Tuesday, December 29, 2009

South River Toastmasters 10th Anniversary

A doctoral degree really demands your full and undivided attention, if you want to do it properly. Like a newborn child, it penetrates every aspect of your existence, even creeping into your dreams as an uninvited guest. After an extended period of time, it will eventually transform your personality into one probably less sociable and often preoccupied with thoughts other than those relevant for the immediate situation.

In an effort to counteract my slow transformation into a stereotypical proto-professor, I'm making mild efforts to reclaim the last remaining vestiges of my social skills. Luckily, the Toastmasters are here to help me. Recently, the South River Toastmasters celebrated their 10 year anniversary at Amorzio in the Posco building.

Heather has been an avid enthusiast of the Toastmasters experience since her arrival in Seoul. She's been going to both SRTM and the Neowiz clubs, but unfortunately her new job is starting next week so she'll have to cut back. She just landed a vice branch manager position at a private language academy near our house.

We arrived early on the day because James, Alice, Catherine and I were on the planning committee for the event. It takes a lot just to organise an evening at a nice place, but with the right team members, it all falls into place in the end.

The members and guests of SRTM started rocking up and it wasn't long before the bottles of wine were mysteriously opened. SRTM has a long history with members from all over the world. There are some that only come back to gatherings like this, because they're too busy with their work or families.

Because we're all about improving our communication skills, a Toastmasters event is probably the single best place in the world to strike up an interesting conversation with someone.

Here's Heather with some of her new SRTM friends. She's been attending so well that she quickly grew out of her old name of Lee's Wife, and people call her Heather now.

I actually preferred Lee's Wife, myself.

James ran the main part of the agenda for the evening which included messages from past presidents and the club awards. I was the MC and also ran a trivia session called "How well do you know SRTM?"
We gave out bottles of wine as prizes and I think it went fairly well.

These days I quite like public speaking, but it really is something that you need to keep up the practice with. If you speak on a regular basis, it becomes pretty easy. But because I'm busy, I get in about one speech every seven weeks. So I have to deal with a small but annoying amount of adrenaline. If only my primitive subconscious would realise the pointlessness of the fight-or-flight response in such situations. I believe it is the amygdala that is partially responsible.

Unfortunately a non-removable part of the brain.

Overall the night was pretty successful and we're looking forward to the next 10 years of SRTM. Thanks go out to the past presidents and officers who sent back congratulatory messages for the event. Hopefully next year I'll have a little more free time to finish my CC award at the club. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

See you soon!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hiking at Gwanaksan

Although geologically stable with no traces of volcanic murmurings today, the Korean peninsula was once a tectonic hotbed of activity. The remaining legacy of that era is a nation criss-crossed with mountain ranges to such an extent that only 2% of the country has sufficient lowlands to support permanent crops.

But for the common plebs who hold less interest in such non-newsworthy affairs, this just means that there are lots of mountains to climb.

Our professor, like most Koreans of the sterner generation, often sings the praises of a good hike in the mountains. I myself quite like hiking also, having done a fair bit of it in the Flinders Ranges as a young lad. It's a good way to catch up on conversation, in between gasps of mountain air.

Gwanaksan is the mountain lying behind the Seoul National University campus. It's name literally means 'Mountain of the Hat-Shaped Peak', because a gwanak is a traditional Korean hat that apparently Gwanaksan resembles. Although it lies right in the middle of metropolitan Seoul, the urban sprawl has gone around, instead of over it.

Here's Professor Ingyu Hwang, having a rest before contemplating a dash to the summit. He's an interesting chap, although in Korean culture I wouldn't be allowed to refer to him as a chap or a fellow or any such word. Professors in Korea are revered as superior forms of the human condition, a cultural curiousity I have yet to fully acknowledge.

The weather was starting to get a little chilly, but the views were worth getting out of bed for. These photos are much clearer than my eyesight was on the day. I'm often spending the days staring at tiny tubes filled with liquids and writing miniature labels on things, so my eyesight is going a bit funny. I've gotten so used to writing small labels, I can put a whole bunch of information on the lid of an Eppendorf tube, which is only slightly larger than a pea.

