Embracing the culture

Friday 16th January

One of the many great things about living in Sillim-dong is its close proximity to Seoul National University (SNU). Aside from creating a constantly buzzing atmosphere due to its large student population, it also means that the 10am start for language classes on a Friday morning afford me some precious time for sleep and/or activities – time that is not available to my geographically challenged internship mates.

On this particular morning, I was escorted in to SNU by my friendly and helpful hyeong (older brother), Jee Eun Sang 지은상. I was glad for the help – although it’s a relatively straightforward trip on the 6513 or 6514, navigating a bus system in a foreign city can often be a recipe for disaster. We arrived at SNU without incident and commenced the 10 minute walk uphill to the Korean Language Education Centre (KLEC). Given that SNU is built more or less on the side of a mountain it’s difficult to go anywhere on campus without a significant climb. On the positive side, it makes for a stunning campus and I can only imagine that it is truly spectacular in the spring and autumn when the trees are in their full glory.

Glorious: SNU in Autumn

Glorious: SNU in Autumn

Another definite tick in the box (for your nature-loving hero) is the bountiful forest area surrounding the college. In fact, with 45 minutes up my sleeve after hyeong had departed for work, I explored the area immediately adjacent to the KLEC and came across a lovely little patch of forest and trail. Feeling adventurous as per usual, I rolled up the shirt sleeves and went for a thoroughly pleasant wander on the meandering trails.

Meandering trails - half expecting to see Red Riding Hood burst out of the trees

Meandering trails – half expecting to see Red Riding Hood burst out of the trees

I was even rewarded with a faint tickling of snow – no problem for my trusty and recently rewaxed Barbour jacket. The air was crisp and fresh, the trails gnarly and fun and the view from a rocky outcrop were captivating and afforded me an excellent vantage point to survey the university.

Vast: Seoul National University (with Gwanak-san in the background)

Vast: Seoul National University (with Gwanak-san in the background)

Naturally, I made a promise to myself that I would find a changeroom and turn Friday morning into trail-running time wherever possible.

On the way back down, I discovered a potential lead – at the curiously named “Office of Tennis Court.”

Some classic KorEnglish... expect to see some more before this blog is done

Some classic KorEnglish… expect to see some more before this blog is done. Changerooms are up the back behind the courts

It was an inconspicuous start to language classes with only 3/8 interns managing to find their way to class on time. Eventually we all dribbled in with the last latecomer arriving almost an hour after class officially began. Australia’s finest?

Korean class #1 was a basic introduction to the Hangul character system – a component of the language that I’m glad I studied before arriving in Korea.

A BRIEF ASIDE ABOUT 한굴:

Hangul is a fascinating system – invented by King Sejong in 1594 as a response to Korea’s low literacy rates and the realisation that Chinese characters didn’t accurately represent the sounds of Korean language. Hangul is one of the easiest character systems to learn (much easier than the 5000 or so Chinese characters) and is in fact the only written system that can be accurately traced back to its creator. Interestingly, it is also a system that is extremely effective for the digital world (along with English/Roman characters). It’s strange to think of old King Sejong developing the characters on stone tablets in the 1500s with no inkling that what he was creating would be so useful for an entirely different type of tablet a few centuries later. Just makes you wonder about the mindboggling technologies that will be commonplace in 2500 – I guess there’s no way to fathom it.

In any case, Sejong’s system overcame much opposition in the early days (from the educated, elitist aristocracy) and is a major factor in the extremely high literacy rates of contemporary Korea. Justifiably, Sejong is a beloved and revered historical figure.

Guiding us through our crash course on the ingenious Hangul was 이수영 Lee Su Yeong, our 선생님 seonsengnim. Her calm, yet enthusiastic teaching style would quickly make her a much beloved and revered figure in our internship experience. We also covered some basic vocabulary and a basic grammar point, which would enable us to make simple requests by adding 세유 seyo on the end of verb stems.

We visited building 21 (on hyeong’s recommendation) in the luncheon break. The cuisine gets a special mention here – in addition to a perfectly serviceable carbonara and an almost edible burger, we were lucky enough to enjoy the experience of ordering a potato pizza… and potato it was! Essentially a margherita with a stack of chips on top.

Mmmm... appetising

Mmmm… appetising!

Whilst consuming enough carbs to sink a blue whale, several of us took the opportunity to set up our KakaoTalk profiles (a Korean WhatsApp lookalike that enjoys a 95% market share in Korea and which proved invaluable during our time in the country). Our culinary adventures continued when we came back to the classroom and found delicious peanut butter biscuits waiting for us – provided by our generous Seonsengnim.

At some stage during the morning lessons, we happened across two memorable quotes of the tour. The first was after a brief commentary on the bleakness of the winter landscape around SNU, when Lucinda piped up saying “…but I bet it would look much nicer in the greentime.” Apparently it was too early in the morning to remember difficult and uncommon words like “Spring.”

SNU in the greentime

SNU in the greentime

Not too long after, the others banded together to pick on the Westerner once more – branding me with the nickname “Danger.” Derry “Danger” Doyle… I can’t for the life of me figure out or remember how it came about. They seemed to like it and like an unwanted and half-eaten lolly on good upholstery, it stuck.

In what seemed like no time, we churned through three hours of language class and all of a sudden it was off for a brief tour of the university campus (where we were snowed on for a short time) and onwards to our first culture class.

Touring the campus

Touring the campus

Today’s slice of culture was a traditional tea ceremony, and we were all delighted to relive our pre-primary school dress-up days by donning the traditional Korean garb, 한복 hanbok. It’s hard to describe the feeling of utter serenity that came from repeating our instructor’s slow, measured movements and gradually drawing out a small cup of tea from the myriad of bowls, mugs and jugs arrayed before our crossed legs (or tucked under for the women).

Beauties and the beasts...

