I'm picking out a thermos for you

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Talk like a pirate day

Yes, I'm obsessed... but today, I have a reason: it's International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

And might I suggest that you get your own pirate name?? I already got mine, matey:

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


As promised, I spent last weekend in Science City, Daejeon. While I didn't take advantage of any of the science-related activities, I still had a great time.

The weekend got off to an inauspicious start when I met my friend D. at the Seoul train station at precisely 7:30 in the pm. We were excited to take the KTX bullet train down to Daejeon - a quick 50 minute jaunt. I hadn't made reservations, because my coworkers had assured me that there were always plent of seats. The trains leave every ~20 min, so why wouldn't there be 2 open seats?

Holiday season, that's why! August is officially vacation month in Korea, and like many countries, nearly every Korean wants to live in the big city, near all the convenience and excitement of urban life, yet no one who lives in Seoul wants to spend their holiday there. Meaning they are all at the train station on the first Friday night of vacation season. All 12 million of them...

So there weren't any open seats on the KTX bullet train. And there weren't any seats on the saemaul middle-class train, either. Which meant that we were on the mugunghwa, the 3rd class train. Cheap? Yes. Efficient? No.

But at least we could relax and sit down, right? Not having been on a train in Korea before, we assumed there was open seating, first come, first served. That's how it is in Europe and on Southwest Airlines, right? Open seating? Well, not so much on the mugunghwa, since we quickly learned that we had bought "standing room only" tickets!!! Sweet. Apparently, we were lucky even to be standing on the mugunghwa. And really, there's nothing better to do on a Friday night than standing through a painfully slow train ride to Daejeon, watching while the bullet train whizzes by at 180 mph.

It all turned out for the best, however. My friend D. went looking for open seats, and although he didn't find any seats, he did return with some welcome news: there were other Americans on the train. And they were drinking beer! And they had asked us to join them! Cool. Of course, I assumed that these Americans were sitting down in seats. Wrong. You know the platform in between cars? The place without air conditioning where you only stand on your way to and from the bathroom? That's where they were hanging out.

But it was actually a lot of fun. If you're stranded on a slow train to Daejeon, you might as well make the most of it by standing in between cars, sweating to death, and drinking bad Korean beer.

Once we finally got into Daejeon, we met up with James and Eric, who had rounded up several locals for a night out. After hanging out for a while at a chill place called the "Beer Cabin," we decided to venture out into downtown Daejeon.

But we weren't really feeling the club scene, so we did the next best thing: batting cages! Seriously - what's cooler than batting cages that are open all night long? And check out that form! It's the swing that begat a thousand singles...

Anyway, on Saturday we visited Gyeryongsan National Park on the outskirts of Daejeon for some hiking, which is the favorite outdoor pasttime of Koreans. Well, elderly Koreans anyway - we were about the only twenty-somethings out hiking except for a couple from Denmark.

There are really only two words to describe this hike: steep and sweaty. I've done some decently hard hikes in my day, but this was incredible - just straight up. Thankfully, the trail was pretty short, so the hike wasn't so tough, but it was a lot more difficult than we had imagined a ~4 mile roundtrip could be. Thankfully, we avoided both the incoming rain (we heard thunder the entire way down, but only got sprinkled upon) and the rapidly advancing nightfall (finishing up just as the light was dying).

And after that hike, we needed some relaxation, so we visited some of the aptly-named bars of Daejon:

OK, I didn't actually go into either one of these bars, but they've still got sweet names, huh?

And finally on Sunday, we got to rest our weary mucles at the jjimjilbang, or Korean spa.

To call this place a "spa" is an understatement. We were a little confused when we pulled up, because the jjimjilbang was located in a 7-story building, but we weren't sure which floor it was on. Turns out, it was on all of the floors. That's right, the spa takes up an entire 7-story building!

For an entry fee of a mere 5,000 won (~$5), we visited the sauna - four rooms of varying temperatures, each decorated with a different theme. Then we checked out the "ice room," which has walls covered in real ice. And then we got a snack at the snack bar. And checked our e-mail at the PC bang. And took in the view of Daejeon from the rooftop patio. And then finally soaked in the hot and cold whirlpools.

