Tuesday, December 28, 2010

SRTM End of Year Party 2010

Some of the best social events I've been to have been put together by various Toastmasters clubs in Korea. While my old definition of a good time involved too much of everything, Toastmaster's events are casual enough to get tipsy, but stimulating enough that you don't want to go overboard.
Since getting married, certain teenager-like qualities in my personality have subsided, having been replaced by qualities more befitting of a citizen.

Toastmasters is the kind of social club you want to belong to if you're self-motivated and... hey wait a minute, look, there's Chris Lezott looking around again. The other day I asked him why he's always looking around like that when someone is speaking. He said he has no idea.

I'll figure it out sooner or later.

That night, about 120 people mingled, jingled and kris-kringled. Our thoughtfully composed contribution to the gift pile was a 'Functional Food Pack.' It had blueberry juice, lactobacillus, fresh fruit and peppermint oil. Robert Cha was the lucky receiver, although last time I checked he hadn't consumed it yet. I'll ask him again soon. These days, the number one hottest topic in all news everywhere is the topic of functional food. Well, that's if the only news you read is Functional Food News. Anyway, it's exciting.

It's a new dawn.

Chloe Park headed the taskforce responsible for organising the night. Heading an SRTM taskforce of any kind entails a vast amount of email correspondence, endless plan modifications and a few sleepless nights. Why would anyone want to put themselves through all of that, just for an end of year party?

Well, it's because the question really is: Do you or do you not want to throw an awesome party on everyone's behalf?

Chloe's answer was Yes.

Here's Johnny and me, up close and personal at Round Two. We had a great night and I drank a little too much. Heather decided it was time for us to go home stylishly early. My liver thanked her the next morning.

Gone are the days when a long night out ended in a sunrise, painfully signaling the sobriety required to get myself home by public transport.

Kraze Burger is a franchise burger chain in Korea. Prior to the end of year party, we stopped at one next door to the venue. They're a little overpriced and not very good, unless you're easily impressed, in which case they're fantastic.

We tried the tofu burger, which looked quite nice but failed in some important structural aspects. The tofu was not a tofu patty, but rather a slab of soft tofu, which further destabilised the already precariously mounted bun, which in turn promptly hopped off almost magnetically upon removal of the plastic swords. 

It tasted like a scattered plate of various vegetarian burger components.

This is what Heather's face looked like when I said the words "Kraze Tofu Burger."

And this is what she looked like when I said "Lee's Korea Blog."

She's quite a fan, and sometimes even reads what I've written.

Recently we held a graduate student's discussion session. The premise was simple enough, with students practicing their presentation skills and subsequently being fed with fast food. Sometimes I wonder if it's we who are really the subject of some arcane behavioural experiment concocted by the faculty.

The study title would be "Reliable Behavioural Control of Graduate Students Using a Simple Fast-Food Reward System."

Korean graduate students are generally more reserved and less individualistic than their western counterparts. While I used to endlessly ponder the causes and implications of such differences, I have since resigned myself to a more accepting stance.

I've decided that 2011 will be the year that I focus on the pursuit of wisdom. With it, I'm hoping will come the side-effects of maturity, humility and a heightened sense of responsibility. My ego needs a bit of a cropping, and it's time for less talk and more work.
But that doesn't mean I can't be silly anymore. I don't think that wisdom and silliness are opposites, they're just not commonly paired, kind of like bagpipes and pole-dancing. Anyway...

Here's hoping that 2011 will be a productive and enlightening year for us all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weddings in Korea

How does one properly and politely blog another's wedding? With caution and difficulty, I suspect.

The majority of weddings in Korea are quite different in style and tempo to those in Australia. In my view, any voluntary matrimony is, in itself, a fantastic thing. The wedding is the accompanying ritual to which different people place differing degrees of importance. The sheer number of people in Korea tying the knot each weekend, and the lack of wide open spaces in which to do so, has fueled a booming wedding package industry.
For most people, there are two packages to choose from: hotel ceremonies and wedding hall ceremonies. Hotel ceremonies are usually longer, more lavish and have an extended guest list, while wedding halls are purpose-built facilities for more high-throughput events. Whatever the size of your budget and patience, Korea has a package that's right for you.