Beauties and the beasts…

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Truth nugget

Truth nugget

Lee Sang Doyle

Lee Sang Doyle

I can only imagine the feeling of peace and contentment would be magnified manifold by sitting at the top of a mountain or beside a trickling stream – this is how I imagine all Koreans must perform the ceremony. One unlucky participant who found it to be less than peaceful was poor old Stuart – his dicky knee proved to be a constant source of discomfort and his various sitting positions inspired much mirth in the interns and our instructors.

Although the entire lesson was conducted in Korean, we were lucky to enlist the translational services of Jonathon, an SNU international relations student, who did a sterling job.

After the tea ceremony, we were advised that we would be meeting with our mentor partners from SNU. It turns out they were the ones sitting in the tea café, watching on with many a giggle as the 8 Hoju blundered their way through the ceremony. So much for good impressions…

First impressions (left to right): Clinton, Song Chin, Jonathon, Shaun, Stuart, Harry

First impressions (left to right): Clinton, Song Chin, Jonathon, Shaun, Stuart, Harry Potter

Having all been assigned to partners, we got stuck in to a good long chinwag – in which I discovered that my mentor, the radiant 김래영 Kim Rae Yeong, was one of the more interesting people one could hope to meet. Not only is she a post-grad student, but she is studying forestry science and conservation with the aim of working in forest conservation at UNESCO. I mentioned she might like to pop down to Tasmania and have a chat with T. Abbot on the way. In addition, she was unable to come out for dinner that night (as a couple of the other mentors did) because she had an appointment with a fortune-teller! With an introduction like that, I’m sure there’ll be a few more stories about Rae Yeong in the posts to come and I’m glad to say that today’s meeting marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As the tea ceremony and mentor-meeting wound up, we were chaperoned down to the bus and then out onto the subway by mentor-friends Jonathon and Shaun. Destination: Hongdae, on the hunt for a highly recommended delicacy. This was to be my first experience with a proper Korean BBQ 삼겹살.

A quick word on Korean-style eating:

The first thing one notices with Korean style is the myriad of side dishes that are plonked onto the table immediately on arrival into a restaurant. Some of my favourites include kimchi 김치, pickled radish, shredded cabbage with kiwi mayonnaise, corn and mayonnaise, soybean sesame sprouts, gyeranjjim 계란찜 (steamed egg) Diners can pick away at these dishes all evening and call for replacements when they run out. All free and part of the service, of course.

Swimming in side dishes...

Swimming in side dishes…

The result of having a table loaded up with side dishes is that once you add bowls for each person, a beer glass and soju glass, a few bottles of beer and soju, a jug or two of water and water glasses, the table tends to become very full and very chaotic very quickly. When the mains arrive, there’s a wild scramble to clear space and surprisingly, space has a way of being found (even when there isn’t a single cm of room left). I grew to love the dysfunctional madness of the Korean dinner table – somehow it all just seemed to work.

Chaos: The Korean dinner table

Chaos: The Korean dinner table

Almost all Korean dishes are shared – mostly placed in the middle for everybody to have a crack with their chopsticks. Many dishes are even cooked at the table (either by the waitstaff or by the diners themselves). Notable examples include tteokbokki 떡볶이 (rice cake stew), dakgalbi 닭갈비 (spicy chicken stew), samgyeopsal 삼겹살(BBQ), deungalbi chiseu 등갈비 치스 (cheese ribs) and occasionally bulgogi 불고기(beef stew). The tables either have built in gas burners, a cut out for charcoal fires or simply a bunsen burner set up on the table, which bubbles away.

Of course, the shared nature of dining is wonderfully interactive – people picking away, dishes being passed to and fro, tasty morsels stolen left right and centre and a good time had by all. Koreans seem to use these sorts of shindigs as a casual, friendly meet-up. I liken it to the great Aussie backyard barbie but due to the low price of food and drinks, the impossibility of hosting dinners in tiny apartments and lack of backyards, Koreans do it away from home.

This trend (and the incredible population density) in turn supports a vibrant small restaurant scene – wandering about seeking out tiny, dodgy-looking establishments stuffed to the rafters with locals quickly became a favourite pre-meal pastime of mine. It’s part of the culture that I genuinely miss at home in the land of $10 pints and $40 mains and endless, lifeless suburbia.

Getting back to the dinner, along with your traditional cuts of BBQ pork and beef, Luisa’s suggestion was to try bolsal 볼살 (pork cheek). This was probably one of those times where it’s best to eat the dish and find out what it actually is later on, or not at all. Even so, we had no trouble gobbling up our meat because it was so very delicious! Once again, the entertaining, interactive style of Korean restaurant dining was in full swing. Everybody was seated ondol-style on the floor happily talking rubbish, picking at side dishes from the chaotic table and taking swigs of beer/soju/somaek as the meat sizzled away.

These Koreans certainly are an interesting bunch – good old Shaun is currently studying sound engineering with the intention of collaborating with his musician brother (and others) to produce contemporary Korean hip-hop and soul projects. He had a wealth of stories from various internships and proved a dab hand with the tongs – I was glad to be down his end of the table!

Shaun: The myth, the man, the legend

Shaun: The myth, the man, the legend

Meanwhile, Jonathon is getting to the pointy end of an International Relations major and is laying the foundations to study abroad in Australia in 2016 and kick off a UN career after that. He’s what we Hojus would call a top bloke and would go on to be a companion for us across many outings over the next 6 weeks. Plus, he pulls off an (almost) all black outfit of clothes better than most – a snappy dresser for sure.

