Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Quote Dump #19

"Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory."
- Leonardo da Vinci

"Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere."
- Chinese proverb

"If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it."
- Margaret Fuller

Friday, August 27, 2010

Wiki Rummage #6: Octopuses

Wikipedia's biggest pull factor for me is that the large majority of articles are presented in a succinct and relevant way. Complex topics are often simplified for the layperson, but simple topics usually contain comprehensive information that your average joe wouldn't know. A good example of these kinds of articles are the ones on ants, chickens and today's article, on the humble octopus.

Octo means eight, and -pus comes from the word pous, meaning foot. This gives a whole new dimension to the expression 'pussy footing', which actually, now that I think about it, is probably a feline reference. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the plural form as octopuses, which is the right way to say it. Despite what you may have been led to believe, the word 'octopi' is a hypercorrection, and less accurate. That's because 'octopus' is not a purely Latin word, it's a Latinisation of the Greek third-declension masculine. If the word were truly Latin, it would be octopes, with the plural form of octopedes.

If you want to be cool, you can use the alternative plural which is octopodes.

Our octopode friends are cephalopod molluscs, evolutionary descendants of shellfish and cousins of snails. I believe the technical term is 'squishy'.
As masters of disguise, they can mimic highly complex backgrounds with their skin, even forming small knobbly protrusions to get the texture right. They also employ jet propulsion to escape and can expel ink to confuse predators, including hungry Korean hae-nyo.

In fact, no organism is more worthy of the non-existent Animal Magician of the Year Award. To compensate for this minor injustice, Lee's Korea Blog has decided to hereby invent and dedicate this inaugural award to octopuses everywhere.

Mental round of applause please.

See, this is what I'm talking about. The video above is showing an octopus disguising itself as a coconut bobbing along the ocean floor. The only tell-tale sign is that you can see two little pedes, which are sneakily providing locomotion.
We will just ignore, for the time being, that an intelligent predator may realise that most coconuts actually float. Full points for creativity.

Octopuses are intelligent animals, described by divers as having distinct personalities. Some are aggressive, while others can be timid, curious and even friendly. In the UK they are legally defined as 'honorary vertebrates', subject to animal rights protection. They have three hearts and blue blood, because they use copper-based hemocyanin to carry oxygen rather than the hemoglobin common to mammals.

Apart from being munched upon, a major cause of death for octopuses is reproduction. Males will die within a few months of mating and females commit programmed suicide if they are not predated upon. After taking care of their eggs, girl octopuses can secrete endocrines from their dual optic glands which knocks them out like cyanide.

Because octopus arms are highly complex, their brains do not have the processing capacity to form a mental picture of what their arms are doing overall. Instead their brains just issue basic commands, and the nerve cords in the arms figure out what to do. There are no feedback systems in place to let the brain know what an arm just did, so the octopus learns what happened by watching the outcome.

Octopuses have also been seen playing with bottles in captivity and have a reputation for escaping from aquariums without a fixed lid. A story I heard when I was young was that an elementary school classroom once had a tank with live crabs in it. Across the room was a separate tank with a pet octopus. After a while, the crabs started disappearing and so eventually the teachers installed a CCTV camera to figure out who was taking them. Lo and behold, the tape revealed that the crafty octopus was escaping its tank at night, walking across the classroom, feasting on the crabs and then walking back to its own tank. They have even been known to board fishing boats and open holds containing a fisherman's catch. 

Which is technically not piracy, but maritime theft, I believe.

And finally, octopus wrestling involves a diver, preferably without breathing apparata, wrestling with an octopus and bringing it to the surface. It was pretty popular in the 1960s.

Here's a quote from the article:
"All this while O'Rourke was becoming perhaps the world's greatest authority on the thought processes and the personality of the octopus. He knew how to outmaneuver them, to outflank them, and to outthink them. He knew full well, many years ago, what today's octopus wrestlers are just beginning to learn--that it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a Full Nelson on an octopus; he knew full well the futility of trying for a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches."

Man and octopus are probably destined to misunderstand each other for an eternity, due to their alien-like appearance and competing culinary interests. We also tend to limit their romanticism to Cthulu mythology and odd fetishes.

