Kelvin Caldwell on Biggie, Samsung, & Cultural Literacy


I had the good pleasure of meeting Brother Caldwell on his recent sojourn at Yeonsi University in Seoul.  He has the incisive intellect of a strategist displayed in part by his rationale for studying in Korea as well as an easy-going, inviting disposition. He can easily transition in and out of an array of topics in a single discussion. A paragon of the university experience, our discussion moved from the humanities to the liberal arts to guy talk. Kelvin seems to have no apprehension for the intellectually rigorous or the unknown. While many of his classmates opted for semesters in Ghana or Spain, Kelvin opted for East Asia. The current Morehouse student and future legal scholar shared with us a slice of his experiences as well as his observations on cultural literacy. 

Sean: What motivated you to study abroad,  Korea especially?

Kelvin: To study abroad… I feel that within today’s global society, cultural literacy is something that’s really important. I definitely feel that people should become well versed in other cultures that are very different from their own, simply because you have American things getting across [overseas].

I talked to somebody recently and she was telling me about how they had TuPac and Biggie in Berlin and in Spain as well. Places in Germany, they listen to American music and then you have LG and Samsung overseas. And you have— in the case of Japan— Sony. Everything is [merging] together, so it’s definitely important to keep abreast of global issues.

Korea specifically…

S: Did you have other options?

K: I was offered to go to Spain, Ghana or South Korea.

S: Okay.

K: I felt like everybody was going to Africa. Africa is a place that I want to go to, but everybody in my school was going to Africa. Spain— they weren’t offering me any scholarship money. While I do speak Spanish, it was like, “No.” But I was able to raise enough scholarship money to come to Korea, so it was the obvious choice— plus I wanted to learn the language.

S: Absolutely. I feel it. My first study abroad program— and my first trip outside of the country— was to India. The way they kind of sold us on the trip, or how they made me feel better about it after I signed up, was by saying everyone’s going to Europe, everyone’s going to the usual places: London, France, Spain— but nobody’s going to India and this is something different.

And I think for one thing— you’re from an HBCU. For me, I didn’t want to go to an HBCU because I felt I was very familiar with the Black experience. I wanted to know something different and I can see a parallel with that. Everyone from the HBCU is going to Africa, and I think on certain levels there’s a romanticism about Africa and it also may be easier to assimilate in Africa— at least superficially.

K: Superficially, of course.

S: Coming to Korea, I think that’s…

K: It’s like you stick out.

S: That’s a big shock.

K: Yeah, it is a big shock. It’s funny that you said the whole thing about the HBCUs because I actually didn’t want to go. That’s another topic in its own. My mom was like, “I went to a PWI (predominantly white institution),  I want you to go to an HBCU.” And I was like, “But I don’t want to.” And she was like, “You’re going.” And I just haven’t regretted it since. I was like, “You know what? This probably was a good fit for me.”

But going back to Korea, that’s some place that I didn’t see anybody going to study. I’m the first student from my school that studied with this program. And previously, there’s only been a handful of us to go to South Korea, especially from Morehouse. Spelman has a little bit more, but from Morehouse, I was maybe the third or fourth person in years to go.

S: In terms of cultural literacy, obviously, people know the US, when you go places and people in America know Japan.

K: Yeah.

S: And for me, when I first came to Korea— before I even chose Korea, I was focused on Japan. Now, when you’re telling people, “I’m going to Korea,” what are they saying to you? Because I feel like that could be a big… people may have a chance to demonstrate their lack of cultural literacy when it comes to Korea. I had cousins, for example, who would reference South Korea as, “The people at the corner store are Korean. We thought they were going to do kung fu.”

K: Right. It was a similar thing where people were just like… there was just a lot of ignorance on their part. Somebody would say, “Oh, make sure you bring back a bag.” I was like, “Oh, right!” Because the manufacturing and stuff here— which now that I’m here there’s a certain amount of truth to that— because there are cheap goods in certain respects in terms of fashion. But it’s just that people were like, “Why on earth would he want to go to Korea? Why? Of all places to go, why would you go [there]?” And I’m like, “Why not?”

I feel that when it comes to say, America, nobody thinks twice— or another a big country, nobody thinks twice about it;  like it’s an obvious choice, but I feel that no culture is better than another. They’re all just different. I don’t know, to come back to that, I would just let people know, “You see your cellphone? You have your Samsung cellphone: that’s Korea. These LG Appliances you have in your home: that’s Korea. Kia, Hyundai: Korea.” In America, people aren’t really aware of globalization as much as people in other countries because there’s no real push for us to learn another language. Yes, we take language classes in schools, you can take French, most likely Spanish or maybe German and then more recently, Chinese, Japanese. But there’s no real sense of urgency for you to learn another language.

You speak English. But in other countries, it’s a push to learn English and learn another language in order to be successful.

I feel that they are more aware of the effect that globalization has had. Like McDonald’s is over here, Baskin-Robbins, all these different things, but we don’t think about it back home in terms of globalization. It’s just like, “My new Sony this; my new this, my new that.” You don’t think about where it comes from.

S: Now in terms of your own cultural literacy, it seems like you were pretty knowledgeable— at least in terms of Korea’s influence within globalization with the big corporations. What did you do to prepare yourself for South Korea?  

K: I read as many blogs as I could, I talked with as many Korean individuals that I knew. Luckily I’d come into a fair amount of Koreans including my pediatrician. I was interacting with various Koreans and asking them to help me out because I had the benefit of them being actually from Korea migrating to America. So they were really just like, “Okay well, be prepared for this and expect this.” “You’ll be fine, etc.” and they just really helped me through the process. And I reached out to as many people as I could from Korean-American associations.

I was volunteering for the Minority Bar Association and I was talking to one of the… it was a co-op between the African American Bar Association, the Hispanic-American Bar Association and the Asian-American Bar Association. One time I said, “I can’t go to this event because I’m traveling to South Korea,” and everybody in the Asian-American Bar Association was like, “Korea? Why?” The Korean Americans that were there, they were pretty helpful with giving me some advice.

S: Absolutely. I would feel that they would be very flattered and honored that you’re going to their country. In some ways, it could be the other way.

K: Like, “Why are you coming?”

S: “Why are you coming here” —right!

K: “Stay in America.” I’ve sensed that here more so than in America, actually.

S: Like, “Why are you in Korea?”

K: Yeah— Why.

S: I got the same thing. I was telling you I had done a semester in Dubai. When I was there, people were like, “Sean, why are you here?” I was like, “Well, I really was excited about this part of the world. I really wanted to get here.” They were like, “Man, we’re trying to go where you’re from.”

K: Right. I think that everybody is unimpressed with their own culture. People asked me, “Why do you watch Korean dramas? Why are you listening to K-pop?” And I’m like, “Why are you blasting hip-hop? Why are there so many hip-hop clubs in South Korea? That’s a whole other thing— but it’s just like, just my experience being an African-American: Why? Why certain things, certain dress styles? Back home, I would be typecasted as being ignorant or ridiculous or hood if I wore some of the stuff that people wear here. But over here, it’s different because there’s no stigma attached to it.

I think it really depends on what perspective you’re coming from.

S: Yeah. So for you, what are some of the things you’ve been impressed by? What are some things that have kind of turned you off? Maybe the hip-hop club, I’m thinking…

K: Hell yeah! [laughs] But I’ll start with the positive first.

S: Okay, start with the positive.

Kelvin: Positive. Seoul has very few garbage cans but it’s so damn clean.

S: How about that?

K: The subway system is ridiculously complex and useful and clean. Me being from Chicago, I’m used to taking the subway. It’s fine. Here they have glass separating every thing, I don’t have to worry about falling down on the rails. It’s so new and modern— it’s very awe-inspiring.

The markets. I love how everything in Korea is so convenient. I can get groceries at the subway, I can get any damn thing at the subway station. In America, it’s not like that.



Also, things here are organized pretty well. Like, in this area, you have clothes, this is bars, cafés, this is the school area. It makes sense. Whereas in America it’s like, this market is over here, this clothing store is here. You may have small areas for specific things but it’s not like that everywhere in the cities where you go.

Haggling was an experience I actually liked. It helped me get comfortable with the language. It helped me get comfortable with the culture and it also saved me a couple of dollars on stuff. And especially when you get good, survival Korean definitely gets improved just by going out shopping.

Bad things. Not too many bad things but the only thing that’s really gotten to me is the gross and unapologetic cultural appropriation that’s present here. It’s upsetting and it’s really weird in a way. Like, to go into a hip-hop club where everybody’s doing [urban] dances and wearing [urban] clothes, but if I try to talk to somebody they’re just like, “Phew.” Or if I try to dance with somebody, they’re like “Phew!” But if I dance by myself, people would literally crowd around. People would look and try to see what I’m doing. I’m like, “Wait, I’m so confused. This doesn’t make sense.”

S: What will are you going to take back to the States from your time in Korea?

K: As a person, I would say that it was a really wonderful experience and that I learned a lot about the culture. As an African-American, I would say that I feel that I never left America.

It’s so interesting because a lot of my fellow Americans are like, “Okay, be careful when you go there. People are going to be really racist, they’re going to be awful to you. They’re going to treat you horribly.” And I’ve had some people that were quite rude. And some people were rude specifically because I’m Black. And I’m like, at the same time, that happens to me all the the time in America. Like, it’s nothing unique. I feel this experience has taught me something about being, I know I keep going back to me being African American but that’s my experience and my lens. It taught me something about being an African-American in the world and not just being Black in America. Being black in the entire world and how people see us.

It was interesting because I met the girl from Spain and the girl from Germany yesterday. And when they were telling me about TuPac and Biggie, they were playing these songs on their iPods. I’m like, “This is 90s hip-hop.” I heard Jump Around in a club in Gangnam here and I’m like, Gangnam is a ritzy place to party and I was at The A, and I was like, “They’re playing Jump Around? Wait, this is…” and then This Is How We Do It. I was like, “This is 90s hip-hop. How did 90s hip-hop get over here?” And it just really made me think, it’s just like our culture gets around different parts of the world but yet we’re still viewed very negatively. It just really gave me inspiration to study harder and work harder in order to improve our image abroad and basically say that not all African-American people act this way.

I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with the Chair of Cultural Anthropology at Yonsei. I got hooked up through a Spelman sister. She travelled here, she’s like “Talk to my mentor, she’s awesome!” Her name is Kim Hyun-Mee and she laid out a lot of stuff for me that really helped me… it kind of quelled my anger a little bit because I did feel some type of way for a while. She basically told me that Korea went from being a small country and very poor, to being a wealthy nation for the most part in a period of 30 years. Not many other countries— I don’t think any other country has become urbanized or become a world power that quickly, in 30 years. She said, people are really struggling to tear down racist perceptions while moving into a global society where you’re exposed to people of different races and cultures and ethnicities. And it’s kind of hard to break those perceptions because it’s not a place like America where you have a bunch of different people from different races. It’s Korea, it’s homogenous, so it just really gave me inspiration to work harder, having those conversations and having this experience.

S: Absolutely. What advice would you give to a student who’s trying to study abroad, but who sees finances as a big deterrent?

K: Students should not let their lack of financial dissuade them from going abroad. I had numerous financial obstacles that made studying abroad unlikely. Additionally, I was rejected by three scholarship organizations. My desire to travel to Korea was greater than the odds stacked against me however. I began a one-man fundraising campaign in order to finance my trip. I created a GoFundMe account and wrote formal letters requesting assistance from the program I was studying with. I also asked friends, relatives, business leaders and church members for help. Thankfully, the vast majority of my trip was supported by outside sources. I would advise students to remain diligent when searching for funds. I also encourage them to investigate unconventional or unlikely sources of funding. Closed mouths don’t get fed.

S: What is your travel philosophy?

K: Be open minded. Don’t let [things] get to you. I was taking classes and it’s like you have to remind yourself [of your purpose]. I didn’t come here for vacation, I came here to actually learn something. So as long as you go in with an attitude of “I’m not here for vacation— I’m here to work, I’m here to learn,” it’s what you make it. I’ve had bad things happen, I’ve had good things happen. But that’s life. You  can have a good life or a bad life, what’s the difference? Your attitude. 



 

Casey Latrigue: An Advocate for Freedom

Never one to stay idle Casey seamlessly moves in and out of different roles. Based in Seoul, he currently serves as the Director of International Relations at the Freedom Factory and is also the Asia Outreach Fellow for the Atlas Network, a D.C based non-profit.  Casey discusses North Korea and North Korean issues on his show with co-host Yeon-Mi Park, who defected from North Korea in 2007.  Casey also blogs, speaks, is a contributor for The Korean Times and is working on a book.  We appreciate the time he was able to share with us. 



ND: You’re currently based in Seoul, South Korea where you’ve held various academic positions and you’ve also worked a lot with North Korean refugees. How did you come to live/work abroad? Was it something you always aspired to?

Casey: Thanks, Sean, for interviewing me. I tend to live life in the moment, just kind of bouncing around, like a leaf floating in the wind. I knew from a young age that I was not destined to work at one job for the rest of my life, but I didn’t know that would mean that I would end up living abroad. So when people ask me “what do you do?” my answer is usually: “As I please.” I rarely do just one thing. I usually have one main job, but I am usually dabbling in a few things, volunteering, organizing.

It is usually that one job can’t satisfy my interests or that I can loop my various activities into my job. So I seek companies and projects that allow me to remain curious about things. An essay that greatly influenced me is Peter Drucker’s "Managing Oneself". One main point he made is that times have changed, people should have have two or three projects at one time. The main job is your career, but the other projects help you develop skills and build your network.

One of the great things about living abroad is that people don’t expect me to be just like them.

In Korea, when people try to tell me how to live, I give it right back to them.

For example, and I am not blaming them because I know they are trying to teach me, but when my Korean friends and colleagues will try to tell me the proper place to put food on a plate, I will observe how they do it, think about the way I want to do, then do it the way I want to do it. When they complain I am not doing it the right way, I will thank them, then politely inform them: “Your plate, your way. My plate, my way.”

Even before I had my grad school degree, I was planning to see the world. I hopped on a plane and went to Taipei, Taiwan and I have been zigzagging across life since then. For a number of years, I did work at some professional jobs, but I am always focused on finding situations where I have colleagues who appreciate my particular style. If my skills are like a tow-truck, then don’t treat me like I am a Ferrari. And vice-versa. If I am like a Ferrari, don’t expect me to pull stuff in the snow. A lot of problems in the world are caused by people trying to get others to fit their model instead of trying to figure out how they can work, live, study together or love each other.