Thus far, in my experience of life as a human, I've noticed that the number of wedding invitations received is proportional to how many high school friends you still keep in touch with. Heather keeps up with a lot of her old friends, so we get quite a few.

She was quite popular in high school, she tells me.

Although I'm unfamiliar with some of the characters involved at the weddings we go to, I enjoy them a fair bit. There's nearly always good food and alcohol involved, and it's a momentous occasion for the wedding couple, whether you see them much on the day or not. Sharing in other people's joy is one of the distinctly pleasant aspects of being alive.

One of the more curious parts of weddings here is that due to limited seating you'll often end up sitting at a dining table with complete strangers.

Prior to consumption of the universal social lubricant Alcohol,  it can be a laughably awkward affair.

Hypothetical table conversation.

Lee: "Ahem. Pass the salt please."
Lee: "By the way, I'm Lee and this is my wife Heather."
Unknown guest: "... "
Lee: "... My, isn't this awkward?
Unknown guest: "It was not awkward until you mentioned it. Now it is extremely awkward."
Lee: "Oh... I apologise."
Unknown Guest: "Please continue consumption of your cream of mushroom soup and refrain from further pleasantries."

The foyer area becomes a nucleus of activity, second only to the bride's sitting room. Strange behaviour takes place here, which I can only describe as a cacophonous session of intense bowing.

Wedding hall ceremonies can be quite intriguing for newcomers to Korea. Weddings around the world all have distinct ritualistic elements, and modern Korean weddings include a lot of the more recognisable ones. Rings are exchanged, songs are sung, advice is heard and applause is given. Sometimes cakes are cut.

But kisses are not given at Korean weddings. Evidently, the bride and groom kiss in their own time, without camera flash or the gleaming eyes of onlookers.

For those tying the knot in the Land of Morning Calm, I suggest first and foremost doing what you feel most comfortable with. Getting married is a big thing, and most couples will have the additional strain of family expectations and financial stress. Comparing your own event to other people's is also unnecessary.

The day belongs to you, and the quality of the food, size of the dress and price of the ring are all of little overall importance to anyone with an opinion worth hearing. What you want to focus on is having an enjoyable day marrying the one you love, in the company of those closest to you.

After a complimentary shuttle bus and two subway transfers home, it's back to our life without suit and tie. Going to other people's weddings is a nice reminder of our wedding in Busan about a year ago. We were lucky enough to have an extremely good day, and things all came together nicely. The next big thing we're looking forward to is when our big baengy is born. Heather's protruding belly is a source of constant fascination for me.

Another thing I've been noticing around the house recently are fruit peelings in strange places. They're a combination of Heather's propensity to eat fruit while sitting on the heated floor and the fact that she's getting heavier these days.

I call them 'maternity droppings.'

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Functional Breakfasts

One of the hottest topics in science these days, other than detonation nanodiamonds, is the area of functional foods. Instead of taking your ordinary pharmaceutical prescriptions to treat illnesses, functional food is all about eating specific natural foods that would have prevented the illness occurring in the first place. For example, while chemotherapy can reduce tumour size, a functional food approach would have you eating specific fruits and vegetables to prevent you from getting the tumour to begin with.

Prevention is better than cure, and certain foods are much better than others at preventing certain diseases.

There are bioactive compounds in many food products that have preventative capacities beyond the basic vitamins and minerals. For example, many of us are familiar with resveratrol in red wine, being linked to reductions in heart disease. There's also lycopene in tomatoes which has been linked to reduced prostate cancer risk. Korea has a pretty good functional food industry and the marketing for it here is starting to pick up.

