Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Meeting the Mayor of Seoul: Courtesy of TNM Media

A good way to get in the firing line of serendipity is to seek out groups of people with whom one enjoyably chills. For me, those groups have been Toastmasters (a public speaking club) and Nanoomi, a conglomeration of independent yet mutually supportive bloggers. Nanoomi's parent is TNM Media, a company based in Seoul with an online media focus.

Last Friday some of our members were invited to have a Q&A session with the mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon.

While on my wonderful way to meet the merry mayor, I soon realised that my meagre understanding of Korean politics left a little to be desired. 
Waves of insecurity ensued. Would I fit in with the politically-knowledgeable? Was I under-dressed? Was I indeed meeting the Seoul Mayor, or perhaps going to an equine farm to meet the Sole Mare?

Not to be swayed, I clutched my hastily translated question and decided I would employ that sage advice, to take things as they come and see what happens.

The very fact that we, as bloggers, were invited to have a chat with him was notable in itself. The mayors of Korea's largest city are very big fish, not least for their propensity to later win presidential elections.

Being a 'blogger' is a fairly broad description, and although some bloggers are thoughtful opinion leaders, you also have guys like me who just sit around and post photos of Big Baengy. So even before arrival, I was grateful for the opportunity to take part.

Arriving late for a meeting with the mayor will surely earn you a negative score on the Awesome scale. And while definitely not a habit of mine, I managed to rack up some overtime on the scenic journey to City Hall. In our unwritten rulebook, that is very unbecoming of a Nanoomite.

The meeting had already started when I arrived and Cynthia, our fearless leader, was waiting just inside the door, whereupon she signified her discontent with a tiny look of silent Doom. It was then time for me to go into damage control mode, and after calming the slight panic in my neurons with a mental clap, I sat on a chair and focused solely on maintaining an attentive facial expression.

My first impressions are only correct about 50% of the time, but my first impression of Park Won Soon was that he seemed nice. My Korean vocabulary is on par with that of a kindergarten kid, but my accompanying grammar skills are more around the monkey level. So although I couldn't understand a lot of what the good mayor was saying, his body language did speak well and it wasn't long before elements of charisma began to emanate. He listened patiently, took notes when necessary and answered thoughtfully.

We, the people, were soon allowed a free for all, better known in Starcraft circles as an FFA. Or, to be more precise a Q&A FFA.

Thus I had a dilemma. Do I raise my shaky hand and read my translated Korean question to the mayor, and risk the possibility of looking like a complete imbecile in the wrong classroom? 
In vain hope that fortune may indeed favour the bold, my answer, was yes.

My question, which I read in Korean, was as follows:
"It can be difficult for potential mothers to choose between starting a family or keeping a stable job. Does the mayor have any plans to make it easier for new mothers to re-enter the workforce?"

"아직도 기혼 여성들이 아이를 가지는 것과 직장에 계속 다니는 것 중 둘 중 하나를 선택하는 것에 큰 어려움을 느끼고 있습니다 (일부 대기업이나 공무원이 아닌 경우) 시장님은 이러한 여성들이 다시 직장에 복귀할 수 있도록 하는 어떤 정책이 있나요?"

My pronunciation was off, clarity poor and delivery odd, but after some initial confusion about whether it was 'new mothers' or 'divorcees' that I was referring to, my question was answered a little something like this:

"보육의 사회적 부담이 중요하다고 생각한다. 출산율 높이기 위해서 많은 지자체가 돈을 주는데 돈을 준다고 아이를 낳겠습니까? ‘서울시 보육정책이 엉터리인 이유가 애를 키워보지 않은 4~50 남자들이 정책을 만들어서 그런 아니냐라는 칼럼을 적이 있다. 그래서 정말 여성들의 입장에서 닿는 보육 정책을 펴야 한다고 생각한다. 집에서 가까운 곳에 보육 시설을 확장하는 가장 좋은 방법이다보육은 개인의 문제가 아니라 사회가 책임져야 한다고 생각하고 중요한 정책으로 계속 해나가겠다."

For those who are interested, the video is here (1:14:30.)

Luckily, Cynthia provided translation, saving me the effort of pretending I understood everything. Basically the mayor's opinion is that child-raising is the collective responsibility of society as a whole.

I thought he gave a good answer.

Widhi also asked a question, as did QiRanger Steve via a newly met connoisseur of the Korean language, Andy from Kojects. In the photo above, our ever-pleasant Cynthia is whispering translations to QiRanger Steve, like a voice in the king's ear.

Either that or she was talking about her fabulous new haircut.

After the question session had ended, the mayor extended his hospitality and let us see his office. Bloggers like taking photos, and there we were, shamelessly snapping macro shots of his coffee cup, his favourite ballpoint pens and his functional food tablets (Propolis, to be exact). That was until one of his aides mentioned that the FFA had ended, and we were now documenting his personal space. 

Sheepishly, the barrage of shutter clicks diminished to a dull roar, with the bloggers then shooting from more respectable distances.

