Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Interviews

Interviews

John Adler in California (2010): The Good Doctor  

Asian Games' Wrestling (2018): Wrestlers

Noman Md Ariful Haque in Kuala Lumpur (2018): A Muslim Engineer in Japan 

Derrick in Katy, Texas (2018): Old Katy Coffee on good coffee 

James McRitchie in San Francisco, CA (2016): Shareholder Activist 

Sara Mendelsohn in Hanoi, Vietnam (2018): Personal Trainer and English Teacher 

Bruce Nguyen in Saigon, Vietnam: (2018): Third Wave Coffee

Marco Paulo in Cebu, Philippines (2017): Influencer 

Sulistiansyah Rahmadi in Palembang, Indonesia (2018): Indonesian Traveler

Auron Tare in Tirana, Albania (2018): Albania's Bill Bradley    

Fitness and Adventure in Hanoi, Vietnam: Sara Mendelsohn

Not many people go straight from Reno, Nevada to Hanoi without a few pitstops in between, but Sara Mendelsohn, all 26 years of her, packed up one day and left for Vietnam without looking back. Here's her story: 

Q: Have you always been so fit? 

A: No, I used to be insecure about my body. I was a runner, and one day my ex-boyfriend took me to the gym, and I realized I couldn't do any pull-ups. It was very frustrating, because I've always been super-competitive, even if it was just with myself. 

Then my ex-boyfriend went away on a business trip and suddenly I had a lot of "alone" time, so I did a lot of research on YouTube workout videos. By the time I went to visit my ex-boyfriend, he was amazed at my transformation. 

Q: Do you play any sports? 

A: No, but I compete in National Physique Committee competitions (NPC). My first competition was in Scottsdale Arizona, where I placed 5th out of 20 women. My second show was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I placed first in my class and first overall. 

Despite my success, six months after the Oklahoma competition, my ex-boyfriend and I broke up. It was a horrible breakup, and after we broke up, I started focusing on myself a lot more, and I started my Instagram and my blog.

Q: How did you go from winning American bodybuilding competitions to moving to Vietnam? 

A: I realized I can do so much more. I can teach English, I can be a personal trainer, and I can do some combination of different activities. Maybe I'd only make 500 USD a month, but in the end, I'd be in a position to make a difference, not in a small town like Reno but in a big city like Hanoi. 

Q: What was difficult about going from a smaller town like Reno to a large city like Hanoi? 

A: I've only been here about 6 days. I wouldn't say anything has been difficult. I don't like two things: people littering like it's nothing, and people smoking everywhere. At the same time, everyone's much more laid back, and there are fewer rules. People don't seem as entitled. 

Q: Vietnam has a one year visa for American citizens. Is that how you were able to re-locate here?

A: I'm currently here
 on a three month visa... but I bought a one way ticket. I'll figure out how to extend my time. 

Q: I notice you have a lot of interesting tattoos. 

A: Yes, I have one on my arm that's a devil in disguise. The man with the beard is related to 420, and I have several more, including on my back. I like hanging out with artistic crowds, and my tattoo artist is Tony Medellin. Tony is a Reno local, and he just got selected for the Ink Master show. 

Q: I want to return to something you said earlier. Why was your breakup so difficult? 

A: [laughs] He cheated on me and knocked her up. He married her five months after our breakup, and he and I were together for four years. 

Q: You look very young. How old are you? Tell me about your family. 

A: I'm 26 years old. My dad is a P.E. teacher, and my mom makes uniforms for public schools. I have three younger brothers. 

I've been very lucky. My dad has always been very supportive of me. For example, when I started running, my dad said, "Oh, I want to run with you," and he did. We did 5Ks [marathons] together. When I wanted to join a gym, he got both of us a membership at the same gym. 

Q: Where do you want to be 3 to 6 months from now? 

A: I'd like to have my own apartment in the Tay Ho [the Lake district], and I'd like to live by myself. I'd like to be teaching adults, but I'll probably teach kids, and that's okay. I'd like to be more active on my blog and IG and post at least two times a week. 

It might sound corny to say, but I feel like I can make a difference just by being me. Maybe I'm not making a ton of money, but I get to live the life I want to live. 

Q: What are you scared of?

A: I'm scared that something [unexpected] will happen, and I won't like it here, and I'll have to go back to Reno, and I'll be a disappointment. 