But the next time you dine on a takoyaki or jjukkumi, ponder the revelation that you'd probably not be so handsome either, if your body plan included eight arms and a beak.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Quote Dump #18

"Chess should not become an obsession. Otherwise there’s a danger that you will slide off into a parallel world, that you lose your sense of reality, get lost in the infinite cosmos of the game. You become crazy. I make sure that I have enough time between tournaments to go home in order to do other things. I like hiking and skiing, and I play football in a club." 

- Magnus Carlson (youngest world chess champion in history, at 17 years of age)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cheese Neurons and Tea-fee

Since coming to Korea, I've noticed that I enjoy kimchi much less than I used to. When I was young, my sister and I used to go nuts for kimchi and basically run a victory lap around the house at the mere mention of its existence. We even used to make amateur kimchi using the wrong cabbage (western 'round' cabbage), which was technically more of a poorly-sliced chilli sauerkraut. Our youthful imaginations learned to compensate, and to us it was nearly as good as the real thing.
But because I eat the stuff everyday now, the neuron cluster responsible for kimchi enjoyment in my brain has been overstimulated and desensitized.

The opposite appears to be true for my cheese neurons. Korea is quite possibly the most cheese-deprived nation in the OECD, and it's a well known fact that an extended sojourn in Korea can increase one's cheddar hypersensitivity. Patrik from Sweden arrived in the country with a much higher dependence on all major cheese groups than me, and it was only a matter of weeks before the tell-tale signs of withdrawal set in. He was soon trekking all the way out to COEX mall from SNU station, just to buy New York Fries.
I'd never had these before, and he led me there one day. New York Fries is a Canadian franchise that sell all manner of kamjatwiggim topped with melted cheese, sour cream and whatever else your impending myocardial infarction desires.

We periodically receive banchan from lovely mother-in-law, who expresses her affection for us in kimchi kilos. It's not uncommon for us to receive more than we can consume, leading to Overstocked Fridge Syndrome.

Here's a typical spread of a mother-in-law-sponsored breakfast. Sometimes when I'm by myself, I get too lazy to make rice so I just whack some banchan in between two slices of bread.

I call it an EMW sandwich (East Meets West).

Here are the dusk silhouettes of Heather and me during one of our campus strolls. Heather wanted people to call her Ka-Hee for a while, but she seems to be less mindful of it these days. I started calling her Heather again in real life and the worst that happens is that I get tickled for punishment.

So, Heather it is.

I had to go to immigration to renew my F4 visa last week. I've now been in Korea for 4 years and my visa was renewed for another 3. Am I sick of this place yet? Well, not really. Korea has it's frustrations, but that isn't unique to any particular country. And thanks to the hard work of GOA'L a few years ago, the process for obtaining an F4 visa is refreshingly easy.

That's Heather's Yogi Bear shirt. She likes to wear different old shirts around the house. There are three main ones, which I've entitled Yogi Bear, Lonsdale and The World. It's like having a different theme for each day. I like The World best, because it has a small amount of geographical information.

After you get married, you tend to do less grinding in the hip-hop clubs and more grinding of coffee at home.

Which is great, if you like coffee.

Sometimes in the mornings I have difficulty deciding whether I want tea or coffee. Tea is higher in antioxidants, but coffee has more of a caffeine-happy kick. The optimum solution would involve the best of both worlds.
To resolve this dilemma, I often fill a mug with 3/4 hot tea, and then 1/4 coffee. I call this drink Tea-fee. It tastes a little strange, I must admit. But variety is the spice of life.

You may like to try it for yourself sometime.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

2010 SRTM Summer Wine Party

After a good month of planning, and due to the excellent aforementioned research, the SRTM summer wine party came off as a roaring success. We attracted exactly 99 guests, from various clubs around Seoul and consumed enough wine to keep the importers in business.

We started with a few announcements from club presidents, including the elusive Joseph Jeong, who is back from Chicago for the summer. Joseph is a Malaysian food enthusiast, and I've been meaning to cook for him for so long that anything I come up with will probably fall short of inflated expectations.

And Korea appears to be one of the rare countries without a single microgram of belachan.

Here are my two favourite nunas, Alice and Judy. Even though they're Korean native speakers, when they're talking to each other at Toastmasters events, they usually stick to English. I often wonder if it's because they're being polite to eavesdroppers like myself, or just because it's confusing to switch between languages too much.

Only the nunas themselves would know...

Later in the evening, we all went up to the rooftop garden for some lively mingling. Wine parties are interesting creatures because at the peak of the night, nearly everyone is at the same level of tipsiness. If you charge $30 per person, only those who drink will attend. But because they're more civilised than a beer or a vodka party, very rarely will anyone go overboard too early.

