Monday, June 4, 2018

BOOKS! (Go Tell It on the Mountain + Baking Cakes in Kigali)

Been a minute but I'm back! Today I've got the other of two novels that I bought on my last day working at a bookstore, and a novel that I bought at at a Half Price Books during the 2017 holiday season.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

James Baldwin has been on my radar for a very long time. I read Giovanni's Room when I was in high school. In the bookstore that I worked at years ago, Go Tell It on the Mountain was the only work by a Black author among a handful of classic book covers that were printed on enormous canvases and hung in the most visible areas of the store. My latest book review included a novel about a writer who idolized Baldwin and moved to Paris to emulate his artistic journey. Plus, it's currently very trendy for young Black people my age to be well-versed in James Baldwin's work (or at least to claim to be so). But for some reason I kept putting off Go Tell It on the Mountain. I only bought it because it was one of his most popular titles, but even without looking through it or researching about it, I had a feeling that this book would be heavy for me. And it was, but in a way that ended up being right on time.

This novel draws much from Baldwin's own childhood, chronicling one Saturday in the life of a Black boy in Harlem named John Grimes . It's 1935, he's the oldest of four children, and his preacher father hates him for reasons he hasn't been able to figure out. The hate is mutual, and he resists God because his dad supposedly represents God. This particular Saturday also happens to be his 14th birthday, but instead of celebration, the day starts with chores and ends with chaos. In addition to an ongoing sexual awakening and a peculiar yet unignorable awareness that he's different from other Black boys his age (he's a book smart kid who's already realizing how his intellect might appeal to whiteness, and it's hinted that John is gay), his brother gets injured and the family implodes. All this, before going to church that night and unexpectedly catching the Holy Spirit at the weekly tarrying service. (This is a Pentecostal church ritual where people who haven't gotten saved yet try to pray and worship really hard until they "catch" the Holy Spirit.) I'm not Pentecostal and I've never been caught up in exactly the same way John is, but Baldwin undoubtedly writes the most vivid description of it that I've read so far.

While John is the main character, most of the book focuses on the backstories of the most prominent elders in his life: his aunt Florence (least pious), his dad Gabriel (most pious), and his mom Elizabeth (somewhere in between). It's through them that the story extends beyond this one day or the 14 years of memories that John has, to decades of life and migration between the South and North. We witness how each of them wandered, rebelled, fell in love, lost people, contended with racism, took life-changing chances, made horrible mistakes, and eventually found God in their own way. John's life, like those of most children, is profoundly influenced by the adults around him. And while his frustrations are just beginning and he doesn't receive many answers by the end of the novel, we as readers get an in-depth look at exactly why the people who shape his life behave the way they do.

If you grew up in a Black church, struggled with faith, have daddy issues, like coming of age stories, are interested in the Great Migration and Black life in late 19th/early 20th century America, or just love James Baldwin and somehow missed this one, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"To 'come along' meant that he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had traveled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive" (78).

"there was only one difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other" (164).
 "what's in you is in you, and it's got to come out" (182). 
"And yet, it came to him that he must move; for there was a light somewhere, and life, and joy, and singingsomewhere, somewhere above him" (206).

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
(advanced reading copy from 2009)

In the year 2000, Rwanda is still recovering from the genocide of 1994, and numerous professionals and organizations have been sent to Kigali to assist. Angel Tungaraza's husband is one such professional, and they've moved from Tanzania along with their five grandchildren to live in an apartment complex with numerous other expats. Angel's way of getting to know her community and giving people in Kigali an excuse to celebrate more things is running a cake business out of her apartment. She's renowned for her professionalism and creative designs, and she often helps her clients with their personal problems in the process. Eventually this helps her confront the secrets and grief in her own life.

My personal favorite client of Angel's is the soldier who tries to order a cake so he can use it propose on the spot to one of the local white women (any random one, mind you, he doesn't actually have a white girlfriend or anything), who will hopefully marry him and take him to America so he can live a better life and not be a soldier anymore. His small arc is heartbreaking because of his stolen childhood and the atrocities he was forced to witness and participate in. It's infuriating because worshiping white women just screams self-hatred to me, and he doesn't accept Angel's refusal or challenges to his logic. But it's also hilarious because he genuinely believes his plan will work and any white woman will do; all he needs to woo one is a diamond, an engagement party planned in advance, and a certificate attesting to his negative HIV status. My goodness.

