Saturday, February 27, 2010

Se-Kyung's Graduation from SNU

In the title header for this blog it says that I'm 'currently in the midst' of a PhD. Sooner or later I think I'm going to have to update that statement to 'currently somewhere in the mists'. While I realised that it wasn't going to be a walk in the park, the difficulty of studying here has surpassed a lot of my expectations.
Some difficulties arise from the logistical quagmire of modern molecular biology, but most are related to the eccentricities of particular joyless lab colleagues who have perhaps spent too much time inhaling volatile chemicals. My project interests me greatly, but life continues in a surreal kind of personal stalemate, where half of me wants to escape the difficulties and the other half won't let me.

But at the end of every academic tunnel there is a light. It's sometimes so miniscule that some may completely miss the tiny 7-photon emission, which, incidentally, is the minimum amount of light that a human eye can detect. Luckily for us though, a divinely selected labmate will occasionally accelerate towards the end, and finally emerge in a blazing fireball of scholastic glory, leaving behind the formless abyss that is grad student life.
Its beckoning glow encourages the rest of us, still meandering aimlessly in the murky mudpools of the pre-thesis swamp.

Yesterday, that is exactly what happened to our master's student, Se-Kyung Kim. More or less.

Se-Kyung just completed a 2 year degree here, after probably what seemed like an eternity for her. She spent countless hours repeating cell counts, running centrifuges and inoculating rice plants in the fields of Iksan. All of the hard work finally paid off and it was time for her to graduate.

Here she is with Eun-Hye, her favourite lunchtime buddy and lab gossip correspondent. The view in the background is of Gwanaksan, which is a mountain close to our campus.

And here are the three of us, as portrayed by my camera. I propped it up on a nearby post, with a 10 second detonation fuse.
Although it looks like I'm making the famous Korean loveheart sign with my hands, it's entirely accidental.
Apparently that's the way I like to hold my camera case in photos.

Korean labs are a minefield of unwritten customs and etiquette. Successful navigation often comes second nature to those who grew up here, but for the rest of us it's often a matter of trial-and-explosion. Hong-sup is a lab senior and passive-aggressive enforcer of the status-quo, but I don't mind him too much. He's certainly a lot nicer than the other senior we have, whose name we shall not mention, lest we taint the ethical purity that this blog has become.

More or less.

And on the left there is Gi-Yong, one of our new students who spent 14 years studying in Vancouver. She's Korean, but westernised to a delightful extent.

Se-Kyung has quite a lot of friends from the other labs on level 5, some of whom graduated simultaneously. Sujin used to study in the Clinical Plant Pathology Lab and was also a cheerful character to have around. It's sad to see them leave.

So what do you do when you graduate from a master's degree? You buy yourself a nice handbag to celebrate.
This is Se-Kyung's new handbag that matched her graduation gown quite admirably. I wonder if it was intentional.
She recently applied, and was accepted into Samsung Hospital as a cancer researcher.

Congratulations Se-Kyung and all the best for future!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vote For LiNK

Here's something I think is worthwhile, mentioned on two of the best Korea-related blogs, ROKdrop and the Marmot's Hole. Pepsi is running a contest for good ideas, and the two with the most votes will win US$250K.

Photo credit: Table Talk

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) wants to use the money to help North Korean refugees adapt to life in the US. They're ranked at number 4 now, but even if they don't win, it's still good publicity for the plight of refugees who somehow manage to escape from one of the most brutal dictatorships in history.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Shinsegae Centum City, Busan

When I first came to Korea, I was eating Korean barbecue at least three times a week. Contrary to my initial hasty assumptions, one cannot predominantly subsist on meat and leafy vegetables without some degree of inevitable toilet trouble. Since then I've dropped my barbecue intake to about once a month, which has worked a lot better.

Heather used to complain whenever I posted up a funny looking photo of herself here, but I think she's gradually gotten used to it. One thing we did for the first time on this occasion was to take the excess uncooked meat that we ordered back home with us. The waiter wrapped it up in a bag for us without any fuss.