Getting drunk and causing a scene at a wine party is technically referred to as a party foul, I believe. Such rules are more relaxed at parties featuring other drinks, say for example, Tequila.

Look, it's Chris Lee. Chris is quite popular with the ladies, and not only because he's tall. It's also because he knows how to listen well, and that's exactly what ladies look for in a man.

One day I need to confirm with Chris whether the secret is actually listening to people, or pretending to listen. My mind tends to wander after a while.

Before long it was time for the second round at the nearby Izakaya. You can tell how successful a night is by the percentage of people in attendance at Round 2. By this time we were all in pretty good spirits and having trouble coordinating a group menu together.

Tipsiness is fun, but it also distracts you from questioning the wisdom of dropping a shot of soju into a glass of beer and drinking it all at once.

And there's Yulim Sung, evidently delighted at such an enjoyable night. Yulim is one of our favourite drinking friends, but we only started hanging out with her relatively recently, and we drink less these days. If she had met us back when we were young whipper-snappers, oho... there would have been a lot of pavement collisions.

Here's a mystery man being saved from an impending pavement collision by Chris Lee. Chris's long arms allow him to handle such situations with relative ease.

And here's our very own Robert Cha, taking care of a prominent member of SRTM. On American Forces Network (a TV channel here), they call friends like Robert a 'Battle Buddy'. You need one when you go out drinking, to make sure you don't get into more mischief than you can handle.

In Australia, when we drink too much and can't remember how we magically got home the next day, we attribute it to the mythological Beer Scooter.

When was the last time you rode one?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Quote Dump #17

"Every job is a self portrait of the person who did it. Autograph your work with excellence."

"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."

"Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Yeoksam Art Nouveau City Sky Lounge

The only thing better than a potluck party, in married life, is a wine party. Although both can feature wine, a potluck requires the preparation of food, something that invariably requires the input of effort. And every closet alcoholic knows that food is just an awkward icebreaker for suggesting wine consumption, something that a wine party circumvents with a conveniently thoughtful title.
You know, I never used the term 'potluck' before I came to Korea. It probably snuck into my vocabulary via frequent interaction with North Americans. What did we call it in Australia?

Probably something like a 'bring-your-own-food party'?

Every year SRTM holds a summer wine party to facilitate comical interaction between members and guests. This year, Robert, Hyun-Gee, Johnny, Annette and I were on the organizing committee. And any wine party committee with a proper sense of responsibility will sample the wines on offer before summoning the tribe.

We chose the Yeoksam Art Nouveau City Sky Lounge as the venue. It's between Yeoksam and Seolleung subway stations, directly opposite the Renaissance Hotel.

This place is good. They have a nice cold food buffet and unlimited wine for 3 hours from 7:00 until 10:00pm every weeknight. The interior design is 20th century Victorian, I believe, apart from the blue neon lighting, which is classic Korean Star Trek decor.

Uncultured are those not of the opinion that everything goes well with neon.

My liver and I have experienced a few unlimited wine buffets in our time. If you pay less than an unreasonable amount of money, you'll often be confronted with the finest selection of $10 wines that cannot otherwise be sold. But at Art Nouveau, the wines were surprisingly good. There were Spanish, Australian, Chilean and South African wines to choose from, and all of them were enjoyably imbibable.

The food on offer was well balanced and without shortcuts. Despite being pretty far from my place, I'm planning to come back here sometime soon.

The wine and food buffet at the City Sky Lounge is only available on weeknights and is W27,000.

We discovered through our post-wine adventurousness, that they also have a rooftop garden.

Robert was particularly taken by the various anthropomorphic statues on display.

Inspired by Robert, and also due to the inifinite possibilities arising from unlimited wine, we transformed ourselves into talented mimes. Someone had hung some white ajossi gloves out to dry, and we made good use of them for our show.

Our research having been done for the night, we went home after the second round.

This is what our new lab looked like a couple of months ago.

And here's Dr Vahlberg in the lab more recently. We're still waiting on various equipment to arrive, but have been able to set up some simple experiments to confirm that our cells survived the trip from Ottawa. My guess is that we'll be in full swing towards the end of September.

This is a photo I found from my old work in the Plant Bacteriology lab. These were my rice plants in the Suwon greenhouse, on the final day that I worked there. I tipped them over to drain the water from them. Plant biology is interesting, but it's not as exciting as cancer research.