Here's Se-Kyung, scrambling her way up the precipice. Se-Kyung is a pleasant lab member who is only 2 weeks away from graduating in her masters degree. Masters degrees in Korea are two years, while PhDs are usually at least four.

Because I spend a lot of my time cutting up leaves and putting them on microscope slides, I tend to view the autumn colours a little too analytically. The same problem occurs when I eat leafy salads - I become fixated on the vein patterns. I also once knew a dental student called Tina, and I always wondered if she couldn't help but indulge in a brief inspection whenever someone smiled at her.

In Korea, they call the condition 'job disease'.

And after hiking for 3 hours we found a nice little taegukki at the top. I'm a fan of the Korean and Australian flags, because there's a lot happening on them. Some flags only have a couple of different colours, or a stripe. Which is fine, also.

After a day up and down the mountain, we went to Bangbae district to eat barbecued beef. Whenever I take a photo of Se-Kyung, she either tries to avoid the camera, or does a little pose like this. It's an amusingly cartoon-like quality.

These days I'm not drinking nearly as much as I used to, which is a good thing. Long gone are the days when I could drink on a Monday and sleep it out on the Tuesday. But I'm saving up all of my sobriety for when I graduate, and then I'm going to drown four years of undervalued labour all at once. I look forward to seeing you at the bar when it happens.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Back in Korea

Married life is pretty much the same as non-married life, except that you get to live together and your mother-in-law will start dropping subtle hints about grandchildren. Life in Seoul continues as normal in most other ways, but overall I would have to say that being married is better than not being married.

At this point it's tempting to add a sharp quip like "Thus far." But I won't, because my wife will most likely frown at me after reading it.

We're pretty lucky with accommodation on campus, because we've got a larger place for a cheaper price. And there are two bars within walking distance. Next year we're applying for the Hoam Faculty housing, which is even better than what we have now. The waiting list is long, but if we get the timing right, we could stay on campus until I graduate. Most people have to leave college housing after 2 years, but if you swap buildings at the right time, you can reset your countdown.

Also nearby is the Nakseongdae Park, which was recently renovated into a large community venue. The second Seoul International Jazz Festival was held here in October, so we went along to have a look. Heather and I are curious people in general, but we are more likely to investigate anything that is free and near our house.

I've never been much of a music person. Not that I don't want to be, it's just that I'm often more focused on other things. I like techno mostly, but am open to anything that sounds fit for the occasion. What I didn't know about jazz is that it's mostly improvised in real time. Call me an uncultured buffoon, but no one ever explained this to me before. But anyhow, according to that definition, jazz is now the only music that I'm able to make. And the only instrument that I play is my Knees (similar to bongo drums).

One thing that I still admire about Korea is that alcohol enjoys a more respectable social standing here. While the social elite back home often have to hide their alcoholic urges behind things like wine-tasting tours, Koreans openly encourage drinking questionably large amounts from time to time. At the Jazz Festival, they had a beer and a makkeoli wagon handing out free 'samples'. But the samples were a full cup, and you could go back and have as many as you want without having to change your hairstyle or otherwise pretend that you were a different person.

Here's Heather after three and a half standard drinks. She seems pretty happy these days.

Historically, Koreans were known for their horse-riding and archery skills. I like the idea of riding horses, but the only two times I've done it, it has been a less comfortable than expected ordeal. Scooters are faster and more easily stowable, but they don't run on straw and carrots.

Often when I watch musicians performing like this, I wonder if their behaviour is part of the performance. What I mean by this is that they'll often appear to be en-tranced in some sort of deep and ethereal connection with the music, oblivious to the conspicuously large crowd that usually isn't present during rehearsals. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing, just that I wonder if they feel compelled to look like they're enjoying it more than they really are. If I were a musician at a big concert, I'd probably be fixated on all the audience members watching me.