I really want to be here. I like the culture, and the people here want to learn English, and they're really nice. I picked Hanoi because of its culture. I researched a few blogs, and I knew I wanted to live in a place that wasn't touristy, which meant  Thailand was out. It was either Cambodia or here, and I chose Vietnam. 

Q: If you could go back and tell your insecure teenage self something, what would you say? 

A: I would say, "You are so beautiful in your own way." 

Today, I look at other women my age or younger, and they're so preoccupied with wanting to be someone else, they don't realize the very person they admire wants to be like them. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Hue, Vietnam: a Disappointment but Worth One Night

I loved Saigon but my trip to Hue, Vietnam--a city I expected to be bustling with museums and culture--turned out to be the exact opposite. I wouldn't say "Hue" is Vietnamese for "tourist trap," but one night is all you need to see all its sights. 

I'm disappointed because Hue's tombs, citadel, and natural scenery are beautiful, but the city feels like a frat house surrounded by neglected artifacts. 
So much potential
Tomb of Khai Dinh
English translations are minimal and when they exist, fail to provide information in context. Mind you, Hue has major historical value. It was the capital of the Southern Kingdom under the Nguyen dynasty. It was part of 1968's Tet Offensive. Yet, the city emphasizes its generic bars and restaurants with bland food and cheap beer, as if there's no money to be made from tourists above the age of 26 or anyone interested in cultural tourism.

The traveler in me weeps for the lost potential but the businessman understands: you give the people what they want, and sometimes people want cheap beer and bland food. I just never thought nonprofits, universities, governments, and NGOs would allow themselves to be made irrelevant through inaction or a lack of imagination. 

Miscellany: 

1. If you're looking for a hotel, I had a great experience with Holiday Diamond Hotel

2. The tourism gods taunted me with these two book entries I randomly found at Cafe Sach Huong Tu Bi, my favorite cafe in Hue. (Second favorite? Cassette Cafe.) 
The Romance of Vietnam, by Thai Quang Trung

3. One of Hue's best sights its XQ Embroidery Museum, where paintings are done with traditional embroidery. 
No paint--just embroidery.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Interview with Vietcetera Cafe Owner Nguyen Bao Lam Bruce

I love coffeeshops, and I found Vietcetera while on my usual 3 to 6 mile daily walk in Saigon. The owner, Bruce Nguyen, was on-site, and ten seconds after meeting him, I knew I wanted to pick his brain. 
Bruce Nguyen
Q: How did you come up with the cafe's name? 

A: I didn't come up with the Vietcetera name. We're linked to an online magazine--they hate it when I call it a blog. They cover "new Vietnam," which could be anything from cooking, music, poetry, coffee, cocktails. We post about what's new

Q: Tell me about JAMLOS, which I see behind me on the wall. 

A: The cafe allows space for local brands. Their main location is a few blocks from here, and the owner makes accessories. Her most popular bag is a "pizza bag," a bag shaped like a pizza. We allow local businesses space and advertising. 
JAMLOS
Q: You live in Seattle, Washington but own three cafes in Saigon. How did you manage to get to where you are today? 

A: We're now in the first cafe, our D3 [District 3] location. My wife and I moved here around two years ago, and she came six months before I did. 
Let me back up. I was born in California but moved to Seattle. I've been a sheet metal fabricator for 17 years. [Me, looking surprised.] Yeah, I'm a little older than I look. I'm 38 now, and after 17 years of experience, I'll call myself a master metal fabricator. My wife was working in corporate at Nordstrom's. We made a decision to move here a few years ago, and her younger brother actually moved to SE Asia 10 years ago. He moved first to Vietnam from Seattle, then to Singapore. When he heard we were coming to Saigon, he quit his well-paid corporate job in Singapore so we could work on projects together. He decided to open an Airbnb right above this cafe. 

Before we opened this cafe, we were learning about coffee in Seattle, the home of Starbucks. A lot of America's coffee knowledge came out of Seattle, so it's easier to learn the trade there. I got certified as a Barista Level 1 SCA [Specialty Coffee Association], but just because you have a certification, it doesn't mean you're good. At the same time, the certification helps create a consistent standard about what makes good coffee. 

I opened this cafe in 2016. This is my wife's grandfather's house, and this is where he used to hang out. My brother-in-law got the idea to use the bottom floor for a retail business. We had local connections in the construction business who already knew the governmental authorization process, so we were good on that side. 

