Monday, January 19, 2009

From Teacher to Student

It's funny to think about now, but less than a month ago I was substituting as an English teacher in Changwon city.
Now I'm a student again and I find it an interesting task to reinvent oneself. Not so long ago, I was teaching kids how to do exercises and encouraging them to do their homework, and now I'm following Hoon Cheong around everywhere in the lab and learning how stuff works.
Here's my desk and lab space. As my professor said, lab benches all around the world look pretty much the same. I would normally decorate my work space with photos and comic strips to make it a bit more jolly. But I don't want to do that too early this time, lest others conjure their first impression of me as a photo-staring, comic-strip reading procrastinator of sorts.

Maybe next week.
In this photo is galbijim, stewed pork and beef in a sweet marinade. The lunches continue to be decent and are fast becoming the highlight of the day.
However, it seems that I've completed one cycle of menu rotation already. On my first day, we had beef-rib soup for lunch, and then we just had it again yesterday. They tell me that it's all downhill from here.
Lunch itself is an interesting experience. You get to pick one of two menu items, which are shown in the cabinet above. Every lunch and dinner there are two different choices. This makes things easier, because I usually find that in restaurants I'll spend a long time trying to figure out what I want. Then after I order, I regret what I ordered and want to change to something new. With only 2 menu items to choose from, it's a very straighforward matter of deciding which one is better than the other.
Then you buy a meal token, line up with a tray and the ajummas will serve you the meal. I had always seen this kind of thing on TV, but I'd never eaten in this way until now. In Australian universities, cafeterias are more like a shop or a restaurant.
And it always used to take me a long time to decide what I wanted to eat.
Then you sit down with your chums and gobble away. Korean students eat quite fast and I've been trying to get up to speed. They'll finish eating in around 10-15 minutes, which means they either chew faster, or chew less and swallow quickly.

I believe it is the latter.
Seating is a rule-bound affair. You will always sit with your inner-circle and never by yourself, especially if you belong to a lab. Lone eaters are banished to the outskirts of group tables, occasionally looking somewhat miserable. Scanning the room with a trained eye, you can quickly see the various demographic divisions.

"Hey look over there, it's the virus lab!"
There are many cafeterias in the university, but we tend to go to the closest one. Occasionally I'll feel adventurous and suggest going to a different one, only to find it's pretty much the same food, but further away from where we need to be when we've finished.
There's an area of land that's owned by the science faculty out in Suwon. Suwon is a satelite city to the south of Seoul and is pretty similar to suburban Seoul, but with more open air. Hoon and I went down on Tuesday to have a look at our rice plants.
The greenhouses are divided up into sections for each field of study. Sharing our space with us is the tomato department, evidently.
Our plants are in a sealed plastic section with timed lights and temperature control. These plants are transgenic, meaning that they've had their DNA artificially altered for specific reasons. There's still a reasonably strong level of stigma against genetically modified crops around the world. My personal view is that caution is warranted, but so is scientific inquiry.

When you understand the science in more detail, you may be likely to view GMOs more as a necessary risk than reckless experimentation. 3% of the world's arable land is disappearing each year, but our population continues to skyrocket.
This soil may look fairly normal, but it was actually frozen rock solid. We went out to collect some in pots, only to find our shovels bouncing off it. Who knew soil could freeze?

Certainly not this mild-mannered Australian boy.
On the way back to the lab, Hoon suggested an afternoon snack. Street vendors will set up portable tents like this on the streets of Korea, usually selling o-deng (fish cake) soup , deep fried battered vegetables and ddeokbokki (spicy rice dough). My favourite is still the takgotchi (marinated chicken skewers). I don't know how they get the meat to be so tender.
A few nights ago we had Chinese food in the lab. A lot of Korean culture is focused on the sharing and enjoyment of food and beverage.
Right after I took this photo, Hong-sup said "Hey, Lee just took a photo of us!"

Did not.
This is the shuttle bus that takes me to school every morning. These buses are run by the university and are completely free. It only takes me about 2 minutes to get to the bus stop from my room. Because there are so many students traveling each day, these buses will arrive literally every single minute during rush hour, and continuously ferry students from the subway station. Luckily, I live very close by, so it doesn't cost me a penny to get to uni in the morning.
I like being a part of the university system again. One of the major advantages are all the benefits of belonging to a larger system. In the student centre building, you can get haircuts from this place for only KRW 4,200 (about AU$4).
I just had a haircut there yesterday and it was fairly good. But I have noticed that they do have a more extreme definition of 'just a little bit shorter, please.'

Oh well, at least it means I won't have to go back there anytime soon.
This rather insectoid-looking crane is pumping cement for the construction of the building next door to us, which is going to be another science department. I assume that pumping cement to such heights is not as straightforward as it seems.
It snowed quite a bit last week, which was a notable occasion for me, seeing as I've only seen it fall out of the sky about three times in my life. I like how you can leave a trail of footprints if it's only just fallen. Those zig-zag footprints are mine and they go for about a kilometre. I also wanted to make a snowman, but my hands were too cold and no one in the lab seemed interested.
For those Australian readers out there who haven't experienced a lot of snow, I must say that it is quite fun. The snow absorbs sound, making the traffic seem quieter and it falls from the sky like giant flakes of cold dandruff.
I also like how it makes everything look like christmas decorations. In Australia, we'd always have a lot of northern hemispheric influence on our christmas celebrations, resulting in snow globes and thick Santa suits right in the middle of summer. Such things can be confusing for young children. I propose the creation of a Hemispherically-Correct Santa (HCS) for Australians and other southern hemispheric provinces. He (or she) would be dressed in board shorts, a tank top and thongs.