We eat breakfast everyday, and try to include functional foods when we can. In the spread above are things like wholemeal bread and cereal, as well as calcium fortified millk. The more obscure inclusions are:
In general, you can get a good functional food intake by eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Strong colours like orange, green and purple are particularly important.

My wife is getting happily larger these days, and we're choosing our foods with a little more care. In January, I'm going to Ottawa for a month of overseas lab experience at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. It'll be a long month for the both of us, and I'm already looking forward to coming back in early February.

By which time, I suspect, she will have further embiggened.

The depths of winter here have frosted our balcony, prompting Heather to create this little green plant box. She puts the plants outside in the daytime and brings them in at night. The box was not originally green in colour. It's green because green paper was glued onto it.

Heather Greenthumb strikes again.

Heather's primary pregnancy complaints are:
1) Not being able to drink alcohol
2) Not being able to drink coffee and
3) Having a very itchy stomach

Because Heather used to be my Number One drinking buddy, I've cut down a fair bit on my alcohol intake these days. I also scratch my stomach at home, feigning discomfort, in a juvenile attempt to make her feel better.

But Heather being Heather, she still sometimes brings me cans of beer on her way home from work. She says it's fine to drink in front of her, but I've noticed that when we sit at the kitchen table, her eyes become fixated on the can like some kind of benign predator.

Hite D is pretty good. I noticed on the top of the can that the company has put what appear to be Braille characters. One could reasonably assume that it's to warn blind people that they're about to drink something alcoholic. But it poses an important question. What does it say? 

It would be logical to say 'beer', but more fun if it were really 'cheers.'

Heather likes to watch me when I drink, because she says I'm entertaining. I like to think that she means in a mesmerising or eloquent way, but from these photos I suspect that it's something less flattering. I guess alcohol is some sort of dysfunctional food.

But sometimes form is more important than function.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

CALS Welcome Party 2010

This time last year, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences decided to invite the international staff and students for a free dinner at the Faculty Club. So we set off on the trek from Building 200, long after sundown. In small groups of familiar faces we shuffled up the hill towards the general direction of the moon, like a timid swarm of multicultural moths.
Our suspicions were raised as to the motives of such a seemingly pleasant gesture. After all, this was the same department who brought us such fiascos as "The student counsellor who doesn't exist" and "The anonymous student feedback survey that isn't."

But last year's Welcome Party went off without the predicted mandatory kidney donation. We weren't even asked to sing the praises of the department or betroth our youngest daughter to unknown alumni.
It was, purely and simply, an appreciative gesture towards the international constituents of our college, who have traveled from the corners of the Earth to participate in the spectacle that is SNU academia.

This year, they held the event again at the same location. The battle-hardened veterans among us made sure to arrive early, in order to acquire the seats closest to the buffet. Alas, our strategy was pre-empted by designated seating. 

At least they spelled my name right.

We had a great dinner, and saw some performances from Indonesian and Nepalese students. If there's only one way to win the hearts and minds of graduate students, it most certainly involves free food.

A couple of weeks ago, Heather and I made it out to Uijeongbu, a rather nice and very Korean part of Korea. In other words, Uijeongbu has plenty of traffic, billboards and rampant urbanisation. I couldn't help but admire the cranes towering over the new shopping centre-to-be.

Stark and geometrically obscure, like skeletal giraffes.

It turns out that the Pride of Uijeongbu is a plastic surgery clinic.

Volumes have been spoken.

On the windowsill of our lab is a plant I've named Professor Tsang, after our esteemed supervisor. Professor Tsang the Person and Professor Tsang the Plant have never met. The plant in the foreground in the windmill pot is called Grant. He's the long slender one, reaching skywards.

Grant the Plant has been growing pretty slowly during the cold weather. A couple of weeks ago, a single stalk in his territory shot through the soil. Before long, this newcomer had grown into a rather large weed. So I kept watering it to see what would happen. We are a lab, after all.

