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.


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…


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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