Muslim Seoul

Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world–through most of history, save the many invasions, nearly everyone in Korea has been ethnically Korean and Korean-speaking. What regional dialects there are are largely mutually intelligible (though perhaps still surprising for such a small country), and outside of a small number of Chinese, ethnic minorities are virtually non-existent.

Well, things are changing, due to two great forces at work.

First, as has been much noted in the U.S. press, a relative lack of young women (as a result of historical sex selection by parents) and the undesirability in marriage of relatively poor Korean farmers have resulted in a large number of international marriages between Korean men and Vietnamese and other women from poorer Asian countries. This has led to quite a large number of Vietnamese women in the Korean countryside and resulting children of mixed marriages.

The second cause is Korea’s prominence in the global economy. Korea is, more or less, a rich country now, and many people from countries around the world are attracted to live and work in Korea. This ranges from American, Canadian and Australian 20- or 30-somethings who get jobs teaching English to Uzbeks and Indians coming to Korea to work in factories. Among these of course are some Muslims, who have carved out a niche in Seoul.

I knew that there was a mosque in Seoul because I could see it from the Seoul Grand Hyatt, where I would occasionally stay on business, but didn’t bother to seek it out until recently. As it turns out, there is in Itaewon (Seoul’s primary “foreigner” neighborhood) a whole mini Muslim Seoul, an unexpected and interesting facet of the huge metropolis.

Sign for the Seoul Central Masjid, seen from the main road in Itaewon (note Dubai Restaurant)

Gateway to the Seoul Central Masjid, just up the hill

Seoul Central Masjid. While the mosque is located in Seoul’s “foreigner” neighborhood, I was surprised to find several Korean Muslims inside. Since I do not believe there is any historical presence of Islam in Korea, I assume they are all relatively recent converts.

Islamic School attached to the mosque

The mosque forms the center of a mini Muslim Seoul, complete with Islamic bookstores, travel agencies catering to Muslims and restaurants ranging from Pakistani to Uzbek to Turkish. We chatted briefly (in broken English and Korean) to a very nice Syrian man working at an Turkish/Arab sweets shop (many Korean women seem to drop by to flirt with him).

The Muslim footprint in Korea is not limited to Itaewon. Here, an Iraqi man carves up doner to patrons near Namdaemun market.

Secondary Cuisines

Traveling through the world, one gets to taste some terrific (and some not-so-terrific) food. Considering the wide availability of many of the same ingredients all over the world, it’s astonishing how much cuisines vary, from East to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia to India, India to Iran, Iran to the Levant to Turkey, Turkey to Europe. The food, and the types and availability of restaurants, tell you a great deal about a place–the level of economic development, historical trading patterns and contacts, maybe even the character of a people. This post is, however, limited to one small category of food, which I call “secondary cuisines.”

A secondary cuisine is a cuisine once removed. Not Italian food as served in Italy, for example, but American Italian food. Not Chinese food as served in China, but Korean Chinese food. Not Indian food as served in India, but British Indian food. Secondary cuisines have interesting histories. Sometimes, they are just adaptations of an immigrant class, perhaps modified for broader consumption in the country of immigration. Other times, they are local visions of what a foreign cuisine is, or attempts to create such cuisines without proper training or ingredients. However they originate, some secondary cuisines develop lives of their own, perhaps not exceeding in quality and variety the primary cuisine, but differentiating itself sufficiently that even the primary cuisine would not serve as a substitute for someone looking for that particular secondary cuisine dish. An American tourist could easily be disappointed by pizza the way it is served in Italy, and I have heard from many who prefer American Chinese food over food in China. There have even been cases of transplantation of secondary cuisine dishes into the country of the primary cuisine, whether for consumption by locals or foreigners. Lest this sound rather abstract, let us move on to concrete examples.

The country in which the widest range of secondary cuisines exists is probably the United States, a country of immigrants. Chief among these is probably American Chinese food. Ever since Chinese workers first arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they have been cooking food (as Chinese emigrants do all over the world–see below), and a unique cuisine developed. The greatest concentration of American Chinese food restaurants is probably in San Francisco, the oldest Chinese community in the United States, where restaurants have big signs advertising that most American Chinese dish, Chop Suey. But not far behind are restaurants in big cities all over the U.S., and even in rural areas–Chinese food is omnipresent. Other dishes of American Chinese cuisine include such classics as General Tso’s and Sesame Chicken, and an entire range of American Chinese food is often available in cheap buffet or fast food restaurants in strip malls across America. I read that General Tso’s Chicken, originally a Taiwanese-American invention, has made it back to Taiwan–but I have not seen it on a menu in the Mainland… yet.