However, what I most enjoy about this novel is how much it taught me about Rwanda. When I was in school, we learned about the Rwandan genocide but the discussion didn't go beyond the facts that Belgium arbitrarily created ethnic/social classes that eventually led to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, up to a million people died, and the US didn't intervene and supposedly we feel really sorry for that. We don't learn anything beyond 1994, the year that the genocide happened. So it was eye-opening to read about Rwanda's reconciliation initiatives (especially in light of South Africa's which are much more well-known). And to learn about the skills gap that existed at the time (hence the flood of expats into Kigali), or how the AIDS epidemic in East Africa splintered families in a similar way to the genocide. I greatly appreciate Gaile Parkin for using a story about a cake baker to educate readers about these issues in a way that's not patronizing or didactic.

I don't intend to read the other books in this series (reading this gave me No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency vibes, another book series featuring an African female character who solves people's problems and was written by a white author born in Africa; been there, done that). But I am glad that I read this one. If you're into baking, want to learn more about Rwanda in the years that followed the genocide, care about survivors' trauma and remorse, enjoy neighborhood gossip, or just want an easy read that's lighthearted but still has some depth, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"bilingual means you can speak two languages. People here can already speak two languages at least: Kinyarwanda and French, or Kinyarwanda and Swahili, or some other two. But when your president talks about bilingual, he means only English and FrenchWazungu languages. Does he mean to say that our own African languages are not languages?" (180).
"There are many of us who wish every day that we had not survived. Do you think I feel blessed to live in this house with the ghosts of everyone who was killed here?... If I had known then what survival was going to be like, I would not have chosen it" (217-218).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Scripture & Lyrics

"Had to talk to God, drop down and pray for this / To my surprise, He replied, said 'You made for this'" -Cardi B


"For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." -Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

BOOKS! (Black Girl in Paris + Alentejo Blue)

So I've been back from Korea for over a month, and I really felt like the month of March was trying my life. So even though I was able to keep reading, I haven't had the energy to write about much other than the Korea trip, which I finally finished last week. But it's April now, I decided to stop throwing caution to the wind and actually write out a loose schedule of book pairs that I'll read and write reviews for this month and next month, and so I'm ready to get back at it. Today I have a novel that I learned about via Instagram, and a novel that I found at a used book store in Louisville.

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood

I've been following the Brooklyn-based book club and literary festival called Well-Read Black Girl for a while on Instagram, but had never picked a book to read based on their recommendation until some months ago. One day they featured Black Girl in Paris, and numerous women commented on the photo saying how the book changed their life, or how it inspired them to travel more, or how it allowed them to relive their own experiences in the City of Lights. And since I myself was also a black girl in Paris four years ago, and since the cover was so startlingly beautiful (an afro made of butterflies, y'all!), I figured what the hey. All aboard the francophile/nostalgia train! I ordered my copy from ThriftBooks.

In the 1980s, Eden is a poet at heart who exchanges her life in the South for a sojourn in Paris, following in the footsteps of the young black Harlem Renaissance artists who found freedom there before her. She hopes that being in Paris will help her develop as an artist, and maybe even allow her to meet her personal literary hero, James Baldwin. Abandoned as a baby but raised by loving adoptive parents, she graduated university with a degree in literature, and by the time she decides to go to Paris she is working as a tour guide/archivist in the mansion-turned-museum of a historically wealthy black family. But she is haunted by memories of growing up under Jim Crow, desperately wants to be an artist, and wants more than the limited existence that she feels awaits her if she stays in Georgia as she is. After a pair of Black French visitors to the museum encourage her to visit Paris and she pulls an all-nighter reading James Baldwin's books in the museum library, Eden decides that that's where she needs to be. So at 26 years old, she arrives in Paris with $200, few belongings, and a dream.

Eden is preoccupied with learning the city, engaging with the artist community, and finding her own voice as a writer, and she hasn't placed a definite time limit on her time in Paris. But she still needs to survive in the meantime, so each chapter is identified by how she occupies herself during that time. My personal favorites include the "au pair" chapter, in which she lives with an American diplomat's family and experiences the elitism and racism embedded in expat communities (often white) that rely on poor immigrant labor (often brown) to keep their homes running and children taken care of. And the "lover" chapter, in which she begins a passionate relationship with a white trumpet player from Louisiana named Ving, who uses music to overcome personal childhood trauma. And the "thief" chapter, in which she pairs up with a fellow vagabond from Barbados, and the two black women steal and squat their way to survival. Broke and weary from trying to make it in Paris, Eden heads south to Saint-Paul-de-Vence for more inspiration and hopefully to cross paths with James Baldwin. But I'll let you read the novel to see if she finds what she's looking for in the end.