Q: I studied law, so I always ask about permits and legal processes. In America, opening a small business can be difficult because of overlapping jurisdiction. For example, your office might be in Bellevue, but if it does business in Seattle, it might need two permits or more. It's very difficult for a layperson to figure out. It sounds like in Vietnam, the process might be easier--as long as you have local connections. 

A: In the U.S., it's so much harder to run a business than in Vietnam because of all the regulations and different permits. Here, it's easier but they have regulations, too. They do stuff like health inspections. For instance, on our bathroom, we had to install a mechanism to make sure the germs from the bathroom wouldn't reach the kitchen. I didn't think it was necessary, but it's good the government cares about health. 
Q: Is it fair to say it's easy to do business in Vietnam if you have local connections but not if you show up alone? 

A: You're outgoing, and if you were to start here right now, you would just go to social gatherings and popups and create a helpful network. I'm not technically local. They have a name for people like me: "Việt Kiều" which means foreign Vietnamese. I was born in Hayward, California. 

Q: Earlier, we were talking about how entrepreneurial Vietnamese culture is. 

A: The Vietnamese are heavily influenced by the Chinese. My mother always said, "Of course they're good at business--they're Chinese." My wife is Chinese-Vietnamese, and I'm full Vietnamese. Remember: China was here for 1,000 years, so almost all Vietnamese have some Chinese in them. A good portion of the Vietnamese language is Chinese, similar to the way English has Latin roots. 

Q :Do you use robusta or Arabica beans? 

A: We're trying to be local 20% Vietnamese, 20% Ethiopian, and 60% Honduran. As of right now, we won't serve 100% Vietnamese beans, because the Vietnamese are just not there in quality. There are some quality suppliers, but it's not stable. Speciality coffee is very new to Vietnam even though Vietnam has a humongous coffee culture. When Airbnb selected us to do a local experience, we chose to do coffee. On our tour, we show people different styles of coffeeshops, and we explain the different production methods. If you really want to know Vietnamese culture, you have to know the coffee here. Our tour goes to all kinds of coffee shops, everything from popups in alleys to white collar places. 

Let me tell you about First to Third Wave. Third Wave is the newest trend in coffee, and First Wave is the older coffee-making method. In America, First Wave is like 7-11, or percolated coffee. Second Wave is more like Starbucks, and Third Wave is the cutting edge of coffee where every detail from seed to cup is emphasized. 

Let's say I want to introduce a customer to one of my pour overs. I don't expect them to say, "I taste chocolate and floral notes," but the very first thing I hope to hear as they drink my coffee is, "Wow, that's not bitter at all." We're trying to bring the best flavors out of the coffee. We do it through education, starting from the farmers, making sure they're using only the ripest cherries and the best methods. Third Wave is QA through a collaborative process. You don't have to like specialty coffee. I don't drink wine, but I appreciate a good sommelier. Coffee is the same thing. QA matters. 

You know, Vietnam is number one in exporting bad coffee. A lot of people in the world like cheap coffee, which tends to be bitter, but that's okay--Vietnam is fulfilling a need. Most of your instant coffee has Vietnamese beans. If it sounds like I'm talking trash, I'm really not. Vietnam supplies the world with what they want. 

Q: Do you serve cascara coffee here?

A: Yes. Cascara is the skin of the coffee cherry. Outside the coffee bean is a legitimate cherry. I consider cascara more of a tea than a coffee. 


Q: You now own three cafes in Saigon. It must have been more complex opening a cafe without grandpa's house to ease into, right? 

A: Actually, it got easier. People approached us and wanted to collaborate. I want to be sure I don't take credit for everything. I have a great management team: me, my brother-in-law, my wife, and our general manager, Tuong Nguyen. Our D1 location is also called Vietcetera, but we're sharing space inside Le Saigonais Concept Store. What happened was a clothing designer opened a store and wanted a cafe inside her place. We liked her style, and when we came in, it was a lot of fun. We demolished a lot of stuff [to create the perfect space]. The cafe is in D1 behind Ben Thanh market. 

Q: One of the things entrepreneurs tell me is that it's very difficult working with your spouse and your family, especially because of the risks involved. How have you managed that process? 

A: I'll say this first. I think it's certain type of people [who have problems]. Me and my wife never really argue with each other. We might bicker but we never fully argue. I love working with my wife. Does it mean I like working with her every second? No, and she'll say the same about me. I think there's a sensibility all three of us have, which is try not to let too many emotions get involved in business. Can you cut out emotions fully? No, but we do our best to respect each other. We try to speak calmly to each other. I take this approach with everything in my life. 