And we didn't even scratch the surface - we neglected the noraebang (karaoke room), the restaurant, the gym, the swimming pool (complete with a slide), the Playstation 2 room, the massage tables, and (best of all) the sleeping rooms. Yes, sleeping rooms - at least 4 of them, by my count, including the basic sleeping room, the communal sleeping room, and the "cave" sleeping room where you can crawl into a little hole for privacy during your nap.

There weren't too many people sleeping there on Sunday afternoon, but we learned later that a lot of Korean businessmen will go out and get very drunk on Saturday night, and rather than return home (where they will probably get yelled at by their wives), they go sleep it off at the jjimjilbang. How relaxing! If we had known better, we would have spent the night there, too, just for the experience.

Did I mention this was only $5? You pay a little extra for some of the amenities, but still - $5? What a jjimjilbanging deal!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

You can take the boy out of America...

... but you can't take him away from P-town!

Sighted near my dorm:

But I don't think they have WaWa here.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Retired: the Korean Tank Top Alarm

There are many signs that mark the transitions between seasons. For Winter, it's the first snow. For Spring, the first flowers. And Summer? Tank tops.

In St. Louis, some have even heard the "Tank top alarm," which heralds the arrival of summer with, yes, an alarm when the first tank top of summer appears.

But there will be no Korean tank top alarm! Because the height of women's fashion here is the Bolero, which is basically a small sweater for your shoulders. (I'm not sure if they're named after Ravel.)

Truthfully, to say that Bolero's represent the height of women's fashion is incorrect. Actually, they're a gesture towards Korean modesty: it's apparently too risqué for a woman to show her bare shoulders.

Hence, even though women wear tank tops, you won't see them, no matter how hot and humid it gets, thanks to the Bolero. Similar to the Bolero, you also find that most women's t-shirts here have tiny sleeves that cover their shoulders. Kind of an interesting insight into what different cultures consider immodest.

And for those of you who are wondering how I got such a great Bolero photo... yes, I did take a picture of some random woman on the street without her knowledge. Kind of creepy, huh? Taking pictures of people you don't know for your blog? It seems that some of that world-renowned Caltech creepiness is rubbing off on me!!!

In other news:
Tourist swims with Biondi (kind of)
In the past, I've made a point to swim in the pools that hosted the Olympics whenever I visit a host city. So far, I've hit Munich ('72), Los Angeles ('84), Barcelona ('92), and Atlanta ('96). Yes, kind of dorky, I know. Anyway, being in Seoul presented the perfect opportunity:
So last Sunday, I went for a swim with Matt Biondi. OK - Biondi wasn't actually there, but it was the same pool where he won five golds, one silver, and one bronze medal in 1988. The pool itself is getting a little shabby (I learned later that it's set to be renovated next year), but it's clear that it was state-of-the-art in '88.

But, of course, you can't go swimming in a foreign country without something weird happening (i.e. in France one time, I wasn't allowed to wear my own swimsuit - I had to rent a suit. Everyone rents their swimsuits at the stupid French pool in Lyon.) So, when I walked onto the deck, I immediately realized what rule I was ignorant of here in Seoul: everyone was wearing swim caps. Everyone. And I didn't have one.

While doing some casual stretching, I could tell the lifeguards were all watching me, probably thinking to themselves, 1) what's the white guy doing here?, and 2) he's a threat to public health witout a swim cap! Finally, one of the lifeguards wandered over to ask, Where's your cap? I explained that I didn't have one, but that I'd be happy to buy or rent one.

But instead, he offered to lend me his cap. Wow - how kind. People were not this friendly to the ignorant foreigner in France.

So I put in a 3,000 BE (tell Beef-man that I'm getting ready for the test set!) and it was great fun. At least people here know how to circle swim, unlike everyone at say, Caltech. Next stop on my Olympic pool tour: Sydney.