To put it plainly, I adore this book. I don't read many English-language books about Paris, but the last book I read that was so true to the culture and essence of that city was Waiting for Gertrude, which I read while I was there. If you like to read about wanderers, black women following their dreams, artists claiming the lives that they want, or need to go on a journey of your own and need a bit of inspiration, read Black Girl in Paris!

Favorite quotes:
"My tongue is wasted on words when you would be of better use in my mouth" (28). 

"The poet Elizabeth has so little imagination she thinks I steal from her... I cannot escape her expectation that gratitude be married to servitude. Her skin is pale and privileged, mine is brown and sweaty from labor in her house. I am not thankful. Not even a little... I want to slap her, but it is too easy to hurt her. There are many ways to torment a soul" (122-123).

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

To round out 2017 I spent the last two weeks of December in Louisville as I always do, and it's my aunt's tradition to take advantage of the post-Christmas sales. I usually just tag along to get out of the house, but this time she mentioned wanting to visit a used bookstore called Half Price Books, since she'd read that almost everything in the store would be 50% off that day. Alentejo Blue was among my purchases. It was a pretty simple thought process: my favorite color is blue, I had never read a book set in Portugal before, and I saw that the author was a woman of color from the UK, so I bought it. It was the only book I read while in Korea, and I finished it after I returned home.

Alentejo Blue is set in Mamarrosa, a small Portuguese village whose residents are hoping for a second wind. (Alentejo is a real region and Mamarrosa is a real village in Portugal, but the two places are actually in different areas of the country.) Despite a revolution that toppled a fascist regime in the past, elites still managed to buy back most of the land and control the local resources, so most local residents are still struggling financially. Nonetheless, people find a way to enjoy their simple way of life, and rumors abound that a man who grew up there, left, and became rich will soon return home to establish some sort of venture that will bring more jobs and money to the village. Each chapter is devoted to a different local resident or British expat/tourist in Mamarrosa contending with their own disappointment, uncertainty, and waiting.

There's João, an elderly man who finds his former lover and regime-fighting friend Rui hanging from a tree. There's Vasco, an outwardly jovial and occasionally indignant bar owner who has an eating disorder. And Teresa, a young woman who was forced to sacrifice her education for her little brother's benefit, and is determined to move to London and leave the village behind. And who can forget the Pottses, a supremely dysfunctional family from the UK that's a source of scandal and entertainment for the rest of the village. These are just a few of the characters who populate Mamarrosa, for better or for worse. And when the long-awaited rich guy finally appears in town, he is hardly what most expect him to be.

If you enjoy reading about small town life or want to learn about Portuguese culture, then read Alentejo Blue!  

Favorite quotes:
"But we keep pretending to believe his lies. That's the problem with our people. If you pretend for long enough, you forget you were only pretending in the first place. The illusion becomes a kind of reality" (8).
"What I'm thinking now is that I should plead guilty. In England you get life for a murder. A life for a life. But they let you out before you die... I think I'd like it. All this business of what to do next, how to do it, when to do it, why you're doing it. Well, they take that off you, don't they?... You don't have to pretend anymore about pushing on, going somewhere. You just have to serve your time. Isn't that what we're doing anyway?" (157).

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Korea 2018: Namsan Tower + Starfield Library + Goodbye and Thank You! (Days 11 and 12)

Seattle has the Space Needle. Toronto has the CN tower. Seoul has Namsan Tower, or N Seoul Tower. We caught a glimpse of it practically every day that we visited Seoul, and since this was our last full day in Korea it was only right to go back to Seoul to see the thing up close.

February 25th (Sunday)

We had plans to meet Ande's boo for dinner so we had to be back in Suwon by a certain time in the evening. But there were two things in Seoul that we still had to knock off of our list, and Namsan Tower was the first one. From the bus into Seoul we took the metro to Myeongdong, and then a taxi up to the cable car station.

Your experience going to Namsan Tower depends on how much money you're willing to spend, how much time you have, and how much exercise you feel like getting that day. The tower sits on top of a mountain, so you can get up there for free by taking the stairs, but again, that means you'd be climbing a mountain. So if you're in the mood for a hike and have time to kill, then that could work for you. We didn't have much time (and I personally wasn't up for mountain-climbing), so we bought two-way tickets to ride the cable car.