Q: What was easier or harder about opening your third cafe? 

A: It got easier for us, because at first, we weren't used to working with local construction guys. We have connections with local contractors, and I have a background in construction, so I know the standards [but the issue is that] Vietnamese and Americans have different mentalities. I think it's Communism in Vietnam back in the day, when the mentality was, "Get it done quickly and move on to the next one." In America, we have more pride in ownership, whether it's something you're building or fixing. In Vietnam, they just don't have the right experience, and I have yet to meet a construction contractor who's good at what he does. I was [also] a foreman back in Seattle. I'm used to hiring people and delegating work. Here, I'll draw out what I want, and they still can't get it right. 

Q: And you speak Vietnamese. 

A: I speak Vietnamese, but I don't speak Vietnamese construction. I can have a conversation but my skill isn't at a level where I am able to get into exact terms in Vietnamese. And Vietnamese is spoken differently here than in America. 

Q: What do you think about Saigon's future? 

A: Every single time I look at Forbes' and The Economist's lists of economies booming in the next 10 to 15 years, they've got Saigon in the top ten. From the mid-1990s, Vietnam got out of the Communist approach and opened up to foreign capital. 

I was in Hong Kong two months ago, and it's like the NYC of Asia. I've wanted to see Hong Kong since I was a kid because I grew up watching Hong Kong movies, and I loved it. I thought to myself, "How can Saigon compete with this metropolis?" But I meet foreigners all the time and they love Saigon. Hong Kong is pretty damn modern, but when you're walking around Saigon, you're standing in a cross-section of time. You'll see people wearing old rice farmer hats outside modern Michelin-star restaurants. In Saigon, you're standing in a moment of time between the modern and the ancient. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Interviews with Asian Games' Wrestlers in Jakarta, Indonesia (2018)

Hiroe Minagawa

Mohammad Ali Geraei

Katsuki Sakagami

Hassan Yazdanichariati

Saigon, Vietnam: Unpretentious and Vibrant

Saigon doesn't judge you. Saints and sinners operate in harmony next to each other, five-star professional spas serving expensive tea next to "happy ending" parlors with pushup bras. Due to liberal zoning laws, Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam is vibrant, thriving, and free--the kind of city I imagined, wrongfully, that similarly-zoned Houston, Texas would be. 

On the bus from the airport to my hotel, I saw a beautiful Buddhist pagoda, 
Photo taken through bus window in the rain.
a high school named after French scientist Marie Curie, and a mosque next to 24/7 cafes and expensive car dealerships. The next day, while walking around, I saw a Hindu temple 
and the famous French-style Catholic church near the overrated Ben Thanh market. 
By way of comparison, I remember lots of fast-food outlets and big box retailers in Houston, TX and not much else. Yet, Houston is supposed to be capitalistic and laissez-faire, with Saigon playing the prodigal Communist. How did we get to the point where Republican-supported "free markets" created a forgettable city most notable for its hybrid highway/freeway system while Chinese-backed Communism led to small business nirvana? 

Vietnam is the 50th country I've visited. I looked forward to this trip because I enjoy Vietnamese food and am lucky enough to live 20 minutes away from "Little Saigon" aka "Little Vietnam" in San Jose, California. Consequently, nuoc mia (sugarcane juice), bun bo hue, 
Spicy beef soup
and pho are as familiar to me as Chipotle and In 'N Out. Still, my "expertise" wasn't always helpful. For example, the term rice "vermicelli" isn't used in Saigon, and Google Translate is not always helpful. If you want to try the delicious combination of wet noodles, crunchy peanuts, BBQ chicken, sweet carrots, and herbs, you'll have to request Bun Ga Nuong, though apparently the Saigonese prefer this dish with pork aka Bun Nem Nuong, which, as Allah is my witness, I found out after I ate a bowl. 
It looked like chicken, I swear.
After learning Vietnamese for "no pork" (khong thit heo/lon), I'll be okay next time, but it's surprisingly difficult to find vegetarian sandwiches (banh mi chay or banh mi trung) anywhere. In general, Saigon's street food is geared towards college kids (they'll eat anything) and not as good as more formal but still casual restaurants. At 1.50 to 2.50 USD a sandwich or 4 USD for a bowl of noodles, the plastic chairs inside residential storefronts are more attractive than sitting on the street to save fifty cents--especially if it rains. (If you don't like broth/soup, try hu tieu khô or bun cha. As far as I can tell, the difference between the two is bun cha has no broth at all, whereas hu tieu khô gives you broth on the side.) 