We don't call thongs 'flip-flops' in Australia. If you're curious as to why, perhaps it's for the same reason that we don't call our doorbells ding-dongs, or our dogs woof-woofs.

These kinds of trucks are common in Korea. Vendors will just park on the side of the road and sell for a while before moving on. I walked past this one every night on the way home last week and it seemed pretty tempting. It's only $6 per chicken, but I was trying to save money.
But I thought I'd treat myself on Saturday night, seeing as I worked in the lab all day and didn't go out. Once in a while is fine, right?
As I was opening it, I remembered some old parent-stories from 'when they were young'. My friend's mother told me that she used to eat half a packet of instant noodles for lunch at university, to save money. My father's weekly treat in university was one milkshake every Friday night.

I've since wondered if they were caramel, vanilla or chocolate? I myself like lime flavoured milkshakes.

But anyway, the chicken was good. I ate it while I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on my laptop. It's a strange movie at first, but pans out nicely in the second half.
Here are the communal laundry facilities in our building. It only costs you a fifty cent coin to wash your clothes, but it's too cold to wait around down there. I drop my clothes in, get the machine going and scurry back upstairs to the warmth of my heated floor.
In Korea, the number 4 is pronounced the same way as the word 'death'. So some people feel that it's unlucky to live on the fourth floor. Luckily some cunning architects worked out a way to build highrise apartments without a fourth floor, so no one needs to worry. I assume that if you did somehow manage to open the door on the fourth floor, all you would see is an endless void of non-existence.

That's all for me this week!

See you soon.

11 comments: said...

Nice post.
Snow is a wonderful thing! I love it when it snows really hard and you go out. Korean hair is perfect for collecting snow, because it stays away from your body heat, so if you stand outside for a while and its snowing hard you can collect quite a bit of snow on your hair! lol

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're starting to get "into the groove" up there. Good to hear. How's the weather? Colder? Talked to Heather the other day & she says that you've been REALLLLL busy and not even having enough time for her -- so I don't feel as dissed the weekend I came up -- ha, ha. Hope your colleagues are enjoyable and that your studies are just as much if not more. I'm envious...

Didn't know "Sah" means death. I guess I need to visit your blog for more Korean lessons. Ellis and I agreed to teach each other English & Korean, but haven't been good enough to follow up on our agreement. Things are getting a little hardcore down here. So, you get to miss the excitement. Ha, ha...

Jane Jeong Trenka said...

Hey Lee,

Congratulations on such a big change in your life! Your photos and descriptions are fascinating -- probably the only chance I'll ever "see" the inside of a real lab. Good luck in your new endeavor.

frosted.piyo said...


I started following your blog just a few days ago. It's very interesting ^^. Question - What made you decide to further your studies in Korea?

Also, I have a favour to ask.. :3 I'm working on gender inequality in S Korea for a school project, and I need to circulate a survey. If possible, could you please help me circulate it to your korean acquaintances? The survey is in Korean language.

Here is the link:

Any help will be very,very much appreciated and I hope you can help! Also, I apologise sincerely for the suddenness of my request.



Lee Farrand said...

I decided to study because it's what I'm interested in. Teaching English was just a working holiday.

I'll send the link out, but most Koreans I know are pretty busy!

frosted.piyo said...

Why Korea and not any other country? I'd be really interested if you have any insights to offer about the different styles of universities in various countries ^^

Thanks for your help with the survey!

Lee Farrand said...

Well I was born in Korea, and it has a more up-and-coming feeling, which I like. There's more money floating around in western universities, but they work hard here and do some excellent research as well.

Moderator said...

Your story is interesting. Our backgrounds are somewhat similar. I studied physics in the US and since August 2006 have been teaching English in Korea. I am about to apply to Seoul National for a PhD in physics education. I am still staring at this graduate application. Not sure if physics education is what I want to do. I will send the application regardless.

Lee Farrand said...

Yeah, by all means. Test the water and see what happens.

My advice is that if you don't know what you want to do, just do something until you realise what you like. As long as you enjoy daily life, nothing is a waste.

cheayee said...

Hello hello...

yea, seeing snow in Seoul was a first for me as well..

It doesn't snow in Australia as far as i know, but i have a friend who says it used to snow in toowoomba (2 hours from brisbane).

Maybe that was a logn time ago.. before all the drought, and global warming.. ^^

One of my korean friends said taht the Han River used to freeze 30 years ago, and she remembered renting skates to skate on the Han River.... now she complains about global warming. LOL.

la_flash said...

Nice blog... I always wanted to know what those tools and equipments that I usually see in the laboratories are for. I have never seen or used those during my high school and/or college biology and chemistry classes. What do you know, I learned it here by chance. Haha. Thank you.

Another interesting tidbit of information is the freezing point of pure water... I didn't know that. We all know that it should be 0 deg C.

Keep up the good work. May I chance upon this blog in the future.