Either way you get up there, stairs will still be involved because the cable car doesn't go all the way to the same level as Namsan Tower. And either way you get up there, you will have to pay about $10 to go to the top of the tower. We hadn't known this, Ande and Sharon didn't feel like paying, and I figured going up alone wouldn't be much fun, so we satisfied ourselves with what we could see from outside the tower.

There's a large plaza with a seating area, and while we were there a troupe of traditional drummers performed, followed by a group of young men dressed in traditional garb who did traditional dance and sword-fighting choreography. There were also a couple cafes, an Olive Young convenience store that I bought a yogurt drink from, a gift shop, and a few spots from which you could get a decent view of Seoul even without going up inside the tower. We spent some time mulling among the crowds before taking the cable car back down and returning to Myeongdong in another taxi.

From Myeongdong we took the metro to Samseong-dong, which is in Gangnam, and walked through the station directly to Starfield COEX Mall. And inside the mall was our next destination, Starfield Library! It's a massive two-story library that opened in 2017, and it's free to visit and read the tens of thousands of books that it holds (not sure how borrowing goes, or if that's even an option). Again, like Bosu-dong Book Street in Busan, my bookworm self just wanted to see the place in person. It's in the middle of the mall, so there are tons of people passing through but also tons of people gathered in various sitting areas to read, study, take photos, or just hang out. We were really in a rush by this point, so I didn't get to explore and appreciate it as much as I would have liked. We basically just stood looking around for a couple minutes, took a couple pictures, and then left. But seriously, Starfield Library is so beautiful. Even with all the noise and the crowds, seeing how the light filtered through the gigantic windows and the book collections towered over us on lit-up bookshelves, observing how each visitor managed to carve their own little cloud of solitude in the chaos.... My, what a beautiful place.

We walked through the mall to get bubble tea and cookies before taking a different bus from Gangnam back to Suwon. Once in Suwon, we met Ande's boo at a restaurant for gamjatang (pork bone and potato soup). Gamjatang was Sharon's favorite dish from when she previously visited Ande in Jeju, and Ande's boo picked this place since it was on his side of town.

This was my first time meeting him, and after hearing about him for so long it was funny to see the real person in the flesh. Ande had shown me pictures, and during one of their daily phone calls he even had her pass the phone to me so that he could welcome me to Korea on the night that I arrived. Now at dinner, everything came together and he was exactly as I'd imagined. Very kind, intelligent, good sense of humor, spoke English beautifully, and exceedingly hospitable just like Ande. We all had a good ole time sitting on the floor eating and conversing, and at the end Ande and her boo revealed that the meal was on them. They'd wanted to send us off with a nice goodbye dinner, so this was their treat to us. We parted ways with Ande's boo at the restaurant and then took a bus to Ande's neighborhood so that we could turn in early.


February 26th (Monday)

On Monday we woke up and got ourselves together early enough to take a taxi and catch the 6:00am airport limousine bus to Incheon Airport. The Winter Olympics had just ended the night before, and we didn't know what flying out of Incheon would be like, so we erred on the side of caution and sacrificed sleep in order to give ourselves plenty of time. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as crowded or disorganized as I'd anticipated (my last time flying internationally back to Detroit was out of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and that was almost a nightmare). It probably helped that we were flying out of Terminal 2, the newer of the airport's two terminals, and only a select handful of airlines fly through it. People from every country you could imagine were trying to get out of there that morning, and though we were all eager to get to where were headed, folks were remarkably calm and patient.

And of course, Olympians were all over the place! Athletes from the USA, the UK, Germany, and a couple other countries were on the same flight as me and Sharon. Among them was the gold-winning USA men's curling team, and people bombarded them for photo ops at the gate in Incheon, during the flight, and at baggage claim in Detroit. The only athletes I cared about in the slightest were USA bronze figure skaters Alex and Maia Shibutani, or the Shib Sibs, and even then I only recognized them from YouTube. Like I said before, sports is not my thing. But one perk of being in the company of Olympic athletes is that you get free booze! The captain had the flight crew give everyone a glass of champagne so that the whole plane could toast to the Olympians' hard work and success.