Apparently a few of our fellow Seoulites have created a new genre of art called ParkWonSoonism. It consists of various manipulations of the mayor's appearance, and he has a few examples on his office walls.

Now I'm not sure what the correct procedure is when receiving pictures of yourself. I guess displaying pictures of yourself in your own office is a little funny. But then again, hiding pictures of yourself is even stranger.

It's one of those rare catch-22 situations in the world of mayors.

Displayed on his wall are Post-Its, from the citizens of Seoul. Some of them are suggestions, others expressions of support. Mayor Park is quite proud of this display, and I have no doubt that he's read them all. If I were to write one, it would go like this "시장님, 궁금합니다.... 혹시오세훈처럼아리수 (수돗물)를 좋아하십니까?"

It's a question related to my interest in Arisu.

Then it was time for a photo session. In the photo above, there are various Nanoomi folk and a TNM guy thrown in for good measure.

This particular photo is going straight to the pool room. The coolest thing about meeting the Mayor of Seoul is then being able to tell others that you have met the Mayor of Seoul. I have found that indirectly mentioning it is usually more fun.

"Yeah I missed that episode of 선덕여왕 last Friday... what was I doing... oh yeah, I was just hanging out with my new friend, the MAYOR OF SEOUL!!"

Upon arriving home with a buzz, my next dilemma was what to do when one is in possession of a mandarin from the Mayor of Seoul's fruitbowl.

I decided to hand it over to one of our household's most discerning of fruit critics, whose favourite fruit just happens to be mandarin.

Here Baengy Baengy! Oh look Baengy, it's a mandarin... your favourite! 

It's 박원순시장님의 귤!*

*(Mayor Park's mandarin)

Baengy observed the fine details of the fruit, laying it out on her table, before deliberating on whether she should take a liberal or conservative approach to its consumption.

In the end, it was center-left and another victory for the moderates among us. The fruit of the mayor, it seemed, was delicious.

Overall it was a great evening with the mayor. I found him to be a friendly and sincere person, and someone seemingly capable of what must be a very complicated job.

Thanks go out to City Hall, TNM Media and Nanoomi, for inviting this young blogger out for an eye-opening experience.

Photo credits: TNM Media (mostly!)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Part-Time Work in Korea

Long ago, a guy I once met told me that he liked baseball because it reminded him of life itself. For example, having a successful date would begin by first obtaining agreement from a second party that a date shall indeed take place. This, he said, could be thought of as making it to First Base. Hitting Second Base successfully would consist of a jolly night out where charm is served generously to a backdrop of a nice restaurant with dim lighting. Third Base would be the movies, or some such endeavour, while a home run was inexplicably symbolized by the flash of a grin, with a gold-capped molar thrown in for effect.

Upon later reflection, I've found that the Baseball-Life analogy can indeed be a useful way to describe a series of events. However, with the progress of time, the magnitude of significance becomes somewhat recalibrated.
To a man of the family persuasion, First Base would be a successful birth, free from medical complications or feuding between in-laws. Second Base would be decently raising a toddler in circumstances above the poverty line, while Third Base would be ensuring a wholesome education.

And I guess a home run would be when your kid moves out of home.

Heather and I are currently dashing for Second Base, with Baengy strapped on our collective back. One of the biggest difficulties that quickly becomes apparent upon departure from First Base, is that along with unwavering commitment and the warmth of parental care, babies also require a rather sustained ongoing financial contribution. Purchases of nappies, food, clothes, toys and books encroach considerably upon the territory of bank statements once dominated by visits to bars and nice restaurants. 

I've been lucky to have had part-time work for around 15 years, beginning as a paperboy for the Messenger Newspaper back in Adelaide, to a restaurant cook in university and various jobs in Korea. While we could probably survive on my graduate student funding alone without the looming threat of scurvy, a little more to supplement the proverbial bread on the table is always helpful. Metaphorically speaking, we, of the Korean Farrand tribe, enjoy a little cheese with our bread.

And sometimes a Gorgonzola, which, incidentally, can be found at Costco.

Luckily, Korea is a busy place and opportunities can be found for those who are looking in the right places. A common way is to teach private English lessons on a part-time basis, but for those who have been around, you can get a job more focused on your particular interests if you have a good bunch of friends who are the right kinds of people. And the good news for me was that the right person happened to be an old housemate of mine, Anthony Nguyen, of surfing/ukelele fame.
Anthony's uncle is a heart surgeon in the US, and after a few meetings, introduced us to shiny new part-time jobs working for Dong-A University Hospital in Busan. We've been working for them since April 2011

We're consultants for the hospital's Clinical Trial Center, with Anthony drawing on his background in finance and me adding background elements of a medical/academic nature. Being a consultant can mean a lot of things, but for us it means doing a lot of English document editing, meeting a lot of industry representatives and networking with copious amounts of beverage.

