Good bye, Korea...for now

Trip Start May 13, 2010
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Trip End Aug 02, 2010


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Flag of Korea Rep.  ,
Friday, July 23, 2010

I am at Incheon international airport getting ready for my flight which will leave in perhaps an hour. It is a strange feeling.  I have been in Korea now for four weeks during which I have had so many good experiences.  Today was one of sadness for many – I woke up at 6:45am (after only having gone to bed at 1am) to see many of the other instructors and perhaps a third of the international students off.  Many of the students have forged very close relationships with their peers over the last four weeks and you can imagine that more than a few tears for shed, as well as long hugs good byes.  In many cases, these students will meet again when the Korean students begin their exchange program overseas – in some cases, it may be awhile (if at all) when their paths will cross.  In a sense, I can understand what they are going through…

Sunday evening, I connected with one of my friends for dinner and headed up Seoul tower.  Or rather, we headed up the mountain hosting the tower but did not have time to go up the tower itself.  Indeed, due to time, we took the cable car up!  It is always interesting to look down on a
city at night, especially one as extensive as Seoul and its 10.5 million inhabitants.  It is refreshingly cool, and many people (and couples it appears) seem to visit the site.  On the chain linked fence surrounded the edge of the observation deck, couples can put a lock indicating
their love for each other – the lock indicating permanence (I presume).  My visit was not long – I stayed for the short light show, and took a few pictures before heading back down (again by cable car).  It was then a race to the subway and, ultimately, the university to meet the curfew
deadline. 

It is hard to overstate the number of hours that Koreans tend to work each day -- and it posed a bit of a problem for me when my friends worked until at least 8pm and I had to leave town by 10pm to meet my curfew at the university.  Basically a quick dinner or coffee -- the subway trip sometimes made the whole exercise a bit tedious.  One of my friends indicated he would love to leave Korea (for Europe or North America) if only because countries in those continents seem to have a better idea of life balance.  Koreans (like Japanese, I think) tend to work for 10 to 12 hours every day, and sometimes on weekends.  Vacation is usually only starts at one week, and I know of few that have more time than that off (even if they do, work still beckons).  So many Koreans seem to live to work, instead of working to live – indeed, the economics lecture at the beginning of my time here indicated that Korea as a whole is not sure why they are trying so hard to grow anymore.  They have achieved first world status from third world roots at the end of the Korea War – he was suggesting that the country may want to take a bit of a breather to re-evaluate its priorities.  Because, as it stands, the suicide rate here is the highest in the OECD (no small feat) – 40 (if I  ecall) Koreans take their own lives every day (in a country of perhaps 50 million).  I hope one day their attitude changes.

We began this week at a somber site – the demilitarized zone.  Unfortunately, due to recent tensions between North and South Korea, we were not able to visit the Joint Security Area but rather had to go to one of the tunnels that North Korea dug under the DMZ during the 70s to attack the South Korean rear lines.  The South Koreans discovered this particular tunnel (and lost a few soldiers in the booby traps lain along its length) and have opened it up for public education.  I do not think the students had a true understanding of where they were and its significance (the lectures/seminars we have had have been somewhat quiet on this issue).  On the way, during, and leaving the site, many of the students were joking around – it was disheartening in a way.  Millions of people (mainly civilians) lost their lives creating this border.  The irony (and sad aspect) is that the current border is only slightly different than the one before the Korean conflict started.  During the course of that war, the North pushed the South all the way to a small region around Busan before the UN forces pushed the North all the way back to near the Chinese border…and then (due to Chinese intervention) were pushed back to the current armistice line where the stalemate continues.  Millions of soldiers stare at each across the 4 km wide, mine-filled DMZ.  As we walked through the tunnel, it was hard not to think that not too far above us were mine fields and that we came within 300 metres of the North Korean border.  This was one of the reasons I came to Korea – to experience one of the few remnants left from the Cold War – and to a degree I was a bit disappointed in terms of the information that accompanied our visit.  However, being there was experience enough, and I am glad we had the opportunity. 

We continued on to an old train station that used to service towns now on opposite of the DMZ.  An old bombed out train still lies on the decrepid railroad track – it is known as the iron horse which wants to run which is a wish for the eventual unification or at least normalization of ties between the two Koreas.  A short time later, we drove by the People's committee headquarters for the region – a relic of a building, but serves as a reminder that this particular part of Korea used to be part of the North.  This building served as the communist headquarters for the area and had a dreadful history – who went in, it was said, often did not come out again.  Numerous human remains and a jail house/torture chamber were found within its doors after the armistice border was drawn

Most of the rest of this week was considerably more light-hearted.  I met with the other instructors on Monday evening for dinner at the Indian restaurant (where I also stopped at the local bookstore -- it will be hard to go back to North American stores as this place was huge and the selection of technical books was amazing...not to mention the prices.  I found textbooks at perhaps 20% of the price we might pay for the same book in Canada).  After dinner a few of us went to the local waterway and saw the light show display which occurs every half hour or so during the summer.  It was quite neat -- I had been here before, but only saw the last couple of minutes. 

Students handed in their final reports the previous week, and the other instructors and I spent most of the day on Tuesday marking them.  I (along with two of the other instructors) gave a brief talk on how to give oral presentations as the students would be presenting a topic of their choice on Wednesday.  One aspect that could be difficult for the Korean students is the concept of making eye contact with their audience.  Traditionally (indeed, in much of Asia), eye contact is not a sign of sincerity (as it is in the West), but one of defiance.  Averting one’s eyes when talking to an elder, superior etc… is a sign of respect.  We are saying the opposite – get the audience’s attention by having a conversation with them.  Hierarchical structures do not apply.  This may be a bit of Western arrogance, but as these students will be studying in the West it may be appropriate for them to learn the customs overseas.  I do not think it will be an easy transition.