I'll tell you all about it once we get our biohazard hood, CO2 incubators and fluorescence microscope up and running.

Mr Pizza is a franchise restaurant chain in Korea. The pizzas are edible, but they get my vote for the worst spaghetti in Korea. If I were a ranting blogger, I'd go on about it. 

But we'll just leave it at the popular Konglish description of not-delicious.

In Korea they make starch toothpicks from potatoes. They're strong, but dissolve slowly in your mouth. Good for biodegradability and forest conservation. I'm surprised they haven't been successful outside of Korea.

Any readers out there who are in the import/export business? There's a starchy goldmine of an idea right here.

Every once in a while, students in the BK International House have a sort of garage-less garage sale. It's often a good way to pick up exotic ingredients from the SE Asian students. A while ago, I picked up some green curry paste from a Thai student and made it into this curry. I'm more of a red-curry kinda guy, but this one wasn't too bad.

And here's a steamed mackerel that I hammered out of an old coral trout recipe. It's Hong's dad's old trick. You steam the fish, then add ginger, soy and spring onion. Then you get some oil in a pan on high heat and drizzle it over the toppings to fry it lightly. Fairly simple, but works wonders.

Mmm, now I'm hungry again.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Wiki Rummage #5: Biological Dispersal

Biological dispersal refers to a species movement away from an existing population or the parent organism.  For example, if an apple tree sprouted a sapling, the biological dispersal of the sapling would be how far away it is from the parent tree. Your individual dispersal range would be the distances you have traveled from your birth place.

Xerocrassa geyeri is a species of land snail in central Europe with a biological dispersal capacity of about 3 metres during its entire lifetime. High dispersal capacities simply represent the ability that a species has to colonize distant lands. For humans in a post-colonial and globalising world, this becomes less of an issue.

Most plants have a limited dispersal capacity because they are unable to move. A lot of them get around this by using the wind, water or animals to spread seeds to new territories. Banana trees advertise their fruit with colours and reward animals who eat them at the right time with a pleasant flavour representing energy in the form of carbohydrates. The banana seeds pass through a monkey undamaged, and come out the other end preferably a measurable distance away from the parent tree. Not only that, but the young seeds are deposited in their favourite food, monkey poo. So in effect, monkeys are seen by plants as a handy means to get their offspring from A to B. But of course, smarter monkeys have learned to circumvent the system with agriculture and sewerage systems.

Another interesting concept that arises from this is the idea of stationery life. Plants have been remarkably successful at living stationery lives, while all land animals have had to develop motility to find food. If we could eat sunlight, chances are that we wouldn't need legs, which get us into trouble by running us into trees and falling off cliffs etc.

Sponges and corals in the ocean are some of the only examples of non-motile animals. This is possible because seawater is a physically supportive medium that can hold food and disperse it in three dimensions. Air doesn't have the physical ability to hold large amounts of food, such as krill or plankton. If it did, then there would probably be more stationery animal life on land. 

Plankton in particular enjoys a magnified dispersal range due to the vast ocean currents that move it across the world. But the same mechanism by which tiny zooplankton achieve biological dispersal is also the one that often leads to their doom, in the form of a hungry coral's mouth. Plankton is a Greek word, meaning 'wanderer' or drifter. If you're currently traveling the world like this guy is, you could consider yourself to be a plankton.

Human biological dispersal would cover parts of the lithosphere, and to the orbit of the moon. But how do you increase your own biological dispersal? Well, by simply traveling further from your place of birth. Because I was born somewhere around here, I've limited my individual dispersal range by moving back to Korea. Which is not very relevant from an evolutionary perspective, due to the ease at which we can travel these days. 

Dormancy is regarded as dispersal in time, although sleeping and dormancy are not the same. To achieve true dispersal in time, you'd have to freeze yourself at 77.15 degrees Kelvin and resuscitate yourself at the appropriate time. 

Or you could pay a cryonics company US$150,000 and save yourself the hassle.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Remembering Koryo

Remembering Koryo is a fascinating book written by S.K. Chae, a Korean French adoptee.

The story of Korean adoption is highly complex and prone to being misunderstood. While I don't claim to know the whole truth behind the scenes, I do know some things from my own experiences and have heard a lot more from interacting with others in the Korean adoptee community. Making claims for or against adoption is futile unless one first understands that each case is unique and that there are a multitude of societal forces at play.