That’s about living abroad. About working with North Korean refugees, wow. What a wonderful learning experience. In America, I worked at organizations—the Cato Institute, Fight For Children— and volunteered as a board member with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, DC Parents for School Choice, the Washington Scholarship Fund, with the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association—that allowed me to focus on freedom. So I have been in the liberty advocating world for quite some time.

And now, in South Korea, I am working with people who actually had to escape to freedom. It is no longer just an advocating activity. It is now being able to be part of the welcoming party for people who have suffered, who had to escape to freedom. So I am really proud of the Teach North Korean Refugees project that I co-founded with Lee EunKoo, and my colleagues who also volunteer to do something practical. And I am always happy to help the North Korean refugee children at the Mulmangcho School, I’m the international adviser, so I do my best to inform people about the school. These are children who had a tough start in life, they must catch-up, so it is always wonderful when volunteers take time out to teach and mentor them.

To connect these things, I bounce from project to project, from place to place, find my role, and try to make something happen. I am now co-hosting a show with Park Yeon-mi,  a young North Korean refugee who I believe has the chance to become a leading spokesperson for North Korean victims of the Kim regime. If I had stayed in Missouri City, Texas, where I grew up, then I am sure I still would have enjoyed myself. But because of my style, I can jump into an activity that has captured my attention at that particular moment, so that work is never boring.

ND: You’ve talked about having met Koreans who upon meeting retorted that you weren’t really black. What do you think they were getting at?

Casey: Well, I’m not a mind-reader, so I am not sure what they were getting at. It should be clear to anyone who looks at me that I am not 100% black. My birth certificate issued by the state of Texas identifies both of my parents as “Negroid,” so perhaps I should show that to them?

It may be that I don’t fit the image of what Koreans are expecting. I guess too many people in this world spend too much time watching TV, music videos, and getting their worldview from that, and then they are confused when they meet people who don’t fit the model of what they have seen in the media. I’m not saying they shouldn’t pay attention to those things, but what they learn should be a guide, a starter, not the final word on the world and the people in it.

What Koreans have told me is that those other people were probably trying to explain that I wasn’t a criminal, when they said, “He’s not black”.



ND: You’ve said that you don’t think culture shock is ‘real’. Why do you say that, and what do you think people are experiencing when they experience culture shock?

Casey: There are always people with problems adjusting to things. Some people have trouble adjusting going from one neighborhood to the next. In contrast, there are some others who would have no problem if you dropped them in the middle of a foreign country with only the clothes they are wearing.

I wrote about this a while ago when I kept hearing people complain about culture shock. The point I was trying to make is that people who aren’t prepared to travel with an open mindset, who keep looking back to where they came from, are less likely to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. When I say that, people will respond, “Yes, of course,” then in the next sentence will start complaining that things aren’t the same back home. No kidding!

But then that is true of people everywhere. If you move to a new town, and you keep talking about your old town, then you probably aren’t going to adjust very well to your new circumstances.

I do want to be careful about this point because I know that people are quick to misunderstand. There is something to be said for comparing things. I mean, maybe some people should go back to wherever it is they were having a better time.

But I’m talking in particular about the “tourist” mindset of people who stick to the familiar and keep looking back at where they came from. I occasionally run into people complaining that the price of something is cheaper from some place they lived before. Well, you’re not there now. So your challenge is to adapt to your changing circumstances, not to wish those other things could be transported to your new place. If you are still thinking about home sweet home somewhere else, then it may be that you never should have left, or that you should return. As I said at the beginning, you can learn how people do something in a new place, combine that with your own desire, then make your own way. That’s a good idea not only when you are abroad, but a good way to enjoy life without unnecessary stress.


Casey Latrigue: An Advocate for Freedom

Never one to stay idle Casey seamlessly moves in and out of different roles. Based in Seoul, he currently serves as the Director of International Relations at the Freedom Factory and is also the Asia Outreach Fellow for the Atlas Network, a D.C based non-profit.  Casey discusses North Korea and North Korean issues on his show with co-host Yeon-Mi Park, who defected from North Korea in 2007.  Casey also blogs, speaks, is a contributor for The Korean Times and is working on a book.  We appreciate the time he was able to share with us. 



ND: You’re currently based in Seoul, South Korea where you’ve held various academic positions and you’ve also worked a with North Korean refugees. How did you come to live/work abroad? Was it something you always aspired to?

Casey: Thanks, Sean, for interviewing me. I tend to live life in the moment, just kind of bouncing around, like a leaf floating in the wind. I knew from a young age that I was not destined to work at one job for the rest of my life, but I didn’t know that would mean that I would end up living abroad. So when people ask me “what do you do?” my answer is usually: “As I please.” I rarely do just one thing. I usually have one main job, but I am usually dabbling in a few things, volunteering, organizing.

It is usually that one job can’t satisfy my interests or that I can loop my various activities into my job. So I seek companies and projects that allow me to remain curious about things. An essay that greatly influenced me is Peter Drucker’s "Managing Oneself". One main point he made is that times have changed, people should have have two or three projects at one time. The main job is your career, but the other projects help you develop skills and build your network.

One of the great things about living abroad is that people don’t expect me to be just like them.

In Korea, when people try to tell me how to live, I give it right back to them.

For example, and I am not blaming them because I know they are trying to teach me, but when my Korean friends and colleagues will try to tell me the proper place to put food on a plate, I will observe how they do it, think about the way I want to do, then do it the way I want to do it. When they complain I am not doing it the right way, I will thank them, then politely inform them: “Your plate, your way. My plate, my way.”

Even before I had my grad school degree, I was planning to see the world. I hopped on a plane and went to Taipei, Taiwan and I have been zigzagging across life since then. For a number of years, I did work at some professional jobs, but I am always focused on finding situations where I have colleagues who appreciate my particular style. If my skills are like a tow-truck, then don’t treat me like I am a Ferrari. And vice-versa. If I am like a Ferrari, don’t expect me to pull stuff in the snow. A lot of problems in the world are caused by people trying to get others to fit their model instead of trying to figure out how they can work, live, study together or love each other.



That’s about living abroad. About working with North Korean refugees, wow. What a wonderful learning experience. In America, I worked at organizations—the Cato Institute, Fight For Children— and volunteered as a board member with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, DC Parents for School Choice, the Washington Scholarship Fund, with the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association—that allowed me to focus on freedom. So I have been in the liberty advocating world for quite some time.

And now, in South Korea, I am working with people who actually had to escape to freedom. It is no longer just an advocating activity. It is now being able to be part of the welcoming party for people who have suffered, who had to escape to freedom. So I am really proud of the Teach North Korean Refugees project that I co-founded with Lee EunKoo, and my colleagues who also volunteer to do something practical. And I am always happy to help the North Korean refugee children at the Mulmangcho School, I’m the international adviser, so I do my best to inform people about the school. These are children who had a tough start in life, they must catch-up, so it is always wonderful when volunteers take time out to teach and mentor them.

To connect these things, I bounce from project to project, from place to place, find my role, and try to make something happen. I am now co-hosting a show with Park Yeon-mi,  a young North Korean refugee who I believe has the chance to become a leading spokesperson for North Korean victims of the Kim regime. If I had stayed in Missouri City, Texas, where I grew up, then I am sure I still would have enjoyed myself. But because of my style, I can jump into an activity that has captured my attention at that particular moment, so that work is never boring.

ND: You’ve talked about having met Koreans who upon meeting retorted that you weren’t really black. What do you think they were getting at?

Casey: Well, I’m not a mind-reader, so I am not sure what they were getting at. It should be clear to anyone who looks at me that I am not 100% black. My birth certificate issued by the state of Texas identifies both of my parents as “Negroid,” so perhaps I should show that to them?

It may be that I don’t fit the image of what Koreans are expecting. I guess too many people in this world spend too much time watching TV, music videos, and getting their worldview from that, and then they are confused when they meet people who don’t fit the model of what they have seen in the media. I’m not saying they shouldn’t pay attention to those things, but what they learn should be a guide, a starter, not the final word on the world and the people in it.

What Koreans have told me is that those other people were probably trying to explain that I wasn’t a criminal, when they said, “He’s not black”.



ND: You’ve said that you don’t think culture shock is ‘real’. Why do you say that, and what do you think people are experiencing when they experience culture shock?

Casey: There are always people with problems adjusting to things. Some people have trouble adjusting going from one neighborhood to the next. In contrast, there are some others who would have no problem if you dropped them in the middle of a foreign country with only the clothes they are wearing.

I wrote about this a while ago when I kept hearing people complain about culture shock. The point I was trying to make is that people who aren’t prepared to travel with an open mindset, who keep looking back to where they came from, are less likely to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. When I say that, people will respond, “Yes, of course,” then in the next sentence will start complaining that things aren’t the same back home. No kidding!

But then that is true of people everywhere. If you move to a new town, and you keep talking about your old town, then you probably aren’t going to adjust very well to your new circumstances.

I do want to be careful about this point because I know that people are quick to misunderstand. There is something to be said for comparing things. I mean, maybe some people should go back to wherever it is they were having a better time.

But I’m talking in particular about the “tourist” mindset of people who stick to the familiar and keep looking back at where they came from. I occasionally run into people complaining that the price of something is cheaper from some place they lived before. Well, you’re not there now. So your challenge is to adapt to your changing circumstances, not to wish those other things could be transported to your new place. If you are still thinking about home sweet home somewhere else, then it may be that you never should have left, or that you should return. As I said at the beginning, you can learn how people do something in a new place, combine that with your own desire, then make your own way. That’s a good idea not only when you are abroad, but a good way to enjoy life without unnecessary stress.


A Heart without Borders: A Tribute to Henry Lee Smith

"Once there has been a true meeting, there can never be a separation."

The above quote was told to me a multitude of times by one of my most cherished and amusing travel companions who died last week. In a real way he was the first person to acquaint me with travel. This man not only stretched the experience of my physical existence, he also connected me with my past and gave me the tools necessary to create my future: my present as it exists today. He was funny, charming, incisive, handsome and generous. He convinced me that I could be President of the United States, and once aggravated me to the point that I momentarily considered deserting him in a bar. He would give me the keys to his luxury pick up truck and tell me to drive. Where? I’d ask. Anywhere. He’d respond. Wherever you want to go. Before he became a daily part of my life he was already a legend. My grandmother’s face would lift whenever she spoke of him. Rooms froze in silence as he orated, and the trajectories of lives were altered— even if only mildly— after an instant in his presence. 

It was the summer of ‘99. I’d recently graduated from middle school and I was eagerly awaiting the next grand phase of my life: West Catholic Preparatory High School. Up until that point, although my mind was growing, my world was still small. Yes, I’d been out of Philly— I spent a summer in Hackensack, New Jersey, went to New York City for my 8th grade class trip and my southernmost extreme had been a church trip to Washington D.C.—but my globe trotting had not surpassed the mid-Atlantic. 

This particular summer held the promise of something different. This would be the summer when my grandmother’s dearest nephew— my mother’s first cousin, Uncle Lee to me and “Pop” to a multitude with no relation— would take me south. I was electrified by the prospect. By that age I had developed quite an adroitness as a fisherman and I was told the river Santee and Lake Marion were an angler’s Eden. As Uncle Lee told it, I could fish in his backyard. In fact, I may be able to do so from the convenience of the back porch, even the living room. 

We would head south sometime that July. Prior to going south, I would need to go north to the North Philly residence of my Aunt & Uncle, which also served as a de facto food bank. There were no cars owned by my household. Yet the Smiths seemed to own a fleet. My grandmother told me, as her nephew had told her, that he had purchased his current town car in cash. A suitcase of cash. I never challenged this claim of extravagance. I’d seen him drape my grandmother in a new fur coat simply because it was the winter and he was her nephew, her favorite by my estimation.  The new Lincoln would serve as my transport to a foreign side of my hometown. As we cruised across the city I recorded the route. I was gripped by the sections of the city I knew existed but had never experienced directly.   


We arrived. I stayed next door with their son, Chubby, and his children. Aunt Anne, my grandmother’s sister, stayed next door to us. Aunt Anne was well into her nineties. Buddy Boy and his wife had recently moved Aunt Anne to Philadelphia from L.A. so that she could be closer to more immediate family. Uncle Lee and Aunt Lil rode a Greyhound bus for three days across the expanse of United States in order to get her and move her to the east coast. Later, my Uncle would tell me that he could have flown charter had he wanted, but he and his wife resolved to take the bus. It would make for a more relaxing journey, allowing them to sleep and take in the countryside. In addition to his magnanimity, Uncle Lee had been a jazz bandleader for most of his adult life. He was well conditioned for the interstate. While others would have been driven mad by the hours and miles of asphalt, I believe he found a meditative quality in it.    

On the day of our departure we were a full car. Their Lincoln allowed for three, maybe four passengers in the front. We were eight in total; four adults, three children, and me. That morning Uncle Lee had been complaining of sharp pain in his legs. He was in his mid seventies. As we pulled down Broad Street rolling towards the expressway, he pleaded for his wife to take him back home; he’d make the next trip. She didn’t oblige. I believe in time, he was grateful for her reluctance. Surely I was. 

As we crossed into Virginia I knew I had reached a new vista. I had carefully studied my atlas, gifted to me by Msgr. Albert Norell, and had determined the journey to eclipse 500 miles. My mind was abuzz. The interstate was simple yet chaotic to me. There were so many green signs offering instructions and the names of towns and hamlets in the vicinity. Lanes that ran parallel with our own would become absorbed with ours. At times our lane would splinter out toward the west. I didn’t quite understand how Aunt Lil, who did most of the driving, didn’t get lost along the way. While she drove, Uncle Lee would engage the rest of us in between his naps. There were jokes, sing alongs and anecdotes. Eventually one of the signs on I-95 indicated that we were near Emporia, Virginia. This brought up a discussion about relatives in the area. Perhaps we could stop there on our return trip. Or maybe even visit Purdy, the town that bore his mother, Virginia, and my grandmother, Alice.  

South Carolina was a delightful experience. Though I had never been south of D.C., I always felt a connection with this region of Americana. I knew the south possessed my roots, at least the roots I could unearth. This was my taglit. I was introduced to David, Aunt Lil’s nephew. David stood easily over 6 feet and his face possessed the features of his indigenous ancestors. He greeted me with a powerful handshake and assured me that we were fittin to catch some fish. More than once he came to the house at 5:30 in the morning so we could go out on the lake. I was usually already up, while some of my younger cousins opted to snooze in. We impressed the others upon our return hours later. We caught strings full of fish. My arms buckled from the weight of our catch as I scampered from the boat to the back patio. Aunt Lil would see to it that I froze some to take to my grandmother back home. Aunt Lil would call my grandmother for me. She’d ask me if I was enjoying the south and I’d give a general description of the surroundings.  Uncle Lee had developed the land for her sister, but she died before ever seeing the property. At the end of our conversation my grandmother told me she loved me. It was the only time I ever heard those words leave her mouth. Though I always knew her feelings, I doubt I would have ever heard them expressed without this trip. She passed that December. 

