living their lives in very much the same ways. Below, some images of Fez.

Fez is actually two different walled cities in one, with a substantial royal enclosure to boot. Here, the walls of Fez al-Jadid, or “New” Fez.

Markets fill many of the main arteries of traditional walled cities. Sometimes, covered.


Commerce is not limited to the “traditional”–here, a Credit Agricole branch.

Complementing the markets are warehouses or inns, called funduqs or khans, for merchants and merchandise.

Greeting neighbors, perhaps on the way to the mosque beyond

Fresh water and proper sewage facilities are of course essential to the functioning of a city–perhaps the single civil engineering technology most important to life in density. The street of Fez are still filled with fountains, public restrooms and hammams.



And room for industry as well. The famous tanneries of Fez are still in full production, not only for the local market but for import abroad.


The Turkic World

I discussed in a previous post (post of 8.03) how I sometimes think of the world in networks. Our trip is largely based on one such network–the network of Islamic countries, spanning from Senegal in the west to Indonesia in the east. One of the greatest and most basic misconceptions about the Islamic world–one which would probably be dispelled with just a few seconds’ thought but nonetheless persists–is that all Muslims are Arabs and vice versa. It is true that all Arab countries are predominantly Muslim, but it is false that all Arabs are Muslims–see posts of 4.16, 10.01 and 10.21. Also, while the Arab countries form in many senses–geographical and historical, among others–the “core” of the Islamic world, the world of Islam is of course far broader than just the countries of the Arab League; the faith of Mohammed spreads northwest of Syria into the Balkans, southwest of the Maghrib into the Sahel, northeast of Iraq into Central Asia and southeast of Oman all the way to Indonesia. Further, not only is the Arab world not coterminous with the Islamic world, but Arab ethno-linguistic identity is not without competition for primacy in the world of Islam; almost as important, arguably, is the Turkic world.

Turks, an originally nomadic people of the plain, originated in Central Asia but spread far west, through Iran and the Anatolian peninsula into the Balkans. The leading Turkic power in relatively recent history, the Ottoman Empire, conquered not only the Christian Byzantine Empire but most of the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Sultan was for much of its history recognized as the Caliph, or head, of all Muslims. And the Turkic footprint goes well beyond the Ottomans. Many of the great Arab empires were ruled by a Turkic military class, including Mameluke Egypt, and Turkic troops were involved in intrigues as far west as medieval Morocco. Turkic influence in the Persian world is also hard to underestimate–the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal India were both Turkic in “ethnicity” (if Persian in courtly culture, see post of 3.28), and much of Iran itself is Turkic, from the Azeri Turks to the Turkic nomads of the southeast, from the Qajars and to possibly even the Safavids. Turks were, historically, phenomenally successful in occupying the seats of power in the Islamic world.

Today, areas that are almost exclusively Turk include Turkey, Azerbaijan, the “Stans” of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang (also called East Turkistan, see below), an area thousands of miles across. Additionally, it is estimated that some 25% of Iran’s population is Turkic (and at least some Iranian Turks whom we met very much identified themselves as being Turks, somehow different from the Persian majority). Trade still runs along this network. Turkish Airlines flies to all of the Central Asian capitals. We saw Turkish restaurants and grocery stores in Tajikistan (technically Persian and not Turk, but effectively a part of the Turkic world because of its Central Asian location), and Turkey exports food products all the way east to Xinjiang. We saw Uzbek embroidery for sale all over Cappadocia and in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. [Bukharan embroidery travels along another network–the Jewish world–from Uzbekistan to Tel Aviv, where we also saw embroidery for sale–those Uzbeks sure must be busy churning out all that cloth!]

Embroidery, from thousands of miles away, on sale at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

The Ottoman Empire, and Turkic rule over all of the Middle East, may be gone, but Turks in Turkey are well aware of their leadership role within the greater Turkic world. We saw one decommissioned mosque in Istanbul being used as a cultural center for Balkan Turks and another titled the East Turkistan Foundation – Cultural Center (“East Turkestan” is the name for Xinjiang favored by those with separatist leanings). On the walls of the East Turkistan Foundation were photographs of great Uyghur leaders, people who are no doubt labeled dangerous rebels by the PRC government, as well as the flag of East Turkistan, essentially a blue Turkish flag. The friendly Turk who welcomed me to look around started by asking where I was from, and was relieved that I was not Chinese, half-jokingly suggesting that if I were he would have tossed me out. Of course, the Turkish defence of Cypriot Turks is also well known (see post of 10.27).