Now it has grown much larger than in the photo above and has even popped out a few cheeky flowers, although it's the middle of winter. I've decided to name it 'El Cid the Weed.' 

But what currently befuddles me in my morning watering rounds is the question: When does a cultivated weed become a plant?

I think we're plunging into uncharted territory.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Running With Glocks

They say that the most common topic of conversation in the world is the weather. I find myself ceaselessly amazed at mankind's ability to observe the obvious and make an appropriate statement about it.

It's so cold today! 

It's so hot today!


It's time for Lee's Korea Blog to jump on this merry bandwagon and participate in this quaint aspect of human behaviour. I suspect I'm not alone in the opinion that the highs and lows of Korea's weather are a topic worthy of complaint. The summers here are as humid as a sauna at a Hades resort, while the winters are as cold as a welldigger's feet.

I was going to say as hot as a stove and as cold as a fridge, but opted for a fancier simile.

I'd rather be cold than be hot. Uninteresting as it may be, it has (nonetheless), been selected as the opening trivial self-referential fact by which I have chosen to begin this paragraph. Wait, what has? Well, the fact that I'd rather be cold than be hot.

This talking-about-the-weather thing is proving to be more difficult than first imagined.

One thing I like to do on a cold winter's night is go jogging around campus. Cold air has a higher oxygen density than warm air, but getting a headspin is not the only reason I enjoy it. The main reason is because a lack of degrees Celsius allows me to do a whole lot of running without getting all hot and bothered. Hot and cold are opposites, you see. It's fascinating.

But one bad point about running in the cold is that my hands get extremely numb in the cold air. How numb, you ask? Well, I can't think of a very colourful simile for numbness. 

So let's just say that they're as numb as a really numb thing, in a land of numbness.

What on Earth am I doing in these photos, you ask? That's a great question. You've just unwittingly witnessed a pictorial solution to my hand-numbness problem. Shira MacDonald, a person whom I have never met, is a secretary of a running club called the Seoul Flyers, that I have yet to join. She told me through email that she runs with what she calls 'glittens' - glove/mittens that keep her hands warm.

Because I don't have glittens of my own, I decided to make my own 'glocks' - glove/socks. They work quite well.

I deliberately failed to lodge a patent for their design, so that everyone can make their own without fear of litigation.

I still have a vast reservoir of unused socks from my days as an English teacher. During that time I received more than my fair share of comically unimaginative (yet wholly appreciated) gifts of socks on Teacher's Day. The little sock patches in the photo above are an interesting by-product of the manufacturing process. The only idea I can think of for using them is to stick them onto coloured glocks, for a leopard-skin pattern.

One person who is noticeably less enthusiastic about glocks in general, is my lovely wife. She politely declined my offer to make her a pair, free of charge. At the time, she was immersed in her pregnancy health calendar and various informative brochures bestowed upon us by the maternity clinic. 

Some deep primal instinct within my subconcious murmurs contentedly whenever I observe my pregnant wife learning about pregnancy health.
Is that you, evolution?

When pregnant, it's important to eat a balanced diet. Ramyeon is cheap and delicious, but it doesn't have a whole lot of anything except palm oil and our recommended daily intake of monosodium glutamate.

So, on the occasions that we do eat it, I fortify it with beansprouts and cruciferous vegetables. You can make some pretty good fried noodles by discarding the water and seasoning it yourself.

Anyway, that's all from me this time. Happy glock making to you all.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quote Dump #21

"A broken heart is a monument to love that will never die." 
- William Somerset Maugham

"Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of illusion." 
- Kryptos

"I'm late for a jean-folding seminar. Let's locomote!" 
- Bluelighter

Sunday, December 05, 2010

These Days, at SNU

Life at SNU continues in a moderately good to remarkably good fashion. Since transferring my program in May this year, I've been overall quite satisfied with the work environment.
Recently we passed the dreaded Annual Review (of Doom), handed out each year by our lovely friends at MEST. An entourage of suited males came to inspect our documents, records, and underpant hygiene last month. We passed with flying colours.