Considering my recent graduation, I had a sizeable budget for the trip. The angler that I was, I thought it opportune to indulge myself with fishing supplies from Jack’s Creek Marina up the road. Stanley, the white proprietor, knew me as Mr. Smith’s nephew and eagerly took my Jacksons as I ran up a bill accumulating all sorts of lures, tackle and a new fishing rod. I walked back to the house. Aunt Lil and Uncle Lee had gone into town with Aunt Anne. Chubby was painting the back porch. Hours later when they returned Uncle Lee quickly learned of my acquisition. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I had failed to be financially prudent under his supervision. Most of the items I bought he already had. There were 3 fishing rods for every person in the house. What did I need with another one? I went back to Stanley and returned the most irrelevant items from my purchase. I learned to prioritize my budget, especially while on vacation. He later made it clear that he wasn’t angry with me. He explained that I was under his supervision and he only had my best interests in heart. Our conversation then developed into what I was going to do with my life. Following our conversation I had a new appreciation for having intention and financial discipline. 

On the way out of South Carolina we stopped at South of the Border. I bought a coffee mug that I still use. We made the necessary stops in North Carolina for gas and the lavatory. As we approached the Virginia state line, a declaration was made. We would stop in Purdy. This was my Spotsylvania. The birthplace of my grandmother and everyone else in her lineage whom I could trace. There wasn’t much too it. I do recall a pond, and wondering how many fish inhabited it. I could only imagine my grandmother, decades younger, parading those hilly country roads with the other Ruffin sisters. My grandmother would eventually leave Purdy to come to the North and assist her sister, Virginia— Uncle Lee’s mother— while she was pregnant with Lee’s younger siblings. That was the motive for my grandmother to leave the South. She would spend the rest of her life living in Philadelphia.  

I always felt connected to him. In this trip he connected me to a past in a manner that no one had ever previously done. I had the pleasure of returning to South Carolina with him and my Aunt years later and on various occasions. I went from being a young adolescent squeezed into the middle seat, to the co-pilot on a voyage that would take upwards of 10 hours each way. I often enjoyed the conversations. Some tidbit of family history that would never be relevant in any other context would offer itself during these journeys. I believe he savored these trips as well. It provided him an oasis. His wife, Aunt Lil, was a product of the south. The land where they built their home was once owned by her mother Sara, a Santee Indian.  On one trip he told me how someone back in Philadelphia admired him and his success in choosing a spouse. (At this point he had been married to Aunt Lil for about 60 years.) His interlocutor marvelled and expressed the frustrations he was having in his own love life. “Mr Smith, how can I get a wife like yours?” My Uncle would retort, “The problem is that you’re fishing in the Schuylkill, I went to South Carolina to get mine.” David and I would be reconnected and we’d fish as we did that first summer, but on his boat instead of on my uncle’s pontoon. Our bond was steadfast, though our conversations had evolved into more mature topics. 

Uncle Lee gave me a special sense of connection and I wanted to share that with others. When his first-cousin, my aunt, who was named Virginia after his mother, died in early 2006 we drove together, along with his wife, my mother and another relative, for 16 hours to Chicago to attend the funeral. We drove in his new car. He impressed others and himself with the fact that his car had been more advanced than the year. “Sean, what nigga you know can drive a 2006 in the year 2005?” (He had nothing against using the n-word. He once said to me, “How the hell is the NAACP going to ban the n-word when niggas still exist?”). Thankfully I had visited this aunt a couple of months before her death and his recent truck was the second thing she mentioned to me, after she asked “How are Lee & Lilian?”. This newest ride in the series was GPS equipped. Go straight and turn right in 500 feet, we were offered in a soothing, neutral accent. If we were to get lost he assured us that his white woman would lead us back on course. Eventually we arrived at our destination on Chicago’s south side. There he would connect with other relatives who had known him vicariously at best. 

There was one family member in particular I imagined Uncle Lee would get along with marvelously. Sarge was an old school Vietnam War veteran who never said too much about his war experience— his only offering that he had seen his best friend get killed. He was kind yet full of bravado. In another recollection Sarge told me that after he got back from the war he told his therapist that all he wanted to do was shoot white people. He and Sarge would get along quite well. Sarge took Uncle Lee directly to the basement where he had a full sized bar, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. I didn’t drink. I needed every bit of awareness to soak up this moment. There was a picture of Sarge with his wife Vanessa, circa 1981, taken at a Rick James concert. Sarge, never self-deprecating, played up his outfit and how he had wooed my cousin into his possession.  Uncle Lee, never modest, would inform Sarge about his personal relationship with Rick who referred to him adoringly as Pop Pop. As they drank, they discussed jazz, politics, and anything else that was offered. Eventually Aunt Lil retrieved Uncle Lee from the basement. We did have a funeral to attend in the morning. The next day after the repas, Uncle Lee would inquire about Sarge’s den. His wife asked, “Didn’t you get enough to drink last night‽”. He replied “I don’t want to drink. I just want to look at it.”  We would return to Chicago the next year for a wedding.  The ability and the choice to be mobile had given him the opportunity to tap into family that he hadn’t previously known well. New relationships blossomed and flourished. 

I will forever be grateful to this man. He introduced me to so much. He showed me a lot, much of which was by his example. He was loquacious, but words were not always necessary for him to teach. In the summer of 2008 we took a trip to South Carolina. Coincidentally I was to go to Dubai in a few weeks and Dubai World had been trying to acquire some land in the area. A few weeks later, Aunt Lil and Uncle Lee drove me from Philly to JFK in Queens so that I could leave for Emirates. I thought about some of his own international adventures. He told me that he could never spend any money in Germany. He would go to the bar and his money would be refused. He had become admired and revered in Berlin by simply being himself. Hopefully I could gain some level of esteem on this trip by being authentic as well. My first trip with Pop Pop had been the longest trip in my life to that point. This trip, eight years later,  would now be the longest time I would be spending away from home. I was excited about the adventure, but also melancholy. By now he was in his eighties, and though his health was stable one knows not the hour or the day. I was intent on telling him that I loved him. I wasn’t sure if that would be the last time I’d see him or not. It wasn’t. That would be another 5 and half years later. As I strive to push myself to further heights, at times I feel out of my league. But then I remember, and reflect on another maxim he gave me: “You’re from good shit— ain’t no bum niggas here!”  


A Heart without Borders: A Tribute to Henry Lee Smith

"Once there has been a true meeting, there can never be a separation."

The above quote was told to me a multitude of times by one of my most cherished and amusing travel companions who died last week. In a real way he was the first person to acquaint me with travel. This man not only stretched the experience of my physical existence, he also connected me with my past and gave me the tools necessary to create my future: my present as it exists today. He was funny, charming, incisive, handsome and generous. He convinced me that I could be President of the United States, and once aggravated me to the point that I momentarily considered deserting him in a bar. He would give me the keys to his luxury pick up truck and tell me to drive. Where? I’d ask. Anywhere. He’d respond. Wherever you want to go. Before he became a daily part of my life he was already a legend. My grandmother’s face would lift whenever she spoke of him. Rooms froze in silence as he orated, and the trajectories of lives were altered— even if only mildly— after an instant in his presence. 

It was the summer of ‘99. I’d recently graduated from middle school and I was eagerly awaiting the next grand phase of my life: West Catholic Preparatory High School. Up until that point, although my mind was growing, my world was still small. Yes, I’d been out of Philly— I spent a summer in Hackensack, New Jersey, went to New York City for my 8th grade class trip and my southernmost extreme had been a church trip to Washington D.C.—but my globe trotting had not surpassed the mid-Atlantic. 

This particular summer held the promise of something different. This would be the summer when my grandmother’s dearest nephew— my mother’s first cousin, Uncle Lee to me and “Pop” to a multitude with no relation— would take me south. I was electrified by the prospect. By that age I had developed quite an adroitness as a fisherman and I was told the river Santee and Lake Marion were an angler’s Eden. As Uncle Lee told it, I could fish in his backyard. In fact, I may be able to do so from the convenience of the back porch, even the living room. 

We would head south sometime that July. Prior to going south, I would need to go north to the North Philly residence of my Aunt & Uncle, which also served as a de facto food bank. There were no cars owned by my household. Yet the Smiths seemed to own a fleet. My grandmother told me, as her nephew had told her, that he had purchased his current town car in cash. A suitcase of cash. I never challenged this claim of extravagance. I’d seen him drape my grandmother in a new fur coat simply because it was the winter and he was her nephew, her favorite by my estimation.  The new Lincoln would serve as my transport to a foreign side of my hometown. As we cruised across the city I recorded the route. I was gripped by the sections of the city I knew existed but had never experienced directly.   


We arrived. I stayed next door with their son, Chubby, and his children. Aunt Anne, my grandmother’s sister, stayed next door to us. Aunt Anne was well into her nineties. Buddy Boy and his wife had recently moved Aunt Anne to Philadelphia from L.A. so that she could be closer to more immediate family. Uncle Lee and Aunt Lil rode a Greyhound bus for three days across the expanse of United States in order to get her and move her to the east coast. Later, my Uncle would tell me that he could have flown charter had he wanted, but he and his wife resolved to take the bus. It would make for a more relaxing journey, allowing them to sleep and take in the countryside. In addition to his magnanimity, Uncle Lee had been a jazz bandleader for most of his adult life. He was well conditioned for the interstate. While others would have been driven mad by the hours and miles of asphalt, I believe he found a meditative quality in it.    

On the day of our departure we were a full car. Their Lincoln allowed for three, maybe four passengers in the front. We were eight in total; four adults, three children, and me. That morning Uncle Lee had been complaining of sharp pain in his legs. He was in his mid seventies. As we pulled down Broad Street rolling towards the expressway, he pleaded for his wife to take him back home; he’d make the next trip. She didn’t oblige. I believe in time, he was grateful for her reluctance. Surely I was. 

As we crossed into Virginia I knew I had reached a new vista. I had carefully studied my atlas, gifted to me by Msgr. Albert Norell, and had determined the journey to eclipse 500 miles. My mind was abuzz. The interstate was simple yet chaotic to me. There were so many green signs offering instructions and the names of towns and hamlets in the vicinity. Lanes that ran parallel with our own would become absorbed with ours. At times our lane would splinter out toward the west. I didn’t quite understand how Aunt Lil, who did most of the driving, didn’t get lost along the way. While she drove, Uncle Lee would engage the rest of us in between his naps. There were jokes, sing alongs and anecdotes. Eventually one of the signs on I-95 indicated that we were near Emporia, Virginia. This brought up a discussion about relatives in the area. Perhaps we could stop there on our return trip. Or maybe even visit Purdy, the town that bore his mother, Virginia, and my grandmother, Alice.  

South Carolina was a delightful experience. Though I had never been south of D.C., I always felt a connection with this region of Americana. I knew the south possessed my roots, at least the roots I could unearth. This was my taglit. I was introduced to David, Aunt Lil’s nephew. David stood easily over 6 feet and his face possessed the features of his indigenous ancestors. He greeted me with a powerful handshake and assured me that we were fittin to catch some fish. More than once he came to the house at 5:30 in the morning so we could go out on the lake. I was usually already up, while some of my younger cousins opted to snooze in. We impressed the others upon our return hours later. We caught strings full of fish. My arms buckled from the weight of our catch as I scampered from the boat to the back patio. Aunt Lil would see to it that I froze some to take to my grandmother back home. Aunt Lil would call my grandmother for me. She’d ask me if I was enjoying the south and I’d give a general description of the surroundings.  Uncle Lee had developed the land for her sister, but she died before ever seeing the property. At the end of our conversation my grandmother told me she loved me. It was the only time I ever heard those words leave her mouth. Though I always knew her feelings, I doubt I would have ever heard them expressed without this trip. She passed that December. 

Considering my recent graduation, I had a sizeable budget for the trip. The angler that I was, I thought it opportune to indulge myself with fishing supplies from Jack’s Creek Marina up the road. Stanley, the white proprietor, knew me as Mr. Smith’s nephew and eagerly took my Jacksons as I ran up a bill accumulating all sorts of lures, tackle and a new fishing rod. I walked back to the house. Aunt Lil and Uncle Lee had gone into town with Aunt Anne. Chubby was painting the back porch. Hours later when they returned Uncle Lee quickly learned of my acquisition. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I had failed to be financially prudent under his supervision. Most of the items I bought he already had. There were 3 fishing rods for every person in the house. What did I need with another one? I went back to Stanley and returned the most irrelevant items from my purchase. I learned to prioritize my budget, especially while on vacation. He later made it clear that he wasn’t angry with me. He explained that I was under his supervision and he only had my best interests in heart. Our conversation then developed into what I was going to do with my life. Following our conversation I had a new appreciation for having intention and financial discipline. 

On the way out of South Carolina we stopped at South of the Border. I bought a coffee mug that I still use. We made the necessary stops in North Carolina for gas and the lavatory. As we approached the Virginia state line, a declaration was made. We would stop in Purdy. This was my Spotsylvania. The birthplace of my grandmother and everyone else in her lineage whom I could trace. There wasn’t much too it. I do recall a pond, and wondering how many fish inhabited it. I could only imagine my grandmother, decades younger, parading those hilly country roads with the other Ruffin sisters. My grandmother would eventually leave Purdy to come to the North and assist her sister, Virginia— Uncle Lee’s mother— while she was pregnant with Lee’s younger siblings. That was the motive for my grandmother to leave the South. She would spend the rest of her life living in Philadelphia.  

I always felt connected to him. In this trip he connected me to a past in a manner that no one had ever previously done. I had the pleasure of returning to South Carolina with him and my Aunt years later and on various occasions. I went from being a young adolescent squeezed into the middle seat, to the co-pilot on a voyage that would take upwards of 10 hours each way. I often enjoyed the conversations. Some tidbit of family history that would never be relevant in any other context would offer itself during these journeys. I believe he savored these trips as well. It provided him an oasis. His wife, Aunt Lil, was a product of the south. The land where they built their home was once owned by her mother Sara, a Santee Indian.  On one trip he told me how someone back in Philadelphia admired him and his success in choosing a spouse. (At this point he had been married to Aunt Lil for about 60 years.) His interlocutor marvelled and expressed the frustrations he was having in his own love life. “Mr Smith, how can I get a wife like yours?” My Uncle would retort, “The problem is that you’re fishing in the Schuylkill, I went to South Carolina to get mine.” David and I would be reconnected and we’d fish as we did that first summer, but on his boat instead of on my uncle’s pontoon. Our bond was steadfast, though our conversations had evolved into more mature topics. 