Science City
It's unbelievable how fast my time here has passed, and I'm quickly coming up on the end. To celebrate one of my last weekends in Korea, I'm taking a trip to the Science City, Taejon (it's where they've built most of the national labs, not unlike NIH in Bethesda). More importantly, it's also where my friends Eric and James live, and judging from the fact that they don't update their blogs anymore, they must be having a good time down there.

I'm quite looking forward to taking the bullet train (~200 mph) down there, and if I'm not too busy at work next week (my last), I'll provide an update on the hijinx that are sure to ensue.

English Words on a T-shirt Update
  • Spotted on a middle-aged woman who was asleep in the subway: "My other t-shirt is on your girlfriend." Oh, snap!
  • Seen near campus on a typically black-haired Asian girl: "Naturally Blonde."
And if anyone is still reading, I'm glad to see that my home state has regained a measure of sanity.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The MT

No, not that MT!

In Korea, an MT is "membership training," rather than your former swim coach.

As my time here approaches its end, my professor insisted that it was time for the lab to have an MT. At first, I thought this was a lab-specific term for some arcane hazing ritual that I would have to endure; however, I learned from a Korean friend that the "MT" is actually a common Korean tradition, whereby a group of Koreans goes on a retreat outside of the city to drink too much, sing at a noraebang, and then sleep off their collective hangover.

And, in a nutshell, that's exactly what happened on this "MT." Originally, we were going somewhere outside of Seoul to stay in a traditional Korean village on Friday night and then do some hiking on Saturday morning... but, thanks to the infernal rain, we ended up staying in the city, actually at a youth hostel near the Seoul tower. Which was quite an experience, since all the guys, professor and postdocs included, shared one big "youth" room - essentially 12 bunkbeds and one bathroom. One of my labmates said it reminded him of his time the Army. Sweet!

But before we crashed at the youth hostel, we went to the movies. In the afternoon, there were slim pickings - it basically came down to either Garfield or a Korean movie (without subtitles) 괴물 ("The Host"). And there was no frickin' way I was going to see Garfield... so I went to see 괴물, even though I figured I wouldn't figure out what was going on.

Before we went, my labmates told me the movie was about a monster. Lots of action, they promised. Sounds good, I thought! Well, let me give you the plot run-down:

  1. An evil American orders a Korean lab technician to pour hundreds of gallons of formaldehyde in the Han River, despite the technicians protests that formaldehyde is very toxic.
  2. Said formaldehyde generates a gigantic water monster. One random day, the monster decides he's had enough of eating fish and emerges from the river to start eating people. Yeah.
  3. After eating his fill, the monster kidnaps a young, innocent Korean girl and takes her back to his lair.
  4. Concerned that the monster might be spreading some kind of toxic virus, the American Army arrives to quarantine everyone exposed to the monster, including the distraught family of the kidnapped girl. Of course, there's no such virus - but for some unexplained reason, the Americans are overly paranoid and refuse to acknowledge the virus' non-existence despite the overwhelming evidence.
  5. Thankfully, the little girl's family knows that she is alive back in the monster's lair because she calls them on her cell phone. (No Korean movie would be complete without using cell phones to advance the plot...) Despite their pleas, the little girl's father, aunt, and grandfather are kept under quarantine and not allowed to attempt the rescue of their baby.
  6. Father, aunt, and grandfather stage a daring escape from quarantine by threatening American soldiers with a vial of "contaminated" blood.
  7. The little girl's family eventually rescues the girl from the monster's lair, only to have to monster follow them back onto shore, where a huge battle ensues. The Koreans eventually defeat the monster by using Molotov cocktails made from soju bottles and some expert archery skills (the aunt happens to be an international archery star)
  8. Unfortunately, immediately after killing the monster and saving the little girl, the evil Americans drop a bomb filled with toxic gas named "Agent Yellow," which is supposed to kill the virus. Of course, Agent Yellow kills the valiant, plucky little girl who had just been rescued.
  9. Thankfully, a young boy who had also been kidnapped by the monster survives the Agent Yellow attack, so the family adopts the little boy and lives happily ever after.
So, the moral of the story is that horrible tragedies befall the Korean people because of the negligence and malevolence of the Americans. America is evil! I was half worried that I might become the victim of an anti-American hate crime after the movie, but somehow I escaped unharmed. But, hey, at least the action was good!