This flight went directly from ICN to DTW, so I was spared a repeat of the mess that was Seattle. And just like she always is, Ma was there waiting for me. Sharon hopped in her boyfriend's car, I hopped in my mom's, and with that the trip was completely over and we went to our respective homes.

As I mentioned when I first started writing about this trip, I'd never envisioned myself going to Korea so nearly in the future. I'm grateful to have been able to have this experience, and so many thanks are in order.

Thanks to Sharon for inviting me in the first place, and for letting my suitcase fly home in Sky Priority even though I didn't. Thanks to Ande for taking time off work, letting us take over her life, and literally being our everything during our stay. She was our host, our navigator, our interpreter, our friend, and she always made sure we ate well and were comfortable. Plus she handled most transactions and kept a tab running for us so we didn't have to worry about paying her back until the night before we left. Double thanks to both Ande and Sharon for waiting for me whenever I slowed them down, which was often. Thanks to Ande's boo for being such a cool dude, not being mad at us for monopolizing Ande's time, and taking time from his busy schedule to eat with us. Thanks to Ma for helping me to prepare, talking me down from my usual pre-travel panic, learning how to use WhatsApp so she could communicate with me while I was away, and taking me to and from the airport. Thanks to Suwon for being home base for two weeks. Thanks to Seoul for being abundant, alive, and yet not overwhelming. Thanks to Busan for letting me see water and meet King T'Challa. Thanks to South Korea for being a beautiful country, keeping me full, building my thigh muscles, and teaching me to relax and rely on people more. And glory be to God for providing an escape when I felt like I was drowning at home. Bless you all.

Hopefully this won't be the last new journey for me in 2018.

Korea 2018 photos 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Korea 2018: Book Street + BIFF Square + Back to Suwon (Day 10)

Saturday was our last chance to walk around and see what we could see in Busan before boarding the KTX in the evening. And I can't say that we were disappointed!

February 24th (Saturday)

Previously when I was pouring through "things to do in Busan" articles and YouTube videos, I happened upon a website that mentioned Bosu-dong Book Street. Apparently, after World War II people started congregating there to buy and sell books that Japanese colonizers had left behind. Then during the Korean War when Busan was the temporary capital of South Korea, even more people gathered in this area to sell books to survive, and a cluster of bookstores fill that street now.  Of course, being the avid reader that I am, I had to visit this place. Even if I wasn't likely to find anything that I could actually read, I just had to see what the area looked like. So that was our first stop on Saturday.

Well actually, first we checked out of our Airbnb and ate marinated grilled beef or bulgogi (plus naengmyeon, or cold noodles, for me) in Haeundae. Then we took the metro to Busan Station to rent lockers and stow our backpacks away for the day. And then we hopped back on to get to the Jung-gu area, which also holds numerous popular Busan attractions including the Book Street.

And I was right, all the books I saw were in Korean with the exception of a few French children's books and a couple English-language story anthologies and magazines that I wasn't interested in. The Book Street isn't that long but it's so densely packed with books that no matter if you're just passing by the outdoor displays or if you actually try to navigate the inside of someone's bookstore, it's going to be a tight squeeze. But for me, being around all those books gave me the same feeling of calm and contentment that being at Haeundae Beach gave me. It was enough just to have experienced the place for myself.


From the Book Street it was a short walk to Gukje Market, which we either happened upon by accident or was somewhere that Sharon wanted to visit. I can't remember. But anyway, it's a massive traditional covered market with innumerable stalls selling anything that you can think of. We stopped in one souvenir shop and then in a dog clothing shop so that Ande could look for something cute for her pup named Hodu to wear, but other than that we just walked around browsing for a while. It's easy to get lost there and we didn't have an extremely strong sense of direction, so we each took turns deciding which way to go until we ended up on Arirang Street, and then somehow maneuvered our way to BIFF Square, which wasthe next place that I wanted to visit.

BIFF Square used to be where the Busan International Film Festival (or BIFF, get it?) was held, but now it's a popular shopping area that's full of food stalls as well as more mainstream stores like ARTBOX. Remnants of the square's former purpose remain, as the main walkway is dotted with plaques that contain the handprints and signatures of various actors and directors who attended the festival in the past. We spent some time surveying the odds and ends in ARTBOX before stopping at one stall so Sharon could get a lamb kebab, and then another stall so that I could eat hotteok again.