Although we originally planned to visit Busan every month or so, we're only managing to make it a few times per year. Since I was there last, Shinsegae have built the world's largest department store at Centum City, so we went along to have a look.
The claim reminded me of the World's Largest Things that South Australia has. Back home we have the World's Largest Orange, the World's Largest Rocking Horse and the World's Largest Lobster, all of which I have been to and are either inedible or non-functional.

Maybe in the lab one day I can make the World's Largest Plasmid Extraction. But that would only be exciting to a very small number of people.

Well, the place is nice, and big. There isn't really a central area that showcases its scale, but you get an idea after you walk around in the different sections. In terms of shopping, I think it's only arbitrarily more convenient than your average department store because there's so much walking to do.
You could buy just about anything here, but how often are you going to need to buy a laptop and a kitchen sink on the same day anyway?

It was fairly crowded that day and even though it was in the middle of winter, the ice cream outlets were packed. You can see Heather and her brother on the right of this photo, waiting patiently. But we eventually gave up and took our ice-cream patronage elsewhere.

So we found an ice-cream place that didn't have much of a lineup and ordered the 'Grande' size cup to share. With a name like Grande, I was expecting something a little more awe-inspiring than the little scoop we ended up getting. But in the end, we comforted ourselves just knowing that Grande or not, we were still sitting in the World's Largest Department Store.


And what better place to enjoy an ice-cream in the middle of winter in the World's Largest Department store, but next to an ice rink? Korean kiddies have to wear swimming caps at every swimming pool and safety helmets at every ice rink.

At least they're not Stackhats.

One business concept they're promoting at Shinsegae is called Cine' de Chef. The idea is that you sit in your own private booth and order food like in a restaurant, but there's also a flatscreen TV. If you pay a combined price, you can watch the latest cinema-release movies while you eat.

To me, it seems like they're making the dinner-and-movies idea a little too easy.

There wasn't anything particularly unique about the whole complex, but the interior design was nice. For people who are sightseeing around Busan, I think you can give it a miss unless you really like shopping. We spent about four hours there and then went back to Heather's place to wind down from all the eye-shopping*.

*Eye-shopping is Konglish for 'window shopping'.

And here's Heather's little niece, Ji-Woo, who somehow learned to walk since I saw her last. Babies grow so quickly, and I still remember her facial expression on the day she was born. It was all wrinkled up and then she gave her first-ever yawn to the world.
Probably a lot more of them to come when she gets older and starts reading Lee's Korea Blog.


See you soon.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Vietnamese Beef Noodles (Diệu Hiền Quận)

Phở, otherwise known as Vietnamese beef noodle soup, is one of the few things I really crave for in Korea. Australia has a healthy Vietnamese community in the larger cities, facilitating convenient and tasty phở access after any long night out. The dish is also popular in Korea (called ssalguksu), available at generic chain restaurants like Phở bay, Czen Phở and Phở Hoa. But chain store phở in Korea is a rather disappointing affair of low grade noodles, overcooked beef brisket, absence of herbs and instant soup powder boiled with bones overnight. It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't overpriced at W8,000 per bowl, because equally good W4,000 galbitang is available at any local kimbapcheonguk.

A while ago, I found a review for the Quan Vietnam restaurant in Ansan on ZenKimchi Dining. Ansan is outside of Seoul and has a large multicultural community, kind of like Itaewon, but without the trendy bars. It's 45 minutes south of Sadang if you take the subway on Line 4. So that adds up to about 1 and a half hours of travelling just for a bowl of noodles.

On ZenKimchi, it's listed as the Quan Vietnam restaurant, although I think the real name is Diệu Hiền Quận. Heather and I found it after a bit of searching.

To find the restaurant, take the blue subway line to Ansan station and go out exit 1. Go down the underpass to end up on the other side of the road, and slightly to your left you'll be able to walk down a street perpendicular to the main road, with lots of cell phone shops and multicultural restaurants. Around 50 metres down this street, there's the first street to the left. The restaurant is a few shops down and on the right of this street.

Joe from ZenKimchi usually knows what he's talking about with food in general, so I was bristling with anticipation. Good restaurants are plentiful in Korea, but there's not a lot of authentic foreign food available at grad student prices.

The place is a simple diner, with maps used as decorations and the odd photo of Vietnam. We started with some Saigon beer, after ordering from the well-worn menu. The lady who first served us didn't speak English or Korean, and even seemed a little bothered that she had to fetch another waiter who could speak a little Korean.
shops in Australia are well known for their lacklustre service, but great noodles. So I knew it was a good sign.