The presentations themselves were interesting and somewhat proved that they learned little from the seminars and more from each other during the last four weeks.  I am not surprised.  The goals of the program, I think, are primarily a cultural exchange.  We did try and introduce some rigorous analysis etc… to the students approach to various subjects but I do not believe we were ultimately successful.  Still, perhaps it was not so important.  I feel most of the international students and Korean students gained a better understand of each other’s cultures and world view.  I hope their friendships will continue and even as they fade with time their appreciation for different perspectives in the world will survive. 

Wednesday night saw all BIP participants at the going away party.  Votes for such things as "Ms. Popular" etc… were given out, as well as a video memory for the last four weeks.  Students were also introduced to their 'secret angel’ – the student who I have to say the staff did an exception job and put a first class effort into making the program such a success for both the students, as well as the instructors.  Of course, I have misgivings about some aspects, but overall, I think it was a very positive experience.  This particular night, we were treated to a feast and even had our curfew extended (slightly) – it gave the students a chance to drink a bit more and socialize, not to mention the instructors! 

On Thursday, we attended the formal farewell party with the VIPs, university representatives etc…  A number of students were brought to tears as they gave speeches describing their memories from BIP.  We each received a completion certificate and gifts.  Our RA even gave the instructors a small gift later that night. 

I am sad to leave – I met new friends, both instructors as well as local Koreans.  I hope to one day see them all again.  Perhaps, I will be able to visit New Zealand on a work trip?  I do not know.  Perhaps I will come back to Seoul without the restrictions I was under through this program?  I do not know…Regardless, I hope contact is maintained.

Korea is an interesting country – I have never been here before aside from a brief stop over on my way to Australia a few years ago (and I do not think 30 mins in Incheon International Airport really counts!).  It is a country that has existed within the unenviable location between two great powers:  Japan and China.  And has numerous scars to prove it.  The psyche and 'hurry culture' of Korea seems partially a response to being held back so long by first the Japanese occupation early in the 20th century and the subsequent Korean war (after the Soviets 'liberated' the northern half of the country and the US took the southern half).  They have much to be proud of having been the only country to go from the lowest of the low (in terms of wealth) to a member of the OECD, WTO, and G20.  What will it transform to next?

I would recommend anyone take a visit – as I said to a friend of mine who will be coming to the area soon:

Wi-Fi is pretty accessible -- most coffee shops have it and you can pick it up from outside if you have a wi-fi capable device (iPhone etc...). I used it for skype sometimes...

Get a T-Card (transit card) as it saves 100 won off a trip and transfer costs -- also you can use it for purchases at a number of spots (7-11 etc...). 
The subway system is quite extensive and very easy to figure out -- about two mins between stations, although surface distances can be deceptive (walking is fine sometimes, but not othertimes). Transfers between subway and the bus is free although I rarely took the bus. Taxis are relatively cheap and you can use the T-card as payment if you want.. I extensively used the subway system as some of walking distances can be considerable (on the other hand, sometimes it takes you 30 mins to a place by subway because of transfers between lines etc... when you could have walked or taken a taxi there in less than 10).  Apparently, there will be an airport express train (similar to Hong Kong) that will take you right from the Airport to Seoul Station in the center of downtown.  Look for it soon.



Some areas to check out:

Dongdaemum for shopping and street fair

Insadong for crafts (off the Jonggak subway station)
Hongik University and Sindong
areas are nice too (on a subway line).
Myeong-dong for access to the Seoul tower as well as a number of shops
Itaewon for a lot of foreigners -- also a mosque at the top of the nearby hill and a pretty good club scene that I hung out in for one of the ‘free’ weekends


As for locations, if you just have a few days, I would check out:
The National War Museum (easily 3 hrs to go through)
The National Museum (perhaps 2 hrs)
Museum on the story of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sunshin -- Jonggak station exit 1, under Gwanghwamum square
Gyeongbok Palace (and another one I forget the name of)
Cheoggyecheon creek (runs through the middle of the city, but you can pick it up near Jungjak -- my favourite subway station) -- it is lined by walk ways and has a light show on the half-hour during the evening in a section near that subway station
The Seoul Tower is a good walk and gives you a reasonable view of the city (you can go up the tower if you want as well).
COEX mall and the Yongsan electronics market are..interesting (but not critical stops if time is against you.  The electronics market is more an experience anyway as prices are much cheaper elsewhere in Asia i.e. Hong Kong or Taiwan)
Look into going to a baseball game in the Olympic park area -- I do not usually go at home, but it is quite a spectacle and cheap (have some fried chicken and beer while you are there).

Hmm...

The Hangang river has a pathway along most of its length and is particularly nice around Yeouido subway station (Yeouido Island is generally not that interesting otherwise).  If you have a religious side, you might want to check out the Gospel Church near the station -- it is the largest Christian denomination in the world (perhaps 15 000 adherents) and is quite a spectacle to see them go through the seven sermon sessions held each Sunday. 

Welcome to Seoul!  Next stop…Tokyo.
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Comments

Mom on

Brian....what an interesting post...I ..would love to go there and visit....with YOU!! Thanks for all your time and effort writing these blogs...I am learning much about where you visit....and your inner self, as well.
Love you lots!!! Mom xoox

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