Because I'm based in Seoul, most of my work is done online, editing manuscripts and preparing medical presentations on behalf of the center's doctors. Every once in a while, we're sent off to a conference or a meeting to represent the hospital and gain further insights. These past few photos are all from our trip to Jeju Island, for the Regional Clinical Trial Center forum.

I had been to Jeju a few times before, but coming as a student and coming as a consultant are two different things. For one, consultants have access to more extravagant cuts of meat.

About once a month we head to Busan for work and family-related purposes. We made it back for a trip that coincided with the fireworks festival some time ago.

Courtesy of Anthony's old apartment, Baengy experienced her first fireworks show. She stared long and hard at the pyrotechnic magic for about three minutes, before losing interest and deciding it was a good time for a nap.

As hospital representatives, we were also sent to Taiwan to attend the Clinical Trial Magnifier Conference. On the plane, I stumbled on some nostalgia - Street Fighter II, Champion Edition on the entertainment system. Back in middle school, we used to play this game religiously.

Unfortunately the difficulty level was locked at 8 stars, and the control pad was not very responsive. Much to the chagrin of the resident middle-school boy still inside me somewhere.

Taiwan is a nice place, and similarly in the midst of burgeoning economic explosion. The Taipei 101 looms above the neighbouring buildings, marking the skyline as some kind of monument to the legacy of affordable plastic toys we all received as kids in Australia.

Although we didn't have a lot of time to get out and about, we did make it to the night markets in the northern sector of Taipei. Here, live snakes were for sale, as medicine.

Markets are very similar in format throughout Asia. Wares are displayed and prices often haggled. As a general rule, they're also good places to buy freshly squeezed juice.

We tried some Taiwanese beer. It tasted a little like Korean beer with a mysterious aftertaste.

It was okay.

Anthony and I also thought it would be nice to visit a temple. Taiwanese Buddhist temples seem to have a lot of red and gold, while Korean temples have a lot more of the aqua-green colour.

The conference consisted of about 250 industry representatives. The man in the photo is Dr William Summerskill, a senior editor for The Lancet (a British medical journal) and a very pleasant man. That title slide in the background is one I made for our director.

Anthony and I delivered presentations on topics related to the Korean clinical trial industry. It seemed to go well. 

The conference was fairly good overall, and we exchanged a small fortune in business cards.

Here are some members from our entourage. The man in the middle is Dr Kim, our director and a man of considerable generousity. On the far right is Dr Lee, a rather important individual currently entrusted with US$1 billion in Korean government funding. The pharmaceutical world operates on financial numbers a few orders higher than the normal world.

This dish is a speciality that even some Taiwanese locals have not tried.  It's made with the reproductive glands of a male saltwater fish, which, due to their reproductive strategy, are much larger than one might expect. It's served with spring onions and hoisin sauce.

As fluent Konglish speakers would say, "It is believed to be good for the mans."

And this is a bottle of Taiwanese spirits, at 58% ethanol content. It tastes a little like the long lost cousin of soju, sent away for an exotic education in a tropical country.

These fried critters are another speciality called Dragonballs. They're the orbicular muscles of the mouth of squid, fried in batter. The mouths of squid are collected and the beaks discarded before cooking.

The taste was good, although very much like any other part of the squid.

It rained a lot in Taiwan when we were there. A kind of warm, sticky rain, not particularly unpleasant but better if absent. Our time there consisted of dashing into taxis between the hotel and the conference venue.

On the final night, we went to a nightclub near the Taipei 101 called Club Myst. Anthony was particularly fond of this place, although I found it to be a bit noisy and crowded.

And one of the other tasks we're entrusted with as representatives, is to welcome people from Seoul to the waters of Busan. To do this, we sometimes hire a yacht, complete with onboard booze and a Korean captain. Yachts like these can fit around 20 people, and a guided tour of the surrounding waters will cost around US$900 for two hours. Part of the deal is that Anthony and I are allowed to jump overboard when we're out at sea.

Here are some of the people we took boating last year, from Dr Kim's night classes.

The journeys are very enjoyable, at sunset, allowing us to go under the Gwangali Bridge.

This is the new Dongbaek Island residential development. I think those taller buildings are around 80 floors high.

By now, it may seem that we have a pretty sweet job with the hospital. We do have more than our fair share of fun, but there's also a lot of stress and hard work involved. This past week I edited medical manuscripts, around 100 pages in total. Manuscripts are articles written for academic journals, and tidying them up for submission can be somewhat daunting. 

Nonetheless, I'm happy that Anthony's uncle hooked the job up for us. And although I enjoy incessantly annoying him with my sarcastic emailing skills, Anthony is proving to be a good working partner.

Finding good part-time work in Korea depends on a lot of things. It gets easier for those who have lived here longer, because it allows an understanding of the hierarchical nature of the social environment. There are also a few other quirks. Finding work in any of the big cities is best done through people you are close to. 

After that, a bit of hard work and a resilience toward exasperatingly illogical situations can also be helpful.