Uncle Lee gave me a special sense of connection and I wanted to share that with others. When his first-cousin, my aunt, who was named Virginia after his mother, died in early 2006 we drove together, along with his wife, my mother and another relative, for 16 hours to Chicago to attend the funeral. We drove in his new car. He impressed others and himself with the fact that his car had been more advanced than the year. “Sean, what nigga you know can drive a 2006 in the year 2005?” (He had nothing against using the n-word. He once said to me, “How the hell is the NAACP going to ban the n-word when niggas still exist?”). Thankfully I had visited this aunt a couple of months before her death and his recent truck was the second thing she mentioned to me, after she asked “How are Lee & Lilian?”. This newest ride in the series was GPS equipped. Go straight and turn right in 500 feet, we were offered in a soothing, neutral accent. If we were to get lost he assured us that his white woman would lead us back on course. Eventually we arrived at our destination on Chicago’s south side. There he would connect with other relatives who had known him vicariously at best. 

There was one family member in particular I imagined Uncle Lee would get along with marvelously. Sarge was an old school Vietnam War veteran who never said too much about his war experience— his only offering that he had seen his best friend get killed. He was kind yet full of bravado. In another recollection Sarge told me that after he got back from the war he told his therapist that all he wanted to do was shoot white people. He and Sarge would get along quite well. Sarge took Uncle Lee directly to the basement where he had a full sized bar, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. I didn’t drink. I needed every bit of awareness to soak up this moment. There was a picture of Sarge with his wife Vanessa, circa 1981, taken at a Rick James concert. Sarge, never self-deprecating, played up his outfit and how he had wooed my cousin into his possession.  Uncle Lee, never modest, would inform Sarge about his personal relationship with Rick who referred to him adoringly as Pop Pop. As they drank, they discussed jazz, politics, and anything else that was offered. Eventually Aunt Lil retrieved Uncle Lee from the basement. We did have a funeral to attend in the morning. The next day after the repas, Uncle Lee would inquire about Sarge’s den. His wife asked, “Didn’t you get enough to drink last night‽”. He replied “I don’t want to drink. I just want to look at it.”  We would return to Chicago the next year for a wedding.  The ability and the choice to be mobile had given him the opportunity to tap into family that he hadn’t previously known well. New relationships blossomed and flourished. 

I will forever be grateful to this man. He introduced me to so much. He showed me a lot, much of which was by his example. He was loquacious, but words were not always necessary for him to teach. In the summer of 2008 we took a trip to South Carolina. Coincidentally I was to go to Dubai in a few weeks and Dubai World had been trying to acquire some land in the area. A few weeks later, Aunt Lil and Uncle Lee drove me from Philly to JFK in Queens so that I could leave for Emirates. I thought about some of his own international adventures. He told me that he could never spend any money in Germany. He would go to the bar and his money would be refused. He had become admired and revered in Berlin by simply being himself. Hopefully I could gain some level of esteem on this trip by being authentic as well. My first trip with Pop Pop had been the longest trip in my life to that point. This trip, eight years later,  would now be the longest time I would be spending away from home. I was excited about the adventure, but also melancholy. By now he was in his eighties, and though his health was stable one knows not the hour or the day. I was intent on telling him that I loved him. I wasn’t sure if that would be the last time I’d see him or not. It wasn’t. That would be another 5 and half years later. As I strive to push myself to further heights, at times I feel out of my league. But then I remember, and reflect on another maxim he gave me: “You’re from good shit— ain’t no bum niggas here!”  


Rasheeda Purple Rain - Green Deserts & Yellow Skies


ND: You seem to be a spiritual person. Often, when we speak, you talk about energy and what have you. What do you mean by energy? And how has that been affected by your travels?

Am I spiritual? Yeah. I guess. I think that we are all connected to a life force. Some of us more than others. When I talk about energy, I’m just talking about the general feeling of good and bad. These feelings usually help us make decisions. And traveling as a single woman, I rely on prayer, meditation and a heart of discernment when dealing with “the public”. I have to rely on the energy or the vibration around new people and new things to discern if those things will lead to positive experiences or frustrations. 

ND: Cool, I think I’m similar in that way.  

ND: One thing I really dig about your style of travel is that you seem to embrace traveling with a purpose or intention. Why do you think that is important? 

Traveling with intention is more about maximizing my experiences. What I’ve noticed about setting goals and setting intentions is that there is always an offshoot benefit or distraction from working towards something. Too often we take action but have no particular reason for it. But since traveling requires confidence and sometimes quick thinking, it’s good to have some sort of foundation for why you are wherever you are. When someone asks me, “Why did you come here? What made you leave Canada (the land of milk and honey) to come here (insert third world/developing nation)?” I wanted to know for myself that I am not just there as a tourist, I am also there as cultural observer. Someone who wants to know how people live. What makes them tick? What motivates their lives? What is most essential to survival? And these answers are vast because there are so many other standards of living outside of the western ideal. There are different hierarchies of needs. [My intention] is there to keep me focused on something other than the differences and idiosyncrasies that occur, and often malign one’s embracing of other cultures. My intention keeps me focused on being present. Sometimes that leads to other things but all of my experiences put together off me a world of hope. 

ND: How have your intentions shifted according to some of your destinations? 

When I first moved to Korea, in ‘07. I was just trying to see another part of the world. My intention there was to save some money and explore a culture almost completely opposite to mine. Going back to Korea in ‘09 was definitely about getting over a break up and redirecting my frustrations into something positive, which was teaching. That worked out amazingly. A month in Japan and three months in Brazil allowed me detox sessions from the life I was living in Korea. Both of these times, I had to address my self-esteem when returning home. Not because there is anything wrong with me, but my needs and my perception of what I represent, changed. Adjusting is a real thing. the first challenge was just based on language. Body language isn’t as important when everyone speaks English. 

ND: How have your travels buttressed/challenged your self-esteem? 

As a black woman, my self esteem is challenged in or out of a travel context. But travel experiences have been colored sometimes by racism and sexism. Having to tolerate people misjudging you, speaking to you with a lack of respect or ignoring you because you are a black woman is upsetting. It doesn’t happen often but it happens and it can be discouraging. For example, one time I was transferring planes in Bogota, Columbia on my way to Washington, D.C. and had the flight attendant move me from a comfortable window seat at the front to the very back of the plane for no other reason than my skin color. The exchange was so disrespectful, upsetting and unnerving. And as I arrived in Dulles International, I was excessively searched and subject to be violated by a sniffing dog. The tears flowed pretty automatically in both of those experiences because there was no recourse other than my words to complain on a paper. And I was grateful to be embraced, immediately after, that by the loving arms of my family. It was horrible.
I think vulnerability is a real thing when we travel alone. My self-esteem took a hit in this travel experience because, I would have never considered that I was someone people/authorities would look at with suspicion. But sometimes, we have to shrug off the frustrations of what the outside world wants us to feel. Being with my family again truly rejuvenated me and reminded me that I would be fine. I am not always going to be viewed with suspicion. I am not always going to be misunderstood.



ND: From knowing you, I’ve sensed that you don’t have too much of an issue with traveling solo or putting yourself out there, so to speak.

Traveling solo is a privilege and a curse at the same time. On one hand, I go further and see more. I can say yes without hesitation or secondary considerations. The independence is astounding. I get to move quickly and decide what is best for me only and benefit from that quite easily.  But then again, when some beautiful stranger asks me to fly to Cartagena, Colombia for a weekend, I can say yes and go, but my body could end up floating in a river someplace (laughs). Its a catch22 with the single life. 

ND: Do you think it’s more difficult for female drifters to go it alone?

I don’t think traveling for women is as difficult as we sometimes like to make it seem. As a westerner, we are often boundless in terms of where we can go without a partner.

 ND: What advice would yougive the ladies looking to hit the road alone?

The two most important things to have while traveling alone is cash and wisdom. Cash can normally get you out of situations or provide solutions to problems that arise. Wisdom is for avoiding those situations in the first place [laughs]. Women [travelers] are sometimes vulnerable— but in general, being strong, assertive and direct helps people think twice about misunderstanding you or misrepresenting themselves. That is where being aware of the energies and vibrations around you plays its part. 

ND: Speaking of advice, I know that before arriving in Saudi Arabia— where you were when we last spoke— you sought advice, and kind of came to the realization that people can give you advice, but that advice may not be the best advice for you. Can you expand on that?



Yes. Its true. I live and teach in Saudi Arabia. And I can’t lie, its been amazing in both a negative and a positive way. Before I came, everyone I knew seemed to know how horrible it was going to be. I kept thinking that 20 million people live there. Some of those people love it there and I want to find them.  Saudi is such a closed country and environment that, most people can only judge it by what the western media says. Everyone who knew I was coming here was either really supportive of me exploring Islam or really afraid for my life. While listening to the many tales of Saudi’s oppressive daily life, I often thought to myself, “Man, no one is going to be able to tell me how to be me in Saudi Arabia.” And because I came with that approach, I think I was able to adapt in a positive way. At least in a way that didn’t land me in a Saudi jail.  Everyone has to try to stay positive even when our morale is low because we all have submitting and adjusting to do, that was never required of us prior to coming to Saudi. So, I think the experience in itself is particular because Saudi is such a particular place. 

ND: Speaking of Saudi and its particularity, what have been some of your other observations? 



What being here has shown me, is that human beings are resilient. We can live through anything. Slavery, the Holocaust, Genocides and prevalent wars and uprisings, there are still people who are around who are glad to be alive and grateful to be alive. Alhumdulilah. Not saying that this life is right, but its not my culture. Its just my reality for now. 



ND: How would you describe and compare some of the standards and expressions of femininity in some of the places that you’ve lived? Any stark contrasts or similarities?

Many people of different faiths and culture have expressions of femininity. No other culture I’ve experienced is as extreme in exercising its male privilege like Saudi. Some women like it. I can appreciate some of it, but again, this is not my culture so I just go with wearing my Hijab because I live here and if I don’t wear it, the religious police will tell me to put it on. I may as well wear it. I’m not really saying anything by not wearing it while I live here. If I don’t, I am just opening myself up to some avoidable foolishness. Especially as a woman of colour. I think many women together, in the spirit of family and sisterhood, is incredibly empowering and beautiful. However, I think to exist in that mindset 100% of the time while waiting to grow up and get married, is impossible. So I wish there was a better balance in social etiquette between men and women. I think gender segregation in every aspect of a woman’s life, is challenging her sexuality in ways and emotional maturity in both arrested and perverse ways, when the only men she is allowed to interact with are those in her family. Same for men. I think women cope with it fine though, because Saudi women are amazing. They try, bend, manipulate, dominate and juxtapose their situation so that they can benefit from it. 



Femininity, in Latin America, North America, Asia and the Middle East, all have stark contrasting differences, motivations and reactions to being born woman and the challenges of patriarchy and male privilege. You could write an entire blog on challenging these ideals. Since lately, men don’t see themselves as men unless they are “above” a woman. And that’s frustrating. However, it doesn’t inhibit my travel experiences. Its enriching and makes me have a deeper love for home where human rights are discussed and mulled over enough to the point where we challenge our societies to do better, be better, respect our personhood more, etc. Not all cultures can insist on certain freedoms and no where is perfect.

 ND: What is your travel philosophy?

My travel philosophy is very simple. There isn’t anywhere on God’s green Earth that I don’t belong. And I have so much love to give, I pray that I will get there to give it. Love yourself into the reality that you want.



Jazz Lattes


Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Yeah, right. Appearances matter. People make all sorts of judgements, conjectures and conclusions based on looks. At times they can be slightly misleading. But normally they reflect some sort of quality or attribute in the object observed. The key is to not get too caught up in the superficial. One must take other stimuli into account. In the age of the Kindle, I’m not so caught up in book covers; however, I do judge jazz cafés based on the quality of their lattes (among other menu options).

A few months back, not long after arriving for my current assignment in Seoul, I met up with a friend, some of his friends, and some of their friends. It sounds mob-esque, but was actually quite intimate. Having been appointed the de-facto local, I suggested we patronize a particular dumpling establishment. After staving off our hunger for a few more hours, coffee seemed like the best way to spend our idle time. We could sit, sip, talk shit.

While perusing the surrounding streets and alleys, we lucked upon an inviting café. White brick facade. Side patio. Caged felines. Speckless windows. Well lit, but not too bright. It had some clientele, but wasn’t overrun. We made our move. After going over the menu, which seemed quite ambitious, I decided on one of the coffee derived beverages. I was rather impressed with my drink. Not just the taste but also the presentation. As was my party. One svelte young lady in my company opted for a salad with chicken. Maybe caesar. The details fail me, but this was one of the most impressive salads I’ve come across— especially in Korea. By this time I had made note of the the vinyl records lining some of the shelves, as well as the keyboard and drum set. An associate informed me that this establishment offered jazz nights on Fridays and Saturdays, gratuit.

I finally returned. I had a crew, but I hadn’t planned on it. The two I’d invited inadvertently ballooned to six. I guess I’m the neighborhood Rick Steves. After spending time at a competing venue I took my extended squad over to the café. We were well pleased to find the venue at occupancy, though we did secure seats on the outside patio. All the better. Some of those in my company preferred speaking over listening. Better to be removed from the center of the action. I would hate to have tormented them with their own silence.

Due to our tardiness and seating we couldn’t see the band. We could hear them,however, and they were killing! Keyboard, percussions, stand up bass and the occasional vocalist. Transcendental. I felt as if I’d been touched by the spirit… or maybe it was just the bottle of Chardonnay. I was prepared, if further provoked, to break out in lyric. These guys and gal were a step beyond amateur. They could hold their own on a much bigger stage beyond the three dozen or so who enjoyed their orchestration. Or so I’d hope. Though my head was convulsing, others seemed stiff and tight bodied. Maybe their high was more cerebral.

The bassist suggested that they could go longer and longer. The crowd remained somewhat meek. A bit timid. Perhaps no one wanted to seem too bold or direct. Once the lights were restored, the age of the crowd was revealed. Maybe they had to make curfew?

The Cool Drifter


Embarrassment. I have felt this emotion after finding myself surrounded by compatriots who conduct themselves below appropriate levels of civility. When abroad, it can be helpful to connect with fellow expats; often it can be easy to build a rapport as you share many commonalities. Though you’ve just met, there is a certain level of familiarity. But what happens when things get too familiar?