After the movie, we went to a traditional BBQ restaurant for bulgogi and galbi spare ribs - mmm... My first indication that it was going to be a rough night for my labmates was when my professor broke out the bottles of Scotch. And after the Scotch, he ordered beer. Which was followed by Korean ginseng wine. Which led to bottles of soju...

Before coming here, we were repeatedly told about how Koreans love drinking (some even refer to it as the Korean national pastime), but this was the first time I've actually seen my labmates really drink. It revealed a whole new side of them - of course, the people who are normally quiet and businesslike got the drunkest, including the new postdoc and one of the undergrads. It's also tradition that the professor takes one shot of alcohol with everyone... individually! So he was wandering around the dining room, pouring shots for each person and then doing one himself... (OK, he was only drinking 1/4-size shots, but still, with a group as large as this one, he still had to drink a lot of alcohol)

After dinner, we went to the obligatory Noraebang for some singing (I threw down some Blur, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead) and everyone continued drinking - and one by one, they started dropping. After a group of people had basically passed out in the noraebang, our professor finally told us that the "MT" had been successful and that everyone was welcome to continue, but that people were finally allowed to go home. Which I'm sure came as welcome news to those who were already passed out!

But the remaining survivors then moved on to another bar in Myeongdong, where we drank my new favorite liquor, Star (별). We ate some more, and were having a great time until the new postdoc in the lab decided it would be a good idea for him to drink shots of Star with everyone at the table. Six or seven shots later, he passed out, officially ending the night, and we all returned to the hostel to sleep it off.

Thankfully, I had paced myself pretty well all night, so I was able to walk under my own control back to the hostel...

And then Saturday morning, since we couldn't go hiking, we went to a famous restaurant in downtown for hae jang kook, or the soup that "washes your stomach." Yum - apparently, this soup is good for hangovers. My stomach, however, appreciated that fact that my labmates ordered me the hae jang kook without intestines...

All in all, a successful MT! A Korean tradition, if there ever was one...

And just so you know, little kids in Korea really do have cell phones. Here's a picture of a kid taking a picture with his phone:

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Raves: My helpful labmates

It occurred to me yesterday that I haven't given enough praise to my labmates here in Korea. Not that they're reading this (I think), but I should take a moment to describe how incredibly helpful they've been in all respects of my stay here.

Before I arrived, they found me housing. Once in Seoul, 원정 came to my hotel downtown, picked me up, and helped me find my way to said summer housing. Even though the lab is very crowded, 성은 cleared off her desk and is letting me use it, inconveniencing her no to small degree. Being the new person in lab who can't really read the labels on the drawers, shelves, and cabinets, I can't find anything, and everyone has been very patient with me and goes out of their way to find me the equipment that I need.

In Danyang at the lab retreat, my roommates 현이 and 준희 sheparded me around and made sure that I wasn't missing some important seminar or poster session, since I'm often not quite sure where we're supposed to be / what's going on (such is the price of being functionally illiterate!).

And most importantly, someone (sometimes multiple people) make sure that I have plans for lunch... the list goes on and on.

Just now was a great example: I need a centrifuge to spin some cells down. The one that I normally use (and know how to reserve, use, etc.) is broken, so I asked 미영 where I could find another one, and she walked me to three different labs until we found one that was available.

Before we came to Korea, we were told that our labmates would go above and beyond the call of hospitality, but these people truly have been great. In a lot of situations, I could easily have felt really isolated, alone, and homesick, but everyone here has made the transition as easy as possible. Just wanted to mention that...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Korean celebrities

While living in LA, I have seen a grand total of one celebrity in 5 years. And it was Tommy Lee, so that barely counts. OK, I did see Woody Harrelson once, too, but still...

Well, tonight in Hongdae, I saw my first Korean celebrity:

Granted, I have no idea who he was, though my friend tells me that he's an actor. He was dressed like a Hell's Angel and had the kind of swagger that comes only when you're used to being watched. If it weren't for the gigantic gaggle of girls following him around, I would never have known he was famous.