If you're an Australian marrying a Korean in Korea and you want to make it official, go to the Australian embassy in Jongno-gu. You need a document called a Certificate of No Impediment to Marriage. This certifies that you were not married in Australia and aren't a wanted criminal. Then you take this document to the nearby Jongno council building (5 minutes walk). They speak English there, but you'll have to fill out quite a few forms, with a lot of details about your spouse's family. Then you go back to the embassy again. You need to bring your passports and other identification. If you start around lunch time, about 2 - 3 hours later you'll be officially married.

Recently I found out that my professor likes pottery. He has an interesting collection of various relics that he showed us at his house. The one in the photo above is a 900 year old teapot from the Goryeo Dynasty. The main thing that was running through my mind at this point was 'Do Not Break The Teapot'.

I don't mind the odd piece of pottery, but like most art in general, I often don't know what I'm supposed to be looking at when I pick something like this up. But unlike the other lab members, I don't try and pretend that I do. A funny thing about Korean culture is that you're often inclined to suppress your actual thoughts and appear to be the opposite of what you're thinking.

Swine flu has come and gone in Korea. The epidemiologists are saying that the worst of it is over, so like bird flu and SARS, it will go down in history as another Y2K. Which may be a problem, because the next virus might be the big one they've been predicting, and I'm starting to get a little desensitized to the fuss. In the photo above is a local ramyeon company's attempt at cashing in on the swine flu hype. If you buy one pack of noodles, you get some free hand sanitizer. Cunning marketing ploy, or genuine concern? Hmm, perhaps it's neither.

Anyway, now that I've finished the honeymoon blogging, I hope to return to shorter and more digestible posts. This blog is in chronological order most of the time, but the events posted now actually happened 2 months ago. Hopefully we'll catch up to recent history soon.

Have a good Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Honeymoon: An Australian Farewell

Throughout our stay in Australia, we were constantly operating on a lack of sleep. To catch up adequately would have required a good day's rest, but time was precious. I'm really looking forward to one day having a holiday where we can just wind down and relax and do absolutely nothing for a few days. But I would probably end up spoiling it by working out a way to do something constructive.

Hong's mum prepared a feast for us one night. She's an excellent home cook and makes really good Chinese soups. Cooking in a restaurant and at home are two very different things. In a restaurant, everything is prepared and at your fingertips, but at home you've gotta do it all yourself.

And with a comparably less-exciting wok flame.

I never thought much of cheese when I was in Australia, but I do like a bit of gorgonzola from time to time. Koreans are starting to open up a little more to cheese these days, but they put some shocking stuff on their pizzas. Pizza cheese in Korea is a white rubbery synthetic polymer with cheese-like qualities.

Forensic scientists would have a difficult time identifying it.

This is Hong. He and I go way back to 'lunchtime chess games in the school library' days. Hong is a top bloke, and is the kind of guy who would remain calm if you rang him to tell him you crashed his car. Recently he's been getting into photography and bought himself an Olympus faux-vintage camera. It looks like an old school film camera, but it has a digital soul.

Here's Hong showing his brother and Vu all of the different aspects of an Olympus with a 14-42mm kit lens.

We ate dinner with some old friends at the Nu Thai restaurant in Adelaide Chinatown one night. It's a pretty small place and I don't think it really qualifies as a 'town' per se. More like a ChinaAlleyWay.

From left to right in the photo above is Cherry, Vu, Yeung, Hong, Me, Heather and three quarters of Mai*.

*Depending on which browser you are using. Firefox chops off the photo to make it fit, while Google Chrome extends it into the sidebar.

After we had some pretty good Thai tucker*, we went back to Hong's house to drink some wine. Australian wine is cheap and generally of a good quality. We used to drink it a lot when we were younger because it's classy and doesn't make you feel bloated like beer does. Back in the day, I used to walk to Hong's place and we'd down a few bottles and talk until the early morning hours. Then I'd stumble back home and wake up around midday.

And hey look everyone, Yeung's holding a teapot.

*Tucker (noun): colloquial Australian slang for 'food'.

Here are some photos of us from the 90's, when we were teenagers. All of our ex-girlfriends are there too. It's funny to think back to those times and remember how much we thought we knew about the world.