Remembering Koryo follows the lives of a few Korean adoptees returning to Korea for various reasons. The stories are unique and colourful, easily understood by an adoptee like myself, but perhaps more unfamiliar to the average reader. To appreciate Remembering Koryo in a realistic context, one first needs to know a little more about Korean adoption in general.

I really don't think about adoption as much as I perhaps should, and purposely keep it at the back of my mind to avoid addressing too many of the complex realities of the issue. 
While the Korean war produced the first generation of orphans, what has happened since that time cannot be completely related to dead or missing parents. It's entirely plausible that many of the 148,394* adoptees sent overseas between 1953-2001 had parents who couldn't afford to feed or educate their children.  
*(Korean government statistic, although likely to be considerably more)

However, the reality is that the number of 'orphans' sent overseas continued in the thousands each year throughout the 80s and 90s, and still continues today, in 2010, despite South Korea's exponential economic growth since the 1960s and its transformation into the world's 15th largest economy with high standards of living. When one considers the fact that Egypt has a population of 79 million, but South Korea is 4 times wealthier, it seems unusual that between 1971 and 2001 less than 2,000 children were adopted from the entire African continent to American citizens, compared to tens of thousands from Korea alone.

A direct result of the thousands of adoptions occurring throughout the late 70s and 80s is that hundreds of Korean adoptees are returning to modern Korea for various reasons. Activist organisations such as GOA'L and IKAA have sprung up to assist fellow adoptees who return to their country of birth in search of answers. Favourable or not, this recent influx of inquiry has started to expose some of the inner workings of the adoption system.

One of the more contentious issues is that the charitable origins of the main adoption agencies appear to have transformed into privately owned for-profit operations. Contrary to what many people reasonably assume, virtually all adoptions of Korean children are managed and profited from by privately owned businesses that charge thousands of US dollars to prospective parents in western countries. These proceeds are used to profit the companies (invariably titled as Welfare Societies or Services), as well as pay off midwives, obstetricians, 'counselors' and the Korean government, providing an attractive solution to the 'orphan' problem. Around US$15-20 million per year is made through Korean adoption, which is significant compared to the amount spent on public welfare, and the burden that would be incurred from providing for thousands of babies in foster programs. 

Three of the four major adoption agencies run their own pregnant women's homes, with bedside 'advisors' for mothers who may be considering giving their child up for adoption. One runs its own maternity hospital, and all four support or run their own orphanages. All four pay foster mothers about $80 a month to care for the infants, and the agencies can provide all food, clothing and other supplies free of charge. The agreement is that the agencies will cover the costs of delivery and medical care for any woman who gives up her baby for adoption. They also pay a lump sum of cash to the relinquishing mother. This system not only makes it easier for single mothers to give their children up, it actively encourages them. In the 90s, a Korean baby could cost a western couple around US$5,000 depending on the agency, but in 2010, the prices can be as high as US$40,000. These prices are labeled as 'administration and medical fees' and despite the considerable costs, the overseas demand for young healthy Korean babies has always outpaced supply.

As well as the 'pull' from these market forces, there are also significant pushing forces for single mothers to give their babies up.

Korea is not only a conservative patriarchal society, it also follows rigid aged-based hierarchies. A grandmother may have more influence over a newly born child's fate than the mother herself. Single unwed mothers experience high levels of stigma not just from the general public but especially from within their own family. Society here stigmatizes unwed mothers to such an extent that Koreans often describe things as outrageous by comparing them to "an unwed woman seeking an excuse to give birth." To rational people, this may seem ridiculous, but many outsiders are unaware of the deeply ingrained idea of a shame society.

Korean culture places an unusually strong emphasis on unwavering respect for elders, paternal bloodline and family ties. The tragedy of the Korean single mother is that she will often be forced to give up a baby born inconveniently due to threats of being ostracized as well as financial isolation from family members. Some families have completely cut off ties with their daughters who have given birth, even going so far as to change their phone numbers. In addition, job seeking can be exceedingly difficult, with many employers accusing unwed mothers of being dishonest. Babies born through extra-marital affairs will often be covered-up or ignored by biological fathers, leaving the mother to deal with the responsibility. Gender discrimination and income disparities between men and women in Korea make this an even more difficult task. In Korea, about 70 percent of unwed mothers who give birth are believed to relinquish their babies for adoption, according to a government-financed survey. In the United States, the figure is 1 percent, according to the Health and Human Services Department.
In Chae's book, a decision is made for a single mother by her family while on the hospital bed, and she has little influence in the matter. Young females in particular hold low ranks in traditional Korean family hierarchies. Money is exchanged and her baby is taken away by an agent. While this situation may be the exception rather than the rule, Remembering Koryo represents the idea that these unjust exceptions are occurring, and perhaps more frequently than the general public would like to think.
Of course there are the good stories of adoption too. Impoverished parents in Korea have sent, and still send children that they can't afford to care for overseas. Many of these children grow up to lead happy and fulfilling lives in their adoptive countries.

