Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Year of the Ox

The Year of the Ox quietly arrived this past weekend without much ado. I wonder what ox-like things lie in store for us this year?
So far I haven't noticed anything particularly oxy about things in general, but perhaps it takes a while for the oxiness of it all to settle in. I'll keep a lookout and report to you as soon as I see something.

Here's a typical shopping list of mine for the week: bananas, juice, ramyeon, bread and cheese. I eat lunch and dinner almost everyday in the university cafeteria, so these things I only need for breakfast.
I was a little worried about getting a balanced diet on a strict budget up here, but the university cafeteria are doing a good job. University veterans know that there are only four basic food groups for grad-students. They are: sugar foods, fat foods, caffeinated and free.

This device is called a homogeniser. I think it blows lots of tiny bubbles and mixes liquids, like a cappuccino machine, but for science. It makes a high pitched squeal when it's on, but I haven't had the dubious pleasure of switching it on all by myself yet.

We visit the Suwon campus a couple of times per week to check up on our plants. They're nice and cosy in the greenhouse, where the temperature is usually around 27 degrees celsius. I like how rice is grown underwater like in the pots in this photo, and also out in the paddy fields.
Did you know that rice doesn't have to grow underwater at all? It can be grown like any other crop, but the fields are often deliberately flooded with water because it keeps weeds and pests at bay. Because rice is a type of reed, it's perfectly happy in or out of the water.

I'm slowly getting used to the sight of snow everywhere, but I still like walking on it. Last week it snowed a lot, covering everything like icing on a cake.

The steps in front of my apartment are usually free of snow, as are many of the entrances to the university. The reason is because the ajossis sprinkle calcium chloride dust over these areas, which melts the snow by dissolving in it. So why don't they use good ol' table salt then?
Well, because table salt is bad for the environment, especially if you have a garden nearby.

A few nights ago when I left the lab, it was snowing quite heavily. I'm not sure if it was enough to warrant being called a blizzard, but I like to entertain the idea that it was. We shall just call it a blizzard for the purposes of this photo explanation. Anyway, during this 'blizzard' the other night, I was trudging along the crunchy snow toward the bus stop and I noticed that all of the traffic was crawling alongside me at walking pace. When I got to the bus stop, there was a line up of all the different numbered buses just waiting there, with their engines running.
I guess that when it snows heavily, the bus drivers don't drive for safety reasons. The area around the campus is quite hilly and I know that the roads are slippery even to walk across.

My favourite person, Heather, came up to see me last weekend for the Lunar New Year holiday. She's the first visitor I've ever had in Seoul, so it was pretty exciting. We didn't do anything special, just watched a DVD, walked around a bit and ate in restaurants. That's why I like Heather, because we can just hang out and not do anything particularly special and still have a good time. We sat in a coffee shop for a couple of hours talking about schools and teachers.

We went to a quaint little area up in Jongno-gu, because Heather had heard about a special brunch restaurant there. There are a lot of foreign embassies in Jongno and it's a nice and quiet suburb. I'm at the university most of the time, so it doesn't really feel like I'm in Seoul until I get out and about.

The area has a lot of foreign themed restaurants, like this one. Unfortunately our brunch place wasn't serving brunch, due to the long weekend holiday, so we walked around. This particular restaurant was selling $10 Australian wine for $80 per bottle. So we sat there for a while, pretending to admire the decor, before sneaking out quietly.

We went to a place down the road called Oz's kitchen. The food was all Italian and it was decorated with vintage-era pots and pans. In the photo above is Jang-Ho, Heather's brother who also lives in Seoul and came out to meet us. He's looking at an eggplant pizza that we ordered. It had a pesto base and the eggplant was thinly sliced and lightly grilled. Quite different from your regular Korean pizza, that will often come with toppings like sweet corn and sweet potato.

We also ordered a clam and angel hair soup, just to see how good the chef was. Angel hair is my favourite kind of pasta because it holds sauce well and isn't too filling. This dish was pretty good, and definitely a traditional style, but it had very subtle flavours.

Then we wandered back to the original place that Heather had suggested and they were open for coffee and desserts. I don't drink much coffee usually, and the reason is because I like its effects and I don't want to become so used to them that I have to drink coffee everyday just to be normal. Perhaps I'm just being paranoid. Perhaps I worry too much. Perhaps I just need a cup of coffee...

When we got outside, Heather said "hey let's take a photo of ourselves in the snow." It was actually snowing lightly, but it doesn't turn out too well on my camera.

Heather and I are approaching our 1000 day anniversary later this year. I wonder what she'll buy me. Ho ho.

Hi hunni!

She had to leave for Busan soon afterwards because she had to go to her family's ceremony. Most Korean families will have traditional ceremonies on the Lunar New Year and Chuseok holidays. I went to one once, and it was okay.

Heather delivered a gift from her mother, which was a whole lot of banchan (Korean side dishes). Heather's mother had heard that I like cucumber-kimchi, so she made it for me, even though she'd never made it before. I'm lucky to have nice in-laws. She also gave me some ddeok (rice dough) to make soup with. In Korea, they say that if you eat ddeok soup on the Lunar New Year, you turn an extra year older. They also say that when you are born, you are one year old. So sometimes, your Korean age will be two years older than your logical age.

The following day, there was a new year celebration with GOA'L up at Koroot, which is where I lived for a couple of weeks when I first arrived in Korea. On the walk from the subway station, I passed these video games which I remembered taking a photo of and putting on the blog. Incidentally, the photo is still there, in the July 2006 archive. It seems like so long ago now.

Here's the front of Koroot, which is a large house that was donated to the adoptee community by an anonymous benefactor. Adoptees who return to Korea are allowed to stay here very cheaply and it's a good way to meet people. I met some people here in 2006, who I'm still very good friends with today.

In the basement, GOA'L and Koroot had put together a nice Korean meal for us. In this photo wearing the red cap, is Cody Winter, who has been in Korea for over 10 years. He's since gotten married here and has a kid. We hung out in Busan together once and he knows me but always forgets my name. In Korea, I'm better known as 'that Australian guy'.

The food was good, and on the left there you can see some ddeok soup, which turned me a year older according to the Korean rule. I don't mind turning a year older now, but it'll be a different story when I'm around 35 years old. Then I'll never eat ddeok soup at new year's.

After dinner we played some games. There was Jenga, Monopoly, chess and Korean Go-Stop. We ended up playing Monopoly and although it went for around 2 hours, it was much more exciting than I expected. The game started with 7 players, but halfway through I realised that there was no way I could win, with my measly 4 properties (and no sets). So I merged with my two neighbours and we pooled all of our resources together. But just like bacteria in antibiotic media, our opponents quickly adapted and were soon thriving. They also formed merged teams and in the end it was three teams on the board. The properties and cards were all written in Korean, which made things interesting.
With some good decision making and a couple of lucky rolls, we won the game and the crowd went wild.

The crowd consisted of me and my two team mates.

After that we went out to Mike's Cabin and had some drinks. Apparently after that I stopped taking photos for the rest of the night, but I remember going to karaoke. I also lost my scarf somehow that night. Anyway it was a good time. I'm fairly busy in the lab these days, but I'll try to get out and about on the weekends and see some more of Seoul.

That's all for me this time. See you soon!

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.