Since I don't know Korean, I'd become accustomed to not understanding anything when I'd hear people talking around me. But in Gukje Market and in BIFF Square, I could suddenly read most of the signs and understand more of what I heard.... because it was in Japanese! Busan is only a ferry ride away from Fukuoka, Japan, and so apparently quite a few Korean business owners in Jung-gu will have signs written Japanese (or even speak Japanese themselves) in order to accommodate the significant flow of Japanese people who go to Busan for vacation and/or shopping purposes. You learn something new everyday!

By then we were running low on time, so we walked through the rest of BIFF Square and stopped for cold beverages at a CU before entering a metro station that was right across the street from Jagalchi Fish Market. This market also appeared in  Black Panther and we'd considering visiting it, but in the end we only got a passing glance of it from afar.


Once we arrived at Busan Station, we retrieved our backpacks and then walked outside to get from the metro part of the station to the train part to catch our KTX back to Suwon. We killed some time drinking tea and resting our feet at Bizeun, which has THE BEST GINGER TEA I've ever had in my life! Then it was a smooth evening ride back to Suwon, during which Ande brough out a box of hodu-gwaja that she'd secretly bought to share with us. Hodu-gwaja are small round pastries that are baked in the shape of walnuts and stuffed with red bean paste. "Hodu" means "walnut" in Korean, and Ande and her boo named their dog Hodu because he's walnut-colored.

Ande was going to spend the night with her boo and his parents again, so once we arrived to Suwon we stopped to get chicken sandwiches from Mom's Touch and ate together in her apartment before she left Sharon and I for the night.

Sunday was our last full day in Korea, and our last chance to visit Seoul. We ended up being short on time that day, but we still managed to cross one huge must-do off of our list. More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Korea 2018: Haedong Yonggungsa + Gwangalli Beach + King T'Challa (Day 9)

We got a late start, but still managed to have brunch and visit a temple before the sun went down. And then, I met royalty!

February 23rd (Friday)

We walked from the Airbnb to a UK-themed spot called Restaurant MINI for brunch, where Ande and I had eggs benedict and Sharon had pancakes. Then we walked a ways to take the metro from Haeundae eastward to Osiria station. A really nice woman at the information center helped Ande call a taxi, and that taxi took us to Haedong Yonggungsa.

Yonggungsa is a Buddhist temple that's right on the edge of the sea, and it has such beautiful scenery and views of the water that tourists flock to it nearly every day. But again, it's a temple, so while a lot of people come to snap photos, others come to pray or just to appreciate the surroundings. We decided to check it out because it seemed like a peaceful and culturally-relevant place to visit.

It's free to enter, though there are plenty of ways to dispense money if you're so inclined. The path that leads to the temple is lined with vendors selling food and souvenirs.

There's a long winding path and then tons of stairs you have to go down before you reach the temple, and multiple Buddha statues are placed along the way. Each Buddha or set of Buddhas has a donation box near it and offers a different type of good luck to people who pray in front of it and/or donate money. Ande's got a professional exam coming up, so as we left the temple later on she left money and said a little prayer in front of the Buddha for Academic Achievement. One of Buddhas at Yonggungsa has both a donation box and a discolored belly from all the people who've rubbed it. This Buddha promises the birth of a son and is also the first one that people pass on their way to the temple, so understandably it is quite popular.

So at the beginning, you walk past the vendors, then you go through an open set of doors, and the path widens and is lined with massive stone statues. On the left side are 12 statues representing each of the Chinese zodiac signs, and a fellow visitor took our picture as the three of us posed in front of the Monkey (we'd realized that all three of us are '92 babies).

Then you keep straight, turn left at the giant pagoda and go down some stairs, go through a tunnel, go down even more stairs, and then you can choose whether to continue your descent toward the temple, or turn left onto a path the leads to a giant golden Buddha and a view of both the sea and the temple at the same time. We went left first before returning to take the rest of the stairs down to the bridge that connected to the temple grounds. A couple of the buildings were closed or their function wasn't immediately clear to me, but the main prayer room was open, and monks chanted inside while people repeatedly knelt to pray.

There's another golden Buddha next to this building, and then there are two flights of stairs that lead to and from a hill on which stands the tallest statue of the entire temple grounds. There were mats and candles set out for people to pray in front of the statue, but most people went up there to look down on the sea and temple from up high.