Once upon a time I used to be a raver. Techno always struck a chord with me and I enjoyed a self-awakening during the raving years. Although you'd never tell from looking at my clammy skin and lab-weary figure nowadays.

If you've never been to a rave party, it's something you need to do at least once. I guess it's not everyone's cup of tea though.

And it's good to see that at least some of us haven't lost our groove. Hong once invented his own personal version of Tae-Bo, known locally as Hong-Bo. It had a small following of around seven guys, at its peak.

Hong's dog, Pow-Pow, is a finicky creature. He doesn't get along with strangers and will often take a bite at most people. I used to pat him a lot, back in the day, but he still took a while to recognise me. He didn't like Heather so much though. One night, Heather came back a little tipsy and wanted to hug his face. Pow responded with a loud bark and an open-mouth charge, leaving a scratch on her temple. Heather passed out for a good 10 seconds.

He has a habit of staring at you with an eye-of-the-tiger look.

Korean barbecues and Australian barbecues are similar and different to each other. Both involve socialising with friends, an unhealthy amount of meat and an association with alcohol. But Australian barbecues have sausages. And that fact alone is what makes them superior.

Especially when Yeung is cooking.

And this is Hong's mum. As an adolescent boy growing up, I often ate her cooking and benefited greatly from her kindness. She's a pretty popular figure in our social circles back home and has a very loud but friendly nature.

"LEE! You EAT? My cooking, you EAT - VERY NICE!"

On our last night in Australia, we had a few friends over at Hong's place and had some catching up to do. We used to be a little naughty in our younger years, so it's good to see everyone grown up and getting it all together.

Heather decided to get an Australian haircut for the occasion.

Overwhelmed by the courageous trend-setting by Heather, Hong was inspired to do the same.

And even old Pows got in on the act.

Yeung and Damien found it easy to entertain Mai. They were demonstrating how to pose for photos in a natural way.

It wasn't long before the first casualties of the night appeared. Hong soon performed his trademarked Sleep-in-the-Chair manoeuvre, possibly due to the fact that Mai overspiked his drink with a cocktail of rocket fuel.

This is Damien. He normally goes by the name of Damo, or D-Mac, or according to him, Polish Legend or Polish Hero. He's a very funny guy and a good friend. In this photo he's allowing an exclusive viewing of his underwear for the LKB readers. He only does this on very special occasions.

If you look closely, you can see the authentic D & G sign.

Here's the aftermath of the night. In Australia you can recycle bottles for money. Back when I was young, it used to be 5 cents per bottle, but I think it's gone up to ten cents now. Korea has a very comprehensive recycling program that is embraced by a large percentage of the population.

And then all of a sudden it was time to say goodbye. With only 6 nights in Australia, it did feel as if we were leaving a little early, but that's life. The two little kiddies in the photo above are Mary's daughter's offspring. I forgot their names.

Here's Dad and his partner, Mary, with the two little kiddies. Dad babysits them a lot these days.

And my buddies came to see us off too. We had a good time in Australia, due in no small part to the warm hospitality of the Ho family.

The trip home was fairly relaxing. In between bouts of being woken for meals, I watched quite a few interesting documentaries. The on-board entertainment systems these days have a lot to choose from.

And near the equator we saw this sunset out of the plane window. I guess that the effect is due to a higher altitude.

During our quick stop-over at Hong Kong airport, we decided to spend our last foreign money on a 3am laksa. It'll be a long time before we get to eat one of these again.

And I have to admit, I was looking forward to getting back home a little, and to a predictable routine again. Travelling is exciting, but on a tight schedule it's also draining to the point where you look forward to sleeping in your own bed again. We arrived back as newly weds in Seoul around 8am in the morning. But the honeymoon was still great and it was a long overdue holiday for the both of us. Catching up with old friends reminded me why I need to return home one day. It was also a good beginning to married life, which is going well.

Since then we've settled in nicely. Our honeymoon was nearly two months ago now, but it's taken me this long to catch up on all the blogging. From the next post onwards, we're back in Korea again. See you soon!