[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]Endgames and exports

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[ITAEWON WANDERINGS]Endgames and exports

I quit playing chess because of a Nigerian.

A few years ago, I used to go to Cyberia, Itaewon's first Internet cafe, with a chess set in hand to play my buddies, North Americans like Andrew, Blaine and Marcus. I could whip those guys 9 times out of 10. But the Nigerian, Sola, was always there, and would ask for a game. An ace, he played about five moves ahead of me. Matches with him never lasted more than 20 minutes.

While Sola was humiliating me, I would wonder what he did for a living. All I knew was that he sat in front of a computer screen all day. I'd ask him about work, but it was hard to get an answer. He would talk circles about America or pretty girls. But nothing about work. Once he said something about importing underwear. Huh?

So what do African expats do for a living? To find out I went to the alley behind Burger King where they congregate, and ducked into a chicken joint there. I took a seat next to two guys from Ghana, Aban and King. No, they didn't want to talk about work. They wanted to talk about rap, about Snoop and Dr. Dre and how the West Coast beats the East Coast. Aban talked a mile a minute, even with a mouth full of chicken.

I tried another place nearby, the African and Caribbean Restaurant. This is a friendly, spacious place, and just added a kitchen to make Indian food. Artificial foliage lines the walls and ceiling and the furniture has a festive style -- sitting here you feel like you're early for a wedding reception.

A waiter, Abdul from Ghana, was more forthcoming about what African expats do. He started out here working for an industrial laundry service, he said, but quit after his boss forgot to pay him for months. He told me to stick around and meet the owner, Emmanuel. "He loves to talk to the press," Abdul said.

Meanwhile, Abdul took me to a row of shops beside the restaurant to meet other Africans. First a barber -- "I'm busy, talk later." Then Steve, a stocky Nigerian who helps a compatriot, Igboekwu, ship hip-hop wear to Africa and Europe. Steve showed me his shop, full of brands like Sean John, Esco and Fubu. Then two Nigerian engineers, Celestian, who works for Samsung, and Timotty, who works for Daewoo.

Back in the restaurant, I ordered fufu -- rice transformed into a hard mashed potato consistency that you eat with your fingers -- and spicy chicken. Tasty. Then I ordered chai, milk tea with cardamom. Soon enough the owner showed up.

Emmanuel, from Nigeria, had done it all. He explained that he first came to Korea in 1994, and made a fortune buying up motorbikes for nothing and selling them in Nigeria. After a couple of years Koreans caught on to the business, and it dried up. He switched to exporting fabrics and did all right, but quit when he ran into too much red tape. Now he exports new cars, Ssangyongs, to Africa and runs a travel agency -- apart from the restaurant.

I thanked Emmanuel for the impromptu biography, finished my chai and readied to leave. Then it occurred to me that I was about to say to this Nigerian what I was never able to say to Sola.


by Mike Ferrin

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