However, a point that Chae makes is that this is a lottery over which the adoptive child has no control. Adoptees like myself, from Australia or America find it extremely easy to live stable lives here. We can speak English fluently and are therefore considered 'superior' to French and Scandinavian adoptees when it comes to English teaching, the main source of income for nearly all adoptees. European adoptees on average seem to have a tougher time both here and in their adoptive countries, which were historically less multiculturally diverse than the US and Australia. A Danish adoptee recently pointed out that there was no Danish language equivalent for the term 'Korean American' or 'Korean Danish.' In Denmark, the only word that exists is 'adopted.'

Another point that many adoptees want to make, including myself, is that while being sent overseas may be better than growing up in an orphanage, we are becoming increasingly wary of the sums of money involved and the stigma in Korean society driving single mothers to give their babies up. While we can justify adoption in terms of 'better off for the child', it doesn't always boil down so simply. One of the hardest things to explain to the general public is that many adoptees don't see themselves as 'lucky'. We were thrust into a destiny presumably in our best interests, but because none of our own opinions were taken into account, it therefore seems false to have to feel grateful for it. And when some adoptees seem to get dealt a more unfair hand in life, it makes us feel the need to examine all sides of the situation.

In Sweden, Korean and other international adoptees are highly overrepresented when it comes to suicide, suicide attempts, mental illness, substance abuse, social maladjustment, crime and other social and personal issues. Swedish adoptees are three times more likely to become drug addicts than biological children.

Some adoptive parents expect their child to fulfill the role of the child that they were unable to have. This puts unreasonable expectations on the child. One French adoptee in the book was adopted from a young age by a French couple, but then sent back to Korea after 7 years, because he was 'too emotionally distant' for them to handle. He was then adopted by another French couple, as if he were simply an item returned for re-sale.

One prominent Norwegian adoptee (not in the book) returned to Korea and eventually found out that her grandmother had kidnapped her as an infant and sold her to an agency, pocketing the cash. The parents thought that their baby had been lost. She has since re-established bonds with her biological family.

There are also exceptional cases of sexual abuse by adoptive parents and siblings, and one Korean girl was even murdered by her mentally unstable adoptive mother. How can an adoption agency  based in Korea comprehensively assess thousands of overseas adoptive parents per year?

It would be ridiculous to assert that these cases are common, and we cannot ignore all the thousands of adoptive parents and families who sacrifice so much to rear their adoptive children unconditionally loved. As stated earlier, adoption is a complex issue that cannot be easily understood in its entirety. Remembering Koryo brings some of the more uncomfortable realities of the issue into the limelight, voiced by those who have not experienced what a theoretically good system intended. Chae looks more at the Korean side of the story for answers.

Some Korean mothers have contacted adoptee organisations and said that they were heavily coerced or even tricked into giving their babies up. One said that the agency told her that they would look after her baby until she had gotten her financial situation together. She signed a form giving caretaker status to the agency and came back in a month to find that her baby had been sent away. She went to the police but they said it was out of their hands. Adoption agencies here are said to have the active cooperation of the police and hospitals.

These ideas are only indirectly addressed in Remembering Koryo, which focuses on the personal stories of a few European adoptees returning to Korea a few years ago. Chae's book also touches on the transformation of cultures worldwide, by what he calls the 'dominance of one country over another.' He also points out some interesting observations on the gradual and voluntary dissipation of Korean cultural identity, from the overuse  of western models to sell products, to the absurdity of Latin mottos on Korean university seals to convey a sense of prestige.

He draws a connection between this and the fact that many Koreans see western culture as superior, facilitating the ease at which society sends Korean babies to white families without reasonable concerns. If a single Korean baby were to be adopted by a well-off black African or Arab family, there would surely be a public outcry.