We left Haedong Yonggungsa not long after descending from the hill, and before hailing a taxi we stopped at the stall of an older woman who was frying hotteok (sweet fried pancake). Way back when we were discussing all the Korean street food that we wanted to try (but didn't actually end up trying), Ande couldn't say enough about how good hotteok was, so when we neared the stall Sharon and I bought one each. Hotteok's exterior is crispy like a hushpuppy or hotwater cornbread, but the interior is chewy and usually has some sort of sweet filling. Mine had brown sugar and nuts, and Sharon's was about the same.

We took a taxi back to Osiria station and then the metro westward past Haeundae to Suyeong, where Gwangalli Beach is. While not as large or as popular as Haeundae, I personally liked Gwangalli more because there's a lot more activity going on around the beach, and the beach itself has more light installations and art pieces. Plus, there's the Diamond Bridge (Gwangandaegyo), which is illuminated in different colors at night and also appears in the film Black Panther.

And speaking of Black Panther! I met T'Challa, king of Wakanda while walking along Gwangalli Beach! It was dark and cold so we didn't feel like walking in the sand this time, so we walked on the sidewalk instead. At one point Ande and Sharon were ahead of me, and suddenly they started calling for me to hurry up so that I could see whatever it was they were looking at around the corner of some building. When I caught up to them I gasped so loudly that I startled a Korean man who'd been staring at the same thing. There, under a big ole spotlight, crouching in his fight stance, was a statue of THE Black Panther! Turns out that Disney had installed this piece to commemorate the filming that took place in Busan, and it was situated so that no matter what angle you took a picture of it from, the Diamond Bridge would always appear in the background. I almost cried.

Ande and Sharon had been trying to get me to let them take pictures of me every day of the trip and I refused, as I'm prone to do. But this time I nearly threw my camera at Ande and asked both her and Sharon to snap me standing next to T'Challa with my arms across my chest forming the Wakanda salute. Seeing a black figure featured in such a public way in Korea was one of the happiest moments of the trip. Of my life, even! And he was definitely black! I got an extremely close look of the statue's face to make sure Korea and/or Disney ain't try to play me, and it was visibly a black man's skin and brown eyes peeking out from that mask. Sadly, the Black Panther installation was randomly destroyed a week ago, and I haven't heard of any plans to repair and reinstall it. Which is disappointing, but it also makes me that much more grateful for that moment I had posing with T'Challa. Oh, what a moment it was!

We continued walking along the beach until we reached our dinner destination, a New York-style pizza restaurant called SOL Taphouse. All the staff were nice young Korean people who all spoke English exceptionally well, the slices were huge, the interior was dark but warmly lit, and the windows allowed for a pleasing view of the sea and the Diamond Bridge.

From the restaurant we walked through Suyeong to take the metro back to Haeundae, made our habitual snack stop at the convenience store, and then retreated to the Airbnb where we watched Korea beat Japan in women's curling before flipping through the other channels and going to sleep.

Saturday was our last day in Busan, but we made sure to visit a few more sites before boarding the train back to Suwon. More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What an Apology Is Not.

Advice for when you say or do something racist (or commit any other -ism) at work and want to know how NOT to apologize.

A little context: First, I work in language services recruiting, and out of the entire worldwide recruiting team, I am the only black person. Second, even though I'm in the States, I work on the Asia team, which means that with the exception of my supervisor, all of my immediate co-workers are in China. The co-worker I'm writing about today is a young Chinese woman who's my age. Third, this co-worker may or may not have known that I am black, not that it should matter but I figured it was worth mentioning. Now, to the matter at hand.

On Tuesday I was copied in an email in which my co-worker wrote something racist. I won't repeat exactly what she said. But basically a lot of students in certain Asian countries say they want "native English speakers" as tutors, when they really mean to say "white people", and this co-worker of mine was trying to confirm that the candidate that we were proposing for a certain group of students was not black, because students sometimes complain when the tutor we give them doesn't look a certain way.

A racist question disguised as good customer service. Fun.

Long story short, I asked my supervisor to set her straight, my supervisor talked to someone else, who talked to someone else, who spoke to said co-worker.

Cut to this morning, Thursday, and I find the below apology email in my inbox (verbatim):
Dear Danielle,

This email is very difficult for me to write, because I realize how insensitive the other day with my comments on my previous email. It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I may have hurt your feelings. I wish to offer my sincerest apology and want to assure you that I meant no harm. I have always valued our working relationship, I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us. 