Often, people get more raucous in group situations. Suddenly what you thought could be a promising social mixer— perhaps you’d meet some cool people; maybe pick up a date or two— has now become a hootenanny, sans any residue of comportment and grace. You and other less ‘turned up’ attendees exchange glances. At least you’re not alone in your discomfort. Your ears pinch at the shrieks and shrills erupting from your table. Gradually other patrons complain to the management about your party’s decorum. This only agitates the hostility. You’re now planning your exit. You’re not entirely alone. You and a few other guests annex the soiré and continue the evening in a more chic manner.

When abroad (or anywhere) there’s a need to connect with others. Yet, sometimes you have have to be very deliberate with whom you become acquainted. There exists travellers who flow gracefully with urbanity and savoir-faire from one great metropolis to the next. And on the other end there are some who, irrespective of their hometown or host country, are brash and parochial. Certain character traits and pieces of knowledge can make your sojourn tremendously more enjoyable (or at least more tolerable).

Basic knowledge can be a great aid. No one is demanding or expecting fluency— that could come later if one’s interest is piqued. But possessing the ability to utter fundamental greetings (Hello; Thank you; How are you?; It’s delicious.) and ask for what you need will get you far.

We’re in the post-Google era. Which means there is no legitimate excuse for ignorance. Know your surroundings. Try reading up on recent news about the country. Even if you don’t have the time or let’s be honest, desire, to read the articles, you can scan the headlines. This can help spark your curiosity and lead to more nuanced conversations with locals if the opportunity presents itself. Maps are good too. Knowing where you are in the country can help you understand a country’s relationship with its neighbors. All of which tell a rich story.

Confidence is also key. Who’s not attracted to a confident person? You’ll have a better relationship with yourself and more opportunities with the outside world. Confidence will attract favorable situations while keeping opportunists at bay. Allow me to illustrate. In Istanbul I found myself in a taxi where the driver was a little too excited to see me. After a half day of studying my tourist map, I had a pretty good handle on my bearings. So once I realized we were going the wrong way I expressed my disdain. Pull the car over. Now. I didn’t end up at my desired location, but sensing something was amiss I acted on my intuition and saved myself further aggravation. When you’re confident you can make your own course. You can engage fellow travellers/expats. You can embrace the natives. You can do your own thing if you don’t have a travel companion with complementary interests. You’re not a groupie.

It’s important to represent too. Implied in ‘represent’ is that the folks who encounter you are left with a favorable impression from their time with you. Representing is also beneficial to future generations of travelers. People are imperfect. If they have an ill experience with a nubian drifter they may presume that all melanin-induced folk have some inherent flaw. Not everyone is a black Adonis, nobel laureate or Josephine Baker. You need not stress over what the world thinks— just don’t be sophomoric on the road.

Train Fiend


As I kid I was interested in trains, trolleys too. Anything that had a track. Who wasn’t all about “Thomas & Friends”? I would religiously watch the show, was familiar with all of the characters and even had my own toy car from the show (which is still lodged in a radiator at my childhood home). When I watched Mr. Rodgers I always wondered where the trolley actually went. I’d be extra hype whenever I noticed it had somehow gotten onto a new route. Yeah, so trains, trolleys, light rail; these modes of transport are imbedded in my childhood and constitute part of my fondness for travel.

As I’ve stated before, some of my earliest travel expeditions came courtesy of Philadelphia’s public transportation system. Aside from trains, I’ve always had a tendency to study maps. Whenever I’d look at the stops for the El train in Philly, I’d be curious about the foreign depots on the other side of town: Tioga, Church, Margaret-Orthodox. Once, I forwent a movie ticket for a chance to ride the El to the other side of town. At that point in time, I’d never been to those hinterlands of Philadelphia and I saw an opportunity to satiate some of my curiosity.



In addition to convenience, such transportation can make for entertaining scenarios, as well as perplexing. Over my train experiences I’ve been offered a variety of products: M&Ms, DVDs, Size 10.5 hiking boots. Recently in Seoul I found myself on a subway car equipped with vending machines, phone charging stations, and employed with medical professionals who offered to check riders’ blood pressure.

Train rides can be rich in experiences. While in Gabon, I was accosted repeatedly to aide other passengers, who couldn’t read, in finding their seats. I was a tad surprised, but happy that I could be help those who needed it. On another occasion on Korea’s high speed rail, an older woman gave me and another passenger each a sandwich. I ate it mainly because the other girl ate her’s. I felt obliged. The sandwich was edible, not tasty, though I did appreciate the gesture. Being on a train where people are literally hanging out the doors (Mumbai, India) was adrenaline inducing, but not something I want to repeat soon. First class can be a cushy experience. When I was taking the TransGabon back to Libreville from from the country’s near impenetrable jungle laded interior I opted for a first class ticket. I was very impressed by the quality of the car after it arrived 2.5 hours after the time on my ticket. Hey, at least is showed. Interestingly enough, the train would go one to be delayed another 4 hours due to a derailment of a service car. Once a southbound train arrived on the other side of the derailment all of the passengers on each train disembarked and switched trains. I was tired, hungry and cranky. I walked through about all the cars and realized the people who were now on our old train had gotten the better deal. I was a little befuddled due to the quality of our new train and I asked one of the porters where first class was. He smirked, before another passenger answered for him: sit down. I understood the implication. 20 hours later we arrived back in the capital. Only a dozen hours or so off schedule.



Since a large part of travel is being in transit, it’s to one’s benefit to be able to enjoy the various modes of transit. Planes are faster, but just don’t have the same charm as a train. However, I did opt for one on a cross state trip in lieu of the train— I was trying to catch the kickoff for a football game. Prioritize.

Haji: An African-American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca


Sheikh Bahiyuddeen Ali: Everything in Islam starts with a prayer. So when we open up we always make prayer. 

 بِسْمِ اللّهِ الرَّحْمـَنِ الرَّحِيمِ

 الْحَمْدُ للّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

الرَّحْمـنِ الرَّحِيمِ

 مَـالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ

 إِيَّاك نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ

 اهدِنَــــا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ

 صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ

In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful, praise be to God.

Cherisher the sustainer of all the worlds.

Most gracious, most merciful.

Master of the day of judgment.

Thee alone do we worship and thee alone do we seek for help.

Show us the straight way.

The way of those whom thou hast bestowed thy grace.Those whose voices is not wrath and those who go not astray, ameen.


Nubian Drifter: Sheikh, we want to talk about your hajj experience today and I just want to know, I guess the place to begin is, when did you make the decision to first go on hajj, was it when you first accepted Islam or was if further in your journey?

SBA: I think it’s the when I first accepted, when I really came into the religion wholeheartedly, because one of the main principles of Islam; it’s built on five. The one is that Allah invites you to his house once in your lifetime, if you are capable. And that was always in my mind, that eventually, I didn’t know when, but I knew that I had to fulfill that obligation so I knew it was coming. When it came, actually, it was like a surprise to me because I think I had just started working. I think that maybe I’d been working for two years and I knew it was a journey that you had to save your money up for.

Actually I didn’t think that the people on the job were going to allow me to go anyway because they weren’t Muslim and they didn’t have a real good concept about the religion. But when I went to them and told them I wanted to go to overseas on Hajj they concurred and said “Listen, we love the way you work and we wish you all your success in going to hajj”.

They gave me extra time off, which I didn’t have. I didn’t have the time and they gave it to me, and they gave me good wishes on the hajj so I just prepared myself. One thing about the hajj you have to prepare yourself. The hajj for me starts here because there’s a lot of internal dynamics that’s working. I mean, because you’re foreseeing yourself going to another land, and dealing with people from all different parts of the world, so it’s always something generating within because you come into an experience that you have never seen before. So the hajj for me started then until I got there [Mecca].

My mind was in wonders because I didn’t know what to really expect. I read about it, but I knew from a spiritual position, I knew that I could fulfill that mission from a spiritual point but I still didn’t know what to expect. So that generated interest in me to make sure that I fulfill that one principle. I want to fulfill the five, but that one in particular.

Going to hajj, well, there’s so much opposition, there’s really so much opposition that you’re going to meet because it’s a test. It’s a test to see if you’re ready and to see if you can stand what you’re going to meet and still have a balanced mind in favoring your religion. And that’s the way it was for me too. It’s like if you ever experience getting on the *23 trolley, you know about the *23 trolley? 

[*This trolley once ran across Philadelphia. It’s since been replaced by a bus that follows the same route.]

ND: I’ve heard about it.

SBA: On a hot day when all the schools are just let out and it’s crowded to the doors, and if you can ride that line with less frustration now you’re testing yourself for hajj. That’s what it is, it’s a test. I equated it with that because I used to ride the 23 and I used to get upset with the school children. But I said, “See, now you’re getting ready for what you’re going to meet overseas” which I did, four fold. That was a good experience because I was able to contain myself and discipline myself in that type of environment where I didn’t get frustrated. Less frustrated, let’s say it like that.

Everything worked out by me conditioning myself to meet that opposition and I met it  successfully. The hajj itself was a trying experience because it says in the Qur’an, Allah says that he invites you to his house. Now you have to be able to sustain: no wrangling, nothing other than something from a spiritual point should be brought into hajj. Nothing, because you’re going to meet everything there that’s what you don’t conceive as Islamic in the first place. You’re going to meet that, so now if you come in here with a frenetic disposition you’re not going have a successful hajj. So you have to develop that kind of discipline to maintain your posture, know what you’re here for, fulfill it and come home successfully.

When you go on hajj … when you first land in Jeddah, the airport, on the hajj season we had to shower down, take off our clothes and shower and put on the ihram  and we went to what they call umrah that’s a lesser hajj. So we were there prior to hajj for a few days. We had those few days, so what we did we went on umrah and then came back, took off our hajj garments and then I think it was about maybe two days we put them back on and went on the hajj.

Now the hajj, on the way to hajj … we were in Mina, the tent city. The transportation buses going to hajj, the major thing for me was there were over two and a half million people doing what I was doing―at the same time. We were traveling to Mecca from Mina and the buses were full. When you go into Mecca there was a thing called the talbiyah. All of the hajis sing the talbiya and actually it’s over a million traveling from every highway, on buses singing this talbiya and it’s reverberating all over, so strong. And when you look up in the hills way up, the people were coming down the hill and the everybody’s singing, and actually it sounds almost spooky. I could detect and hear the rocks singing. This is a real experience, because the resounding echo of all the people coming through mountain passes and on the highway and everybody singing one thing, you know it seems like the rocks, the flowers, everything had a voice.

It was amazing to me, it really was.

The city of Mecca was founded by the slave girl Hagar and that was a real awakening experience to me, for her, the wife of Abraham and how she found water and developed the whole city of Mecca. When it became known about Hagar and this is the land where we actually came from. When I say the land, the spiritual land that we came from because our ancestors were Muslims in which we didn’t know.

I say that because when we went to the Haram they call it Haram - that’s the Grand Mosque, and I remember walking up with people going to the Grand Mosque, and when they opened the doors and you witnessed the black stone, that was so overwhelming to me because I wasn’t expecting it. The kabba was there. That was a real overwhelming experience when I saw the kabba, really.

Then making tawafs around the kabba, seven tawafs around the kabba. It’s 50,000 people doing the same thing, right around. It’s a real experience and I witnessed something because going around I saw people from other countries, going around with newborn babies, holding the child over their head because everybody was so crowded in. I said I knew that the spirit of God has to be in this environment because if anybody tripped and made a slip or anything, a host of death had to occur, and nothing near this transpired; everything just went smooth. I witnessed so many things that I knew God’s presence was there. I knew it.

Then on another occasion when you go to Arafat, well Arafat is really the height of the hajj. When you go on Arafat that’s where you stay all day and make prayers to God. When you have to climb up, there’s a monument that Muhammad our prophet stood, and gave the last sermon to the Muslims. When you climb up to the top of that there’s a monument standing there. When I got there, the people whom I didn’t know, they made a circle right at that monument and allowed me to pray and they surrounded me but I never knew any of them. It was a real experience. And standing there at the top of that so-called mountain, looking up. It was almost like you became one with the universe. Just looking up, everything in your body just exited and went into the heavens, formed itself, and then came back. I mean it was a real experience.



When you bring those experiences back, it puts you in touch with reality from the universal point because everybody who assisted me that I never knew; women, children, everyone.

And another thing about Mecca―nothing ever closes. The lights are on 24 hours and people are moving, so it was an experience―this continual experience with people making prayer all day, around the clock, every minute. What I liked most was even when I looked at the soldiers, everybody makes prayer. The soldier here, he’ll take his rifle off and put it down beside him easily, so it was a good experience just to see the unity amongst Muslims from every aspect. Nobody was different from anybody. Actually the king had invited us to his palace hear a lecture and when we went into the big hall for this lecture I had one friend with me from Philadelphia in Mecca and when we got into this big hall, I found one of those comfortable chairs and when I did there was one that was beside me so I was saving it for my friend who was with me. An elderly gentleman came up and wanted to sit down, so I said excuse me brother, but I got this seat for a friend. So he bowed and backed up. Later on somebody came to me and said, “Listen, do you know who you just denied a seat to?” I said, “No, I didn’t know the guy.” He said, “He’s the emir, he’s the leader of 50,000 Muslims is Russia.” Here I am, little ole me. So that’s the type of experiences; everybody is one and everybody has on the same type of clothes so nobody knows who you are and you don’t know who they are: only by your spirit and what you say. That was a good thing. I enjoyed just being with worldwide people from universal point.

Arafat to me was like this because every nation, every nationality of the universe is represented on Arafat. One of the purposes for me was to intermingle with people from all over the earth and you can determine by interacting with them, your level of Islam. So hajj was a real experience in learning. You learn so many different things; how to contain your own emotions, how to discipline your own life from a spiritual point, because the feelings you get manifest the goodness that comes from what you’re doing. You can tell, you said well if I’m feeling this from being on a spiritual vibe, it must be the correct. Hamdulilah.

I think that hajj itself is only five days but it takes ten days to do five, because it’s too strenuous for you to just do it on a continuum; you have to go back and rest and do this and do certain things. But all in all it’s an experience that you never forget. It’s a lifelong experience that you never forget. Never. Because I can just reflect, and it’s almost 30 since I was there and I can reflect on certain experiences and feel as if it has happen as if I was there in that moment. I can say Allah invites you there one time, if you’re able, but most people go back and people ask me now when are you going back. It’s like going to a deep well and getting a cool drink of water. You always want to return and get a cool drink of water. It’s a new experience every time you go.

Eventually I intend, if Allah allows me, to go back at least once, one more time. It’s something that you will never forget and you’ll always wish to return to that experience.

