Cultural pride in the public domain: the role of retailers in ethnically diverse communities

What comes to mind when someone says ‘Jerusalem’?

I think of Knafeh Bakery, aka Bearded Bakers. The 17 bakers have been taking over Sydney’s empty car parks and streets lately, with their pop-up shipping container full of Knafeh: a cream and cheese filled Middle Eastern desert. Led by two Palestinian brothers, Bearded Bakers’ Knafeh is the kind often found on the streets of Jerusalem. Their brand is less about Palestinian food though, and more about the Jerusalem desert that seems to be attracting people of all backgrounds including Christian and Muslim Palestinians and the Jewish communities. The bakers smile, dance, chat away with their customers, bringing not just delicious food, but a fun, positive and personal experience.

Bearded Bakers (photo courtesy of Knafeh Bakery)

I didn’t always associate Jerusalem with Knafeh – it took a few meetings with the crew and following their colourful, action-packed days via Instagram and Facebook. Somewhere along that journey, the image of heavily bearded Middle Eastern men started to represent bakers, the feeling of ‘otherness’ subsiding with the familiar profession; and a different, more personal connection with Palestinian people began to grow.

Many, understandably, seem to associate Palestine in a distant manner. I asked 12 male and 10 female Sydney residents, “what word/s come to your mind when I say ‘Palestine’?” 6 responded with the word ‘conflict’, and all responded with words related to conflict/war (e.g. oppression, suffering, non-violence programs, stateless etc). One mentioned Phoenician Empire.

The current perception of Palestine’s national identity reminds me of the kind of questions and comments I used to receive in the early-late 1990s, as a Korean immigrant in New Zealand. Despite the fact the Korean War had been over for decades (ceasefire in 1953), the locals’ perception of South Korea was deeply associated with suffering and poverty, thanks to media and the lack of direct engagement with Koreans in the past. My country of birth triggered responses ranging from “Korea is next to Japan isn’t it?” and “I have been to Japan”; to “are you from South or North Korea?” and “Will South and North reunite?” In their eyes, South Korea was a little war-struck country somewhere next to Japan where the ‘others’ lived, which in turn influenced me to believe South Korea really was just that, with little to be proud of.

In that context, the role of a cultural ambassador was inevitably assigned to me, my family and the rest of Korean community. We shared our stories, food and art with our neighbours and friends, not only to shift their negative perception of where we came from but also to engage them on the issues of multiculturalism. In my first year of New Zealand schooling, I would realise why my dad had been so adamant about fixing my poor chopstick holding technique. “If you are well-mannered, Kiwis will think all Asians are well-mannered. If you are badly-mannerd, they will think all Asians are badly mannered,” he would say.

The perception of South Korea has changed dramatically in the last two decades – the axis of evil North Korea has made South Korea look even better: modern, rich, technologically advanced, sophisticated. No one asks me now where exactly Korea is, or if I am from North Korea. Many ask me which restaurant does the best Korean BBQ, if I listen to K-Pop or if I like Samsung products. More positive perceptions like those seem to empower Korean immigrants to share more of their stories with others; and to form a stronger sense of self and belonging in their new country.

More than 20 years have passed since my family’s immigration and I ask myself, have I been a good cultural ambassador? Which groups of ordinary citizens would be the most effective bridge-builders today?

As I wait for my lunch to be served in a small Korean restaurant in Strathfield (‘Korea town’ where 37.4% was born in Australia, 9.8% in China, 9.0% in South Korea, and 8.1% in India; Census 2011), I observe how the restaurant staff have essentially taken up that role of a cultural ambassador. The staff thoroughly describe the traditional food in good English; illustrative menus and external building signage are in Korean and English, but with distinctive Korean characteristics; K-pop plays in the background; traditional metal bowls and chopsticks are offered; and the food is authentic. There is a sense of pride in the service as well as the food. While the offer is an authentic Korean casual dining experience, it is inviting and welcoming for non-Koreans also. More than half of the customers remain to be non-Koreans during my visit.

While celebrity ambassadors have been used as marketing and branding strategy for decades, we need our everyday retailers to be our cultural ambassadors. Often as the first contact of a cultural experience, they can engage hundreds of people per day and offer a memorable experience for customers to share with their friends. Their expression of cultural pride on display windows, awnings or interior design, is comforting to those from that region and a reminder of what’s great about it, advocating a sense of pride and belonging. For others, it is a unique experience associated with positive contributions new immigrants can offer.

The authentic positive experience offered by ethnic retailers is not in any way to belittle the gravity of sufferings that may be taking place in their home countries. Rather, it should be a strategic move to form an emotional connection with their customers, raise awareness and possibly take positive actions – because reason and logic alone does not help us overcome prejudice and fear. This bottom-up approach of humanising the issues that seem so distant from many of us in Australia, will essentially lead to an interest and understanding of the bigger picture.

Whether intentional or not, Knafeh Bakery has already begun this journey. And I look forward to the positive contribution they will make to our communities, inspiring all of us to care more about the ‘others’ in Australia and elsewhere.

Follow Julia’s insights on the public domain and intercultural relations on Twitter @JuliaSuhCom

Korean food.jpg
Retailer in Strathfield Plaza sells Korean side dishes to Chinese customers.
Hanging signage is in both Korean and English and installed with small flags that contain dish names offering a distinct Korean look & feel.
The menu is written in Korean and English, and supported by photos.
People queue to get into a restaurant on The Boulevarde.
Mall entry.jpg
Strathfield Plaza attracts a diverse range of ethnic groups that shop at Woolworths and other franchises, as well as specialist stores.
People try out massage chairs in Strathfield Plaza.
An indoor cafe is predominantly occupied by older people.
Strathfield Square fountain is popular among young children.