Future UN Secretary General: Jonathon

Future UN Secretary General: Jonathon

It was reasonably late in the evening before we finished up at dinner – poor old Jonathon had an English exam to sit the following day. We decided to call it a night, but on the way home the bright lights and bustling 11:30pm streets of downtown Sillim-dong caught my eye. I took a detour through the some of the crowded narrow alleys and backstreets that I’ve been meaning to explore but haven’t yet found time. The more I saw, the happier I was to be staying in this lively little part of town. Tiny, cosy eateries jam-packed with locals, fresh seafood swimming around in tanks outside restaurants, dodgy looking narrow staircases leading down into pool-halls or seedy bars… this is where the magic happens on an adventure.

I feel sorry for the poor bloke who has to stick his arm in every so often at -2C. Made me shiver just looking at him!

I feel sorry for the poor bloke who has to stick his arm in every so often at -2C. Made me shiver just looking at him!

The wonderful thing about Korea (and I’ve heard that Japan is very similar) is that at no stage did I feel unsafe or unwelcome in this slightly grungy part of town. The mutual respect and honesty system that Koreans have seems to be strong enough to overpower alcohol and testosterone. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to walk past an obviously drunken group of young men and not feel the need to cross the street – if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Similarly, the accepted method of reserving a table in a café is to place your phone and/or wallet on it while you order at the counter – an instant recipe for disaster in most other parts of the world (Australia included, unfortunately). It really fits in with my own personal values – maybe I was meant to be a Korean after all! It’s a mystery to me why all societies can’t succeed in this basic part of human interaction.

One theory that I have is that the military service (22 months for men aged between 18 and 28) instils a certain moral fibre in the young men of the country. Of course, there are plenty of arguments against conscription but the fact that the two Koreas are still technically at war means that it makes a lot of sense to have a large number of people with basic training. Furthermore, almost all of the men I spoke to supported the notion of military service and regarded it as beneficial (even if they didn’t think so at the time they were serving).

Neons and noraebangs: The Sillim nightlife

Neons and noraebangs: The Sillim nightlife

I guess the obvious drawback is that it can disrupt relationships and tends to be a 22 month setback in the life plans of young men – with the result that most Korean men are well into their late 20s before they have graduated (mostly with a Masters degree), performed military service and found a decent job. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for other important activities such as travel or gap years and the like. There also seems to be a growing number of single Koreans in the 26-36 age bracket who find it difficult to meet partners due to the constant pressures of day to day life (this statistic and theory is purely speculative based on conversations I’ve had with work colleagues and the like). Perhaps the military service is linked here – who can say?

In any case, there are arguments both sides but at the end of the day something gives Koreans some serious moral backbone and that’s a great boon for their society!

I more or less covered a block and a half of neonised Sillim backstreets before finding my way back to the station and setting off down the (now familiar) path toward home. A few noteworthy sights and sounds accompanied me down the chilly streets:

  1. A strange and dingy looking nightclub called the Red Rabbit (it pulses away all night, every night but I have never seen anyone enter or exit)
  2. Blaring music that seems to play all through the night – most unwelcome at 6:30/7:00am – although I can’t figure out which particular store/club it’s coming from
  3. Several restaurants that stay open and packed with people until at least 2:00am (I must bring the other interns here someday)
  4. Salmonella in a shop window – fried chicken shops with piles of chicken sitting in the window waiting to be purchased by some unlucky soul. And finally…
  5. Noraebang 노래방 (singing room)… Everywhere! It’s only when you pad gently down the streets later in the evening that you realise… 노래방 ahead, 노래방 to the left, 노래방 to the right, 노래방 down the stairs in the basement, 노래방 up the stairs on the second level, 노래방 stacked on top of another 노래방. It’s enough to bring on mild onset paranoia! I don’t understand how they all stay in business because there’s so many and they all open just about all night. I honestly can’t imagine that they have customers in all the time and the profit margins can’t be that high at $20/hr for a room… Perhaps I’m underestimating just how much Koreans love to sing (and boy, would I learn a valuable lesson on that subject a few weeks later)!
How much is that salmonella in the window?

How much is that salmonella in the window? I do hope that salmonella’s for sale…

Escaping from the 노래방 madness, I breathed in the cool night air and pulled my scarf a little tighter for the last few steps of the walk home – satisfied with my explorations, but ever more excited to seize the days to come.

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Interns and Ambassadors

Thursday 15th January

Between orientation on Monday, a day off with the lurgy on Wednesday and language classes on Friday, this turned into a very short working week. Add to that an Embassy visit and luncheon and I’d say we’re doing well to get any work done at all!

Gallivanting gong for today almost goes to Clinton for this beautiful shot of a temple with the Australian Embassy in the background.

Runner up: Temple and Embassy.  Courtesy C. Phosavanh

Runner up: Temple and Embassy.
Courtesy C. Phosavanh

Joanna and I made it to the grand-looking Australian Embassy in plenty of time and even squeezed in a spot of sightseeing on the main drag before we needed to rendezvous with the delightful Jinny (Director of the AKF in Korea).

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Visionary: King Sejong

King Sejong (visionary inventor of the Hangeul character system) and Admiral Yi Sun Shin (protector of the seas) make grand figures standing watch in the centre of the boulevard with mountains looming majestically in the background.

Majestic: Admiral Yi Sun Shin

Majestic: Admiral Yi Sun Shin

We passed through the strict security at the entrance to the embassy and had the opportunity to leaf through a photo album of the making of modern day Korea in the waiting room – incredible to think that this teeming metropolis was all but flattened just 60 years ago in the Korean War. The interns arrived in dribs and drabs and eventually we were all ready to head inside through the double sets of doors to meet with the genial Mr Ravi Kewalram (Australian embassy) who formally welcomed us aboard the program. He was also kind enough to provide us with several good tips on navigating our way through Korean life (including the pertinent lesson on road safety). Following Mr Kewalram were several other key embassy personnel, each with a specific strategic mission in Korea. They included Mr Paul Schofield (Economic Counsellor), Mr Richard Fogarty (Education Counsellor) and Mr Brett Cooper (Senior Trade Commissioner).