Coffee, of course, is everywhere. Vietnam is second only to Brasil as the leading exporter of robusta beans, and you can't walk a few streets without seeing enterprising individuals with coffee carts. My favorite? Hot egg coffee, though it takes time to make properly and it's not commonly available. (Apparently, milk was rationed or unavailable during the war, so egg was used as a substitute.)
Just the right amount of thick froth.
Mix aggressively to get the proper balance of coffee and sweetness.
Saigon's 24/7 hour cafes and medley of individually-owned small businesses give it a vibrancy Western Europe wishes it had, plus additional bonuses: the preference of motorcycles over cars (which reduces traffic); the youth (adults fight wars so their children can live and forget); and the diversity everyone takes for granted. 
From Museum of Vietnamese History.
Above all, Saigon is a city that refuses to be pretentious, despite its many Mercedes-Benzes. For instance, Bui Vien Street, Saigon's backpacker area, makes Khao San Road in Bangkok feel like a convalescent home. 
My hotel happens to be on Bui Vien street, a result of my habit of never turning down a good deal. I'm now sleeping from 4AM to 11AM because my room is next to a club. (On the bright side, I'm steps away from two legit 6 USD/hour foot massage joints, which are less popular than the other kind.) 

What do I make of all this, while realizing I haven't seen the more Chinese-influenced, allegedly more sedate north? 

First, District 1's frenetic energy means it's not the kind of place new visitors will likely make long-term friends. Everyone is after something, and the smiles you see are most likely a byproduct of your presumed hefty wallet. You'll understand when you get requests for tips 100% of posted prices as if prices, even when posted clearly, are advertising gimmicks. When traveling, I usually try to date someone local, hoping against all odds for something meaningful, but in Saigon, I don't maintain any pretenses--my inability to speak Vietnamese means I'm only able to meet people interested in quid pro quo

Second, if you're paying attention, you'll notice a fiercely independent streak all around you. Traffic lights, not just signals, are suggestions rather than mandates. Sidewalks are acceptable grounds for Vespas and other single-rider vehicles. When the Grab or FastGo app says to turn right, you can be sure your driver thinks he knows a better way. 

Even corporations are subject to the rule of local independence--my corporate-branded hotel's logo was placed above the building's original sign, a dual existence defeating the consistency sought by multinational businesses. (In case you're curious, the original name is the one used on Google Maps.) 

Third, if you're not too picky, Saigon is like seeing France at a discount. City Hall and the Opera House are French-themed, though adorned with gaudy modern designs that cannot compare with Paris's classy old baroque. For my purposes, I was happy to try frog's legs and escargot at prices I won't pay in Paris. I didn't love either dish, but at least now I know the best part of a snail isn't its larger central mass, which tastes like octopus, but its softer tail, and that frogs have too many bones relative to the meat offered.

Fourth, the War Remnants Museum, a multi-story building which chronicles the Vietnam War in English and Vietnamese, is a must-see. An entire section is dedicated to photojournalists, many of whom died attempting to save the United States from its jingoism
From War Remnants Museum.
Observe upper-left hand side of plaque.
Fifth and finally, the black market is strong in Saigon, and international mafias have carved up different areas between themselves. The Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans make lots of money here peaceably, as long as you pay your bills. Your massage parlor may be staffed by a delicate-looking 5'1", 50 kg waif, but if any problems arise, she'll call out, and in less than one minute, a much larger, blonde-dyed fellow will appear. 

Indeed, the reason Saigon isn't filled with boring shopping malls pockmarking every other major SE Asian city's skylines is because real estate developers and other rentiers can make stable incomes from tenants of uncertain provenance. Such businessmen have created diverse revenue sources, often 24 hours a day, directly improving the livelihoods of legitimate outfits, especially restaurants and local markets. By way of example, one of the local McDonald's is open 24 hours a day, a feat difficult to accomplish without black market magic, even with worldwide brand recognition and hordes of MBAs. 
The brightly-lit top panel says 24 hours.
As someone who doesn't smoke and who doesn't drink alcohol, I'm always surprised non-partakers don't want to legalize and tax so-called "sin" products. Governments need revenue to try to match the much faster-paced private sector and though governments almost never succeed in stamping out illicit activities, without a counterbalancing force, the average citizen is wholly dependent on mafias agreeing to regulate themselves