Sincerely,
This, while a gesture that I wasn't expecting and do appreciate to a certain degree, is a non-apology. I don't know this person well, have never communicated with her outside of email, and I'm not in her brain, so I can't definitively say if she IS genuinely sorry or not. What makes it a non-apology in my book is that it doesn't READ as genuine because it focuses on her feelings more than mine, and it doesn't fully acknowledge what she did wrong. I suppose it depends on what you think the purpose of an apology is, but generally if you want to tell someone you've wronged that you're sorry, you need give them precedence over yourself. In other words, don't make it about you!

Let's break this down, shall we?

1) This email is very difficult for me to write, because I realize how insensitive the other day with my comments on my previous email.

  • Critique: Coming right out the gate talking about how hard it is for YOU, is manipulative. You're trying to avoid feeling bad by making me feel sorry for you. Don't do that.
  • Critique: Call a thing for what it is. It wasn't merely insensitive; it was racist. Use your words.
  • Alternative: So-and-so told me that I upset you, and I wanted to come to you directly to apologize. I realize how racist my comments were.

2)  It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I may have hurt your feelings. 

  • Critique: "Not my intention" always sets off a tiny warning bell in my head, because too often this sort of deceptively polite statement conveys, "I didn't mean it that way, so shut up about it" rather than genuine remorse. But overall, this line wasn't bad at all. UNTIL...
  • Critique: "May have" implies that there is room for doubt that you did anything that requires apologizing. Don't play games. Be accountable for what you did.
  • Alternative: It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I hurt your feelings.

3)  I wish to offer my sincerest apology and want to assure you that I meant no harm.

  • Personal note: This reveals something about your mindset, because it really never occurred to you that expressing a preference for white tutors over black tutors would have a negative impact on anyone included in the conversation. Lack of awareness (or concern?) about both your audience and the implication of your message. Very telling. 
  • Critique: Again, it's better to emphasize that you acknowledge the impact of your words rather than to rely solely on "I didn't mean it" as a justification, but overall this line is fine.
  • Alternative: None.

4)  I have always valued our working relationship, I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us. 

  • Personal note: I doubt this is true, since we've never had a real conversation in the whole time that we've worked together. Other than very brief email exchanges, there's really no work relationship to speak of. If you don't really know or interact with me, then there's no need to overexert yourself saying how much you value a relationship that barely exists.
  • Critique: "I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us" is incredibly dismissive if the other party never got to have their say. You're basically moving to unilaterally end the conversation before it's even started. And I never had my say, so who is "we"? Someone told you that I didn't appreciate your comments, but you didn't actually hear from me about how I felt or thought about it. You haven't asked. "We" neither discussed the issue nor came to a conclusion about it. It's unpleasant for you to have been reprimanded by your supervisor for what you wrote, it's unpleasant to be told to apologize to someone you hardly know, and it's unpleasant for you to have to consider that your words "may have" been were "insensitive" racist. That's why you want to put it behind you so quickly. And that's just way too easy.
  • Critique:  In addition to not acknowledging the racism expressed through your initial email, you made no commitment to actively not saying racist things in the future. I am not led to believe that you've learned anything from this, other than not to say certain things around certain people, or at least not to put it in writing. Again, this makes the entire apology read as insincere.
  • Alternative: I really enjoy working with you, and if you feel comfortable talking about it then I would like to hear what you have to say. I want to be better at communicating with people from different cultures, and I will do more to educate myself on how to do this. I will also try harder to convince students to consider English teachers who are not white.

With all that said, I hope that this has been helpful to anyone who's reading this. No matter what it is you have to apologize for, whether it's work-related or not, and whether you're apologizing of your own initiative or not. Let's all try to be more mindful of others and use our words well.

To anyone who's curious, I am still offended but no longer upset, if that makes sense. I'm more amused than anything, because this week I've basically had the opportunity to watch supposedly well-meaning non-black people flail around when something anti-black has been said in the open, and that is never not funny to me. Plus I've got screenshots just in case, so I'm good. Hey, you either laugh or you cry, right? And I feel like laughing this week.

To anyone who wants to dispute whether this woman was racist or not, note that I said her words were racist; I never said that she herself was so. For more examples of unintentional(?) but still racist things that people have said to me in the past, and an explanation of how you can believe yourself to be non-racist but still manage to say racist things, read here.

And lastly! I actually have yet to respond to this person, not because I want to be passive aggressive but because I can't decide what to say. I don't want to let her off too easy, but I also know that lecturing her will be a waste of my time. What say you?