Sunday, June 28, 2009

6 Months in Seoul

Six months have passed since I left the familiar surrounds of Busan. The Korean university system is fairly good, but lags noticeably behind the west in a number of ways. As a summary, those ways would be social conservatism, class quality and student freedom. But to make up for these shortcomings, Korean students work incredibly hard. This puts them on par with the quality of research churned out by their western counterparts.
If I were better informed of the conditions here before I came, I may have made a different choice. But I've started now, and quitting is not one of my usual habits.

Perhaps, someday in the distant future, I can be in a position to influence some changes here. For now though, I'll just count my lucky stars and think of myself as fortunate to have even received this opportunity in the first place.

Summer is in full swing and the lab heats up accordingly. Our central air-conditioning system is controlled at the switchboard downstairs, and is turned on sparingly. When it is on, it lowers the temperature to a bearable degree. But often times in the lab, like now while I'm blogging on the weekend, it's completely shut off. So we work in a fairly warm environment. Luckily though, we have a lot of fans to blow the warm air around.
I've never washed a fan in my life, but here they get dismantled and washed with soapy water before use. There seems to be a cultural difference towards perception of dust. In Australia, dust is like rain, and just one of those things that you ignore. In Korea, both dust and rain are things to be avoided.
Down in Busan, I was once showing Heather my awesome nun-chucking skills with some clean socks of mine. All of a sudden she started screeching "Mon-ji! Mon-ji!", which means "Dust! Dust!"
So now I have to refrain from freshly laundered sock nun-chucking for fear of inciting dust-related panic in the local population.

Even though I'm a poverty-stricken student here in Seoul, I still manage to accumulate change in my drawer. Each of these coins is only worth ten cents, and it's hard to use them up on a daily basis.

Wednesday nights are my new weekends. On the weekends, I'll usually be in the lab or down at the greenhouse. But on Wednesdays, I go to Toastmasters, which means I leave early and get to eat somewhere exciting in Gangnam. I've been eating at a different place each week, and last week I went to Din Tai Fung which is a Chinese restaurant chain that specialize in dumpling soups. I had the seafood dumplings in the picture above, and they weren't bad. Definitely fresh but flavoured a little disagreeably, probably a result of too many chives. But the soup was spot on, and quite nice.

Here are the dumpling makers who craft them as you order. I used to make dumplings back in the day, and can still wrap them. It's hard to get the filling right though.

This is the liquid nitrogen truck that visits us once a week to fill up our stocks. Liquid nitrogen is useful for preserving cells in suspended animation and various other things. If you mix it with soapy water, you get lots of cloudy bubbles.

A couple of weeks ago we went out with some of the other labs to celebrate the end of classes for the semester. University hwe-shiks (work dinners), don't happen very often but are pretty fun. We're allowed to drink soju and beer until we get silly. In this photo are some members from the virus and mycotoxin labs.

On the left is Chan-ju, and in the middle is Ye-lim talking to the virus professor. By this stage we had all imbibed a retrospectively inappropriate amount of alcohol.

I met a vegetarian girl at Toastmasters called Mi-Sook. Back in Australia I was a vegan for half a year before coming to Korea. It's very difficult to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle here, and I took the easy road and started eating meat again. But I still agree with the principals of animal rights and intend to convert back someday. Until then, I'm a 'part-time vegetarian'.
I took Mi-Sook out to Itaewon to eat some vegetarian dishes. In the photo above is a Pakistani curry. Itaewon is full of interesting dishes like this.

We went for a walk and found an Islamic mosque up a hill. The surrounding views of the city were quite nice.

And then we found some falafel. Falafel is a vegetarian dish made from chick peas and spices. If I weren't so lazy, I'd make it myself at home and eat it everday.
Back in Australia, there's a falafel shop downstairs from my old place. They sell some amazing falafel rolls with toasted pita bread and garlic sauce. When I go back in September, I'm going to get one.

Yong-Sung is one of the nicer seniors in our lab and he's leaving to America next month for a post-doc. On Friday we went out to celebrate his birthday and ended up in this noraebang, near the Seoul National University subway station. Apparently, Yong-Sung is very passionate about this song.

Ah, Toastmasters. You know, you should really go to Toastmasters if you can. There are some good clubs around, and probably some not-so-good ones too, but luckily I found one of the better ones. This blog is probably going to turn into Lee's Toastmasters Blog soon. A couple of weeks ago I gave my first speech, called The Icebreaker. It was about my youth in Australia and what led me to join Toastmasters. I won the best speaker of the night award, which was nice. Those little pieces of paper are feedback comments from the audience. The great thing about Toastmasters is that it's such a supportive and positive environment.