And embroidered nylon images of Superman.

As a reward for doing so well, Professor Han chose to take us out hiking. Many students wondered "Is hiking a reward or a punishment?", though none out loud. 

The man wearing the cap with the thousand-yard-stare is Professor Shimada, a member of the international faculty in our department. He's a Japanese expert on birds.

Here we are, collectively perched on a rock, like migratory monkeys on a transcontinental flight.

Meet Sandun Abeyrathne. He's a recent Sri Lankan addition to our Biomodulation international student body, currently consisting of only Sandun and me. The statistics now show that an astounding 50% of our international PhD students are from Colombo.

The other 50% are from Adelaide.

On the left is Dr Vahlberg and on the right is Ahn Jong il. They're the big boys of our department and provide the necessary heavy handedness when dealing with pesky PCR tube salesmen.

After a quick hike around the perimeter of our university, we went out for dinner. Staring into the lens of this photo are two members of Professor Suh's lab, evidently seeing a camera for the first time. Cutting up the meat is Tae-Kyung, a smokey molecular biologist and fellow drinking enthusiast.

Sandun helpfully tagged me in this post-soju photo on Facebook. I guess that's what friends are for. Under the photo began a vibrant conversation involving Sri Lankan nationals. Upon reading Sandun's description of Korean food, I couldn't help but chime in.

  • meya genada kiwwe 
I signed up for Korean classes at SNU this semester in the Language Education Institute. In general, the quality of a language class depends almost entirely on the skill of whoever your teacher is. And our two teachers were very good.

Two essential pieces of advice when teaching language to older students: Stay animated and give many examples.

These photos are from our end of term exam. We had ten weeks of classes on Monday and Thursday evenings for three hours each. Fitting it into my schedule was a pain, but I felt obliged to give the great Han tongue another try. The price was around 500,000 won.

One thing I'm good at consistently failing at, in general, is learning Korean. I've tried on and off for the past 4 years, admittedly without a huge amount of zest. But it just doesn't really sink in for me. I can order pizza and have a conversation with a hairdresser, but despite all the Korean I've been exposed to, I still sound like a toddler with a stammering problem.

We graduated the level 5 evening class, as a group of ten students. I learned a fair bit, I think. But I'm sure it'll all leak out while I'm asleep.

I recently had a campus chat with Ga-Young Choi, a fellow Toastmaster, about the lack of social networking here at SNU. Many students here study endlessly, sleep little and answer friendly conversational questions in a robotic tone while staring off into the distance.

As a proposed remedy, we thought up an idea to start a social club called the Seoul National University Global House Alcohol and Talking Society - SNUGHATS. The idea was to bring students together on Friday evenings and enjoy a good brew and a chat. Global House is a bar near our dormitories.

We started a Facebook page to promote our first event, an 'inaugural symposium' at the bar. But all 8 potential attendees cancelled due to scheduling conflicts. Ga-Young herself was bombed at the last minute with stacks of work by an unscrupulous lab senior and couldn't make it out. Our inaugural meeting was a miserable failure.

Well, I should say, it was nearly a miserable failure. Keeping me company while waiting in the freezing foyer of Global House was the only other attendee, Sandun. After thirty minutes of shivering, we decided that it was unlikely that anyone had seen our single advertisement posted in our building's elevator. So we decided to head out and hold the inaugural meeting with just the two of us. Sandun doesn't drink, but I had a beer. It was a humble beginning for a social club.

We ended up having a pleasant dinner and chat. Without Sandun's company, I guess I would have been eating by myself. Which, despite my enthusiasm for all things strange and fun, would probably not have been very enjoyable. We're planning to have another try at a club meeting when the weather gets warmer. And perhaps we shouldn't have planned the first meeting during the final exam period.

Anyway, thanks Sandun. Your company was appreciated!