Their advice and insights were quite fascinating and it was a shame that our meeting was short out of necessity – foreign diplomats are busy people, it would seem! Stuart was particularly chatty and was very interested in learning about Australia’s relationships with North Korea, which prompted some measured and characteristically diplomatic responses from our diplomats. One thing that I learned from the conversation is that Australia is often somewhat of a whipping boy for the North Koreans, who are perhaps not so keen on attracting the ire of their powerful adversaries, America, South Korea and China, but are quite content to give the Hojus some hassle. From what I gathered, our diplomats are quite capable of giving as good as we get too!

Eventually it was time to wind up 20 questions (North Korean Edition) and Ravi advised us that such topics are often still a sore point – particularly with older Korean people and that we would do well to steer clear of the matter in general conversation.

Our time in the Embassy came to an end, but we were lucky to be escorted around the corner to lunch at a fancy buffet with some of the foreign relations staff. James, Guy, Jinny, Ravi and Jess proved to be convivial company (as perhaps one might expect from diplomats) and it was really nice to have the opportunity to pick their brains in a more casual atmosphere. On another positive note, my tender stomach was given a good workout on the delicious food and (despite eating far less than I would have liked), I’m glad to say it passed with flying colours considering my recent stomach bug. Notable delicacies included the sushi and fresh fruit.

Ambassadors and Interns (Kneeling left to right): James Oughton, Stuart Mckenzie, Joanna Holland, Luisa Cools, Lucinda Campbell, Jessica Smith. (Standing): Joanna Chen, Hugo Bae, Derry Doyle, Michael Varnay, Ravi Kowalsara, Guy Inder, James Hazell, Elliot Brennan, Clinton Phosavanh

Gallivanting Gong: Ambassadors and Interns (Kneeling left to right): James Oughton, Stuart Mckenzie, Joanna Holland, Luisa Cools, Lucinda Campbell, Jessica Smith.
(Standing): Joanna Chen, Hugo Bae, Derry Doyle, Michael Varnay, Ravi Kewalram, Guy Inder, James Hazell, Elliot Brennan, Clinton Phosavanh

Unfortunately our luncheon came to an end far too quickly and the embassy staff made their way back to work with promises to stay in touch and meet again later in the program.

With an Olleh global store conveniently located just across the road from the Embassy, we took the opportunity to finally sort out our mobile phone SIM cards. Clinton hits the nail on the head in his excellent blog when he talks about the confounding contradiction of Korean telcos. The process for obtaining a SIM is incredibly difficult considering we were in the most connected nation on the planet! In any case, there were 3 positives of experience: 1. Getting a SIM; 2. Browsing some of the gadgetry; 3. Having a grand old yarn with Mr Elliot Brennan (AKIP Media Intern) in a fake spa (which will go down as one of my lifetime highlights, I’m sure).

Rub a dub dub, two men in a tub

Rub a dub dub…

There’s a bit of a story that goes along with this photo – it goes a little something like this. Olleh must be aware of their ridiculous waiting times to sort out SIMs, so they’ve crafted a big waiting room toward the back of the store. You sign in at the service desk, collect an electronic buzzer ticket and wait until it buzzes to let you know that it’s time to run the SIM acquisition gauntlet. But it’s not just any old waiting room – that would be very un-Korean. This waiting room has all sorts of little themed seating arrangements. We chose the fake spa (of course).

Most of the other interns were required to go back to the office, but Clinton and I had the foresight to advise our offices that the meeting would take all afternoon and therefore bought ourselves some valuable free time. I’d like to think that we spent it wisely by walking across the road and into a history museum dedicated to King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Shin (our friends on the promenade).

Both men have quite amazing stories – King Sejong battled the aristocracy in order to introduce his new (and incredibly well-devised) character system – a key factor in contemporary Korea’s position in the highest echelon of literacy rates worldwide.

You know you've made it when you have a 1.5m lego statue erected in your honour...

You know you’ve made it when you have a 1.5m lego statue erected in your honour…

For me, Admiral Yi Sun Shin stole the show – this amazing man rose from obscurity to become a trusted Naval tactician, was subsequently thrown into jail and abused on the false accusations of jealous superiors and finally was reinstated to a position of Admiral following several disastrously managed naval campaigns against the invading Japanese. His heroics didn’t stop there, he developed the ingenious turtle ship and made use of local tidal knowledge to single-handedly turn the tide of the war by defeating a fleet of 130 Japanese ships with just 13 of his own (and without losing a single vessel).

Old mates

Old mates

He went on to captain several more successful campaigns and became something of a bogey figure for the Japanese navy before a stray arrow from a retreating ship proved his downfall. Such a fascinating life and the Koreans certainly have a flair for retelling it – a 1.5m Lego model, electronic picture book, turtle boat reconstruction, oar rowing and cannon-firing games bringing the story to life.

History museum or Timezone?

History museum or Timezone?

They even have a photo opportunity and a 4D movie experience – perhaps the Perth museum could take a few notes?

Ready to enter the 4th dimension

Ready to enter the 4th dimension

We wandered our way around for a few hours until the others began to clock off and ended up meeting some of the crew (Michael, Lucinda and Joanna) out in Myeong-dong (an aforementioned shopping district) for some chow. But not before Clinton and I had chanced our arm at some calligraphy! I think we were about on par with the 4 year olds studiously spreading ink next to us.

D. Doyle: Master of the brush (It says: Deri, Hoju - or Derry, Australia)

D. Doyle: Master of the brush
(It says: Deri, Hoju – or Derry, Australia)

At dinner, we were once again blessed with the presence of the agreeable Jaei and after dinner we experienced a Korean novelty: photo booths. It seems that the locals have a real fondness for dressing up in ridiculous hats and taking even more ridiculous photos of themselves before making adjustments with “nice-looking and fun scribble.”

Thank goodness we participated in the scribble...