Well I say it like this―I was, when we had a little reprieve from the hajj, I was standing, just looking up in the sky reminiscing about things that I’m seeing, and a brother came over, a gentleman, we’re in ihrams so he doesn’t know who I am, I don’t know who he is. He said salamu alaykum brother [I said] walaykum assalam. He said brother, where are you from? I said America. He said the big Satan. He said, “Listen, you are a better Muslim than me.” I didn’t want that on me like that so I said hold it, give me some explanation what are you saying. So he said, “I’m saying this because see I’m a surgeon  at the hospital in Mina. My mother, my father were born Muslims, my grandmother, grandfather all the way back, were Muslims.” He said, “so when we wake up in the morning we’re Muslims. We don’t have think about it,” he said. “But you in order for you to have gotten here, you had to come across that water,” and he said, “the only thing could do that is faith.” He said, “so I’m saying that you’re a better Muslim than me, because your faith has brought you across dangerous territory to come across that water.” I said, “I have to accept what you say.” So he said, “yeah your faith, you didn’t just come over here on no whim; you came over here on faith because this is an excruciating journey and I just wake up, I’m here.”

So he was indicating that they don’t, some, do five prayers a day. They can do some and do some, because they’re Muslims. They feel as though that because they’ve been here, that they’re Muslim.

Faith has to develop for you to have the ability to do and the discipline to do the five principles a day, which is obligatory for them just like it is on me. It’s on everybody, it’s not on one. It’s on everybody, so you can see how people exemplify the Islamic principles in their life. If you can discipline yourself to do what Allah is saying are the main principles, then you know that you’re standing on a solid rock. I appreciated hearing those things.

One thing about it, in Mecca, and I don’t want to want to bring no negativity into it, because there’s so much racism in Arabia―terrible―because that’s where I see the African who comes there for hajj. He’s not treated respectfully by the so-called powerful brother, and you witness it all the time. I know the revelation came to Arabia because the prophet Muhammad lived in Arabia, it had to come somewhere. I don’t give no real credit to them. It’s just that the prophet was born there and that’s where the revelation came.

When the prophet said that he heard his [Bilal ibn Rabah] footsteps running to paradise even before his, so that tells me. And then Hagar, when I bring those things together, Hagar, she was the founder of Mecca. From a spiritual point, I think we have a double connection with them. Bilal was calling the whole world to prayer, not just them but he called the world to prayer. So I always look behind and see the purity of their essence, their hearts, minds and know that it’s a reward for that. 

ND: Now previously you spoke of an experience, and you said that Arafat was like the pinnacle of the hajj, and I know that with prior recollections you told me about what time you were climbing that hill on Arafat and you somehow lost your footing.

SBA: [laughs] Yeah, somebody had me from the buttocks―somebody. I never knew these people. You can actually see blood on the rocks as you’re climbing. The sharp
crevice, the sharp corners of the rocks can easily cut you. I was going up
and somehow lost my footing and somebody behind me said, “I got you!”. 

People around you don’t know who you are, but they do know who you are because you’re Muslim and you’re in that environment, so everybody is a brother and a sister. Everybody’s brothers and sisters there. Particularly in that experience; the one on Arafat. I think everybody submits closely to the principles when they go on Arafat. Some people who are very emotional, it’s difficult for them to discipline themselves when they come into an environment where they see certain things that they don’t feel is Islamic, the emotions come out and make them act other than they should be acting. I’ve seen that too. I knew what I was there for.



ND: How did the Hajj experience affect you of coming back?

SBA: I’ll say it like this―before I came back, I had actually forgot about America. I was there 14 days and somebody mentioned the day before I was coming back America. I said, WHOA! America I forgot I even had roots here. It did happen and then I reconnected and said yeah I’m from America.

ND: When you did get back home how did the community receive you, and was
your posture different?

SBA: My posture was totally different, but I think it was too early for the people here to
recognize the real experience that you receive over there. The real spiritual experience you feel. Coming back―it’s a big difference now. You see when people go to hajj now and they come back and they have hundreds of people waiting at the airport. They had that on that trip that I went on too, but no one greeted [us]. There were only two of us from Philadelphia, my brother and myself. When we came back everybody was greeting everybody else. They didn’t recognize us at all, but it was okay.

But now what happens when people go on hajj from here, they have bus loads that go to Newark airport. I think people are becoming more and more awake about this journey. It’s really a journey that should be recognized, particularly if you perceive it in your mind that someway you’re going to go too.

ND: Do you remember what year it was?

SBA: Yeah, 1980. The experience is so strong that I can relate to, internally, certain things and I feel it just like it was yesterday. 

ND: You said your job had gave you some extra time to be able to go on Hajj. Did they want a report? Was everyone curious about your experience?

SBA: Yeah, well I talked to them.

ND: And they weren’t Muslims?

SBA: No. That was the thing, they weren’t Muslims. Actually on the job, they didn’t want people wearing Muslim garb. When I first started working for them in 1978, I was wearing the kufi and they look at that disdainfully, they didn’t know how to approach me and say anything. Now some of them are Muslims. 

ND: Were people curious about your experience when you got back to work?

SBA: Yeah. Being a counselor, many people were coming in who needed assistance from the program who were Muslims. Many of them had more of an intelligent perspective concerning life, than a lot of the counselors but they were the ones who needed the help. So they could  over talk the counselors. So what they did―they allowed me deal with that aspect of it. So I said to them, since you have so much knowledge it’s incumbent upon you to see where you need the help so what you should do is come in and aid the counselors in giving assistance to people, rather than rejecting what they’re saying and try to lower their standards.

That was good because they were also seeing it my way. I could deal with the book and then I could deal with the street too, so I was most successful dealing with that well.

ND: Also in the beginning you spoke about how certain things―really you said that the preparation for Hajj begins here. Now, that you’ve been back and it’s been 30 years since hajj, how has hajj served you in your daily life since then?

SBA: Oh listen! it put me on a certain level from a spiritual point. I understand that from a material point now, you have to work on that. But from a spiritual point, it gave me the ability to reason mentally with every situation where I could always find a balance and never was totally disturbed by whatever is happening around me.

Before you can get frustrated by not having certain things from a material perspective. You get frustrated, but one thing about it  the spiritually is going to make you reason with everything and show you that whatever confronts you is just an opportunity for you to become spiritually balanced and bring you to a balance. So you never get out of sorts really. You can handle things and no doubt about it, hajj really showed me that.

I’ve seen other people that come back and hajj tested them so thoroughly that clearly they’ve changed. It indicates that when you go there on hajj so you can have your five pillars, five pillars that Islam stands on here. Everybody sees you, you can put on your different face when you see these people and you can act this way because of this. But there―see everything is real. Either you’re going to miss the mark or catapult into the heavens of your own being.

It took me on a skyrocket climb to the heavens upstairs. I think it brought a sense of balance for me so I don’t have too many problems when I’m confronted with any kind of situation. The Prophet himself in the days of jahiliyya, he faced every kind of situation there is and he never faltered, that’s to tell us that we can all do the same thing. So he exemplifies the example for us to follow and he showed us that whatever is in this environment, you can handle from a spiritual point. You have to discipline your spirituality.

It works. There was a time when you couldn’t handle pressure, I couldn’t handle it either until I really reasoned with my ability from a spiritual point to be able to balance it and withstand, because I know that nothing or anyone can hurt you today unless they bring something from your past. If you’re moving forward, then you’re in a spiritual position, nothing can hurt you unless they bring a hurt from your past. So if you can deal with your past, on an Islamic basis then you’ve got a clear sailing for what’s in front of you. It’s only the past that can get you confused and can destroy you, if you just lock in on the past.

ND: Have you got any closing thoughts on hajj overall.

SBA: Well, human life needs that experience to bring a balance. Because it says The first house built for the worship of God for all mankind. So that’ a implicit in the religion that the house, kaaba, was built for the worship of all mankind, not just Muslims.

Muslims understand it but other people think that you’re separate from me. No,
because we are all born in the same state. God didn’t give you something different
from me, it’s just how we deal with it. We’re all equipped with the same principles. 

I know that we all have the same purpose, because in the religion our Prophet Mohammad says we are all born Muslim but it’s your parents and your circumstances that make you otherwise. So you come into that faith, because everything that’s
created is born in submission to God. Everything. I don’t care what you turn out to be you’re born in submission to God, but then your parents, your teachers, your preachers and whoever molds your inner structure; you to become something else. But the original purpose for you has been laid down by God.

Bob Mack: Music on the Move


Allow us to present to you Mr. Bob Mack. Bob is a Philadelphia based musician and vocalist. In addition to Bob’s artistic talents he’s a great interlocutor and a very enjoyable person to be around. Bob can carry a conversation on any subject, but more impressive is his ability to listen and to respond, if needed. Bob’s peaceful demeanor and natural inquisitiveness has allowed him to get the utmost satisfaction from his travels. He can connect with billionaire businessmen and bohemian street artists alike. For many he may be the ideal travel companion: I remember cruising around Philly in Bob’s vintage Jaguar as he asked me very thoughtful questions about my time in Korea. Not only does Bob appreciate the exotic, he also seems so well grounded that he can find solace anywhere, whatever his surroundings.   

Nubian Drifter: So what has been the motivation for some of your travels?

Bob Mack: First off, God given gift of artistry and creative expression is music for me— it has primarily always been the music that has taken me in the circumstance to experience the travel that I did. Going over to where you are now [Korea], was a group of guys that I grew up with. I spent 16 years with them. We wound up being contracted by the Department of Defense to perform for the military in Korea and Okinawa and Hawaii, The Philippines and Germany. It was the greatest thing to do something that you really love to do and be able to go and see the world and express yourself to new cultures of people. So it has always been the music primarily. Obviously, the music has afforded me some financial ability to take other trips and things like that in my spare time. But primarily it has been the music.  


ND: What is an memorable travel experience from earlier in your career?

BM: The first time I went to an island, I was just looking at pictures that one of the guys in the group sent me from…we were in Philadelphia we went out with the Delphonics and it must have been… like about, somewhere below zero. Snow and sleety rain was coming down like you could not believe. To leave all of that…and within an hour or so, be in 85 degree weather. I just could not imagine anything that dramatic happening and changing so quickly.


"It was the greatest thing to do something that you really love to do and be able to go and see the world and express yourself to new cultures of people."

Korea was another place that was amazing. Coming from Hawaii, I mean coming to Korea from Alaska. It was at least 15 degrees below, if my memory serves me correctly, and to see Korean people in shorts and no shirts playing tennis. Or to experience for the first time seeing a Korean person; you know how they stoop. See most Koreans wash their hair and see the steam come off of their heads like here in Philadelphia you see a homeless person on a heater vent. Or the beauty of how the land is sculpted.

ND: You seem to bring good energy wherever you go. How much do you think that plays apart into having a good experience?

BM: My experiences have taught me and the people in my life have shared with me over my life, it is always a great attitude that determines our outlook. In the very best of circumstances and even in the very worst of them. It’s not so much what happens. It’s usually wise to think, “How do we deal with it?”. Are we going to smash out or compound the problem by having no rationality to deal with it productively, or are we going to calmly assess what has happened and try to make an intelligent decision about how we go forward.

ND: Absolutely.


"Americans, we are so jaded to a lot of things. But entertainment and art, in most places in the world is so revered that all they want to do is be a part of you, hang around you, get a chance to be participants in the performance that you do. It’s just great."

BM: My perspective has given me the joy, even in the negative, not only what I have seen outside of my life, but also in those things that happen to be personal.

ND: Do you think that you’ve gotten a different vibe because of your status as an African American musician?

BM: No, what I find is that every place except America, the reception for entertainers has always been, in my experience, so genuine and open that is just been such a great welcoming into these communities.

Americans, we are so jaded to a lot of things. But entertainment and art, in most places in the world is so revered that all they want to do is be a part of you, hang around you, get a chance to be participants in the performance that you do. It’s just great. I’ve never been in the case where to perform outside of the United States here that you have any anxiety or whatever.

ND: Tell us about when you were out in LA. 

BM: Sure.

ND: You helped Omar Bongo [President of Gabon 1967-2009] and his wife at the time move.  Did you even know who Omar Bongo was before that job?

BM: I definitely didn’t have any immense knowledge of him, but I was made aware during the accepting of the circumstance to help to pack up and load up their things, who they were. I was informed that he was the president of an area of Africa and that we - Lester Mornay, was Sammy Davis Jr.’s valet and the lady that I was seeing at the time, her brother, was the publicist for Motown. His name was Bob Jones. Bob Jones and Lester Mornay were friends.

So Bob suggested to Lester to ask me to help with this moving situation. So I suggest, we went to their mansion in Beverly Hills and we had been introduced to some of the household staff. We wound up going to get the largest U-haul that was available at the time. And we proceeded to load up; we packed up everything that they wanted to take back to Africa.

What we did was I think it was about two days, we worked filling up this U-haul. We went to supermarkets, and I think we did somewhere like $2,000 or $3,000 worth of groceries we were sent out to get. The family that was going to various clothing, department stores and buying things they might take back to Africa.


So after we got done getting all of that loading of those couple of days, we went to the airport where they were going to leave from. The Bongos had chartered Elvis Presley’s Lisa Maria Jet to transport them and there was a cargo plane. Inside the cargo plane, they had a Citroën, Maserati and a Stutz Bearcat and they were covered up and obviously before I had gotten there filling the cargo plane up. So for the duration of that stretch of night, we proceeded to pack all of the things that we had moved from the mansion into the cargo plane.

So, it comes to be somewhere right around sun-up and the car brings Mr. and Mrs. Bongo to the airport and we were just getting finished. So she proceeded and I’ll never forget this, there was a new leather suitcase, it may have been about 2 ½, maybe 3 feet long and maybe about 2 feet wide, and she had a servant to lift it up and she unzipped it and from top to bottom was $100 bills.

Mrs. Bongo paid us, well she paid Lester and he paid me, out of that suitcase. Now, one thing that I will never forget, it was not an average person’s jet. This plane was, I mean I’ve been on a lot of planes in my career, but I’ve never been on anything as personalized as this was. The carpet was thick in that plane. It was green, you could hardly stand up it. When you first came in the plane, there was the area, the doorway and you would come into the living room area and at each four corners that they had cordoned off in this sections of the plane, there was a Sony Trinitron television and these wonderful leather chairs and a sofa along the window.

The next compartment was just a pleasant sitting area and then beyond that was a sitting area and bedroom with private bath. Gold fixtures for all of the bathroom fixtures. I was just amazed. I thought it was amazing. And then when I wound up actually going to Africa, it was not actually Gabon, but just seeing the region of the world for the first time, it was just kind of brought it all home to me. About some of the things I had misconceptions of, that the American, you know. All-in-all it was a great experience, I got paid a lot of money.

