Monday, May 11, 2009

Toastmasters in Korea

Although I like to think of myself as a rather tough and emotionally hardy man of sorts, a few months of living alone in Seoul seems to have drained me of something. Is it the lonesome daily treks back to the dormitories at midnight? Is it the lack of contact with an older and more familiar social network? Is it my crazy laboratory senior, Hoon Cheong, who ignores me everyday? I know not.
But what I do know is that when you're feeling in the blues, there's always something you can do about it. That is, apart from whinging on your blog.

So I decided to pull in the reins a bit, slow down the pace of lab work, and explore some different avenues. Toastmasters is the name of an international social group, kind of like Rotary. It's a non-profit organisation aimed at improving your public speaking. I found out about it a long time ago on the internet, but recently decided to go along and see what it was all about.

So every Wednesday now, I leave the lab at 6pm and head down to Gangnam. Getting off at 6pm on a weekday is unheard of if you know about the work ethic of doctoral students in Korea. But variety is the spice of life.

I like the architecture in the Gangnam area, which is a refreshing change from the sentinel-like apartment blocks that litter the suburban landscape. It's pretty easy to make a building more exciting, all you need to do is take out a chunk and raise it up a bit, like they did with this one.

There are quite a few Toastmasters clubs in Seoul, but the closest one to me is the South River Toastmasters, which is located in the building above. It's directly behind the large Pagoda building at subway exit 6. If you want to come along, meetings are at 7:30pm on Wednesdays.

So basically what happens is everyone sits down and listens to some prepared speeches. To give a speech, you have to become a member, and to become a member, you have to be eligible. I went by myself on the first day and found the speeches to be of a surprisingly good quality. Each presentation has specific guidelines, a time limit and is evaluated by an experienced member. The audience all vote on which speeches are the best, and the winners get ribbons. The meetings run smoothly and the large majority of speeches are quite entertaining.

Intrigued by my first experience at South River Toastmasters, I decided to further my knowledge. The following weekend, I went up to Hongik University, to drop in on Sincheon Toastmasters. The clubs are all run independently, but have loose links with each other. The Hongik University area is colloquially referred to as Hongdae. The photo above is of the campus basketball court.

The atmosphere at this one was a little different. It was more cozy and had less people, which is good if you want to talk for the first time. I talked for one of the 'Table Topics', which are impromptu speeches that non-members are allowed to give. My topic was supposed to be about free trade agreements, but it evolved into something about mad cow disease. Oh well.
Hopefully I'll be in the running for the 'most improved' award.

According to some poll somewhere, fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is ranked right next to fear of death. There's probably an explanation for the fight-or-flight response, but I've always wanted to be a better speaker. Especially seeing as I plan on being a lecturer someday, and I don't want to put my students to sleep.

A short while after that, I went along to another club, called Neowiz Toastmasters. It's in the building above (near Samseong station) and meetings are on Thursday nights.
Am I becoming infatuated with this whole Toastmasters business? I don't think so.

Moderately intrigued would be a better way to put it.

Neowiz is a computer game publishing company. I'm not familiar with their games, but they operate FIFA online, which is pretty popular at the PC rooms. Neowiz Toastmasters is held in the company building and a lot of employees attend the meetings.

This is Chris. I like Chris because he reminds me of my brother Chris (in Australia). Incidentally, his full name is Chris Lee.
Chris goes to both South River and Neowiz. In the photo above, he's busy organising the meeting agenda.

Neowiz is a new club, and has only been around for 4 weeks. Still, the presentations were entertaining and in general all of the clubs have a very supportive atmosphere. If there's a Toastmasters in your area, I advise you to check it out one day. There are over 12,000 clubs worldwide.

But the best thing about Toastmasters is that after every meeting, you go out for 'Round 2' which involves alcohol and food.
It's a good place to meet nice people. My theory is that everyone likes to drink and meet new people, all we need is an excuse.
I'll probably keep going to Toastmasters for my remaining years in Seoul.

In the last blog post, I showed you a restaurant named Pomato. This week's entry for the funny name award is the one above. The name translates to 'Squid Brothers'.

Now we're back in the lab again. Lab work moves in short bursts punctuated by longer periods of waiting. In the photo above is some E.coli on a selective plate. The colonies are blue because they're holding a gene that causes a reaction with the gel that they're sitting on. There are all sorts of tricks you can use to identify the bacteria that you're looking for.