There are numerous other American-XXX cuisines. After American Chinese food, American Italian probably comes a close second. Indeed, Italian food served outside of Italy is often not an adaptation of Italian food from Italy, but of American Italian food. Whether served at Pizza Hut or numerous smaller local restaurants, American-style pizza is perhaps the single most popular food in the world. Pizza by the slice being sold in Venice looked and tasted suspiciously like New York pizza, leaving me to wonder whether pizza-by-the-slice is an American invention that has traveled back to Italy, together with the recipe for American pizza. American Japanese food also exists, to a small extent, in the form of newly invented sushi. I’ve read that the California, Philadelphia and Alaska rolls have all, to some extent, traveled across the Pacific to be served in sushi restaurants in Japan. Similarly, a cut of rib grilled for Korean barbeque is known even in Korea as “L.A. Galbi,” after its place of innovation, and I know of a pho restaurant in Saigon that imports “rooster sauce” (Sriracha Sauce), a tomato and chili condiment made by Vietnamese Americans and ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.

America may be home to the the largest number of secondary cuisines, but the country responsible for seeding the largest number of secondary cuisines is, no doubt, China. “Chinese” food is among the most varied in the world (it is probably silly to call it a single cuisine, although of course regional differences are largely lost when exported to other countries), and among the most adopted in the world, not only by Chinese emigrant communities but by non-Chinese locals. We have eaten (some sort of) Chinese food in the U.S. (of course), Europe, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, the Levant, Mali and Madagascar.

Of secondary Chinese cuisines, the two most distinctive, from my perspective, are Korean Chinese food and Indian Chinese food. I am not sure how Korean Chinese food originated, but I believe it was created by Chinese immigrants to Korea (from Shandong Province?) who opened restaurants and modified existing Chinese dishes to suit local palates. Now, it forms a cuisine on its own, its dishes recognizably Chinese but prepared in a distinct style. Every Korean child’s favorite food is Jiajiangmyeon, similar to but different from the Beijing-style noodles, and anybody could tell Korean-style Sweet and Sour apart from its Chinese original. Given the lack of a significant Chinese population in India or Sri Lanka, I am inclined to think that Indian Chinese food is a local creation, a vision of Chinese food by (evidently skilled) South Asian cooks. I am told that some of the dishes, such as Chili Chicken, Chicken Manchurian, etc., are available in Indian restaurants in New York. In Madras we went to the restaurant that supposedly invented Chicken 55, another popular (and delicious) Indian Chinese dish. There are numerous other secondary Chinese cuisines–we were unsurprised to find at a restaurant in Sofia Bulgaria an entire page of Chinese dishes, some more recognizably Chinese in inspiration than others. I should also note that Chinese is often a premium cuisine in many parts of the world, surprising to big city Americans to whom some kind of Chinese food is available at highly competitive prices.

Western food has also been adapted. All over Asia there is some variant of adapted western food, such as pizza with corn as a topping (or thousand island dressing in lieu of tomato sauce, as is available at Pizza Hut Hong Kong), “hamburger steak” made of ground meat and various cream soups. The most well-developed, almost sophisticated version, however, is Japanese western. The Japanese adopted certain western dishes from their interactions with the Portuguese in the 16th century and with the British in the 19th, and some of the dishes have grown quite popular, served not only in Japanese restaurants in Japan but all over the world, including especially Korea. Foremost among the dishes of this cuisine are curry and katsu, both foods I grew up with and love. It was fairly late in my life when I recognized that my love of chicken fried steak and wiener schnitzel (and other similar dishes–every country seems to have its own) came down to their resemblance to Japanese katsu.

When I was recently in Milan, I had to try the local milanesa, the namesake of the breaded meat dish in all parts of the Italian- and Spanish-speaking worlds.


We’re not proud of this, and it is really with some shame that I admit it, but we have had more than our share of run-ins with police around the world. To wit, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Bahrain, Madagascar, Korea, . . . , and most recently China. Given this wealth of experience, I thought that it would be fun to do a post relating our experience, with perhaps stories of one or two of the most interesting incidents.