Thank goodness we participated in the scribble…

It turned out to be a laughter-filled way to spend 45 minutes and we came out with some truly stunning shots (particularly of supermodel-turned-Asian-history-student Michael Varnay). Of course, we left the AKIP legacy by leaving behind one of our stickers on the jam-packed sticker wall. I feel a little sorry for our friends just below us who rated themselves a woeful 9/22… Seems like someone’s in need of a positive self-esteem shark.

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No explanation needed...

No explanation needed…

The evening’s entertainment over, we each retired to our respective home-stays. I was somewhat surprised to find Eoma still awake and even more surprised to find her engrossed in front of The Scorpion King on television. To be honest though, the sight of Dwayne Johnson pulverising his way through hundreds of enemies dressed in little more than a loincloth is a spectacle that almost compensates for the asinine plot and dialogue. I’m not ashamed to admit that I loitered in the loungeroom until after the climactic final battle had concluded and on that heroic note, I concluded my equally heroic day.

The Dreaded Lurgy & Korean Observations

Wednesday 14th January

I won’t go into too much detail here folks, as it may affect those with a tender disposition. Suffice to say that it wasn’t my finest moment, but that there was never any real danger because I had no trouble keeping water down (always the key in situations such as this).

Both Rina and Eoma proved to be the perfect nurses and asked many times whether I would like to go to the hospital. There was no need and by mid afternoon, I had recovered sufficiently to stomach some grated apple – an old Hoju remedy that Eoma found quite amusing and quaint. 누나 Nuna (my older sister) dropped by for a visit (which was equal parts embarrassing and alarming) and I kept myself in quarantine for most of it. By the time evening stole across the sky, I was well enough to stomach a little broth and a slice of toast.

In the absence of any adventures today, here are a few curious things I’ve noticed about Korea in the short time that I’ve spent in the country so far:

OBSERVATION #1: SMALL DRAINS AND SMALL TOWELS

Korea must have skinny drains. I’ve come to this conclusion after encountering a number of toilets where the paper is not flushed, but rather placed in a small bin at the side of the throne. There have also been public WCs that have paper dispensers on the outside of the cubicles. I imagine one estimates what is required beforehand and gathers the appropriate amount – requiring an intimate knowledge of one’s bowel movements. Finally on this subject are the squat toilets. Several times, I have tried my very best to use one of these contraptions, but to no avail. I simply can’t fathom how to avoid getting it all in my trousers. Thankfully, I’ve been curious rather than desperate on these occasions.

Squat toilet fail - with toilet paper bin creeping into the shot

Squat toilet fail – with toilet paper bin creeping into the shot

Korean towels are disproportionately small. Koreans as a race are perhaps slightly smaller than your average European or Australian, but they have a tendency to use tiny towels (hand-towel size) as bath towels. As a direct result, by the time I’ve dried my hair, the towel is pretty wet and the rest of my body remains partially damp. The other result is that (in my household at least and despite my best efforts of hanging my used towel on my doorknob to dry) we burn through towels at a rate of knots and the end-of-week-washing is always full of tiny towels. It’s a really perplexing conundrum – I can’t imagine why Koreans persist with this strange tradition. So a word to any prospective travellers – bring a normal towel if you feel that this will be intolerable for you!

Nobody likes “too-small” towels

OBSERVATION #2: KOREA IS FULL OF KOREANS

Q. What is the biggest problem with Spain?

A. It’s full of Spaniards.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this gag before (in different contexts), but I can tell you for sure that Korea really is full of Koreans – it’s a very homogenous society. Although I struggle to tell Asian nationals apart (particularly Korean/Japanese/Chinese), there are days that go by where I could swear I have seen no foreigners at all (aside from when I peek in the mirror). It makes me realise what a multicultural society Australia is and that this is one of our great strengths as a nation. I think there are also merits in Korea’s homogeneity – a strong connection to culture and tradition at the least. Of course, there are negatives too – I may be drawing conclusions here, but it seems that many Koreans feel somewhat trapped in their country, almost as if to leave would be a betrayal of family or identity or something along those lines. What will be truly fascinating is the trend toward globalisation over the next 10-20 years and its effect on Korean society… Which segues beautifully into my next observation.

OBSERVATION #3: TRENDY CAFÉ CULTURE…BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

Australians associate café trendiness with hole-in-the-wall, secret, best-coffee-in-town, hipster, single origin bean, cosy antique furniture and bearded, pierced and inked baristas. Not so in Korea, where the culture is very brand driven and the places to be seen are the big chain stores: Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, TomNTom’s, Holly’s, Paris Baguette, A Twosome Place (couples café) etc. Sherlock Homes isn’t required to deduce the similarities between all these ubiquitous franchises (hint, they all come from America).

It seems Koreans are also embracing the West’s fascination with highly sugared foods and beverages – a trend that is most definitely a negative for society. Currently, there’s almost a complete absence of overweight Koreans (at least that I have seen) but once again, I’d be very interested to see what the situation is like in the next generation or two.

Returning briefly to the coffee culture, I was surprised and alarmed at the prices – generally between $4.50 and $6.00 for a cuppa in Korea at one of the above cafes. Tea is not a whole lot cheaper (and I’m dying for a simple cup of English Breakfast, which is hard to find). In fact, it’s often cheaper to eat a meal than it is to go for coffee after. Just like their expensive electronics (which makes no sense at all given that many are manufactured here), Koreans seem content to pay the premium.

I’ll leave you with one final observation for today – this one along the technology line.

OBSERVATION #4: SMARTPHONE NATION

Koreans are among the most technologically connected races on the planet… and it’s immediately noticeable on the subway. Just about every Korean (man, woman, old, young) seems to have a smartphone and they all come out on the train.