ND: That’s always good. 

BM: It worked out very well.

ND: Did it shift your perspective at all on Africa?

BM: To imagine that an individual, what I had heard was that he was one that was pillaging the country, stealing the country’s money, on the negative side. But I didn’t really put too much emphasis on that part of it. All I knew was that I had a job and tried to do a job well.


"I saw dead men lying in the road. "

ND: Exactly. Now take me to Nigeria. Was that your first trip to Africa?


BM: Yeah, Nigeria was great. The situation came about… this guy in my neighborhood. Louis Smallwood. Louis Smallwood was a tutor and he worked, he tutored Ricky Schroeder, Gary Coleman, quite a number of the Hollywood child stars and because of our relationship as neighbors growing up, we were both in California.

He was working for NBC or Paramount, or one of those studios and he approached me and said, “Bob,” he says, “Bob, my friend wants to start bringing American entertainers over to Africa, do you know of any groups?”. I said, “yeah, my group”. We were called The LIFE Group. That was a group I had been with for 16 years so I said, “yeah sure I do.” But in addition to my group, I had these other group of guys I was in production with; we would go and rehearse and we would work with a lot of different people. So I went and presented it to my group, who did not want to go. I couldn’t understand why. I made almost $5,000 for 5 days of work, but I was actually privileged to stay over there for a month.

All expenses were paid. We had drivers and servants and every meal was catered and I didn’t know that until after I got over there. But my group didn’t want to go so what I did was take the other group of guys that I was working with.

When we went, it was during their 20th year of independence, so we worked at the University of Lagos, the University of Ibadan, we did the national theater and sports arena while we were over there.

We lived on the estate of the family the Bruces. The Bruces family of dignitaries were making at that particular time over $76M a year. They owned offices, supermarkets, farms and newspapers, television station. and one of the great things that we were privileged to do while over there, Mohamed Ali’s last fight, they closed up the television station and took us so we could watch it via satellite.

They had parties for us with dignitaries from all over and one of the major entertainers, they had a play going around the country now called Fela. He was a very powerful political spokesperson for some causes that were over there. He was a great entertainer as well. I got a chance to meet him; generals and stuff and the like.

The thing that was the most amazing about it was landing there and being in a place – for the first time in my life – where everything was black: radio, television, newspapers, advertisements. The only Caucasians we saw were the ones that were invited to the estate and the ones that we saw at the country club. We realized that you could get nothing done without some sort of bribery. There was someone at the airport who wanted to help us [with our luggage] and some soldiers came up in a military car and almost took his head off. To get to the airport and see armed guards. All-in-all a great experience. I got a chance to experience something that I had never heard of. I mean, we all watched the series Roots, but it didn’t have the impact that it had on my when I finally went to that country.

To be a black man from America, to go to a place where we were supposed to all have come from and to be called master was beyond belief for me. To be told that if you go out shopping, especially amongst the people, not like if you’re going to a department store or something like that, but they have a lot of crafts in there that you are never to pay the first thing that they ask.

We were taken shopping to Victoria House, it’s what it was called, and there was a whole host of…I bought hand carved chess with elephants and palm trees on it and proceeded to buy ivory and animal skin dangles, and a whole bunch of other things. To have another black male on his knees calling me master, begging me to give him another opportunity to barter with me, or to have servants at the estate we lived on, or somebody to be a driver, are very different for me.

ND: What was your experience with the bodies on the road in Nigeria?

BM: I don’t know. It was disturbing.

ND: First, what was it? What did you see?

BM: I saw dead men lying in the road. There were two groups of us that we were both routed differently to arrive at our destination. So some of … two or three of the other guys and the crew had come later, a day or so. So, we went to pick them up and they too saw the same sight, because, the understanding we were given is that if anybody comes and gets caught assisting these people that are in the road, they could be suspected of being the ones who had something to do with it. But yeah, that’s what I saw.

ND: That’s pretty heavy.  

ND: Do you feel that as a musician when you’re touring to different places, do you ever find yourself becoming jaded?

BM: No, I have this child-like sense about me. That everything that is new or feels kind of new, even though, I’ve done this for a long time, I still have a sense of wonderment about it because with people and instruments, there can always be some kind of nuance or subtlety, it doesn’t matter whether you’re working with people who only read the notes off the paper, or you are with people who are much more improvisational. A slight variance in the person’s finger movements can change a feeling. So, I’m just in love with the fact that there are people who do this. My openness about, that is something that I try to hold on to.

ND: Okay. And one final question what is your travel philosophy?

BM: Be prepared. If you are going in and out of countries, make sure that you are aware of where you are going to be going, where you will be staying, any contacts. That you are a visitor, or a guest in these places and that you should, if you are unaware, ask. Because I found that cultures that have established themselves over years and millennia and over time have their particular sensibilities. You can come and be disrespectful and not know.

So just being aware and prepared to documentation wise and just so that you can have the very best experience possible. My leaving Africa was that I stayed one day over my Visa and all of the other guys were across the rail where they were on their way to the plane and I was detained. One day beyond the date of my Visa. Now because the Bruce family was very powerful and very rich, then Ben Murray Bruce who was our host for the most part, was able to do whatever it was necessary in order to get me out of that situation.

ND: Absolutely, I agree. I think the more prepared you are with things like that, it gives you more, it can give you peace of mind. It can take a burden off of you.

BM: So… yeah. So… again, to answer your questions, be prepared: passports and documents and things like that should be always secure to the point that you know where they are. And I honestly think it just makes for a better experience.

Jesse Freeman: Turning Nothing in Particular Into Numerous Somethings.


Jesse Freeman wears many hats. Writer. Photographer. Filmmaker. Teacher. Traveler. Minimalist. Ikebanist. And there is, and will probably always be, plenty more. The cool thing about Jesse, though, is the amount of time he spends wearing each of these hats, alternating between and breaking them in so that each one fits him just right. For instance, he’s watched over 400 [classic and foreign] films a year, and has read a novel a week since 2007— the awareness spawned from which ultimately manifested itself as the blog, i’m nothing in particular. We caught up with Jesse during a rare and brief recess (before he got swept back into the animated, never-ending, larger-than-life bustle of Tokyo), and discussed his initial, tentative exodus from Baltimore, the ennui that led to an exploration of his creative self and the skill sets that ensued, his love of minimalism, feeling more respect abroad than at home in the States, and, essentially, how travel enabled him to go from wearing zero hats to many.

ND: You moved to Tokyo in 2006. What inspired the move? 

Jesse FreemanJust got lucky really. I’d just finished high school and was living in Baltimore at my grandparent’s house not really doing much. My father was in the military and was stationed in Hawaii, so I moved out there to attend college. Once I finished it was either go back to Baltimore or follow him to Tokyo. So I went with him, got a job within six months and have been here since.

ND: How was it transitioning from Baltimore to Hawaii and then Japan? Did you say, “Hey, I’m just gonna go for it.” or was there any nervousness or apprehension? 

JFBaltimore to Hawaii not so much; I just saw it as 3 to 4 years in exile because I didn’t want to leave Baltimore, as I was content living in my grandma’s basement. I was really in a different mindset. My father was a Colonel in the Air Force when we were in Hawaii, so we lived off base in a condo in Honolulu. All of our neighbors were Japanese and the parking lot was like a collection of German automobiles— me and my dad shared a 1990 Honda Accord. I was studying Japanese at my graveyard shift job, so I would always try to strike up conversations on the elevator at the condo, but I would never get acknowledged.

ND: [laughs] In what way would they not acknowledge you? 

JF: Like they would seriously ignore me, though I think half of them just thought I worked there. So coming to Japan I thought it would be the same and was nervous about that aspect, but found it to be quite different. Other than that, I was just excited to be in Japan. 

ND: What are you presently doing there?

JF: Currently… I am doing a lot of things. I teach part-time at a JHS in the suburbs of Tokyo, and assistant coach the school basketball team. I freelance [in] photography and writing. I make short films and screen them at venues in Tokyo. I just released my last short film, which was a color silent film. And more recently started getting into modeling.

ND: Oh wow. Tokyo seems to be a great environment for you! I remember when I lived there— I feel like I couldn’t help but be more expressive than usual. There’s just  something intrinsically creative about that place! Do you think Tokyo has had some influence on the more creative paths you’re traversing or were those plans always in place? 

JFTokyo has definitely been the influence. Really, before here, I hadn’t dabbled in any of the things I’m doing now, except for basketball of course. Without the distractions of the things I had in the US, I started reading to pass the time in 2007. The only English language books available here are usually classics. So I got hooked on all the greats, from Dostoevsky and Balzac to Mishima and Zola.

ND: How’d you transition into film?

JF: I got into film once I saw that a film could have the same layers of meaning and depth that novels could have. So I got heavy into films. Mostly silent, to about the 1970s. In 2010 I was given an old film camera and started to replicate my favorite directors’ styles before I came into my own, shooting mostly in black and white film. I was able to get the resources to start trying to make short films and just set to it. If not for Tokyo, I’d be an entirely different person.



ND: You’ve also gotten heavily into Japanese flower arranging.

JF: Branching off into ikebana was inspired by one of my favorite Japanese film directors— Hiroshi Teshigahara— who gave up making films in the 1960s to take over his father’s ikebana school. I was blown away by his ability to translate his film aesthetic into [flower arranging]. I’m currently under two years away in my studies from being certified as a teacher, and am looking to freelance that as well. I think it will be cool, because as far as I know, I’d be the only African American certified in ikebana.

ND: That’s major! It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to study an art form like Ikebana, which is known for it’s simple lines and having an overall… very minimalist form. When I look at the images you post on your Instagram, a lot of the photos seem to follow those same rules. Did Ikebana influence your perspective, or did your aesthetic kind of lead you down a path toward ikebana? 

JFThat’s a great observation. My aesthetic lead me to ikebana, as I was attracted by the medium’s preoccupation with minimalism and composition based on line and space. So jumping from photography— that is a 2D medium— to ikebana, which is 3D, was a fun way of seeing how my ideas could translate across mediums. Ikebana since has influenced my perspective in that I have a better understanding of the importance of negative space.

ND: Negative space can be very calming… really tranquil. Its very Zen, which is what I find ikebana to be. I came to appreciate negative space more as a resident of Japan. I feel like a lot of the Japanese culturally identify with the concept and importance of negative space. It’s so ingrained in them, and comes out in the most interesting ways. I remember being in Shinjuku station one day and seeing this lady just sort of zoned into her book, while things around her were in a state of franticness. I thought to myself that she was creating her own kind of negative space. In a city that packed, it’s only right to want a slice of solitude. It fascinated me. I said all of that to say, Japan is a great place— photographically speaking— to appreciate, be inspired by and capture [negative space].

JFExactly. And precisely: it is the Zen concept of mu (nothingness) that ikebana exemplifies, and can be seen in other mediums as well: the films of Ozu Yasujiro, photos by Hiroshi Sugimoto, or literature of Kawabata Yasunari. In addition, just being aware of the aesthetic concept and being in Japan, you can see it in the everyday just as you observed in Shinjuku station. 



ND: What other places have you come across in your travels that have inspired you artistically speaking, or have spoken to your love of minimalism?

JF: Minimalism is an aesthetic that I found truly characteristic of Sweden. Everything was just so clean and functional without any unnecessary ornamentation. I’m sure there have been studies on the socialist influences, etcetera, but the Eames concept of “The best for the most for the least” is alive and well. I was only there for a couple of weeks, but I’d imagine [being there in winter], one would be able to read and write a great deal with little distraction. 

ND: I’d never considered Sweden a place I’d go to create. But now that you mention it, it does seem well-suited to people with artistic leanings. Anywhere else?

JF: Artistically, I found France welcoming. Just being an artist in France is admittedly romantic, but with the siestas and overall leisure it is really ideal. Plus, unlike America, I think people there can easily get past my appearance. To think African Americans— from Richard Wright to Miles Davis— enjoyed that equal standing and character based judgment there that I feel still isn’t always afforded to us in the US, to be entirely honest.

ND: It’s interesting to me that you brought up feeling more welcomed elsewhere. I’ve found that I’ve been embraced by other cultures as an expat, and when traveling too. Whether out of respect, sheer curiosity or because they’re genuinely nice human beings, its been nothing but love. This is the message I’ve been trying to relay to other young black men. There’s such a fear of the unknown among us, but there’s no reason for that fear to exist. And its so important [for us especially] to travel because of how we’re represented in American media— its vital for us to shake those stigmas and stereotypes, and by being out there traveling the world and being our best selves, people are able to see the truth.

JF: It is those exact three things: out of respect, sheer curiosity or because they’re genuinely nice human beings that for the most part, results in love. I think the only misunderstandings arise from curiosity, which never really includes any malice. American media is our Achilles heel, so just being out in the world does give people a chance to actually see for themselves. I tell my younger cousins all the time that they got to travel, [but] they self regulate themselves to an extent. To be fair, financial reasons are a factor but they can be overcome by saving a little.  

ND: It’s true! It’s all in what you value. I spoke to a high school class once and I told them that if they can save to buy all of these expensive clothes, they can save to buy a passport and a plane ticket! [laughs] Anyway, since you’ve been abroad and traveling, have you ever had someone come up to you with a certain idea of how you would be, only to be shocked to find that you were the complete opposite of what they’d thought?

JF: All the time!  It happens so much it would be difficult and redundant to elaborate. 

ND: Wakata. I totally understand. Changing lanes a bit, I watched your latest short film last night— “Back Yet Forth.” Really dope man. 

JFThank you for taking the time to check that out!

ND: I loved the whimsicality of it. And going back to what we were talking about earlier, your use of negative space was beautiful throughout. Really stylish and thoughtful use of the landscape. I like that you showed a calmer side of Tokyo that’s rarely portrayed.

JF: Foreign movies shot in Tokyo always seem to be shot with foreign eyes focusing on what is different instead of what is. [Focus is on] the neon lights, the crazy vending machines, Shibuya, schoolgirls, etcetera. Much of the landscape shots and location were based on my photography from the past two years.

ND: I liked that we weren’t beaten over the head with lights, skyscrapers and Harajuku girls. It was really smart of you to incorporate something personal, like your photographic locations, into the film— that kind of personal touch provides a sense of intimacy, made it more special. And if I’m not mistaken, you even made a cameo? Such a cool moment. I love when directors do that. Reminds me of Spike Lee, John Waters and Roman Polanski. Those are the names that came immediately to mind. 