And the other cool thing is that it's a great place to network. Pil-Soo is the CEO of Lundbeck Korea, a Danish pharmaceutical company here. These days I tutor some of his workers for my part-time job. I also got invited to speak at a neuroscience conference at the Hilton hotel. I spoke for an hour about how to give effective scientific presentations. I had a free lunch, the pay was good and I felt pretty special about the whole ordeal.

I volunteered for the Webmaster position at our Toastmasters club, which means I'm supposed to look after the website. I'm sure I'll learn pretty quickly, but I've never worked with basic website design before. Lee's Korea Blog is all done on a WYSIWYG template manager and any monkey can do what I'm doing.
So I think there's going to be a steep learning curve before I can start improving the club website. The photo above is from our meeting today in Gangnam with the other officers. These people are pretty cool, and I'm sure if we were to start a company together, we'd make some serious money.

And here's Joseph Jeong, the outgoing president of SRTM. Joseph is one of those people who is good at making decisions and can inspire others to get things done. He's off to the University of Chicago later this year for his MBA. Our new president is James Lim, a fellow Australian with a friendly attitude and a penchant for smoking shisha.

Joseph bought that new camera this morning and I'm feeling more than a little dSLR envy.

This murky cesspool is actually the water reserves for our rice field down at Suwon. The water is held here over the winter and is then drained into the fields. Apparently rice crops are not particularly fussy about the water they drink.

Se-Kyung took this photo of me spraying the crops with insecticide. It's an overexposure, and her finger must have flipped the mode switch. That backpack I have on contained 15 litres of a chemical that smelled mysteriously like petrol.

I always spray downwind.

These two shots were taken only two weeks apart. Probably due to the humidity and rains in Korea, things seem to grow faster than they do in Australia.

And to lead us out this week is this photo. It's a little far away but those two girls are holding hands. I would have snapped it a little closer, except it might have been potentially rude. In Korea, both men and women of the same age hold hands with the same sex. It doesn't (necessarily) mean that they are dating though. It's just a way of expressing friendship.

See you next time!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

2nd Annual Korean National Toastmasters Conference

The reason I'm pretty enthusiastic about Toastmasters in general is because they're a non-profit organisation aimed at improving your leadership, social networking, public speaking and communication skills.

And they are fond of alcohol.

Although the first Toastmasters club opened in Korea in 1992, it was only last year that they held the first conference and speech contest. I attended this year out of sheer curiousity.

The venue was the Prima hotel in Gangnam. Quite a nice place with large seminar rooms and outdoor bar space on the top floor. And those columns are Corinthian, I believe.

The day began at 3pm with a few seminars run by current Toastmasters. The first one was on personality, with the aim being to identify your particular character type.

We picked some random cards at each table and had to prioritise them from top to bottom, on how we would describe ourselves. It turns out that each different colour belongs to the same character type.

Then we were allowed to swap and trade our cards with others and try to settle down with cards that we were most happy with. It turns out that I'm pretty green, which means that I like to structure my life. Or something.
I often muse that personality tests are rather difficult things to carry out in a scientifically rigorous fashion. Or they may just be a way for people to feel good about themselves.

What's the difference between procedural and sequential?

Then it was time for one of the dudes from our club to show everyone what a seminar is. Ron Cahoon is a management teacher at Dong-Guk University and his presentations are among the best I've seen. He has a very fast and engaging style with plenty of humour.

He ran a seminar on leadership, the basic premise being that leadership is a choice. I think the best leaders are the ones who feel burdened by the responsibility, but still do a good job anyway.

Then we gathered in the dining hall for dinner and the speech competition. There were around 200 attendees from 15 clubs around Korea. They're aiming for a goal of 60 Korean clubs, which means that we'll collectively have 'district' status.

Here are some of the more notable guests of the evening. There was one guy who had been a Toastmaster for 30 years in a lot of different countries. He just passed his 350th club speech.

Up on stage here is Steven Kim, the founder of SYK Global. I'm not familiar with the company, but this guy is now a philanthropist, which means he probably has more money than he should have.
If I'm ever rich, I'll give away my money too. I heard that Jackie Chan is planning to give away all of his wealth before he dies.

Now that's going to look good on your epitaph.