Sign of the times... with Jonathon, Song Chin and Rae Yeong

Sign of the times… with Jonathon, Song Chin and Rae Yeong

In fact, I found that no entertainment system was necessary because it’s too easy to glance over someone’s shoulder as they pound skeletons, speed around hairpin bends, browse the internet or tap messages to all and sundry with thumbs melting into a blur as they race across the screen. In addition, the screen sizes are enormous (bigger is better) and they all seem to carry portable chargers or spare batteries as it seems one charge per day is simply not enough.

On the subject of games, subway stations are full of ads for countless mobile distractions – one of which I was delighted to see was Metal Slug – a remake of an infamous Timezone game that I remember fondly from my childhood in the late 1990s. It’s all a bit much for this technological laggard – my policy until now has very much been a ‘dip the toe’ approach to gadgets. I imagine eye-doctors will be the real winners of this trend in the decades to come…

Settling In

Tuesday 13 January

Day 2 on the job and already yours truly is beginning to get into the swing of the working life. Catching the subway was almost a breeze and I managed to remember to take Exit 6 and get out at the correct point of the station, stroll to the office and sign in with an 인녕 하세요 to the boss and other workers well before starting time at 9am. Having settled into my chair and booted up the computer (still in Korean), I got down and dirty with my assignment – dredging up news and information about KORES’ Wallarah 2 project like some sort of tattoo-less Lisbeth Salander.

In the office

In the office

A few hours later and I was suffering from my first work-related injury…the dreaded glass-eye. This was a common condition for me back in my late primary school days when I would occasionally get together with some Holy Spirit chingu (mates) for an all night Xbox/Nintendo64 bender. I was under the impression that glass-eye was a combination between late nights, extreme fatigue and long hours of screen-time but it seems the late night is not a pre-requisite.

Around mid-morning, I had word from Rina that Joanna didn’t make it into the office due to a bout of the stomach bug. Poor old Jo had the day off work – an inauspicious start to the 7 weeks but at least the bacteria had the decency to affect a work day and not one of our precious weekends.

After a debilitating case of glass eye (but no way of escaping the desk), I was glad to be approached by my adjacent colleagues, Eui Chang and Su Hee, to proof-read some KORES job applications. The job was interpreting and the application essays (written in English) were very good. Any of the candidates would have been suitable, but a couple stood out from the crowd and I was happy to point these out to Eui Chang. It was nice to do some work where I actually felt I was making a positive difference to the company.

Lunch was taken bang on 12pm once again – by the time we made our way down into the cafeteria, many of the workers had already finished their meals and were heading back up to the office. No messing around at meal-time, it seems. On the menu were the standard side dishes of rice, kimchi and seaweed salad but today they accompanied some sort of spicy deep fried fish. It was a delicious meal but grandpa would be most disproving of the fish, which came intact with bones. It was a test of the chopstick skills to pick the meat out and some of the staff complimented me on my dexterity. I think they were surprised that I knew how to operate the sticks at all and considered the fact that I managed even one morsel into my mouth a huge success.

As the afternoon wore on, I used my work phone for the first time to call my Eoma and let her know that I would be home for dinner. My colleagues were cruel enough to let the office fall silent right on cue and they giggled away as I navigated the conversation with her. Getting my phone sim can’t come quickly enough…

So the afternoon rolled along and turned into evening – long days here at the office in Korea – and despite a few trips to the water cooler for ricey green tea, I was definitely ready for home time by 6:00pm.

When Rina strolled over to give me the big 10:4 to leave, she surprised me by handing me a thick, heavy book and informing me that I have some homework. A quick look at the cover told me that I’m in for an interesting ride: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Excited, but somewhat daunted, I accepted the challenge of reading nearly 600 pages in 7 weeks with the promise of a test at the end of the internship. (Writing with the advantage of hindsight, I can report that – despite my best efforts – I managed a pitiful 400 odd pages. Rina was kind enough to exempt me from the test).

I was less enthused when she also handed me a glossary of mining terms with such riveting entries as “Anemometer” (instrument for measuring air velocity), “Borehole” (any deep or long drill-hole) and of course “Cleat” (the vertical cleavage of coal seams). I had the feeling that this particular publication would turn out to be one giant borehole, so I was glad that there was no need to learn it from cover to cover, but merely to use it as a reference. (Again, writing in hindsight, this book remained blissfully unopened for the duration of the internship).

Towards the end of the day, I began to really flag and wasn’t feeling 100% at all. I remained hopeful that if I drank enough tea and kept my spirits up I would sail through it, but throughout the train ride and the walk home I became more and more woozy.

Much to my chagrin (and that of Eoma, who had gone out of her way to cook me a delicious American-style pork cutlet) by the time I reached home and sat down for dinner, I could only manage a few mouthfuls. The dreaded lurgy had struck.

I won’t go into too much detail except to say that I was still dislodging bits of rice from my nose well into the next day. Was it the chicken, the weird beef tentacles or perhaps the water? We may never know….

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Monday 12th January

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” A somewhat confusing thing to hear on one’s first day at work after a young colleague (Bom Sik) bought me a coffee. This followed a rather interesting lunch in the company cafeteria – some sort of Korean style stew, rice and kimchi. What made it interesting was that I was labouring under the impression that the stew was beef of some description (갈비galbi)…until I began unearthing bits of tentacle. I wasn’t like any sort of beef that I know… Then again, the deer have tusks here so perhaps octocow isn’t so far from the realms of possibility.

On the hunt for the octocow...