JF[Laughs] I did make a cameo! It was due to the budget and time constraints more than anything though, so not sure if that will be a continuing theme or not. I really can’t act.  [But] I like that personal touch in films. You can always see it— Spike Lee’s characters in preference of sports teams, or Jean-Luc Godard’s preference of impressionist painters. 



ND: What inspired the film?

JFThe film came about kind of quickly. I had been excited to see The Artist when it came out and found it to be an unoriginal throwback to what silent films were and the story just ripped off Singing in the Rain. I always like how modern Dreyer’s Joan of Arc was, and between the two films decided to make a modern silent film. So to begin with I made it a color film. I chose Helvetica for the inter-titles since the font didn’t come out till after the silent era, and shot it handheld and deliberately made it shaky emphasizing this since silent film cameras weren’t possible to shoot handheld. I got the initial story from the western, Vera Cruz, where Gary Cooper’s character gets his wallet stolen. From there, worked until the wallet was no longer the point but a MacGuffin used to drive the plot. In the end, I hoped for it all to paint a metaphor of people’s attitudes toward cinema, wanting what they’ve already had. The same types of films.

For the screening I had a band called The Shamanz— sorry, I wanted to name drop— I had them improvise the film live, since silent films were usually accompanied by a pianist.

ND: That must have been a dope screening. I totally get the metaphor. I’ve had countless conversations with my film enthusiast friends about some of the recycled material Hollywood is trying to shove down our throats, and the people who love them. [Those people] should travel more. [Laughs] Take in some new perspectives, gain some new points of reference. That, for me, is the best thing about travel: building those reference points and obtaining that firsthand knowledge. Having those proverbial scripts flipped on you.

When I look at your work and read your blog, I see someone who has been places— and it’s evident that you really spend time vibing with and getting to know whatever place you’re in, whether it’s brand new to you, or if you’re simply revisiting it.  Can you recall any one of your travel experiences drastically changing you?

JFHmmm… I really think it was a trip to St. Tropez last summer that I got invited to through a friend of a friend that really drastically changed me. For reasons of privacy I can’t detail the artist’s name, but there were about 15 accomplished professionals at this sort of luxury compound taking some time off— all of whom were not only older but much more accomplished in their respective fields than anything I have even attempted! I seriously felt like Christian Laettner on the Dream Team, but unlike him I was given a chance to prove my worth in being prompted to shoot a short film for them, and was able to come up with a script in the course of a single night. Besides the amazing business connections I made and things I learned that will prove vital in my progress, it was— for me— the first real chance to be in a position to show and prove. And I was able to do just that. 



ND: That would be insanely intimidating, but I feel like it’s the kind of experience a lot of creatives dream of having. One of those, “What would you do if you were put in a room with this person and that person” conversations we’ve all had with our friends.

JFIt was quite an experience!

ND: And I’ll say: being of the moment enough to execute on such short notice isn’t easy! It’s awesome, however, when pulled off! I’ve found that travel makes one a more aware and adaptable person. It’s helped me successfully navigate situations—not nearly as cool as the one you just described [laughs]— but situations that would have proved challenging had I not been equipped with my travel savvy. 

JF I would agree. Travel changes you.

ND: It does.

JF: For me, it has enhanced my eye, it gave a real context to the novels I read, and put me in the same settings as the films I have seen throughout my life. It is the appeasement of curiosity. And by nature it forces you to adapt to new environments in ways that stay with you. 

ND:  What would be your travel philosophy?

JFTaking a page from Langston Hughes, to simply wonder as I wander. 


To get a further glimpse into Jesse, and to watch his short films, visit his site: I’m Nothing In Particular

You can also follow Jesse on instagram @NothingInParticular 

The Making of A Serial Expatriate


Sumit is an accomplished traveller. He’s survived and overcome the trauma of being re-located to a foreign country at the behest of his parents on more than one occassion. He’s learned to adapt and find consistency in the collage of places he’s called home. It would be apt to call him a drifter. Wether he’s a resident or a visitor, Sumit always scours his surroundings for new cuisines, which he blogs about. 

 ND: Where have you lived? 

Sumit: I’ve lived in Egypt, India and the US, but that doesn’t include the countries that I’ve visited.

ND: Take us to Egypt. Obviously Egpyt is going thourgh a lot of turmoil now. How was it when you moved there? What was it like?



Sumit: I moved there from ‘95 - 2000. I had been living in Vorhees, NJ, thirty minutes away from Philly. At that time Egypt was actually a very safe place. The people were very funny and everything kind of seemed backwards at first. By the time I would go to sleep, between 10 and 11 o’clock at night, that’s when people would be going out to different restaurants, to stores, to parties, to smoke hookah. I got exposed to the Middle Eastern culture at a young age: Arabic, which I learned growing up there. I tried to meet as many people as possible. I would talk to them and try to learn something interesting and new.

 ND: When you moved to Egypt you’re a young kid, what were some of the difficulties, if any, that you had adjusting?

Sumit: When we first moved to Egypt, I would say the language. I was used to English and I was bi-lingual growing up. Bengali is my mother tongue. And then learning Arabic was challenging because I did not know the alphabet, the pronunciation and I couldn’t understand. 

The second part was becoming familar with certain places and locations, so which places are safe to go to, who can you trust, who can you hang out with, and that was a big concern for my parents. However I have the liberty of having pretty open-minded parents, so as a young kid I was able to travel to different places. I got in trouble staying out pretty late, considering I was only in middle school. 



ND: How late?

Sumit: Pretty late. I stayed out until midnight, you know. And I got into big trouble. I got scolded and beaten up. But at that time it was an adventure. And I got accoustemed to a different tatste. Not only am I living in Egypt, but my friends at the American school are  from different countries: Greece, Norway, Sweeden. I would go to to their houses and their parents treated me differently. I got some insight into their culture and I got to try their food, which was awesome!

ND: That’s cool that your parents and the families you were around were pretty open to certain things. 

 Sumit: I would say even though my parents were liberal they still felt comfortable in their own culture and meeting with other people in their own culture. That’s how they grew up. 

I grew up differenlty. Growing up in three different countries with so many different people from all over the world, I have a different point of view. Normally when you go to any new place, wether in the US or abroad, you normally see cliques of people. Cliques of people normally determined by which area or country they come from, thier culture, your region, the language and these people will form their own groups. For me, even while growing up, I felt more … I wanted something new. I wanted to experience something new. There were cliques and groups, but I broke away from that. And the same thing happened when I went to middle school, and then high school, even in New Delhi. I surrounded myself with other people in LA and Philadelphia. I broke off from the cliques. I just … to me it seemed mundane. 

ND: What kind of people do you tend to attract or engage?



Well, usually the people that I interact with are passionate. I don’t necessarily like to talk to people who are miserable. I understand that there may be job that you don’t like, or certain situations you don’t care for.  People experience difficulities in their lives, that happens in life. But, if you don’t feel alive, what’s the purpose?

So I try to surround myself with people who are passionate. Passionate about anything. And if there’s a difference of opinion, that’s great, because I’d like to learn from him or her. 

Second is energy. Energy makes a big difference. If you don’t have the energy, you don’t have the drive. If you don’t have the drive, you’re missing out on so many different opportunities. 

And the third is, I would say, a unique quality about that person. Maybe they’re humorous in their own way. I might not see that at first, but later on I do. Maybe they’re sacarstic, or awkard or random. 

ND: After spending 5 years in Alexandria, you come back. What was it like going from Egypt back to the east coast?



It felt really weird, because all I kept thinking about was going back to Egpyt. I keep thinking I’m going back to Egypt. Before going to Egypt I was kind of scared being a kid in second grade. I was used to my classmates, my teachers, the whole neighborhood. I had a certain type of friends. We would ride bikes and hang out. But my emoitions shifted with time. And that’s one thing I missed about Egypt. I thought about Egypt for awhile. 

And later we moved from India to LA.  Even though I enjoyed parts of India, there some parts of Delhi I didn’t like: the traffic, the pollution and it was just too congested, too much noise. LA seemed less chaotic. 

ND: You’re a brown person. You’re of Indian descent, Bengali to be specific. When you finally go to India for high-school do you feel more at home, because you’re amongst Indians?

Sumit: NO! Actually, it’s funny. It was kind of like racism. My parents were the ones who grew up in India, so they knew the Indian culture. I essentially grew up in the US and Egypt, but this is my first time living in India. And it’s different than just visiting. 



What type of discrimination? When people saw the clothes that I wore and heard the way I spoke people would try to take advantage of me. I’d go to a barber shop and people would charge me 2 to 3 times more money. I’d go to different places and taxis would jack up the price. And I was offended. At first, I was aggressive. I’m like WHAT IS THIS‽ I thought it was bullshit! Later, I thought how do I get rid of this? Luckily, I was able to communicate with different types of people and go back and forth as far as sharing qualities. So I can help someone with one my good attributes and he or she can help me. So, in that sense, I went around with people who grew up in the area. Some family members would help me. They would speak for me, haggle for me. It helped me save a lot of money and eliminate some of the frustration.

ND: So, when you were in Delhi, were you speaking Hindi, English, or Bengali?

Sumit: Actually, when I was in Delhi I spoke English, because I went to an American school. I spoke Bengali a lot with my family. I was trying to learn Hindi at one point, but I was not forced to learn it. Even now I know more Arabic than Hindi, because I was forced to learn Arabic in Egypt. When I moved to India in the community I was living in, it was pretty much Bengali. 

ND: Let’s bring back to the US. You spent some time growing up in Jersey and later went out to LA. How would contrast the Jersey vibe to your LA vibe?



Sumit: Very different! I actually broke out of my shell when I moved to LA. At first, talking about personality, I was a lot more introverted. Then when I hit 12th grade I got to know myself better. I got into sports. I did a lot of social acitivities. And when I got to LA, LA was so creative. People were a lot more open. I tried different things with different types of people: dancing, public speaking, traveling. Different types of entertainment all over the place. Even things like kayaking. So, I had all these different experiences and those experiences allowed me to conncet with a lot more different types of people. What I loved most about LA at that point was that I was surrounded with so many diverse types of people and types of thinking. It was okay that you have a different idea. People would actually support you as opposed to saying, You know what? That’s a stupid idea! Throw it in the trash!

ND: Now, as a young adult you’ve spent a lot of time in Philadelphia. How has Philly been for you?

Sumit: When I first move to Philly I kind of hated it!

ND: Why?

Sumit: People here are very direct. I was not used to that. 

ND: How so?

Sumit: In India, no matter where I go people would stare at each other, right. No matter if you’re Indian or not. People would just stare, at least in Delhi. I did that in Philly and people got angry! And they would say, “Why the hell are you looking at me‽ What the fuck‽” Blunt. Direct.

Even homeless people. And I’m like what is this? I had never experienced that. 

ND: What is it about Philly that you enjoy now? It seems to me that you’ve kind of found your current.

Sumit: Well, Philly has a strong art scene that people overlook. Things like First Fridays. There are a lot of free galleries that you can go to. And there are a lot of quality museums. It ranges from fine art to the natural sciences.

Also, Philly is very walkable. You don’t always need public transporation. You can walk to a lot of places. 

Plus, the food scene is changing a lot. There is a lot of affordable, quality food. Espicially in Chinatown. 

ND: What’s your travel philosophy?

Sumit: If you’re unsure and hesistant you’re going to create regret. When you travel make a decision to travel and do it. And don’t be a miser. You won’t fully enjoy your experience. But in the same token don’t watse your money on crap. Start with the free stuff.  Where is the free stuff? Ask yourself the right questions. And be curious!

Running is the Sport of Travel

Hana Dul, Hana Dul, Set. Hana Dul, Hana Dul, Set. Mile 25.5. Four hours after my street tour started, I’m a little over a kilometer from the finish line. The ajeosshi leading the pace group to my left gives me the inspiration to keep churning. 8,000 miles from home I’ve found myself engulfed in a new subculture. Have I added another layer to my identity? Am I now a runner? March 17, 2013: I complete my first full marathon, a course I traversed with 30,000 others. It was a personal accomplishment, but also represented something else. A new reason for me to travel.



I’d never called myself a runner, but when I was based in Philadelphia I would partake in the occasional jog. I even worked at a running inspired non-profit organization. Yet it was never something that I did consistently. My foray into running was inspired by my enviornment. During my first few months in Korea, I lived a block away from Olympic Park. It wasn’t uncommon for me to run laps around and through the park. Mind you, at that time it was more like one lap, but I gradually increased the distance. Later, when I moved further south, to Daegu, I picked up the habit due to a lack of options. Up until that point I preferred elliptical machines to treadmills, but the latter were more plentiful at my new gym. I didn’t fight the flow. I would run 10 to 15 minutes to warm up for the rest of my workout. The real conversion, however, occurred when I was invited to do a 10K. Sure, sign me up. Wait, how many miles is that? Merde. Now I have to get serious, i.e. consistent. My 10K came and went and I felt encouraged that I was able to finish in a modest time. I felt pretty good afterwards and in my post-race wandering I observed the participants who were completing the full course (26.1 miles). Damn. That man must be twice my age. Wow, that woman has a good ten years on me. Mm, that girl is kind of cute. And these people were making it look easy. I was inspired. I vowed that by the next year I would join that club of people whom I admired. 26.1 miles. One step at a time. 

Now that I am a convert, let me explain why I enjoy the marriage of running and travel.

For one, it allows you to discover new places. Locally and more far off. I was fortunate to have access to some great bike trails while I lived in Daegu. The trails ran adjacent to the rivers and there were miles of trails that splintered off into all directions. One day I would go north, another south. On Monday I would turn right. Tuesday, left. So, it let me get more connected with my own immediate environment. I saw wildlife that natives thought extinct in the locality. The landscape became more nuanced. There were times when I would run in the morning and the fog was too dense to see more than a yard ahead. Running has given me an excuse to explore nooks and crannies of Korea that I would otherwise not toss a glance at. It’s been a lesson in geography in that respect. I now know that there are two Goseongs: one in the South of the county, and another along the border with the North. Ms DeMasi (10th grade Social Studies) would be proud. 

Through my running, I’ve found opportunities to connect with people who may have complementary interests: I’ve been able to join local running clubs and connect with the fully human specimens of the expat community. We’ve enjoyed our travels together to other cities, while engaging in something that we really enjoy to do. I prefer that life to one where people exclusively frolick at a bar with the intent of seeing who can absorb the most alcohol. I need those good carbs.

Alas, I’m contented with my evolution as a runner. Like travel, it has been something that has led me to novel experiences and new vistas. In can totally see myself in the near future doing more international races. Japan. Germany. Mongolia. Why not?