This photo is a little dark but on the right is Ju-Ha Kim, a popular news anchor here in Korea. She was quite friendly and spoke English fairly well. During the night, she gave a speech in English about how she thought Toastmasters was a good idea.

The dinner was a buffet menu. I think I've said it before, but almost every hotel's buffet menu is very similar in Korea. It's not a bad thing, because the food is good. But it always gets me wondering about the central buffet school that all of these chefs attended at some point.

If I planned things more carefully, I would have arranged my plate in a more aesthetically pleasing fashion before taking a photo. Next time, I promise.

Here's me standing with Jin-Sook Lee, a journalist who attends the Pacific Sunset Toastmasters. Apparently she travels out to places like Afghanistan to report, but I don't have time for television these days so I haven't been able to see her work.

If I wasn't a scientist, I'd be a journalist. I like the whole idea of finding stuff out and then working it into a story for others.

Here are some of the attendees from our club, the South River Toastmasters. On the left is Richard, who was the host of the speech competition. Then it's me, who is 'do study good'. To the right of me is Annette, who works for a headhunting agency, then Jewel, who is a professional trainer with Dale Carnegie Training and on the far right is Ji-Hyeon, who recently joined a company that sells turbines for wind energy. These are the kinds of people you can meet if you join a Toastmasters club.

Here is Michael Jones, from Sincheon Toastmasters, practicing his speech in his head before going on stage. I had met him once during a club event and remember that he was a distinctively friendly person. Incidentally, he went on to beat the 15 other contestants and won the first prize.

His speech was on procrastination and going to the gym. Very well structured and quite funny.

And here's Michael collecting his prize at the end of the night. One of the rules was for no photography during the talks, because it can distract the speakers.

Here are all the speakers from the night. The speeches were of an impressive quality. All of the themes were inspiring.

If I had to summarise the wisdom gleaned from the night, then it would go something like:

1) Be persistent
2) Don't worry too much
3) Laugh more

All of these things we already know, but it's always nice to be reminded in an entertaining way.

And to wrap up this blog post is Frank Lev from Sincheon Toastmasters. Frank was giving a speech about fashion and personality. He had multiple layers of clothing on and was taking them off as he was describing different aspects of himself. In the end, he was down to his boxer shorts and a singlet. The foregone conclusion was that underneath all the layers of personality we have, is our true selves. But he was told to leave the stage by one of the judges who thought it was a little too much.
He left politely, and I have to say that I disagree with the decision. Taking clothes off while onstage may be a little distasteful, but all you need to do is tell the contestant to put some back on before continuing the speech.
But he wasn't disqualified from the competition and was allowed to finish his speech after the conference ended. The photo above is of him at the end. Good strength of character.

That's all from me this time. <- Go to a Toastmasters near you!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Birthdays, Babies, Brunch and Busan

I turned 27 late last month. I remember when I was around 8 years old, I couldn't wait to be a year older. Back then it always seemed that birthdays were an eternity away. Then as you get older you wish they'd stop coming so often. My personal theory is that although time is constant, our comprehension of it changes as we get older. When we're young, our brains are constantly processing so much brand new information that the experience of living seems to drag on forever. But after we've been around for a while, we get used to the same old stuff so our brain ignores a lot of things and time speeds up.

One of the customs we have in the lab is for everyone to pitch in for a cake when it's somebody's birthday. For some reason, I don't really like the taste of cake and haven't been eating it for the past few years. Cake is okay, I guess, but I'd much rather eat fruit. So I made a request for fruit instead of cake.

Here's the fruit-cake we created. Now that's what I call dee-licious.

We also had cherry tomatoes to put on it but we ate them the night before.

Heather booked me a ticket on the KTX for Busan. She always ends up paying for my tickets because my excuse is that I don't understand how to use the KTX website. It's true, but I also like it when she pays for my tickets.

Heather's mother made a traditional Korean birthday breakfast for me in the morning. Koreans eat mi-yok-guk on birthdays, which is a green seaweed soup. Other foods you can see in the photo are fish, eggplant, spinach and that yellow thing is called a cha-me, which is a kind of Korean melon. It was nice to get such an elaborate breakfast.
Posing for the camera is Ji-Ye. I told Heather that I needed summer shirts, so Ji-Ye chose a red one for me, and also a shirt with a big green apple on it.

Heather's parents are always nice to me. Although we can't communicate very effectively, they're always cutting up fruit and making tea when I come over. On the bottom right of this photo is little Ji-Woo who still has baby food all over her mouth because she just ate. For some reason, she likes to stare at me. It's probably because I speak a funny language.