On the hunt for the octocow…

At least I kept up with my impeccable Korean manners by thanking anyone within earshot with the pre and post dinner phrases “잘 먹겠습니다 Jal mokkesseumnida” and “잘 먹었습니다 Jal mogosseumnida” (roughly translates to “I will eat well” and “I ate well” and encapsulates bon appétit, thank you for the meal and all those sorts of sentiments. This was despite my colleagues apologising profusely for the taste of the dishes served up – not a whole lot of love for the cafeteria fare. Most of the employees still eat here, perhaps because it is a really cheap meal – which leads to an enormous line at 11:50pm when lunch is about to start. There’s even a small convenience store in the basement of the building, which is where Bom Sik and I purchased the coffee. A quick word on that – they have warm aluminum cans of sweet milk coffee here…certainly different from back home. Not altogether inviting or fulfilling I’m afraid, but when in Korea…

The morning flew past quite quickly – after Eoma chaperoned my subway journey to Guro Digital Complex (station) and left me with the lovely Rina Ryu, my handler at the company, for the 5 minute walk to KORES. At the entrance, I was glad to have remembered my company ID tag as Rina had forgotten hers. It gave me the appearance of being competent – an appearance I strive to maintain lest people realise the unfortunate truth… Then it was time to set up my computer, telephone and work space – much to the amusement of my colleagues as I blundered my way around a Korean language operating system.

Derry Doyle, salaryman...

Derry Doyle, salaryman…

I discovered that security is a big concern here at the company when an insistent red box continually popped up with a warning of sorts. I ignored it for most of the day until a passing staff member happened to spy the warning over my shoulder and was shocked to find that security levels had slipped to catastrophic levels on my PC. With company secrets no doubt flowing out into the ether like the waters of a collapsed dam, the office IT techspert was dispatched to plug the breach. Although they appeared to do a sterling job, within half an hour, my old friend the security warning was back and would continue to hassle me like a jilted lover for the remainder of the internship – requiring attention every 5 minutes or so. At one point, it even stopped advising me about which securities I was breaching and instead presented the entire note in question marks of differing sizes and shapes. Apparently it’s just as confused as I am and my colleagues stopped worrying about it after a few days.

I was put to work right away summarising a dry coal prices report and researching the issues encountered by KORES at its joint-owned Wallarah 2 mine near Newcastle, NSW. Given that most of what I was asked to find was newspaper articles online, I had the distinct feeling that perhaps my work was a little redundant as the company would be well aware of these issues already. Still, I was able to analyse the articles from an Australian perspective, which I’m sure may have offered some different viewpoints on the matter.

My work today was interrupted by a few comings and goings – most notably meeting the boss of our building, Vice President Mr Lee. My stammering attempts at Korean were sharply thrust aside as Mr Lee announced that we would be sitting for a short introduction and told me straight up (in perfect, measured English) to quit the Hangeul.

“Yes, sir.”

The aforementioned lunch occurred at precisely 12:00pm (grandpa would approve) and the afternoon brought on a typical Doyle 2pm drowsiness, which I tried my best to hide.

After finishing work at around 6:15pm, Rina chaperoned Joanna and I to buy sim cards for our phones. Who knew it would be such an ordeal and after almost 1.5hrs in the shop, we exited with empty hands. Poor old Rina was kept busy trying to understand telecom company protocol and I felt very sorry to make her wait until well after clock off time in an effort to help the hapless Hojus.

It was certainly a long working day and I was surprised to find Eoma full of beans after 8pm dinner and suggesting a walk down to the markets to buy some 과일 gwail (fruit) and have my badly crinkled blue suit steamed.

Sillim-dong markets

Sillim-dong markets

It turns out the working day is even longer for some – most of these types of service industries stay open until 10/10:30pm in Korea. Certainly a far cry from what we’re accustomed to back home (although there’s a trend toward changing that). We had a brief stroll through the market – I’m not sure Eoma realised how exciting a 300m long enclosed market street full of wild and wacky Korean produce would be for a fresh-off-the-boat Hoju – but I made a mental note to explore again at a later date.

And so ended day 1 on the job for your favourite Korean salaryman – more adventures to come.

Exploring The City

Yes folks, that’s right – a blog post concerning a day that happened precisely two months ago…I’m a little behind, but I have been scribbling furiously in my notepad, so it’s just a case of digitising it all! Enjoy.

Sunday the 11th January

Sunday began with an unusual breakfast choice…curried rice. Although very different from what I’m accustomed to, it was nice and certainly provided a hearty kickstart to the day! From what I hear, some of the other interns are having some difficulty adjusting to this type of breakfast and also to the generosity of our hosts, who cook up enormous servings and encourage us to “Eat more, eat more!” Reminds me of the Italian eating culture in the Doyle/Olivieri clan…

Full to the eyeballs with rice (full as a goog, as we’d say back home), I wobbled after Appa as he showed me the way to the subway station and it was time for my first solo attempt at navigating Seoul’s public transport system. Thankfully, my home is not far from Sillim station (right at Paris Baguette, across the bridge, right at 5T5 coffee) and Sillim is on the green circle line, meaning that it’s fairly easy for me to travel anywhere in Seoul.

I was also relieved to discover that the subways have both romanised and Korean signage and voice-overs, which helps a lot. It’s times like these that I realise with a stab of guilt how difficult it must be for tourists to travel in Australia (particularly if they have limited English skills).

This seems like an appropriate place for Doyle’s Travel Tip #2: Carry a Hard-Copy Map. You never know when you will find yourself in a tough spot with no WiFi, credit or battery and besides, it’s a romantic notion to exercise one’s navigational skills with a battered map instead of consulting Mr Google at every turn.

Call me a control freak, but I also like to be able to follow my route so that I have a sense of direction in a new city. One simple transfer later and I was headed up the steps toward Exit 5 at Gyeongbokgung Palace station where I rendezvoused with the ever punctual Lucinda and her Korean sister (yeodongseng 여동생), Jaei. As the others dribbled up in 5 minute intervals, we learned that Luisa had taken the initiative to wait in a cosy café close by – not in the freezing cold outside the Palace like the rest of us muppets. Wise move…

Feeling right at home @ Gyeongbukgong (the King's Palace)

Feeling right at home @ Gyeongbukgong (the King’s Palace)

We strolled around the palace grounds drinking in the architectural splendour and trying not to worry about our frostbitten toes too much. I was particularly taken with some of the lavish interior decorations, which reminded me of the opulence at Versailles in Paris (albeit in a much more oriental fashion). Although we lacked an audio device or guide to the different buildings, I understand that Gyeongbukgong is where the Kings of the Joseun Dynasty resided with their households and also where they conducted government. It was built in 1395 and has actually been destroyed twice by the Japanese – once during the Imjun War (of 1592) and again by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century. It is still in the process of restoration, with an expected completion date in 2035.

