Monday, September 27, 2010

Quote Dump #20

From the Hitchhiker's series:

"For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen. " 

"Ah, " said Arthur, "this is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of. "

"He expanded his chest to make it totally clear that here was the sort of man you only dared to cross if you had a team of Sherpas with you. "

"He dropped his voice still lower. In the stillness, a fly would not have dared clear its throat. " 

"The suit into which the man's body had been stuffed looked as if it's only purpose in life was to demonstrate how difficult it was to get this sort of body into a suit. "

"It is no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase 'As pretty as an Airport' appear. "

"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't. " 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gangnam Hills Toastmasters

New Toastmasters clubs have been popping up around Korea like enchanted mushrooms. This recent flurry of activity has enabled the Korea Toastmasters clubs to collectively form a territorial council recognised by headquarters.
Being a territorial council doesn't equate to an enormous amount in itself. But like all goals in Toastmasters, the value is not so much in the goal itself, but what had to occur along the way.

And Gangnam Hills Toastmasters is one of the many great things that happened along the way. It's held on the third Friday of each month at Cafe 100 Eok, behind CGV in Gangnam. The president of GHTM is my mentor at the South River Toastmasters, the brilliant Ron Cahoon. 

Last Friday, we went along to their third meeting.

The toastmaster of the night was Hyun-Gee Lee, who did a good job of spinning the chuseok theme into the program. Hyun-Gee is an intern at Reuters and her favourite book is Anne of Green Gables.

A good thing about Gangnam Hills Toastmasters is that it's held at a bar/cafe and alcohol is available from the beginning. It helps to loosen up inhibitions, especially during table topics (a session for impromptu speaking by audience members). GHTM is also run a little differently from most clubs, with a more relaxed atmosphere and new ideas each week.

And if you read this blog, you're invited to their next meeting on October 15th.

In other news, Seoul was greeted by Typhoon Kompasu this season, designated as a quiet rascal by local observers. On the night of its passage, I slept through the event without an inkling of what had happened. In the morning we awoke to debris strewn across the road, mud on our sidewalks and this tree toppled ominously above my favourite path to the lab.

The following afternoon however, some chainsaw-toting ajossis came and made quick work of the mess. In a rare stroke of genius for the ajossi species, they decided to use the wood from the felled tree and craft it into steps. Now we can walk down the previously slippery incline quite easily.

Good on them, I say.

The last time we went to the Dieu Hien Quan restaurant in Ansan was back in February of this year. Although mentioning the same restaurant twice on a blog may be a bit dreary, the sheer gravity of the event makes it appropriate. In total, it takes us about 2 hours of travel time to get there and back. The service is rough, the hygiene is questionable and you tend to stick out conspicuously as the only non-Vietnamese customers. But the food here is stellar. It's as if the Vietnamese food gods have decided to shine only a single ray of light here out of the whole of Korea, after having been irreversibly offended by the likes of Pho Bay.

They've also upgraded their menu and now serve all manner of frog dishes. We haven't tried them yet, but I'm sure they're frogtastic.

The cold rolls are good, but rather filling. It would be nice if we could order a single bite of everything.

This time we ordered fried rice with our pho, which turned out to be a good choice. I don't mind bokkeumbap, but it tends to have its subtle qualities drowned out by a certain popular fermented cabbage flavour.

Heather was also pleased with the outcome. If she were Vietnamese, I'm sure she would have sung a few lines of the V-Pop song Con Gay Bay Gio to celebrate. She's eating a little more these days, which is good. So far the only craving she's had has been for sundae.

Not the ice-cream sundae, mind you.

And here's Dori Lee holding up a letter to be mailed to Ian Kim. Dori is an artist, and likes Ian's work. Ian is also an artist, and used to go to middle school with me and Daniel in Australia. You can see his work here. While I don't know much about art at all, I find it fascinating that artists mail each other. Scientists tend to do the same, but we use email.

Dori is mailing Ian an invitiation to her first exhibition in Hongdae called The Paradox of Coexistence.

It's a solo exhibition running until September 27, 2010 at Myth Hong in Seoul. Heather and I have been meaning to go, but we're both quite busy. If you're in Seoul and interested in the independent art scene, be sure to check out Dori's work.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Little Announcement

Heather and I have been married for about a year now. We've both been very keen on having kids, but deciding when to start a family is not a simple matter. I've just started a new PhD, and Heather has a full time job, so things are not as straight forward as they could be. In the end, we thought that waiting around for better times may not be the best plan. While I wish I had a full-time job, I remind myself that countless other parents have managed to raise kids admirably well in more challenging situations.

Heather recently had reason to believe that something was up, so on Friday we went to the maternity clinic together.

Let's just say that I've never seen so many pregnant women all in one place before.