Here's a video of Ji-Woo eating. Ji-ye is also asking me some questions in Korean, as she always likes to do.

Ji-Ye took this photo of me. These days she doesn't wobble the camera so much and is starting to take some half decent photos. Previously, all of her photos were things like a blurry foot, or a sideways door handle. But of course I would always say "Wow, nice photo... very abstract."

I don't want to hurt her photographical self-esteem at such a young age.

That last pose was a direct reference to this photo that I took of Ji-Ye a couple of months ago. But she somehow manages to be impossibly more cute.

We drove out to eat some duck for lunch that day. On the journey there, Ji-Ye started copying what I was saying. So I played that age-old children's trick, where you can use such an opportunity in your favour.

An old friend of Heather's had a son last year and he invited us to the first birthday. While the first birthday in the western system would be one year old, in Korea it's actually two years old. In Korean culture, the moment you are born, you are already one year old. To me, the Western system makes more sense. After all, how much do we learn in the womb?

The birthday party was at a buffet restaurant in Hwamyeong.

Here's Heather with her friend and his son. Heather's friend is the one who helped Anthony and me when we had to move house.

For dinner we went back to The Kitchen on Dalmaji hill to organise the wedding plans. I met the chef and he seemed very much on top of things. That day we ate pasta and these salads. The long salad had char-grilled giant mushrooms in it.

The food is always impressive here.

You never really miss the beach until you move away from it. And then you only realise that you miss it when you see it again after a long time.

Then it's like "Oh yeah, this is what I miss."

Anthony took us out for brunch on the Sunday morning after we spent the night drinking at Guri Bar in Seomyeon. We ate at Breeze Burn's which is apparently a hamburger chain that do good brunches. The breakfast was okay and the sausages were nice, but the tomatoes were a little unripe.

Here's Heather and me after a semi late night out drinking. In around 4 months, we'll be married. The more I think about it, the more I think "Hey, am I ready to get married?" But then I stop and think, why not? A couple of decades ago, it was pretty normal to get married in your early 20s. These days people say that 27 is still young.

I feel kind of young and kind of old at the same time.

After brunch we went for a walk along the beach and ended up at a small amusement park on the east side of Gwangan beach. In the photo is Anthony's new girlfriend, Rebecca. Rebecca is a wonjang (branch manager) at the Wall Street Institute, which is an English school for older students.

At the amusement park they have this 'Bucking Bronco'. The idea is to stay on for as long as you can. Heather stayed on for 60 seconds on easy mode. I stayed on for the full 60 seconds and won a free ride ticket. Anthony came off after 42 seconds, but he was only using one hand. That begs the question: Would he have stayed on for the full 60 seconds if he used two hands?

Of course.

Here's Anthony rounding up the imaginary cattle.

I've been attending the South River Toastmasters every week. In the photo is JP Singh, giving his final farewell speech after 2 years. He's heading back to India and then off to the States. JP has been one of the defining personalities of the club over the past couple of years. He taught me an Indian sentence: "Hindostani lo bohot acha he."

That means "I like Indian people."

Due to my schedule, I can't go out drinking as much as I used to. But I try and stick around for the second and third rounds on Wednesdays when I can. Toastmasters is a good place to meet interesting people.

For the third round that night, we went to the Rainbow bar in Gangnam. This place specialises in floor seating and 'hookahs', which are large bong-like tobacco smoking devices. The tobacco is usually flavoured with a fruity or musk aroma.

Who said life in the lab was boring? I spend my time amusing myself by making things like this creation, which I named Tapey-Man.
Although somewhat frivolous, he does have a purpose. His eyes are made of horizontal tubes containing yeast medium. I needed to get them horizontal to improve aeration in the shaking incubator, but there are no docking ports in the incubator that would hold them steady. So Tapey-Man provides a firm scaffolding so that the small tubes can be shaken at 250rpm overnight.

See, here's tapey man in the incubator. Look how happy he is.

For the record, this experiment was a success.

I went out to Itaewon with Blossom recently and we went for a walk around. There are many foreign restaurants in the area, but nothing says it better than this one. If I had a choice, I'd live in Busan, but otherwise I'd live in Itaewon.

That's all from me this week. Tomorrow I'll be going to the Toastmasters National Conference, so I'll post some of the happenings from there later. Oh and if you're wondering about the 'I like turtles' feedback selection below, it's from a Youtube viral video at:

Check out the link and see you next time!