We usually bring in the police because we have a dispute with some local person. Sometimes we feel that we’ve been overcharged and seek to explain to an official why we are withholding payment, or we otherwise feel that we’ve been wronged and the police are called in to intermediate. Since we only let it escalate to that level when we are clearly in the right, the resolution is usually in our favor, but at any rate it can be helpful to have official mediation. (Contrary to what you may suspect, local police generally do not immediately take the side of the local and assume that the foreigners are in the wrong.)

My favorite story, the one I most often tell, takes place in the foreigner ghetto of Itaewon in Seoul. Derek and I were out late one night near some gay bars in Itaewon, and were walking down a small street in order to catch a cab back home, when I suddenly heard, in English, “Check that one in the black t-shirt.” Now, I was wearing a black shirt at the time, but I did not think that anyone could be referring to me. A few steps later, I was stopped by a group of four U.S. MPs and two Korean police. The MPs asked me for my identification. Now, it was around midnight, and I knew that at the time (a sort of peak in anti-American/anti-military sentiment in Korea due to a recent accident involving the deaths of two young Korean girls) the U.S. armed forces in Korea were subject to an 11 p.m. curfew, and so I figured that the solders thought that I might be a U.S. soldier violating my curfew. After a slight pause I decided that I would on absolutely no account show them any identification. There were so many things wrong with the situation. First, and foremost, why were the U.S. MPs patrolling the streets of Seoul, asking anyone for their identification? Second, why would they pick me, an Asian person, to check? Shouldn’t they at least focus on people who look typically American rather than someone who is just as or more likely to be Korean? Third, why were they set up right next to the gay bars? I thought to myself, even if these MPs were in the U.S., there is no way that I would do their bidding, why the hell should I be doing it here? If I, a lawyer, do not stand up for my rights, who will?

I told the MPs that I was in fact a U.S. citizen but that I was not a soldier and that they had no business asking me for identification. They suggested that they had the authority to check me because I am a U.S. citizen–I told them that that was nonsense. The Korean police officers who were patrolling with them asked me to cooperate. I explained politely but firmly that I understood exactly why the MPs were doing what they were doing, but that I found their methods objectionable and misguided. The dispute went on and a crowd started to gather. For the most part, people were cheering us on–bystanders (mostly gay westerners) taunted the MPs with their own IDs. Eventually, they gave up and the MPs stormed off with the Korean police in tow.

Satisfied, we started walking back toward the main road when a young Korean man who identified himself as the owner of one of the bars stopped us to congratulate us on our victory. He himself (despite his clearly non-native English) had been ID’d the week before, and was relieved that somebody had finally said “no”. He said that we must come back to his bar for a drink on the house. Not wanting to be unappreciative, we went back and were enjoying a glass of wine when the Korean police came back.

The police explained that the U.S. MPs were making a big deal of this situation and simply would not let the matter drop–they demanded my identification. I assured the Korean police that I was not U.S. military, and appealed to their sense of justice and national pride that foreign armed forces were ordering them around. They remained firm, and I said that I would just go home, as originally planned–they could either arrest me or let me leave. I started walking away, but the police followed, eventually to a street with prostitution. A working woman stationed obviously outside her place of business was curious at our late night dispute and got involved, asking what the matter was. “If you’re not a soldier, just show them your identification,” she said. Derek pointed out that there was an outright violation of law in front of the officers (prostitution), but that instead they were wasting their time with me. The police at one point suggested that I get in their car, to which Derek protested by saying that he would then be stranded and lost and in danger (though really what kind of danger would an English-speaking foreigner be in “lost” in Seoul), persuading them not to take me.

Finally, the police argued that they had a right to check my papers for my immigration status, given that I had acknowledged that I was not a Korean citizen. I was annoyed by this, given that U.S. citizens do not even require a visa to visit Korea, but could not dispute the legitimacy of the request. Even in the U.S., I thought, this request would likely be within the law. I said that I would allow them a glance at my passport picture and entry stamp, just to verify that I was in the country legally. I made them promise not record my name in order to pass it along to the MPs. I showed them my passport–I had to sort of yank it back in order for them not to retain it–and they were satisfied, although not looking forward to returning to the MPs empty-handed. From our taxi on our way back home we saw the MPs leaving the Korean police station, where they had apparently been waiting for me.

This was perhaps the police incident that took the largest amount of time to resolve, but there was at least no chance of physical or legal danger. That prize would go to Ethiopia, generally a very safe country, where the police offered to extricate us from a somewhat angry mob by essentially arresting us. Thankfully, we were able to avoid both the mob and the police with the assistance of an armed and sympathetic guide.

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