The little black dot in the middle of this ultrasound image is the good news we'd been waiting for. Heather is 5 weeks pregnant and we are both very pleased and looking forward to the times ahead. 

Scrutinizing the dot, I couldn't help but think of Carl Sagan's referral to the famous photo of a tiny Earth in space as 'a pale blue dot in the cosmos.'

It's funny that something so small can mean so much.

Friday, September 17, 2010


There are a few places to get away from the regular buzz of life in Seoul while remaining within walking distance of a familiar subway station. Yeouinaru is one of them. Within eyesight of the 63 Building and earshot of multiple major highways lies a little oasis of carefully mown lawns where Seoulites come to rest and play.

The Seoul City Council (who brought us such amazing feats as Arisu, and bicycle-accommodating carriages on the subway) have added a nice touch to the area, with a little creek built right next to the sidewalk.

Here's my favourite wife, Heather, who is evidently not afraid to get her feet wet.

The little creek starts near the subway station, and is born into existence through a series of nozzles that pump chlorinated water into a concrete aqueduct. Along the way it amuses and delights the citizens of Seoul by the simple act of wetting hundreds of pairs of feet with cold water. If you considered a real mountain-coursing stream to be a wolf, then this would be the equivalent of a hairless chihuahua in a petting zoo.

The fascinating thing about both artificial streams and hairless chihuahuas is that both are the result of human intervention in the affairs of nature. Chihuahuas were domestically inbred from wolves, while artificial streams have been around since the Gardens of Babylon. There are many more fine examples of mankind's handiwork in the world around us.

Bridge pylons, for example. These huge cement structures are something that I've come to admire a lot more during my time here in Korea.
Strong, reliable and strangely humble. They allow those in a car to freely pass what would have taken 30 minutes by boat. What's not to admire about that? I'm sure there are plenty of excellent pylons around the world, but in Adelaide, a lower demand for cross-river transit means that most of our bridges are rather cute Victorian-era stone arches.

Have a look at these ones. Just standing there like it's another day at the office. You may like to think of them as silent sentinels, endlessly challenging the strength of the Han with an unwavering gravity of reinforced concrete.
I certainly did.
It has just occurred to me that we are probably under-appreciating our gargantuan stone friends. To compensate for this lacklustre acknowledgment, I propose that we have a Bridge Pylon Appreciation Day here in Seoul.

Operator, get me the number for Oh Se-Hoon's office.

Back at university, we're lucky enough to have a Dos Tacos outlet on campus, right next to a Pho Bay franchise. Now Pho Bay is the same as Pho Bay anywhere, selling Vietnamese noodles more realistically equating to 'noodles' that are supposedly 'Vietnamese.' That's not to be unexpected however, as any pho shack further than a 3 kilometre radius from Ansan Station is doomed to be an uninspired, oversalted and yellow-pickled-radish-accompanying affair with the wrong kind of sauce. But Dos Tacos sells food, and the food is tasty. The corn chips are roasted until crunchy, the sour cream is fresh off the hallowed shelves of Costco and the guacamole is homemade.

We also noticed that in our Coronas were actual limes, a fruit long thought commercially extinct on the Korean peninsula. Judging from this photo, I'd say that Mrs Farrand was delighted by such a fact. But I was too busy basking in the presence of guacamole to notice at the time.

This is a basement bar called 'My Villera' in Hongdae. It's near the subway station and underneath a Green Bean Coffee shop.

The interior is quite nice, with little water features and lots of candles.

Now this is interesting. On the first page of the menu is a little announcement, saying that if anyone publishes a post on their blog about the bar, they'll receive a free sidedish on their next visit. We queried the manager (who doesn't speak much English) and the way it works is that you're supposed to make a post about it, and then show him on the computer behind the counter on your next visit.

In consideration of  the combined conflicting elements that are my determination to receive the aforementioned sidedish of dubious monetary value as well as my inherent aversion to misrepresenting commercial venues as anything other than accurate, I have deemed it prudent to encode my actual evaluation of the premises with excessively verbose linguistic nuances. It is calculated that this will render impractical or at least ensure numerous inadequacies of coherence within the output of an inevitable online translation attempt by management upon our next visit.

The wine repertoire was moderately biased toward a Francophone preference, but noticeably exacerbated by inflated fiscal requirements that would necessitate an upper-middle income earner feeling the urge to splurge on something that could be obtained elsewhere without such a requirement. It was duly noted by this self-referencing author and his companion, that they were indeed the dual and hitherto only patrons of the establishment at that particular period of chronological interest. After perusal of the traditional document enlisting gastronomic offerings and their descriptions, as well as discussion revolving around the not unreasonable suggestion to prematurely alight from our initial venue selection due to the aforementioned fiscal requirements, it was eventually decided that a carbonara pasta was to be ordered, along with a reasonably-sized aliquot of fermented grapes. This author deems it unnecessary at this point in time to further explore a tempting tangential discussion on the frequent futility of verbal debate with our happily opposing gender, an experience not uncommon to a male in wedlock.
An indeterminant period of time later which, if memory serves correctly, was sufficiently extended as to accommodate a comprehensive recitation of the entire contents of 'A History of Western Philosophy' by a philosophy enthusiast with an eidetic memory, we received our dish. Although initially promising on visible aspects alone, the opinion of our gastronomic selection soon metamorphosed into the culinary equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction. 