I walk past the library everyday and each week there is a new exhibit. Last week was a collection of photography. The little Post-Its that you can see are notes that students have left behind, commenting on the photos. It's kind of like an internet bulletin board, but in real life.

Here's one of the photos. The blue Post-It below says gwi-yopda, which means 'cute'.

I went back to that small Chinese restaurant in Suwon with the eccentric owners. This time I went with Chen-Jing, who can understand the menu. In the photo above are some pork ribs and snow peas.

These are my 'knock-out' plants, which have been engineered to lack a particular gene. Because of the mutation, they grow a lot slower than normal plants.

I have to head down to the greenhouse every week or so to water the plants. Next to the greenhouse area is the old campus that our university used to use as the main agricultural department. In 2002, this department merged with the main campus in Gwanak-gu.

Last Saturday I walked around the old campus to take some photos. These photos are actually for Dr Jung-Gun Kim, a senior member of our lab who left before I arrived. He's working at Stanford University now and reads this blog occasionally. Dr Kim spent a lot of time at this campus, so I'm posting these photos to bring some memories back for him.

A couple of buildings are still being used for administration purposes, but most of the campus is becoming overgrown.

Parts are starting to fall off some of the buildings, making it unsafe to walk inside. But the atmosphere here is nice and peaceful.

I think our professor said that the old lab was on level 3, four rooms across from the entrance door. So I guess it's the one with the pipe coming down in front of it.

I heard once that if all humans suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth, it would only take around 50 years for plant life to reclaim the cities. Another thing I heard was that if all insects suddenly disappeared, the food chain would completely collapse after a few years. But if humans disappeared, the ecosystems would flourish.

I was always a keen environmentalist when I was young, and it's still something that often crosses my mind. I was actually donating $10 per month to Greenpeace for the past 5 years, but recently stopped. Half of the reason was because I'm low on money these days, and the other half is due to their unwavering opposition to biotechnology. Probably the first reason more than the latter though.
My personal thoughts are that advances in biotechnology overall are better for the environment, creating less need for fertilizers and pesticides. Genetically engineered crops also make more efficient use of the available land, which means better usage of water and less need for labour. We need to be careful with what we invent, because there are risks. But the same arguments apply to nuclear energy (which has had its fair share of opposition). Many people say that GM food is all 'artificial', but what isn't artificial these days? Commercial varieties of wheat and rice that you buy in the supermarket are very different from their wild cousins. All of the breeds of dog that you see in the world today, from chihuahuas to dalmations, all came from only 3 species of wolf. Humans have in-bred them, selecting for desired traits. This has always been genetic engineering, but without laboratory finesse. There's also nothing natural about earth's human overpopulation problem. Genetic engineering is about applying science to genetics, which encounters opposition from those who believe life is special. My argument is not that life isn't special, it's that we've been tampering with it for hundreds of years already.

Anyway, time for me to get off my soapbox.

I found these band-aids in the supermarket but didn't have my camera with me at the time. Luckily they were only 70 cents, so I bought them. Presumably they are for chaffed nipples.

That's all from me. See you next time!

Oh, and remember to check out Toastmasters someday.


Unknown said...

hey, just wanna say that i really enjoy ur posts. ur writing style is casual, yet still informative. makes for a good read. and having so many pics allows us to feel like we're sharing in ur experiences. many thanks.

Lee Farrand said...

Well, thanks for the thanks Jason

CheaYee said...


ya, in what language does Toastmasters take place?

I am checking out the Toastmasters in my place (Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia)

Nevr been to one, so have no idea waht takes place. >.<

Lee Farrand said...

Most of them are in English, but I heard there are some in other languages. Good luck!

xenok said...

The "exciting" building you referred to is the HQ for the Samsung Group.

Glad to see you're active with all the Toastmasters club in Korea. There are 14 total charter clubs and about 9 of them are in Seoul. Plan to visit them all?

When are you planning your icebreaker speech?

Lee Farrand said...

Unfortunately don't have the time for much more Toastmaster tourism, so I think I'll settle in with SRTM.

Icebreaker speech coming up on June 3rd. Now all I need is a plan...

Nepal said...

Hey ..Lee ...I was looking for Chinese restaurants in Suwon and stubbled upon your blog was the chinese restaurant in Suwon? ...was it authentic? ..and if you know where it is will be really helpful ...craving for some authentic chinese food. Thanks ...

my email -

my blog -

Lee Farrand said...

It's authentic, but not so great. Close to DaVichi optical store over the road from Suwon station near where you catch the 55XX bus to Seoul.