Then there's the issue of adoptees' rights to their own records. These records are held in paperback format by adoption agencies, and contain information on the individual circumstances surrounding each adoption. One person in Remembering Koryo visits a major adoption agency to request to see his birth records on multiple occasions. The staff treat him dismissively (as they did with me, when I went), and let him see the front page of his file, but not the 'red folder' that accompanied it. When he inquired as to why he couldn't see the red file, the agency worker told him that it contains private information and that he can't see it. After a period of frustration he returns to the agency and requests to see his file again, eventually grabbing the red folder out of the hands of the worker and running out the door, chased by the agency workers. He escapes and translates the file, exposing the true circumstances surrounding his adoption and tracking down the remnants of his biological family. The story continues, but I won't spoil it here.

The main point in all this is that because the agencies are private businesses, rather than public services, they maintain complete control over their records. Banning adoptees access to their own records denies them the ability to confirm the true situation surrounding their adoptions, something that would possibly reveal a lot of 'discrepancies.' While we can see that the agencies feel obliged to protect the secrets of the parents (which is good for business), adoptees are people with a right to know the circumstances of their relinquishment. Being treated as inconvenient problems to be solved and forgotten about frustrates many of us who only wish to know the truth of our histories.

Overall, Remembering Koryo is a highly insightful book for both adoptees and those who wish to learn more about the complex issues at play. Chae chose to communicate his accounts with pseudonyms, using sometimes simple and incorrect grammar, conveying the author's difficulties in describing complex emotional situations behind a language barrier. While the book doesn't offer any solutions (many of us realise that not every problem has an ideal solution), it's a touching and powerful reminder of why we need to think carefully about the unjust elements of any system that affects the lives of the vulnerable.

The book is currently available on sale at major retailers in South Korea, but will be selling on Amazon in a couple of weeks. A Korean translated version will be released in December.

As a side note, one charity called the Korean Unwed Mothers' Support Network has been formed. Interestingly, it was founded by a foreigner concerned for the plight of single women in Korea, rather than a Korean citizen.

For further reading, I recommend this New York Times article.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

GSR Symposium: Part II

The symposium itself had professors from the US, Japan and Korea talking on a wide variety of subjects. One Japanese professor has been able to implant fertilised salmon embryos into mackerel mothers, who successfully produce salmon offspring. Kind of like a cross-species surrogate mother program for fish. He hopes it will someday help to boost tuna stocks in the Pacific.

But here's the lobby that greeted us, bright and early every morning.

Nothing says 'symposium' like morning light in a hotel lobby.

These koi were very tame and it was possible to touch their heads briefly while they made gaping expressions, hoping for food. 

Thankfully toothless.

And another thing that I learned was that the chicken reproductive system is quite different from most animals. While many animals produce eggs through ovaries, which stay localised around the general womb area, when chicken produce eggs in their tiny beginning stages, they travel freely in the bloodstream through the whole body of the animal. Later they settle down near the oviduct and then grow larger.

The dinner for the closing ceremony was great. On the lawns of the hotel, overlooking the ocean, they had set up an outdoor buffet. The attention to detail was admirable, with waiters running around and filling up wine glasses and burning oil lamps along the perimeter.

The meat was grilled on the spot and excellently marinated. One thing I hadn't eaten in a while was crackling, a guilty pleasure.

Here's Gigi and Mark, two Filipino singers who filled the lobby with melody throughout our stay. They were very talented and took song requests, to the delight of our professor. Even for normally loud parts of songs, they sang in a kind of subdued-yet-powerful way, so that the song sounded right, but the atmosphere of the lobby remained peaceful and consistent.

We spent a fair amount of time sitting in the lobby at night, wondering what we had done to deserve such pleasant surroundings.

On the final morning, Patrik and I ventured out to a nearby beach with volcanic rocks. Hallasan's pyroclastic indigestion exploded out of the Korean seas thousands of years ago, the legacy of which is a lush semi-tropical island on a bed of igneous rocks.

If a volcano is especially gassy, the rocks that are formed can become so light that they float.

Here's Patrik inspecting some of the geology of the area. You can tell a real scientist from a reluctant one by how much they're interested in sciences outside their particular field of expertise.

Then it was time to say goodbye to our island paradise and board the plane back to Kimpo. The trip to Jeju was an enjoyable and welcome start to the new program.

Since then we've started to receive equipment and supplies, and the lab is coming along nicely.