I trust that our experiences have hereby been communicated to the reader effectively.

Heather and I stayed around for a little while, and then went home. That night we stayed up watching Season 2 of The Big Bang Theory.

I'm looking forward to finding out what kind of free sidedish we'll receive upon our next visit to 'My Villera.'

Have a good weekend everyone.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

South River Toastmasters - Speech Competition

Every once in a while, the South River Toastmasters hold a club speech competition. These events are similar to normal club nights, except that they have 6-8 contestants, five judges, a larger audience and a greater tendency to induce pant-wetting in the speakers.

I signed up for the competition a couple of weeks before the event, and the wheels of destiny were set in motion. Backing out of a speech competition has no real repercussions, except for the ones that your conscience will inflict upon your ego for doing so.

Here's my speech, entitled "What are you wearing?"

I think it turned out fairly well, although there were some delivery errors that I noticed after watching myself on video (a peculiarly unsettling affair). I need to work more on audience engagement, as well as better transitions and more pauses between sections. In the end though, I was awarded second place which is a pretty good result. It simultaneously gave me a pat on the back as well as room to improve.

Thanks go to Heather for sitting through rehearsals with me on the weekend beforehand. She played an excellent one-person mock audience, complete with canned laughter at the appropriate times. The feedback I received really helped turn the speech from a regular affair into something more presentable.

Toastmasters is more than just about improving your public speaking skills.  It's a great way to work with motivated people while having fun at the same time. If you still haven't visited your local Toastmasters club yet, I think it's high time that you gave it a try.

Friday, September 10, 2010

IKAA Gathering 2010, Part 2

After the opening ceremony and associated pleasantries, the IKAA Gathering gained altitude and seamlessly switched to supercruise mode, which consisted of a meticulously pre-organised program of events. I was unable to attend for most of the week because I had cell cultures to attend to, but I made it out for the adoptee literature session.

Here's our old friend, SK Chae, giving a prepared speech about his book, Remembering Koryo. For a man who is more well-known for eating dinner using only a knife rather than for his penmanship, he summed up the purpose of his book with surprising clarity.

The warm summer nights of the gathering were mostly spent drinking beer. In the photo above are some well-known faces in the KAD community.

In this photo there are two Danes, a Frenchman, an Australian and an American. Can you tell who's who?

It's all about the hair.

And in this photo, every single customer is a Korean adoptee. We reserved a local bar for the night and filled it with raucous chatter from a smorgasbord of languages.

Fun was had, and tall tales told, respectively.

The sessions during the week that I attended were mostly helpful workshops, in which I feigned sobriety.

For this gathering and the last one, there was a mini adoptee World Cup tournament held, with the various organisations putting together teams. This year, the Danish team were victorious. Upon going with them to celebrate, I learned that Danes enjoy drinking and singing/chanting Danish victory choruses. We Australians celebrate victory in a similar manner, but without the singing and chanting.

The night started off slowly because nobody knew of a bar in the Myeong-dong area that would accommodate thirty adoptees in a celebratory mood. After forty minutes of walking through unrelenting torrential precipitation, we decided to seek shelter next to an inadequately-verandahed department store. Half an hour later, utterly drenched, but spirits undampened, we found a bar with enough space. If we were in Spain, I would have quipped "the rain in Spain falls mainly on the Danes. "

But we were in Seoul.

Samsung have supported IKAA considerably over the past, and this year was no different. They usually pay for the final dinner, which is a flashy set course menu with free-flowing wine.

Just like last time, we were treated to professional performances with Ahn Jung-hyun as MC, the lady who used to host the Arirang talk show Heart to Heart.

More than 500 Korean adoptees from across the world converged in formal dress attire.

Here's Liselotte Haejin Birkmose, whose ice-sculpture-melting daughter we saw in the previous post. I've only said hello to her once or twice, but she seems very friendly and nice.

The menu was enjoyable, although I had no idea what Bearnaise sauce was. Tasted good on Aussie steak though. Back home, we'd just slap that kind of meat on the barbie and eat it with tomart'oh sawce.

And there was some good old Korean drumming to bring out the warrior in all of us. When I hear Korean wooden drums, I guess I should be reflecting on the vibrance of Korean traditional music, but all I ever think about are orcs.