Interior splendour

Interior splendour

Gyeongbukgong is also a shining example of the great contradiction of Korea – a beautiful cultural heritage site surrounded by skyscrapers and modern architecture that have a tendency to worm their way into almost every photograph. Likewise, the hastiness of Korea’s approach to urban development while the restoration of one of the pillars of their cultural heritage languishes in modernity’s dust cloud. Ahhh Korea!

Culture VS Progress

Culture VS Progress

Within the Palace complex is the fascinating National Folk Museum, which depicts Korean life in ages gone by. Doyle’s Travel Tip #4: Visit the Folk Museum! Folk museums are always worth a squizz (as I discovered in Brugge) and this one was no exception!

Exploring with the gang - courtesy C. Phosavanh

Exploring with the gang – courtesy C. Phosavanh

A good hour spent in the folk museum had allowed feeling to return to our extremities so we braved the otdoors once more to walk to Samcheondong-gil, a trendy little restaurant/fashion precinct, where we stopped for lunch. The locals were out in numbers and it was a moment of realisation for me as I came to understand that these sorts of jampacked streets, cafes, and restaurants are par for the course here in Seoul (we’re not in Kansas anymore). Yet another culture shock for a simple man from little old Perth. Lunch was not without incident and Clinton (the joker in the pack) managed to encourage Michael to take a bite out of a handtowel by convincing him it was a marshmallow mint. Much to everyone’s amusement, the same trick worked on James an hour later after lunch (despite the fact that James had witnessed the preceding events at the table). Australia’s Finest – and the first of many bumbling Hoju moments. Samcheon-dong is very close to Bukchon Hanok Village (an area with many traditional houses), so we wandered through the streets for a time before ducking into a house and climbing a few flights of stairs to reach an apartment-café with a stunning view over the city (and some excellent green tea).

View from the apartment-cafe

View from the apartment-cafe

I’m not sure how the other residents feel about having tourists tramping up and down the stairwell all day but I guess that’s part of the territory when you buy in an area like this. It was all vey relaxing and I could have stayed on for an hour longer…but of course we have so little time here that we were keen to pack more activities in. So it was that we headed off to Myeongdong – a fairly fancy shopping district where we were assaulted by the bright neon’s, bustling streets and hustling street food vendors that are seemingly ubiquitous in this city. The train ride itself is worth a mention – our first experience of the sardine style of transport evident in many major Asian cities. To be honest, I don’t mind it – there’s some sort of thrill that comes with being a part of the overwhelming crush of humanity. The passengers all sway with the movements of the train and the crowd keeps its feet as a whole – there’s a certain poetry to it all. Perhaps not so pleasant in the heat of summer, however.

The crush

The crush

For dinner, we treated ourselves to dakgalbi (닭갈비) – a very Korean-style delicacy and similar to paella. A great wok was plonked down on the bunsen burner built into the table and in went rice and chicken and a little bit of everything else. The staff drop in to give it a stir every so often and before long, it’s ready and it’s every man for him or herself as the diners load up their little bowl and have at it with a pair of chopsticks.

Dakgalbi

Dakgalbi

The finished product

The finished product

Speaking of which, I think we’ve all put in a pretty good showing with the old chopsticks and the locals are often pleasantly surprised (to the point of making a remark). This evening, we also had our first taste (pun intended) of the fabled Korean food prices – our mountainous dakgalbi and hundreds of little kimchi side dishes rounding out to a grand total of around $6 each.

In another first for your boundary-breaking hero, we trooped off to a Korea institution… noraebang 노래방 (singing room or karaoke). The accompanying photo gets the Gong for today.

Lennon, Swift, Knowles and Sheeran?

Gallivanting Gong: Lennon, Swift, Knowles and Sheeran?

There must be thousands of these little studios dotted around Seoul – belting out ballads in front of your friends is something of a national pastime, it would seem. Descending down the stairs and into the den, it wasn’t hard to see (or hear) why almost all noraebangs are underground – some of the wailing emanating from behind ‘soundproof’ doors was truly horrific.We paid for our 1hr session, headed in and began leafing through the songbooks – luckily there is a section in English or we might have been up the creek. Before too long, we had murdered our way through some of the classics (Livin on a Prayer, Brown Eyed Girl, Lose Yourself) even Gangnam Style got a run. Michael gets a special mention here by displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of noraebang songs, a penchant for Bryan Adams and a powerful falsetto. Ever resourceful, your man Doyle slipped the recorder on for a few tunes – the results were just as spectacular as you might expect.

In between the howling Hojus, our friendly companion Jaei showed off a mean set of pipes and the combination of Doyle and Varnay (Michael) posted a rare score of 100% on the Enrique Iglesias classic, Hero.

Eventually we came to the end, sheathed microphones and exited with a strange emotional mixture of sadness and triumph…until we passed the counter where the staff were crying with laughter at our non-existent vocal talent. Seems as though we made the St Cecelia warblers choir sound like angels in comparison.

On the way home, I snagged some persimmon and strawberries for my host family – I’ve read that fruit is a good gift here – and I’m happy to report that it went down well. With the evening dwindling away to a close, I did some ironing (Korean style), which thoroughly impressed Eoma. Old Damo taught me well. Then it was time for bed in preparation for the big first day at work tomorrow.

Ironing - Korean style

Ironing – Korean style