So what are the Turkic legacies on the rest of the Islamic world (and perhaps especially Iran), given hundreds of years of Turkic leadership? I think that perhaps the best way to answer that question is to consider things that the Turkic world, from Turkey to Xinjiang, have in common. Some observations on the Turkic world:

We had been to Turkey and Central Asia before this trip, but those prior visits (2001 and 2003, respectively) were far enough apart in time that it did not occur to us how Turks in Turkey physically look compared to Central Asian Turks. Visiting the two regions in quick succession, we realize now how similar Turkish Turks and Central Asian Turks (be they Turkmen, Uzbek or Uyghur) are, from an ethno-physical perspective. Given the thousands of miles separating Turkish Turks and Uyghurs, it is a pretty astonishing fact (although, I should note, the Kyrgyz are the odd man out, looking as east Asian as they do).

A young Turkish woman who would fit in perfectly in the Stans

One of my favorite pasttimes, the hamam [hammam] (see post of 4.27), known popularly as the Turkish bath, exists all over the Turkic world, from Istanbul to Uzbekistan, as well as parts of the Arab world that were subject to Turkic influence, such as Egypt and the Levant. My best guess is that the Turks adopted this custom from people that preceded them (especially the Romans), and there are certainly hamams that predate or are otherwise not originally Turkic (such as in Syria or Morroco), but Turks adopted the hamam as their own and very much contributed to its survival and popularity.

Buyuk Hamam, Nicosia, Cyprus (sadly closed, according to a guidebook since an American tourist claimed to have been molested by a masseur (the tourist clearly needed to be enlightened on the many services offered by hamam attendants throughout history–see post of 4.27))

Ottoman-era hamam, Nablus, West Bank

There is certainly a lot of great food and a developed cuisine in Turkey, but Turks from Turkey to Xinjiang are most famous for grilling meat, recalling the Turks’ nomadic days, and the kebab has risen to claim a central role in many cuisines of the Islamic world as a whole, especially in the Levant and Iran. Some foods of non-Turkic origin seem to have traveled great distances through the Turkic network: Chinese style dumplings were adopted by Mongols and then Turks, resulting in manti (from Chinese mantou) “ravioli” being served from Tashkent to Istanbul. (I should note that they don’t really get all that tasty from west to east until you get to China.) Turkish ayran and Iranian doogh (a salty yoghurt beverage Derek thinks of more as a sauce to be added once the food is already in his mouth than a drink) are, no doubt, essentially the same drink.

Making shashlyk, Uzbekistan

Grilling kofte, Istanbul, Turkey

Making manti, Istanbul, Turkey

Soup, Tasucu, Turkey. The first spoonful brought Central Asia to our minds immediately (not really a good thing, when it comes to flavor).

Other Turkic commonalities? Religious moderation and friendliness come to mind. Looking at the Islamic world as divided into Arab, Persian and Turkic spheres of influence, the Turkic clearly stands out for the moderation of its religious practice. I’m not sure whether this is a “Turkic” trait, or whether it’s because of the influences of Ataturk and Communism (in Turkey and Central Asia, respectively), but in an age when some Islamic countries lean dangerously toward the fundamentalist, it is perhaps healthy for there to be a countervailing moderate voice of the religion from the Turkic world. From a traveler’s perspective, the Turkic world stands out for including some of the friendliest parts of the world. Turkish Turks, despite the hordes of tourists that arrive each year, remain endearingly generous and hospitable. One man we heard of who biked from Europe to Asia believed that Uzbekistan and Iran were by far the friendliest and most welcoming countries, with repeated offers of (free) food and lodging, and, from our experience, other than some Turkmen and Kyrgyz who seem to be stuck in a Soviet mindset, Turks from Istanbul to Turpan are almost uniformly friendly.

Korea in Central Asia

I sometimes think of the world in networks. The most simple of these networks are contiguous. For example, the Scandinavian countries share so much in culture and history that they cannot help but be interconnected. Such geographically tight networks also include the Andean countries of South America and the chopstick countries of east Asia. There are also the colonial empires, which persist to this day as cultural and economic networks. The sun still doesn’t set on the British-led Commonwealth of Nations, and Macau held the first Lusofonia Games, at which the Portuguese-speaking countries competed (as may be expected, the Brazilians won most of the events). We met in Aleppo a Quebecois woman attending a francophone literary conference. Other networks are even broader, such as the Arab, Islamic or Turkish worlds. Despite differences in language and culture, a Palestinian Arab identifies with an Arab from the Gulf or the Maghrib as a kinsman. Our bed and breakfast hosts in Uzbekistan vacationed in Langkawi, and we met many Iranians who were going to study abroad in Malaysia. The route network of Turkish Airways shows that Turkey is laying a sort of claim and influence on all of Central Asia (even non-Turkic Tajik Dushanbe has several Turkish restaurants and grocery stores), and we saw imports of Turkish food products in Xinjiang, China.