Facing to the right in this photo are Daniel Moore and Sarah Kim Randolph. Sarah used to blog well, but I think she got busy. Maybe Daniel has something to do with that. He also reads this blog, apparently, and told me he likes my 'one-liners'.

Possibly like this one.

And here's me and Tae-Yang, a Dane and a good friend. Tae-Yang comes back to Korea almost every year and it's always the same beautiful story. 

Hug. Talk. Eat. Drink. Laugh. Drink. Hangover.

Adoptees in Korea are funny. We set up a drinking station outside Family Mart and spent the hot summer night getting better acquainted with Cass, soju and makkeoli. There were a few Korean passers-by who gave us second glances due to our sprawled roadside gathering, and we simply returned those glances with a friendly air of aloofness.
If we were in Japan or China however, we probably wouldn't feel as entitled to 'make ourselves at home' in public.

It wasn't long before the cheap alcohol began weaving its confusing magic, and we soon felt like eating ice-cream. That's another reason why Family Marts are good places to drink. In the photo above is Jes Eriksen, a Dane whose first name is pronounced 'Yes'.

The old rule of thumb is that an adoptee gathering is a good one 'if it ends with some guy called Jes enjoying an ice-cream by the side of the road. ' 

And by that standard alone, I'd say that the 2010 IKAA Gathering was a successful one.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

IKAA Gathering 2010, Part 1

IKAA is a collaborative umbrella for Korean adoptee organisations around the world. Every three years since 2004, gatherings have been held in Korea to bring everyone together under one roof. This year, that one roof was the Lotte Hotel Seoul, a nice venue with a lot of chandeliers.

The organisations that form IKAA are all run by Korean adoptees, rather than adoptive parents or adoption-related agencies. Amongst the adoptee community, there's a broad spectrum of views on transcultural adoption, with some vehemently opposed to it, and others who think that it's the best solution to an unfortunate social problem. Korea has some strong cultural elements that put pressure on single mothers to relinquish their babies, while various social taboos here discourage domestic adoption. Although I wouldn't say that I regret being adopted, I do wish that the issues involved were more openly discussed in Korea. And I think acknowledgment is well overdue for those who are doing something about it.

The last time I saw a bunch of adoptees in a hotel lobby was three years ago, at the 2007 Gathering. It brought back distant memories of my bemusement while walking through a group of Korean-looking people speaking fluent Norwegian, Dutch and Swedish, and feeling like a foreigner amongst them.

The whole gathering was put together with the sweat of hard-working volunteers from across the world. At SRTM, we had to send about seventy emails back and forth, just to organise a wine party for one night. 

My estimate for the number of emails that were needed to organise the 2010 IKAA Gathering is between 6,000 and 8,000.

We occupied a few floors of the Lotte Hotel for various meet-and-greets, as well as symposiums and workshops. I was on a panel for advice about working in Korea, which seemed to go fairly well. The summary of what I had to say was along the lines of 'proceed with caution.'

This country is a nice place to live for a variety of reasons, but like any place with a lot of Koreans, it can occasionally drive you nuts.

At the first meet-and-greet, I saw a few familiar faces from some of my earlier adventures in the motherland. Most of those adventures involved fruit-flavoured soju cocktails.

The food at IKAA gatherings is always amongst the best that a cash-starved Korean adoptee graduate student can hope to consume. If I wasn't an adoptee, I'd pretend to be one just so that I could eat the food.

On that podium is Tim Holm, the president of IKAA and a man who can make the logistical mess of a gathering on such a grand scale coagulate pleasantly. The feat could be likened to gathering billions of tangled computer power cords and combining them all to form the perfect image of a daffodil.

The opening ceremony went off without a hitch. You can spot adoptees in the audience who are first-timers to Korea, because they watch the samul-nori performances with wide eyes, open mouths and an excessive use of digital cameras. 
And you can spot the old-timers because they're the ones scanning the audience looking for the first-timers.

I've optimised by buffet strategy over many years of buffeting. On a side note, I think the letter 't' is pronounced in the word 'buffeting'. What do you think? Anyway, my buffet strategy involves the following guidelines:

1) Avoid rice, bread and anything that looks like it has flour. Break this rule if every other option looks terrible.
2) Use lettuce sparsely, as it is very demanding on plate real-estate. Lettuce leaves can be placed on top of other items, to make it look like you've made healthy choices.
3) Arrange any items with sauce or gravy on your plate so that they are separated from each other, with no possibility of cross-saucing. Explain to your new table friends about your accomplishment.

Here's an ice sculpture that was made for the occasion.

And in the picture above is Liselotte's impossibly cute little daughter, who enjoyed melting what she could of the sculpture, using the heat of tiny palms.
I was tempted to explain to her about the thermodynamics at play when she puts a palm on ice, but I had a feeling that it would have been a waste of time. Especially seeing as she can only understand Danish.

Part 2 coming soon!