Personally, I'd prefer the revenue for regulation come from products I don't use, which makes me question devout opposition against legalization. Do religiously-inclined people like paying higher taxes? Are they overly optimistic about their local beat cop's desire or ability to eliminate the supply and/or demand for illicit products, which has led to a tacit acceptance of zones where drugs continue to be sold, thereby promoting ghettos? Do they want a police state where armed cops on every corner engage in 24/7 surveillance to ensure proper compliance? Maybe they like the idea of foreigners with more lax attitudes towards acceptable business activities making money that could otherwise go to local citizens? Or perhaps they believe making something illegal automatically removes it from their neighborhoods? Pray tell, what argument against legalization succeeds in light of available evidence, which shows the perennial cat-and-mouse game between police and mafia has failed to accomplish something other than more propaganda, more fear, and more revenue diverted to authoritarianism? 

It's become cliché to discuss Anthony Bourdain's love for Vietnam when discussing SE Asian travel, but I'll do it anyway: 

Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure; maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go. (2014) 

I'm here to tell you it's all true. Bourdain, who died in France, loved Vietnam because the country was him personified: equal parts angel and devil, sinner and saint, unpretentious and one-of-a-kind. Come hungry. 

Update: I realized why so many Vietnamese people have residential storefronts, i.e., businesses, often food-related, on the ground floor of their two or three story houses. Vietnam's banking sector is state-owned, and credit scores don't exist, meaning people with access to loans are employees with steady paychecks, often government workers. Most people likely inherited a home and operate in the informal economy. 

Bonus: someone mentioned today that motorcycles are more popular than cars because parking spaces and lots in Saigon are almost non-existent. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Muslim in Japan: Interview with Engineer Noman Md Ariful Haque


Born in Bangladesh, Noman studied computer science in the University of Dhaka. He knows C++ and now programs in Android Java. He has lived in Japan for 10 years and currently works in product management for a well-known Japanese company. I met him while we were both in transit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

Q: What’s been your experience being a Bangladeshi Muslim engineer in Tokyo?

NH: Most people [immigrants like me] come to Japan for higher education or to find work. People with science backgrounds don’t have as many job opportunities in their own countries, and Japan offers opportunities.

Q: You are a pious Muslim and visibly so. Have you ever experienced discrimination in Japan?

NH: Many Japanese don’t like people outside of Japan, and it is still a very closed society. Nevertheless, there are over 300 mushollas [informal prayer places] in Japan. I speak Japanese, but it’s difficult because the Japanese [people] are not direct in their communications. They don’t like making direct demands, and their communication style is indirect. At the same time, no one bothers anyone else because of religious or other differences. I have heard in the USA, some people might bother you because of the way you look, but in Japan, no one bothers you. Personally, I’m an introvert, and Japan is a good fit for me.

I suppose the older Japanese generation is less friendly than the younger generation. When I've sat next to senior citizens on the train, they've assumed I don’t speak Japanese [and made derogatory comments], and sometimes they've gotten up and walked to a different seat.

Q: What do you like about Japan, as someone who’s lived there for 10 years?

NH: It’s very clean, and most of the people are very gentle. In general, the Japanese are very disciplined, very honest, and good at customer service. I also like Tokyo’s train system very much. And of course, no one bothers you if you’re different.

Q: What attracts you to Islam?

NH: I was born into a Muslim family, and my parents would talk to me about Islam. They would talk about the Creation. I was very impressed when I asked questions about the Creation from scholars at several mosques, and they provided me with the answers I was seeking. Let me try to explain. Think about the soul. The physical body passes away or atrophies. Islam helped me understand everything is there even after the physical body has departed, and even if we do not actively see it. That something is the soul, which enters into a different world.

So this world is very short, and there are really two worlds: one we live in now, and an afterlife. We humans can be remembered at most for three or four generations, so the purpose of life, if we are humble enough to admit it, is to act in a way that comes from true intentions. If we think of ourselves as having a purpose of worshipping Allah, it can give us a different perspective. For me, no other theory explained what happens when the physical departs. This world, the one we live in now, is a time for being tested. God has made different kinds of people, white, black, rich, poor. This is Allah’s way of giving us an exam and finding out which souls are more obedient to Him.