For a relatively small country (though admittedly one with one of the world’s largest economies), it can be somewhat surprising to see how widely distributed Koreans and Korean influence are. One rough gauge of the relative prominence of Korea and Koreans in a place is to see how people identify me, clearly an east Asian–their first guess indicates which of China, Japan or Korea has had the greatest impact on the area. For example, in Peru, where there is a significant local Chinese population, or in places where there is really very little interaction at all with east Asians, such as Ethiopia, people will assume that all east Asians are Chinese–not a bad guess, considering that China is almost ten times the size of Japan and over twenty times the size of Korea. In places that receive many Japanese tourists, such as Hawaii or Bali, people will assume that I am Japanese. In some places, Korea is the first guess; since Korea is much smaller than either China or Japan, this likely means that Korea has a relatively large footprint in the area, either because Korean tourists outnumber other east Asian tourists (as in, say, Boracay or Laos) or because of other ties between the place and Korea. One such place is Central Asia.

Perhaps the most important instance of Korea in Central Asia is the large number of ethnic Koreans (around 500,000) living in Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Koreans ended up in Central Asia by force, deported by Stalin from the Russian Far East (where they had been living not far from the Korean border) during World War II for fear that they would assist the Japanese. (While it is true that Korea was part of the Japanese Empire during the first half of the twentieth century, it seems unrealistic that Koreans would have been aiding their occupiers.) The Korean minority is quite visible in Uzbekistan. There are Korean restaurants in all the major cities and the Korean cold noodle dish naengmyeon is a common light meal in Tashkent, where it is called by the Russo-Korean name “kykcy,” meaning noodles.

Ethnic Korean woman selling “salads,” essentially Korean banchan, in a Samarkand market

I’ve spoken to several ethnic Koreans in Uzbekistan. While their lives have been somewhat complicated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union (during Soviet times the Koreans generally spoke Russian and associated with the Russian population rather than assimilating with the local Central Asian populations), it seems that they live quite comfortably, both culturally and materially, in Central Asia. I was told that they face no serious discrimination, and that they are accepted as part of the ethnic collage that is Central Asia. Since about 60 years have passed since the forced migration, most of the ethnic Koreans in Central Asia were born there (and even the elderly who were not born in Central Asia probably called the Russian Far East, and not Korea, home, prior to the move).

Korean woman, Tashkent

The second most visible instance of Korea in Central Asia are Korean products, which are everywhere in Central Asia. I suppose in some ways it is a natural market for Korea, being the next stop west on the Silk Road from China, and I also think that perhaps Korea is filling a vacuum left by the departure of noncompetitive Soviet products from the market. Korean electronics, automobiles, clothes, food products–all are in abundant supply.

Korean products for sale, from undergarments to electronics

Almost every car in Uzbekistan is an Uz-Daewoo, a joint venture of Daewoo Motors.

The ever-popular Choco-Pie, on sale in Tajikistan

An increasingly important category of Korean exports is cultural exports. Korea has become something of a pop culture capital of Asia, with Korean television shows in particular being shown all over the continent, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Mongolia to Uzbekistan. After identifying me as Korean, many Uzbeks would immediately reference the television show Jumong (which I have never seen). One tourist we met said that in Mongolia, the government requires special breaks during marathon Korean programming so that people would remember to feed their livestock!

Korean television shows and actors being used to sell merchandise. The Jumong t-shirts are extremely popular, worn by children all over Uzbekistan. As the American example has shown, cultural exports can be an extremely powerful way to market a country and its products–I’ve also seen Korean musicians pitching real estate developments in Vietnam.

The success of Korean football, especially since the 2002 World Cup, has also been greatly positive for Korea in terms of global recognition–people we meet on our travels often call out to me names of Korean football players (most of whom I’ve never heard of, not being a fan). Those red Korean fan t-shirts are making their way around the world–we’ve even seen them worn by negritos in a village near Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines!

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, are the Central Asians who have lived in Korea for work. With local wages high Korea has begun to import manpower. While the number of foreign workers in Korea is nowhere near the levels of some other countries, Korea seems to import them from particularly far and wide, with a large number of Uzbeks having worked in Korea. We’re not sure why this is, but perhaps there is some sort of proto-Altaic connection between Koreans and Central Asians (one Uzbek man told me several words that are similar in Korean and Uzbek), or perhaps ethnic Koreans in Central Asia started the trend of going to Korea for work. Another theory is that Korea issues visas to Uzbeks preferentially because they are seen as more “desirable” than, say, south Asians, or, because they are less able to blend in, less likely to try to overstay their visas than southeast Asians. I have been approached several times by Korean-speaking Uzbeks, not only in Uzbekistan but also in an Uzbek area of Kyrgyzstan. Given that few non-Koreans speak Korean, to hear an Uzbek out of the blue address you in Korean is quite a shocking experience. Since few Uzbeks speak English, Uzbekistan is perhaps the only country in the world where speaking Korean in addition to English can help you get around (especially because many former expatriate workers seem now to drive taxis). I was relieved to hear from those who had worked in Korea that their experience was positive, and a Korean traveler can expect to be the lucky recipient of much residual good will.

Our Sarmarkand taxi driver, who had worked in Korea for a couple of years and planned to return in hopes of establishing a trading company