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          Volume 10 |Issue 34 | September 09, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Exploring Beyond Stereotypes

Part I

Farah Ghuznavi

A few years ago, while having dinner with friends in Dhaka, I found myself taken aback by the hostility that one of my companions expressed towards Koreans. Although he didn't specify it, he was referring to South Koreans, more particularly the business community in Bangladesh. Like most people, I suspect, what I knew about South Korea would not have been sufficient to cover one side of A4 paper - though that was still more than I knew about its doppelgänger, the notoriously secretive renegade nation of North Korea. And this, mind you, despite the fact that I had once travelled to Seoul in the late 90s to attend a conference, and had some unexpectedly interesting experiences in the process.

For one thing, since the conference was huge, and a couple of hundred people were gathering to discuss various issues in parallel sessions, there was a complicated system in place to pick up delegates at the airport. We were individually approached by a conference staff member, who then directed us towards an airport bus. This bus would take us to a pre-determined point in the city of Seoul, near a hotel, where we were to get off at the bus stop and wait for someone to pick us up and take us to the conference centre.

I was making the journey alone, and things went well up to the point where I disembarked from the bus near the hotel, as instructed. I then stood around at the bus stop for the better part of an hour and a half, waiting for my contact person to show up. This was when I discovered that Koreans are generally very courteous people, at least in their home environment. As I attempted to make eye contact with each individual who appeared to be my host - and these "false starts" took place with several people over the course of an hour - each person smiled and performed a small bow before apologetically walking past me!

Finally I gave up and hailed a taxi. The taxi driver seemed to be a nice man, but since his English was about as fluent as my command over Korean, I had to resort to the scrap of paper on which I had written what I was assured was the phonetic version of the address where I was supposed to go to. My cab driver didn't seem to understand much of what I was saying when I read the address out to him, but he began making increasingly expansive gestures with his arms that seemed to indicate that the Institute of Agriculture hosting us was quite some distance away. I started to worry about how much this was going to cost. But without even a contact phone number available to me, in the days before the Internet and mobile phones had become commonplace in our lives (yes, there was such time!), I had no option but to get into the cab.

As we drove beyond the city limits and were soon surrounded by green paddy fields, I was faced with the troubling realisation that no one - not the conference organisers, not my family members, not a single person in the world - had any idea where I was at that point. I also realised that it was just as well that we were in South Korea, which I had a vague idea was a very law-abiding place, and not some obscure part of the United States, otherwise I would probably have started worrying about being murdered and having my body dumped in the distant rice fields.

About 15 minutes outside the city, the driver stopped to try and get directions. I heard the people at the village tea stall being told that someone from Bangladesh (the only word I could make out in this conversation) was in the car. Several interested and friendly faces popped up outside my window, and I had a sudden flash of homesickness, realising this particular Korean reaction mirrored the response a stranger would get asking for directions in rural Bangladesh - albeit in more limited numbers. I emerged from the car and once again attempted to read out the address. This time, my mangled Korean was received with a flash of recognition, and it turned out that someone actually knew where the Institute was located. Within 10 minutes we were safely there, and to my enormous relief I was told that my equally relieved hosts (who had been agonising over misplacing me) would be happy to reimburse me for the taxi expenditure - they had forgotten to tell me that we were supposed to wait for our contact person in the hotel lobby near the bus stand!

The conference itself went well, though seven days of eating pickled cabbage and rice for lunch got old fast. Luckily, our dinners were lavish - at least in relative terms - consisting of grilled meats, sushi and delicious vegetable dishes. Embarrassing as this is to admit, it was the first time I realised that I could actually like vegetables! The only thing that remained problematic was the Korean addiction to rice starch drinks. Cans full of this milk-white, heavily sugared beverage were served at the conference tea breaks, with no tea in sight. The Korean delegates consumed them with every appearance of pleasure, even munching happily on the grains of sodden rice that gathered at the bottomof the can. This continued until several of the foreign delegates - and I will admit to being one of them - finally rebelled and demanded regular infusions of caffeine. Our hosts were mortified at this oversight, and we were kept well supplied with tea and coffee for the remainder of the conference duration. All in all, the trip was a strange but interesting experience for me.

Under the circumstances therefore, I found it hard to understand the depth of my friend's hostility towards Koreans. In response to my queries, he insisted that Korean business interests were ungenerous towards their foreign (in this case, Bangladeshi) labour force. This may well be true; capitalism, after all, didn't get where it has by being nice to anyone; least of all the human component of the production process, which is invariably at the bottom of the totem pole. But given that Bangladeshi businesses - with a few exceptions - are rarely known for prioritising workers' welfare either, I wasn't sure what quite he was getting at. In the end, I attributed my friend's dislike to the more general phenomenon, evinced worldwide, of hostility towards foreign investors, particularly those from better off countries.

The recent swell of Chinese investment in Africa has been accompanied by a corresponding hostility towards the Chinese (who have also, for example, imported convict labour from China into Zambia, thereby also depriving the already angry Zambians of badly-needed jobs). Nor is such resentment limited to the developing world. Just a couple of decades ago Australia had to pass legislation to prevent further acquisition by foreigners after approximately one third of Queensland had effectively been "purchased" by Japanese business interests - a fact that did not gain the latter much popularity Down Under!


(…to be continued)


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