And yes, when the noodles arrived, they looked and smelled the way they should. Note the herbs on top and the sliced beef balls, which are not available at other places. I've probably eaten phở more than 200 times, and I noticed that the shade of the soup was different from the regular stuff we get in Seoul.

Suffice to say, the trip was worth it. The soup was flavoured authentically, the noodles were fresh and soft, and the beef flank was rare. It's these little things that all add up to make a real bowl of noodles that even my hardened Vietnamese phở friends, Anthony and John, would grunt approvingly at.

On the side we had some fried spring rolls. These are called by different names, depending on which country you come from. Although they had some dark bits, where the filling had leaked, they were excellent. I'd come all the way down here again just for these. Heather was also impressed.

On our way back to the subway station, we had a walk around the street for a while. There are a lot of things for sale down here, that can't be found in Seoul. In the photo above is frozen Durian, called sầu riêng in Vietnamese. It has a very distinctive odour and some people love it, while others hate it. I heard that it grows in trees like coconuts, and falling durians can be quite deadly.
That sounds like an idea for a new Discovery Channel series: Deadly Food.

Anyway, if you really like phở, head down to the Diệu Hiền Quận in Ansan someday.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The COEX Aquarium and a Flickr Pro Account

Chris in South Korea recommended a Flickr account for posting photos on blogs. I must say that the photos are displayed well, and it's very easy to use and link from. But unfortunately I've already used up my 200 photo limit, so after a bit of mulling around, I decided to get a US$25 pro account. Now I can upload unlimited photos for a year. The money was paid for by my awesome website sponsor, Korean Class 101, whose banner you can see on the right. So please click their link and learn lots of Korean from them.

When Hong was still here, we took him to the COEX aquarium, for lack of a more exciting idea. The COEX aquarium is a nice place, but I originally wanted to take him out to Namdaemun or somewhere more culturally relevant. But it was snowing, and Hong never minds what we do anyway. In such situations, laziness often wins.

If you've been following this blog for an unhealthy amount of time, you may remember that I already posted about this place. When I was a boy, I wanted to be a marine biologist.

And many other things as well.

Not much had really changed at COEX, except for this fish, which I hadn't seen before. I think some species of fast-river fish are best suited to a rapidly changing environment. Keeping them in an aquarium for a while would probably be bad for their mental health, and I'm sure that at least some of them have personality disorders by now. This one was just staring listlessly at the window, despite my efforts to stimulate it with entertaining facial expressions.

This is a two-headed turtle. Both heads were alive and functioning independently, so I guess it's a kind of siamese, or conjoined twin.

It must be interesting when they're trying to swim in different directions.

The aquarium now has two manatees, which are also known as sea cows. Manatees have a versatile upper lip which they use to gather food, much like an elephant's trunk. Manatees are among the least dangerous animals in the world, and their primary enemy is the boat propellor.

I recently heard that instead of aquariums, some people make 'mossariums'. That's when you have dirt and rocks inside, instead of fish and water. You gather some moss from any unscrupulous location nearby and put it inside. Apparently they require very little upkeep, you just have to sprinkle them with water once every few weeks and it nourishes itself from floating particles in the air.

After that we went to eat at one of our favourite Japanese bars in Gangnam, (I think it's called Dotomi) just next to exit 6. Here they sell warm sake in sandlewood boxes and nice food.

A good thing about hanging out with Heather is that she eats pretty much anything.

Even my cooking.

Lately we've made two new friends, Hyunju and Yulim. From left to right is Hyunju, Yulim, Heather, me and Hong. Yulim invited us to the MBC-Adidas marathon in a few weeks time, and unbeknownst to me, Heather had already signed us up. So I think some kind of fitness training is in order.

I've been using the slippery snow as an excuse not to go jogging these days. But that excuse is slowly melting away.

And to finish up this post is the fearless Hyunju, who appears to be biting a candle. She's a TOPIA teacher and is quite pleasant company. Yulim and Hyunju have different characters, but remarkably compatible personality types. It's something I ponder to great extent.

Have a good week everybody.